“Colombian Theatre in the Vortex: Seven Plays”

Colombian Theatre in the Vortex: Seven Plays. Ed. Judith A. Weiss. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2004. 217 pages.
Constanza López Baquero
The Graduate Center City University of New York
In the midst of political instability and social chaos, Colombian artists have developed a theatre that is not only an intellectual response to their history but also one that has had an influence on Latin American theatre in general. Colombian dramatists are committed to promoting the arts, as evidenced by the many national and international festivals celebrated in that country and also by the participation of Colombian theater companies in festivals abroad. This book presents seven of the most influential Colombian plays written between 1966 and 1997. The texts have been translated into English, each with introductory notes and bibliography.

In the introduction, “Death by History: Translating Text From the Edge of the Vortex,” Judith Weiss examines the plays in their historical and political context. First, she explains that the seven plays represent thirty years of “social and political disintegration” (11). She observes that although Colombia has been known as one of the “oldest democracies” in Latin America, it has not passed through the social processes needed for democracy to succeed. The middle and upper classes have customarily allied themselves in order to maintain their privileges, while the guerrillas excel at recruiting in the poor rural areas. Furthermore, drug war and violence by guerillas and counterinsurgents have caused innumerable deaths in the civilian population. In order to understand these and other realities, Colombian artists re-evaluate history and official discourse. In doing so, they often utilize documentaries, testimonies and historical events as their starting point.

The second part of the introduction deals with issues regarding translation and staging. Weiss examines the challenges of translating dialectal varieties and songs. She also considers problems relating to staging these works. Since the original plays were thought out for a Colombian audience, putting them on the stage for a North American public offers the challenge of what she calls “Sociocultural Transference.” This process entails presenting third world realities to an audience foreign to its complexities.

The introductory essay, “Colombian Theatre” by María Mercedes Jaramillo, further contextualizes the plays by placing them within the historical trajectory of Colombian theatre. She divides this history into two periods, “Early Theatre” and “The New Colombian Theatre.” “Early Theatre” comprises the theatrical expressions of the indigenous Muiscas, the peninsular-influenced drama of the Conquest and the costumbrista theatre from the late nineteenth Century and the beginning of the twentieth. Since that time, many historical events have indelibly marked the country and have influenced Colombian Theatre. Among these events, Jaramillo highlightsLa Violencia (1948-1955), post-WWII industrialization, the Theatre of the Absurd, existentialist philosophy and the Cuban Revolution. By 1960, “The New Colombian Theatre” was born with its commitment to reflecting the realities not only of the ruling elite but those of the wider Colombian public. Jaramillo’s essay also comments on the many theatre groups and schools dedicated to fomenting the arts both in urban and rural areas of the country. Additionally, she provides information about Colombian publications, criticism and festivals that celebrate theatre as both a literary and performing art.

The first two plays in the collection, both from 1966, depict two chapters in the history of Colombia and its complex relationship with the United States. Soldiers[Soldados] is based on an episode that has become well known for its presence in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude — the “Bananera Strike.” In the drama, two soldiers have been ordered to keep the strikers at bay. Through their voices, we hear the official and unofficial discourse of a political system that has sold itself to the economical benefits of the North, represented by the United Fruit Company. These soldiers are portrayed as victims, just like the citizens who they are ordered to contain.

Old Baldy [El monte calvo] is based on the testimonies of Korean War Veterans. Weiss explains that between 1951 and 1954 four Colombian battalions served in Korea. Old Baldy was the name of a hill which the third Colombian battalion defended against the Chinese army. In the play, Sebastian, the veteran-beggar, gives voice to those soldiers who came back not only physically, but also morally destroyed. Whistler, the ex-clown, now beggar, challenges the motives for sending the Colombian army to Korea, and Colonel, the crazy veteran, embodies the official discourse. All of these characters, as in the previous play, are victims. In this case, they have been abandoned by a society which would rather forget them.

The next two plays, from the decade of the eighties, portray the violence of drug and gun trafficking. Lucky Strike [Golpe de suerte] describes the rise and inevitable fall of a man who, in the attempt to become a powerful drug lord, becomes the puppet of the bigger and more powerful. Palomino, the main character, succumbs to corruption, and once inside the business, loses control over his life and destiny. His efforts to escape fail, and he finds no opportunity for redemption. In her introduction, Weiss points out the many influences of this play, such as the auto sacramental, Brecht, and popular melodrama and soap opera.

Roadhouse [El paso] depicts a rural society, which has been subjugated and practically destroyed by violence and corruption. The action takes place in a tavern far from the city where a group of people, each representing, as Weiss has observed, “a different sector of Colombian society” (124), is stranded by the inclement weather. As they wait for the rain to stop, two strangers come in carrying boxes of guns and imposing their presence on everyone. Weiss describes bothLucky Strike and Roadhouse as “satirical testimonies of a society in crisis” (122).

Pilot Project [Proyecto piloto], the fifth of the collection, is a satirical allegory, or, as María Mercedes Jaramillo explains it, “a moral metaphor of spiritual degradation” (146). The characters are members of a club whose mission is to kill rats. The rats are human beings that, overcome by corruption and greed, have metamorphosed in a process called “ratefaction”. The message of the play is brutal — human beings are rats who will, eventually, multiply and take over. Weiss mentions that some readers might see a clear reference to “members of Colombian society who in the 1980s and 1990s formed death squads with the sole purpose of cleansing their environment of what they perceived to be subhuman and disruptive elements” (145).

Femina Ludens is the drama of five women who struggle in a society that has been traditionally dominated by men. Their voices denounce the cultural factors that have always kept them in an inferior position. The patriarchal ideology of Colombian society reveals itself through these women’s relationships, their interactions with men (although the men’s voices are never heard), and media and popular music such as rancheras and bolero. This play deconstructs, interrogates and recreates the role that society has imposed on women in order to expose a system that has traditionally undermined them.

The last of the plays, The Orgy [La orgía] uses corruption in the most inferior classes as a metaphor for the moral state of Colombian society at large. The main character, an old woman, wants to recreate her past. In order to do so, she creates a club in which four beggars come to her home to role-play her past. They are motivated by the fact that at the end of the ritual, the woman offers them dinner. But when the woman refuses to share the meal with them, the dwarf, who in the game portrays a Bishop, kills her. The old woman is not depicted as a victim in the play. Rather, she shows society at its worst. She obliges her mute son to be a beggar and then steals his money in order to stage her “orgy.” The introduction to the play asserts the drama’s many intertextualities, such as the work of Jean Genêt, elements from the Baroque period — in particular “the grotesque and nightmarish characters” (199) — and also the echoes of the most satirical works of artist Fernando Botero.

This book recognizes Colombian theatre not only as part of a Latin American literary and performing art but also as a separate entity that has acquired its own individuality. By translating these works, Judith Weiss has highlighted its emerging importance. The collection can be utilized in the classroom as an important tool for Comparative Literature and also can help theater students to understand the complexities of putting such works on stage. The plays presented in this book are not only well selected and translated but also have acquired universality because they depict society struggling in the middle of chaos, decadence and hopelessness. 

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