On 11 September 1973, the first socialist president ever to be elected by the people, Salvador Allende, was overthrown by the Chilean military forces supported by the country's right wing. During the Dictatorship that followed (1973–90), thousands of politically active citizens went into exile, and many of those who remained in the country to fight for the recovery of democracy were victims of torture and disappearance.Footnote 2 The artistic field was dismantled. Many theatre practitioners and scholars left the country after being imprisoned or threatened by the secret police. Those who remained transformed their productions into resistance pieces, even though they were working under extreme surveillance.Footnote 3
Despite the harsh control exerted over the artistic field, theatre performances played a fundamental role in denouncing the ongoing violations of human rights. From 1984, disappearance and torture were routinely staged in an attempt to represent openly in the public sphere the political violence that the Dictatorship wanted to hide.Footnote 4 These performances gave the audience the possibility to collaborate on a search for an affective, cognitive and aesthetic experience that would integrate the narrative and emotional worlds that traumatic events dissociate. After the end of Dictatorship and up to the present, productions referring to local, recent history have been a constant in Chilean theatre, playing a fundamental role in the collective mourning process.
The five productions analysed here – Cinema Utoppia (Ramón Griffero, 1985), 99 La Morgue (Ramón Griffero, 1987), La Huida (Andrés Pérez, 2001), Cuerpo (Rodrigo Pérez, 2005) and Villa + Discurso (Guillermo Calderón, 2011) – explicitly address the issues of torture and disappearance.Footnote 5 The twenty-five-year span they cover saw Chilean theatre explore a range of methodologies to represent extreme political violence. Intermediality emerged as a key concept. Through our diachronic approach, we discuss the dynamic theatrical responses to a changing dictatorship. Over the twenty-five years, Chile moved from complete denial of covert human rights violations to public knowledge and acceptance of the crimes committed from 11 September 1973 to 10 March 1990.
Chilean theatre and political violence during the Dictatorship
Chilean theatre was almost totally destroyed when the Dictatorship began in 1973. Theatre artists and scholars were imprisoned, tortured and even assassinated, or went into exile. This severely limited what it was possible to offer audiences, as productions were hampered by censorship, curfews and space restrictions, along with the dismantling of distribution channels and publicly financed support systems, and even the closing of theatres and drama schools.Footnote 6 As scholar Paula Thorrington Cronovich notes,
At the time of the coup d’état on September 11, 1973, anyone with affiliations to Salvador Allende's uprooted Popular Unity, or to anything leftist for that matter, became a target of the fierce cleansing process undertaken by the soldiers and police forces of the newly formed military junta. Artists and singers were shown no mercy in the violence, in fact they were pursued with a vengeance; the torture and assassination of the beloved, well-known singer Víctor Jara[Footnote 7] is the quintessential example of this kind of tragic death.Footnote 8
Nevertheless, by the beginning of the 1980s, the Dictatorship faced massive protests, and had to loosen its policies. As a result, a cultural resurgence began to materialize in marginalized, almost clandestine, spaces. This provided an alternative to the resistance strategy that long-standing companies had adopted by staging canonical authors (including Pedro Calderón de la Barca, William Shakespeare and Molière), whose plays worked as metaphors of the current political situation.
Among these new underground venues, El Trolley (1983–8) played a distinctive role. Along with playwright and director Ramón Griffero's productions, it hosted ‘musical concerts, art exhibits, and video displays – [that] enabled a reconstitution of social relations where spectators had the opportunity to participate in resistance’.Footnote 9 The sense of a reconstituted social bonding was particularly strong because the artistic performances took place in the midst of parties, allowing the counterculture movement to develop in a reclaimed, exultant public – if secret – space.
Ramón Griffero premiered Cinema Utoppia (1985) in El Trolley,Footnote 10 in a clear move to denounce and resist the military rule. The play develops through three parallel stories in different settings and contexts. The first narrative is in the auditorium of Cine Valencia in 1946, where the same lonely characters come every day to watch a science fiction film (Utoppia). Screened in consecutive chapters, this story of political violence, homosexuality and drug abuse set in a futuristic 1980 is barely understood by its spectators. The second narrative features a series of scenes in the apartment of Sebastián, a bisexual Chilean man exiled to France whose female partner was abducted by the secret police before he had to flee. Finally, the third narrative is the Paris underworld of sex and drug commerce in the 1980s, seen through the window of Sebastián's apartment. As in a mirror game, the actual audience of the 1985 production was seeing another audience onstage living in the fictional 1940s that was watching a third stage – an intended sci-fi feature movie taking place in the far future of 1980.Footnote 11 The temporal fold allowed Griffero to perform explicit scenes, like a woman being abducted before becoming a desaparecida,Footnote 12 hence overtly exposing the violence of the Dictatorship still in place.
Two years after the success of Cinema Utoppia, Griffero returned to the subject of unpunished murders perpetrated under military rule. 99 La Morgue (1987) presents a complex story that unfolds through different epochs, even though the set remains the same: the Morgue in Santiago.Footnote 13 While Germán, the main character, insists that the corpses being brought every day show signs of torture and murder, the new Director of the Morgue replies that they have just drowned. This primary narrative is interrupted by scenes depicting characters from national history (Bernardo O’Higgins, the hero of Chilean independence), local imaginary (the Virgen del Carmen, Chile's religious patroness) and classical drama (the woman of Corinthian, Lady Macbeth), among other absurd, disparate personae. As theatre scholar Alfonso De Toro has pointed out,
99 The Morgue displays a well-known problem in all dictatorships, when forensics state that those who have been tortured or killed by the police died from accident or natural causes, like a heart attack or any other illness. The production and its content should be analysed and interpreted in the context of what it meant to perform it while Pinochet was still in power. Even though his dictatorship had already decreased the radical violence of the early years, it was risky business for both the author and director and the actors to go against an extremely dangerous reality.Footnote 14
In fact, Griffero managed to explicitly represent abduction, torture and murder in a context where such denunciations were dangerous, in a moment where the media either actively collaborated in the cover-up or were too afraid to address human rights issues.Footnote 15 By employing a distancing device – the movie scenes in the first case, and an expressionist, bizarre pastiche in the second – he represented political violence onstage as a blunt act of defiance even while Pinochet still had the nation in his grip.
Transitional times: beyond the boundaries of dictatorship
The state violence exerted by the military and the secret police in Chile between 1973 and 1990 remains a controversial issue.Footnote 16 Both during the Dictatorship and in its aftermath, Chilean historians rarely approached recent history as an important research subject.Footnote 17 The issue of human rights violations was absent from public debate because raising the issue meant accusing the military, something very few people dared to do before 1990. Even after 1990, many still avoided such discussions because they might endanger the fragile process of redemocratization.Footnote 18 And even though the Transition came with the promise of justice, the newly elected government had to surrender to the power the armed forces still possessed, as Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the Army until his resignation in 1998.Footnote 19
On 10 October 1998, Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón indicted Pinochet for human rights violations committed in Chile; Pinochet was subsequently arrested in London. The event marked a turning point in transitional justice.Footnote 20 Responding to this new context, theatre directors turned again to human rights violations. This time, however, instead of being compelled to denounce concealed crimes, theatre artists focused their work on the entire span of the Dictatorship to put political violence in a broader context, and to move beyond the limited field of criminal justice.
In this new context, Andrés Pérez premiered La Huida (The Escape) in 2001.Footnote 21 As the director noted, the play's first version was written in 1974 as a response to the coup.Footnote 22 Through his research, he discovered that ‘in the history of Chile there have been other periods of prosecution. [Therefore this play] also stages my own knowledge of the fears and uncertainties of being persecuted, looked upon, cornered, under an explicit prohibition of performing on the streets, of being held in jail’.Footnote 23La Huida's plot is set in 1929, amidst the alleged raid ordered by General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo, where homosexuals were said to have been thrown into the sea, alive, blindfolded and with their feet cast in concrete. In this context, Joaquín, a middle-aged homosexual, is killed when trying to help a young gay couple to escape. Scattered across this line of action is a series of autobiographical scenes where the playwright evokes his own memories intertwining sexuality and dictatorship.Footnote 24 As well, the other actors – speaking for themselves or for some fictionalized alter egos, we do not really know – reflect on the experience of playing a gay character. This twofold display is made even more complex by the use of documentary materials, in particular press photos of Carlos Ibáñez del Campo (only referred to as the General) and video testimonies from Andrés Pérez's mother about her son's sexual identity and the disappearance of gays in the 1930s, of which she heard when she was fifteen years old. Although Pérez intends to make the point that the persecution and disappearance of minorities is not new to Chilean history, the overlap of similar situations several decades apart was mostly seen as an aesthetic technique to address the present. Nevertheless, the key role given to homosexuality in the production, and the stress put on the fact that this dark episode has never been openly addressed, brought us to believe that Pérez is raising the question of justice itself. Strong political forces allied in transitional Chile sought truth, repair for the victims and the punishment of those responsible for criminal acts. The atrocities perpetrated against gay minorities, however, are still covered by the shadows of uncertainty and myth. So the relationship is inverted: the horrors of the past no longer make it possible to assess recent political violence. Instead, the establishment of factual, public knowledge of Dictatorship crimes should set the standard for the recognition of previous murderous state policies.Footnote 25
Ten years after La Huida immersed itself in the past, the same concerns projected Guillermo Calderón's Villa+Discurso (Villa+Speech, 2011) into the future.Footnote 26 This play addressed the question of how post-conflict memory should be addressed. In Villa, three characters – each aged thirty-three and bearing the same name – debate the destiny of Parque por la Paz Villa Grimaldi, the most emblematic torture and disappearance site of the Chilean Dictatorship. It is also the first former clandestine site in Latin America to be opened to the public as a commemoration of torture and disappearance. The alternatives they propose range from a hyperrealistic reproduction of the torture centre, a white postmodern museum,Footnote 27 or the Parque por la Paz as it is, to a grass field where everybody can remember whatever he or she wants because ‘we all react in a different way’ to the past.Footnote 28 The second play, Discurso, is a farewell speech from Chile's first female president, Michelle Bachelet, who herself was kidnapped and held for six days in Villa Grimaldi (10–16 January 1975). The three actresses from the first play appear in the second to give President Bachelet's monologue a polyphonic voice.
Beyond the obvious fact that both parts of these two plays mirror each other, Calderón aims for a radical relationship between space and time, fiction and reality. That the play premiered and performed, at least initially, at former detention and torture centres puts the referent in a mise en abîme that is even more dizzying when Villa+Discurso is represented in Parque por la Paz Villa Grimaldi itself. In this performance, the discussion about refurbishing the memory site that unfolds in front of the audience refers to the same space that contains and engulfs spectators, actors and stage. The audience is not just sitting there to watch a performance, it is also part of the document/monument dramatized by the production that tries to settle the way in which the memory of torture and disappearance is to be retrieved and constructed for future generations.
In between the temporal displacements of La Huida and Villa+Discurso, Rodrigo Pérez explored a totally different approach to the theme of human rights violations in Cuerpo (Body, 2010).Footnote 29 Unlike all the previous productions analysed here, Cuerpo does not rely on a plot. More concerned about the effects of torture on both the individual and the collective social body, the play brings together intense sequences of movement and a series of text fragments – from the Valech Report and the Letter to the Actors: To Louis de Funès by French philosopher and playwright Valère NovarinaFootnote 30 to the unsuccessful recollection attempts of a victim of political violence and the public statement of a Chilean Christian Democrat politician accused of child abuse. Built on the idea that remnants and revenants haunt post-conflict societies, the fragments of texts are uttered (sometimes more than once) in a voice devoid of any feeling, while the bodies are invested with violence and exhaustion. Simultaneity and repetition seem to be joined together in a vain effort to remember what has been forgotten, and to organize the unbearable, incomprehensible experience of torture.
Beyond theatre's political function: how does it work?
The shift from Dictatorship to Transition imposed changing priorities on theatre artists willing to participate in the public sphere. Whereas the main concern during the dark years of Pinochet's military regime was disclosing human rights violations, the achievements of transitional justice intended to raise the issue of post-conflict policies and the management of traumatic memories in order to avoid such atrocities in the future.
Nevertheless, despite these shifts, some questions of aesthetic efficacy when trying to tackle questions of torture and disappearance remain the same. Cuerpo, scholar Agustín Letelier states,
Is a research on the ways to make concrete a non-dramatic text, a report; to provide it with affect, and theatre value. Testimonies have been corroborated. Main social actors involved in the facts have accepted their truthfulness. The report has been broadly published, so it is supposed to be widely known; however, it is necessary to trigger an emotional resonance to embed it into consciousness. This is the work done here.Footnote 31
The underlying assumption of this claim is that there is a shared truth of which emotional resonance is only half. The call for staging affect is part of the larger effort to represent extreme experiences of embodiment. This is in tandem with conveying basic information about these experiences.
The inescapably complex intensity of torture makes it impossible to represent within the dichotomic categories we apply in everyday life: body versus mind, truth versus fiction, past versus present, and so on. The result is a saturated and recursive theatrical universe that attempts to stage the impossible: a coherent narrative that would give meaning to traumatic experience.
The attack on the compulsion to create narrative is realized through different means. On the one hand, there is the use of diverse media that mirror each other and, at the same time, contradict common sense. In Cinema Utoppia, for instance, the audience is presented with a clash between theatre and film that turns the reference to contemporary events into a second level of fiction. And the paradox is double: the film is also fake. The spectators of Ramón Griffero's production recognize the inability of the film-goers to understand the urgent political content featured in Cine Valencia, as the silent complicity of hundreds of Chileans dismissed political violence as fiction, mere ‘stories’. Nevertheless, in times of censorship, the staging of abduction scenes was possible precisely because they were relegated to fiction, presented through a veil like a black-and-white movie.
Whereas the twisting and mirroring of fiction and reality is embedded in the plot itself of Cinema Utoppia, in La Huida and Villa+Discurso it depends on the combination of fiction and reality. The threefold imbrication of Andrés Pérez's roles in his 2001 production, as playwright, director and actor, is reinforced by the autobiographical element. Reflexivity intermingles with autoreflexivity when he refers to his attending gay parties after curfew hours during the Dictatorship dressed as the homosexual hero he plays in the mythical fiction he has just completed.
An analogous intermingling of fiction and reality occurs in Villa+Discurso. While relying on thorough research about the debate on the renovation of Parque por la Paz Villa Grimaldi, the installation of the production in the park itself produces a mise en abîme similar to the one in Cinema Utoppia. Different overlapping levels of reality encapsulate each other, and render it difficult to maintain the boundaries between fiction and documentary.Footnote 32 This is further reinforced by the reference to President Bachelet. Her monologue is polyphonically delivered by three actresses who are much younger than the woman they portray. These differences highlight the representational character of the performance, which does not attempt realistic impersonification. The production portrays the president by representing her – through her actual words – and by explicitly not representing her – by constructing a multiple body onstage that is clearly not hers. As a result, the audience is confronted with a mise en scène of liminality, which makes it difficult to distinguish between truth and fiction.
In the case of Cuerpo, torture's complexity is not conveyed by the paradox of fiction and reality, through the development of concurrent plots, or by the splitting of the relation between actor and character, but by the simultaneity of different languages at contrasting intensities. When the following text is repeated in an emotionless voice whose rhythm does not change, it is accompanied by a sequence of hectic movements also repeated at an increasing rate:
According to data and as shown in the following chart,[Footnote 33] 44.2% (12,060) were from 21 to 30 years of age at the time of detainment, i.e., they would be in what is today called the young adult segment. 25.4% (6,913) were from 31 to 40 years old and 12.5% (3,397) from 41 to 50 years of age. 9.7% (2,631) were also from 18 to 20 years of age, of which 4% (1,080) were below the age of 18. Adults above the age of 50 represented 4.3% (1,174).Footnote 34
In this case, it is almost impossible to match the data, the actual facts and the physical demand on the dancers’ bodies, making clear the difficulty of turning statistics – the social body – into flesh – the individual body. However, the effort to couple the detailed description of torture in technical language with the performers’ exhaustion is also impossible because the idea of submitting an actual body to such treatment is unthinkable.
Along with this dissonant flood of stimuli, the audience must face an intensification of movement sequences and texts that get progressively more unbearable:
The effectiveness of torture lies not only in the unexpected, but also in on the predictability of pain. The fugue structure of Cuerpo reproduces the iteration of sequences with minor changes; this allows the audience both to predict what will come next and to be kept aware of slight changes. Hence the production addresses the issue of torture not only by speaking of it, or submitting the performers’ bodies to physical distress, but also by mimicking its structure.
One of the characters in Villa wants the visitor's experience of the former torture centre to be like a ride on an ‘emotional roller coaster’. The mechanisms and resources that are key elements of various theatre productions staged across twenty-five years, from the Chilean Dictatorship to the present moment, share the same target. When it comes to torture and disappearance, there will always be impossibilities, namely to know, to understand, to represent. Nobody can vicariously experience torture. We will never fully understand the human capacity to inflict pain. No one will ever fully reveal what happened to the disappeared. What theatre at its best can do is involve audiences in a complex, paradoxical experience where affect is invoked along with critical thinking, disturbing our normal perception and interpretation of the world.