Thursday, April 27, 2023

Postmodernism in Latin America

Postmodernism has had a lasting effect on the theatre of Latin America, particularly on the plays of Ricardo Monti.

While still in his twenties, the Argentinean dramatist penned his play An Evening with Mr. Magnus and Sons, which premiered in 1970. Most political theatre in Argentina at the time used Realism to draw attention to contemporary problems, but Monti's play was different. Its open theatricality pointed to a new way of performing political plays, and at the same time its ambivalent portrayal of revolutionary change marked a clear departure from simplistic propaganda plays. The audience is invited to loath the tyrannical Mr. Magnus of the title, but at the same time, his penchant for acting out melodramatic scenes prevents audiences from taking him entirely seriously.

The year after the premiere of An Evening with Mr. Magnus and Sons, Monti premiered a new play titled: A Biased History of the Argentinean Middle Class: About the Strange Events in Which Certain Public Figures Found Themselves Involved, the Complete Elucidation of These Events, and Other Scandalous Revelations. The play is filled with topical references to Argentinean politics, and Monti has asked that it not be translated out of Spanish because it is "too Argentine" for people in other countries to understand. The play is noteworthy, however, in that it was the first time Monti worked with the director Jaime Kogan. The two would go on to have numerous successful collaborations in the future, including on Monti's 1977 play Visit, and his 1980 drama Marathon. The latter play recapped the past 400 years or so of Argentine history in a dance marathon during the 1930s.

In 1989, Monti himself directed the premiere of a breakthrough new piece called A South American Passion Play. The piece deals with passion in more than one sense of the word. In it, a group of buffoons enact the story of a young woman who fell in love with a priest and tried to run away with him. The story is based on actual events in the nineteenth century that became familiar to Argentineans through versions of the romance that appeared in multiple media, including, plays, films, novels, and poems. The buffoons are performing for a Brigadier who, as people who have heard the story know, will have the two lovers executed. The piece, which is subtitled "A Mystery Cycle in One Act," resembles a medieval passion play telling the story of the death of Christ.

A South American Passion Play picks up on the myth-making of Marathon, using South America's past, both real and imagined, to talk about the present. The same is true of Monti's 1992 play Asunción, which is a sparse and focused one-act drama requiring only three performers, only one of whom speaks at length. Monti reworked many of its themes in a much longer and more sprawling play called The Obscurity of Reason, which premiered the following year, directed by Kogan. This reworking of the Orestes myth presents a contrast between Old World Enlightenment ideals of rationality and a native-born drive for righteous revenge on the old order. The Electra figure, Alma, whose name means soul, remains committed to darkness at the end of the play, even as the stage is being flooded with light.

One contemporary dramatist in Argentina who carries on Monti's tradition of creative and thought-provoking political drama is Lola Arias. In her play My Life After, Arias introduced characters based on the original actors in the drama, who tried to piece together what their parents' lives might have been like while living under a military dictatorship. Arias later constructed a similar play called The Year I Was Born using Chilean actors to explore issues related to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in that country. The Pinochet dictatorship was also the topic of reflection in Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden and Guillermo Calderón's drama Villa. In each case, closure is deliberately avoided, and the audience is invited to reflect on the possibility that certain things are fundamentally unknowable, a concern of many postmodern dramas.

In Brazil, the most important postmodern theatre artist was not a writer, but the director Augusto Boal. Deeply political, Boal founded a movement known as Theatre of the Oppressed, which sought to turn audiences from spectators into "spect-actors" who participated in the work they were watching. Boal invited audiences to rewrite the endings of plays and see them acted out in different ways to give the audience a sense of agency and empowerment. He also organized plays he called "invisible theatre" which took place in public spaces where onlookers did not know a play was being performed. It was sometimes not until the ends of these performances that audience members realized they were watching a play and not a real-life situation that was unfolding in front of them.

For political reasons, Boal had to flee Brazil for a while, and as he traveled throughout the Americas, his Theatre of the Oppressed spread to other countries, including the United States. Theatre in the 21st century has become increasingly global, with local movements inevitably having effects throughout the world. In the postmodern era, national bounderies no longer have the impact they used to possess. Theatre has always been able to teach people radical ways of experiencing empathy, imagining the situations of those quite unlike ourselves, even the situations of our enemies. As technology makes the world ever smaller, this aspect of theatre becomes ever more prominent.