The majority of Isidora Aguirre’s short comedies have shared neither the high quality nor the success of her plays with social themes. The one exception, La pérgola de las flores, has been the greatest success in the history of Chilean theater. It has also been well received in Mexico, Cuba, Spain, Bolivia, and Argentina, where it was made into a film.
La pérgola de las flores
The popularity of the musical comedy as a genre directly descending from the Spanish zarzuela motivated Aguirre to write La pérgola de las flores. This light comedy satirizes the upper strata of Santiago society during the 1920’s while depicting the common people sympathetically. A spontaneous country girl in love with a young peasant and a florist fighting to defend a flower stand in the snobbish Santiago environment are notable examples of Aguirre’s portrayal of common folk.
Aguirre used a factual event as the basis for La pérgola de las flores: the change in location of the flower market, which was situated on an important avenue in Santiago. Needing to remodel this important thoroughfare, the City of Santiago issued a decree for the transfer of the flower market to another neighborhood in the city. Because the market was very popular, however, the decision to move it was met with heavy opposition, which delayed the move for more than twenty years.
La pérgola de las flores is a delightful, entertaining work dominated by sentiment and a portrayal of the cultural environment. It is brimming with scintillating and ingenious dialogue, which captures the language and expressions of the upper class and the spirit of popular humor with all its colorful figures of speech. Nevertheless, Aguirre does not ignore social issues in preference for pleasantry; she focuses on the people’s fight in defense of the florists. The social implications of the play have been recognized in Mexico and in Cuba, though in Chile, critics have placed more emphasis on the work’s comedic aspect.
La población Esperanza
Aguirre’s interest in writing plays with a social theme began with La población Esperanza, in which she, along with Manuel Rojas, attempts to portray the miserable life of the slums: Its central theme is the unsuccessful struggle of a thief to improve the conditions of his life. The play has a weak plot, and its characters are not fully developed, but Aguirre overcomes these problems in the staging of Los papeleros, a realistic epic drama.
In Los papeleros, Aguirre portrays in nine scenes the living conditions of various sectors of the working class, conditions similar to those of the Lumpenproletariat. Using Brecht’s theatrical techniques to invoke in the audience a sense of alienation, or Verfremdungseffekt, Aguirre tells the story of the garbage collectors who subsist under intolerable conditions at the dump.
In this play, the playwright breaks away from the traditional Chilean dramatic schema: the stereotypical image of the woman as weak and passive and completely removed from the process of social change. This type of artificial aesthetic portrayal changes drastically in Los papeleros, in which Aguirre creates a new female character, whose development is related to the historical context of the play, which takes place in a decade of social unrest and popular struggles.
The play is set in a poverty-stricken suburb of Santiago, where the lives of the garbagemen are being destroyed by alcohol, inertia, and passivity. The conflict of the play is between the proprietor of the dump, who sells the junk collected by the garbagemen, and the leaders of the garbage collectors, represented by Romilia and Rucio. The protagonist of Los papeleros is Romilia, whose most pronounced trait is the great combative strength that she displays in her struggle to defend her rights. Her transformation is brought about by the appearance of the son whom she had abandoned in the provinces. The son arouses her dormant maternal conscience and causes her to begin the difficult struggle to attain the houses that the proprietor had once promised the garbagemen. The proprietor is inaccessible to the workers; all they know of him is the large fence surrounding his house and the sound of his voice barking orders through a megaphone. He has a man, nicknamed “El Perro” (the dog), who represents him and carries out his orders. To achieve her purpose, Romilia bravely organizes the people in the dump for the fight to claim their union rights. They form a committee, whose task is to confront the proprietor with the serious housing problems of the people living at the dump. The group is received with threats of violence. The committee members become discouraged; they follow the proprietor’s orders to return to their homes. Romilia persists, alone in her struggle, until she can fight no longer. She is made powerless by the indifference of her fellow workers and by the proprietor’s insensitivity, and after the birth of a child at the dump, she decides to set fire to the houses. El Perro, the proprietor’s representative, threatens her with a weapon and orders her to surrender. Everyone says that she has gone crazy. Defended only by Rucio and her son, Romilia screams an impassioned defense of her cause. The play ends with a song that arouses the audience’s critical reflection on the problem.
Using the Brechtian concept of epic theater, Aguirre tries in this play to appeal to the audience’s sense of reason rather than to their emotions to present convincingly her social message. This attempt to create alienation can be perceived in the songs, the narrator’s account of the action, the unresolved conflict, and the exposure of the society’s faults. Aguirre manages to keep the play balanced by avoiding sentimental melodrama and superficial simplification of the situation, and by showing logically why it is difficult for the garbagemen to organize themselves and what their real alternatives are. Thus, rather than trying to define the problem clearly, the play simply depicts an actual situation. It does this by criticizing the regime then in power, the politicians’ demagogic promises, and the lack of laws protecting the public welfare. Although Los papeleros ends with the conflict unresolved, leaving the audience with the task of thinking about a solution, the play suggests that the key to resolving the problem lies in organization and moral courage.
Ranquil follows essentially the same formal structure as Los papeleros. In contrast to Los papeleros, however, Ranquil provides an explicit, didactic political message. In effect,...
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