Skip to main content

Firmly rooted in an acceptance of the inequalities of life and a subsequent desire to mock them, Cuban choteo (“joking”) is a trope that finds humor in dragging its lofty victims down with low language and crude comedy (Firmat 1984, Mañach 1991.) Given its quintessential role in Cuban identity, it is no surprise that choteo forms an integral part of the transformations of Classical tragedy for the Cuban stage. Choteo in tragedy may take many forms, from the incorporation and elevation of local slang and ingléspañol to costuming decisions that visually exaggerate aspects of Cuban society. This presentation explores the usage of Cuban humor in three adaptations of Greek tragedies by noted Cuban playwrights: Electra Garrigó (1948) by Virgilio Piñera, Medea en el espejo (1960) by José Triana, and Medea sueña Corinto (2008) by Abelardo Estorino.

These adaptations have been treated individually by previous scholars as instances of a dialogue between Cuban authors and Graeco-Roman antiquity at key moments in the island’s history (Andújar 2015, Andújar and Nikoloutsos 2020, Díaz 2021.) Building upon such scholarship, this presentation shows that choteo serves as a vehicle to probe anxieties in Cuba over access to education before and after the revolution. More specifically, choteo exhibits an irreverent attitude towards aspects of classical education that were available only to the upper classes, which helped create an intellectual colonial elite during the occupation of first Spain and then the United States (Epstein 1987, Smith 2016, Jarvinen 2022.) The dissonance created by the juxtaposition of ancient tragedy with modern comedy serves not only to facilitate communication and relate these stories to a broader Cuban audience, but also to critique the ruling elite’s possessive reverence for ancient texts.

For instance, the centaur who tutors the modern Cuban protagonist in Electra Garrigó, while visually a font of choteo humor onstage due to his mythical form in a setting that is otherwise grounded in reality, is also a source of unheeded advice for Elektra (Cervera Salinas 1985.) Here, the ancient figure of the centaur as paidagogos, as epitomized by Kheiron, becomes emblematic of the classically educated Cuban intellectual who tries unsuccessfully to correct Elektra’s behavior; the use of choteo undercuts the authority invested in the character by these classical associations. Choteo, then, is more than a superficial spoof. Its existence is intrinsically tied to the shifting realities of being Cuban and the evolving concept of Cubanidad before and after the revolution. Its blending with tragic elements exemplifies the use of humor if not to solve then at least to alleviate the hardships brought about by imperial domination. It is not indicative of a wholesale dismissal of Graeco-Roman antiquity, but an invitation to reexamine ancient plays in a Cuban context. In effect, choteo in tragedies is indicative of the Cubanization of Classics.