Waiting for Virgilio : reassessing Cuba's teatro del absurdo
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This project charts the emergence of the Cuban Theatre of the Absurd, or teatro del absurdo, over the course of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, its suppression by the revolutionary government, and its revival during the "Special Period" of the 1990s. Rather than understand the category as either an extension of the European Theatre of the Absurd, or as the invention of scholars intent on exporting such a schematic to Latin America, the Cuban teatro del absurdo should be recognized as a material phenomenon that evolved organically within the Havana theatre community, proposed a historically specific Cuban absurd as its object of representation, and assumed great ideological importance within the cultural and political landscape of the time. Its chief pioneer and practitioner was Virgilio Piñera, while José Triana and Antón Arrufat produced foundational absurdist works of the post-revolutionary period. Their plays and critical essays affirm the teatro del absurdo as a site of edification for audiences because of the anti-ideological nature of the works performed, and the authority these performances bestow on spectators as meaning creators. Because the teatro del absurdo opened conceptual space for difference in reception, while also operating as a cosmopolitan margin where European influences were incorporated within plays that spoke to the absurdity of Cuba's socio-political reality, it posed a threat to the univocal ideological control of the revolutionary government. The absurdo's resonance during the Special Period and within contemporary Cuban theatre is a testament to its enduring viability as a dynamic form that allows multiple truths and voices to be heard. Chapter one of the study explores the critical archive surrounding both the European Theatre of the Absurd and the Theatre of the Absurd in Latin America and Cuba. It argues that, rather than discard the category as imperfect or perpetuate a paradigm that privileges text over performance, critics should account for its unique ideological currency within the specific context of pre and post-revolutionary Cuba by tracking the material extension of the term and the works subsumed by it within Havana's theatre and performance archive. Chapter two investigates the historical basis of the Cuban absurdo, localizable in the concept of choteo, and maps the concept's valence in the context of 19th century teatro bufo as well as Piñera's early theatre of the 1940s and 50s. Chapter three considers the role of the teatro del absurdo in post-revolutionary Cuba by examining works by Piñera, Triana and Arrufat in conjunction with their critical essays of the time, in order to capture the political significance of the genre as a zone of dissidence and opposition to the total system of the revolution. Chapter four tracks the revival of the teatro del absurdo as a source of endurance during the privation of the Special Period of the 1990s. The re-emergence of voices like Piñera's signaled a return to a past of provocation and confrontation in order to generate a future in which space for difference would be preserved.