The Manufacturer of Ghosts

Roberto Arlt

Artwork by Elephnt

Polygonal study, separated from a rectangular dining room by a hallway. Both rooms, with two large open windows, allow glimpses of chimneys and rooftops of the city.

[SCENE I: MARTINA confesses to ELOÍSA that she’s having an affair with a married man; further, she has been to see a fortune-teller who told her the man is a murderer.]



The aforementioned and PEDRO

PEDRO (entering from the street and taking off his hat. An elegant but careless man. At times, reserved; at others, explosive):  Good afternoon . . . How are you, Martina?

ELOÍSA:  Good afternoon.

MARTINA:  Fine, and yourself?

PEDRO:  Okay . . . nothing new. (Taking an envelope out of his pocket and handing it to ELOÍSA.) The tickets. (ELOÍSA opens the envelope.)

MARTINA:  Are you going to the movies?

ELOÍSA:  No, to the theater. What seats!

MARTINA (draws near):  Yeah, way in the back.

ELOÍSA (to MARTINA):  This one, who’s a little deaf, isn’t going to hear anything.

PEDRO (sits at the table and flips through a magazine):  I couldn’t get there sooner.

MARTINA (to ELOÍSA):  Won’t you do me a favor and wrap that dress? (ELOÍSA gets the dress.)

ELOÍSA:  Are you leaving?


ELOÍSA:  All right. (She leaves. PEDRO keeps reading without looking at MARTINA, who observes him.)




MARTINA (after an interval of silence):  What’s new with the silent man?

PEDRO:  Huh?

MARTINA:  I was saying it’s a beautiful day.

PEDRO:  No, you weren’t.

MARTINA:  Did you hear me?

PEDRO:  In a way, yes.

MARTINA:  Were you thinking?

PEDRO:  Vagaries. Haven’t you noticed times in life when understanding seems to cloud over? Everything around you is like a dream glimpsed through a glass that’s too thick.

MARTINA:  How are rehearsals going?

PEDRO:  Bad, bad, bad. They’re not taking them seriously. Nonetheless, only in the theater of my life could I find an adequate explanation. (Intimately.) You won’t believe it, but I’m a truly theatrical character. But I don’t belong in the theater. For me, the theater is a means of posing personal problems to humanity . . . In this case, my problems. I urgently need to get up on a stage and tell an audience whose face is invisible in the darkness: “This thing is happening to me, that thing, and that other thing. How to resolve the enigmas that dance in my conscience?” You know, others want to be onstage to satisfy their vanity . . . Not me . . . It’s a personal problem . . . authentically personal. When I’ve resolved my problem I’ll tell the theater to go to hell. What do I care about theater? Theater is a pretext . . . Better said: a means to an end.

MARTINA:  You need to make a sort of public confession?

PEDRO:  Yes . . . something like that . . .

MARTINA:  You’ll be successful.

PEDRO:  When?

MARTINA:  When you get rid of that opal.

PEDRO:  What opal?

MARTINA:  The one you’re wearing on your hand. Do you mind? (She takes his hand and looks at the opal.) Exchange it for a ruby. Rubies attract luck. An opal is a disastrous jewel on the hand of a dreamer. (She brings the man’s hand to her lips and then, rapidly, pulls back. PEDRO lets himself fall into his chair; he hears the sound of footsteps and bends his head over the magazine.)

[SCENES IV-V: MARTINA leaves. ELOÍSA and PEDRO have a tense conversation; ELOÍSA refuses to have sex with PEDRO until he gets a job.]



PEDRO, in the study; then, the ghost of MARTINA and the SUBSTITUTE.

PEDRO (he sits at his desk and looks at the emptiness of the window. After a while, thoughtfully):  Buddha was so right when he said: “Every home is a garbage heap”! (He paces.) A garbage heap. But what woman, what man, doesn’t aspire to build a garbage heap, and roll around pleasurably on it?

MARTINA (the ghost of MARTINA appears in the frame of the window chimerically covered in a white vestment with wings of violet light):  Your thought called me, man of the garbage heap . . .

PEDRO:  Yes . . . I was thinking about you, too. Perhaps I called you. One is continually shouting in the desert.

MARTINA:  Are you the man who needs two garbage heaps?

PEDRO (laughing):  It’s possible . . . but one of them must be adorned with engraved illusions. (Sitting down at the table and looking at her, who has stopped in the center of the room.) I’d like to hear you talk to someone else. (Suddenly, a man appears in the window, dressed in a tuxedo and with his face entirely covered by a black mask.)

SUBSTITUTE:  Here I am to obey you.

PEDRO:  Ghosts modeled by my mind, listen to me: I need you to express an ardent and unrealistic love, with words that human beings have never used to communicate their desires. I don’t believe in the effectiveness of little bouquets of golden lies, but the people who come to the theater are looking for what doesn’t exist in their lives. You could say that for them lies are golden doors that open into a magical country. We authors can’t form the remotest idea about the arbitrary structure of those dream countries in which the audience’s imagination moves. Like alchemists, we play with natural forces; the effects seem magical, since sometimes the crowd applauds and sometimes it yawns. And now, shadows of the ether, get to work. (He starts writing as the characters speak.)

SUBSTITUTE (running his hands over the mask as if waking from a dream):  I was waiting for you! . . . How many years I’ve been waiting for you, ardent and taciturn woman, memory of an hour of adolescent love!

MARTINA:  You should have adorned it all with flowers.

PEDRO (to MARTINA):  That answer is trivial. (To the leading man.) Rehearse it another way. Kneel.

SUBSTITUTE (kneeling down):  Vertically you are perfect. Between your eyelashes, your eyes sparkle like the moon through foliage. At times, the heat that irradiates your belly makes me faint in a green tropical dream. Your feet are smaller than those of the happiness that walks by.

MARTINA (to PEDRO):  To how many women have you repeated those same words?

PEDRO (drily):  Address the leading man.

SUBSTITUTE (getting to his feet):  To how many women have I said the same thing? I don’t remember. Each one requires a different lie that is the truth in the moment it’s pronounced.

MARTINA:  Are you a cynic or a pedant?

SUBSTITUTE:  It’s difficult to know with precision what one represents for another person. But you’re wrong if you think I’m lying to you. You haven’t looked at yourself in a mirror. What do you think of yourself when you get undressed slowly in front of the glass and remember the bursts of desire you provoked during the day from men walking by? Aren’t you in love with your own breasts? Aren’t they heavy? Don’t they martyr you with a violent and heartrending sweetness?

MARTINA:  Shut up, carnivorous beast!

SUBSTITUTE:  Yes, it’s like the longing of a man who was lost in the desert for eating an orange.

MARTINA:  And then throwing away the peel.

SUBSTITUTE (laughing):  You’re funny. I’m not a collector of peels, but as long as you’re a girl in flower . . . Oh, how many promises! You can imagine . . .

MARTINA:  I’m unimaginative.

SUBSTITUTE:  Well tonight, when your body tosses alone in your virgin’s bed, your imagination will turn lascivious . . .

MARTINA (laughing too):  You’re fresh!

PEDRO (with satisfaction):  They’re both doing well.

(The SUBSTITUTE gets on his knees brusquely and kisses one of MARTINA’s feet.)

MARTINA:  What are you doing, crazy?

SUBSTITUTE (getting to his feet):  I wish I were a dog to testify my happiness. I would put my feet on your chest and with my hairy snout I would rub the skin on your shoulders. And I would leave threads of drool on the silk of your skin.

MARTINA:  And your wife?

PEDRO (intervening, violent):  Leave my wife out of it.

MARTINA (to PEDRO):  You don’t like people to talk about your wife, huh?

PEDRO (to MARTINA):  You don’t either. (The characters freeze for a moment. PEDRO, angry and dramatic.) Cruel struggle. The ghost is as rebellious as the human being it represents. (Directing himself to the SUBSTITUTE, who doesn’t complain.) Do you realize? For many unimaginative men, there can only be theatrical conflicts between bodies of flesh and blood . . . They’re so blind! They still haven’t understood that the man of flesh and blood is a ghost on earth, as hollow as the shadow moving on the wall. (Changing his tone.) I beg you to be kind to this beast of short legs and long hair.

MARTINA:  It’s repulsive to listen to you.

PEDRO (without paying attention, to the SUBSTITUTE):  Fool her daringly. Don’t skimp on promises. Swear that you long to be her slave, simulate for a time that you obey her least caprice, as if you were a man without character. Woman has always been a slave; thus, her secret and fundamental desire is to tyrannize the master. It enthralls her vanity. The stupidest of stupid women can reach the moon with the hand of her pretention. Be hard, hypocritical, sweet, and implacable. Velvet gloves, but the whip under your arm. (Turning to MARTINA.) Listen to me, dearie: This ghost that is making a fool of himself before your eyes is a poor inconsolable wretch. He dreamed life was beautiful and suddenly he’s discovered that it’s a garbage can. But, in spite of everything, he’s a force you can handily exploit. He’ll work for you, load you with dresses, jewels, comforts. Like all imbeciles, he aspires to conquer an intelligent woman. To entangle him, combine sensuality with cleverness, fifty percent of a cocotte’s immodesty and the other fifty the intellectuality of a woman who’s about to discover how to square the circle. Are you both ready? (He sets himself up at the desk.)

MARTINA (to PEDRO):  With less science you could conquer a million men.

SUBSTITUTE (approaching MARTINA):  My will melts in your presence like snow in the sun. I long to sleep on your chest, clenching my teeth like a puppy. What vile acts I would do for you!

MARTINA:  You embarrass me, but in the depths of my conscience you awaken dark forces, sleeping complexes. Could you be the man I’ve been waiting for?

SUBSTITUTE:  How pretty you are like that, blushing! The skin of your fresh body smells like a bouquet of tuberoses. The day you get married, the bridesmaids will serve your husband your naked body on a velvet pillow. And when he sees you, pink and pale, he’ll let out terrible little screams of admiration.

MARTINA:  What? Don’t you mean to marry me?

SUBSTITUTE (astonished):  Me, marry you . . . What for? Oh, yes . . . yes . . .

PEDRO (to SUBSTITUTE):  You’re an imbecile.

MARTINA (to PEDRO):  What are you thinking?

PEDRO (to MARTINA):  Continue the dialogue.

MARTINA (to SUBSTITUTE):  Your imagination is a crucible where different metals boil. When you’ve completely burned up, what will be left? Slag or diamonds?

SUBSTITUTE (kissing her):  Delight. I’m on the crater of a volcano. Fire, smoke, flares . . .

MARTINA (to PEDRO):  What would your wife say if she saw us?

PEDRO (jumping from his desk):  Shut up, stupid.

MARTINA (violent):  No, I don’t want to shut up. What do you think I am, a slave? What feelings bind you to your enemy?

PEDRO (approaching the SUBSTITUTE and taking him by the shoulders):  You can go. (SUBSTITUTE exits through the window. PEDRO paces around in front of MARTINA, who examines him. After, with a more human voice.) What binds me? That’s a lot of curiosity for a shadow.

MARTINA:  You’re avoiding the question.

PEDRO:  That’s right, I’m avoiding it.


PEDRO:  It’s always boring to rationalize a passion.

MARTINA:  Are you afraid to reveal your secret?

PEDRO:  I have a secret?

MARTINA:  The secret that your silence disguises. You can talk to me. I’m a shadow. When you say so, I’ll dissolve into space. I don’t exist.

PEDRO:  The only important thing in life is the shadow. A secret is power. The man who confides in a shadow ends up looking for a flesh and blood double in whom to confide.

MARTINA:  Is it so horrible?

PEDRO:  You’re speaking enigmatically. I don’t understand you.

MARTINA:  Doesn’t it terrify your soul not to be able to tell your secret even to a shadow?

PEDRO:  It terrifies me, greatly, not being able to defend myself from a shadow . . . because the man who doesn’t know how to defend himself from a shadow certainly can’t defend himself from human beings . . .

MARTINA (approaching him, caressing his head):  Why won’t you talk to me? I want you to know the voluptuousness of enslaving a woman by confiding in her.

PEDRO:  Enslave . . . enslave! How beautiful that would be, Martina! There are men who manage to let themselves be completely dominated by a woman. They are happy. But I’ll never savor that dark, clumsy, delicious happiness . . .

MARTINA:  You can do it. Just tell me a little piece of your secret.

PEDRO:  I can’t . . .

MARTINA:  Why not?

PEDRO:  Because my secret had its tongue cut out.


The aforementioned and ELOÍSA.

ELOÍSA (brusquely opening the door, without seeing the ghost of MARTINA):  It’s time for you to shave.

PEDRO:  Okay. (MARTINA exits without looking at PEDRO; ELOÍSA exits and returns to the dining room and submerges herself in reading the magazine by the window. Two minutes of silence. PEDRO, in the hallway, has gone toward the bathroom. Suddenly the telephone rings on the dining room table. ELOÍSA goes quickly to the telephone, but a tassel of the curtain caught on a button of the sleeve of her dress detaches the curtain rod, whose bronze rings remain suspended on one end.)

ELOÍSA (to the telephone):  Oh, it’s you! Look, she just left. Yes, she liked it and she took it with her. Pedro is shaving. Tonight we’re going to the theater. Come by this afternoon. See you later. (ELOÍSA looks at the detached curtain, hesitates a second, gets a chair, gets up on it and begins to put the rings back on the bronze rod.)

PEDRO (entering with his face covered in lather):  [ . . . ] But just today I left a pack of cigarettes. (Looking surprised at ELOÍSA.) What are you doing here?

ELOÍSA (without turning her head):  I didn’t see it.

PEDRO:  I’m sure I left it.

ELOÍSA:  Stop bothering me about your cigarettes. Help me hook this, okay? (Turning her face.) Clean your hands. (PEDRO rubs his hands energetically on the sleeves of his pajamas, he approaches and holds up the curtain.)

PEDRO:  So until I get a job you won’t give yourself to me?

ELOÍSA (irritated):  Are we going back to the same story?

(PEDRO turns his head extremely slowly. He looks brusquely. He pushes the woman into the void. She falls dragging the curtain. PEDRO stays immobile for an instant. Brusquely, calls for help are heard. PEDRO, sliding along the walls, enters the hallway after closing the door of the dining hall behind him.)

translated from the Spanish by Claire Solomon