The dramatic works of Miguel Ángel Asturias are distinguished by their imaginative use of material taken from the Latin American past and the region’s indigenous cultural traditions, especially the Mayan. Like many other Latin American writers of the twentieth century, Asturias responded to political and social turbulence with work that attempted to address the problems of the present by invoking the cultural achievements of his country’s past.
Although Asturias’s characters frequently represent historical forces or mythological phenomena, they are never simply abstract constructs devoid of human vitality. The highly allegorical quality of Cuculcán’s and Soluna’s interactions between supernatural beings and humanity exemplify his strong interest in myth and religion. The more realistic but still heavily symbolic La audiencia de los confines and Chantaje, contrastingly, seem to presage an activist’s attack on contemporary injustices. Throughout Asturias’s plays, however, the poetic and political intermingle. While the balance between these two aspects may vary, their constituent elements, the magical and the mundane, are usually very much in evidence.
Although Cuculcán was written in dramatic form, Asturias did not include the work in Teatro, the collection of his plays published in 1964. The work is, however, generally considered to belong among his theatrical writings. Cuculcán is based on Mayan religious texts and includes several episodes in which the narrative is developed through traditional dances and songs.
Cuculcán’s three stage settings represent the earth’s relation to the Sun at morning, afternoon, and night. The title character, a major god of the Mayas, engages in an extended dialogue with Guacamayo, a lesser god who asserts that only the Sun truly exists and all else is an illusion. Secondary characters drawn from folklore, including a dwarf grandmother, the wind, and an inquisitive flower, look on and occasionally participate in these exchanges.
Although structured in a form that leads the audience to anticipate the resolution of its central issue through dialogue, Cuculcán does not answer the question of what is real and what illusory. Asturias is more concerned with exploring the possibilities of an encounter between beings who are both real, in that they appear in embodied form, and illusory, in that they represent supernatural forces only dimly comprehended. The work is probably best understood as a theatrical exploration of Asturias’s ideas about Mayan tradition and thus exemplary of one of his characteristic literary concerns.
In presenting a modern version of the medieval miracle play, Soluna utilizes Mayan beliefs as the basis for a drama that also features sharp psychological conflicts. The title character is a sorcerer whose name combines the words sol (Sun) and luna (Moon), and these concepts of brightness and darkness, in turn symbolic of good and evil as well as the passing of time, are central to the play. Soluna himself, although never seen onstage, is deeply involved in what takes place on the estate of the wealthy landowner Mauro.
Mauro’s wife, Ninica, loves him but misses the pleasures of her native city, and as the play opens she is about to return there via train. Mauro seeks solace in a magical mask given to him by Soluna. Half yellow and half orange, symbolizing the union of the Sun and the Moon, it has the power to make time pass quickly and thus lessen Mauro’s pining for his wife.
Mauro then falls asleep with the mask in his arms. After a Nahual, a spirit representing the psyche of his servant Porfirión, unsuccessfully tries to steal the mask, the stage is filled with groups of peasant dancers vocally supporting either the Sun or the Moon. The tension soon escalates into stylized fighting but abruptly ceases when Porfirión appears and announces that bizarre events are happening and Judgment Day is at hand.
The terrified peasants are calmed when a vision of Ninica appears to them and states that things have returned to normal. The Nahual, however, still covets the mask and manages to steal it even though shot by Mauro. Ninica, who has in...
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