Bloomsbury (2020) h/b 296pp £95 (ISBN 9781350125612)
This welcome collection of fourteen papers on the reception of Greek and Roman tragedy and comedy in the Latin American modern stage stems from an international conference held in 2014 at University College London. The volume falls into three main parts preceded by a highly informative introduction, where the editors not only discuss the difficulty of exploring reception in the region but also address some complex theoretical issues, including dealing with the extremely intricate and diverse history of the area, the ideas of colonisation and post-colonisation, and the problematic use of standardizing labels such as ‘Latin America’, ‘hybridity’ and mestizaje (‘racial mixing’).
Part I addresses the reception of Greek and Roman drama in the ‘Southern Cone’, with four studies on Argentina and Chile. Part II focuses four articles exclusively on Brazil, which, although geographically located in the Southern Cone as well, has been studied separately owing to its colonization by the Portuguese and the country’s sustained links with Portugal, which have provided it with a distinct reception history. Part III, with six papers, explores plays from the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Martinique and Haiti) and North America, including works from both Mexico and the Chicano community in the USA. Regretfully, as the editors themselves admit, no nations from Central America or countries other than Argentina and Chile in South America are represented in this otherwise very useful and comprehensive volume.
Each of the fourteen chapters tackles a particular rewriting that is examined both in contrast to its classical counterpart and to the local textual tradition from within which it originated. The adaptation is also studied in connection to the social, political, and cultural circumstances in which it was conceived.
From the use of the tragedy Dido, written by Varela in 1823 (Chapter 2), as an attempt to build a founding figure for post-Independence Argentina, or of Marechal’s Antígona Vélez to endorse a Peronist/Catholic Argentinian foundational myth (Chapter 3), to the rewriting of Medea (Chapter 4) as a way to condemn the territorial, physical and cultural struggle of the indigenous Mapuche communities in Chile, or of Philoctetes (Chapter 5) as an exploration of exclusion and abandonment in the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Chile, each chapter examines the appropriation, contextualization, and transformation of the classical source into a new piece of work manipulated by the writer to suit their own agendas and ideologies.
An adaptation can be used to reveal the neo-humanist ideology of the author and his views on peace and freedom (Chapters 6 and 7), as a model of resistance, to fight despotism (Chapter 9), or to denounce gender violence and the reduction of life to bare existence (Chapter 15). There is also the possibility that connections between the classical source and the modern reworking are not that evident, but rather thematic and structural, and used to explore human darkness (Chapter 8), or that a political comedy such as Lysitrata is rewritten as explicitly apolitical, to hide subtle references to a turbulent reality (Chapter 10).
A play might be rewritten as a hybrid of old and new, at the same time rejecting the Western canon that sourced it and using it to legitimize itself (Chapter 11). A reworking can address a moment of political and cultural instability, forming part of a revolution or a counter-revolution (Chapter 12), or it might reflect its own hybridity, the fracture and recomposing of multiple roots, the combination of orality and literacy, of verbal hybridity and social marginalization (Chapter 13 and 14).
Although the reception of classical drama in Latin America has been, and still is, profuse and extremely relevant, as the editors rightly mention, the region remains practically unexplored in this regard. Therefore, a volume that brings to light little-known adaptations from a variety of countries in the area addressing many of its present conflicts and recent past turmoil, is extremely valuable. Moreover, the fact that the book starts by highlighting the need to redefine certain terms taken for granted to examine reception in ‘Latin America’ and to acknowledge that this is not a homogeneous area but a highly diverse region that cannot be studied as a single unit, is certainly refreshing, reassuring, and a step in the right direction. The same must be said regarding its emphasis throughout on the need to understand not only the socio-political and cultural context of these adaptations but also (and I quote their terms) the intricate ‘transhistorical’ and ‘transnational’ journeys that classical texts have taken in the region to comprehend truly how, and fundamentally why, they are appropriated and adapted, as well as to grasp their profound meaning and the tremendous impact they have on their local audiences.
Dr María Florencia Nelli
Director, Communicate Project CIC