A critic’s scalpel dissects the theatrical anatomy of a classic of the Cuban stage.
The iceberg theory suits Virgilio Piñera very well. Like all exceptional authors, only a small part shows in his work, and the rest is pure depth to discover. Using other words, that is what dramaturgical scholar Eberto García repeatedly asserts in a slightly more than one hour interview with Cubanow.
“Piñera’s theater is not only what you see in front of you, what you can touch and listen to; it is also everything that compels you to explore underneath, to perceive.”
García, a graduate, in the ‘80s, of Havana’s Higher Institute of the Arts (ISA in Spanish) in the specialty of dramaturgy and theater studies, insists on that uniqueness. Otherwise, the analyses and staging of Piñera’s plays remain a pure formality.
“Working with Virgilio Piñera is much more than working with what appears in a text, and I think that is a strong challenge. You may refer only to the text. Some people have done it and have staged one of his works, but that is not creative. You must dialogue with his dramatic writing and create connections, because Piñera’s theater is not merely a formal exercise.”
This critic, who recently returned from Miami where he had meetings with the theater community in that Floridian city, nevertheless admits that he is not one of Piñera’s unconditional Cuban followers. “I do not share that blind worship that others have for him,” he declares, trying to detach himself from the playwright who, according to many, is the most polemic, diverse and challenging in Cuba’s more than four centuries old cultural life.
In his “live dialogue” with Piñera, “in order to study him and also to understand and enjoy him,” García says you must regard the dramatist as “someone who foresaw his theater for the future.”
“It is a theater of change, of opening, and that is why it is also visionary,” highlights the academician and advisor to the group Argos Teatro, led by Carlos Celdrán. Last January, this ensemble staged Aire Frío, Piñera’s most important play that opened the centennial year of this playwright who was also a poet, short-story writer, novelist, editor and translator born in Cárdenas, a small coastal town in western Cuba, on August 4, 1912.
With slightly more than thirty plays, some of which have not been premiered and others that took years to climb the stage, Piñera modernized Cuban theater through violent images and the apparent absurdity of situations. He anxiously searched for new languages of representation and in many of his plays tore to shreds the realist model that hardly ever served his communication needs. He reconsidered, in a sometimes nihilistic key, the traditional conflicts handled by theater from the classic Greek to the contemporary.
“Theater was another form of representation and relationship that went beyond the possibilities of poetry and narrative; it was a way of approaching a more intense, harsher experience,” said García while rocking in a typical wooden rocking chair.
“Perhaps Piñera’s theater does not appear in history with a capital letter, but in lower case that supports the other one, the big one,” underlines the critic, and speaks highly of “the search for an individual commitment of coherence with himself” that motivated the Cuban author from within.
A piece like Aire frío, written in the late 1950s and premiered in 1962, “is absurd, existentialist, but it has been constructed with such great intelligence that it reaches the same level as Brechtian models,” points out García.
Piñera was not much interested in the vicissitudes of his characters, but rather in the situations created by them or their environment so as to construct metaphysical universes in which he asks the spectator: what can be done when no escape is possible. It is undoubtedly a theater of resistance, an issue that was always of great interest to the Caribbean author, who began to write daily around 4:00am after a cup of coffee and the compulsory cigarette.
“I am highly interested in Virgilio’s work with the dramatic situation. He does not face conflicts in a sustained way, but makes them fade; still, the situation remains. Because what matters is the situation that doesn’t move forward, doesn’t change, and what is done or what can be done in the midst of this situation.”
In a piece like Electra Garrigó – written in 1941 but premiered seven years later - in which Piñera takes the Greek myth and contextualizes it in a Cuba subjected to moral exhaustion, political brazenness and the hypocrisy of bourgeois customs, the author “plays with all the languages having to do with our identity.” There we have the mixture of melodrama, of our exaggeratedly melodramatic conscience, our lack of vision of the prospects of history, and by presenting them that way Virgilio is opening for us, in the style of Bertolt Brecht, a question about ourselves. I believe that it is here where his profoundly revolutionary, transformative and iconoclastic dimension also appears in its full sense,” summarizes García.
Staged again in the late eighties and more profusely in the nineties, Virgilio Piñera’s theater is a sort of “terrain” where “many and varied constructions fit in.” Thus, a play like Electra Garrigó has been conceived in classic style, but also experimentally as a musical and even as a circus. One of the most successful directors of these revivals has been Raúl Martín, whose Teatro de la Luna has presented, “with deep respect, love and intelligence,” pieces like El gordo y el flaco, La boda, Los siervos and the often mentioned Electra Garrigó.
“I think that Piñera not only revolutionized, altered, modified, and transformed dramaturgy, but also the notion of the theatrical,” declared Eberto García. He even dragged that theatrical notion into his own civic life. Anecdotes abound, which leaves no doubt for the critic when he states that the intellectual who swaggered through the city with a closed umbrella “deserved paradise” but surely “it would bore him.”
Translated by Olimpia Esperanza Sigarroa Santamarina
Revised by Susana Hurlich