Puerto Rican writer of the Generation of the Thirties, Manuel Méndez Ballester, is considered one of the principal Puerto Rican playwrights of the 20th century; he is one of the few who have successfully cultivated the genre of theater of satire. This inclination toward irony and refined mockery also manifested itself in his frequent newspaper columns, where his good sense of humor was given free rein.He was born in Aguadilla in the northwest corner of Puerto Rico. His great-grandfather was Aurelio Méndez Martínez, Minister of the Government of the Republic that was declared in the town of Lares after the Revolution of 1868. Perhaps it ran in the family, for Méndez Ballester also entered politics and served as a legislator. His family struggled financially, which affected his formal education all his life. Like many Puerto Ricans at the turn of the 20th century, he was self-taught.
As an adolescent he emigrated to the U.S. and went to high school in New York. Upon his return to Puerto Rico he worked at various jobs, including a stint in the offices of the Coloso sugar mill. This experience prepared him for what would become an important theme in his work: Puerto Rico’s land and the sugar companies that exploit it.
He attempted to study law at the University of Puerto Rico but was prevented by the tight economy of the Great Depression. He moved to San Juan and devoted himself to acting and to directing radio programs at the Escuela del Aire [School of the Airwaves] of the Department of Public Instruction (now Department of Education). In 1935 he returned to the university to take a course to prepare teachers who would teach laborers—a program sponsored by the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA), part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Along with Francisco Manrique Cabrera and Fernando Sierra Berdecía, he organized a traveling theater that went all over the island on a cultural mission to the sugarcane workers; Méndez Ballester distinguished himself as an actor in the plays they presented. He studied the chronicles of the conquest and colonization of Puerto Rico in order to write his first work, which was a historical novel: Isla Cerrera, published in 1937. Writer Concha Meléndez calls it “the only historical novel of value about our colonial beginnings.”
His first dramatic work was El clamor de los surcos, first performed at the Ateneo Puertorriqueño in 1938, having won the Ateneo’s first prize. This play was followed by his best-known and most frequently performed work, the tragedy Tiempo Muerto, honored by the Institute of Puerto Rican Literature and first performed at the theater of the University of Puerto Rico in 1940.
In 1943 he organized the Sociedad General de Actores and with that society presented two plays, Hilarión and Nuestros días, which were not as successful as their predecessors. Perhaps for that reason he ventured into the genre of popular humor, with the zarzuela libretto El Misterio del Castillo (1946) and, in 1952, a sainete (Un fantasma decentito) and a comedy (Es de vidrio la mujer). That same year he published a play on the subject of the Boricua (Puerto Rican) emigration to New York, Encrucijada, and a comedy of symbols in response to Becket’s Waiting for Godot, entitled El milagro. He returned to the theater of realism and social criticism with the satirical comedies Bienvenido Don Goyito (1965) and Arriba las mujeres (1968). In 1970 he presented a drama with a historical theme, Invasión, and another with a social theme, Jugando al divorcio; in 1975 he returned to satirical comedy with Los cocorocos.
In 1994 he received the Humanist of the Year award from the Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades. Don Manuel died in San Juan, the city where he had lived most of his life, in 2002.
Author: Dra. Ivonne Acosta
Published: September 03, 2014.
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