Latin American Drama Analysis

Aztec Precedents

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although many civilizations flourished in Central and South America thousands of years before the coming of the Spanish conquistadores, the history of pre-Columbian theater is very poorly understood. There are many reasons for this gap, including the fact that few records from the ancient Mayan, Olmec, and Aztec civilizations survive, and those that do exist are difficult for modern scholars to interpret. The main records of the Aztec civilization come from Spanish monks who arrived in the New World to convert the Aztecs to Christianity: Naturally, these records are very biased in favor of European civilization.

Performance art for the Aztecs was basically religious, and demonstrated the central focus of Aztec theology: the great interconnectedness between humanity and the gods. The Aztec calendar had eighteen months, and each month was marked with a major festival paying homage to the gods: Many of these festivals involved spectacular dances of numbers of performers wearing elaborate and beautiful costumes honoring, for instance, the Aztec god of rain and wind, Quetzalcóatl. This is probably the origin of the traditional quetzal dance still performed annually in Mexico, in which dancers wear headgear of paper, silk, and feathers measuring up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) in diameter.

A major component of Aztec performance ritual was human sacrifice: For the Aztecs, this sacrifice demonstrated their connection to the divine, and...

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Colonial Era

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The Spanish conquest of the New World began in the 1490’s, when the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) was one of the largest cities in the world. The Spaniards were impressed with the Aztec accomplishments: Herná Cortés wrote to his king that the palaces of King Moctezuma were grander than anything in Spain, and the Spanish soldiers believed the marketplaces of the city to be greater than those of Rome or Constantinople. However, the conquering Spaniards saw the indigenous Americans only as misguided savages despite their ancient and complex culture and their great achievements in architecture, art, weaving, and metalwork. To Spanish monks, the great Aztec gods were merely the devil in disguise, and converting the Aztecs and destroying their culture became a primary mission of the conquering Spaniards.

Theater was one of the chief forms of entertainment of these newcomers, who often performed actos, entremés, or even dramas to fill their leisure time. Thus in the explorers’ chronicles there are reports that soldiers acted for fun in the late sixteenth century, in northwestern outposts that are now part of the southwestern United States, and in the 1760’s, shortly after Spain acquired the Falkland Islands, off the coast of modern-day Argentina, from France, the local garrison put on a three-day festivity that included dramatic performances, with props and materials provided by the military governor.

Theater was from the beginning a proselytizing tool. Some of the earliest attempts by Spanish missionaries to convert the natives involved the Spanish equivalent of the Passion plays and miracle plays of Western Europe. The evangelical zeal of the conquerors went to extraordinary lengths, as evidenced by the willingness of the friars to learn native languages and to present religious doctrine (often through drama) in those languages, and by the cultural syncretism between Catholicism and Indian beliefs that appears even as late as the mid-seventeenth century, in an allegorical play by the famous Mexican writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Plays brought...

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The Era of Independence

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Drama and theatrical activity played a minor albeit interesting role in the transition to independence and in nation building. The end of the eighteenth century brought the success of the sainete (a genre made popular in Spain by Ramón de la Cruz), the characters of which were drawn from everyday contemporary society and were often social types; these characters reflected the particular social makeup of a given colony, and in the unique ethnic origins, opinions, and speech patterns presented onstage, the colonized could begin to see their own distinctive national identity.

The patriotic theme was the subject of a few plays throughout Latin America, beginning in Chile, Peru, and Argentina between 1812 and 1820, then in Mexico around 1820 and eventually Cuba and Puerto Rico beginning around mid-nineteenth century. Abdala (pb. 1869), by the Cuban patriot José Martí, is an allegory of independence with an African hero, an early attack on colonialism, specifically Spanish domination of Cuba.

In Argentina, on the eve of independence, one could find some rural comedies and satires of Spanish theater. In Cuba, after the remainder of Latin America was free and long before Cuba’s wars of independence (1868-1900), comedy developed through the fifty-year career of a brilliant actor and impresario, Francisco Covarrubias, the author of several dozen comedies that laid the foundation of Cuban theater. (The texts were lost; only records...

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Twentieth Century Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

As the independent republics became relatively stable democracies with increasing industrialization and European immigration, the theater continued to develop along two main lines: “serious” drama that addressed grave questions and moral issues or the human condition, in a fairly traditional, formal structure; and popular theater that broached topical issues or questions of morality, lightly at best, in a satiric vein.

The first sophisticated social drama emerged in the early twentieth century, with the theme of national identity still prominent, either in response to a changing historical and political reality or as a new perspective on the same old problems of race and class. Historically, playwrights, like other Latin American artists and intellectuals, have been committed to their role as critics and are often involved, through their main profession (as teachers, journalists, and diplomats), in the affairs of their country. Many have used drama as a medium for expressing their commitment; a few good writers have made the stage a powerful forum for debates by characters that are often allegorical or stereotypical yet manage to move an audience and to challenge prejudice, outmoded behavior, and destructive systems.

José Antonio Ramos, a leading Cuban intellectual and a diplomat, analyzed his country’s most basic conflicts, embodied in different family members whose future is tied to their large estate, in his play Tembladera (pr. 1917). The play explores intergenerational conflict and the roots of Cuba’s economic crisis; American penetration of Cuba, especially after the Spanish-American War, and the remnants of loyalty to Spanish tradition; and the contradictions inherent both in cultural tradition and in progress.

Between 1903 and 1906, Florencio Sánchez in a similar naturalist vein attacked the prevailing assumptions about national identity and immigration in Argentina and Uruguay. His Barranca abajo (pr. 1905; down the precipice) exposes the real condition of an old peasant: Changes in economic...

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Contemporary Drama

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The final four decades of the twentieth century saw terrible upheavals in Latin America: poverty, disease, hunger, natural disasters, guerrilla fighting, oppression, torture, kidnappings, hijackings, strikes, riots, wars, and the appearance of death squads, drug cartels, and massacres of indigenous peoples, all of which incited a more widespread feeling of discontent with government across the continent. Social protest and dissent met with repression, including assassinations and disappearances. Playwrights and other theater artists have come to figure prominently as agents of social and political protest, combining aesthetics with what Paulo Friere called conscientizaçao, or “conscienticization.” Building on the political theater writings of Bertolt Brecht, certain playwrights led a movement collectively known as “Theatre of Revolt.” So effective has this movement been in challenging oppression that theater has become the art form of those most frequently harassed by military governments. Playwrights have been censored, arrested, and tortured; theaters have been closed or even burned down by government forces. Around 1973, the year of the military coup in Chile and widespread continental unrest, theater in Latin America suffered a near-paralysis, which in some places persisted for years. Yet certain playwrights’ works have managed to persist in these horrifying periods.

Socially conscious theater has flourished in Chile since the 1970’s in the work of several outstanding playwrights. Among the forerunners in this century are María Asunción Requena and Isidora Aguirre, who have written about women’s struggles, of relations between whites and Indians, and of class conflict; and the poet Pablo Neruda, with his Fulgor y muerte de Joaquín Murieta (pr. 1967; Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta, 1972), a re-creation of the tragic life of Chilean prospectors in the California gold rush. Since the 1950’s, audiences have seen Egon Raúl Wolff’s carefully choreographed invasions of the bourgeoisie’s comfortable space by threatening creatures from the wrong side of town in Los invasores (pr. 1964; the invaders) and in Flores de papel (pr. 1970; Paper Flowers, 1971); Jorge Díaz Gutiérrez’s neoexistentialist critiques of modern alienation, such as Réquiem para una girasol (pr. 1961; requiem for a sunflower), followed by a powerful piece on the miners of Chile, El nudo ciego (pr. 1965; the blind knot), and by the ferocious satire Topografía de un desnudo (pr. 1967; the topography of a nude), about the 1963 massacre of Brazilian peasants; and Alejandro Sievking’s critical view of political oppression in Chile in Pequeños animales abatidos (pr. 1975; small downcast animals).

Social and political themes have been presented by equally sophisticated writers in other countries, especially in Argentina, which has produced some of the continent’s leading playwrights. Three excellent examples are Osvaldo Dragún, Andrés Lizárraga, and Griselda Gambaro, whose works are proof of the possibility of achieving universal appeal along with very specific messages about history, social relations, and economic questions.

Dragún, active since the mid-1950’s in popular theater, has dealt with some of his country’s (and Latin America’s) most difficult themes: class relations and the malaise of youth in Y nos dijeron que éramos inmortales (pb. 1962; and they told us we were immortal); the tendency to rely on formulaic ideas to solve problems that require an original, native solution in Heroica de Buenos Aires (pr. 1966); and the power of economic pressures that can turn one into a watchdog for hire, let one die of an abscessed tooth, or kill hundreds of Africans with tainted meat for the sake of a multinational corporation’s profits in Historias para ser contadas (pr. 1957; Stories for the Theatre, 1976). Dragún has also handled a historical figure that has become a favorite of the Latin American stage, the Inca Tupac Amaru, who led a major rebellion against the Spaniards in the eighteenth century; in Tupac Amaru (pr. 1957), the tormentor is ultimately driven mad by the spiritual resistance of the physically broken and defeated hero.

Lizárraga has criticized the narrowness of provincial life, the hypocrisy of Argentina’s social system,...

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Collective Creations and Political Performance

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The 1960’s brought with its revolutionary politics a corresponding movement in the theater. Much as the workers’ theater of the 1930’s and 1940’s and the popular theater (the products of the Mexican revolution in the 1910’s and Fray Mocho in Argentina in the 1950’s) had gone out in search of their audience, many of the young actors, directors, and writers in the 1960’s chose to place their craft at the service of the revolution.

Following the example of Fray Mocho and Augusto Boal in Brazil, and Enrique Buenaventura and Santiago García in Colombia, dozens of theater groups established themselves in strategic relationship to the communities that they wished to serve and to “conscientize” (educate...

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Latino Theater in North America

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Latino theater in the United States grew impressively during the last decades of the twentieth century, a result primarily of two factors: the immigration of large numbers of Cubans and Puerto Ricans to the New York area and the growth of community movements among the Chicano population. Many Cuban and Puerto Rican artists, actors, and writers moved to New York in the mid-1960’s and assumed an active role in the cultural life of the city, founding theater groups and workshops and boosting the activity of such pioneering groups as the Puerto Rican Travelling Theatre. It became possible to attend different Spanish-language theater performances every night of the week in New York, ranging from Spanish classics to Latin American...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Albuquerque, Severino J. Violent Acts: A Study of Contemporary Latin American Theatre. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1991. Provides an extremely useful, if disturbing, model for uniting twentieth century Latin American “Theatre of Revolt” across many countries and cultures by pointing out the recurring themes of riot, murder, assassination, and state-sponsored torture.

Allen, Richard F. Teatro hispanoamericano: Una bibliografia anotada (Spanish American Theatre: An Annotated Bibliography). Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. Allen’s guide is a good place to start when searching for materials on this subject. It...

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