BMCR 2021.04.02

Greeks and Romans on the Latin American stage

, , Greeks and Romans on the Latin American stage. Bloomsbury studies in classical reception. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. Pp. xiv, 296. ISBN 9781350125612 £95.00.

[Authors and chapter titles are listed at the end of this review.]

This volume is published in Bloomsbury’s Studies in Classical Reception series and emerges from an international conference held at University College London in June 2014. It comprises fifteen chapters, including an introduction, that variously examine different dramatic productions from across Latin America that engage with ancient Greek and Roman drama. These chapters are contributed by a diverse pool of authors from across the Americas, Europe, and Oceania who have a mixture of different academic backgrounds. The volume does not aim to provide a comprehensive study or thematic analysis of its subject matter. Rather, it seeks to redress Anglophone scholarship’s lack of awareness of the region and offer “a broad cross-section of notable case studies” that demonstrate the richness of Latin American engagement with the classical world on stage. Following an introduction written by its editors, the volume’s chapters are separated into three sections according to the geographic region of Latin America that they examine. Greeks and Romans on the Latin American Stage aims to present the first English-language analysis of a body of literature from a region with which many classicists and literary scholars across Anglophone academia are unfamiliar.

The introduction by Andújar and Nikoloutsos clearly and concisely establishes the volume’s academic context, research goals, and content. Andújar and Nikoloutsos also acknowledge the unfamiliarity with the Latin American world that many of their readers will have and spend a little more time than is usual for a collection of this sort outlining some of the key terms, concepts, and difficulties associated with the region. This is certainly welcome. Readers with even the most rudimentary familiarity with the Latin American world are given the necessary apparatus to intelligently and critically approach the subsequent case studies. This alone is sufficient to recommend the volume to anyone interested in the reception of the classics in Latin America, and this introduction ought to serve as a foundation for any academic or student working on the topic.

Part I begins the volume by looking at the Southern Cone. The first chapter by Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos introduces a nineteenth-century adaptation of the story of Dido written by Juan Cruz Varela and shows how Varela used the Roman myth to challenge the colonial dramatic canon and articulate a founding mythology for post-Independence Argentina. Brenda López Saiz jumps ahead to the twentieth century and Leopoldo Marechal’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone into Antígona Vélez (1951), which relocates Sophocles’ play from Thebes to a Patagonian ranch and recasts it as a modern Argentine foundation myth in support of the nascent Peronist regime. Irmtrud König’s chapter moves from Argentina to Chile and examines Juan Radrigán’sMedea Mapuche (2000). König shows how Radrigán’s play removes Euripides’ tragedy from Greece to the indigenous Mapuche people in order to raise awareness of their continued marginalisation. This section concludes with a chapter by Carolina Brncić, who introduces two further recent Chilean plays, Marcelo Sánchez’ Filoctetes, la herida y el arco (2004) and José Palma’s Diarrea (2002), that respectively reimagine Sophocles’ Philoctetes and Euripides’ Medea in more contemporary settings. Brncić shows how these two plays used Greek tragedy as a tool to explore the national trauma caused by two decades of military rule under the Pinochet regime.

As these summaries reveal, this section covers a very broad range of material and undoubtedly succeeds in the volume’s stated mission of ”showcas[ing] the wide range of receptions that are possible across” the Latin American world. These chapters mostly do an excellent job of adequately contextualising the national and local conditions in which each case study occurs, reflecting the volume’s goal of providing a ”critical introduction” for readers unfamiliar with the region. König’s chapter looking at an adaptation of Medea in post-Pinochet Chile may have benefitted from a little more explication of the details of the adaptation’s context. König discusses how the play was produced against the backdrop of a ”democratic reconstruction” that followed ”seventeen years of military dictatorship,” but gives little further detail as to the character of this reconstruction or dictatorship. A sentence or two further elucidating the nature of Pinochet’s regime and the reconstruction that followed would have greatly enhanced this chapter’s accessibility and impact to readers less familiar with Chilean history. One also cannot help but notice that each of these case studies relates to some extent to the theme of nation (re)building. This theme is present across all four chapters, yet the volume does little work to explicate this thematic connection. In their introduction, Andújar and Nikoloutsos do stress that their goal with the volume is ”not to capture any overarching features,” but rather emphasise the ”irreducible local complexity” that characterises the region. Nonetheless, a few internal references that directed readers to where they might see similar themes and ideas explored elsewhere would have greatly enhanced the volume without detracting from these goals.

Part II of the volume then turns to Brazil, and consists of four chapters that investigate direct and indirect re-imaginings of the classics on stage during the 20th century. The first chapter by Rodrigo Tadeu Gonçalves looks at Guilherme Figueiredo’s Um Deus Dormiu lá em Casa (1949), an adaptation of Plautus’ Amphitryon, and shows how Figueiredo degrades and desacralizes the myth. Tiziana Ragno looks at another play by Figueiredo, A Muito Curiosa História da Virtuosa Matrona de Éfeso (1958), which draws upon ancient themes and motifs to create a light-hearted farce that is informed by the class and rural struggles of contemporary Brazil. The second two chapters turn away from the comic work of Figueiredo and look towards two tragic plays that are more indirectly influenced by Graeco-Roman drama. Anastasia Bakogianni shows how Nelson Rodrigues’ Senhora dos Afogados (1947), despite not being explicitly indebted to Sophocles’ Electra, bears deep thematic and structural connections with the ancient text. Seth Jeppenson similarly demonstrates how Jorge Andrade’s Pedreira das Almas (1958) equates its more contemporary protagonist with Antigone, despite never explicitly referencing Sophocles’ text.

This part of the volume offers a notably narrower cross section of case studies than the previous section, with all four texts subjected to study being produced during the mid-twentieth century. This may have proved to the detriment of the volume’s aim of demonstrating the variety of receptions possible within the region, especially with Gonçalves’ and Ragno’s chapters both examining plays produced less than a decade apart by the same playwright. Yet, rather than re-treading ground, these chapters instead demonstrate how a highly concentrated portion of the region’s history can play host to a diverse plurality of interactions with the classics on stage. The chapters by Bakogianni and Jeppenson reinforce this sense of plurality, with Bakogianni critiquing what constitutes a classical influence and unpacking the various ways in which it can manifest, and Jeppenson demonstrating how the same text’s relationship to the ancient world can develop over time with repeat performances. Rather than leaving the reader disappointed at being confined chronologically, this section’s tight focus instead serves to reinforce the depth and diversity of engagement with the classics to which this region has played host.

The volume’s final part looking at the Caribbean and North America is by far the largest. Rosa Andújar opens the section by discussing Francisco Arriví’s Club de Solteros (1951), a Puerto Rican adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata that reverses the ancient play’s paradigm, being written from a male perspective. Katherine Ford introduces another adaption of Lysistrata from the neighbouring Dominican Republic called Lisístrata odia la politica (1981) by Franklin Domínguez. Ford shows how Dominican stereotypes of gender, sexuality, and class are inserted into the ancient comedy. Jacques Broomberg’s chapter moves to Fidel Castro’s Cuba and explores how Antón Arrufat’s Los Siete contra Tebas (1968) became a controversial counter-revolutionary text. Turning to the Francophone Caribbean island of Martinique, Justine McConnell looks at two plays of Patrick Chamoiseau, Une Maniére d’Antigone (1975) and Manman Dlo contre la fée Carabosse (1982), and their relationship to the idea of créolité. Building on this theme, Tom Hawkins introduces two otherwise unconnected texts: A 1953 adaptation of Antigone by the Haitian-born playwright Feliks Moriso-Lewa and an adaptation of the myth of Electra by the Chicano playwright Luis Alfara produced in 2003. Hawkins demonstrates that, despite being written half a century apart by different playwrights in distinct contexts, they both explore similar themes of linguistic hybridity. Finally, Jesse Wiener offers a biopolitical reading of Perla de la Rosa’s Antigona: las voces que incendian el desierto (2004), an adaptation of Sophocles’ play set amidst the backdrop of extreme violence towards women in the Mexican border-city of Juarez.

As might be expected from the section looking at a region that the volume’s introduction stresses as being notably ‘fragmented’ and ‘intensely diverse’, this section more than any other showcases the kaleidoscopic nature of Latin American engagements with the classics on stage. The fact that the chapters by Andújar and Ford offer back-to-back readings of two different adaptations of Lysistrata produced in different contexts reinforces how the same ancient text can be reimagined to radically different ends. Hawkins’ chapter also stands out for taking two otherwise distinct and unrelated plays and demonstrating the unifying themes that connect them across the breadth of the Latin American world. In this regard, this section is perhaps the strongest of the three, simultaneously demonstrating the tremendous variety of receptions to which this region can play host as well as hinting at some of the characteristics that define and differentiate Latin American engagements from those occurring elsewhere in the world.

Greeks and Romans on the Latin American Stage is a fine addition to Bloomsbury’s Studies in Classical Reception collection and fits nicely alongside other texts in the series such as Marguerite Johnson’s Antipodean Antiquities (2019). As the volume’s introduction admits, the scope of its contributions is somewhat limited to 20th and 21st century receptions, with only Nikoloutsos’ chapter venturing beyond these confines into earlier history. This focus on more recent history by no means undermines the total value of the volume. Rather, it is reflective of the infancy and great promise of the field that a volume of such quality and variety can be produced despite a relatively limited chronological scope. Taken as a whole, the volume more than succeeds in demonstrating the wealth of material relating to Latin American engagements with the classics on stage. It shows that Latin America is a region that Anglophone scholarship can no longer afford to overlook, and throws down an impressive gauntlet for scholars in the field to begin wrestling with the reception of antiquity on the Latin American stage.

Authors and titles

Chapter 1, Staging the European classical in ‘Latin’ America: An introduction – Rosa Andújar and Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos

Part I: Southern Cone
Chapter 2, From epic to tragedy: The theatre and politics in Juan Cruz Varela’s Dido – Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos
Chapter 3, Leopoldo Marechal’s Antígona Vélez: Rewriting Greek tragedy as a foundation myth in Peronist Argentina – Brenda López Saiz
Chapter 4, Juan Radrigán’s Medea Mapuche: Recreating Euripides’ revenge tragedy in an indigenous Chilean context – Irmtrud König
Chapter 5, Philoctetes and Medea in contemporary Chilean theatre – Carolina Brncić

Part II: Brazil
Chapter 6, A God Slept Here by Guilherme Figueiredo: A radical modernist Amphitruo from Brazil – Rodrigo Tadeu Gonçalves
Chapter 7, Guilherme Figueiredo, Amphitryon and the widow of Ephesus: Linking Plautus and Petronius – Tiziana Ragno
Chapter 8, Electra’s turn to the dark side: Nelson Rodrigues’ Senhora dos Afogados – Anastasia Bakogianni
Chapter 9, Becoming Antigone: The classics as a model of resistance in Jorge Andrade’s Pedreira das Almas – Seth Jeppenson

Part III: The Caribbean and North America
Chapter 10, Distorting the Lysistrata paradigm in Puerto Rico: Francisco Arriví’s Club de Solteros – Rosa Andújar
Chapter 11, Challenging the canon in the Dominican Republic: Lisístrata odia la politica by Franklin Domínguez – Katherine Ford
Chapter 12, Aeschylus and the Cuban counter-revolution – Jacques Broomberg
Chapter 13, The contest between Créolité and classics in Patrick Chamoiseau’s stage plays – Justine McConnell
Chapter 14, Dismantling the anthropological machine: Feliks Moriso-Lewa’s Antigón and Luis Alfaro’s Electricidad – Tom Hawkins
Chapter 15, Antigone undead: Tragedy and biopolitics in Perla de la Rosa’s Antígona: las voces que incendian el desierto – Jesse Wiener