In the performing arts, it is the human actor or artist, performing before a live audience, who serves as the main instrument or means of expression. The performing arts include theater, pantomime, recital, and dance. Opera, zarzuela, and other forms of musical theater are also considered part of the performing arts. Of these genres, theater has experienced the greatest evolution in Puerto Rico. Throughout the course of our history, it has provided a living expression of who we are as a people.

The earliest examples of theater in Puerto Rico date from pre-Columbian times. The areyto was a Taino ceremony that drew on some of the key elements of theatrical performance: actor and audience, costume, make-up, dance, poetry, and music. Although the areyto was performed until about 1560, it eventually disappeared with the extermination of the island’s indigenous population.

European Theater Comes to the Island

The conquering Spaniards brought a new culture and worldview to the shores of Puerto Rico, which were quickly absorbed after the demise of the Taino. The first theatrical performances in Puerto Rico following the arrival of the Spaniards were staged in the 17th century. Archival documentation indicates the presentation of Spanish comedies alongside sacramental rites and processions during the celebration of Corpus Christi, and other Catholic observances. From this period, only a few letters and documents written by the bishops refer to dances, comedies, and masques, which were intermingled with the liturgical rites, and quite often censored by the clergy. Churches served as the only permanent meeting places during this time. When theatrical plots or themes were deemed inappropriate by the Church, outdoor stages, a concept imported from Spain, began to be used for performances.

During the 18th century, the practice of presenting sacramental rites and profane theatrical works continued, both inside and outside the confines of the church. The clergy and regular citizens served as actors. Female characters were played by boys until the mid-18th century, when the practice of using prostitutes or female slaves as actresses was adopted.

In 1746, various festivities were arranged in Puerto Rico to commemorate the death of King Philip V and the succession of his son, Ferdinand VI. Due to the island’s considerable poverty, and an epidemic outbreak that lasted until April of the following year, these celebrations were delayed until May 1747. Four comedies were presented as part of the commemoration.

By this time, the custom of the guild “play-maker,” who would write one-act farces to be performed extemporaneouslyhad evolved . One such author was Lorenzo de Angulo, who, according to the Spanish historian Angel López Cantos, was Puerto Rico’s first actor and dramatist.

Angulo’s texts, which were inspired by the political and social realities of the island, were never published, since printing had yet to come to Puerto Rico. Based on the information provided by contemporary chroniclers, we do know that by 1747 Angulo was already improvising performances and staging farces on the streets of San Juan.

In 1789, in honor of the coronation of King Charles IV, four comedies were presented in San Juan. The performances were paid for by the Regiment of Naples, as well as by students, guild members, and the director general of admissions of the Royal Hospital in San Juan. There is no record of which comedies were performed.

Script of Inocente y Culpable, a theatre play by Manuel María Sama (1877)

Script of Inocente y Culpable, a theatre play by Manuel María Sama (1877) (Courtesy Archivo Nacional de Teatro y Cine del Ateneo Puertorriqueño)

Interest in the theater continued despite censorship imposed by the Spanish Crown and the financial limitations of the majority of Puerto Ricans. During the 19th century both impromptu and permanent theaters were constructed at various locations throughout the island. In 1811, Governor and Captain General Salvador Meléndez y Bruna allowed a provisional theater to be established, with the approval of City Hall, so that 20 performances could be staged by a visiting stock company. The site chosen was a narrow courtyard, located on Calle Sol, between Calle Cristo and San José, in Old San Juan. This location would later be referred to as El Corralón. These plays were organized to benefit San Juan’s charity hospital. However Bishop Juan Alejo de Arizmendi, who opposed the company’s performances, and sent pastoral letters denouncing the entertainment to King Ferdinand VII, refused to provide a donation. Despite Arizmendi’s vocal opposition, the benefit performances were staged.

In 1822, construction began on the Los Amigos del País theater, at the former military hospital in the Ballajá quarter of Old San Juan. Two years later, a stage was erected in San Juan’s Plaza de la Constitución (now the Plaza de Armas) for concerts and plays, to commemorate the anniversary of the signing of Spain’s liberal constitution.

Under the administration of Governor Miguel de la Torre, work began in San Juan on Puerto Rico’s first permanent theater. It was officially inaugurated in 1832 with a concert by a touring English tenor. In 1836, this venue, which was officially deeded to the city of San Juan, opened as the Municipal Theater. It functions to this day, and was given the name of the Tapia Theater in 1937, to honor Puerto Rican playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera.

In 1864, La Perla Theater opened in Ponce with the drama La Campana de la Almudaina by Spanish playwright Juan Palou y Coll. This venue, and the Municipal Theater in San Juan, served as Puerto Rico’s main centers for dramatic performance in the mid-19th century. La Perla was destroyed by an earthquake in 1918. In 1940, reconstruction commenced, following the site’s original plans, and in 1941, La Perla once again opened its doors to the public.

Theater Producers

In the 19th century, theaters were owned by Puerto Rico’s municipalities, which leased the space to impresarios so that they could bring in companies from Europe. During the first half of the century, the island had its own amateur and semiprofessional troupes, in addition to acting companies affiliated with educational and recreational institutions, and with the casinos. One of century’s most important cultural groups involved in producing theatrical works was The Philharmonic, which was founded in 1846 by Alejandro Tapia y Rivera. Around this time, the Spanish Theater Conservatory Society was formed, with the support of Governor Juan de la Pezuela. Records from the National Theater and Cinema Archive of the Puerto Rico Atheneum show that each of the 71 towns existing on the island in the 19th century had at least three performing groups, in the case of the smaller municipalities, and at least seven for the larger municipalities. Puerto Rican amateurs often performed alongside some of the main stars of the foreign companies touring the island. In addition to the long list of comedies, shadow plays, pantomimes, farces, and the occasional drama, in 1835, Puerto Rico staged its first opera, The Barber of Seville. In 1848, the Lehmann mime company, which was made up of three women and ten men, brought several pantomime and dance programs to Puerto Rico, some of which were also farcical.

The 19th century also brought the establishment of La Maroma Theater and the first Puerto Rican touring companies. While most of the local stage performers during this century were amateurs, two professional actors emerged to gain major recognition: Eugenio Astol, who went on to found several theater companies, and Agustina Rodríguez, whose repertory included more than 100 theatrical works.

El heroismo del trabajo 1859

El heroismo del trabajo 1859: Theater play by Alejandro Tapia y Rivera. (Courtesy of Puerto Rican Atheneum)

Education during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was almost entirely in the hands of the Franciscan and Dominican clergy, and few had access to schooling. Cultivation of the arts and humanities in Puerto Rico was therefore almost nonexistent. Commercial isolation, political and religious censorship, and a paucity of books and newspapers all contributed to the sluggish development of literary creation. It was not until 1806 that the printing press arrived on the island.

Puerto Rico’s first playwriting milestone was achieved by 18-year-old Celedonio Luis Nebot, whose tragedy Mucén, o el Triunfo del Patriotismo (Mucén, or the Triumph of Patriotism) was published by the government printing house in 1833. According to Roberto Ramos Perea, in addition to being the island’s first theatrical work, Mucén was also the first to receive any attention from the press. The second literary work to be produced on the island, also for theater, was penned by the young San Juan playwright José Simón Romero Navarro. This work was entitled La arrogante Gullerón, Reina de Naugán, Tragedia china en cinco actos, and it was published by the government printing house in 1834. The newspaper La Gaceta noted in its March 4, 1848 edition that Romero Navarro was also the author of several other plays, including Sampiero Batistélica and El Astrónomo (The Astronomer), as Emilio J. Pasarell informs in his seminal work Orígenes y Desarrollo de la Afición Teatral en Puerto Rico (Origins and Development of the Theater in Puerto Rico). Unfortunately, these plays have been lost, and we only have Romero Navarro’s poetry and essays.

La Juega de Gallos o el Negro Bozal by Ramón Caballero (published in 1852) is the first known work dealing specifically with Puerto Rican themes to be written in Puerto Rico. Foreign authors had been writing about the country since the 18th century. Somewhat later examples of such authors include Pedro Tomás de Córdova, whose drama El Triunfo del Trono o la Lealtad Puertorriqueña, was published in San Juan in 1824, and Santiago Cándamo, the Spanish author and actor of farces, who performed and wrote in San Juan in the mid-1820s.

Puerto Rican opera began to emerge at the beginning of the 1850s, with the premiere of Guarionex by Puerto Rican musician Felipe Gutiérrez. The plot is based on the novel La Palma del Cacique (The Palm of the Chief) by Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, and it was the first opera composed by a Puerto Rican to reach the stage.

Spanish zarzuelas were performed in Puerto Rico for the first time in 1857. The first production, El Duende, was staged by the Mures y Gallegos Theater Company. From this point onward, various zarzuela companies came to Puerto Rico to tour the island.

The first Puerto Rican playwright to achieve recognition was Carmen Hernández Araujo (1824-1877). She was the author of Hacer bien al enemigo es imponerle el mejor castigo, which was published in 1863. In 1846, she wrote Los deudos rivales, which was not published until 1866, when her comedyAmor ideal (Ideal Love) was also released in print. Her works were never performed.

1856 brought the premiere of Alejandro Tapia y Rivera’s dramatic essay Roberto d’Evreux. Tapia’sBernardo de Palissy o el heroísmo del trabajo, was staged in 1857, and La Cuarterona, in 1867. Tapia was also Puerto Rico’s first dramatic theorist. His work Conferencias sobre estética y literatura: pronunciadas en el Ateneo Puertorriqueño (Lectures on Aesthetics and Literature Presented at the Puerto Rico Atheneum), published in 1881, deals with the nature of beauty and examines the basic principles of art, providing fundamental criteria for the various literary genres, including drama. Tapia was also one of Puerto Rico’s first theater critics.

Another important playwright, María Bibiana Benítez, published her historical drama, La cruz del Morro (The Cross of El Morro), in 1862. This work was inspired by the defense of San Juan against the Dutch naval assault of 1625. It was performed in 1897 to commemorate the centennial of the English attack on the city.

Other Puerto Rican writers of the late 19th century also explored the genre of drama, including Salvador Brau, author of the comedy De la superficie al fondo, and the dramas Héroe y Mártir, La vuelta al hogar, and Los horrores del triunfo. Ramón Méndez Quiñones provided masterful treatments of the daily life, folklore and customs of Puerto Rico’s rural poor (the jíbaro) in a style referred to as in costumbrismo jíbaro. His works include Un jíbaro, Los jíbaros progresistas, Una jíbara and La triquina. Interest in the plight of Puerto Ricans of African descent served as inspiration for Eleuterio Derkes, author of the drama Ernesto Lefevre and its sequel La nieta del proscripto, and the comedies Tío Feleand Don Nuño Tiburcio de Pereira. Nearly a dozen other authors were also writing for the theater during this time. One of them, Manuel Alonso Pizarro, spawned the island’s anarchist theater movement in the 1890s. He established himself as a pioneer of workers’ or artisans’ theater with such plays as Me saqué la lotería, Cosas del día, Jugar con dos barajas and El hijo de la verdulera.

The Puerto Rico Atheneum was founded in 1876, and served as a pivotal force behind the development of the theater in Puerto Rico. The institution has remained active ever since in the defense and promotion of Puerto Rican culture. The Atheneum has sponsored numerous theater festivals, playwriting competitions, as well as lectures, conferences and workshops for actors and writers.

Commemorative poster in honor of Manuel Méndez Ballester, 1994 Humanist of the Year

Commemorative poster in honor of Manuel Méndez Ballester, 1994 Humanist of the Year: Puerto Rican writer, essayist and journalist. (Courtesy Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades)

The first decades of the 20th century were marked by the appearance of various theater companies on the island, most of them short-lived. These companies mainly produced operatic works, comedies or children’s plays.

Theaters also became associated with the labor movement, forming in working-class training and educational centers, and in casinos in some of the towns across the island, such as San Sebastián, Mayagüez and Cabo Rojo. Some of the important writers involved in workers’ theater include Ramón Romero Rosa, José Limón de Arce and Luisa Capetillo, among others. These playwrights used theater as a tool for educating workers to defend themselves against exploitation at the sugar refineries. In contrast, the theatrical pieces produced for high society dealt largely with nostalgic reminiscences of Spain.

By the 1920s, some playwrights began dealing more directly with the real issues and concerns of the Puerto Rican people. Important writers such as Luis Lloréns Torres (author of El Grito de Lares), Juan B. Huyke (La agonía antillana), and Nemesio Canales, (El héroe galopante), emerged during this decade. Juan Nadal Santacoloma became the main impresario and promoter for Puerto Rico’s national theater during the first decades of the 20th century.
The 1930s The 1930s were marked by economic, social and political turmoil. This was also a period of affirmation for Puerto Rican national identity in the face of domination by American culture. A newgeneration of writers emerged who, bound by an overriding sense of social and political responsibility, seemed eager to take more daring approaches given the critical nature of the times. Manuel Méndez Ballester, Emilio S. Belaval and Fernando Sierra Berdecía were among some of the more important figures of the decade.

In 1938, the Puerto Rico Atheneum took the initiative of holding a Theater Competition so that playwrights could submit works dealing with Puerto Rican nationality and the social problems plaguing the country at the time. Prizes were awarded to Esta noche juega el Joker by Fernando Sierra Berdecía, El clamor de los surcos by Manuel Méndez Ballester and El desmonte de Gonzalo Arocho del Toro.

Five important theater groups were founded during the 1930s. One of these, The Little Theatre, was created by Americans residing on the island, as well as some Puerto Ricans, with the specific aim of staging English-language productions. The move might have seemed odd, given the nationalistic fervor of the time. The Little Theatre later became the Civic Theatre, which is still in operation today. The Club Artístico del Casino de Puerto Rico, directed by Emilio S. Belaval, was another important theater group established during the decade. In 1936, Hernán Nigaglioni and Leopoldo Santiago Lavandero founded the Farándula Universitaria. When this company dissolved, Guillermo Bauzá, José Luis Torregrosa, Ramón Ortiz del Rivero (Diplo), and other renowned artists formed the Farándula Bohemia. These companies began with amateur actors and writers, many of whom achieved fame on the Puerto Rican stage. They performed more than 30 works, all dealing with some of the more crucial social and political issues facing Puerto Rico at the time. The Tinglado Puertorriqueño and Areyto companies emerged at the end of the decade, and continued their work into the 1940s. These groups were founded with the mission of “creating a true Puerto Rican theater, where everything is our own,” citing another important playwright of the time, Emilio S. Belaval. The 1940s and 1950s Various events contributed to the continued vitality of the theater, providing it with even more impetus during the 1940s. The Areyto Company opened the decade with the premiere of what would become a Puerto Rican classic, Tiempo muerto, by Manuel Méndez Ballester, and Luis Rechani Agrait’s Mi Señoría. 1941 saw the inauguration of the University Theater, under the direction of Leopoldo Santiago Lavandero. In 1946, the University Traveling Theater was born, and in 1949, the Children’s Theater, which would later be called the Comedieta Universitaria. These were the beginnings of the drama department at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus. Since 1941, the department has served as one of the main institutional entities in Puerto Rico to provide an academic and artistic education in the dramatic arts. Carlos Marichal and Rafael Cruz Emeric began their prolific careers as set designers. Nilda González and Victoria Espinoza established names for themselves as directors. A few years later, Dean Zayas would emerge as one of the most important and prolific directors the island has seen.

The 1950s brought two important playwrights, Francisco Arriví and René Marqués. Arriví, the author ofVejigantes, became a driving force behind dramatic production on the island, serving as director of the Office for Theatrical Development of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. Meanwhile Marqués, an exponent of the Puerto Rican independence movement, used the stage to express his own political and social concerns in such topical works as La carreta (The Oxcart), Los soles truncos and Un niño azul para esa sombra (A Blue Boy for a Shadow).

René Marqués went on to found the Experimental Theater at the Puerto Rico Atheneum in 1952, which provided a different kind of performing space for showcasing new works. In 1958, the Puerto Rican Theater Festival was launched by the Institute of Culture. These events further promoted theater production and playwriting by Puerto Rican artists.

La hiel nuestra de cada día by Luis Rafael Sánchez, performed by Bohío Puertorriqueño, 1984

La hiel nuestra de cada día by Luis Rafael Sánchez, performed by Bohío Puertorriqueño, 1984: The actors in the scene are Ernesto Concepción and Gilda Orlandi. (Courtesy Gilda Orlandi)

The 1960s witnessed the rise of two major figures who are still active on the play writing scene, Myrna Casas and Luis Rafael Sánchez. Cristal roto en el tiempo, Absurdos en soledad, Eugenia Victoria Herrera, Al garete, No todas lo tienen, Este país no existe, Voces, Qué sospecha tengo, El gran circo eucraniano, and the opera libretto for El mensajero de plata, are some of the works penned by Casas, who has become the most prominent writer in Puerto Rican theater. Luis Rafael Sánchez has brought us Sol 13 interior, O casi el alma, La pasión según Antígona Pérez, Los ángeles se han fatigado, Farsa del amor compradito, La espera, La hiel nuestra de cada día and Quíntuples. Another important writer of this generation is Gerard Paul Marín, the author of El final de la calle and En el principio la noche era serena, among other works.

The late 1950s and early 1960s brought many new home-grown theater companies to Puerto Rico, including La Máscara, El Cemí, Alta Escena, Theatrón, El Coquí, Arlequín, Poesía Coreada de Puerto Rico, and El Tajo del Alacrán. Producciones Cisne and Teatro del Sesenta have continued to produce works for more than forty years. In the 1960s, theater-cafés such as La Tierruca and La Tea provided Old San Juan with a space for presenting numerous experimental works and poetry recitals. Abelardo Ceide gained prominence staging and directing his own works in these intimate venues. Lydia Milagros González wrote various plays for “El Tajo del Alacrán”. The 1970s New companies continued to arrive on the scene in the 1970s, such as Producciones Candilejas, Bohío Puertorriqueño, Epidaurus and Títeres de Borikén. The decade also saw the creation of various theater collectives, where actors, directors, writers and designers all participated in producing scripts. These collectives include Teatro Pobre de América, Nuestro Teatro, El Gran Quince, Yagüeke, Anamú, Moriviví, Taller Bondo, La Rueda Roja, Yensa, Tambor and El Colectivo Nacional de Teatro (The National Theater Collective). Teatro del Sesenta collectively produced La verdadera historia de Pedro Navaja during this time. The collective environment also helped to launch many individual talents, such as Samuel Molina, Jacobo Morales, José Luis Ramos Escobar, Edgar Quiles and Rosa Luisa Márquez. Actor and producer Juan González Bonilla, began his playwriting career in the 1970s, with the staging of such works as Doce paredes negras, Flor de presidio and Palomas de la Noche, among others.

Theater in this decade was marked by innovation and bravado, often focusing on political or social themes, which reflected the island’s conflicts and realities. The Puerto Rican experience in New York became the central theme for some writers, such as Jaime Carrero, whose works include Pipo Subway no sabe reír, La caja de caudales and El Lucky-Seven. It was also during this time that the Taller de Histriones theater workshop was founded and directed by Gilda Navarra. The Puerto Rican diaspora resulted in the creation of various companies in New York, such as the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, which was founded in 1969 by the actress Miriam Colón. Colón continues to direct this company. The 70s also produced some important theater critics, such as Ramón Figueroa Chapel, Norma Valle, Juan Luis Márquez, and J. C. Collins.

Centro de Bellas Artes, performance arts theatre in Santurce

Centro de Bellas Artes, performance arts theatre in Santurce: Founded in 1980. (Courtesy Colección Universidad del Sagrado Corazón)

In 1981, the Performing Arts Center opened in Santurce, significantly adding to San Juan’s theater space. In 1994, the complex was officially named the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center, in honor of one of Puerto Rico’s governors. During the 1990s, new private and municipal theaters opened across the island, some in restored landmark structures. The municipal theaters inaugurated during this decade include the Performing Arts Centers in Guaynabo and Aguada, the Luis M. Arcelay Theater in Caguas, the Braulio Castillo Theater in Bayamón, the Municipal Theater in Carolina and the Teatro Junqueño (Juncos Theater). Private venues include the Teatro Fénix in Vega Baja, the Yerbabruja Theater Studio in Río Piedras, and El Josco Theater-Café in Santurce. One of the most recent private initiatives is the Casa Cruz de la Luna, which was founded in 1997 as a focal point for fostering the arts and humanities in the southeastern region of the island.

Some of the figures who gained prominence through the island’s popular theater and collectives are Pedro Santaliz, Zora Moreno, Ramón (Moncho) Conde, José (Papo) Márquez and Josefina Maldonado.

In the 1980s, Rosa Luisa Márquez, a theater luminary since the 1970s, joined forces at the Cayey campus of the University of Puerto Rico with the renowned artist Antonio Martorell to produce an almost endless list of collaborative projects fusing theater and graphic arts.

New theater companies also came forward during the decade, such as Producciones Actores Unidos, Grupo Inarú and Producciones Flor de Cahillo, and young directors, such as Vicente Castro, Rosa Luisa Márquez and Zora Moreno, brought fresh talent to the stage.

In 1985, The National Theater Production Company was born, merging seven of the oldest companies on the island. Intermedio de Puerto Rico, the island’s first magazine devoted to Puerto Rican theater, was launched, as was the National Archive of Puerto Rican Theater, a repository for the country’s performing arts legacy. In 1985, the National Playwrights Society was formed, followed one year later by the Puerto Rico Actors Association, a professional organization representing the island’s stage performers.

During the last decades of the 20th century, playwrights began to use new forms of dramatic expression to poignantly explore both Puerto Rican and universal themes. José Luis Ramos Escobar, Antonio García del Toro, Carlos Canales, Teresa Marichal, Abniel Morales, Aleyda Morales and Roberto Ramos-Perea are among the noteworthy contributors in this group. Ramos-Perea, one of the island’s most prolific playwrights, has received a number of prestigious awards, including the Tirso de Molina, Spain’s most coveted prize for theater, for his play Miénteme más (Lie to Me Some More).Ramos-Escobar, whose works include Dragún en las Malvinas, Puertorriqueños? and Cofresí, and García del Toro, author of Hotel Melancolía and Donde reinan las arpías, have won literary awards in Spain and the United States.

More theater companies emerged in the 1990s, including Producciones Contraparte, Producciones Aragua, Teatro Caribeño, Teatro ángel, Producciones Aleph, Teatro Sol, and Casa Cruz de la Luna.

The decade saw the rise of “on-stage playwriting” in which a written script was no longer considered indispensable. The actor would create the script using his or her body, gestures, movements, possibly even voice. Teresa Hernández, Javier Cardona, Carola García, Margarita Espada and Rafael Acevedo belong to this category of actor-writers. Groups such as Yerbabruja, Baobab, Agua Sol and Sereno, all exponents of this new trend, have been invited to represent Puerto Rico at prestigious festivals around the world.

This brief historical summary of Puerto Rican theater should serve to illustrate the significance that the stage has had in our culture over the past 500 years. Despite more recent competition from film and television, theater space has only continued to expand on the island, with even more venues opening in 2005.

Author: Profa. Gilda Orlandi
Published: September 08, 2010.

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