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Self, Esteemed: Contemporary Auto/biographical Theatre in Latin America


Self, Esteemed: Contemporary Auto/biographical Theatre in Latin America
Julie Ann Ward
Doctor of Philosophy in Hispanic Languages and Literatures
University of California, Berkeley
Professor Francine Masiello, Co-chair
Professor Candace Slater, Co-chair

In this dissertation, I argue that contemporary auto/biographical theatre questions, on the one hand, the concept of the self as an individual with clearly defined borders between “I” and other and, on the other, the very possibility of representing reality onstage. Contemporary Latin American theatre is saturated with auto/biographical plays in which onstage actors play their real-life selves and family members, representing events from history as well as their own personal stories. Looking at 21st-century plays from Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, I also note that auto/biographical representation in the theatre allows for an understanding of the life story as a collective endeavor rather than the work of a lone individual. This type of dramatic representation positions the theatrical work as one among many sources of truth.

By insisting on the reality of portrayed events, auto/biographical plays ask the theatregoer to accept the “true” nature of the content and, simultaneously, the fiction of the theatre. In the opening chapter, an overarching theoretical introduction, I draw on auto/biography studies, testimonio criticism, documentary film theory and the concept of postdramatic theatre to examine the relationship between director/author and actor/witness. The actor, by playing the role of him- or herself, creates an autobiography through the signs of the theatre: voice, gesture, language, etc. However, the director/author (often one and the same person) plays the part of biographer by arranging the actor's words and designing their activity onstage. Over the next four chapters I analyze the strategies employed in contemporary plays — including works by Argentine, Brazilian and Mexican playwrights (Lola Arias, Márcio Freitas, Christiane Jatahy, Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol, Gabino Rodríguez, and Vivi Tellas)—for creating new auto/biographical pacts between spectator and play.

By placing the biographied actor onstage, the plays ask the spectator to believe that their version of the truth is, in some way, unmediated. The fact that the onstage body is the same one that experienced the presented events gives the production immediacy and a sense of being “true.” At the same time, however, the theatrical apparatus as a whole forces audiences to recognize the hand that the directors and authors have in relaying that “truth.” Directors and authors often interview their subjects and use their exact words, in an edited form, as the basis for their scripts. Similarly, spectators must recognize the collaboration that occurs in any theatrical production between various crew members, actors, director, and the audience itself. The very nature of the theatre precludes the possibility of the unmediated autobiography that tantalizes the audience.

Chapter two deals with the treatment of the concept of truth in documentary theatre, by looking at various critics' use of the term “truth” and its role in Jatahy's play A Falta Que Nos Moves. Chapter three demonstrates the way that so-called verbatim theatre fetishizes testimonial language, separating the original event from the language used to speak about it, with Freitas' Sem Falsidades. Chapter four examines the representation of performers' family members in auto/biographical plays, focusing on Lagartijas' El rumor del incendio and Arias' Mi vida después. The final chapter considers the ethics of the representation of the real, analyzing Rodríguez' Montserrat. By putting the actor/witness onstage and forming a pact with the audience in which truth and fiction coexist, these plays sketch out new ways of understanding authorship, auto/biographical authority. The possibilities of theatre itself—what it can potentially represent and how it interacts with reality—are expanded in contemporary Latin American auto/biographical theatre.

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