Anna in the Tropics

by Nilo Cruz

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1409

The play Anna in the Tropics harkens back to a time long since forgotten, when the cigar factories of Ybor City were bustling with activity and immigrants held hopes of a better future. As Nilo Cruz convincingly demonstrates, life in a cigar factory was hard because it was subjected to so much uncertainty and doubt, but that is not to say that it was without its pleasures. In re-creating an atmosphere of strife, conflict, and division within the factory, Cruz, borrowing a page, figuratively speaking, from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, uses the relationship of Anna, her husband, and Vronsky as a model for developing character relationships within Anna in the Tropics. By presenting his characters in triangular relationships to one another, the playwright underscores the visceral struggle waged by those who hope to survive. He creates scenes filled with drama and suspense. Moreover, communication, power struggles, and the yearning for romantic love in the play are brought into sharper focus as a result of Cruz employing this technique.

The role of an intermediary appears in key scenes throughout the play, and it fulfills the purpose of facilitating communication between men and women who are often too stubborn to speak directly to each other, as is the case with Santiago and Ofelia, the owners of the factory. Act 1, scene 4, opens with Marela quoting words and phrases verbatim as her parents use her to wage an escalating argument about money. The irony of the situation— one whose comic effect is not lost upon Cruz as a dramatist—is that, without Marela’s presence, the couple would be at a complete stalemate. Each person would not utter a word directly to the other, and so, instead of resolving their conflict about finances, as they do once Marela leaves and silence fills the room, they might have failed to realize how beloved they really are to each other. Had Marela not intervened, Santiago and Ofelia would never have reconciled their differences and moved on to a discussion of Anna Karenina, realizing, by the end of the scene, how much their lives mirror those of Levin and Kitty in the novel. Forming the third side of a character triangle, Marela thus enables her parents to embark upon what is at first a heated discussion but which later evolves into a tender recognition filled with romantic yearning and a strong resolve to face the future together.

Another scene in which an intermediary facilitates communication occurs in act 2, scene 3, when a cigar is lit and passed around to inaugurate the new line of Anna Karenina cigars Santiago has decided to produce. According to custom, the cigar must not be passed directly to the smoker but through an intermediary, so as to ‘‘facilitate communication with the gods" (Cruz’s italics). Different characters take turns forming a triad as the new cigar is passed around and met with enthusiastic praise; that is, until Palomo receives the cigar and hands it directly to Juan Julian. This single gesture not only disrupts the triangular relationship among characters but forces the two men to confront each other as rivals. The lector responds quickly to the insult—one made against him and the gods—by making an act of supplication. A scene that begins as a celebration ends in yet another standoff as Palomo and Juan Julian vie once more for Conchita’s affection.

Perhaps the most important role of intermediary is performed by the lector. As a descendent of the cacique, or chief Indian, who ‘‘used to translate the words of the deities,’’ the lector reads these words aloud from literary classics such as Anna Karenina, educating and informing the oidores, or listeners,’’ who toil in the factory. Without him, many of the workers would have no knowledge of the outside world. Dramatically speaking, Cruz realizes the importance of the lector as a catalyst for change within the cigar factory. Juan Julian’s readings permit Marela and Conchita greater freedom of imagination with which to lead their lives and fulfill their dreams, and Ofelia, among others, feels a strong connection to the past as she moves forward into the future.

In describing the struggle for control of the cigar factory, Cruz employs a triangular structure to delineate the shifting relationships between characters as they wield power and influence. With Santiago absent, Ofelia must assume control of operations immediately, especially if she wants to halt Cheché’s attempts at mechanization. Thus, she forms a barrier between the two brothers though her allegiance remains quite clear. Palomo, on the other hand, shifts his loyalty as the mood suits him. He enjoys hearing Juan Julian read, paying rapt attention to the tale of Anna’s illicit affair, yet he sides with Cheché when a vote is taken to determine whether the lector should stay.

The love triangle, modeled after the example of Anna and her two lovers, is employed to great effect within the play, for characters involved in such a relationship embody the romantic stereotype of tragic lovers seeking escape and eternal union. The first and most provocative example—that is to say, the one triangular relationship that acts as an underlying stimulus in the play—is that of the relationship between Cheché, his wife Mildred, and the previous lector, a triangle that dissolves when Mildred and the lector run away. Because it was a lector who cuckolded him (one, moreover, from Cuba), Cheché distrusts anyone arriving at the factory to fulfill that role, even if that someone should happen to be a professional like Juan Julian. Thus, Cheché’s personal animus against lectors reveals in part his motivation for wanting to modernize the factory.

Cheché is involved in yet another love triangle that ends in an unrequited manner. Throughout the play, he seems tortured by the memory of his wife until, that is, he sees Marela dressed as a Russian lady when she models for the new cigar’s label. He awkwardly tries to woo Marela, though his efforts often end in a leer. Marela, however, has eyes only for Juan Julian, the man who inspired her transformation by reading from the pages of Anna Karenina. A lover’s triangle is set in motion as Marela longs for Juan Julian, who conducts an affair with her older sister even though she is married to Palomo, another roller at the factory. Cruz links triangles within triangles as the play approaches its denouement, bringing character’s motivations into bold relief. Cheché, seeking fulfillment of his sexual desire, takes Marela by force, a violent act that foreshadows his eventual murder of the lector. By placing one of his characters in opposition to two others who meet tragic fates, Cruz presents a love triangle that surpasses Tolstoy’s model in terms of sheer melodrama.

The play’s most idealized example of a love triangle, and the one that re-creates Tolstoy’s example faithfully, both in terms of its ardor and tragic outcome, is the one between Conchita, her husband Palomo, and Juan Julian. Cruz, however, modifies Tolstoy’s classic love triangle by adding an element of sexual ambiguity that creates a psychological frisson between husband and wife. Palomo, aroused by Conchita’s descriptions of her encounters with the lector, wants to learn more about how Juan Julian possesses her physically, prompting Conchita to remark, ‘‘You’re falling in love with this man.’’ Palomo denies this, saying that his need for additional information is merely the result of habit after having been an oidore for so long. When Conchita presses him, he admits that something else is bothering him. ‘‘And it’s terrible sometimes,’’ he adds. What was a heterosexual love triangle now adds a homosexual component to it, revealing more of the characters’ psychological complexities. These personal motivations take yet another dramatic turn when Palomo, wanting to seize control of his wife’s affair, suggests that Conchita tell her lover ‘‘to make love like a knife’’ because, he says, ‘‘everything has to be killed.’’ The love triangle becomes too painful to maintain, creating a metaphorical death for at least one of the participants.

By placing his characters in triangular relationships, Cruz achieves a dramatic tension within Anna in the Tropics that draws upon the struggles for power and survival that mark life in the cigar factory. His homage to the Russian master confirms once again the redeeming power of art.

Source: David Remy, Critical Essay on Anna in the Tropics, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

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Critical Overview