The early decades of the twentieth century saw dramaticchanges in the role of women in Puerto Rican theater. The ingénue, manipulated and deceived by men, gradually morphed into an avatar of the fatherland. Sometimes she represents the land itself, sometimes she is its spirited defender. In some texts she manifests the socioeconomic and political world of the Puerto Rican people; in others she projects rebellion against her people’s colonial state.
We are indebted to Phrynicus, an obscure Greek tragedian, for the very presence of woman as a character in dram. Other Hellenic playwrights followed his lead, dramatizing scenes from their mythology with memorable heroines in significant and powerful roles. How many Medeas, Antigones, and Electras have found their way onto the pages of literature? Likewise, the history of humankind is one of the most important sources of inspiration for dramatic creativity. Queens, heroines, and damsels of note in social and political affairs step onto the stage as protagonists. There is also a role for the imagination, which animates its dramatic texts with thousands of female figures materialized from the dramatist’s dreams and experiences, not to mention desires.
Over the course of history, great changes have occurred within the dramatic arts. Since the mid-19thcentury, social criticism has made notable incursions into the theater. A process of renewal, already begun, gained intensity and dramatic significance in the works of Ibsen; woman, as a character, began to occupy once again the position she had held within the world of Greek tragedy. Her struggle to be seen as a human being and not merely as an instrument of pleasure or an aesthetic symbol can also be seen in Puerto Rican literature.
Three significant literary moments highlight the development of women as stage characters in Puerto Rican theater. The first covers the productions of the 19th century; the second, the first three decades of the 20th century; and the last, from 1938 to the present.
The 19th century is imbued with Spanish and European romanticism and marked by the direct influence of the plays of José Echegaray. The majority of the female characters are wrapped in pathos and dragged down, inexorably, by cruel fate. They are victims—of adulterous love affairs, of shame and dishonor, of bloodcurdling deaths, of imprisonment in convents, of paternal authority, of madness. These 19th-century texts reflect the marginalization of women in those times. Thus, they display a parade of women who are deceived, seduced, and then abandoned.
Casimira, a woman who is deceived by a Spaniard living in Puerto Rico, was the first female character written for the Puerto Rican theater. She appears in an anonymous text published, according to Emilio J. Pasarell, around 1811. Other works setting forth the same condition include Inocente y culpable by Manuel María Sama, Dios en todas partes, or Un verso de Echegaray by Francisco álvarez, and Beatriz by Juan Ezequiel Comas.
The woman crushed by parental authority is represented as frequently as the woman deceived. Stella (Los horrores de triunfo by Salvador Brau), Rosita (La juega de gallos, or El negro bozal by Ramón C.F. Caballero), and Chana (Un jíbaro / Una jíbara by Ramón Méndez Quiñones) are all victims of parental authority. This irksome yoke impedes, in most cases, any romantic ties.
Many of these characters commit suicide or take refuge in a convent. Catalina (Camoens by Alejandro Tapia y Rivera), fleeing from a terrible fate, shuts herself up in a convent and changes her name to that of a dead nun. Financial problems and the perennial pressure of keeping up social appearances combine in another theme of that period, as illustrated by Purita (Vivir para ver, or Los monopolios by Modesto Cordero Rodríguez) and María Manuela (La botijuela by Ramón Emeterio Betances).
Nevertheless, the female characters of the 19th century are not always utterly submissive. María Bibiana Benítez, in La cruz del Morro, sets forth Lola’s resolute determination in her refusal to become the Dutch general’s mistress in exchange for the release of prisoners in his power.
Few female characters of that century figure as the absolute protagonist of a play. Julia (La cuarterona by Alejandro Tapia y Rivera) is the first to do so. Other notable female protagonists include María Manuela (La botijuela by Ramón Emeterio Betances) and Beatriz (character in the eponymous play by Manuel Corchado y Juarbe).
At the start of the 20th century, the female presence in dramatic texts exhibits one of two fundamental tendencies. The first follows, in general, the patterns of the previous century; the other displays women with individual characteristics that enrich the scene. Such is the case of Eva (El expósito by J. Espada Rodríguez), whose courage and determination evoke Ibsen’s Nora. Like Nora, the heroine of A Doll’s House, Eva criticizes the way her father has treated her. Antonio Coll y Vidal also employs in his work Un hombre de cuarenta años — female characters in conflict with the established social criteria. In this play, two generations of women argue about a woman’s place and duties in society. In Matrimonio sin amor, consecuencia, el adulterio, Luisa Capetillo — also a well-known labor leader — describes the situation of a woman who enters into a loveless marriage in order to save her family. The female characters in Magadaleno González’s Una huelga escolar fight for the rights of their people, especially those of children in poverty.
As in the 19th century, we still find few examples, in this second literary “moment,” of female protagonists. The most significant ones are Josefina (La sentimental by Juan B. Huyke) and Guanina (character in the eponymous play by Alfredo Arnaldo).
Until 1938, the theater in Puerto Rico took its cue from dramatic tendencies that were current in European literature. From that moment on, however, the goal has been to create a Puerto Rican theater with Puerto Rican values. Emilio S. Belaval wrote a manifesto entitled, “Lo que podría ser un teatro puertorriqueño” [What a Puerto Rican Theater Could Be Like], proposing a collective effort to create our own national theater in which all of the elements would be autochthonous, from the subject matter to the actors and producers. Motivated by this nationalist spirit, some playwrights began to create in their dramatic texts an image of the Puerto Rican people and of their social, economic and cultural situation. The Ateneo Puertorriqueño allied itself with this ideal and issued a call in 1938 for plays with a Puerto Rican theme. A great number of local writers responded, submitting their original works to the competition.
In these texts, women are powerfully drawn and play far more significant roles. Some are memorable as protagonists; others with lesser roles are equally memorable for their significant participation in the dramatic action. Examples of this include the female characters of such plays as: Esta noche juega el joker by Fernando Sierra Berdecía; Tiempo muerto and Arriba las mujeres by Manuel Méndez Ballester; María Soledad, Sirena, and Vejigantes by Francisco Arriví; El sol y los MacDonald, La muerte no entrará en palacio, Sacrificio en el Monte Moriah, and La casa sin reloj by René Marqués; De tanto caminar by Piri Fernández; La trampa and No todas lo tienen… by Myrna Casas; and La hiel nuestra de cada día and O casi el alma by Luis Rafael Sánchez. To close this list, En boca de mujer (a monologue by Coqui González) has been described by Josefina Rivera de Alvarez as “a declaration in favor of the woman…whose future as a human being depends upon her liberation from the false values that have traditionally governed the path of her life and her development as a person.”
Theatrical productions of the late 20th century are notable for the emergence of female protagonists characterized by patriotism: doña Zore (El desmonte by Gonzalo Arroyo del Toro), doña Marta (La resentida by Enrique Laguerre), doña Gabriela (La carreta by René Marqués), Eugenia Victoria Herrera (character in the eponymous play by Myrna Casas), Angela Santoni Vincent (Los ángeles se han fatigado by Luis Rafael Sánchez), María (Cristal roto en el tiempo by Myrna Casas), Inés (Los soles truncos by René Marqués), Mariana Bracetti (Brazo de Oro by Cesáreo Rosa-Nieves / Mariana, or El alba byRené Marqués), and Antígona Pérez (La pasión según Antígona Pérez by Luis Rafael Sánchez). These are the principal protagonists of Puerto Rico’s theater, the product of the evolution of Puerto Rican drama and, above all, of the evolution of the female character in our literature.
Patriotism vibrates in the very souls of those characters whose stories are offshoots of our roots as a people. How many people like doña Zore, doña Marta, and doña Gabriela have lived in our cities and countryside? These protagonists directly symbolize the land itself, that motherland that has watched her sons die, who has wept to see their untrammeled ambition. They are a historical reflection of a past that time has projected onto the present day; long-suffering victims of a past/present that daily vexes the land of Borinquen. The pain of the past arouses in each of them, as it does in Eugenia Victoria Herrera, a love that forbids any denial of their roots; they understand that Puerto Rico is a “fertile land…a lovely land, and we must work for it.” Doña Zore, having left behind her mountain home, returns. Doña Gabriela, in the face of tragedy and her grief over her son’s death, decides to go back to the land that she should never have left. Doña Marta realizes when she kills her son that her resentment was the cause of his misfortune. She warns that one’s children should not be made to feed upon rancor. Eugenia Victoria Herrera also embodies the land, but at the same time she embodies the love that stands in the way of devastation. Never will she allow her land to fall into the hands of strangers! Four women, four protagonists, are united by the same love, the same pain.
Patriotic sentiment also leads to pain in the face of abandonment, neglect, rejection, and marginalization. Angela Santoni Vincent (Los ángeles se han fatigado), María (Cristal roto en el tiempo), and Inés (Los soles truncos) suffer from the same anguish. They fight against their worst enemy, time. United by a calamitous fate and by the opprobrium of society, they are creatures prostituted by the negative circumstances of the present in which they are trapped. The dramaticpower of these women projects the patriotic pain of their creators. They are noble beings seduced by social hypocrisy or by ambition. They represent a people overwhelmed by neglect, forgotten and alienated by historical circumstances. They want to stop the flow of events in a present time that signifies their moral destruction as human beings, as a people. Inés, faced with a cruel fate and the utter loss of the only things of value that time had left to her, cleanses her soul. Suicide is the means of salvation in Los soles truncos by René Marqués.
Patriotism also lives dramatically in Mariana Bracetti (Brazo de Oro and Mariana, or El alba) and in Antígona Pérez (La pasión según Antígona Pérez). Their lives in the past — in history (Mariana Bracetti) and in mythology (Antígona Pérez) — give strength to their stage presence. Mariana Bracetti, in both texts, follows the established pattern for the history or the legend of the Puerto Rican heroine. Likewise Antígona Pérez, victim of the tyrannical power of a man named Creon, must suffer to fulfill the duty imposed upon her by her rights. Mariana Bracetti, a figure taken from history, embodies the future hopes of her literary creators. The death of Antígona Pérez serves the same purposes of redemption and hope. Both women struggle to educate their people, yearning to see their ideals penetrate the consciousness of those who make up their nation, a nation that has been trampled and enslaved by despotic governments.
The protagonists we have mentioned press upon us their needs and concerns not solely as women, but rather as human beings. They are people indwelt by the fatherland, and their outcry in its defense is instinctive:
“Our fatherland is perhaps the greatest thing we possess. It is that tree that sheltered our play when we were children. It is the heavens that spread their protective mantle over our daily lives. It is the river that nourishes our dreams. It is the flower whose scent caresses our awakenings. The Fatherland lives in the merry song of the nightingale, in the air that we breathe, in the sun that warms us each morning, in the moon that veils the romance between two lovers, in a kiss from a woman who knows in the very depths of her soul that she is a mother”. Patriotism is, as summarized by Alejandrina (Donde reinan las arpías by Antonio García del Toro), a sentiment, an impulse that, like passion, disturbs one’s spirit.
Woman and fatherland are both fundamental elements of Puerto Rican drama. Whether consciously or not, each playwright participates in a redemptive experience. The playwright’s desire is to release the female figure from the obscurity and anonymity that constituted her role during the early years of Puerto Rican literature. At the same time, the dramatist sees in the woman a figure whose humanity is custom-made for symbolically projecting the social and political situation of her people. Prominent authors acknowledge, in their texts, the importance of the woman as the personification of all human beings engaged in the struggle to maintain their position within humankind. It is that very élan vital, which women have been obliged to foster throughout their existence, that our writers exteriorize when they project their patriotic sentiments by means of the figure of a woman as the protagonist of their texts for the theater.
Author: Dr. Antonio García Del Toro
Published: September 30, 2008.
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