Eduardo Machado is an openly homosexual Cuban American writer, teacher, and filmmaker who has written more than thirty plays both to encouraging and devastating reviews. Although his plays directly address Hispanic issues of displacement, identity, cultural divides, and sexual and ethnic stereotypes, he fervently argues that he writes not about a community but of the human condition.
Machado has most articulately woven a latter-day Chekhovian theater out of his and his family’s experience of the Cuban Revolution in plays written before 1996. He has explored its dimensions in various styles. His forays into other subjects, such as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) and sexual ambivalence, are equally evocative. Machado succeeds in giving events of epic sweep a human face, without reducing their scale, and in daring to strive for fresh dramatic solutions to equally virgin thematic ground.
The Floating Island Plays
The four plays that form The Floating Island Plays represent the core of Machado’s uvre. These four plays depict the sequence of events that led members of the Cuban upper classes from complacent hegemony in their native land to exile and displacement in the United States. They depict key incidents in the lives of disparate members of the Marquez/Ripoll/Hernandez clan as they attempt to adapt to the cataclysmal changes that rain down on Cuba. It may be surmised that these families represent people about whom Machado heard through his own family and family members whom he actually knew.
The first play of the Floating Island series, The Modern Ladies of Guanabacoa, chronicles the Ripoll family in the years 1928 through 1931. While showing the romantic and sexual intrigues that beset the family, especially the leitmotif of sexual infidelity, Machado depicts in the background the first seeds of the social dissolution that would bear fruit in the later plays. Manuela, the young lady of the house, is being courted by Oscar Hernandez, a young man from a socially inferior household. Having survived a seven-year engagement with a fiancé who died, she is now considered “used goods” and undesirable by men of her station. Once Oscar and Manuela have fulfilled the proper steps of courtship and are married, Oscar wastes no time parlaying investments of his in-laws’ money into a successful bus company, of which he becomes the head and through which he succeeds in displacing and marginalizing Manuela’s brothers, the rightful heirs to the fortune, both of whom lack Oscar’s drive and will. In an echo of Chekhovian drama, Oscar, like the merchant Lopakhin in Vishnyovy sad (pr., pb. 1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908), benefits from the decadence of the upper classes and hoists himself up the social scale at their expense.
Arturo Ripoll, Sr., is a prosperous merchant who is prodigally using up the family fortune and his respectable name in a long-term, flaunted romantic liaison. In the play’s climax, he is shot offstage, probably by his mistress’s enraged husband. Oscar takes advantage of this turn of events to gain control of the family fortune and take a mistress for himself even as his wife, Manuela, is expecting a baby. Arturo’s and Oscar’s accepted adultery is juxtaposed with that of Adelita, Manuela’s sister-in-law, who is viciously censured by the family for her infidelity to Ernesto. The prevailing sexual double standard for men and women in Cuban society is also reflected in the smaller daily rituals and mores among the Ripolls. Even as Manuela is straining to be more modern (and more American) by smoking, wearing low-cut dresses, and cutting her hair short, she and her mother still wait hand and foot on her two weak, pampered brothers, Ernesto and Mario. Whereas Maria Josefa, the family matriarch, agrees not to notice or mention her husband’s unfaithfulness, all the family members complain vociferously about Adelita’s conduct. In fact, the play is a compendium of the ceremonies that form their life together and to which they all cling as known, safe reality—ceremonies of courtship, adultery, eating, social hierarchy, and skin color. The Ripolls have a way of rating suitors according to the amount of Spanish as opposed to mulatto and Indian blood reflected in an individual’s skin color. It is significant that Oscar, who gains economic ascendancy in the end, has a darker skin than the Ripolls, who boast of their Basque, European heritage.
The dialogue of The Modern Ladies of Guanabacoa is written in a typical Machado rhythm—short percussive lines that are reminiscent of Fornes. His scenes often turn on secrets that remain unspoken even as the characters weave a verbal skein of inessentials—food, servants, styles, and etiquette. Every so often a character will burst out with an unmediated, coarse exclamation that expresses the feelings that lurk at a primitive level and that formal surface of discourse is meant to hold in check.
Fabiola, the next play of the series, switches over to the Marquez family. Sonia Hernandez, a major character in Fabiola and presumably the daughter of Oscar and Manuela, the characters from The Modern Ladies of Guanabacoa (who do not appear in Fabiola), has married into the Marquez family. Fabiola gives the impression of greater passage of time, spanning the years 1955 to 1967, and is divided into six scenes. It encompasses the years of Castro’s rise to power through his takeover and eventual embracing of Soviet-style communism. The Marquez family, prosperous factory owners, at first enthusiastically back Castro with money and strategy because he promises to stand up to the North American giant that has made of Cuba a puppet under Fulgencio Batista. Although they cheer when Castro takes Havana, they never count on having to make further sacrifices for the revolution. Castro’s gradual conversion to communism ultimately forces them to flee Cuba in small groups, and in the last scene, they are made to vacate their home altogether and hand it over to the government.
In typical Machado fashion, the political action erupts onto the main action at first mutedly, as the lady of the house, Cusa, a sworn expert in the coming revolution, intently follows Castro’s progress over the radio. Octavio, a cousin, intrudes at one moment, with his fingernails mutilated following a torture session by Batista’s thugs. Ultimately, Castro’s milicianos swarm through the house, triumphantly ordering about their social superiors. Machado furthermore epitomizes the brewing social transformation in the person of Sara, a servant. Sara is humiliated in the first act by a sister-in-law, Clara, a figure reminiscent of Natasha from Chekhov’s Tri sestry (pr., pb. 1901; The Three Sisters, 1920), who spits in the loyal servant’s face. This same servant joins the revolution and, in a tense scene in the second act, refuses to aid the family, much to their surprise as they had always considered her a family member and were blissfully oblivious to the inequities implicit in the master-servant arrangement.
In the play’s foreground, once again, is a web of interpersonal conflicts among family members. Most prominent is the covert sexual relationship between the two Marquez brothers, Osvaldo and Pedro. Pedro’s wife, Fabiola, has died before the curtain rises, and her body has mysteriously vanished from the crypt. Pedro, in reaction, is drinking heavily and enters a downhill emotional spiral, which ends only in the play’s denouement, his suicide. He proposes to his married brother Osvaldo that they pick up where they left off with the sexual play in which they engaged when they were children. Osvaldo at first eludes him but then succumbs, and they have a protracted liaison, ending only with Osvaldo’s immigration to the United States. His absence leaves Pedro bereft and serves as a catalyst for his total disintegration.
The brothers’ incestuous relationship is played off against the other characters of the play: their father, Alfredo, who, like Arturo in The Modern Ladies of Guanabacoa, is having a long-term illicit relationship; their mother, Cusa, who takes refuge in politics and superstition; their high-spirited sister Miriam, who is enduring the clumsy wooing of the stiff Raulito and who ultimately consents to marry him against her better judgment; and Sonya, Osvaldo’s wife, whose struggle is essentially intrapersonal, as she longs unrequitedly to fulfill herself intellectually and make an impact on the world. Sonya suffers both from the marginality of living in Cuba and from the sense of her own uselessness in relation to a world in turmoil. She recalls, yet again, the Chekhovian archetype of the frustrated aristocrat who yearns for a self-significance never to be achieved.
Machado fashions a mosaic of characters, combining and recombining their encounters in brief two-and three-character scenes. The first act essentially focuses on the two Marquez brothers, whose cat-and-mouse game of attraction is repeatedly interrupted by intrusions...
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