Ruth S. Lamb (essay date 1954)
SOURCE: "Xavier Villaurrutia and The Modern Mexican Theatre," in Modern Language Forum, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2, December, 1954, pp. 108-14.
[In the following essay, Lamb offers a brief overview of Villaurrutia's career, with emphasis on his dramatic work.]
Xavier Villaurrutia appears in Mexican letters among the young men who formed the group known as "Contemporáneos," which soon became by its own efforts a literary generation.1 A poet above all, Xavier Villaurrutia has not failed to utilize the other disciplines of letters, and he has demonstrated his ability and his technical strength in the theatre and in critical writing.2
According to Villaurrutia himself the most important mission of the "Contemporáneos" group was to put Mexico in touch with the universal. "We tried to make known the contemporary manifestations of art, to open the way for a knowledge of foreign literatures .. . It can be said that the most important group of modern painters was formed with us. On the other hand, we are the only ones who have occupied ourselves seriously with the most authentic modern theatre and with its diffusion and expression in Mexico."3 He goes on to say, "Some time ago we made attempts to make it known in the theatrical groups of Ulysses and Orientation, and we have also been occupied with the study of theatricaltechnique in the centers where it is best understood."4
Without realizing the potential dramatist within him, Villaurrutia had an irresistible affection for the theatre, in which he found one of his most intimate intellectual pleasures. He is the first Mexican translator of Luigi Pirandello, André Gide, Jean Giraudoux, writers more atune to his character among the modern playwrights, whom he has followed with avid curiosity.5 Writing in 1933, Villaurrutia considered Elmer L. Rice and Eugene O'Neill the best North American dramatists.
They are not the only ones, but they are already dedicated (to the theatre). Their plays are given in Europe and they are included with the best among the moderns. They are masters of a style because they have obtained, each in his own way, the exact and imperceptible accommodation of his own inner vision to the scenes, pictures and acts, in which lucidly and conscientiously, their poetical intentions, their intuition, and their ideas are objectified.6
Speaking of the theatre in Mexico, Villaurrutia says, "No literary form should be accepted in Mexico with greater attention than the drama. The theatre is not our strong point, and never has been." But he continues,
To write plays in a country such as ours, whose theatre and whose public only occasionally support works of good quality—is like constructing a building for the public, in one's bedroom. A classic spirit cannot accept this. If he has no public, he must work to form it. And what else were the experimental theatres of Ulysses and Orientation, but efforts to create a public, a new curiosity?7
According to Villaurrutia the bad habits and outmoded customs of the Spanish theatrical tradition of the nineteenth century weigh upon the companies who habitually perform in the Mexican theatres. "Old age seems to be its necessary atmosphere, improvisation, its only method, lack of culture, its content. Old age, improvisation, and lack of culture work together to enclose the theatre in a dark and stuffy corner, in order to free it from the temptation that might return it to the health it has lost."8
Villaurrutia decries the lack of adequate theatre buildings and the lack of competent actors. "Too big or too uncomfortable, the legitimate theatres do not fit any of the needs of the show nor of the modern public."9 As for the actors, "Where are the actors, masters of a new or classical criterion toward their art that permits them to give more than superficial versions of the personage which they are playing?"10 He goes on to say that if it has any, the remedy for the theatre in Mexico is in creating a new atmosphere for it, in making it breathe a pure air, "untying it from a false tradition, renewing its human material, its useful materials, and creating young, living friendships to form its new public."11
Xavier Villaurrutia believes it would be wrong to take into account the state of the theatre in Mexico, and not extend it a hand that would perhaps help save it. He cites as an example the Ulysses experiment:
Take for instance that theatre of Ulysses, formed exclusively by artists or apprentices in which we were everything, actors, translators, directors, scenographers. The modern critics of the Mexican theatre speak of this as an exotic attempt. Discounting the irony which they wish to give to their definition they are right. The Ulysses experiment was exotic, because its triumphs came from outside: new works, a new sense of interpretation, and attempts at new staging, could not come from where they did not exist. A curious fear this, of foreign influence. Fear of losing a personality it did not have.12
When Villaurrutia and José Gorostiza were in the Department of Fine Arts of the Ministry of Education they organized an informal experiment called the "Theatre of Orientation." Based on the same ideas of universality and modernity as the Ulysses group, the plans were outlined, the repertoire decided upon and activities begun in 1932. Celestino Gorostiza undertook the directing of the players. "With great care he trained new actors, introduced new techniques. Hedirected ten plays in one year, always obtaining correct versions, and at times, definite successes.13
The repertoire of the "Theatre of Orientation" in 1932, chosen from the best classical and modern works, ranged from the Antigone of Sophocles, modernized by Jean Cocteau, to the recent play, Intimacy, of Jean Victor Pellerin. A short play of Cervantes, The Jealous Old Man, and a comedy of Shakespeare were among the classical works; Chekhov, Romains, O'Neill, Shaw, Synge, among the modern writers. Except for the work of Shakespeare, adapted by Jacinto Benavente, the rest were translated especially for these presentations by Xavier...
(The entire section is 2639 words.)