Out of the Wings

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Spanish American Theatre

It is, perhaps, unavoidable to start off with the statement that there is no such thing as 'Spanish American theatre'. This shorthand for the theatre that is written in Spanish in the countries of Latin America masks the great complexities that face us in this enterprise. For a long time regarded as 'the Cinderella of the arts' in Latin American literature, theatre has begun to receive a great deal of critical attention over the last twenty years or so, and there has been an improvement in mobility across national borders through, for example, international festivals, personal invitations to dramatists to work outside their country of origin and translation. Yet, it is still the case that the vast majority of Spanish American theatre production remains invisible beyond the site of production and that very little is ever revived in the original language, let alone translated.

The question of definition lies at the heart of this issue, although our aim here is not to define; it is to make accessible. The process towards understanding this key issue, however, leads us to questions that help us to identify the reasons why Spanish American theatre has not made the international leap and, in this way, to be part of creating the environment in which this leap can be made. So, which 'theatre' are we talking about? These questions take on especial significance in Latin America because they denote the traditions from which the theatre might have emerged.

'Proscenium arch theatre' – one tradition – refers to theatre that comes from the European forms of theatre. It is largely defined by theatre that was written and performed in the post-colonial period in the emerging nation states of Spanish America. A theatre that would be performed in the new national theatres written by the new Latin Americans dealing with relevant themes yet still announcing their status through their obvious European heritage. It is this theatre that would be the basis, for example, for the plays of the romantic enlightenment, the costumbrist plays of the late nineteenth century, the ever-popular sainete that would be the basis of important forms like the grotesco criollo and the teatro de bolsillo, and then for the later well-made plays of the early twentieth century and for the generation of writers that would begin to emerge in the mid twentieth century. It is to this theatre tradition that we most often look for plays to translate and it is in this area that the most damaging label of 'sub-European' or mere sub-standard copies of European forms is applied. It is our intention to interrogate this misperception and to offer theatrical – not literary – ways of reading these plays to allow them to be addressed as texts available for performance.

Yet, it is the very word 'performance' that underscores many of the problems in seeking to translate this theatre. An important area of debate is the impossibility of translating the term into Spanish and the impact this has on the study of Latin American theatre forms. For, in order to apprehend the force, dynamism and sheer variety of theatre in Latin America, we must take into account all forms of performance; it is in this way that we will begin to honour the indigenous – in the broad sense of the word – traditions that inform it as well as the ways in which these have been absorbed, usurped, and latterly turned into the forms of hybridism that are so central to what we may understand, from a European point of view, as being quintessentially 'Latin American'. The words montaje or puesta en escena are two of the more common translations for performance, but they are limited, and entry into the debates by practitioners on the nature of their practice is fundamental to understanding how theatre is conceived in different ways in Spanish America.

In the seventeenth century Mexico, for example, would feel the impact of the touring companies from Spain and the performance of the plays of the masters of the Spanish Golden Age, with chamber performances in the Vice-Regal court. At the other end of the social scale, charitable institutions such as hospitals in New Spain benefitted from the creation of corrales. While most of the plays were imported from Spain, there were notable exceptions, amongst them Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Juan Ruiz de Alarcón. Yet, perhaps the more interesting story here lies with the nature of the performance in the corrales, which studies suggest differed in key ways from Spanish experiences.

Again, we return to the core of the question: there is so much that remains invisible. The investigation will lead us into areas where we might question assumptions about performance and translation, and use this questioning to interrogate our own practices and understanding. So, where would the two greatest examples of indigenous performance stand in relation to the traditions and forms of performance that many contemporary theatre practitioners will call upon in order to honour the hybridity of their experience?

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