The final four decades of the twentieth century saw terrible upheavals in Latin America: poverty, disease, hunger, natural disasters, guerrilla fighting, oppression, torture, kidnappings, hijackings, strikes, riots, wars, and the appearance of death squads, drug cartels, and massacres of indigenous peoples, all of which incited a more widespread feeling of discontent with government across the continent. Social protest and dissent met with repression, including assassinations and disappearances. Playwrights and other theater artists have come to figure prominently as agents of social and political protest, combining aesthetics with what Paulo Friere called conscientizaçao, or “conscienticization.” Building on the political theater writings of Bertolt Brecht, certain playwrights led a movement collectively known as “Theatre of Revolt.” So effective has this movement been in challenging oppression that theater has become the art form of those most frequently harassed by military governments. Playwrights have been censored, arrested, and tortured; theaters have been closed or even burned down by government forces. Around 1973, the year of the military coup in Chile and widespread continental unrest, theater in Latin America suffered a near-paralysis, which in some places persisted for years. Yet certain playwrights’ works have managed to persist in these horrifying periods.
Socially conscious theater has flourished in Chile since the 1970’s in the work of several outstanding playwrights. Among the forerunners in this century are María Asunción Requena and Isidora Aguirre, who have written about women’s struggles, of relations between whites and Indians, and of class conflict; and the poet Pablo Neruda, with his Fulgor y muerte de Joaquín Murieta (pr. 1967; Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta, 1972), a re-creation of the tragic life of Chilean prospectors in the California gold rush. Since the 1950’s, audiences have seen Egon Raúl Wolff’s carefully choreographed invasions of the bourgeoisie’s comfortable space by threatening creatures from the wrong side of town in Los invasores (pr. 1964; the invaders) and in Flores de papel (pr. 1970; Paper Flowers, 1971); Jorge Díaz Gutiérrez’s neoexistentialist critiques of modern alienation, such as Réquiem para una girasol (pr. 1961; requiem for a sunflower), followed by a powerful piece on the miners of Chile, El nudo ciego (pr. 1965; the blind knot), and by the ferocious satire Topografía de un desnudo (pr. 1967; the topography of a nude), about the 1963 massacre of Brazilian peasants; and Alejandro Sievking’s critical view of political oppression in Chile in Pequeños animales abatidos (pr. 1975; small downcast animals).
Social and political themes have been presented by equally sophisticated writers in other countries, especially in Argentina, which has produced some of the continent’s leading playwrights. Three excellent examples are Osvaldo Dragún, Andrés Lizárraga, and Griselda Gambaro, whose works are proof of the possibility of achieving universal appeal along with very specific messages about history, social relations, and economic questions.
Dragún, active since the mid-1950’s in popular theater, has dealt with some of his country’s (and Latin America’s) most difficult themes: class relations and the malaise of youth in Y nos dijeron que éramos inmortales (pb. 1962; and they told us we were immortal); the tendency to rely on formulaic ideas to solve problems that require an original, native solution in Heroica de Buenos Aires (pr. 1966); and the power of economic pressures that can turn one into a watchdog for hire, let one die of an abscessed tooth, or kill hundreds of Africans with tainted meat for the sake of a multinational corporation’s profits in Historias para ser contadas (pr. 1957; Stories for the Theatre, 1976). Dragún has also handled a historical figure that has become a favorite of the Latin American stage, the Inca Tupac Amaru, who led a major rebellion against the Spaniards in the eighteenth century; in Tupac Amaru (pr. 1957), the tormentor is ultimately driven mad by the spiritual resistance of the physically broken and defeated hero.
Lizárraga has criticized the narrowness of provincial life, the hypocrisy of Argentina’s social system,...