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Reenacting Death: Aristotelian Catharsis and Afro-Cuban Subjectivity in Virgilio Piñera’s Electra Garrigó

Konstantinos P. Nikoloutsos

Recent scholarship on the reception of classical drama in Latin America has attempted to shed light on the ways in which ancient themes and ideas are renewed through interaction with African-based religious beliefs and practices, by focusing on José Triana’s Medea in the Mirror (Havana, 1960), the second adaptation of a story drawn from classical tragedy in the history of post-Independence Cuban theater (Nikoloutsos 2012: 25-7). This paper aims to explore this intersection further through a different case study, Virgilio Piñera’s Electra Garrigó. Written in 1941 and performed for the first time in 1948 by actors who formed part of the newly established Teatro Prometeo—named after the Greek Titan by its founder, director Francisco Morín, to signal the group’s departure from the hegemonic models of Spanish theater of the colonial period—Electra Garrigó is the first reworking of ancient drama in the Caribbean as a whole and widely regarded as the play that marks the beginning of modernism in Cuban theater. As scholars have noted (e.g., Carrió 1992: 132-5; Townsend 2008: 174; Nikoloutsos 2014), the play “cubanizes” Sophocles’ Electra by situating the story in pre-Revolutionary Havana and by discussing, albeit allegorically, pressing issues of that time period. The Bronze Age palace of Mycenae is replaced with a contemporary colonial architecture mansion, where Electra, with the help of her brother Orestes, orchestrates the downfall of their oppressive parents, cast as symbols for dictator Fulgencio Batista (1940-1959) and the string of puppet presidents with whom he exerted his influence over Cuban politics during his self-exile in the U.S. (1944-1952).

The paper will discuss the closing part of the first act of the play. The corrupt “old rooster” Agamenón Garrigó and his unfaithful wife Clitemnestra Plá, who is cheating on him with a young and handsome man named Egisto Don, seek to cleanse their fears by ordering their black servants to “die” in their place. The couple visualizes their own death by supplying the voice for the mute servants who reenact their masters’ fantasy on stage, before Electra and Orestes, in the form of a pantomime. Scholarship on Electra Garrigó has almost entirely ignored this scene, pursuing instead the play’s existentialist concerns. Recently, Townsend has made the point that the suppression of black agency in this scene “underscores the role of Western theater in establishing a cultural hierarchy whose terms are set by the white elite” (2007: 175). Although it certainly has merit, this view does not take into account Piñera’s own position in the prologue of his Teatro Completo (1960), where the Cuban playwright explains that he conceived of the play as a critical junction between ancient theories of drama and modern definitions of cubanía, a term coined by anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in a lecture that he gave at the University of Havana on 28 November 1939 to describe the hybrid nature of Cuban culture. Piñera’s understanding of Aristotelian catharsis, I shall argue, is blended in this scene with popular perceptions of Afro-Cuban rituals, according to which death is enacted upon a human being by means of a double. I shall also argue that, although the scene reduces the black servants to the role of the inanimate, passive voodoo figurine, the play restores black agency in the last act, where the actress who dies in place of Clitemnestra becomes the catalyst for the demise of her mistress by offering her the deadly papaya. I shall close the paper by historicizing the inclusion of black actors in the play.

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Afro-Latin and Afro-Hispanic Literature and Classics

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