Griselda Gambaro: An introduction
One of Latin America’s most prolific and important novelist, prize-winning, playwrights scrutinizes the role of theatre and theatricality in Argentina’s tumultuous recent history. She was born in Buenos Aires in 1928 into a family of second-generation Italian immigrants. She began writing at the age of 24 but it was in her mid-thirties that she suddenly started to enjoy great recognition and success as a writer. In the early 1960s, Gambaro became involved with the avant-garde arts foundation the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella where she staged a series of four plays: Las paredes (The Walls) (1964), El desatino (The Blunder) (1965), Los siameses (The Siamese Twins) (1967) and El campo (The Camp) (1971). This began her international success which has continued to the present day. Her most recent production was El don at the Teatro Cervantes in 2015. Though her theatre takes the form of many varied aesthetic expressions, on some level Gambaro is always probing the nature of power, our conscience, and theatricality itself.
For decades she has been creating allegorical dramas that deal with issues relating to the oppressive political and social environment of Argentina in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Although her characters and their situations offer a commentary on Argentine society and government, Gambaro’s work reached beyond the country’s borders to make universal statements about power dynamics, human nature, and the role women play in the larger social order.
Her plays of the 1960s, such as The Walls (1963), Siamese Twins (1965) and The Camp (1967), already depict the escalation of political violence that became the grim reality of Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ (1976-83). The bizarre environments of victims and victimizers, abductions and concentration camps, foretell the atrocities to come. In the 1970s, major works such as Information for Foreigners (1972) and Strip (1974, included here), explore the role of the population living in a criminal society. The audience becomes the main protagonist in Information for Foreigners – not the population of torturers and torture victims of earlier plays, but the audience of innocent by-standers, complicitous onlookers, and invisible members of the silent majority who had to make daily decisions about how to act and react to the brutality around them. Her work of the 1980s, such as Decir Sí (Saying Yes, 1981), and Antígona Furiosa (1986) marks the population’s gradual shift from passive participant to furious resistance.
In the 1990s, plays such as Atando cabos (1991, Tying Loose Ends) and Es necesario entender un poco (1995, It Important to Understand a Little), show people trying to deal with the traumatic aftershocks of their recent experience. Throughout her career, Griselda Gambaro has been in tune with the political climate in her country. Dismissed by the theatre establishment as apolitical and aestheticist, Gambaro’s plays written before her political exile to Spain in 1977 dramatize Argentina’s escalating social crisis. When she went into exile in Spain during the ‘Dirty War,’ she gave up writing theatre. She needed her audience, but no more than her audience needed her. Gambaro is the most celebrated playwright in Argentina. Her works are produced in all the major theatres, and awarded every conceivable prize. She has won dozens of national awards. She is also recognized internationally as Argentina’s most important living playwright. Her works have been translated into English, French, Italian and staged in theatres such as Royal Court, Theatre de la Source, and Lugano Teatro in Europe. In 1982, she was awarded a Guggenheim. For translations of The Walls, Information for Foreigners, and Antígona furiosa, see Marguerite Feitlowitz’ Information for Foreigners: Three Plays by Griselda Gambaro.
“Life here is surreal”- Griselda Gambaro
Gambaro’s plays share the common theme of everyday people wrapped up in oppressive power relationships. Gambaro’s characters are victims and oppressors locked into situations in which the victim remains helpless and unable to rebel against the cruelty of his oppressor who often takes the form of friend or family member. These early plays, as Gambaro herself acknowledged in Women’s Voices from Latin America, are largely concerned with the subject of passivity. “One often has a single theme, and I probably have mine, the problem of passivity. It must be due to personal reasons; I am a very cowardly woman. Very cowardly in every way. I’m not brave; I find it difficult to be brave. I am very preoccupied with passivity and the non-assumption of individual responsibility. In society it is that way and, also, in my plays.” In The Female Dramatist, Gambaro was quoted as having said that she was also majorly preoccupied with “violence—its roots, manifestations, and spheres of influence, as well as the ways in which it may be perceived, masked, and denied.”
Gambaro’s style involved black humor, focusing on the absurdities of the Argentine political situation, and it broke with realistic drama insofar as her plays were not set in a specific time or place. The dramatist did not locate her plays literally within Argentina by use of identifiable nationalist themes or specific references to her native country. Instead the physical and mental abuse played out by her characters mirrors the reality perpetrated by the Argentine military in the 1960s through the Dirty War ending in 1983. Adding to the surreal nature of her work was the fact that the action of the plays was rarely linear or logical, and it was almost always terrifying. Las paredes, for example, is about a nameless Youth who is abducted and questioned by an Official and a Custodian in a well-decorated room. Nobody seems to know why he is being held captive, but the tormentors are dead set on breaking his will and torturing him, regardless. As the walls close in and the room begins to literally shrink in front of the audience’s eyes, the Youth can no longer deny that he has “disappeared” from the world. Still, at the end of the play, he is unable to bring himself to walk out the open door because he is so deeply traumatized.
Homecoming: More Freedom and a New Voice
Since Gambaro herself had been a “prohibited” writer under the former administration, the democratic shift in Argentina’s political climate affected her very personally and allowed her the freedom to influence Argentina with her bold art. Although the political climate in Argentina had calmed, the writer was no less passionate in her work. In 1987, she finally published Información para extranjeros, an arresting work that challenged spectators to comment on and engage the brutal actions they witnessed on a “stage” that did not have clearly defined boundaries. The stage directions called for an entire house to be used as the backdrop for some actors who perpetrated violent acts, such as murders and kidnappings, while others played children’s games. The audience members encounter harmlessness or torture, depending upon which room they enter, and they were to be led by an actor/guide who interacted with spectators along the way. The surreal writing style and contrast between the actions taking place in the different rooms reflected Gambaro’s belief that, “[Argentina] is a schizophrenic country, a country that lives two lives. The courteous and generous have their counterpart in the violent and the armed who move among the shadows… . One never really knows what country one is living in, because the two co-exist.” Gambaro created a drama in which viewers were not permitted to be passive bystanders to terrible acts of violence, for the guide forced them to question and respond to their surroundings and the events that take place within them. The play, which powerfully addresses the reality of Argentina’s past military regime and the way average citizens were implicated—through their silence—in the brutalization of their neighbors, was a commentary on passivity in the face of horror. It indirectly, but clearly, was a reminder of the phenomenon of desaparecidos (“the disappeared”). These vanished Argentine citizens, many of whom were intellectuals or politically conscious members of society, were commonly dragged off to a horrible fate, often in the dead of night, by the former dictatorship while their neighbors pretended they did not see what was happening.
During Gambaro’s time in exile, the playwright had the opportunity to engage the feminist movement in Europe and develop consciousness about women and their issues. At the time, Ganarse la muerte had been published in France and Gambaro was invited there. “I had the opportunity to meet the feminists of France, and I began reading about the specific problems related to women. I started to realize things which, before that time, I had only felt in an instinctive way,” she told Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig in Interviews. In the 1980s, Gambaro’s writing reflected, embraced, and contributed to the growing women’s movement in Argentina. She created a number of plays with strong female characters. These women, like the geisha Suki in Del sol naciente (“From the Rising Sun”) and Antígona in Antígona Furiosa, represented powerful models who rejected the confines of stereotypical female roles. “The title character of her 1986 play Antígona Furiosa hauntingly mirrors Gambaro herself. She, like Antígona and her Greek namesake, is intent on burying her dead, her disappeared ones. She renounces the traditional sphere, home and hearth, and refuses to remain silent,” Elaine Parnow commented in The Female Dramatist.
Starting in the mid 1980s, many of Gambaro’s characters—not just women—shifted in such a way that those in the victims’ roles managed to confront and fight back against their oppressors. For example, marginalized characters in Del sol naciente joined forces at the end of the play, their solidarity and humanity undermining the oppressive system in which they found themselves. This transformation from passive characters to consciously united, active ones reflects the way in which Argentine society was unable to fight government oppression until the Falklands War brought about a group effort to overcome it.
It was only in the 1990s, after decades of recognition in Latin America and Europe, that Gambaro’s work began to be performed with some frequency in the United States. In this era, her plays began changing in texture and theme-personal emotions, rather than state control became the main subject. Penas sin importancia, written in the early 1990s, has been described by reviewers as having a gentler tone than her previous work, reflecting the transitions— socially, economically, and politically—that have occurred in Argentina since Gambaro began writing. Since the early 1960s, Gambaro has let loose her words through plays, fiction, and essays. In the face of terror, exile, repression, and financial challenges, the dramatist has never failed to offer creative, poignant, relevant, and painfully true perspectives on politics and human nature.
Vision Seven: Interview with Griselda Gambaro (not translated)
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