Some (More) Thoughts On Spanish and Theatre

I just came back from a trip to Argentina, my first there in three years, where again I had to depend upon the linguistic lifesaver of mi compañera, Maria Beatriz, to make it safely through the swells and tides of the engulfing Spanish.  

After my last trip three years ago I wrote an essay titled "Some Thoughts on Spanish and Theatre," where I mused upon what not being conversant in a language does to an artist who bases his whole reason for being on creating language-based "things" called scripts.   

But that was after spending time in the urban theatre of Buenos Aires, a theatre scene not unlike what we find here in New York, though with differences.  Nothing here like Teatro Colón, inaugurated in 1857 with a performance of La Traviata, and built by Carlos E. Pellegrini, father of a future president of the Republic. Teatro Colón functions, more or less, as a state theatre, that is, an artistic site shadowed by the political trends of the day.  (On our visit there, Maria Beatriz and I skipped away from the official tour to sit in the box that had been reserved for the generals during El Proceso, the "dirty war."  People, I presumed, paid what homage they had to pay to whomever sat there as they all listened to the higher art of the opera on the stage.)

But outside that, the theatre scenes are similar: something like the "commercial row" of Broadway on Avenida Corrientes as well as mid-range theatres like Teatro Maipo and many smaller theatres with everything from political cabaret to children's theatre.

This time, however, we were traveling northwest, into the provinces of Salta and Jujuy (and their respective provincial capitals of the same names), into land as brawny and beautiful as any to be found anywhere, and into the poorest areas of a country feeling particularly impoverished at the moment (as evidenced by the phenomenon of the "piqueteros," organized demonstrations, often violent, against the government by the dispossessed).   

What we found was a theatre scene very much of the place and time in which we traveled, if by "theatre" we can mean any kind of enacted storytelling, using whatever means at hand for the performance. Salta and Jujuy are among two of the areas settled first by the Spanish, who traveled out of Peru and Bolivia into Argentina.  Buenos Aires did not become prominent until much, much later (and after a great deal of bloodshed).  They are also among areas that formed part of the Incan empire (which one would swear still exists after looking into the weathered faces of local inhabitants).  Thus, we traveled into a very syncretic area, where, to give one example, the earth-goddess Pachamama and the Virgin Mary co-exist without friction.

One form of storytelling is the peña, an evening (usually long, punctuated with much wine, empanadas, and clapping) of songs done in a particularly suave assemblage of voices (usually four, often five) backed by a couple of guitars, a drum, and pipes.  We saw a couple of these in Salta, and always it was an evening in which visitors, locals, performers, the wait staff, dancers (two couples, employed to dance upstairs and downstairs, often doing the chacarara) all blended into a self-generated performance. No fourth walls, no voyeuristic etiquette -- everyone invited, no one left out.

North of Salta, as we moved into land and villages progressively smaller and more remote, we came across other kinds of theatre, based on the fused religions in the area, where "pagan" nature worship collaborated with Catholic theology in festivals celebrating essential simplicities: fertility, comradeship, cosmic cousinhood.  Again, no fourth walls here, no "civilized gaze" privileged to sit at an aesthetic distance.  Here, on what often feels like the edge of the known universe (the distances are immense, time ignores any upstart clocks), what we regard as the insulated benefits of civilization melt away, and something like what the humans here felt ten or twenty or thirty thousand years ago we feel now.  It's very powerful, quite frightening, and utterly refreshing.

And now, back "home," back to the struggle to find my way as a dramatic writer, to find "success," I have all of these images and feelings swirling inside me as I sit and try to craft my way through a scene, to anticipate how an audience might react, am I keeping the dramatic action flowing, is it timed right to capture but not exhaust an audience's attention.  And I can't help but hunger a little for those other ways of storytelling that seemed, well, more sensual -- not sexual sensual but the "sense-is-full" sensual, that gets us out of our heads and back into our 3D beings, that leads us from the academic abstract and the chattering ego back to the fullness of silence and awe that we owned as babies.  If I could create theatre here in New York that did what sitting on the edge of the long-dead still-living Incan empire did….  Hmm….

©2004 Michael Bettencourt

For more commentary and articles by Michael Bettencourt, check the Archives.


Michael Bettencourt has had his plays
produced in New York, Chicago,
Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz



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