The Theatre in Catalonia

Modern Catalan Plays
Sirera (et al
The following text is an excerpt from the introduction to Modern Catalan Plays by John London and David George. Published by Methuen, London (2000).
If a major publisher had produced an anthology of Catalan plays twenty or even fifteen years ago, the introduction to such a collection would inevitably have sounded apologetic. Any argument for attention would have contained sentences full of worthy excuses: 'Hardly anybody outside Spain, or in some cases, hardly anybody outside Catalonia, has heard of these playwrights, but they have nonetheless written some exciting drama.' 'The minority status of this Romance language should not obscure the quality of its theatre.'

Now, at the beginning of a new millennium, there is no need for a defensive tone. Following the 1992 Olympic Games, Barcelona acquired a confident, new international status as the capital of Catalonia. The relaxation of anti-Catalan censorship after the death of General Franco in 1975 and a degree of regional autonomy have led to a flourishing cultural life. There is a vibrant literature in Catalan, continuing a tradition going back to the Middle Ages. Although memories may remain of the public burning of Catalan books at the beginning of the dictatorship (in 1939), the long, dark period of Francoism is at an end. Catalan is now taught in schools and universities. Catalan radio exists alongside Catalan television. There are daily newspapers in Catalan. Catalan translations of foreign books sometimes appear before Spanish translations.

This new assertiveness has meant that the traffic is not all one-way and that Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí are not the only Catalans famous abroad. Ventura Pons has gained a cult following for his films, like Caresses, shot entirely with Catalan dialogue. Having been a linchpin of theatre in Barcelona, Lluís Pasqual went on to become director of the Spanish National Theatre in Madrid (1983-1989) and artistic director of the Théâtre de l'Europe atthe Odéon in Paris in the 1990s. Anyone attending international theatre festivals will be familiar with the eye-catching antics of Catalan performance groups such as Els Joglars, La Cubana, La Fura dels Baus and Comediants. (The last two staged the opening and closing ceremonies to the Barcelona Olympic Games.)

Without the fireworks and mass spectacles of such companies, a few Catalan playwrights have already established a considerable reputation. Lluïsa Cunillé's The Meeting was commissioned as part of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1999. Josep Maria Benet i Jornet's play in this volume, Desire, has been translated into Spanish, French and German. Rodolf Sirera's The Audition has had Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese, Greek and French productions. Sergi Belbel, the youngest and most performed writer in this selection, has been applauded throughout Europe. His play After the Rain was produced Off-Broadway in New York and both the Royal Court and the Gate theatres in London have presented his work. Joan Brossa's highly original visual art is regularly exhibited in non-Spanish galleries. When it was first displayed in Great Britain, in 1992, the London listings magazine Time Out called the exhibition 'a brilliant, unmissable show'.

The inroads made by these dramatists are not merely spontaneous instances of international recognition. They reflect an increased theatrical infrastructure in Catalonia and the Valencia region. This practical and financial backing accompanied the renewed enthusiasm of directors for contemporary plays during the late 1980s, in opposition to collective creation and the visually impressive, but largely non-verbal, productions of more famous performance groups. Although the composition of the plays in this anthology spans three decades, it was a significant acknowledgement of a developing tradition of dramatic writing that all four of them were given revivals or premieres m Barcelona during 1990-1993.

Some thirty auditoria of differing sizes testify to Barcelona's theatrical vitality. In 1997, the impressive multi-space National Theatre of Catalonia opened in the city. The distribution of the seven million people who speak Catalan extends well beyond Catalonia. Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Roussillon (in France), Alghero (in Sardinia) and Andorra all have Catalan-speaking inhabitants. Yet, in the realm of theatre, as with so many other cultural manifestations, Barcelona is proving itself to be the leading force.

For at least the last twenty years of his life, Joan Brossa (1919 -1998) had become a legendary figure in the Catalan capital. Few in the world of Catalan art and literature were unaware of this ironic, shabby little man, who went to see one film a day and never seemed to fit into any movement, fashion or period. Taxi-drivers would talk about photographs they had seen of his apparently chaotic studio where piles of newspapers carpeted the floor.

Although The Audition (1978) is dedicated to Brossa, Rodolf Sirera (1). 1948) has always maintained a much more practical involvement in theatrical productions than his older colleague. He played an important role in creating anti-Francoist protest performances in the Valencia region and, with the onset of democracy, subsequently worked in government to develop Valencian theatre. Both on his own and in collaboration with his brother Josep LIuís Sirera (b. 1954) he has written a considerable body of plays in the Valencian dialect of Catalan, including political satires, historical dramas, experimental texts and social comedies.

Whereas, towards the end of Francoism, Sirera declared that theatre was 'a political weapon', The Audition at first sight seems distant from such a committed stance. Having served his guest with a mysterious drink, the Marquis wants the actor Gabriel to perform Socrates's death scene and it looks as though the theatrical equivalent of a snuff movie is about to be re-enacted. The Marquis's tricksy manipulation of the antidote adds to the suspense. But this is not simply an eighteenth-century variation on Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth. The Catalan title of the play means 'the poison or drug of theatre' and that, bolstered by the mention of Socrates, gives much of the plot away from the start.

What Sirera adds to this context is a debate stemming from Paradoxe sur le comédien by Denis Diderot, who died in 1784, the same year in which The Audition is set. Diderot was keen to differentiate between actors who drew on genuine feeling and those who were more premeditated and self-controlled. In the course of Sirera's play the Marquis is, in some respects, the more successful actor, even though he is not a professional. Meanwhile, Gabriel's fear destroys in minutes all his career has taught him. (Socrates's life, free from artifice, is a suitable vehicle for removing technique.) But the Marquis is in search of a natural performance and, by promoting reality and killing his guest, also puts an end to theatre. Gabriel's acting for real obviously has to take place once the final blackout has occurred.

The Marquis has a philosophical as well as an aesthetic justification for his behaviour. Behind his reasoning lies the sophist Antiphon's idea that laws are sovereign in front of witnesses, but in their absence, man resorts to the laws of nature. We have made laws for the eyes. (Unlike accounts by Plato, the text by Xenophon, upon which the Marquis's play is supposedly based, does not mention Socrates's faith in an afterlife.) The cruelty resulting from such arguments on the eve of the French Revolution can but evoke the actions of the Marquis de Sade. By annihilating the falsity of theatre, Sirera's Marquis is, despite his social superiority, very much the revolutionary. Three years after the death of Franco, the play raises different questions. The Marquis may behave like a dictator, but his quest for authenticity constitutes an attack on the artificiality of a whole approach to theatre and life. In the transition to democracy, is it better to judge and condemn all the protagonists of the old regime? Or should we let their lies and fictional view of the past go unchallenged in favour of the maintenance of a new political construction which, in its own way, is perhaps just as artificial?










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