Meet Crock. He’s an ordinary guy. He works hard at his desk, shifting paperwork, sorting files. But sometimes work demands more than just our time. Crock’s bosses want to take his dreams, his ambitions, his individuality. El tintero (The Inkwell) invites us to consider the sacrifices we make for an easy life and, in contrast, the risks of staying true to ourselves and refusing to be constrained by the regulations and systems around us.
El tintero (The Inkwell) is a two-act play that focuses on the struggles of Crock, a humble office worker. He rents a small room in the city while he strives to make enough money for his wife and sons to join him from the country where they live in his mother-in-law’s house. But even though he is poor, Crock refuses to be dispirited. He brightens his desk with flowers, he sings, he talks to his one and only friend and he relishes the springtime in the streets outside.
However, Crock should know better than to indulge in such simple pleasures. They are all strictly prohibited by office regulations, as decreed by the Director and enforced by Frank, the thuggish Head of Personnel. Those who follow the regulations – such as the homogenous trio Pim, Pam and Pum – are rewarded. Crock, in contrast, is ostracised and not even allowed crucial time off to look for a townhouse for his family. Eventually, however, exasperated by his poor treatment at work, Crock is persuaded by his Friend to take an afternoon off to look for a suitable house. They visit a wealthy businessman who is touched by Crock’s impoverished circumstances. Money is money, however, and Crock simply cannot meet the Businessman’s rental prices. Instead, the Businessman offers Crock a job. This would be perfect for the poor man, suffering under the tyranny of his current employment. And so, Crock leaves the meeting feeling hopeful, unaware that the Businessman has requested a reference from Frank, the Head of Personnel.
Crock and the Friend leave the Businessman’s office and retire to Crock’s meagre lodgings. Here, Crock takes to his bed. His timing is woeful, as at that very moment his wife Frida pays him a surprise visit from the country. She accuses poor Crock of laziness and tells him that their sons’ handsome new teacher is trying to seduce her. But Frida has even worse news than this – Crock’s employers know about his unauthorised absence. Inevitably, there will be repercussions. Sure enough, Crock soon receives a letter summoning him to the Director’s office the following day. Fearful that he will lose his job, Crock is unable to wait a day to find out his fate. He pays the Director an impromptu visit, but his impertinence simply further outrages his boss and he is rudely ejected from the building by his colleagues.
The next day Frank, Pim, Pam and Pum pay Crock a visit at his lodgings. As Head of Personnel, Frank informs Crock that he has indeed been sacked and that he must sign a form acknowledging receipt of the news. This last pointless piece of bureaucracy proves too much for Crock. He refuses to sign, only to be physically forced into doing so. But Crock still has a potential job offer from the Businessman to hope for. However, the Businessman has by now read Crock’s dismal personnel file and, unsurprisingly, has no job for him. He sends Crock on his way, gifting him a company penknife to soften the blow.
Crock takes solace with his Friend in the park. He laments his circumstances; even prisoners have a better standard of living than he does. He decides to murder Frank in order to be incarcerated. But he does not go through with the crime, believing it to be cowardly. The Friend disagrees that murder is a cowardly crime, and so to prove his point Crock gives his Friend – who he knows to be brave – the penknife and tells the Friend to try and stab him. The Friend cannot do it, but while he still holds the penknife a Park Warden arrives. Misconstruing the situation, the Warden thinks that the Friend is an assailant, despite Crock’s assurances to the contrary. The Friend is arrested and led off to be hanged, leaving Crock alone and driven half mad with the unfairness of the situation.
After the Friend’s cruel arrest, Crock returns to the country. His arrival is a surprise to his wife, as is the money he brings, having earned it by promising his body to medical science. Frida is touched by the gesture, but seems equally keen that her husband fall asleep as soon as possible. She tries to distract him from the shattering of a window that heralds the arrival of the young, virile Teacher. But the Teacher is quite happy to meet Crock, and is respectful towards his older, less successful rival. As he observes the masterful way in which the Teacher handles the abrasive Frida, Crock quietly decides that the younger man would be a better provider for his family. Resigned, yet strangely determined, Crock leaves the house. The sound of a train screeching to a halt is heard, and silence falls.
The last scene features all the characters in the play who have contributed to Crock’s downfall. They descend from the train, and gather round Crock’s lifeless body offering inane suggestions as to how to help him. Perhaps a cigarette will revive him, one suggests. A plaster, offers another. Eventually a whistle beckons them back on to the train. Only the Friend, himself dead, stays behind. He awakens Crock and the two of them, the cares of their former lives forgotten, head towards the sea.
The play is preceded by an epigraph attributed to the Spanish physician and Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934). The epigraph’s nuances are difficult to translate directly, but it can be read roughly as:
This indifferent, comfortable and selfish life, so focused on monitoring heart rhythms and preventing digestive disorders and emotional upset, the enemy of virility and action. This life, does it deserve to be lived?
This epigraph reflects the sense in the play that Crock is living in a cruel world filled with unnecessary and unfair regulations and empty of real meaning.
The names Pim, Pam and Pum come from the lighthearted Spanish phrase ‘Pim, pam, pum’. This phrase has no direct translation into English, but is used in much the same way as phrases and counting rhymes like ‘One, two, three’ (e.g. ‘One, two, three …. go!’ ) or ‘Eeny meeny miney mo’.
El tintero was performed between 1961 and 1962 in Spain, Paris, Chile and Portugal to mixed reviews. Some critics thought that the balance Muñiz struck between the real and the fantastical was uneven. Antonio Buero Vallejo notes that one of the reasons why the play received bad reviews in France in particular (unjustified, in his opinion) was its ambiguous ending, that moves the audience fully into the realm of the fantastical as the Friend and Crock, both dead, decide to take a walk to – but are not seen to reach – the sea (Muñiz 1963: 61).
Some commentators have pointed out the Beckettian, Chaplin- and Kafka-esque elements of the play, as well as the fact that the oppressive office in which Crock works can be seen as representative of Franco’s regime.
Although the play foregrounds Crock’s struggles with authoritarianism and bureaucracy, the critic Francisco García Pavón suggests that Crock is not the only victim in the play. He considers characters such as Pim, Pam and Pum also to be victims in that they are unable to recognise the fact that they have adapted totally to their situation, incapable of seeing beyond the bounds of bureaucracy (Muñiz 1963: 38-9).
Muñiz, Carlos. 1963. El tintero. Un solo de saxofón. Las viejas difíciles. Madrid, Taurus (in Spanish)
Muñiz, Carlos. 1963. El tintero. Un solo de saxofón. Las viejas difíciles. Madrid, Taurus
Muñiz, Carlos. 2005. Teatro escogido. Madrid, Asociación de Autores de Teatro
Muñiz, Carlos. 2007. ‘El tintero’. In Teatro escogido, pp. 259-346. Alicante, Asociación de Autores de Teatro. Digital edition, http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/FichaObra.html?Ref=25937 [accessed July 2010] (Online Publication)
Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 6 October 2010.