Popular theater has abandoned the traditional concept of “action” and radically changed the perspective that governs plot. It has replaced the conventional stage with a space that changes depending on the place where the presentation is given. Variations in the receiving audience, the world views that structure the work, and the tension between the plot and the ideological purpose of the work determine its various forms and categories.
The first work that contained popular elements in its dramatic structure was La juega de gallos o el negro bozal by Ramón C. F. Caballero. Caballero published his work in 1852, as part of his book, Recuerdos de Puerto Rico, Producciones literarias en prosa y verso. There is not much information about the author, except that some critics claim he was a Venezuelan, although in the prologue to his book, he said he was Puerto Rican. The important thing in the work of Caballero was that he included typical characters like the jíbaro ño Epifanio and the slaves, Nazaria and José, which made it possible to develop a double plot that included the amorous relations of both the white criollos and the slaves. Although the characterization of the black slaves reflected the prejudices of the period and tried to provoke laughter, the work did present the miserable treatment the slaves received and their eagerness to better their lot in life. The creation of those characters, together with the influence of Cuban comedy, was the beginning of a trend in Puerto Rico that was to be of vital importance at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
The change of focus, which meant getting closer to social circumstances, was to have repercussions in the dramatic structure of theatrical works. The result was a parting of the ways in Puerto Rico’s rising national theater between the institutional current, represented fundamentally by Alejandro Tapia and Salvador Brau, and a popular current that took a variety of forms in the works of artisans Manuel Alonso Pizarro and Arturo Más Miranda, the criollista works of Ramón Méndez Quiñones and Eleuterio Derkes, and the plays of Rafael Escalona.
Examples of popular theater in the 19th century
Ramón Méndez Quiñones (1847-1889) was the most prominent playwright in the popular tradition in Puerto Rican theater in the 19th century. He was also an actor and producer. He wrote Un jíbaro (1878), Los jíbaros progresistas o La feria de Ponce (1882), La vuelta de la feria (1882) as well as some unpublished pieces – “Una jíbara,” “La triquina,” “Un casamiento,” “Un bautizo,” “Un comisario de barrio” and “¡Pobre Sinda!” These works have been classified by the critics as costumbristas, referring to local culture. This aspect of the author’s works, however, seems to be subordinate to his moralizing fervor, continuing the didactic tradition of Puerto Rican theater. The theater of Méndez Quiñones was institutional in its conception and popular only in its presentation of everyday scenes.
Related to Méndez Quiñones’ rural theater was that of Rafael E. Escalona. Through his work, and to a lesser degree the work of Eleuterio Derkes, the comic genre of buffoonery was definitively made a part of Puerto Rican theater. From this genre, Escalona took the use of overly elegant language to represent black characters, which makes them sound foolish or “uppity.” The joke, in both Amor a la Pompadour (1879) and Flor de una noche (1881), was their eagerness to imitate the language of whites.
Eleuterio Derkes (1836-1883) wrote four works: Ernesto Lefevre o El triunfo del talento (1872), La nieta del proscrito (manuscript lost, no date), Don Nuño Tiburcio de Pereira (1877), and Tío Fele (1883). His work was characterized by double meanings. On the one hand, he returned to some historical situation, as in Ernesto Lefevre o El triunfo del talento, that took place in Paris in 1815, and on the other, he sharply targeted his own period and structured his works using the conflicts in Puerto Rican society. Examples are Don Nuño Tiburcio de Pereira, a comic piece set in the Mayagüez of 1877, that confronts the figure of an honorable rich man with the image that the town has formed of him as a wretched miser. This approach took on even greater meaning in his last work, Tío Fele, written four years after the arrival in Puerto Rico of Los Bufos Habaneros (Havana Burlesque), which might suggest that Derkes was reacting to the stereotypical view of blacks that some comic works presented, in particular those of Rafael E. Escalona. Since Derkes did not distort the personality of blacks trying to provoke laughter, these character leap from the stage, claiming their dignity and due recognition. Even in the midst of the social ferment, marginalized and under attack, black characters showed that they could prove their worth.
Cuban burlesque theater also created an environment that was favorable for the works of Puerto Rican artisan-playwrights. If Cuban burlesque was a history of people without a history, artisans Manuel Alonso Pizarro and Antonio Más Miranda, with more social awareness than literary fervor, brought working people to the stage and captured their aspirations, contradictions, and conflicts in a tone that was jocular, satirical and like the characters themselves.
Manuel Alonso Pizarro (1859-1906) wrote five works: Me saqué la lotería (1887), Cosas del día (1892), Fernando y María (1892), Los amantes desgraciados (1894) and El hijo de la verdulera (1902). The first was written expressly for the Sociedad de Artesanos Unión Borinqueña (Borinquen Union Artisan Society) of Mayagüez, in whose casino, or social club, it opened on October 10, 1886. That is, it was theater written by and for a social group, the artisans. This fact takes on additional meaning when we find, in the works of Alonso Pizarro, satire at the expense of the dominant classes and a defense of the rights of the dispossessed. Even though Alonso Pizarro was black, race was not the preponderant theme in his works, though it was mentioned on occasion. In his works, social origin and the place of the artisans in the means of production were more important, so that these concepts were represented as structuring class conflict in Puerto Rican society. This made Alonso Pizarro a precursor of the workers theater of the 20th century.
Arturo Más Miranda was another artisan who tried to write works treating class. Two of his works have been located: Ante Dios y ante la ley (1889) and La víctima de los celos (1897). As an artisan, Más Miranda attempted to serve as the spokesman for his companions and to present their worldview on the stage. Even so, his eagerness to moralize overwhelmed the principal conflicts of the plot, so that he lost dramatic development to sensational appearances and thread-bare secrets.
It was not until the decade of the 1960s that popular theater again appeared, now closely tied to a new movement for national affirmation and social demands. It began with demonstrations of theater arts, where actors and actresses of the time took part in artistic events sponsored by groups that promoted independence for Puerto Rico. Then it extended to the dramatic arts with the creation of the El Tajo del Alacrán group in 1966. That was the group that opened the doors to an imminently popular kind of theater, in meaning, structure, and audience.
In her book, Textos para teatro de El Tajo del Alacrán, Lydia Milagros González (1942) points out that this dramatic form arose as a response to the many demands of the political and social hotbed of Puerto Rico of that time. It was during the period of the Vietnam War; the triumph of the Cuban revolution; the campaign against obligatory military service; the protests, marches, and pickets of the University of Puerto Rico. In short, it was a period of rebelliousness, defiance, struggle and demands for participation. Lydia Milagros González says that, in contrast to the conventional theater that was staged in the Tapia Theater, the group proposed a type of rebel theater that questioned both the social environment and the type of theater that was being staged. It was in fact she who wrote the most significant works in that break with tradition.
The first of González’s works make use of the elements and techniques of the German playwright Brecht. In fact, her first play to be staged was Brecht de Brecht (1967), based on his works. From this period, La historia del hombre que dijo que no, stands out – an obvious paraphrase of Brecht’s He Who Says Yes, He Who Says No. In this play, González used narration as a structural element. The action was represented in pantomime while the narrator interpreted for the audience. However, González biased the narrator to favor one of the characters, which created contradictions between what was said and what was seen, and this caused the other characters to take sides against the narrator and in the end lead the audience to do so as well. As the action centered on two archetypical characters, one representing foreign intervention and the other Puerto Rico, the participation of the audience affected the initial balance of power and tilted it in defense of national interests. Obviously, the work was constructed to involve the audience and to do so in such a way that the audience would agree with the author.
After several attempts at using the conventional stage, El Tajo del Alacrán left the theater behind and began to present its works in the streets. From 1970 to 1971, the group visited communities and neighborhoods with its cabezote project, one which featured characters with large heads. Among the works presented were La tumba del jíbaro, La venta del bacalao rebelde, Las huelgas, La despropiación, and ¡Qué importa un muerto más!, all by Lydia Milagros González. To these she added Lamento borincano, La confrontación and The postcard in 1969. In 1971, González wrote her most important work, Gloria, la bolitera.
This questioning and defiant theater, with its demand that theater draw closer to the immediate problems of Puerto Rican society and that the popular audience be made an active part of the presentation, had its most important effects on several theater groups formed in the decade of the 1970s. Outstanding among these were Anamú (1971), Moriviví (1972) and the Teatro de Guerrillas (1972), although the latter took place primarily in the university scene. These groups added a new dimension to Puerto Rican dramaturgy – collective creative works. After researching a topic, works were written and presented by the troupe as a whole. The texts were produced through discussion and improvisation and never came to have a final form, as they continued to be modified in response to audience reaction, which indicated what needed to be added, struck out or changed in a given scene. This gave the works great dynamism and currency, as flexible improvisation allowed them to incorporate into the presentation things that had occurred the very day of the presentation. They would make advance visits to communities where they were going to present a play so that they could incorporate references to specific problems in that community. The forums they held after the presentations allowed them to see how effective they had been.
Many of the works were based on historical events. Moriviví presented a collective work, El chou de la hora cero, in 1973, in response to the proposal to build a petroleum super port in western Puerto Rico. That same year, when there was an oil spill from the Greek ship Zoe Kolocotronis in the southwestern area of the island, the Anamú group went to the fishing community that was affected and wrote, with the residents, a work entitled Bahía sucia, bahía negra, which was then presented in a number of communities in the region. So it was a kind of up-to-the-minute, cutting-edge theater, alert to the most significant happenings and able to capture the meaning of the events in dramatic form for the mass of working people.
Another characteristic of the works presented by these groups was the elimination of distance between the spectators and the work, as the audience was made an active part of the play and not a passive receiver of a preconceived message designed for them. Some works had no ending and the audience was asked to say how they should end, or to show how they would end them. In that sense, each work was a collective creation of the audience and the actors in true communion. Outstanding among such works were ¡Basta! (1973) and Los migrantes (1974) by Moriviví and Ya los perros no seamarran con longaniza (1973) by Anamú, based on a text by Jorge Rodríguez and José Luis Ramos Escobar.
After Anamú and Moriviví merged in 1975, as the Colectivo Nacional de Teatro (National Theater Collective), they presented El asesinato de X by the Teatro Libre (Free Theater) of Argentina (1975), A puño cerrado, a collective creation (1975) and ¿Quién tiene miedo? (1976), an adaptation of El avión negro, an Argentinian work. In the end, the collective was dissolved in 1976.
Parallel to this theatrical work, in several poor communities around Puerto Rico, theater groups were developed with an interest in channeling the creativity of the young people in the community into this art form. At the same time, they analyzed the urgent problems of their circumstances. This is where the immense effort of Pedro Santaliz (1938) stands out; he was a professional actor and director who for decades worked with young people in the marginal communities of La Perla and El Fanguito. In 1963, he founded a group called the Nuevo Teatro Pobre de América (The New Theater of the Poor of America). In 1969, Santaliz began to write and present works in poor communities in San Juan and New York. These were based on a rich, story-telling imagination and were intended to speak to the people in terms of their dreams, superstitions and fantasies. For example, Cadencia en el país de las maravillas (1976) traces the vicissitudes of life in the poor communities of Puerto Rico. Cadencia was a Puerto Rican Alice, who traveled in her imagination to wonderland, which was none other than the Puerto Rico of our collective hallucinations and nightmares.
Santaliz also made connection with a group of young people in Barriada Tokío, a poor area, that spontaneously did theater in their community. From this, El Gran Quince arose on January 25, 1975, a group that combined the efforts of Zora Moreno and Ramón Moncho Conde. Their first work was El afro antillano by Zora Moreno (1949), who, from that time on, was to combine her gifts as an actress and director with those of a playwright. She later wrote Dime que yo te diré (1975), Puerto Rico bello (1978) and Coquí corihundo vira el mundo (1981), her best-known work. These traveled the town squares and streets of Puerto Rico and were also presented on the traditional stage as well.
For his part, Ramón Moncho Conde (1945) remained associated with El Gran Quince and became its director in 1979, when Zora Moreno founded the group Flor de Caíllo. Moncho Conde began to write for El Gran Quince in 1975 with El viejo San Juan. He then wrote and presented a large number of works, among which Salí del caserío (1981), the most often staged of his works, stands out. This work concerned the terrible circumstances of the caserío (public housing), with all the problems of drugs, prostitution, crime, and the eternal hope of the dispossessed, who long for a plot of land on which to build their future. Moncho Conde combined individual writing with collective improvisation, in the style of Anamú and Moriviví. The final version of the texts by Conde, like those of Santaliz and Moreno, were produced from the final presentation, which gave his theater an evolving and continually experimental character. And it is in these that we find the most authentic version of popular theater.
Since popular theater groups do not, as a rule, receive government support and depend on the everyday jobs of their members to underwrite their theatrical activity, they tend to disappear after a few years. Today, several groups remain active, such as El Gran Quince and El Nuevo Teatro Pobre de América. Other groups, such as Agua, Sol y Sereno, give both street presentations and conventional staged performances. So popular theater continues – which is vital for cultural development in Puerto Rico – given its commitment to marginalized sectors of the population and its role in disseminating the arts and also an attitude of questioning.
Author: Dr. José Luis Ramos Escobar
Published: September 08, 2010.
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