Theatre and revolution: José Triana
Throughout his career as a dramatist, from the 1950s to the present, Jose Triana (born 1932 in Cuba) has examined the relationship between theatre and revolution1. What is the nature and function of theatre in periods of revolution? What do we mean by «revolutionary» theatre? How is revolution, specifically the Cuban revolution, theatrical? Triana's plays pose these questions, those written both at the peak of his influence within Castro's revolutionary party (Night of the Assassins, 1965) and later, when he was deemed an antirevolutionary and completely marginalized from the revolutionary movement (War Ceremonial, 1968-1973, and Worlds Apart, 1979-80).
The examination of these questions is fundamental to our understanding of Triana's work, illuminating its aesthetic originality and political importance, as well as the marked decline in his theatrical production after 1965. A failure to comprehend Triana's theatre in the context of the Cuban revolution has led to critical misunderstanding; Cuban commentators rejected his work on the grounds that it was antirevolutionary and had nothing significant to say about revolution; foreign commentators, however impressed by his plays, examined them in isolation from their politically loaded context. The misinterpretation of Triana's position vis-à-vis the revolution led to his political and intellectual ostracism and his exile which, by denying him his native audience, further affected his subsequent theatrical production. This chapter argues that Triana's theatre is politically and aesthetically revolutionary, although not in the sense that his critics recognized or were prepared to accept.
Commentators' views of Triana's position vis-à-vis the Cuban revolution have shaped his critical reception. Within Cuba, his work was rejected on the grounds that he was antirevolutionary and hence had nothing of interest to contribute to the new society. Che Guevara, without mentioning Triana specifically, stated in «El hombre y el socialismo en Cuba» that
«the fault of many of our intellectuals and artists lies in their original sin: they are not authentically revolutionary. We can inject maples so that they give pears, but at the same time, we have to plant pear trees. The new generations will be free of this original sin» (qtd. in de Campa, 14). Putting this general condemnation into critical language, some commentators spoke of Triana's inability to develop aesthetic resources capable of representing the revolutionary reality. While they admired his dramatic techniques in the prerevolutionary plays such as The Major General Will Speak of Theogony (1957) and Medea in the Mirror (1960), noting that «he maintained a critical attitude toward the national past», they lamented that
«the critical vision of the prerevolutionary past maintained by Triana was static; it did not permit him to evolve; hence it was impossible for him to reflect the new social reality transformed by the new system» (de Campa, 14). Other critics tried to reconcile their support for the revolution with their recognition of Triana's work by claiming, as Hernán Vidal (12) does, that Night of the Assassins was in fact a reflection on the degradation of Cuba's prerevolutionary period. Set in the 1950s, during Batista's regime, the play «is a concrete judgment against Cuba's prerevolutionary society and history». Triana himself actively promoted this view, repeatedly stressing that he began writing Assassins as early as 1957-582.
Román V. de la Campa (14) observes that the issue of Triana's revolutionary position led to a critical bifurcation: though Night of the Assassins received the widest international reception and reached the largest audience of any Latin American play between 1965 and 1970, was put on in Stratford-on-Avon by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1967 (as The Criminals), and published in the Drama Review in 1970, it was ignored in Cuba -in spite of the fact that an international jury awarded it Cuba's prestigious Casa de las Américas prize in 1966: «From that moment onward, instead of bringing him fame, as had happened in the United States, and situating him in the vanguard of Cuban dramatists, his works stopped being produced in Cuba and became only a remnant of a period that had been overcome». Foreign critics by and large received Assassins enthusiastically as a «universal» play, as an example of Artaudian theatre of cruelty, as theatre of the absurd, as Genetian ritual, and as danse macabre3. In short, they tended to ignore the loaded political context and debate and placed the work instead in the European dramatic tradition or, more universal still, in
«a planet-wide culture, whose common denominator, in the western world, seems to be the individual's show of alienation» (Murch, 369). And even when a foreign scholar as eminent as Richard Schechner did mention Assassins in the same breath with the revolution, he failed to see the connection: Stating that he was not impressed with Triana's plays, he adds,
«What I am impressed about in Cuba is the fact of the revolution, and I think the children are marvellous... If there is to be a Cuban theatre it will come in the next ten years or fifteen years -there is none now... [Theatre] must develop its own forms, and the people we met were wandering in the wilderness because they were attached to bourgeois forms, and, therefore, they are irrelevant» (Interview, 39)4.
I disagree with commentators who place Triana outside or against the revolutionary discourse, as well as those who study his work in isolation from it. Triana had, and continues to have, something important to say about the Cuban revolution, about «revolutionary theatre», and about theatre in periods of revolution. Moreover, he says what he has to say in a theatrical language that only superficially echoes the existentialists (Sartre specifically), the absurdists, or Genet and only playfully makes use of bourgeois forms. Rather, he converts First World artistic products into vehicles for the expression of his own specific cultural and historical concerns.
Triana's Assassins is particularly interesting in that it is one of the first works to raise the most urgent questions about the nature and meaning of revolution from within the very frame of the revolutionary movement. It is important to stress that Triana's work was not politically reactionary or antirevolutionary, as its critics at the time suggested. He was not «outside», removed from, or against the movement. On the contrary, when he describes that period, he always speaks of himself as in the revolution (dentro de la revolución)5, an idiomatic construction echoing Castro's famous axiom: «Inside the Revolution, everything. Outside the Revolution, nothing». Triana participated actively in restructuring Cuba after the revolution as a founding member of the Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC). His critical inquiry into the nature of revolutionary roles and discourse does not indicate that he was experiencing personal disillusionment or crisis. Rather, the Cuban revolution and the very concept of revolution were undergoing crisis from within, a result of the gradual institutionalization of the revolutionary process. Triana initially believed that the Cuban revolution, as Castro had claimed, was following the doctrine of José Martí calling for political, economic, and cultural independence and an ethos of love and creativity. Like Yevgeny Zamyatin, who in the 1920s was considered «a Soviet heretic», Triana felt that the revolution had not gone far enough and thus it had betrayed Martí's vision of Cuban self-determination by conforming to Soviet communism. Zamyatin comes closest, to my mind, in describing the obsessive «heretical» drive for a permanent revolution that characterizes both him and Triana (perhaps a romantic recycling of a concept of révolution en permanence that had been popular in the nineteenth-century):
«Revolution is everywhere, in everything. It is infinite. There is no final revolution... The flame will cool tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. But someone must see this already today, and speak heretically today about tomorrow. Heretics are the only (bitter) remedy against the entropy of human thought. When the flaming, seething sphere cools, the fiery magma becomes coated with dogma -a rigid, ossified, motionless crust» (108).
Assassins is a play about revolution written at the height of Triana's influence in the fidelista party, yet the ambiguity of his formulation of «revolution» precipitated an estrangement from that movement which culminated in the playwright's exile to France in 1980. UNEAC considered ambiguity itself antirevolutionary, arguing that
«the problems of our times are not abstract; they have names and are concretely localizable. We must define that against which we fight as well as the name in which we fight»6. However, the systemic shifts within the revolutionary movement during the mid-1960s made it difficult for those involved to declare in whose name they fought (Martí, Castro, Ché, Marx, Lenin, Kruschev?) and to demarcate the revolution's boundaries (national or international revolution?). Assassins, in its very ambiguity, emphasizes the ambiguity of this particular phase of the Cuban revolutionary movement as well as the ambiguity of the term «revolution» itself.
The «problems of our times» as represented by Triana's Assassins, including the nature and character of revolution, are anything but namable and localizable. We, as audience, look on while three adult children (Lalo, Cuca, Beba) lock themselves in a filthy basement or attic and reenact or rehearse Lalo's murder of their parents, judging by the nonchalant attitude of the sisters, and by their words, Lalo's «representation» takes place time and time again. Cuca and Beba assume supporting roles in Lalo's drama, alternately playing along with and antagonizing him. Although everything takes place in a closed space, and no one ever passes through the door that connects this peripheral room to the house proper, the three characters take turns playing out several of the key figures in their lives: parents and neighbors. The end of Act 1 coincides with the end of the siblings' representation, the climactic moment when Lalo goes to murder his mother and father. In Act 2, Cuca and Beba, as policemen, supposedly find the butchered bodies and arrest Lalo. As prosecutors, they keep after him to confess his crimes. His confession again calls for role playing: the siblings «become» the parents and represent scenes of familial anger and unhappiness leading to the crime. Lalo's participation in the conflict ends with a whimper of defeat and despair:
«If only love were enough, for after all, I love them» (201)7. Beba now resumes the onslaught:
«We must tear this house down!» (200). Lalo precipitates the first act (the murder); Cuca takes control of the second act (the trial). Lalo, Beba, and Cuca act out a crime-and-punishment cycle in which they take turns purging their environment alternately by means of anarchy and order. Lalo, in Act 1, attacks the foundation of the social structure. By «killing» his parents he avenges the sacrifice of the individual in a dehumanized family setting. In Act 2, Cuca reinforces the social edifice with concepts of institutionalized justice and collective well-being. When Beba at the end of the play announces,
«Now it's my turn» (201), we, as audience, can only speculate what direction the action will take.
The play gives us nothing to hold on to. We never know where, when, or what -if anything- actually happens. Have they killed their parents? Are they acting? Playing? We lack either the perspective (like Triana's foreign commentators) or the critical distance (like his Cuban colleagues) to discern what is taking place. Audience and characters are trapped in a totalizing, closed world that refuses to let us see beyond the limiting discursive and perceptual frames. Like the six blind «men of Industan» who theorize about the nature of an elephant after touching parts of it, we are hard put to decide whether what we have before us is spear, wall, tree, snake, fan, or rope:
«And so these men of missing sight / Each argued loud and long. / Though each of them was partly right, / They all were in the wrong» (John Godfrey Saxe). We can speculate, but we cannot know.
By situating us in the middle of a closed world and depriving us of all knowable links to the outside, Assassins calls attention to the unrealizable nature of this space, to the simultaneous and paradoxical centrality and marginality of the onstage world. All markers orienting us have disappeared. Like Lalo, we cannot find our bearings in this womblike world:
«We float, with our feet in the air and our heads downward» (140). Like the fetus in the uterus, these characters are central to the larger body, within yet not in the world. Is this an island (Cuba) paradoxically in the middle of nowhere? The disorienting inclusion works also as a form of exclusion -banishment, exile, exclusion with all its political, existential, archetypal, psychological, sexual overtones. The characters try to orient themselves in a space that is not their own, like Oedipus, Lucifer, Sartre's Garcin, Triana himself. Like Plato's cave, this womb-attic-basement-theatre is both a metaphor and a generator of images; it is a double image, a hypericon. The presence of a door only heightens the in-between feeling of the space. As in Plato's image of the cave, we can never know the truth inside this room without crossing the threshold to the light outside. Yet in Assassins, as in Luce Irigaray's interpretation of Plato's cave (Speculum, 247), that passage outward is the forgotten passage, the «forgotten vagina... between the outside and the inside, between the plus and the minus», between this devastating, annihilating uterus and the outside world. Is this dark space the matrix from which the child starts off, or the one to which the incestuous matricide (Lalo, Oedipus) returns? The end of the journey or the beginning? Are fantasies born in or projected onto this dark theatre?
The play displaces us in time as well as space. While focusing on one event, the murder, it resists our temptation to place the action either «before» or «after» it. Again, this ambiguity fractures all readings. Is the action preparatory, a rehearsal for murder? Is it expiatory, a cathartic release, an atonement for the crime? Is it compensatory, a substitute for murder? The before/after question obfuscates political interpretations. We have noted in Ché's statement how very important the concept of beginnings is for revolutionary thought, the urgency of symbolically separating present from past by starting a new calendar or celebrating the birth of a new hero or being. Any faults, any ideological shortcomings, can be placed outside the revolutionary frame, before the revolution. Assassins, set in the 1950s, but written in the 1960s, blurs the slash in the Batista/Castro opposition central to all histories and interpretations of Cuba. If the action takes place before the murder, Triana's play could be seen as a representation of the children's suffocation, thus justifying their need to overthrow the deadly social structure: «We must tear this house down». (This view, as I mentioned, redeems Triana's work for those who, like Hernán Vidal, argue that Assassins depicts a prerevolutionary Cuba that desperately needed radical change). If the action takes place after the murder, Castro's revolutionaries could be seen as the assassins, having brutally usurped power from Batista. Worse still, this reading implies that the children, having won their own territory, free from parental (governmental) oppression, are incapable of creating a better world; rather, they replicate the violence and pettiness they had wanted to leave behind. (This reading was most common among Triana's Cuban colleagues). The self-referential onstage world floats in this double dislocation, aiming our markers upside down and undermining all grounds for interpretation.
Assassins offers a biological, cyclical model of human history. The three children, confined in their dark room, repeat the prototypical act of parricide that dates back to the three Cyclopes. The biological pattern - parents give birth and identity to children who will rebel against the father in their struggle to acquire a separate identity- itself gives birth to a political model dating back to antiquity. As Aristotle notes, «The patriarchal family supplies the primal model for political government»; Having overthrown the father, the children band together in criminal conspiracy, and the new society they form, according to Freud, is
«based on complicity in the common crime» (qtd. in Brown, 16). In Triana's play, the crime gives the children their identity; they are «assassins», partners in crimes, embarked on the mythic task of creating the new out of the ashes of the old, order out of chaos.
In this play-within-a-play, the characters repeatedly act out a series of roles that undermine rather than establish identity and context. As in all theatre, we try to make sense of the relationship between the characters and of the roles they play, but in Assassins the action falls in the undifferentiated gap between murder-as-event and murder-as-metaphor. The dividing line between the frames of this metaplay proves more tenuous than Julio Ortega proposes in his essay on the play:
«Reality, that is the normal or believable level, lies in the ruptures between role-playing» (263). Cuca-as-policeman discovers the murdered bodies and tells policeman Beba to take a look. Beba reacts as we expect but not in the role we expect:
«Beba (Entering. No longer acting as the other policeman): It's horrifying» (178). The metatheatrical levels, like interfacing mirrors, refract infinitely. Lalo, confessing his rime, recounts how the idea of murdering his parents originally occurred to him:
«One day, as I was playing with my sisters, I suddenly discovered...» (189). Weaving between different levels of action, trying on roles that seem too big for them, speaking in voices other than (and silencing) their own, the characters forget their lines and wander between test and context, between fictions and what they tantalizingly propose as facts.
The ambiguity erases generic distinctions. Different commentators, basing their arguments on different assumptions as to what takes place, call the action a ritual, a rehearsal, a game, a black mass. Are the children reenacting and purging themselves of a murder they have already committed -a mimetic representation? Are they preparing to murder their parents- a rehearsal? Can we, like Kirsten Nigro («La noche», 46), classify the work as «a preparatory rite, doomed to be repeated again and again, until the children can finally consummate their criminal act»? We would have to assume, like Frank Dauster («Game», 180) that the «bloody dress rehearsal» will culminate in performance, in the original meaning of the word parfournir, «to carry out», llegar hasta el final (169). Triana situates his work in the ground common to games, ritual, and drama. These activities involve framing, the demarcation of space free from the exigencies of ordinary life; they unfold in «pure» time, the contradictory no time or antitime, the intersection of time and the timeless. All involve repetition, impose rules, and alternately dismantle and reconstruct order. And although participants know that these activities are not «real» and have no direct or measurable repercussions on the existing social order, they can be important and fulfill serious personal and social functions. Triana deliberately returns to the inchoate phase of these activities in which games, ritual, and drama were most alike -so much so, in fact, that what Roger Callois writes about games could pass as Aristotle's defense of drama in the Poetics or the Politics and Rene Girard's observations on the beneficial nature of ritual in Violence and the Sacred:
«Games discipline instincts and institutionalize them. For the time that they afford formal and limited satisfaction, they educate, enrich, and immunize the mind against their virulence. At the same time, they are made fit to contribute usefully to the enrichment and the establishment of various patterns of culture» (Callois, 55). Games, like ritual, like drama, are safe and constructive; they neutralize rivalry, hostility, fears, and violence by displacing them, by containing them in a separate, signifiable space outside the mundane bounds of the community. They allow the terrible to occur through an elaborate process of substitution whereby actors «die», goats replace humans on the sacrificial altars, and tokens go to jail without passing «Go». (Even when humans were sacrificed, ritual still represented an act of substitution: the individual took the place of an entire community that felt threatened by catastrophe). With its ritualistic, playful, and theatrical overtones, Assassins resists any but the most general, antigeneric descriptions. The play too works through displacement, through an elaborate process of substitution, metaphorically, as if, negating the illusion even as it creates it.
As if aspiring to Aristotelian grandeur, Lalo stresses the tragic and terrifying dimension of
«a spectacle worthy of being seen. It makes my hair stand on end» (142). He is simultaneously the spectator relishing the horror, the director controlling it, and the actor living it. With all the care of a director he dominates space, closing the door, framing the playing area, setting the stage, accentuating boundaries of separation. He dominates time, structuring events in dramatic beats that deliberately highlight their theatricality:
«End of part one!» (168). Like Oedipus and Hamlet, he plays both executioner and victim in his attempt to reorganize a world in crisis. He is the actor who plays all the parts (mother, father, assassin, fetus, victim) in a drama that is only partially his own. He is a double, triple, quadruple figure, split to the nth degree, simultaneously innocent and guilty, terrifying and pathetic, in control and helpless, violent and defeated. As in Genet's Maids (which Triana had seen in Cuba in 1950), the action weaves between a desire to steep oneself in violence and the desire to liberate oneself from oppression. As in Genet's Balcony, the characters search for identity and power through the absolute identification with an image. As in Sartre's No Exit, the infernal, repetitious action goes on obsessively behind closed doors. As in ritual drama and the theatre of cruelty, Lalo experiences cathartic relief after the murder:
«Now I feel calm. I would like to sleep, sleep, sleep forever» (167).
As in a game, the players take their turns. The alternation undercuts the linearity or circularity of action we associate with theatre; the play «ends» with Beba's words:
«Now it's my turn» (201). The characters, through their different voices, refer to the action as
«a monstrous game» (186). The stakes are high; the repercussions range from the subjunctive mode of possibility,
«as if your soul were at stake» (170), to the indicative mode of fact:
«Life or death. You can't escape» (173). Furthermore, the work explicitly stresses the ambiguous ludic/theatrical nature of «play»:
«We were playing,... that is, we were acting» (189).
As in a ritual, Lalo invokes the gods and accentuates the ceremonial nature of the action and the objects, lending the work a sacred quality. Yet even on this level the play is split. Is it a sacred, religious, or transcendental ritual, or a secular ritual or ceremony unfolding within a personal and social context?8 The representation seems designed instrumentally, designed as a means of provoking «something», making «something» happen. With all the pomp of a high priest, Lalo presides over the sacrifice, controlling those around him:
«Lalo (Holding the knife in his hands); Silence. (The two sisters begin to murmur softly)» (167). The play focuses on separation and liminality, two of the three stages Van Gennep discerns in ritual. The children close the door that supposedly links them to the parental home and establish an alternate world, another «area of ambiguity» between forces of structure and antistructure9. Cuca puts things in place, advocates respect and order; Lalo rearranges everything and threatens to disrupt the family structure. The physical separation in Assassins exactly echoes the
«opening of doors... the literal crossing of a threshold» (Turner, 24-25) associated with liminality. The action unfolds in sight of and in relationship to the door, which dominates the play both visually and thematically. Not only is it the one fixed object in sight (the only unburied boundary of separation between inner and outer); it objectifies the very concept of liminality. We can define the characters as «borderline» or «liminal» because of their position vis-à-vis the door. Will they cross its threshold into the larger world and be reincorporated into their society, thereby completing the ritual process? Or will they remain in limbo, undefined, undifferentiated? By shutting the door, the characters try to gain control of themselves, of their space, and thereby rebel against their lack of definition, their personal indeterminacy. The third phase of incorporation, representing
«the return of the subjects to their new, relatively stable, well-defined position in the total society» (Turner, 24), is conspicuously missing, aborting the ritual process.
For all its ritualistic overtones, the endless structuring and restructuring in the play works less as a transformation from one state to another (associated with ritual) than as a response to crisis, a struggle for definition and meaning,
«a declaration against indeterminacy» (Turner, 83). In the face of crumbling social and personal frameworks, Lalo tries to create an alternative spatial and temporal frame from which to stage an act (however dangerous) of personal affirmation. He rejects the ambivalence that, according to him, plagues Cuca:
«You want and you don't want. You are and you aren't. Do you think that being like that is enough? You have to take risks. Win or lose, it doesn't matter» (148). Perhaps herein lies the power of theatre during periods of crisis. In the face of rupture and decomposition, theatrical representation lends form, structure, organization, hierarchies, plots, inversions, roles, lines, attitudes, symbols. Yet in spite of Lalo's attempts to combat crisis by imposing form, the representations melt into each other; the boundaries blur between inner and outer, between action and reaction. The stage directions and dialogue accentuate the ambiguity of space, leaving us wondering where Lalo goes, for example, when «he hurries off toward the back», or where he comes from when the directions tell us «Enter Lalo» after stressing that no one passes through the door. The walls fade into the dark corners, illuminated only in spots by the flashlights Cuca and Beba, as policemen, use in their investigation. The borderline protagonists fight to define themselves in a crumbling world of partitions that do not separate, distinctions that do not hold, levels of action and intentionality that melt into each other.
By using the forms of games, drama, and ritual as though they were interchangeable, Triana does far more than complicate our reading of the text. By blurring generic distinctions and forcing us to question the terms themselves, the formal antistructure of the work brilliantly echoes the play's thematic concern with boundaries of demarcation. The play's focus on liminality (thematically and formally, as related to ritual) ties into its physical concern with blurred spatial limits, pointing back to the etymological kinship between limes (boundary) and limen (threshold). This serves as yet another example of the play's thrust back to embryonic, undifferentiated form. Its unfinished quality tempts us to label the nature of the action and then demonstrates the impossibility of doing so. In order to interpret this play we must go beyond the ambiguous frame or, rather, the frame of ambiguity and insert our own «facts». We can call it a game only if we maintain that the children do not murder their parents; a preparatory rite only if they do; a rehearsal only if the culminating act is theatrical rather than criminal, and so on. The juxtaposition of the inner and outer levels in the metatheatrical frame blurs all frameworks, undermines all readings. The play, unfolding in the common ground of game, drama, and ritual, refuses to develop into differentiated form. By dislocating our frame of reference, Triana's particular theatrical inquiry highlights our inability to locate, to define, for the «secret» or «answer» seems to lie just behind the door, just beyond our view, launching «
desire beyond what it permits us to see» (Barthes, 59). As a meditation on the political exigencies of naming and locating within the revolutionary discourse, Triana's Assassins calls attention to the contradiction of the undertaking. On one hand, the ambiguity within the frame cannot be clarified unless we see beyond the frame, for we cannot judge what it includes until we understand what it excludes; we cannot interpret what goes on onstage until we know what lies beyond the door. Yet the revolutionary discourse demands unequivocal definition and localization: is one in the revolution or outside it? For the revolution or against it? A revolutionary or an antirevolutionary? The impossibility of critical distancing within the confines of the revolutionary frame creates the very area of ambiguity that the revolution attempts to combat through nonambiguity: that is, through naming and locating.
The blurring of boundaries and the collapse of the frameworks that would allow for differentiation, associated with the objective systemic rifts in crisis, are accompanied by the subjective, personal experience of crisis in Assassins. Lalo, Cuca, and Beba try to define themselves in the absence of a concrete, objective other, either individual (parents) or social. While closing the door on otherness at first seems to facilitate the liberation of self and self-determination, the exclusion or disappearance of the real, objective other signals the crisis or death of self. As the protomyths of Oedipus and Lucifer indicate, the revolt against the father denotes the striving for alterity, every human being's need to be other than an extension or sign of parental desire. It also involves substitution of role and/or place. Oedipus becomes king; Lucifer falls from heaven to become lord over hell. The substitution involves an element of transgression, of violation, in both spatial and ethical terms. Representations of parricide traditionally tie images of territorial conflict and exclusion to physical and spiritual putrefaction and abjection. Lalo, like Hamlet, feels embodied in a solid/ sullied body that he fears (rather than wishes) will melt. Like Oedipus, Lalo finds himself trapped in a world in ruins. The disintegration of his world, plagued by mice and cockroaches, is due (again as with Oedipus and Hamlet) to his relationship to his parents:
«This house is my world. And this house is getting old; it's dirty and it smells bad. It's Mother and Father's fault» (150). The transgression reflects the blurring of boundaries in the parent/child relationship, for it simultaneously involves the excessive proximity of incest and the radical separation of murder. The crime suspends all bounds and undermines all borders. The contamination (associated with both incest and murder) from the outer world invades the inner; the inner overflows into the world outside.
Lalo tries to define himself in terms of his territory, distancing himself, circumscribing and controlling the space around him, creating a personal frame of reference. «Put the ashtray in its place!» he demands.
«In this house the ashtray goes on the chair, the flower vase belongs on the floor» (140). Lalo, like the «deject» whom Julia Kristeva describes in Powers of Horror (8), questions his identity in terms of where rather than who he is:
«I didn't know where I was, nor what all those things were», he says. (191). As
«a deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating his universe whose liquid confines... constantly question his solidity and impel him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray. He is on a journey, during the night, the end of which keeps receding» (Kristeva's emphasis). Lalo's journey through the interminable «night» is a search for meaning through control of form, a construction of an identity («assassins») inextricably linked to the existence/disappearance of the other, the victim.
The relationship between where and who is reciprocal. The play's set description underlines the reciprocity:
«They are figures in a museum in ruins» (138). Where shapes whoever inhabits it; the characters are reified into figurines. Who, in turn, shapes the environment; the museum pieces precede the structure housing them. In Assassins, it proves impossible to separate subjective from objective, personal crisis from social decomposition. Lalo's opening command, «Close that door», signals the paradoxical position of both the characters and the room; they are separate yet belonging; excluded yet entrapped. By closing the door, Lalo attempts to regulate the manner in which outside meets inside and self faces other. The offstage cast of characters -the parents, the police, Margarita and Pantaleón- «enter» the set only through representation, enacted by the onstage characters. Moreover, the door signals the fragility, the penetrability, of the border between inner and outer. In their attempt to keep domains apart, the characters actually bring together the horrors they can neither forget nor assimilate. What has been left out of the frame -parents, neighbors, police- comes in to plague them. Stocked with rejects and harboring rats, cockroaches, spiders, and termites, the room stands as a concrete reminder of the centrality and the predominance of things (metaphorical and physical) they cannot get rid of, cannot deal with, and consequently attempt to push out of sight.
The uncontrollable merging of the inner and outer world, explored spatially through the hazy lines of demarcation and structurally by means of overlapping levels, suggests both objective social crisis and personal decomposition. The disintegration around Lalo underlines his own lack of solidity. His sense of self is so tenuous that he fades into the other:
«I stood in front of the mirror and saw my mother dead at the bottom of a coffin» (190). He is
«going down, down, down» (149), back into his mother. The mirror, surface of reflection, reveals the depth of the despair. Paralyzed in and by crisis, Lalo cannot separate from his parents; he cannot simply walk away from the house. Rather, be becomes caught in the circular process of internalization and expulsion. He internalizes his parents by means of role playing and expels them, makes them separate. Through murder he transforms them into things -corpses, rejects. His psychodramatic attempts to shake himself free of his parents by means of internalization and expulsion function as a grotesque inversion of gestation -incorporation and expulsion by the parental body. For Lalo, giving birth becomes confused with defecation, a substitution expressed in spatial terms when the bedroom «turns into» the lavatory. The onstage world resembles a decaying body whose borders, the «bladders» and «sphincters», no longer separate -hence the pollution of both outer and inner, life merging with death:
«I don't know why I didn't drown you at birth» (193).
Lalo feels simultaneously trapped in and excluded from the maternal body. He experiences the collapse of a world without boundaries to such a degree that even the human body, the only remaining boundary, has been taken over and threatened with disintegration. His role as his pregnant mother on her wedding day shows him in and central to her body. He «plays» her carrying him. He is simultaneously a part of her and himself, a state of utter undifferentiation and dependency foreshadowing his present condition. The maternal body gives him being, but his being in turn (his imperceptible presence as fetus) sets everything else in motion: his parents' wedding, their subsequent misery. Though the maternal womb gives him birth, Lalo experiences bond as bondage, as a devastating uterine labyrinth engulfing and destroying him. So too he feels that his very existence repulses his mother, who revolts against him and rejects him as if he were the Minotaur, the product of a monstrous coupling:
«Nine months of dizziness, vomiting... I don't know how I stood you that long in my belly» (192-93). He is the monster abhorred by his parents, a reject in a room of rejects. Though expelled from the parental body, he in no way feels autonomous or capable of living in the world. He is embryonic (floating head downward), unfinished (a thirty-year-old child), a distorted image in a faulty family mirror. His ambivalent feelings reflect both his extreme dependency (for as is the case with a fetus or infant, the parents' death would mean his own death) and his equally urgent need to separate from them in order to live. He acutely needs to be other than the sign of parental desire:
«I wanted... life... I wanted, needed, longed desperately to do things for myself» (187). But he can only define himself in response to their existence -their son, their murderer. Like Michelangelo's slaves, struggling to pull free from the marble engulfing them, Lalo tries to throw off the dead weight of his parents:
«I suffered every morning when I awakened: it was as if I arose from death weighed down by the two corpses that followed me in dreams» (190). In a kaleidoscopic world, people and objects, inner and outer conflate:
«The chair wasn't the chair, but my Father's corpse. If I held a glass of water, I felt as though my hands were gripping my dead Mother's clammy throat» (191). The disintegration around him threatens his own solidity;
«It's as if I were vanishing» (153). Having no firm sense of identity, Lalo reverts to the familiar role of «object» and casts himself as the knife, a sacred object
«saturated with being» (Eliade, Eternal Return, 4), an instrument of separation.
Lalo's inclusion/exclusion in relation to the parental body functions as the model for the larger power network alluded to in the play. Locked in the onstage world, the characters constantly hint at other worlds beyond the door. The parental world, as depicted by the children, manifests all forms of deceit, ranging from polite hypocrisy to gross betrayal. Manipulative/manipulated, infuriating/furious, violent/self-sacrificing parents scrimp and scrounge to make ends meet. Their world, in turn, opens up to a larger world of tortuous city streets, humiliating jobs, degrading extramarital relationships. The complex social network appears both hostile and unknowable to the protagonists, principally Lalo, who states,
«I don't know how to walk through the streets; I'm confused, I lose my way» (153). These different worlds are presented spatially (womb, room, house, city) as concentric spheres of authority, closed structures different in degree but not in kind. In each, everyone vies for control, suspects and dislikes everyone else, maintains conflicting views on what the world should be and what should go on in it. Together, they do not represent a pluralistic vision of existence, divergent modes of being and diverse values, but a monistic, totalizing system in which each component threatens to absorb and nullify the others. The passing from one circle to another is depicted as a violent invasion. Just as Lalo grew inside his mother's womb against her wishes, imaginary characters invade Lalo's inner space much against his will and authority. So too the parental world cannot protect itself from the censuring gaze of the outside world, even though the parents hide behind hypocritical roles and impose them on others. Outsiders seem ever ready to penetrate, to
«stick their noses» (153) into other people's business. Yet while the social structures cannot defend against malicious social intrusion, the dirty windows and the grimy walls keep out the sunlight.
Authority within these concentric worlds seems basically intrusive, patriarchal, and hierarchical. It invades the space of the other and takes over, marginalizing and oppressing the disempowered. The need to maintain power breeds violence, from the overt physical violence inherent in defending the system to the insidious violence of fostering crippling dependency in its members, denying them the possibility of meaningful action and uncompromised discourse. In Assassins the father (as represented by the children) speaks in the yours-is-not-to-reason-why tone of authority figures everywhere:
«Lab, you will do the washing and the ironing... Then you'll clean the toilets. You'll eat in a corner in the kitchen. You'll learn. I swear to God you'll learn! Do you hear me?» (152). Yet the father is no freer, no more individualized or autonomous than the children. He, too, is an object, a reject. Cuca, playing the role of the mother, defines their father as
«a piece of trash. He's useless. He's always been a Mister Nobody» (195). Triana's use of names indicates the «progression» from the childish diminutives (Lalo, Beba, Cuca) to the ridiculous, anonymous Mister Nobody. The father is merely a larger version of Lalo, described in words echoing those Lalo uses to describe himself. And so, we assume, the circle widens across the society to include larger and larger versions of the same pathetic beings, and it spirals temporally as generational, biological self-perpetuation.
In this insistence on circularity, Assassins simultaneously reflects and challenges the biological model of historical process. Lalo is both a product of past events and, at the same time, the being who perpetuates the past into the future. As with Oedipus, the biological fact of his existence generates history and sets in motion a series of foreseeable events, the petty domestic miseries decreed before he was born. Although Lalo kills his parents -symbolically if not literally- the killing itself is not the main problem. (The entire issue of the killing seems more practical than ethical; it is not so much a question of whether they should or should not as of whether they can or cannot). The problem is that he and his sisters cannot find new ways of acting in order to devise new strategies for reorganizing their territory once they have conquered it. Should they tear down the house -revolution? Should they improve on what they already have -internal reorganization? Should they leave the house forever -exile? But the endless abreactions seem to preclude the possibility of action altogether. One of the most striking features about this play is the limitation of choice and absence of viable alternatives. The characters repeatedly act out a series of roles that undermine rather than establish identity and context. Lalo, playing father at the end of the play, replaces his father in true Oedipal fashion, substituting one power figure for another. But is this revolution? Lalo fights with his sisters, hits them, orders them around, steals the show, and thus reproduces the male-dominated, violent world he had tried to leave behind. So while he may be capable of violence and murder, he is incapable of radical change. Here, I feel, Triana expresses his views on the recently triumphant revolution. The violent usurpation of political power did not guarantee social renovation. The challenge of the revolution was to create a new system of power that would not reproduce the oppression and dependency of the ones before. But Lalo reiterates the words spoken by his father before him:
«We should have cleaned the house... We should have replaced the furniture» (199). The father, incapable of directing his own life, crumbles under the challenge. So does Lalo. Like father, like son.
«If love were enough...» (201), says Lalo at the end of the play. But love has failed. So has the struggle for personal autonomy and self-determination. The utopia envisioned by José Martí has failed. Lalo remains trapped in a parental body that rejects him, locked in an annihilating family structure that deforms him: biology as history and history as biological process. Here, then, we have repetition not only as circularity and substitution but also as degeneration. Each new revolution bespeaks new failures, deeper depths of despair.
Triana offsets the circular, downwardly spiraling motion of a degrading biological process by juxtaposing another model of repetition and recreation: theatrical rehearsal. Repetition signals more than a simple replay. The theory behind theatrical repetition -the French répétition- is originality and pefectibility, but this linear, progressive improvement is possible only within the framework of a repetitive structure. Practice makes perfect; rehearsal culminates in performance. «One day», the children keep reassuring themselves, «we'll go through with it». The hope is that instead of being dwarfed by inherited biological and theatrical roles -father, mother, Pantaleón, the maids, Garcin- the children may try on and eventually assume roles that allow them to break out of the circular patterns, that through theatrical repetition they may be able to generate a new Ideal, out of which will grow a new Real. This is revolution's utopian project. In this sense, revolutionaries are absolutists and romantics. This is also theatre's utopian project as described by Artaud's
«life renewed by theatre, a sense of life in which man fearlessly makes himself master of what does not yet exist, and brings it into being» (Double, 13).
However, Assassins illustrates that there are at least two major problems in the theatrical model of progress and re-creation. The first (though from the perspective of Assassins not the most important) is that the theatrical model of self-engendering, of conceiving oneself otherwise and merging with a theatrical image, necessarily encourages a degree of mythification. Triana is aware of both the positive and the negative implications of creating and assuming new roles. On the positive side, research by psychologists (notably J. L. Moreno, who in the 1920s developed the psychodramatic technique for altering human behavior) and theatre therapists (for example, John Bergman of Geese Theatre, who works with criminals in penitentiaries) indicates that individuals can increase their options for functioning in the world by assuming new roles. But whereas these examples presuppose that the individual is the deviant who must adapt to social reality, not all those who use theatre techniques to change the role of the individual in social systems share that assumption. Boal's «theatre of the oppressed» bases itself on the opposite premise, that many individuals are excluded from sociopolitical circles that should rightfully be open to them. Taking on new roles, according to Boal, is not an adaptive but a revolutionary technique to help individuals change the system. On the positive side, Triana, like Boal, shows the world improving as a consequence of the children's ability to find more independent and better-directed ways of acting. The negative aspect of taking on theatrical roles is that though only new roles will allow the children to change their sociopolitical situation, the characters' uncritical identification with heroic images threatens to trap them in a totalitarian fantasy. Thus, as heroic citizens, these «new men» feel not only entitled, but morally obliged to exclude those who fail to live up to the fantasy. As Cuca asks the imaginary jury:
«Can we allow such a person [as Lalo] to share our hopes and ideals at a time when humanity, that is to say our society, should be marching toward a shining future, toward a golden dawn?»10 The danger is that the thrust for liberation hides a far deeper need for submission, that the vision of collective harmony merely disguises and legitimates the mechanisms for excluding others, and that what promises to be revolutionary activity proves only an adaptive measure.
Ultimately more self-defeating, from the context of Assassins, is that the paradigm of theatrical self-engendering only revamps an old, basically misogynist model of historical process. Like the Hegelian and Marxist theories of human perfectibility through conflict, work, and thought, the theatrical model also maintains that humans (specifically males) can eschew biology and bring themselves into being. Lalo (the mover and doer in the play) believes he can overcome biological determinism through theatrical representation by casting himself in desired roles varying from high priest to assassin. Artaud, too, fantasizes about recreating himself and pronounces the rejection of his mother and his biological birth in terms similar to those expressed by Lalo:
«This is no way to be born, to be copulated and masturbated for nine months by the membrane which toothlessly devours... I know that I was born otherwise, born of my own works and not of a mother... I was born only in my own labor pangs» (Anthology, 83). Moreover, Artaud's search through theatre for a way of recreating himself, extreme as it is, strangely echoes Hegelian and Marxist political thought. Hegel states that man «comes to light» only in his fight to the death against the other11. Sartre, in his introduction to The Wretched of the Earth (14), praises Frantz Fanon for being «the first since Engels to bring the processes of history into the clear light of day». Sartre's Hegelian view of historical process shows the revolutionary as the «man recreating himself» through his own «labor», through work and conflict.
Rather than signaling a new self-conception, however, these repeated images of self-engendering obfuscate what is basically the male appropriation of the process of gestation and birthing, revealing perhaps not so much a new historical paradigm as a profound fear and hatred of women. In other words, the image of the man giving birth to himself does not alter the biological model so much as simply eliminate woman from the process. The model not only excludes women; it is a negative inversion of the biological process of gestation itself. Instead of giving birth and life, a man can only «come to light» through a fight to the death. By defeating the Master, the Slave
«himself creates himself» (Sartre, Introduction, 21). Lalo too acquires his identity (assassin) by killing his «masters». Like Hegel's «Slave», he imagines he can bring himself into being only through his own actions, through his willingness to risk his life rather than accept servitude. As he tells Cuca,
«You have to take risks. Win or lose, it doesn't matter» (148). The first problem with the self-engendering myth, which according to Hannah Arendt «is the very basis of leftist humanism», is that it is patently wrong. As Arendt points out,
«nothing is more obvious than that man, whether as a member of the species or as an individual, does not owe his existence to himself» (Violence, 12-13; Arendt's emphasis).
The skewed version of historical process in Assassins is consistent with the world view in the play as a whole; the children's failure to create new roles is linked to their inability to go beyond old paradigms of history; their definition of self (whether individually or historically) still depends on the elimination of the (m)other. The revolutionary act becomes conflated with the misogynist act. In order to «become» a man, the hero must abandon woman: Lalo's father should have walked out of his home and abandoned his wife. For Lalo, autonomy comes only through the radical separation from parental bonds, exemplified in maternal engulfment (pregnancy); as in Plato's simile of the cave, enlightenment comes only upon leaving the uterine dwelling; in historical paradigms, revolutionary man becomes self-engendering through his own labor. As Lalo's predicament indicates, it proves impossible to envision new roles without also devising new constructs that allow new ways of thinking about such concepts as origin, progress, revolution, and history.
How, then, can the children create new roles that will permit freedom of action and self-definition without reproducing the violence and limitations of the old? How can they devise a different way of thinking about individual and historical process that does not lead back to the old dead ends? How can revolution create a new society without recreating the problems of the previous one? The roles, images, and ideas produced and reproduced in Assassins illustrate that without a conceptual breakthrough, progress is illusory. The illusion of progress is maintained through a process of repetitive substitution rather than by linear development. The creation of a fictitious, theatrical self is only a re-creation that hinges on the elimination of the real other, which is then replaced by a false other and a false self. Instead of the past, the home, the parents, we have the present, the room, the children -who then generate their version of history. Yet the past melts into and is indistinguishable from the present. The room beyond the door, the parents, the past -in short, everything we can suppose to represent the real other in Assassins- proves only a refraction of self: that room is probably no different from this room, so the problem is not only there but here; the parents are probably no different from the children; the present represents the past. The doubling is theatrical both in the sense that it numerically represents and, at the same time, historically actualizes the past. The past does not simply «appear on stage wearing the mask of the preceding scene». This replay is not only an optical distortion, as Régis Debray argues in Revolution in the Revolution? (19), produced by «our vision, encumbered with memory and images learned in the past. We see the past superimposed on the present, even when the present is a revolution». The point of Triana's play is that the present reproduces the past, in the sense of reactivation rather than mimesis. The problems have not been solved. The questions have not been answered. (Twenty years later, in Worlds Apart , Triana continues to emphasize this point: «War? Again? And what did the last two solve? Just more blood, more deaths!») Unless something radically alters the situation, the past is repeatedly actualized as present and as future, generation after generation. But what is that something? Revolution? Is revolution the awaited radical upheaval or yet another repetitive cycle, one more substitution?
Assassins incessantly brings us back where we began. The play not only thematizes parricide as a form of ultimate self-annihilation; it works as theatrical and historical parricide/suicide. What we see in Assassins is an elaborate play of substitution. To begin with, the play kills off (literally shuts the door on) the real other. In the absence of the real other, the play presents a false other (Lalo as father, Cuca as mother, children as self-engendering). The substitution operates through metaphor, in itself the vehicle for substitution. The other is recreated through role playing, which substitutes for the absent real other. This fictitious, theatrical invention becomes the mirror through which the characters try to define self. Having eliminated the real other, Lalo can only hope to see (though he fails to see) himself in this imagined other: looking in the mirror, he sees his dead mother. Hence, unlike the mirror stage that Lacan considers vital to ego formation, this mirror deforms the ego by reflecting self as absent, completely out of the frame. Only a false or nonself can evolve through identification with the false other -and that false self cancels the real through theatrical substitution. Who are these children? How old are they? What do they think about themselves, each other, the world they live in? The process we see in Assassins is one of double elimination, double substitution in that the banished real other also makes impossible the existence of a real self. The children, too, are absent, rendered invisible through role playing. All we see are the roles, and the roles are too big for them. We hear different statements through disembodied voices that cancel themselves even as they speak. The theatrical recreation of other destroys the self. The roles the children reenact challenge us to pose theatre's own self-annihilating question: if these people could stop acting, could they start living?
Assassins problematizes the revolution's failure to create new roles, new constructs, a new real; however, it also problematizes the role of theatre in the revolutionary process. The juxtaposed circular and linear models not only illustrate conflicting ways of thinking about history -the biological-ahistorical and the linear-triumphalist respectively- but also signal the two major assessments of theatre's political effectiveness, which were then and to a degree still are being debated by theatre practitioners in Latin America and elsewhere. The aim of the representations, the characters tell us repeatedly, is to «carry through» with their act, to kill their parents -which, within the context of the play, seems equivalent to the prototypical, revolutionary act. The action, then, claims to concentrate tension, rather than diffuse or release it, in order to bring about specific social change. This linearity seems to support the revolutionary view of theatre as an instrument in social struggle as expressed by people such as Augusto Boal, T. Philemon Wakashe (South Africa), and Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)12. But the play professes two antithetical goals. The second undercuts the first; the action seems cathartic and circular, designed to release tension through repeated abreaction. Lalo expends his energy on obsessive representations that incapacitate him, one might conclude, for real action. On this level, Assassins insinuates its concern that theatre serves to exhaust and pacify the suffering of the oppressed without improving their situation. As Fanon says of dance and possession,
«The native relaxation takes precisely the form of a muscular orgy in which the most acute aggressivity and the most impelling violence are canalized, transformed, and conjured away» (57). Boal issues a similar warning about carnival («Teatro popular», 32). Assassins manifests both the linear progression associated with revolutionary theatre and the circular, exhaustive aspects of cathartic theatre. Is this a preparatory (revolutionary) theatre, or a substitute for real action (antirevolutionary)? The ambiguous relationship between theatrical representation and real action in the play raises questions about the possibility of action (as opposed to reaction) in a closed political system. By participating in the enactment of the murder, what do the children accomplish? If the «play» is a rehearsal, can we believe these aging adolescents capable of ever changing their environment? In other words, is there anything to suggest that theatre prepares an audience for political action and precipitates radical social change? If the play provides cathartic release, the anarchistic onslaught serves only -ironically- to strengthen the hated social structure. By exhausting their hostility in a «safe» (theatrical) setting, the children manage to live in a world they perceive as unlivable. In short, we could argue that instead of affecting the system as they suppose, their obsessive representation allows them to adapt to it. Assassins asks us to consider whether, for these children, theatrical re-creation is not the ultimate form of violence, nullifying the possibility of real action,
«making them play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves... making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility for action» (Levinas, 21). Is drama (dran = to do, to act) their awdoing?
Assassins, however, is not a play that denounces theatre. It offsets its concerns about the futility (and perniciousness) of dramatic action precisely by posing them through theatre. In spite of the seeming impossibility of maintaining an other in a totalizing world, the work's unfinished and ambiguous nature in fact points to an other way of being. Because it undermines frameworks that allow us to formulate meaning in any clear, unequivocal way, the play resists assimilation. The play is untotalizable and, as such, external to the totalizing world it portrays. The play speaks, yet its disembodied voice cannot be pinned to any one speaker; it responds, yet no one is responsible. The only way to be other, the play suggests (in spite of the many overt attacks against indeterminacy), is through ambiguity. Ambiguity, by nature untotalizable, threatens the very notion of totality. When revolution offers no possibility of critical distancing, when there is «nothing» outside the revolution, when all discourse is subsumed by the revolutionary frame, then the only other space is the area of ambiguity within the confines of the revolutionary frame itself.
Assassins, then, creates its own space and a language of ambiguity that cannot be absorbed by the larger political or theoretical structure or terminology. It sidesteps the political demand that art name and locate. But why the importance of creating an other? Is ambiguity meaningful only as a strategy for disrupting political complacency, in the sense Barbara Johnson refers to in A World of Difference (30-31):
«Nothing could be more comforting to the established order than the requirement that everything be assigned to a clear meaning or stand. It is precisely because the established order leaves no room for unneutralized (i. e., unestheticized) ambiguity that it seems urgent to meet decisiveness with decisiveness. But for that same reason it also seems urgent not to». Could it also be that by remaining other, the play can be not anti- but in a sense independent of the revolution, posing a dialectical tension with the stasis of revolution. This dialectical otherness may seem unreasonable, even heretical, for as Herbert Marcuse (vii) notes, revolutionary discourse «seems promising and productive enough to repel or absorb all alternatives. Thus acceptance -and even affirmation- of this reality seems the only reasonable methodological principle. Moreover, it precludes neither criticism nor change; on the contrary, insistence on the dynamic character of the status quo, on its constant "revolutions", is one of the strongest props for this attitude. Yet this dynamic process seems to operate endlessly within the same framework». Hence, by remaining outside the revolution, the play threatens not the revolution but the stasis of revolution, the totalizing tendency of revolution, and provokes rather an ongoing dialectical process -a permanent revolution. For that reason, Zamyatin ruefully observed, heretics are
«exterminated by fire, by axes, by words» (108).
If the play maintains a position other than that assigned to it by revolution, does that make it antirevolutionary? Initially, the fidelistas advocated complete intellectual freedom, declaring that the revolution could tolerate all manner of divergency. But by 1965, the «seething sphere» of revolution had cooled to dogma, Zamyatin's «entropy». The tensions between what the Cuban revolution could and could not accept focused on Triana. He was simultaneously accepted and rejected; he received the coveted Casa de las Américas prize and yet was gradually ostracized from intellectual life. His play not only depicted the difficulty of being other in a totalizing system that insists on defining and situating everything; it also activated the problem. The play simultaneously presented the problem of alterity in a totalizing structure and represented it. In the 1960s it was generally accepted by Latin American intellectuals that politically and socially committed artists should support the Cuban revolution. Fernando Alegría, for example, while noting that literature is revolutionary in various ways, states that
«an author who lives in the revolution cannot, if he is sincere, help but ask himself how his work functions within the new social organization and what is expected of him within the revolutionary dynamics» (10). Assassins is a revolutionary work of art, but not in the sense that its commentators expected or were prepared to accept. The play speaks to the ongoing dialogue about dramatic and social action, but not in a voice we would recognize or from a position we can localize. The play's definable or localizable generic and political «character» -its inquiry into the nature and efficacy of the Cuban revolution, its political urgency and romantic intensity- disappear (like the play's characters themselves) behind its formal ventriloquism. It is not, like the revolutionary theatre discussed previously, immediately useful as a work of art; on the contrary, the revolutionaries found it harmful and disturbing. It proves disturbing, however, precisely in its revolutionary questioning of the revolutionary process itself. As Zamyatin (109) concludes, «Harmful literature is more useful than useful literature». And because Assassins problematizes the boundaries of the system's discursive and perceptual frames, it is also a destructive play. But then dialectical thought, as Marcuse (xii) states, is «necessarily destructive... it reveals modes and contents of thought which transcend the codified pattern of use and validation». Yet out of the destructive comes the potential for a renewed union of theory and practice, thought and action. What has to change in order for Castro's Cuba to avoid repeating the corrupt and totalizing systems it replaced? How can we learn to think and to be otherwise so that we do not replay the past? This is the truly revolutionary question, and insofar as the Cuban revolution failed to answer it, it was also the profoundly heretical one.
In the same vein, Assassins is also an aesthetically original piece of theatre. It presents itself as an avant-garde play in the tradition of the French existentialists, of the absurdists, of Jean Genet, whose work Triana encountered first in Cuba and later in Spain («Entrevista», 116). Yet though it shares many similarities with their works, here too Triana carries out a complicated play of substitution. Assassins «looks» like other plays, but the resemblance is only a political necessity, a means to challenge the complacency of the revolution without obviously transgressing the limits of the revolutionary discourse. But the politically grounded nature of Triana's preoccupations point away from, rather than toward, the issues that concern Sartre, Ionesco, and Genet. Sartre's No Exit is also a cruel striptease, a play of endless self-examination and self-recrimination. The three characters «peer» into themselves, «into the secret places of [their] heart[s]»; they reveal what they see, and it makes them
«faint with horror» (43). Like Lalo, Cuca, and Beba, they use their knowledge as a weapon and take turns ganging up on each other. They vie for control and dream of liberty under the shadow of the door, which leads, as in Assassins, to a labyrinthian passage and from there to
«more rooms, more passages, and stairs» (6). In Sartre's play, the characters' eternal acting-out also undermines the possibility of real action. Like Assassins, No Exit blurs distinctions between inner and outer: the characters can look back on earth from their position in hell, and hell is a direct consequence of their acts on earth. Hence, as in Triana's work, the past is actualized in the present; only now do the characters realize the full extent of the horror of what they committed in life. And all the while the door between the two worlds remains firmly shut. However, even though Sartre pins down certain historical details -Garcin, interestingly, is a Brazilian journalist shot to death by the military for fleeing the country during a period of political crisis- the thrust of the play is not so much about humans trying to create better roles and better worlds as a depiction of constant, ubiquitous human suffering. The theme is universal, existential: people make themselves suffer; they create their own hells, here and always. The characters are dead; they are beyond the possibility of action, beyond change. Nothing could be further from Triana's utopian project. For him, theatre is not a representation of an infernal condition but a site for generating new, real, redemptive images. Triana's concept of theatre as a site for generating images is what brings him close to Genet, the playwright with whom he is most often compared. Genet too is acutely aware of the political importance of spectacle in society: power is maintained through the manipulation of images -Queen, Bishop, Judge, General, Chief-of-Police. Political conflict, Genet perceived perhaps better than anyone, is a battle of images. The revolutionaries in The Balcony convert Chantal into the image of revolution, another «Liberty Guiding the People» à la Delacroix. The images engage in the battle for control of the symbolic order; the image of the Queen, proving most powerful, appropriates the revolutionary image and uses it toward its own ends. Ultimately, Genet proposes a vision of power that Triana consciously struggles against and denounces. For Triana, the simulation, the incessant and ambiguous playing, is that «which conceals the truth», the specific, historically grounded failings of the Cuban revolution. It is that which enables him to speak «the truth» without coming straight out and saying it. Yet truth is real. For Genet, the simulacrum is the
«truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true» (qtd. in Baudrillard, 1). For Genet, the battle of images does not create a utopian real, but a postmodern «hyperreal». Baudrillard (2-4) defines the hyper-real as «the generation by models of a real without origin or reality... It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself». The image of the Queen plays as important and politically real a function as the Queen herself -or more, in fact, insofar as real queens can die and images can be produced (through theatre, photography, and so on) and technologically reproduced and projected infinitely. Genet was fascinated with the political use of these images, particularly in fascist and totalitarian states. In The Balcony, those who control the fantasies, the little theatres in which the images are generated and lived out, control the population. Irma, like the watch guard in the panoptic prison, controls the «visitors» by keeping them in separate studios, each one equipped with a viewfinder. Irma's centralized scrutinizing machinery, in turn, is at the service of the state. She is power's whore, literally the Chief-of-Police's whore; to him she passes all the valuable information, and he protects her «house of Illusions», which continues producing the images people live by.
Genet's model, even though based on the technological production and reproduction of images, applies primarily (though not exclusively) to the advanced «societies of the spectacle» described by Baudrillard's predecessor, Guy Debord (6):
«The spectacle, grasped in its entirety, is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of unrealism of the real society». Genet's model also holds an important political lesson for developing countries. In South Africa, for example, computers are currently used as instruments of social control much in the manner of Irma's viewfinders. Genet's image of the studios, which Irma tirelessly endeavors to keep separate, represents the compartmentalization and constant surveillance that writers such as Fanon (38) associate with colonialism: «The colonial world is a world cut in two. The dividing line, the frontiers, are shown by barracks and police stations». Yet though it applies to developing countries, this particular model does not apply specifically to the problems Triana associates with Cuba, either in the early 1960s or today. Cuba was trying to get beyond the internal divisions, the conflict and oppression that characterize both the South African and the colonial model. Triana was interested in theatre not as a coercive totalitarian tool (or a model for one) but as an arena for generating real sociopolitical change. As I have insisted previously, Triana believed in the revolutionary project. Ideologically, he was much closer to his colleagues at UNEAC than to Genet or Sartre; he believed in the real as well as in the reality and necessity of radical social upheaval. For Triana, the battle was one not of fabricated, artificial images but of new political roles, visions, and options. Like one member of the Grupo Escambray, Triana too probably would have scoffed at the irony of someone rehearsing an Ionesco piece while engaged in revolution13. What could be more foreign to Triana, who was producing a play in the context of the revolution for an audience that had committed itself to a radical social overhaul, than Ionesco's notion of «objective reality, outside time, eternal» and his concept of art as
«an autonomous creation, an independent universe with its own life and its own laws?»14 What Triana criticizes is the limiting, controlling aspect of discursive and perceptual frames, the enforced naming and localizing. In this sense, Triana's position is «absurdist» only in that it dialectically opposed the «reasonable» path of the Castristas. Hence it was irrational, politically absurd,
«to speak a language which is not the language of those who establish, enforce and benefit from the facts. As the power of the given facts tends to become totalitarian, to absorb all opposition, and to define the entire universe, the effort to speak the language of contradiction appears increasingly irrational, obscure, artificial» (Marcuse, x).
In short, the fundamental difference between Triana and the avant-garde playwrights with whom he is compared is his fervent belief in the importance and possibility of sociopolitical regeneration. The repetition of the piece expresses a disillusionment, but also a hope. As Debray (23) points out, failure is not the end of the revolution; «For a revolutionary, failure is a springboard. As a source of theory it is richer than victory: it accumulates experience and knowledge». For Triana as for Zamyatin, literature should be harmful, the more destructive and dangerous the better. Literature should stay not within the revolution but outside it, keeping it going, keeping it honest, leading it onward toward the creation of new images and constructs that it helps bring into being. For Zamyatin in 1923 as for Triana in the 1960s, what was needed was a literature capable of exploring
«vast philosophic horizons... we need the most ultimate, the most fearsome, the most fearless "Why?" and "What next?"» (Zamyatin, 109-10).
During a decade (the 1960s to the 1970s) in which Latin American artists and intellectuals believed in the Cuban revolution with almost religious zeal, Triana problematizes the increasingly dogmatic nature of that revolution as well as the static/dynamic tension inherent in all revolutions. Does revolution refer to a radical political upheaval, fought in the name of liberation and social justice, which culminates in the creation of a new state? Can the new state, on settling down to follow its new agenda, ever avoid what some thinkers consider the unavoidable ossification that accompanies the «laborious, slow, useful, most useful» evolutionary process? After all, is not the concept of a permanent revolution a contradictory one? Revolutions and revolutionaries, as Mexico's «institutionalized revolution» demonstrates, are often trapped and die in the systems of power they fought so hard to win. Revolutions seem heroic and laudable when they remain outside the system, struggling to get in, fighting to introduce such concepts as liberation, freedom, and equality. Upon winning power, however, they too must cement their policies through the laborious restructuring process that is grounded in the real. To varying degrees they renounce their ideals for a pragmatic, workable program. This is the reasonable, practical, necessary course; no party could remain in power without taking it. Rather than face the contradictions posed by reality, the «reasonable», «useful», productive course is to eliminate the subversive, destructive dialectical questioning -what Marcuse calls
«the power of negative thinking» as «the driving power of dialectical thought» (viii). And so, back to entropy. Can revolution ever break out of the repetitive cycle? Rather than profound social upheaval, does revolution signal circular repetition, as in the revolutions of the earth around the sun? Or does it denote substitution, the process by means of which one power figure merely replaces another? Is revolution inevitably the
«spectacle that has fallen under the sign of Saturn: "The revolution devouring its own children"?» (Arendt, Revolution, 49).
The existence of Assassins as a self-reflective piece of theatre that keeps asking «Why?» and «What next?» (rather than anything it actually says) makes it a highly political work that carves out for itself a separate place. Assassins is an historia (in both senses, history and story) of and about exile. Written both before and after Triana's exile (before Castro and again after Castro), it dislocates us, erasing the slash in before/after. Assassins is revolutionary, a play of and about revolution. It is profoundly revolutionary in the sense that it is «harmful», «heretical», and utopian; thus, it eludes being trapped in the revolutionary frame. Assassins is metatheatrical, a work of and about theatre. It warns of the dangers of playacting but does so in the only role open to it, through play. The play, like the characters, simultaneously «is» and «isn't» (148). The play gives us the slip. Through its metaphoric substitution, Assassins as game, as ritual, as rehearsal, is a play that absents itself even as it speaks. And yet, it speaks.
Triana's Night of the Assassins is theatre of crisis. Suspended between life and death, locked in an area of ambiguity, it presents a world turned upside down and inside out. The dark, closed chamber in which the children obsessively act out their drama is a camera obscura, the dark space in which images are simultaneously generated (from the inside out) and projected (from the outside in), a cave. The room is both a political metaphor for claustrophobic, totalitarian space and the scene or site of image-production, the matrix/womb, the revolution, the theatre in which matricidal figures and histories originate and die.
If Assassins is a «harmful» and heretical play set in the moment of crisis, in the rupture between thought and action, theory and practice, War Ceremonial (1968-73) goes somewhat beyond the ambiguity of crisis to map out and «prepare the ground for their possible reunion» in which it is possible for
«thought to develop a logic and a language of contradiction» (Marcuse, xii). While reexamining the connections between theatre and revolution already explored to a degree in Assassins, the plays War Ceremonial and Worlds Apart15 indicate the changes in Triana's position in Cuba during the three years after he won the Casa de las Américas award. Triana no longer feels trapped within the theatre but rather feels left outside it. Ceremonial, by representing a wounded revolutionary whose fellow revolutionaries have left him behind to die, offers a very personal, albeit fictionalized, description of Triana's situation after the reception of Assassins, his gradual marginalization from all intellectual activity as he was forced to do manual labor in a factory, and his going into exile in 1980. The obsessive, confessional tone of the play is nightmarish (Triana describes Ceremonial as a recurring nightmare of betrayal and paralysis [«Entrevista», 122]), its introspective quality accentuated perhaps by the fact that Triana had no hopes of staging any more plays in Cuba and had no audience in mind while writing it.
Autobiographical elements notwithstanding, it is clear that the basic conflicts and paradigms we find in Ceremonial were already present in Assassins, although superficially, Ceremonial looks like an entirely different play. Aracelio, a revolutionary soldier, a mambí, has been wounded in the leg during Cuba's war of independence. His companions abandon him until they realize that Aracelio has the map indicating the way to the fort, the Candelaria. Not only are the enemy's military supplies and food kept there, but the fort also represents a microcosm of Cuba,
«the image of our island» (6). Whoever has the map, they say, controls the country's future. Aracelio has been entrusted to direct a heroic mission, «the Revolution's greatest epic», to take the fort and, hence, the country:
«It would be as if you had taken possession of Cuba» (34). Just as it proves impossible for him to undertake the task single-handedly, especially with his injury, it also proves impossible for his fellow revolutionaries to take the fort without the map. Throughout the two-act play, Aracelio's companions use fiction, role playing, and theatrical ceremony to try to win over the map, and Aracelio.
Ceremonial, however, is less ambiguous than Assassins. In Assassins the political meditations on revolution hide behind the dominant Oedipal motif; in Ceremonial the biological is almost totally transposed to the political body. The word «revolution», never once mentioned in the earlier play, is repeated some fifty times in this text. Aracelio depends on the political body (revolution) for his existence and identity. The revolution becomes the «mother» that gives birth to the new being, only later to reject her offspring: Saturn devouring his children. Aracelio is defined by his revolt; he is a «revolutionary» much as Lalo is an «assassin». He incorporates himself totally into the larger political body and claims to surrender his individuality; he recognizes that he «belongs» to the revolution (90) and commits himself «unconditionally» (82) to it. Yet he feels betrayed and rejected, having been abandoned to die of his wound, another Oedipus. He passionately logs to merge with the revolutionary ideals and heroic images, yet he despises the body that expelled him. Like Lalo, both incorporated by the mother and loathed by her, Aracelio experiences annihilation as both inclusion and exclusion: he is a revolutionary trapped in a rotting body; he has been left behind by the revolution to die alone.
Like Assassins, Ceremonial is also about revolution. While the former focuses on the limiting nature of the revolutionary frame which makes it difficult to see beyond it or to think critically about it, the latter analyzes revolution-as-spectacle, revolution-as-icon. The ceremonious, repetitive, almost ritualistic quality of the revolutionary war is already suggested in the title: War Ceremonial. Its perfectible, utopian nature (as rehearsal) is made explicit in the epigraph to the play, taken from the Spanish Civil War poet Miguel Hernández:
«If revolution is the stuff of theatre, let us make sure that our theatre, and hence our revolution, is exemplary -then maybe, maybe, our world will be too» (1). As in Assassins, Triana uses a double time frame to temporally dislocate his discourse. Though the action takes place during Cuba's war of independence (in fact, two wars: the «Ten Years War», 1868-78, and the successful rebellion of 1895-98), everything the play says about that struggle applies at least as much to the revolution of 1959. In Ceremonial, however, the displacement is not primarily a means of avoiding criticism and censorship (we recall that he had no hopes of publishing or producing this work); rather, Triana sees the struggle itself as repetitive insofar as it seems irresolvable. The period of bitter struggle in the late nineteenth century (inspired by the ideals of Martí) ended in the questionable «independence» that freed Cuba from Spain, only to make it a protectorate of the United States; the revolution of 1959 moved it from the American to the Soviet orbit. The use of the same technique, temporal displacement, now takes on a different function.
Perhaps the most significant step beyond the ambiguity of Assassins is the acceptance in this later play of that old Marxist concept, contradiction. While the characters of the early piece despair at their lack of determinacy, in Ceremonial Aracelio finally acknowledges that revolution is unthinkable without the acceptance of contradiction. Although revolution's power to attract attention and draw followers to its ranks lies in its theatrical framing, in the careful selection of roles and the simplification of images signaling one unequivocal «revolutionary» message, these images are necessarily ambiguous; they must unite disparate collectivities under one banner, and they can do so only if they are equivocal enough to mean different things to different people. Aracelio, who at the beginning of the play clung to his notions of «revolution» and «truth» (as if they were identical) like the revolutionary absolutist and romantic he is, now realizes that truth is relative and revolutions are not absolute. «Truth» is self-legitimating, and the potent symbolic function of the word «revolution» lends itself to indiscriminate application, but neither means any one thing. «Revolution» is simultaneously a
«holy word» (79) that motivates people to higher actions and sacrifices and a word to camouflage the basest self-interest, treason, and lies. Instead of a monolithic notion of a truth, perhaps it makes more sense to speak, as Aracelio finally does, of a personalized
«my truth» (93), or of the changing truths described by Zamyatin (110):
«All truths are erroneous. This is the very essence of the dialetical process: today's truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number». If we can accept this contradiction, it may be possible to recognize that the problem in using these words lies perhaps less in their fluidity than in their fixity. Truth and revolution, while apparently antithetical to dogma and institutionalization, nonetheless become dogmatic and institutionalized when they are fixed, made permanent, as in the truth and the revolution.
Other contradictions must be faced as well. How can a dynamic process of revolution be contained in a static image? How can revolution, theoretically a collective process, subsume the many to the one -one image, one slogan, one leader? How can an agenda based on higher social truth, freedom, and justice be based on fiction -the fabrication of images? Is unity always and necessarily the most important political posture, or does a movement have to allow for pluralism? Is revolutionary ideology what holds groups together, or is it rather idolatry, the worship of the image, the icon, the golden calf? The way the characters fling the word «revolution» around makes it resemble a banner whose appearance commands reverence and obedience. Aracelio wavers between betraying the revolution by withholding the map and betraying himself by cooperation with the revolutionaries who betrayed him. Unlike Lalo, however, he is not hopelessly paralyzed by contradiction. By handing over the map, he tries to go beyond the gap between theory and practice, thought and action. The map then provides not only a guide to the territory, indicating pitfalls, but also symbolizes a generative, almost utopian projection toward the future, a new Cuba. It is a blueprint for the future which is only partially based on the past16.
The most fundamental problem in Ceremonial, and in the very concept of revolution, is manifested in the tension between the fluidity of the process and the rigidity of the program, between the idea of a guide and the concreteness of a map, between truth as goal and truth as dogma. Maps fix boundaries; their purpose is to divide, to delineate, to set down. While the world's surface, political boundaries, and human concepts change, maps remain fixed. They do not change; they are replaced. Maps are ideological insofar as they depict dominant perspective (powerful countries are represented as unduly large and on top, though there is no scientific basis for having the north «on top» of the south/north axis). When maps fail to correspond to contemporary reality, they are superseded by ones that do. In short, there are no flexible maps; they are rigid (the concrete equivalent of Zamayatin's entropy); they distort (they represent the world as static when it is in constant movement). Yet we need maps. We cannot get around, or overcome, contradiction. Rather we need the «language» and «logic» of contradiction that allows us to accept the need for maps and truths in spite of their limitations and because of their limitations. Faced with countless possible routes, we need direction, the limitation of choices. We also need truths -collective, distorting, and limiting though they may be. The individual my truth does not motivate armies until it becomes the truth, a generally accepted collective truth; but collectives do not run revolutions, as Castro's revolution makes clear. However, as Triana protests in Ceremonial, the personal must be added to the collective, and the collective must respect the personal. The revolution cannot move until the revolutionaries stop to reintegrate the man they left behind.
If crisis is the moment of suspension between death and regeneration, War Ceremonial, like Assassins, remains in abeyance. It is not until Triana writes Worlds Apart (1979-86) that he moves beyond crisis, that he acquires the critical distance and declares his separate peace by deciding to go into exile, to live «worlds apart». Or, to use the original title in Spanish, Palabras comunes (Common Words), Triana had accepted by 1979 that the heretic, the man excluded from the revolution, could not lead the revolution with his Zamyatinesque prophecies. He did not have palabras divinas to say to his fellow Cubans but only palabras comunes for a foreign audience: Worlds Apart was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1986. The play is a kind of leave-taking, a panoramic view back over Cuba's history between its war of independence and World War I. In this work he ties his country's past into his own past; historical allusions blend with allusions to his personal situation and his own earlier works. We hear echoes of the three children in Assassins except now, in Worlds, it's Beba's turn: Victoria looks back on her life while her two siblings, Alicia and Gaston, play supporting roles. Unlike Lalo, however, Gaston finally has the autonomy to open the door and walk away. The links between personal and national history have no projection toward the future. Leaving Cuba, Triana realizes that he has ceased to exist in and for Cuba: «I've left no footprints in the sand». Here too, however, I see Triana's leave-taking less as an antirevolutionary rejection than as a profoundly revolutionary aspiration, the kind described by Zamyatin (112): Most people «lack the strength to wound themselves, to cease loving what they once loved, to leave their old, familiar apartments... and walk away into the open field to start anew» (112). Lucid? Yes. Romantic? Undoubtedly. But antirevolutionary?
Rather than antirevolutionary, I would argue that Assassins, Ceremonial, and (though to a far lesser degree) Worlds Apart are revolutionary texts, dramatic processes that attempt to envision a better real. Like the map, like the cavelike room, this theatre is both an image of the world and a generator of new images. As Fredric Jameson (81) observes, «We will have to begin to think of the Real, not as something outside the work, of which the latter stands as an image or a representation, but as something born in and vehiculated by the text itself». The repetition in these plays is not merely the incessant representation of what already exists but a striving for creation and regeneration. And for Triana's characters, the challenge, like the performance itself, has always just begun.