Emilio S. Belaval (1903-1972)

Emilio S. Belaval (1903-1972)

In 1939, Emilio Belaval said he hoped that one day there would be “a great Puerto Rican theater where everything is ours: the subject, the actors, the decorative motifs, the ideas, the aesthetic.” From that moment, he began to promote the formation of a native theater movement, which he himself stimulated both in theory and in practice. As the director of the Club Artístico of del Casino de Puerto Rico, and later as the president of the Puerto Rico Atheneum, Belaval fostered the development of a purely Puerto Rican theater.

During his presidency, the Atheneum sponsored a dramawriting competition in which Esta noche juega el joker, by Fernando Sierra Berdecía, and El clamor de los surcos, by Manuel Méndez Ballester, were awarded prizes. Together, Méndez and Belaval brought together the most important players in the theater world of Puerto Rico to create the Sociedad Dramática Areyto. This drama society set out three fundamental goals: to stage works by contemporary Puerto Rican authors, to implement new production techniques, and to attract a permanent body of theater goers who would support works of quality.

During its short life (1940-1941), Areyto produced two of the most important works in Puerto Rican theater: Mi señoría, by Luis Rechani Agrait – a political comedyabout a political naïf and his slow but sure corruption – and Tiempo muerto, by Manuel Méndez Ballester – a tragedy about Puerto Rican country folk faced with poverty and shame. In both works, language assumes great importance as a resource in the faithful development of the characters. An analysis of these texts reveals the political, social, and economic panorama of Puerto Rico at the beginning of the decade of the 1940s.

Esta noche juega el jóker, El clamor de los surcos, Mi señoría, and Tiempo muerto are an answer to the thematic and aesthetic requirements of Belaval’s manifesto: “Our theater must be, first and foremost, a theater about society, a theater that is close to the people.”

In 1941, the artistic director of Areyto, Leopoldo Santiago Lavandero, founded the Teatro Universitario, an important institution in the development and preparation of the people involved in Puerto Rico’s theater. In 1946, taking La Barraca, by Federico García Lorca, as a model, the Teatro Universitario acquired a mobile unit so that it could take comedies into the communities and so reach a heterogeneous audience for its productions. The emphasis, however, fell on productions of universal dramatic works, which left Puerto Rican theater to one side and offered little stimulus in the formation of playwrights. The Teatro Universitario and later its successor, the Drama Department of the University of Puerto Rico, fulfilled the second goal of Areyto: to prepare and educate directors, set designers, actors, lighting technicians, wardrobe designers, and make-up artists – artistic talent able to implement new and diverse production techniques in all its wide variety.

As a result, during the decade of the 1940s, the institutions were formed that would continue supporting the Puerto Rican theater movement. The Sociedad Dramática Areyto became the model for the new independent companies. For its part, the Puerto Rico Atheneum continued to sponsor competitions in play writing and later became the venue of the annual avant-garde theater festival. In turn, the Teatro Universitario / Department of Drama undertook to train its members both technically and academically. Simultaneously, native subject matter was becoming more clearly defined and came to characterize the tradition that the Mexican historian, Carlos Solórzano, said was “the most organic, homogeneous, and interesting nationalist theater in Latin America.”

Los Soles Truncos

Los Soles Truncos

The events of that decade made it possible for the vigorous theater of the 1950s to arise. It was then that René Marqués became the most important exponent of the dramatic arts in Puerto Rico. Marqués explored the colonial condition of Puerto Rico and its effects on individuals. He played with the resources of the theater effectively so as to breathe life into characters who were at the mercy of social change, climate, and death. His characters overcame their circumstances by struggling heroically for what was theirs or by choosing suicide in the face of a corrupt and uncaring world. The tragic sense of life is reflected in his most important works: La carreta (1953), La muerte no entrará en palacio (1957), Un niño azul para esa sombra (1958), and Los soles truncos(1958). In his prolific body of dramatic work, Marqués experimented with the most varied styles – social and poetic realism, expressionism, theater of the absurd, surrealism – always seeking the roots of a genuinely Puerto Rican identity. He was the most important Puerto Rican playwright of the 20th century.

Another important playwright of the decade of the 1950s was Francisco Arriví. Arriví broke with social realism and developed his own topics using oneiric and expressionist resources to produce an x-ray of the cultural, psychological, and political circumstances of Puerto Rico. Racial mixing and racial tensions, evident in his trilogy, Máscara puertorriqueña (1956-1959), occupy a special place in his subject matter.

The break with the objective structure proposed by Areyto was begun with the dramas of René Marqués and Arriví. The same subjects received varied treatments in subjective contexts. During that decade, the concept of puertorriqueñidad manifested itself in symbols, allegories, and metaphoric language. The incorporation of dreams, retrospective scenes, and the playing with space and time mark a definitive transition from the social realism of the 1940s to the poetic realism of the 1950s.

The formation of playwrights like Marqués and Arriví was taking place along with other important theatrical developments. Two studies were published presenting a historical perspective on the development of Puerto Rican theater. El teatro en Puerto Rico (1950), by Antonia Sáez, and Orígenes y desarrollo de la afición teatral en Puerto Rico (1951), by Emilio Pasarell, are indispensable references for the analysis of Puerto Rican theater.

In 1958, the theater division of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture was established to stimulate the creation and production of a native theater, and the annual tradition of the Puerto Rican Theater Festival began under its auspices. Since that time, the festivals have produced more than 80 Puerto Rican works, both premiers and revivals. Also under the auspices of the institute were the International Theater Festival (1966) and the Avant-garde Theater Festival (1967).

Theater in the 1960s

Toward the end of the decade of the 1950s, the establishment of the theater division of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the work of a new generation of playwrights laid a firm groundwork for a Puerto Rican theater with a promising future. Theater scholars in the Americas said as much. And in the words of Arriví speaking in the Revista del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña in 1959:

By 1956, several Hispanic American theater scholars such as Enrique Anderson Imbert, from Argentina, Willis Knapp Jones, from the United States, and Luis Osorio, from Colombia, have recognized the appearance on Puerto Rican soil, of a characteristic theater, something that is quite rare on the large map of the Americas and on other maps. One such scholar, like Frank Dauster, a professor at Rutgers University, interested in productions south of the Río Grande, was bold enough to state that only México, Argentina, and Puerto Rico can feel proud of having a theater of their very own.

The impact of these institutions was felt in later dramatic productions. New authors, such as Gerard Paul Marín, Myrna Casas, and Luis Rafael Sánchez, continue to experiment with innovative forms fusing lo puertorriqueño with the most advanced currents in the theater of Europe and the Americas. The absurd, the grotesque, and the epic receive exquisite poetic treatment from the pens of these three playwrights. The study of Al final de la calle, by Marín, Absurdos en soledad, by Casas, and La pasión según Antígona Pérez, by Sánchez, are the best examples of contemporary Puerto Rican theater.

New theater companies were established to produce Puerto Rican and international works. Outstanding among these was the Teatro del Sesenta, founded in 1963, which after several years of producing international theater began to stage shows that explored Puerto Rico’s circumstances.

During the decade of the 1960s, alternative ways of doing theater were adopted. In 1961, Leopoldo Santiago Lavandero founded the Teatro Escolar program in the Department of Public Instruction to emphasize theater in high school. The program was reinforced by a theater company made up of teachers and by a traveling puppet theater unit that presented European classics for audiences of young people. The presentations were held in theaters, assembly halls, and sports areas. In 1963, La Tierruca café-theater was begun. A great variety of experimental pieces, from sophisticated pantomime to political parody, found space and stimulation in places of the kind. The most important was La Tea café-theater, which continued the tradition of La Tierruca and has served as an inspiration for the creation of others in a number of towns around the island.

It was also during the decade of the 1960s that theater returned to the streets, something that was done during the Depression by the Farándula Obrera. Performances were given in open spaces, lobbies, and squares, during strikes, meetings, and marches. The activity generated by the Vietnam War had a marked effect on Puerto Rican theater and the presentations took on the freshness and the immediacy of the origins of theater: going out and into the communities affected, commenting, criticizing, offering solutions, and breaking myths. During that period, groups arose to visit the audience in its own neighborhood. Through an anti-realist style of presentation, and using exaggeration, parody, and the absurd, El Tajo del Alacrán and the Grupo de Teatro Anamú, among other groups, attempted to make the political circumstances of Puerto Rico manifest. That theater activity, which continued until the beginning of the 1970s, fulfilled in part the aspirations of Belaval in his attempt to provide theater that was more relevant and more in keeping with Puerto Rican circumstances.

It would not be possible to conclude an overview of theater in the last years of the decade of the 1970s without mentioning the contribution of the Taller de Histriones. The constant production of this pantomime group, founded in 1971 by Gilda Navarra, was of the highest quality and helped to refine the taste for theater.

It could be said that through the movements, organization, and work of Puerto Rico’s dramatic artists, the requirements for a Puerto Rican theater came into being: a distinct theater in respect to all its elements, a subject matter that expresses the human element in its fullest Puerto Rican sense, actors who interpret Puerto Rican national sentiment, up-to-date and novel dramatic techniques, a theater that transcends the provincial, and finally a modern theater that voices Puerto Rico’s own experience. In works that include those of Rechani Agrait, Méndez Ballester, Marqués, Arrívi, Marín, Casas, and Sánchez, Puerto Rico is the protagonist in the dramatic creation of its own theater.

Puerto Rican theater, from the decade of the 1940s until the beginning of the 1970s, reflects the social, political, and economic circumstances of the Puerto Rican people, and this theme was given form, in all its artistic manifestations, by interpreters who were themselves formed in Puerto Rico to give theatrical form to Puerto Rico’s rich dramatic literature. What has taken place in subsequent decades will be the subject of another article in this Encyclopedia.

Author: Dra Rosa Luisa Márquez
Published: September 30, 2008.

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