Slow Muse: Arrabal

Publication date: 
May 19, 2017
Author: 
Deborah Barlow

Every country has its dark chapters. But once it becomes possible to assemble a narrative, the way those stories are told matters immensely to the ongoing health of a nation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (now called The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation) used a court-like approach to restorative justice where victims of human rights violations could make a statement about their experiences, and perpetrators could also testify and request amnesty. This process played an important role in getting South Africa through its difficult transition to a free democracy, a process that is still going on.

In stark contrast to the disclosure approach taken by South Africa, Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge years were not dealt with in the same candor. By remaining unexamined and often denied, the genocide in Cambodia still lingers in the culture and remains a major impediment for the country to move forward. When I was in Cambodia I was told me that even the yearly commemorative TV broadcast of the film, The Killing Fields, had been terminated.

There is power and pain when a country’s dark story can be told with candor. Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman‘s 1990 play, Death and the Maiden, is set in the aftermath of a tyrannical reign in an unnamed country. But the story could have taken place anywhere.

In Dorfman’s words:

"So many societies that back then were being torn by the question of what you do with the trauma of the past, how to live side by side with your enemies, how to judge those who had abused power without destroying the fabric of a reconciliation necessary to move forward…

"It seemed to me the obligation of a writer was to force the country to look at itself, at what all those years of mendacity and dread had wrought. Death and the Maiden plunged its finger into the wound of Chile by showing that the executioners were among us, smiling on the streets but also interrogated the democratic elite, wondering what ideals they had forced themselves to sacrifice. Neither did I let the victims off the hook. Paulina, the woman who had been raped and tortured and betrayed, was the most violent person on that stage, so the question for her was not any easier: are you going to perpetuate the cycle of terror, how can you forgive if the price they are demanding is that you forget? But one does not create such a transgressive play in a country still reeling from many years of pain without suffering the consequences oneself. The elite of Chile hated what I had done, reviled it.

"I’m thrilled that Death and the Maiden has not aged over these 20 years, that it still moves people to tears, confronts them with a tragedy that has no clear solution, that it speaks to our world today with the same passion it embodied yesterday…Thrilled, yes, but it is also sobering to realise that humanity has not managed to learn from the past, that torture has not been abolished, that justice is so rarely served, that censorship prevails, that the hopes of a democratic revolution can be gutted and distorted and warped.

"I can’t help but ask if 20 years from now I will be writing this phrase all over again: this story happened yesterday, but it could well be today."

Plays, films, novels. There are many ways to tell the stories of a dark time. There is one now playing at the American Repertory Theater that takes the approach of telling its story without any words at all.

Between 1976-1983, a right wing military dictatorship took over Argentina. During that reign of terror, over 30,000 people “disappeared.” General Jorge Rafael Videla (who eventually went to prison where he died in 2013) famously defined a “terrorist” as “not only someone who plants bombs but a person whose ideas are contrary to Western, Christian civilization.”

Arrabal is an Argentinian national epic told completely through music and dance. Arrabal is a young woman whose father, Rodolfo, was a “desaparecido” taken when she was an infant. On the occasion of her 18th birthday, she is brought to Buenos Aires by his spirit to understand what happened to him and to claim her place in the next generation of Argentina. Tango. Music. Dance. It seems an appropriate form in which to dig into the loss and the sorrow of that period of Argentina’s past.

Directed and choreographed by Tony nominee and Laurence Olivier Award winner Sergio Trujillo, with live music composed by Oscar-winning Gustavo Santaolalla, the production is a nonstop explosion of visual and aural mastery. The cast and musicians are all Argentinians, and tango-inspired movement is used to tell a story of passion, loss and redemption. And for anyone who, like me, loves the music of Astor Piazzolla, Arrabal is a lights out explosion of sound.

There was one major weakness in this otherwise fabulous theatrical evening. The story line feels unresolved and incomplete. Given the decision to go with a “language free” approach where everything must be expressed through sound and movement, the need for narrative clarity increases. But this flaw has faded in my mind over the last 24 hours as I think back on having seen and experienced music and dance at such an exceptional level.

So yes, yes, thumbs up.

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