(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Griselda Gambaro is one of the Argentine dramatists who has maintained steady theatrical activity since 1964, when her first produced play, Las paredes, also won theatrical prizes. Since then, her productions have consistently been well received in national and international theatrical circles. Critics often compare her plays with European currents, especially the Theater of the Absurd and the Theater of Cruelty, because of the obvious similarities in tone, techniques, and themes. In particular, it is possible to see the relationship between Antonin Artaud’s theories for a Theater of Crueltyand Gambaro’s skillful use of nonrhetorical language integrated with gestures and movements and her manipulation of the space of the stage to create a physical environment that first moves deeply the emotions of the audience before its intellect is engaged. In the manner Artaud envisioned for his theater, she makes good use of violent physical images as a potent means to express her own vision of the cruelty of existence.

In response to comments associating her work with international movements, Gambaro generally stresses the importance of the Argentine context in the formation of her dramatic vocabulary. While the plays of the 1960’s, which formed the basis of her dramatic reputation, utilize a general Spanish-language expression, her later plays, from the 1970’s onward, are written with the more specific Argentine language form of the voseo (the use of the familiar singular form of vos instead of the more generalized tu form), openly marking the language of the plays with a particularly national flavor. She prefers to see the effect of the Argentine dramatic tradition called the grotesco-criollo, as well as the real absurdities of the Argentine political situation, as the true inspiration for her tone of black humor and her treatment of humankind’s inhumanity, of that paradox in human nature—the capacity of ordinary human beings to participate in atrocities. Although she may deal with real facts and situations in the real world, all of Gambaro’s plays may be considered tragicomedies based on variations of the grotesque rather than on realistic conventions.

In form, Gambaro’s plays are generally structured with two parallel acts or one act with many fast-moving scenes. Despite anecdotal differences, a recurring pattern of action is found in most of the plays: An average person finds himself in a not unusual setting that soon becomes transformed into a threatening environment because of the inexplicable, menacing actions of adversaries who are often from his intimate circle of family and friends. The relationships among the characters are generally that of oppressor to oppressed; the authority figure may be an unsuspected type, as the mother of El desatino, who belies her traditional role as a positive nurturing figure, or an obvious dictatorial character, such as Franco in The Camp, or the neighborhood barber, as in Decir sí. The victim is generally an unassuming individual who does not rise to the challenge of the situation with heroism, but sinks into an abyss of passive cowardice.

It also should be noted that in Gambaro’s plays dialogue functions differently from both the traditional presentation and the innovations of the Theater of the Absurd. Traditionally, dramatic action progressed by means of the dialogic exchanges, a rational sequencing that the absurdists parodied when their characters would speak alternatively without communicating an intellectually viable argument, as in Eugène Ionesco’s La Cantatrice chauve (pr. 1950; The Bald Soprano, 1956). In Gambaro’s plays, on the other hand, there is an attempt by the victim to communicate, but he is generally deliberately deceived by his tormentors. When the Youth of Las paredes remarks that the walls of his room seem to be growing smaller or that he hears pitiful screams from his invisible neighbors, these real observations are noticed, too, by the spectators; the Custodian ignores or denigrates the observations with the effect that the Youth soon distrusts his own senses and resignedly accedes to whatever the Custodian claims, no matter how “absurd,” or out of harmony with the real world. This pattern is found in most of Gambaro’s plays written in the 1960’s and 1970’s: The victim’s observations are verified by the spectators, but the oppressor figures purposely question and discredit the veracity of the real observations in an attempt to undermine the individual’s sense of integrity and well-being. The individual is gradually deprived of his ability to discern for himself between real events and the deceptive interpretations offered by the authorities. His attempts to communicate and to make sense of his universe are overwhelmed, and he is rendered passive, a victim prepared to accept whatever the authorities decide or demand. Gambaro presents this extreme picture of victimization in order to shock her spectators out of their own passivity.

El desatino

In El desatino, the contrast between dialogue and actions is especially menacing because the unidentified Youth and the tormentors of Las paredes are replaced by a circle of family and friends. When Alfonso attempts to extricate himself from the iron object attached to his foot, his mother, Doña Viola, is too preoccupied with her own needs to pay attention to the problems of her son. She gives all of her attention to Luís, Alfonso’s best friend, although Luís acts the opposite of the caring companion. Luís verbalizes the typical solicitations of a friend, but by his actions he actively threatens Alfonso with physical injury. “I’ll warm you, I’ll protect you,” says Luís as he ties a scarf around Alfonso’s neck, and in the process nearly strangles him. None of Alfonso’s closest companions tries to help him, and only one character in the play appears to take his problem seriously. El muchacho (the boy), identified only as a road-construction worker, offers to do whatever possible to help Alfonso, but his aid is rejected because of his social class. His goodness and concern for others are contrasted with the selfishness of Alfonso’s group and Alfonso’s own cowardice. The play has been read as an allegory of the problems of the middle class in contemporary Argentina and Latin America, Alfonso representing the middle class, which is dominated by tradition and arrogantly scornful of the efforts of the well-meaning working class.

The Siamese Twins

The contrast between words and actions typical of Gambaro’s dramatic images is graphically demonstrated in The Siamese Twins. The play develops as a series of encounters in which Lorenzo, the dominant member of the pair alluded to in the title, is driven by envy to cause the destruction of Ignacio. This relationship re-creates the Cain and Abel motif, yet the play never makes explicit that the two are blood brothers; their fraternal relationship seems to be a myth exploited by Lorenzo or, if true, a fact not willingly accepted by Ignacio. Lorenzo’s attempt at domination is dramatically expressed in the scene in which he forces Ignacio to walk with him as if the two were real Siamese twins, attached physically. This theatrical gesture contradicts the verbal messages that indicate that the two are physically separate and psychologically different as well. Lorenzo is cunning, envious, and treacherous while Ignacio is ingenuous, compassionate, and good-natured. The docile character Ignacio is the victim of Lorenzo’s various dirty tricks and destructive behavior. Lorenzo’s need to rid himself of Ignacio is predicated on the erroneous belief that without Ignacio he will somehow be more whole, more independent. By the end of the play, Lorenzo has finally succeeded in implicating Ignacio in some deed for which the police torture and kill him. In the final scene, Lorenzo realizes too late that his destruction of Ignacio has not left him whole but deficient, and has caused his own victimization.

The impact of the final scene is strengthened by its power to recall the final moments of Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954). Lorenzo is alone on an empty stage, ironically assuming the identity of Ignacio by re-creating the latter’s fetal position as a dead man. Like Estragon’s famous allons, which brings no action, Lorenzo, too, announces his imminent departure but goes nowhere. His inability to act contradicts his words and his very existence; the completion of his goal has brought his own destruction.

The Camp


(The entire section is 3570 words.)