Maruxa Vilalta Essay - Critical Essays


Maruxa Vilalta’s playwriting fits within a universalist trend in Latin American theater, and for this reason, her plays are not peculiarly Mexican, either in their language, their characters, or their setting. This goes hand in hand with Vilalta’s rejection of more realistic stage conventions, which she considers too much associated with a local theater of customs or manners, what in Spanish is called costumbrismo. Instead, Vilalta usually prefers a nonrepresentational theater, whose characters belong to no specific country. When she does place them geographically, as in Nothing Like the Sixteenth Floor, it is in Manhattan, New York, and not in Mexico City.

Vilalta’s conscious effort to avoid things typically Mexican clearly places her on one side of a long-standing debate among fellow playwrights about how indigenous their art should be and the degree to which it should be valued based on international appeal. A similar debate has been waged by artists in most Latin American countries, who recognize the necessity to deal with their own reality but also do not want to be potentially isolated from world audiences. Many have chosen the same solution as Vilalta, which is to write plays that can be read as allegories. Thus, while on one level they may not have anything overtly Mexican about them, the issues with which they deal—the dehumanization of the labor force, the cruelty individuals inflict on one another, the institutionalization of violence—most certainly do. It is by indirection, then, that Vilalta makes a powerful commentary on the specific world in which she lives, while not actually having to place her characters there.

Vilalta often expresses her thematic concerns through the theatrical metaphor of game playing. Usually she keeps the number of players at two or three, and the intensity of the games may well explain her preference for one-act plays. The rules for the games her characters play are not always easy to follow, because they do not necessarily adhere to everyday logic. Their logic resides in the games themselves, which should be interpreted as metaphors and not concrete depictions of reality offstage.

Vilalta represents a considerable presence in Mexican experimental drama, and her plays show the clear influence of many major theater innovators of the twentieth century. Vilalta is not merely derivative, however, for she adapts these influences to her own ends. The result is a very personal theater, one that is not particularly Mexican in any obvious way but that still manages to make an indirect commentary on the social and political realities of Mexican culture. Moreover, although the vision of humankind that Vilalta paints is bleak in the extreme, critical and audience enthusiasm for her plays, both in Mexico and abroad, would seem to indicate playgoers’ recognition that, by emphasizing the negative, Vilalta ultimately hopes to provoke change for the better.

Number 9

Vilalta’s first important play, Number 9, takes place in a small yard behind a large factory. Everything there, which is not much—a wall, a bench, a trash can, some barbed wire—is a depressing, prisonlike gray color; the workers, themselves dressed in dull gray overalls, are the inmates of this dehumanized workplace. The game here is an unevenly matched one—the powerful forces of capitalism against the ordinary men and women who keep its machinery running. The violence done to them is camouflaged behind a smokescreen of cleanliness, order, and paternalism. The workers for Sunshine of Your Life, Ltd., labor with the most modern conveniences and under employers who care about their well-being, or so they are constantly told by a throaty female voice blaring at them over the loudspeaker in the yard. They supposedly have a spotless cafeteria, immaculate working areas, a complaints bureau—everything a labor force could ask for.

What this disembodied voice fails to mention, however, is that the workers to whom and of whom she speaks have no names, only numbers; they have become automatons, indistinguishable from the machines they operate, and their lives are as anesthetized as the colorless surroundings at the factory. The workers are cogs in a superefficient system that does not even stop to mourn the death of Number 9, who, in desperation to assert his individuality, has allowed himself to be mangled to death by the very machine that made his life intolerable. Only then does Number 9 regain an identity and his name—José.

In writing this play, Vilalta certainly felt the influence of the Theater of the Absurd, which gained popularity in the early 1960’s. The dominant mood of Number 9, with its often disjointed dialogue, sense of a repetitive action leading nowhere, schematic characters, and the gloomy picture painted of a pointless existence, is that of absurdism, but with one fundamental difference. Unlike the European variety, absurdism here is not an ontological or existential dilemma but a specifically socioeconomic one instead. Number 9 and his fellow workers are the playthings not of a disinterested or irrational god but rather of the cruel demigods of exploitative capitalism. Vilalta’s adaptation of the Theater of the Absurd was not an unusual one among Latin American playwrights of the period, many of whom emulated the movement’s theatrical innovations while not necessarily embracing its philosophical premises.

Together Tonight, Loving Each Other So Much

This same kind of adaptation takes place in Vilalta’s next important play, Together Tonight, Loving Each Other So Much, except that in this case the game playing is a much more salient motif, and her mastery of the stage is more evident. Whereas Number 9 sometimes seems safe and unimaginative, with its obvious, if not clichéd, symbolism (the gray walls, the characters’ mechanical movements and speech patterns, Number 9’s suicide), here Vilalta is far bolder and more innovative. The principal characters in this play, Rosalía and Casimiro (also referred to as Her and Him), are a vicious old couple who have barricaded themselves behind the walls of their filthy apartment, where they delight in playing a humiliating game of one-upmanship. They cackle with glee as they...

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