One form of Puerto Rican popular theater is the teatro obrero, or workers theater, which nurtured the struggles of working people at the beginning of the 20th century. That was when the first fruits of labor organization appeared in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican working people began to pay attention to the socialist message voiced by Ramón Romero Rosa, Eduardo Conde, and José Ferrer y Ferrer. With the arrival in Puerto Rico in 1896 of the Spanish carpenter Santiago Iglesias Pantín, the proletarian struggle gathered strength until it culminated in the founding of the Partido Obrero Socialista (Socialist Workers Party) on July 18, 1899, and the Federación Libre de Trabajadores (Free Federation of Workers), the first labor union in Puerto Rico, on October 22 of that same year. The task of both organizations was to organize laborers and agricultural workers, who, as they lacked a labor organization to represent their interests and defend them, found themselves at the mercy of employers. To give an idea of their situation, it is worth pointing out that agricultural workers at that time earned from 30 to 40 cents a day, and urban laborers earned from 35 to 60 cents.
The leaders of the Federación Libre de Trabajadores and the Partido Obrero Socialista included dramatic works in their unionization campaigns to raise workers’ awareness and motivate them to organize. The works were written by members of the unions with the clear intention to proselytize. As a consequence, this was a kind of popular theater that was presented in the workplace and in neighborhoods. The works were structured, for the most part, along the line of proletarian ideology and in defense of the interests of the spectators.
The first such work of which we have a record was La emancipación del obrero (The Emancipation of Workers, 1903) by Ramón Romero Rosa (1863-1907), who was then the secretary of the Partido Obrero Socialista and who wrote under the pseudonym of R. Del Romeral. Romero had made a name for himself as a propagandist who wrote to promote the new ideas fostered by his organization. His theoretical writings on the bad distribution of wealth found their artistic counterpart in the one-act allegorical drama, La emancipación del obrero. The plot of this work involved confrontation of workers and the capitalist system, and it took the form of a 17th century religious play. The characters were all social prototypes that were clearly Biblical in character. It ended with a direct exhortation that the audience join the Federación Libre de Trabajadores, thus emphasizing its propagandistic and ideological purpose.
José Limón de Arce (1877-1940), who wrote under the pseudonym of Edmundo Dantés, was the author of the play Redención (Redemption, 1906.) In this work, the moral and economic redemption of working people is joined with the theme of love. Limón de Arce developed the plot in such a way that the spectators would identify emotionally with the characters and so more readily accept the proletarian ideology that the work transmitted. In this sense, the theme of love accomplished in Redención what the Christian allegory had in Romero Rosa’s La emancipación del obrero.
In his work, Futuro (Future, 1911), Enrique Plaza again took up the theme of the struggle between capital and labor. Though the work is, to all appearances, on a proletarian theme, no working character appears in it. At the end, the owner of an hacienda agrees to share his wealth. This appears to indicate that the work was intended for an audience of landowners, in an attempt to make them aware of their exploitative role. The naïve goodness of the characters seems to arise from the idealism of the author, for whom the class struggle was resolved by explaining to the exploiters that what they were doing was bad.
Luisa Capetillo (1879-1922), the labor leader, was one of the most important figures in the theatrical activity of this time. She wrote several works of popular theater which she drew together in her book, Influencia de las ideas modernas (The Influence of Modern Ideas, 1916). The proletarian theme is joined to that of women’s liberation in works such as En el campo, amor libre (In the Countryside, Free Love), Matrimonio sin amor, consecuencia, el adulterio (Matrimony without Love, Consequences, Adultery) and La corrupción de los ricos y la de los pobres (The Corruption of the Rich and of the Poor). In the work that provided the title to the book, Influencia de las ideas modernas, Luisa Capetillo was concerned with the same purpose as in Futuro, which was to make employers aware of their exploitative role. To bring about change in the owners, Capetillo makes use of the ideas of the Russian writer, Leon Tolstoy. Renunciation of their privileges by employers causes the community to welcome them and to celebrate the liberty of the new, liberated woman, represented by the protagonist, Angelina.
Finally, in this outpouring of dramatists, we find Magdaleno González, who published Arte y rebeldía in 1920. The book includes five works: Una huelga escolar (A School Strike), Los crímenes sociales (Social Crimes), Una víctima de la actual sociedad (A Victim of Today’s Society), Pelucín, el limpiabotas o la obra del sistema capitalista (Pelucin, the Bootblack, or the Work of the Capitalist System), and La prohibición en Puerto Rico (Prohibition in Puerto Rico). What is interesting about these works is that they stray from the labor issue to include in their questioning of the capitalist system other social themes of the time, such as education as a privilege, police repression, and marginalized people.
From the works that were produced, we can deduce that, just as in the dramatic presentations for the artisans, the authors often simplified dramatic structures in order to make the meaning easier for working people to grasp. Thus the dialogs use commonly accepted words and constructions in an attempt to make the meaning of the actions clear, and without leaving room for ambiguities or subtleties. So the theater became a vehicle for an ideological purpose, a characteristic that applies to most dramatic production from 1900 to 1937.
That period of popular theater in Puerto Rico came to an end when it merged with another form of the genre. As the Partido Socialista (Socialist Party) became more interested in elections, works on proletarian and popular themes diminished. It was not until 1936 that another variation of popular theater was produced, and that was under very different circumstances.
Under the auspices of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration, known in Puerto Rico as PRRA and established in 1935, Dr. Morton Royce offered a course on Workers Education in 1936. This course was given at the University of Puerto Rico and included lessons on economics, history, and theater. It was as part of that effort that a theater group was organized to take theatrical works to the workers. Manuel Méndez Ballester, Fernando Sierra Berdecía, and professors Rafael Cordero, Vicente Géigel Polanco, Nicolás Nogueras, Sr., and Francisco Manrique Cabrera developed the course. This group was called Teatro para Trabajadores (Theater for Workers) and produced works on labor themes, these almost always being translated from the English. They visited workplaces throughout Puerto Rico at the invitation of the unions, especially those in the sugar industry. Their work was based on the experience that Manrique Cabrera had brought from Spain, where Federico García Lorca took his group, La Barraca, through the Spanish provinces. No scripts exist for the works that this group produced, and the evidence indicates that no original work was written about the problems of Puerto Rico. This variant of popular theater can be defined as a transplanting of the perspective of US labor unions without the interaction of the people for whom it was intended. The group was of vital importance for Puerto Rican theater, however, as the principal dramatists of what is called the Generación del Treinta (The Generation of the Thirties) arose from that experience.
Author: Dr. José Luis Ramos Escobar
Published: September 08, 2010.
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