- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Carlos Solórzano's Cruce de vías (published in Spanish in 1959, translated and published in English as Crossroads in 1993) is one of the playwright's one-act dramas. The action of the play is abstract and symbolic; it concerns a character called the Man, who is waiting for a woman with whom he has engaged in a romantic correspondence. The two have never seen each other and have arranged to finally meet at a railroad crossing. The characters have no names. Their interaction fails to yield a deeper human connection, as the Woman, aging and fearing rejection, refuses to reveal herself to the Man. The Man believes he is waiting for someone much younger. The other characters in the play include the vague Flagman and several individuals dressed in gray who collectively form the Train. Through these characters, Solórzano explores the universal themes of longing, fear, and hopelessness. The stage directions describe the stage as sparsely decorated and darkened, and indicate that the characters are moving unnaturally, "mechanically." Such elements, combined with the symbolic nature of the characters, shroud Crossroads in an abstractionism (pertaining to ideas rather than realistic events) that marks the play as representative of the avant-garde (experimental) school of drama, with which Solórzano has identified himself.
Originally published in Spanish in 1959 by Mexican publisher El Unicórnio, Cruce de vías was translated into English by Francesca Colecchia Page 64 | Top of Articleand published by Associated University Presses in Crossroads and Other Plays by Carlos Solórzano in 1993.
Born May 1, 1922, in San Marcos, Guatemala, Solórzano grew up in a wealthy, prestigious family. His father, José María Solórzano, was an engineer and a coffee farmer. His mother, Elisa Fernández Barrios, divorced José Solórzano but devoted herself to her six children, of which Carlos was the youngest. His great grandfather, Justo Rufino Barrios, was president of Guatemala from 1871-1888. As a young boy, Solórzano was educated at home by German tutors. He later attended a Marist school, where he received a traditional, strict, Catholic education. During this time, Guatemala was ruled by the dictator Jorge Ubico, and much of the country lived in fear of his tyranny. Solórzano and his family were shielded from much of what went on outside their home. He graduated from high school in 1939 and intended to travel to Europe to continue his studies in Germany, but the onset of World War II prevented him from traveling abroad. Instead, Solórzano attended Universidad Nacional Autonóma de Mexico (UNAM), where he studied architecture and literature and earned degrees in both subjects in 1946. Solórzano explored, in both his masters's thesis and doctoral dissertation, the complexities of the relationship between faith and reason found in the writings of Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuna. Solórzano's work reflects similar concerns. In 1946, Solórzano married Beatriz Caso, and three years later the couple traveled to Paris, France. Solórzano had received a 1949 Rockefeller Award for advanced studies at the world-renowned Sorbonne in Paris. Immersed in the culture and creative atmosphere of Paris, Solórzano pursued a literary career as a dramatist. Heavily influenced by avant-garde postwar French thinkers and writers, Solórzano developed his own experimental style. In 1952, he returned to Mexico with a completed script of the play Doña Beatriz, la sin ventura (Doña Beatriz, the Luckless Woman). He was appointed director of the new Teatro Universitario (University Theater) at UNAM, a position which he held for ten years. After Doña Beatriz, the Luckless Woman, Solórzano wrote several other full-length dramas, including Las manos de Dios (1956; translated as The Hands of God, 1968), which is his best-known and most highly acclaimed work. The controversial play treats religious themes through the use of prison imagery. In 1958, Solórzano presented a dramatic trilogy of one-act plays that he wrote at different times but that share similar religious themes. Cruce de vías was published in Spanish in 1959 (translated as Crossroads in 1993) and is subtitled "A Sad Vaudeville." Several years later, Solórzano turned from drama to fiction, publishing three novels including Las celdas (1971, title means "The Cells"). In 1974, his son, Diego, died in a hunting accident. After Diego's death, Solórzano refused a Fulbright Visiting Artist Award and only continued teaching. Later, Solórzano and his wife had two daughters. In addition to his position as director of the University Theater at UNAM, Solórzano also served as director of the Museo Nacional de Teatro, and as a career professor at UNAM. In 1985, he was named professor emeritus by the university. He has also received numerous awards and honorary degrees and served as the president of the Mexican Center of the International Theater Institute of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from 1999 to 2000. In 2001, he was recognized by the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, receiving the Armando Piscépolo Award for his international prominence in theater.
According to the stage directions, the one-act play Crossroads opens on an empty, dark stage. A clock hanging from the ceiling displays the time, five o'clock. The character of the Flagman stands at one end of the stage, repeating that the "trains from the North travel toward the South." Eventually the Train, which consists of three gray-clad actors moving uniformly with their arms pantomiming the motion of train wheels, moves across the stage. The last man moves free of the Train as if he were jumping from it, and the Train disappears offstage.
After comparing the time on his watch with the clock, a young, male character, known in the play as the Man, discusses with the Flagman whether or not the latter has seen a woman wearing a white flower. Wondering aloud if the Page 65 | Top of Articlewoman he is supposed to meet will actually be wearing a yellow flower, the Man consults a letter, then confirms that the flower is indeed supposed to be white. Making vague comments that the Man indicates are unhelpful, the Flagman often shrugs and seems indifferent to the Man's plight. The Man goes on to explain how, through an advertisement in a magazine, he became acquainted with a woman with dark hair and blue eyes; she sent him a photograph. The Flagman's responses do not always seem to correspond with the Man's side of the conversation. The Man accuses the Flagman of speaking nonsense. A train whistle sounds, and the Flagman begins another repetitious chant, this time stating that trains from the South are traveling north. The Train crosses the stage once more.
The Man is disappointed, as he has not seen the woman he is waiting for exit the train as it passed by. Renewing his conversation with the Flagman, the Man contemplates the paradox the Flagman has presented him with—that the "impossible's always true." For a moment, the Man seems to agree with the Flagman, explaining that it seems impossible that he is supposed to be finally meeting this woman, and yet the anticipated meeting is the only event in his life of which he is actually certain. Toward the end of this discussion, the character of the Woman appears from behind the Man. She is tall and slim, her face is veiled, and she is wearing a white flower, which she tears from her dress when the Flagman raises his lantern to examine her. The Man has shielded his eyes from the sudden brightness of the light. The Man suspects the Woman is the one he has been waiting for, but she is coy and elusive and will not let him see her face, nor will she admit that she is in fact the woman who has been corresponding with him and has agreed to meet with him. However, she admits this to the Flagman and reveals her face to him. She is an elderly woman, and she tells the Flagman that she has sent the Man a younger photograph of herself.
The Woman tells the Man about a friend who is ugly but has sent retouched, older photos of herself to men, whom she agrees to meet. Yet when the men arrive at her door, she only watches them through the window and fantasizes about them, refusing to let them see her as she really is. The Man asks the Woman why she would tell him this, but she does not answer. Instead, she asks him about fear, and whether he has felt afraid that the life he has been waiting for will never happen. Asking him to close his eyes, the Woman continues to press him about fears of solitude and aging, and above all else, loneliness. She urges the Man to not be overcome by time, to fight time, which is the enemy of the woman for whom he has been waiting. Having fallen under the spell of her voice and her words, the Man is confused when he opens his eyes and finds himself "held by the Woman's two hands." The Woman has lifted her veil, and he sees that she is old. He determines that she is not the woman for whom he was waiting.
When the Woman realizes the Man is unwilling to accept the possibility that she is the woman, she tells him that she does not believe the one he is waiting for is coming. She offers him the white flower she hid in her purse. The Man takes it from the Woman, excited by the knowledge that the woman he has corresponded with must have been there at some point. The Woman chastises him, telling him that she has already told him "that there's but a moment to recognize one's self, to close one's eyes." When the Man still seems eager to find whom he is looking for, the Woman says that all he can do now is wait, the same as everyone else does. She takes back the flower and walks away. The Man hesitates a moment, beginning to run after her but then stopping himself. The Flagman begins to repeat his refrain from the beginning of the play, stating that the trains from the North are traveling south.
The Train crosses the stage, and the Woman, waving the flower dejectedly, boards the Train, which leaves with the Woman pantomiming its movement with her arms, just as the other individuals who make up the Train do. The Woman, though, does so in a "writhing and anguished" manner. The Man speaks to the Flagman about the Woman, still believing that she was not the woman. The Flagman knows the truth—that the woman the Man sought was in fact the same woman who spoke to him—and also seems to be irritated that the Man has failed to ascertain this fact. While the Flagman's side of the conversation has been previously characterized by his indifference and vague attitude, the stage directions state that he now speaks to the Man in a harsh manner. The Man, though, remains confused and grows irritated with what he perceives to be the Flagman's obtuseness. Following another train whistle, the Train returns to the stage, and the Man hides his head in his hands in despair. The Page 66 | Top of ArticleFlagman calls out his now-familiar refrain regarding the direction the Train is moving, and the Train crosses the stage once more.
As the play opens, stage directions state that the Flagman stands at one end of the stage, opposite a semaphore (a signaling device that, in this case, alternates between the flashing of a green and a red light, which indicates the arrivals and departures of the Train). Holding a lantern, he is described as standing in a stiff way and possessing an indifferent demeanor. The Flagman speaks the first words of the play "in an impersonal voice," as he looks off into the distance. Intoning repeatedly the statement that the trains are traveling from the North to the South, the Flagman guides the movement of the Train with the rhythm of his words. His refrain, combined with the coordinated movement of the semaphore and the Train, provide the only structure of the play. Throughout the play, the Flagman is vague and often confusing in his interactions with the Man and the Woman. He does not even confirm his own identity when the Man asks if he is the Flagman. Emphasizing his mysterious nature, the Flagman's response to the Man is that he is called "by many names." In addition to refusing to acknowledge his identity, the Flagman insists that everyone looks the same to him. When the Man asks if he has seen the Woman for whom he is waiting, the Flagman replies that "they all look alike." Later, the Woman questions the Flagman, asking him why he did not tell the Man about her, and the Flagman appears not to know who the Man is. The Woman points out that there is only one man there. Despite his extensive conversation with the Man, the Flagman says he has forgotten about him. According to the Flagman, men and women appear to be interchangeable, the trains all go to the same place, and the impossible is "always true." He remains impassive and indifferent in all his interactions with the Man and the Woman, until the end of the play, when the Man has failed to recognize the Woman's true identity. At this point, the Flagman is finally roused out of his apathy when, according to the stage directions, he speaks "harshly" to the Man. The Flagman's response indicates his understanding of the Man's failure in comprehension, but he does not explain the situation in a way the Man can grasp. The Man consequently accuses the Flagman of being useless. At the close of the play, the Flagman speaks the same, monotonous refrain as at the opening, "The trains from the North travel toward the South."
The Man enters the play as part of the Train. He disembarks the Train and approaches the Flagman. From his first interaction in the play to his last, the Man remains confused and frustrated. He attempts to communicate with the Flagman about a woman he is looking for, someone he says he has "been waiting for for many years." The Flagman's refusal to answer questions in a direct manner pushes the Man from his originally polite though confused demeanor to irritation, particularly when the Flagman informs the Man that it is not his job to answer questions. Yet the Man continues to talk to the Flagman despite his apparent disinterest. When the Woman arrives and will not show him her face or tell him who she is, the Man assumes she is not the one he is looking for and he continues to wait. However, he listens to her speak of the fear of waiting for "something that never happens." After finally confessing to her that he has been at times at least a little afraid, the Man closes his eyes and listens to her talk about waiting for the ideal person he has dreamed of. When he opens his eyes to finds that she is old and touching him, he once again becomes confused. "For a moment," he says to the Woman, "I thought you were her," but he dismisses this notion as a "wild dream." When she shows him the white flower, the Man becomes excited, certain that the woman he expects to meet must have been at the crossroads, but that he has missed her. After the Woman says she does not think that person is coming and boards the train, the Man, now dejected and sad, speaks to the Flagman again. The Flagman only perplexes the Man further, and he hides his head in his hand as the Train crosses the stage for the last time. The Man is the only character in Crossroads who does not comprehend the circumstances or the implications of his failure to recognize the Woman's true identity. His self-delusion appears almost willful, because, for a moment, he seems prepared to believe the Woman is the one with whom he has corresponded. He refuses to accept that the Woman is the same person with whom he has formed an emotional bond; the Man's Page 67 | Top of Articlesorrow, frustration, and confusion therefore seem to be the inevitable outcomes of his own decisions.
The Train is formed by three men, dressed in gray clothing, who mechanically pantomime the movement of a train's wheels with their arms. The Man is the last person forming the Train when it first appears on stage, and the Woman joins it at the play's end.
The Woman does not arrive on the Train, but has been waiting for some time at the crossroads for a man she has corresponded with. She enters the scene from behind the Man, and she is described as tall, slender, and wearing a veil and a white flower. When the Flagman shines his lantern at her, she removes the flower from her dress, and turns her back on the Man. He is ready to dismiss her when she turns toward him, yet the Woman engages the Man in conversation. She does not admit that she is the woman for whom he has been waiting, nor does she reject the notion. Rather, through her ambiguous statements and stories about fear, loneliness, and aging, she attempts to open the Man's mind to the possibility of accepting her for who she truly is. Able to temporarily intrigue and mesmerize the Man, the Woman, who has asked him to close his eyes, removes her veil. His response when he opens his eyes and sees her clarifies for the Woman that it is impossible for the two to develop a relationship. She therefore covers her face again and tells him good-bye. Joining the Train, the Woman moves in an unnatural manner that emphasizes her pain and sorrow. Like the Man, the Woman practices her own self-delusions, assuming that no man would be interested in her if they knew her age or saw her face. She has lured men to her under the false pretenses represented by the retouched photograph, never giving any of them a chance to truly get to know her. While she does finally show her face to the Man, the Woman delays this revelation, attempting to forestall the moment when she might be rejected. Yet by postponing this moment and not announcing her true identity the instant she sees the Man, the Woman creates a situation in which the Man's confusion intensifies, making him wary and bewildered. Having sent him the same retouched photograph, she has created a situation in which the Man can only feel confused at best and duped at worst. Before they even meet, she assumes the worst of him—that he would only judge her by her appearance. Her interaction with him, dishonest from the start, was unlikely to produce better results than her earlier attempts to connect with the men she attracted to her, who she watched, while she waited "behind the windows." The Woman, like the Man, ensures that the outcome of the attempted meeting will be negative. Through her fear of rejection, the Woman guarantees her continued loneliness.
Longing, Loneliness, and Idealized Love
The Man and the Woman in Crossroads represent the idea of longing. Both seem to be yearning to satisfy a physical and emotional desire for connection, and both appear to crave a long-term, loving relationship. Their connection was forged through a correspondence they established before the onset of the play. The reader learns that the Woman placed an advertisement in a magazine stating that she was seeking a young man with whom to "establish relations" so that she would not have to live alone. The Man responded to this advertisement, she replied to his response, and they exchanged photographs of one another. Although the Flagman insists the Woman has something to sell, that everyone, in fact, "sells something," the Man defends her, saying that she is simply shy. He will not accept the idea that the Woman placed the advertisement in order to sell herself in any way; he longs for the idea of perfection and clings to the notion that a beautiful but shy woman was reaching out to him. The words the Man uses in relation to the Woman are always extreme: he tells the Flagman that his meeting her is "the only certain thing" in his "whole existence." Desperate to discover if the woman who has appeared is the one he has been seeking, he becomes upset and tells the Woman that it is "absolutely necessary" that he see her face. His emotional need for the idea of her, the idea of someone looking for him, is intense. For her part, the Woman is as much consumed by her Page 68 | Top of Articlefear of rejection as she is by her need for the Man. She wonders whether he will be able to understand that an "unsatisfied longing" remains strong within her, that she now needs him more than when she was younger. She speaks of the faces, of the strong bodies, which she watched from her window, although she tells the Man the observer was her friend. Her remarks point to her physical desire, but before long, she comments on her fear of being alone. She dreads the "solitude of the heart that tries hard every night to prolong its cry against the silence." She is looking for a partner. Yet both the Woman and the Man are deluded by the idea of romantic perfection. She asks him whether he too has waited for "someone invented by you, to your measure," and he answers that yes, he thinks this is what he has been waiting for. This delusion intensifies their longing as well as their disappointment, for such an idealized mate exists for no man or woman. Soon, when the Man opens his eyes, his disappointment is made manifest, as is the Woman's, when she realizes the Man could never love someone who is older and less attractive than the woman in the photograph, and he sees that she is certainly not the dark-haired beauty he expected. Their mutual expectations—a longing for idealized love and the satisfaction of desire—yield disappointment, despair, and the realization of their shared fear of loneliness.
Time and Aging
The prospect of experiencing extreme solitude in old age intensifies the fear of loneliness explored
in Crossroads. It is unclear whether the Woman is more afraid of aging or loneliness, for in her mind the two are linked. She fears the "solitude of … a body alone, that inevitably ages," as much as she fears the "solitude of the heart." The Woman implores the Man to fight this enemy, time. Yet when he sees her unveiled, he cannot accept time's effects on the Woman, whom he begins to believe is the woman. It is easier for the Man to believe that the Woman is not the one he has sought. For a moment, she cannot comprehend that he has given up on her so easily. She entreats him to recall what he has just said about being able to recognize, with his "eyes open," the voice of his ideal woman. The Man, though, claims to feel confused and stupid, stating that it was "ridiculous" of him to think that she was the Woman. Although the Man dismisses the possibility of her being the woman, the Woman makes a final effort to reveal her true identity to him by showing him the white flower, the one by which he was to recognize her. She lies, however, telling the Man that she has simply picked it up. She cannot do what she begged the Man to do, to fight time. By not revealing herself to the Man, the Woman lets time win; she agrees to let her aging appearance dictate the unfolding of events at the crossroads.
The style Solórzano employs in Crossroads has been described as avant-garde, experimental, and absurdist. Rather than depicting in a realistic manner characters who participate in a series of events, Solórzano's characters are unnamed and can be understood as representations of universal human responses to love, desire, and fear. Noting in the stage directions that the characters will move "mechanically, like characters in the silent movies," Solórzano emphasizes the disconnection between reality and his drama by forcing the actors to move about the stage in an unnatural manner. All elements of the play are representational rather than realistic; the train, for example, is depicted as the idea of a train, captured by three actors, dressed in gray, pantomiming the rhythmic motion of a train's wheels. In reality, a flagman typically serves at a railway crossing as a source of information, an indicator of the trains' direction and destination. Solórzano's Flagman appears to be useless as a source of information, a fact the Man points out on Page 70 | Top of Articlemore than one occasion. The Flagman seems forgetful and makes statements that confuse the Man and the audience, as when he announces that the trains "come and go, but they end up meeting one another" and that the "impossible's always true." Despite the apparent disconnect between a symbol (the Flagman) and what this symbol should represent (information, knowledge), the Flagman in the end is aware of the reality of the relationship between the Man and the Woman. He understands that the Man has failed to recognize the Woman as the person he came to the crossroads to meet, and he scolds the Man for this failure to comprehend the situation. Through such experimental techniques, Solórzano urges his audience to look beyond the surface of the simple story of a thwarted romantic opportunity and see the way fear and delusion shape the lives of the characters and lead them to despair rather than love.
Another example of the avant-garde nature of the play is Solórzano's experimentation with form. He subtitles the play "A Sad Vaudeville." Traditional vaudevilles are short and fast-paced plays featuring comic elements such as verbal and physical humor and parody, or imitation for the purpose of ridicule. Given that the essential element in a vaudeville is comedy, Solórzano's describing his work as a sad vaudeville indicates that the work contains some elements of inversion and irony. Characters in traditional vaudevilles, for example, are often caricatures, or stock figures who behave in predictably humorous ways. Solórzano's characters, however, rather than being comic caricatures, serve more as archetypes, or representative figures, for the lonely, desperate men and women seeking meaningful relationships. The incorporation of pantomime in the play is another example of Solórzano's inversion of vaudevillian elements. In Crossroads, characters pantomime the repetitive, mechanical movements of a train, whereas in a traditional vaudeville, pantomime is employed for comic effect.
In the decades immediately following World War II (1939-1945), Mexico attempted to restabilize an economy damaged by poor resource management prior to and during the war. Mexico joined the United Nations in 1945, and the following year Miguel Alemán Valdés was elected president. Valdés promised to further industrialize Mexico, create more extensive irrigation systems to aid agricultural development, and address the problem of an inequitable distribution of wealth. With loans from the U.S. Department of Treasury and the International Monetary Fund, the Mexican government was able to restabilize the value of the peso, the basis of Mexico's currency. Governmental elections established the prominence of President Valdés's party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, also known as PRI). In 1952, Adolfo Ruíz Cortines, also a member of PRI, was elected president of Mexico. An amendment passed by the legislature during Cortines's tenure gave Mexican women the right to vote. In 1958, the year before Solórzano's Crossroads was published, Adolfo López Mateos was elected president of Mexico. The women enfranchised under Cortines's presidency had voted in their first presidential election. Mateos, like his predecessor, was a member of PRI, but he differed from previous presidents in his insistence that the Roman Catholic Church should not interfere in Mexico's attainment of its political, revolutionary goals. During his later tenure, Mateos pursued measures designed to aid the working class, although many poorer workers and landless peasants grew increasingly discontent with their economic circumstances. Despite the often turbulent nature of Mexican society and politics during this time period, Solórzano, unlike some of his contemporaries, chose not to address specific political or social issues pertaining to Mexico in his work. Rather, his dramas employ a broader, more universal approach.
Theater of the Absurd
The horrors of World War II changed the world of theater, a transformation that began in Paris, France. In Paris, the playwright Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) sought to restructure traditional dramatic forms in order to reflect the collapse of values and sense that he perceived had occurred in the aftermath of the war. Realism was incapable of reflecting the new, postwar world accurately. In Francesca Colecchia's introduction to Crossroads and Other Plays by Page 71 | Top of ArticleCarlos Solórzano, she quotes an interview by Teresa Méndez-Faith with Solórzano in July 1982. In the interview, Solórzano states that Artaud shared with Latin Americans "a certain distrust in reality, a certain kind of anxiety in the presence of certain dark forces of nature." Artaud's vision of the transformation of theater manifested itself in the development by later dramatists of the "Theater of the Absurd." This type of drama was characterized by absence, most notably an absence of sense and logic, as well as an absence of a direct correlation between language and meaning. Absurdist theater was also described as avant-garde and experimental. Such developments in drama interested Solórzano when he studied in Paris in the early 1950s. The influence of Artaud's thinking on French philosophy, literature, and drama became apparent in Solórzano's writing following his return to Mexico in 1952. While some of his works employ a harsh realism, others are clearly experimental, exhibiting the disconnection between word and meaning and employing the use of symbols and allegory (the expression of generalizations or truths about human life through fictional characters). Critics such as Colecchia and Frank Dauster have characterized Solórzano's work as both avant-garde and absurdist in nature.
The one-act play Crossroads is considered in some ways representative of Solórzano's body of work but by no means counted among his most notable dramatic efforts. The full-length play Las manos de Dios is generally regarded as the most powerful and well-crafted of Solórzano's literary works. Despite the praise Las manos de Dios has garnered, criticism of Solórzano's work is still not widely available in English; the majority of scholarly analyses of his plays and fiction is in Spanish. Many of Solórzano's writings were not even translated into English until the 1990s. Francesca Colecchia offered the first English translation of Crossroads in 1993, and her introduction to Solórzano's plays provides a comprehensive overview of the dramatist's themes and style. In this introduction to Crossroads and Other Plays by Carlos Solórzano, Colecchia observes that as a playwright, Solórzano creates "characters representative of concepts." Certainly this general statement applies to the characterization of the Man and the Woman in Crossroads. Colecchia also observes that the primary conflict in Crossroads is "between reality and expectations." Whereas Colecchia describes the play as "bittersweet" in tone, critic Frank Dauster, in his 1964 essay "The Drama of Carlos Solórzano" (appearing in Modern Drama), finds that the play "takes on an atmosphere of sheer absurdity, of hopeless loss." Solórzano accomplishes this, Dauster maintains, through the mechanical, stylized movement of the characters, and through his "deliberate destruction of all illusion" in the play. Like Dauster, Wilma Feliciano, in a 2005 Dictionary of Literary Biography essay on Solórzano, studies the elements of the absurd in Crossroads, stating that there is a disruption between words and their meanings in the play. Feliciano further underscores that the creation of a gap between words and communicated information is a technique that is characteristic of absurdist drama. Through his usage of experimental methods, absurdist techniques, and symbolic characterization in Crossroads, Solórzano explores a dramaturgy absent of dramatic realism. Colecchia and Dauster agree that Solórzano rejects the conventionalism of Mexican theater that existed Page 73 | Top of Articlein the country in the aftermath of World War II, which focused on specific, regional political concerns. Rather, Solórzano is more interested in approaching broad, universal concepts; his writings, Dauster stresses, "are infused with a sense of humanity and human dignity."
Dominic is a novelist and a freelance writer and editor. In this essay, she examines the absurdist elements in Crossroads, suggesting that such an approach to the play exposes Solórzano's nihilistic view of human relationships.
Critics state that Solórzano's works tend to focus on universal themes like love, desire, loss, ritual, and death. In Crossroads, the playwright examines the concepts of loneliness, aging, disillusionment, and desire through the nameless characters of the Man and the Woman. Given the universal approach Solórzano employs, and the fact that the Man and the Woman are unnamed, the characters may be viewed as representations of humanity in general, of every man and every woman who yearns for another person both physically and emotionally. The characters seem to symbolize, or stand for, the idea that men and women need each other desperately but delude themselves in a way that ensures their separation. The play may be read as one about the failure of men and woman to communicate honestly and effectively and to create and sustain loving, satisfying relationships. Such a reading may be viewed as a cautionary tale through which the audience apprehends that fear, expectation, and deception lead to loneliness, despair, and grief.
Yet symbols in absurdist theater often do not correspond to the expected meaning. Words are a type of symbol, meant to convey a particular meaning, but as critics such as Frank Dauster and Wilma Feliciano point out, a gap between language and meaning exists in Crossroads. The Man gets the sense, for example, that he and the Flagman are not even "speaking the same language," for the communication seems garbled, confused. An alternate approach to the play explores the characters as absurdist symbols, that is, as inversions of their expected, universal representations. However bleak the first type of reading may be, the latter approach to the play, one that fully explores the absurdist disassociation between symbols and meaning, yields a nihilist understanding of Solórzano's drama. (Nihilism is a philosophical system of thought that focuses on the possibility that nothing in the world truly exists or possesses meaning. This philosophy is generally regarded as a rejection of religious and moral principles.) The characters of the Man and the Woman, while typically interpreted as universal, allegorical representations of humanity, may alternately be viewed in terms of absence. Not only do they lack names, but they, along with the Flagman, are devoid of a sense of personal identity. They are unable to be perceived by the other characters for who they actually are, arguably failing to even accept their own selfhood. If the Man and the Woman represent every man and every woman, then in this absurdist, nihilistic approach to the play, we are all no one.
From the outset of the play, the Flagman's words emphasize the slippery notion of identity, the absence of correspondence between symbol and meaning. When the Man, interested in the train schedule, questions the Flagman, the Flagman responds that trains do not stop at this particular crossroads, ever. Clearly confused by the Flagman's words, the Man asks if he is indeed the flagman at this crossing. The Flagman states that he is called by a variety of names, and when the Man asks if he has seen a particular woman, he states that all the women look alike. Interestingly, the Flagman does not say that all the women look alike to him, only that they all look alike. He states his perception as fact, and through such habits creates a world in which the Man will question his own perceptions as well as the Flagman's. One's very ability to accurately perceive what appears to be the real world becomes destabilized at the crossroads.
Flustered, the Man insists that a flagman ought to be able to answer questions, even though the Flagman asserts that this is in fact not his job. The conversation between the Flagman and the Man continues to be filled with contradictions and paradoxes. When the next train arrives and he does not see the Woman disembark from it, the Man, who is described in the stage directions as "disillusioned," states that the woman was not on the train. The Flagman tells the Man, "He's never coming." When the Man asks him whom he is talking about, he says, "The man we're waiting for." Confused, the Man informs the Flagman that he is waiting for a woman, not a man, but the Flagman insists that "it's all the same." The idea of a woman, or a man, in the world of the play is "all the same." In this sense, the Man does not represent a man, and the Woman does not represent a woman. Their identities are reduced to nothingness.
Such disjunctions between symbols and meaning intensify when the Woman enters the play. Having already deceived the Man into meeting her by sending him a photo that no longer represents what she looks like, the Woman is determined to keep her identity a secret, at least until she can ascertain the Man's feelings. Although she has misrepresented herself, the Woman tells the Man, as he questions her about her identity, that she is now the woman she has "always wanted to be." Despite the Man's insistence, the Woman refuses to show her face. Feeling "tortured" by her refusal and his own confusion, the Man begins to bemoan the absurdity of the situation. If the Woman is the one he agreed to meet at the crossroads, she would come straight to him, he believes. Aware of the Flagman's suspicions regarding her identity, the Woman asks the Flagman why he did not tell the Man that she was at the crossroads all along, wearing the white flower. The Flagman, though, does not seem to know whom the Woman is talking about, saying he has forgotten the Man all together. All of these factors—the Flagman's inability or refusal to retain the knowledge of the Man's identity; the Man's acknowledgment of the absurdity of his circumstances, not knowing the Woman's true identity; and the Woman's claim that she is who she has always wanted to be, while still hiding herself—point to the elusiveness of identity in the world of Crossroads.
As the conversation between the Woman and the Man continues, they speak of their mutual desire to find an ideal person with whom they can share their lives. The Woman speaks of "waiting for that voice, the one of someone invented by you, to your measure," and the Man agrees. He too has been waiting for a person such as this. Yet both the Man and the Woman do not fulfill the requirements of what the other is looking for: neither can exist in the desired capacity for the other person. The Man fails the Woman in that he forms a judgment of her based on her appearance, even after he has the opportunity to converse with her and to realize that she is the woman with whom he has fallen in love through their previous correspondence. The Woman fails the Page 75 | Top of ArticleMan in her initial deception and in her refusal to be forthright with him after their meeting. Such shortcomings on the Woman's part suggest her inability to accept her own identity. In not realizing who he is to the Woman, the Man's self-knowledge is called into question. The Woman addresses their mutual lack of self-awareness when she tells the Man that "there's but a moment to recognize one's self."
After the Woman departs on the train, the Flagman reappears in the scene. As the Man questions him again about the woman wearing the white flower, the Flagman tells him he has seen "the one you aren't looking for, and the one you're looking for I didn't see." His convoluted response suggests that he has seen the Woman, but not the idealized woman the Man is seeking, because the latter does not exist. In the end, the Flagman's statement that "it's all the same" is accurate. The Man and the Woman both fail to be what the other expected. They have failed to exist for one another and for themselves as unique individuals. Both, presumably, as the Woman says, will keep waiting for ideas that cannot become reality, she behind her windows, he at the crossroads. In their waiting, their refusal to associate themselves with the progress of life, they cement their nonbeing and become symbols of nothingness. By depicting the Man and the Woman in such an absurdist manner, by divorcing them as symbols from their universal representations of men and women, Solórzano presents a desolate, nihilist view of human identity and relations.
Source: Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on Crossroads, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following introduction to Crossroads and Other Plays, Colecchia discusses Solórzano's existential influences and the conflict between expectation and reality in his play Crossroads.
No history of the modern theater in Latin America, and more specifically Mexico, can be considered complete without the name of Carlos Solórzano. Born in 1922 in San Marcos, Guatemala, the son of a wealthy engineer and landowner and the great grandson of Justo Rufino Barrios—a former president of that Central American country, he enjoyed all the comforts and privileges such circumstances entail. He received his earliest education from German tutors. At ten he was sent to a Marist school where the strict discipline and the insistence on a traditional religious formation contrasted with the more liberal attitude reflected at home by his father.
Born just after the dictatorship of Estrada Cabrera (1898-1920), Solórzano grew up during the first years of Jorge Ubico's (1931-44)—periods during which most Guatemalans knew only fear, uncertainty, and tyranny. Until he went to Europe at the age of sixteen, Solórzano knew almost exclusively the secure comfort of his home and the highly structured education offered by the Marists. The favored circumstances that characterized the first years of his life offered a marked contrast to the oppression experienced by his less fortunate compatriots.
In spite of his Gautemalan origin, Solórzano is most closely identified with Mexico and the theater of that country where he went to study and has lived since 1939. He holds a degree in architecture from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma from which he later obtained a master's as well as a doctorate in literature. In 1948 he went to Paris where he studied drama on a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
The years spent in France studying at the Sorbonne introduced Solórzano to the vital and innovative theater activity in Paris in those days. At the same time, it acquainted him with the major developments and themes in the history of theater, past as well as present. His sojourn in Europe brought him into contact with leading dramatists and men of letters, among them, Albert Camus, Emmanuel Roblés, and the Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode.
On his return from Paris, he was appointed director of the Teatro Universitario, a position that he held for ten years. He also served as director of the Museo Nacional de Teatro, a project that came to an end with the death of the Mexican dramaturg Celestino Gorostiza. At present he is "Professor de Carrera" at the Autónoma where he founded the program Carrera de Arte Dramático, and currently teaches two courses: Crítica Dramática and Teatro Ibero-americano. In 1985 he was named Professor Emeritus, and on 25 September 1989 he received the Premio Universidad in the area of "Aportación Artistica y Difusión de la Cultura." Earlier the same year he received the Premio Nacional de Literatura "Miguel Angel Asturias" in Guatemala, an honor which, in his words, " … me llenó de satisfacción." Solórzano has traveled widely, representing Mexico at international theater festivals. He has also taught as a visiting professor in several American universities, among them Southern California, Kansas, and Columbia.
Solórzano has contributed to journals and newspapers in Latin America, Europe, Puerto Rico, and the United States. At different times he was correspondent for Rendez-vous du Théâtre as well as for Primer Acto, and drama critic for Siempre. At present he serves as editor for Latin America for an ambitious undertaking known as Enciclopedia Mundial del Teatro Contemporáneo. In addition to his dramas, his publications include two novels—Los falsos demonios (1966) and Las celdas (1971)—two works about Latin American theater—Teatro latinoamericano del siglo XX (1961) and El teatro latinoamericano en el siglo XX (1964), and three drama anthologies—El Teatro hispanoamericano contemporáneo (1964), Teatro guatemalteco contemporáneo (1964), and Teatro breve hispanoamericano (1971).
Despite his ventures into the novel and criticism, Solórzano's major contribution to Spanish-American letters lies in his drama. Though not as extensive as that of many of his contemporaries, his theater nonetheless offers the reader a provocative and imaginative presentation of those questions which most preoccupy modern man from a universal rather than national or regional focus. His theater comprises: Doña Beatriz (1952), El hechicero (The Wizard, 1954), and Las manos de Dios (The Hands of God, 1956)—all full-length plays, in addition to the following one-act pieces: Los fantoches (The Puppets, 1959), Cruce de vias (Crossroads, 1959), El crucificado (The Crucified, 1959), La muerte hizo la luz (And Death Brought Forth the Light, 1951), El sueño del ángel (The Angel's Forty Winks, 1960), Mea culpa (1967), and El zapato (The Shoe, 1966).
As a reading of critical studies of Carlos Solórzano's plays suggests, his dramas may be considered from different perspectives. In his Carlos Solórzano y el teatro hispanoamericano Esteban Rivas groups the Mexican author's plays on the basis of their thematic emphasis. For example, he places Los fantoches together with El crucificado because both have a common point of departure: the Mexican folk customs during Holy Week; while he pairs Mea culpa with El sueño del ángel because both deal with the concept of sin and the feeling of guilt that it engenders. A more recent study by Ostergaard utilizes a semiological approach to analyze Las manos de Dios, El sueño del ángel, and El crucificado. On the other hand Rosenberg sees ritual and the inversion of accepted values at the core of Las manos de Dios and to a lesser degree in the two one-act plays mentioned above.
If opinions about the Mexican playwright's theater vary, so also do the plots of the individual works. Doña Beatriz, his first play, narrates the tragic story of Beatriz de la Cueva who, upon the death of her sister, married Pedro de Alvarado, the brother-in-law she had coveted, and accompanied him to the New World. Unfortunately she did not share her husband's enthusiasm for the young continent or his insatiable desire to conquer new lands. The failed relationship with her husband, the marriage of her brother Rodrigo to Leonor, Pedro's mestizo daughter, her religious fanaticism, and her loathing of the natives drove her to refuse all offers of help, and she died in the flood that inundated the city.
El hechicero is a reworking of the legend of the philosopher's stone in which Merlin attempts to save his people from starvation by promising them the formula for the stone, a formula he has yet to perfect. However his estranged wife, Casilda, with the aid of Lisandro, her brother-in-law and lover, kills her husband only to discover that neither she nor Lisandro can decipher the formula. A series of ironic twists brings this play to a close. Merlin's ashes are scattered over the barren fields, fertilizing them so that they bring forth the crops needed to save the people, Beatriz, his daughter, convinces Casilda Lisandro Page 77 | Top of Articlehas lied to her and really has the precious formula, leading Casilda to kill him.
The trend toward the abstract, toward characters representative of concepts, noted in the first full-length dramas by the Mexican dramatist, appears more strongly in the most powerful of his full-length plays, Las manos de Dios, a work in which the author tries to adapt the traditional auto sacramental to modern drama techniques. This play, set in an unidentified small town in Latin America dominated by the Amo and the Señor Cura, tells the story of Beatriz, a young woman who seeks the freedom of her younger brother who was imprisoned because he publicly demanded the return of his land unjustly seized by the Amo. No one in the town offers Beatriz a solution to her plight until the Forastero (Stranger), actually the Devil, convinces her to bribe the Carcelero (Jailer) to set her brother free by offering him jewels that she steals from the statue of the Eternal Father located in the church. The theft is discovered and Beatriz is bound to a tree, lashed by the townspeople, and left to die alone save for the Devil.
Solórzano's short plays challenge the public equally. Themes and concerns articulated in the longer works are reiterated in these pieces. As Frank Dauster has noted, all of them share the same rebellious spirit of Las manos de Dios. Through the use of puppets customarily burned by the Mexicans on Holy Saturday, Los fantoches explores the reason for man's existence and his relationship with his maker, while El crucificado examines the question of reality as the peasant Jesus, chosen to play the role of Christ in the Holy Week pageant, assumes the identity of Christ and is indeed crucified. Both El sueño del ángel and Mea culpa look at the issue of guilt and responsibility, but from different points of view. In the former, the problem is individual as the Woman struggles with her Guardian Angel, considered by some as the personification of her conscience, who forces from her the admission and expiation of her sin. In the latter, the issue, which initially seems an individual concern, takes on another dimension as the author accuses the institutional church, in the character of the old bishop. Utilizing the play-within-a-play technique in La muerte hizo la luz, the author looks at the amoral and self-centered manipulation so common to politics. Cruce de vías offers a bittersweet look at the conflict between reality and expectations as the Man fails to recognize the Woman as the person with whom he has fallen in love via the mail. She, too timid and too cowed by prior rejections, fails to identify herself to him. El zapato, the only play by Solórzano that has an adolescent as its protagonist, deals with the difficult struggle of young people to realize their independence. As Rivas points out, the shoe, with which the youth debates, is "symbol of the father … and paradoxically, spokesman of the inner I of the youth."
All artists, irrespective of their genre, have been affected in greater or lesser degree by other artists. Solórzano is no exception to this rule. One cannot point out the specific influence of every single author, playwright or otherwise, to have ever come within his ken. Nonetheless, four seem to be especially reflected in Solórzano's work: Unamuno, Camus, Artaud, and Ghelderode.
The Mexican playwright's admiration of Unamuno found early expression in his master's thesis, Del sentimiento de lo plástico en la obra de Unamuno (1944) and his doctoral dissertation, Espejo de novelas (1945), both of which plumb the Basque philosopher's thought and personal motives. A careful reading of both treatises reveals Solórzano's total comprehension and assimilation of the Spanish philosopher's thinking. What he gives his public is genuinely original work imbued with the spirit of his intellectual mentor. Unamuno's influence upon Solórzano's work is neither momentary nor capricious, but pervasive and persistent. Perhaps the word agitar, to agitate,—a key word in the works of both men—best illustrates the intimacy of the philosophical and aesthetical bond between the two. In "Mi religión", an essay from his Mi religión y otros ensayos breves, Unamuno states, "I do not know whether anything of what I have done or what I may do in the future is to remain for years, for centuries after I die; but I do know that if one tosses a stone into a shoreless sea, the waves will form around it without ceasing, though becoming weaker. To agitate is something. If, thanks to that agitation, another comes after me who does something lasting, in it will endure my work." As Rivas has observed, "To agitate for Solórzano implies to move, to make the spectator think," thus underscoring the unwillingness of either Unamuno or Solórzano to accept anything without question simply because it exists.
Other echoes of Unamuno appear in Solórzano's theater. A preoccupation with death, its rationale, its apparent finality, and its absurdity is common to most of his dramas, while the Page 78 | Top of Articlenotion of every man a Christ is most evident in The Crucified. His characters wrestle with the problem of existence and the issue of man's sense of inborn guilt concluding repeatedly as in The Angel's Forty Winks, "I'll pay for all my sins, expecially that of having been born." They cry out as Beatriz does in The Hands of God, "to understand, to know why we've been made this way … and why the only answer to our misfortune is death." Unamuno's concern with immortality, as well as his concept of life and death as a struggle and that struggle as man's tragedy also figure significantly in the Mexican playwright's theater.
If the influence of Unamuno that pervades Solórzano's theater is more philosophical and ideological, that of his fellow dramatists, Camus, Artaud, and Ghelderode, is more specific. The Mexican dramatist frankly acknowledges the impact of these writers on his work. In an interview with Teresa Méndez-Faith in July of 1982 he made the following observations.
While ascribing much of the philosophical concern and skepticism in his opus to Camus and the years spent in the post-World War II intellectual/artistic ferment of Paris, he attributed his first play, Doña Beatriz, directly to the influence of the French writer. "I was fascinated by an historical work by Camus, Caligula, taken from Suetonius, where to strict truth he [Camus] gave an existential content. Then I took an event from the history of Guatemala: the death of doña Beatriz de la Cueva."
Of Artaud, whom he had never met personally, he said, "When I theoretically encountered Artaud … I found that he expressed a series of attitudes which we Latin Americans share, a series of appreciations as, for example, a certain distrust in reality, a certain kind of anxiety in the presence of certain dark forces of nature. That was something all of us Latin Americans have and that Artaud wanted to systematize in the theater." Rivas has suggested more specific evidence of Artaud in Solórzano's theater including the religious and ritualistic nature of the dramatic presentation and the poetic dimension of theater.
Solórzano's observations about Ghelderode suggest a close affinity with the Belgian dramatist whom he knew personally. Of him he said, "Camus as well as Ghelderode—above all the latter with his hallucinatory world, the use of popular motifs and at times even folkloric ones—leave a very strong impression on me." In an article about the Belgian dramatist that appeared in Siempre Solórzano wrote, "In his theater converge motifs from diverse sources: from vernacular fables and medieval farces to the lucid spirit of psychoanalytic introspection, which shows us, without extenuating circumstances, the contradictions of the human soul." Given the many similarities between the two, Solórzano might have been writing about his own theater. A strong anticlerical position characterizes the works of both men who see an almost exclusive concern for the material on the part of the clergy that obviates their responsibility to the faithful. Both share other themes in common, among them: an almost obsessive concern with death, an existential view of man, and a profound preoccupation with good and evil and the accompanying problem of guilt.
In more than half of Solórzano's plays the anticlerical motif appears as an essential consideration in the evolution of the plot as well as the theme. Its specific articulation varies in the individual works. It extends from the author's criticism of the intrusion of the Church in civic affairs and in the relations between husband and wife that we find in Doña Beatriz to the more wide-ranging charge of insensitivity to, and lack of concern for the fundamental needs of its communicants in The Hands of God, to the more radical suggestion in Mea culpa that the Church has sinned against man and should ask his forgiveness. This anticlerical bias is not directed against the essence of moral teaching. Rather it opposes the religious establishment and more specifically the selective interpretation of religious teaching that it has at times extended to its communicants. Born of close observation and considered reflection, the Mexican playwright's anticlericalism often appears hand in hand with his concern with man's freedom to exercise his own will.
During an interview with Esteban Rivas in 1966, he stated that, "to sin is to choose … and to be master of one's own conscience: choosing is man's greatest good." In his discussion of The Hands of God, Dauster noted that, "for Solórzano good and bad have very specific meanings: freedom and oppression." Considered together, these two statements synthesize Carlos Solórzano's Page 79 | Top of Articlefirm belief, in a manner reminiscent of Camus, in the right and responsibility of every man to the determination of self. Whatever impedes or prohibits this is immoral.
The Mexican playwright brings a cosmopolitan perspective to his theater, reflecting the diverse influences in his own intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic formation. The dramatist's intimate knowledge of both classical and modern theater not only as literature but as a performing art, and his experience as director of the Teatro Universitario increased his awareness of the technical and plastic aspects of mounting a play. This experience accounts for the singular and varied facets of his theater. These qualities, coupled with his perception of and preoccupation with those basic questions which trouble man in a society that often seems hostile and impersonal, explain the challenging uniqueness of his theater.
In Mexico, as in most Latin American countries, the post-World War II period saw a flurry of dramatic activity. Many of the new works that appeared were a reaction to the violence and horror of that conflagration. Parallel with the growth in theater is the emergence of an interested and dedicated audience that looked to the theater for a discussion of those problems which it shared in common with all men. The majority of new works dealt with some variation of what Solórzano calls, "a major concern: the incompatibility between original human nature and man's historical experience."
Two major trends emerge in postwar Mexican theater: one, a conventional nationally oriented drama often with a regional emphasis; and the other, an avant-garde drama with a more universal focus. It is to the latter that Solórzano belongs. Openly identifying himself with this movement in Mexican theater, he has said of it, "it aspired from the beginning to treat universal themes without losing touch with our motifs, our people, or our language." Thus, rather than ignore the specifically Mexican, Solórzano uses it as a point of departure in most of his plays. Finding his inspiration in Mexican customs, history, and problems, he looks beyond their ethnic circumstance, transforming them to the more basic questions confronting all.
Source: Francesca Colecchia, "Introduction," in Crossroads and Other Plays, edited by Francesca Colecchia, translated by Francesca Colecchia, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993.
In the following essay, Holzapfel examines Solórzano's absurd plays, which "combine regional and national concerns with existential themes" and include Crossroads.
The complexity of contemporary theatre and the lack of a unified methodological approach to its study make it difficult to give a systematic account of any one trend in Spanish American theatre. Thus it is with the "absurd," a term that from the beginning was applied loosely and to a wide spectrum of plays. Now that it has long been assimilated into the general esthetic of the theatre and has been recognized as defining not a notion of "pure" absurdity, but simply a diverse and unprogrammatic movement, we can attempt to provide an overview of its manifestations in Spanish America, from an early stage in plays concerned with existential themes to the direction it is taking today. The absurd movement together with Brecht's theories of the theatre are perhaps the most salient innovative tendencies that have contributed to the revitalization of the stage and to the creation of a flourishing theatre throughout Spanish America.
There are many dramatic authors today in Spanish America, many of them quite famous, who have seen their works performed abroad in Spanish and in translation. It is true, however, that Spanish American drama has not yet achieved the degree of originality attained by the novel. But like the novel, the theatre has grown in professionalism and sophistication and many of the old problems of distinction are beginning to vanish. For instance, it is increasingly meaningless to distinguish between socially committed and avant-garde dramatists. Before, that is before 1950, the two groups denoted differences in mentality. But in the 1950's, the decade that witnessed the emergence of absurd drama and the rediscovery of Brecht's political Page 80 | Top of Articletheatre, a new dramaturgy came into being in Spanish America. Such important authors as René Marqués, Carlos Solórzano, Osvaldo Dragún, and Emilio Carballido were fusing socio-political concerns with universal themes and experimental forms. Marqués, using existentially anguished characters, deplores the colonial condition of Puerto Rico in poetic dramas that draw on a variety of formal techniques taken principally from North American Naturalism. Solórzano's plays, indebted to Camus and Ghelderode, combine regional and national concerns with existential themes and plastic images inspired by popular art. Distancing effects, the kind we associate with Brecht's theatre, and a clownesque style characterize Dragún's Historias para ser contadas, a series of one-acts that criticize the inhumanity of modern society in true stories from contemporary Buenos Aires. Contemporary Mexico is the scenario in the majority of Carballido's fantastic plays imbued with existential ideas and inspired by the theatre of Cocteau and Giraudoux or the medieval mortality play. The importance of existentialism in these authors cannot be underestimated. Existential ideas were fundamental in the creation of a theatre that could be called modern, contemporary and universal. Moreover, the sporadic instances of existential absurdity in these and other Spanish American dramatists helped to prepare the way for the acceptance of absurd theatre by Spanish American audiences.
Absurd theatre, as it is well known, adopted existential philosophy but developed a new expression of the theatre that became the dominant mode in Europe and the Americas in the sixties. The label "Theatre of the Absurd" came into universal usage upon the appearance, in 1961, of Martin Esslin's book with that title. Esslin, who borrowed the word "absurd" from Camus, who in turn had taken it from Kierkegaard, stripped it of its religious and metaphysical implications and used it to define the new dramaturgy. However, he applied the label rather broadly to a variety of avant-garde plays, thereby creating many misunderstandings about what the theatre of the absurd was all about. Today, "theatre of the absurd" has come to denote, in much the same way as the word "kafkaesque," segments of "real" life, disjointed or impenetrable experiences and, more specifically, plays that are self-contained, that do not comment on our experience or seek to heighten and rearrange it, but create rich new patterns of experience itself.
The absurdist revolution was initially, like all such movements of cultural change, a bewildering experience for many spectators. But as Beckett and Ionesco, along with other innovative French authors, began earning respect and admiration in scholarly and intellectual circles, audiences became more enthusiastic about the new theatrical mode, and in the 1960's the pull toward absurdity became widespread and all powerful.
In Spanish America the beginnings of absurd theatre can be traced back to as early as 1949, the publication date of Virgilio Piñera's Falsa alarma. But it is only in the decade of the sixties that a significant number of playwrights working in this vein emerges. George Woodyard, writing in 1969, identifies only five absurd dramatists: Elena Garro, Griselda Gambaro, Virgilio Piñera, Antón Arrufat and Jorge Díaz. This list can be easily augmented, however: Isaac Chocrón, Román Chalbaud, José Triana, Maruxa Vilalta, José de Jesús Martínez, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Ortega, and Eduardo Pavlovsky are among the better known authors who have written at least a couple of plays in the absurdist mode. Recent criticism and anthologies of Spanish American plays also attest to the preeminence of this genre.
Unfortunately, because of the initial misunderstanding created by Esslin himself about absurd theatre, many dramatists have denied their affiliation with the movement, and some critics have followed suit choosing vaguer labels, such as "nonrealistic" or "avant-garde," labels that could also be used to refer to the experimental theatre of protest or to plays that are fantastic, poetic, surrealistic, or what-have-you. "Absurd theatre" on the other hand, is a more precise descriptive phrase when it refers to plays lacking an obvious plot and story-telling, and which are characterized by a radical devaluation of language. Absurdist language tends to be banal and illogical. The poetry emerges instead from concrete and objectified images of the stage itself. In renouncing rational argument about the absurdity of the human condition—as existential playwrights had done—the theatre of the absurd presents it in terms of concrete stage images. These may be violent and grotesque, for the theoretical writings and staging experiments of Antonin Artaud, the exponent of the theatre of cruelty, prepared the way for the absurd theatre in France. This theatre does not Page 81 | Top of Articlehave a message and is open to many levels of interpretation.
It is important then to keep in mind that when speaking of absurd theatre the reference is not to some notion of "pure" absurdity but to a movement in the theatre that definitely broke with the conventions of the past. Strindberg, Pirandello, Brecht, Ghelderode, the Surrealists, and Artaud had in their own way sought alternatives to a theatre that insisted on being "lifelike" and that tended to propose moral, psychological, or social solutions. Absurdist writers, generally as different from one another as Beckett and Ionesco, differed from their predecessors in that they were, in Richard Gilman's words, "structurally more extreme, they dispensed more completely with considerations of orderly plot, character development, progress toward a dramatic climax and so on. Beyond that they seemed to lack even minimal points of reference to the outside world."
Spanish American absurdist plays, like their European and North American counterparts, are a diverse lot and generally do not attempt to present pure absurdity. Sometimes this is especially obvious, as in René Marqués' El apartamiento, his only play cast in the absurd mode. In form the play is a Beckettian monodrama and communicates an almost overwhelming sense of anguish through isolation. But the presence of the Indian, representing the primitive man of Ibero-America with his original creative powers intact, symbolizes the ultimate possibility of liberation of Puerto Rico and Ibero-America. Other playwrights are more subtle in their allegorizing…. But I think that it is indisputable that in the plays Gambaro wrote during the 1960's, Las paredes, El desatino, Viejo matrimonio, Los siameses, and El campo, she developed a personal idiom within the convention of the theatre of the absurd. Characters lacking individuality, sparse action subordinated to the spirit of the play, a sense of metaphysical anguish at the absurdity of the human condition, the use of non-rhetorical language integrated with gestures, the importance of the mise-en-scéne, all these elements present in her plays are the properties of the theatre of the absurd.
In a recent study of the theatre of the absurd in Cuba, Terry L. Palls applies absurdity in the broader sense that I am using here. Her study defines the theatre of Piñera, Arrufat and Triana as revolutionary theatre concerned with the individual rather than the group …. The dramatic action of Triana's complex play, La noche de los asesinos, for example, consists of a demonic game played by three children obsessed with the need to murder their parents. As is typical of absurd theatre, this play is presentational in nature and open to many interpretations. Montes Huidobro and Kirsten Nigro suggest that the forbidden games may have at least two different meanings. In one instance and on amore universal level they are the proem to a holy and necessary shedding of blood; in another, they imply a cyclical nature of history, particularly that of Cuba.
This tendency to allegorize national as well as universal reality seems to me to be the distinctive mark of absurd drama in Spanish America. A strong critical sense toward an unjust social order has traditionally permeated Spanish American literature, and given the present-day socio-economic situation and political conditions, it is not surprising to encounter the "denuncia en el aquí y el ahora" even in form-conscious literature such as the new novel and the theatre of the absurd.
Recent criticism has noted that a shifting away from the absurd mood in theatre is occurring in European and North American drama. In Spanish America the direct mode of absurdity also seems to have run its course. Modified forms of the absurd continue to appear. However, no major absurdist playwright has emerged in recent years, while some of the better known dramatists of the absurd are turning toward a more representational theatre. In Cuba the production of absurdist plays stopped altogether after 1969. Since what became known as the "first" Padilla affair (1968-69), new restrictions on the arts have been instituted that demand a more concrete reflection of the author's political commitment. In Chile, too, the political situation has had strong repercussions on the arts. The most significant plays produced since the coup combine an obvious historical and political commitment. Thus Jorge Díaz, whose previous work was characterized by an absurdist orientation, has written a documentary play, Mear contra el viento. Based on Jack Anderson's ITT memoranda, it is an intensely political indictment of foreign involvement in Chilean affairs.
But elsewhere in Spanish America manifestations of the absurd continue to appear. The Argentine Julio Ardiles Gray produced his first absurdist play, Vecinos y parientes, in 1973, and has continued writing in this vein. Another Argentine, Page 82 | Top of ArticleEduardo Pavlovsky, has been active in the theatre since 1961 and, together with Griselda Gambaro, is an important contributor to a theatre that, as he puts it, "se expresa en un lenguaje distinto buscando la síntesis a través de la imagen y no de la palabra." A practicing psychoanalyst, this author employs abundant psychological material, especially the language of psychodrama. His plays are all conceived in the absurdist mode, although the analytic element, which of necessity is logical, tends to contradict the essentially illogical nature of absurdity. Also, his later plays may be more properly categorized in the subgenre of the theatre of cruelty.
On the whole, however, the trend seems to be away from the conventional standards of absurdity, away from strictly presentational form. Argentina's Griselda Gambaro has, in the present decade, branched out in other directions. Her initial departure from absurd theatre came with Información para extranjeros, a play that goes beyond absurdity to incorporate characteristics of Julian Beck's Living Theatre and Richard Schechner's Environmental Theatre. Her play of 1976, Sucede lo que pasa, structured along the lines of soap opera, is closer to representational theatre…. A similar case in point is the theatre of Mexico's Maruxa Vilalta. While in her previous work she relied entirely on the allegorical and expressionistic symbols characteristic of absurd theatre, her double-prize-winning play of 1975, Nada como el piso 16, is reminiscent of the kind of play developed by Harold Pinter. Pinter, who can hardly be labeled an absurdist, however, is not likely to have written as he has without the example set for him by a Beckett and an Ionesco. Similarly, Vilalta has benefited from her assimilation of absurdist techniques so brilliantly displayed in her previous work. In Nada como el piso 16 she succeeds in developing the idea of game playing as an action metaphor. The situation is absurd but the form is representational since she uses individualized characters and emphasizes action. The play won two prizes that year because of the excellence of its overall quality and because it was perceived by Mexican critics as a play that brought something new and fresh to the theatre.
Finally, I want to mention the young Mexican writer José Agustín, who has never been directly affiliated with the theatre of the absurd but whose dramatic works Abolición de la propiedad and Círculo vicioso are perhaps symptomatic of how a younger generation of dramatists will benefit from the lessons of absurdity. These writers will no longer be called absurdists, but they are not likely to write as well without the example of those who were. On first impression, the two plays by Agustín seem to be very different from one another. They certainly are different in theme and stageability. The first is heavily encumbered with the gadgetry of the modern sight and sound industry but develops the conflict between only two characters. The second is more conventional in form but uses a larger number of characters and the conflicts are more complex. There are however some important elements that these plays have in common: the specialized idiom of "la onda" and an absurd situation that perpetuates itself in circularity. The language is especially noteworthy. The hip slang and a constantly flowing play on words serve as a kind of logic-destroying device. It is a truly "absurd" idiom since an uninitiated audience would find it partly incomprehensible and would have to rely to a greater extent on the stage events to clarify the situation. Still, both these plays are conceived as representational drama, and, as I have said before, they may simply be indicative of the eventual fate of absurdity in Spanish American theatre.
It may well be that absurdity is on its way out, to be replaced by a theatre that refuses to distort reality to the same extent. But, as Gilman has noted, "the kind of distortion that absurdity brought into being was necessary, healing in a profound way." Absurdity brought into sharper focus a world that had been obscured by our conventional way of looking at it. And whatever comes next will undoubtedly benefit from its having forced us to look at the known, unexamined world in a new way.
Source: Tamara Holzapfel, "Evolutionary Tendencies in Spanish American Absurd Theater," in Latin American Theatre Review, Summer 1980, pp. 37-42.
Banham, Martin, "Mexico: The 20th Century," in The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 726-28.
Crabb, Jerome P., "Theatre of the Absurd," in Argosy University's Theatre Database, http://www.theatredatabase.com/20th_century/theatre_of_the_absurd.html Page 83 | Top of Article(accessed July 20, 2008).
Colecchia, Francesca, "Introduction," in Crossroads and Other Plays by Carlos Solórzano, translated and edited by Francesca Colecchia, Associated University Presses, 1993, pp. 7-16.
Dauster, Frank, "The Drama of Carlos Solórzano," in Modern Drama, Vol. 7, No. 1, May 1964, pp. 89-100.
Feliciano, Wilma, "Carlos Solórzano," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 305, Latin American Dramatists, edited by Adam Versényi, Thomson Gale, 2005, pp. 316-29.
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Solórzano, Carlos, Crossroads in Crossroads and Other Plays by Carlos Solórzano, translated and edited by Francesca Colecchia, Associated University Presses, 1993, pp. 19-28.
Feliciano, Wilma, "Myth and Theatricality in Three Plays by Carlos Solórzano," in Latin American Theatre Review, Fall 1991, pp. 123-33.
Feliciano examines Los fantoches, El crucificado, and Las manos de Dios, arguing that in these plays Solórzano explores the obsession of Mexican religion with such conflicting notions as sacrifice and salvation.
Joseph, Gilbert M., and Timothy J. Henderson, eds., The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics, Duke University Press, 2002.
This collection of essays and articles by various authors offers a comprehensive introduction to the history and culture of Mexico.
Larson, Catherine, and Margarita Vargas, eds., Latin American Women Dramatists: Theater, Texts, and Theories, Indiana University Press, 1999.
In this essay collection, trends and developments in Latin American theater in general, and in dramas by women in particular, are explored.
Rosenberg, John R., "The Ritual of Solórzano's Las manos de Dios," in Latin American Theatre Review, Spring 1984, pp. 39-48.
Rosenberg maintains that Solórzano, in Las manos de Dios, uses the drama as a means of breaking the pattern of Latin American Christian ritual and inspiring his audience with a desire for freedom.
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