When a killer quake ripped through Mexico City last September, it crippled the young theater season then taking shape. In the aftermath of the national tragedy, playhouses went dark for a fortnight. Actors were idled and unpaid, and playgoers turned for sustenance to motion pictures and television drama. But the theater, fabulous invalid that it is, managed to struggle to its feet and carry on.

The truncated fall season was characterized by the customary economic problems of survival for the more than SO plays in production, by continuing efforts to broaden the base of the theatergoing public, by the struggle of Mexican playwrights to see their works produced in sharp competition with a steady flow of imports from New York, London, and other theatrical capitals, and by the growing stature of the “New Mexican Playwrights,” one of whom saw a brace of his works in impressive production during the season.

The economic crisis, before and after the quake, took its toll on the theater, thinning out audiences and reducing revenues. With high unemployment and inflation, [he average Mexican found that his buying power had been eroded about 50 percent during the 1982-1985 period. Theater was a luxury he was decreasingly able to afford.

To make theater more accessible to students, workers, and the less affluent, some theaters offer “two-for-one” tickets; others give free admission to-certain groups at certain performances. In an attempt to extend their run, some plays are scheduled for only three or four nights a week. Theater companies also tour the provinces to tap new audiences, some of whom may one day be found “out-front” in Mexico City due to the constant migration from the countryside to the capital city.

Most Mexican impresarios consider theater a business and not an art. They tend to stage known quantities, such as hits from the United States or Europe—Auntie Mame, The Odd Couple, and The Madwoman of Chaillot, all of which were on Mexican stages this fall. They are less sure of the box-office appeal of new works by aspiring Mexican dramatists. This “box office mentality,” shared by some Mexican directors, is regularly scored by Mexican playwrights, who regard theater as less a business than a means of giving artistic expression to concerns about continuing problems at the local and national levels.

Still, a healthy cross-section of Mexican playgoers seem to prefer foreign to Mexican plays. They go to the theater for entertainment rather than exposure to social and political problems.

As a result, Mexican playwrights must often have their works produced outside the commercial network—in workshops, clubs, union halls, universities, or in theaters subsidized by such government organizations as the “Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes” (INBA), the “Instituto Mexicano de Seguro Social” (IMSS), and the “Secretaria de Educacion Publica” (SEP).

Within the past three years, however, prospects have improved for Mexican playwrights. According to critic Olga Harmony:

There are more new plays by Mexican authors being produced here now than ever before. This is due to the fact that the rights to foreign plays must be paid in foreign currencies. And they are extremely expensive.

Clearly, the most promising development in Mexican theater over the past three years has been the emergence of the “New Mexican Playwrights.” As many as 37 dramatists have been identified as belonging to this movement, headed by Victor Hugo Rascon, Sabina Herman, Felipe Santander, Jesus Gonzalez Davila, and Oscar Villegas. Theirs is a “theater of commitment,” a theater at the service of socio-economic change. Most have learned their craft in workshops directed by such older, established playwrights as Emilio Carballido, Hugo Argüelles, and Vicinte Lenero.

The “New Playwrights” show a preference for farce, melodrama, the docudrama, or a hybrid genre. They write in a realistic or poetic-realistic vein, employing colloquial dialogue. They eschew the “well-made play” and the local color piece. Their themes range from the failure of the Mexican Revolution (1911-1917) to attain several of its goals, the futility of strikes, the exploitation of miners and peasants and political bossism in the rural sector, to the social consequences of extreme urban poverty.

For inspiration and cultural solidarity, these playwrights look to their fellow Latins to the South. With Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and other Latin countries, they share a common ethnic background, similar social and political problems, and the continuing effects of cultural and economic imperialism.

Felipe Santander, a leading “New Playwright,” saw his melodrama El Extensionista (The County Agricultural Agent) top the 2,000 mark in performances last fall. Following its 1978 debut, the play was performed widely throughout the country before labor and farmer groups, in clubs, schools, and university centers. In 1984 it settled down for a long run in a small Mexico City theater.

In this social protest work, Santander employs “agitprop,” expressionist, and Brechtian effects to dramatize the plight of a group of peasants who are victimized by the local political chieftain and government officials—hardly a novel theme in Mexican literature. A Narrator-Balladeer introduces the play by telling the audience what is to come. Even before the action begins, he draws back the curtain to reveal a dramatic scene in progress. Stopping the action, he advises:

Watch for this scene. . . . You’ll see it later . . . and you will be asked to judge what’s to be done.

As the action gets underway, Cruz, an idealistic, newly minted agronomist from Mexico City, comes walking into a desolate rural community to which he has been assigned. He is greeted warily by the peasants, who later tell him of their many lean years, their dependence on the local political chieftain “El Maximo,” and their anger at not receiving title to “their lands.” Cruz, with youthful enthusiasm, comes up with a number of textbook solutions to their problems; all are rejected as impractical. In time he realizes he will need the cooperation of “El Maximo” and a local government official to carry out his ambitious plan to shift the peasants’ crop from corn to cotton. Reluctantly, the peasants agree to go along. “El Maximo,” with a single sentence—”I support the agronomist’s plan”—convinces the local banker to lend his support. Yet, the distrustful peasants continue to plant corn; only later, when they become convinced of Cruz’s expertise, do they switch to cotton. By this time they desperately need sizable loans, which they secure at exorbitant interest rates. Finally the peasants rebel against their exploitation, but the local militia move in to quell the disturbance, arresting two “agitators”: Cruz and an old peasant leader.

Later comes word that the two have been killed while in custody. The peasants, pitchforks in hand, resolve to march on the local constabulary. At this point, the Narrator-Balladeer, who throughout the play has offered commentaries on the action, moves to center stage.

It’s up to you to finish the work. . . . We’ll listen to your opinions. What should be done?

With the actors looking out expectantly, members of the small audience vie with one another to offer their opinions:

—A guerrilla movement . . . the only way . . .


—Not practical . . . with a strong neighbor to the North, it would not work.

—Educate the peasants . . . most are illiterate . . . When I finish college, I’ll go and teach them . . . work with them.

—We need to get better organized at all levels . . . so that things like what we’ve just seen can’t continue.

After thanking the audience for their participation, the Narrator-Balladeer underscores the need to expose corruption in all sectors of national life. And he exhorts his audience to get on the phone and urge their friends to come to see “El Extensionista.”

We depend on the box office . . . the Government is not going to subsidize this play.

In Y, el Milagro (And, the Miracle), his second play, which had its premiere in Mexico City last fall, Felipe Santander comes to grips with two major, interrelated problems in today’s Latin America: the guerrilla movement and Liberation Theology. In this social-realist drama with Marxist overtones, action takes place in a small Latin American town, probably in El Salvador. Employing a split-level stage to accommodate his short graphic scenes, Santander unfolds the story of a guerrilla leader, Genaro Rojas, who, after being wounded in a skirmish with government troops, takes refuge in the Church of Santa Catarina. There, Padre Armando Mena operates under primitive conditions on the guerrilla leader, saving his life. Later, to protect Genaro from General Maurilio Garcia, Commandant of the Ninth Military Zone, Padre Armando changes the rebel leader’s appearance, cutting his hair and outfitting him with a cassock and a new identity as his nephew, Padre Antonio, a recent graduate of a nearby seminary.

When Padre Armando learns of the atrocities committed by. the General’s “Death Squad,” he suffers a heart attack and has to be hospitalized. Replacing him as parish priest is Padre Antonio, and the rebel leader-turned priest soon begins to say Mass, administer the Sacraments, and, with his fiery sermons, alienate the “good people” of the parish, including General Garcia, the ladies of the “Association of Perpetual Help,” and local business and civic leaders.

Padre Antonio proves successful in winning back to the Church a number of peasants and workers, who had found no guidance or solace in the bland sermons of Padre Armando. With workers and peasants as his volunteer force, Padre Antonio completes long-delayed repairs on the church, adds a recreation center, and, in the process, develops a close rapport with the lower-class members of the parish. He urges peasants to take possession of choice, untilled fields, and he encourages workers to establish a training center so that, when they later take over the local plant, they will be skilled in administration and marketing, thus ensuring a successful operation of the future collectivized property.

Upon his return from the hospital, Padre Armando finds a parish revitalized by the socio-economic activism of Padre Antonio. He also learns of the disaffection of the “good people,” who recount bitterly what has happened during his absence. A confrontation between the two Padres serves to underscore the sharp distinction between the Traditional Church and the Popular Church, today’s adherents of Liberation Theology.

Padre Armando: I’ll show you the danger of mixing religion and politics. . . . By using my parish for your political agitation you have incurred the serious disapproval of the civic leaders, the authorities, and the Church itself Padre Antonio: In your church there has been no political speech . . . nor will you find a book by Marx or Lenin. . . . The peasants Communists? No . . . only hungry men whose lands have been taken away. They don’t know what Communism is. . . . I am with them. Christ would be, too. Isn’t it the Church’s obligation to watch out for the welfare of the faithful?

When General Garcia learns the true identity of Padre Antonio, he dispatches his henchmen to the church, where they gun down the rebel leader. With him fall six of his followers, together with a number of parishioners awaiting the next mass. In a type of peoples’ court-martial. General Garcia later defends his action:

I gave orders to arrest them, not to kill them all. . . . That massacre transformed a local movement into the raging national upheaval that it has now become. . . . This is my version of events. . . . I accept the consequences.

Padre Armando, as presiding officer of the court-martial, declares the General personally responsible for the massacre and condemns him to death. He draws a pistol and calmly executes the General. The “miracle” of the title is now clear: from a Traditional Churchman, Padre Armando, through his experience with the rebel leader, has turned into a Popular Churchman on the side of the poor and oppressed in their class struggle.

For Mexicans, Y, el Milagro is a highly polemical, even scandalous play. The sight of a rebel leader, with no religious training, officiating on the altar, and that of a priest executing a man in cold blood, caused many Conservatives to leave the theater unconvinced of the rightness of the Liberation Theology cause.

Liberal Mexicans, for their part, recall that the Mexican Revolution was fought in part to remove the Church from its once-lofty position in the socio-economic-political realm in Mexico. Hence they cannot be expected to welcome a restoration of the Church’s activist role in the secular field.

As evidenced by these two seminal works, El Extensionista and Y, el Milagro, Mexico’s “New Playwrights” are today forging a new rational theater. Whether regarded as a symptom or a cure of contemporary problems, this theater cannot fail to provoke the national conscience.