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TDR: The Drama Review 45.4 (2001) 106-124

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Desdemona's Lament

Julie Taylor

[Artwork from Devoto Penitentiary]

I remember a very funny scene from prison, around Christmas, I think. We prisoners were doing Othello. Flor had painted herself all black with cork, and she had curled her hair in order to be Othello. The others were all very disguised. We were in the midst of this and the guard of the women's pavilion arrives, and she says, "What are you doing?" So all the costumed participants--taking on responsibility since there were people in the pavilion who did not want to run a risk of punishment because of theatre--all of us go over to the bars to convince the guard that it was Christmas. And I remember Flor all painted black and the rest of us disguised, talking to the woman guard--and all of a sudden she starts to cry--do you remember? Yes, it was your hand that she took and cried and said, "I understand you because I think about my son, because I is Christmas and my son is far away and I can't be with him. I am in jail as well." And she kept on crying and all of us in our costumes, when we saw her cry, without knowing if she was going to punish us or not, we didn't know whether to laugh. The fact is that we ended up consoling her. And finally the guard went off without punishing us. A scene from Dante. (Testimonio inédito de un grupo de presas 1986 #3:1)1

This scene emerges from tape recordings made during meetings of a group of women who had been political prisoners held by the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983, as part of El Proceso de re-organización nacional, popularly known as El Proceso. 2 The group of women met in a newly democratic Argentina, 3 after years that for many had been spent under house arrest or in exile once released from prison. They came together in an attempt to make sense of their experience and of the conflicts they continued to feel. To this end they worked together in a taller, or workshop, a format frequently used by Argentines to deal with common artistic interests, therapeutic concerns, or intellectual activities. The questions they posed--concerning violence, its aftermath, and prospects for healing a traumatized society--are still unanswered in Argentina.

These women hoped not only to reach some understanding of their experience, but also to communicate what they learned to others. Their hopes were not easily realized: their experiences of state violence through torture and incarceration had been so savage and so unexpected that they initially had been disbelieved in their social context. They had had the good fortune to be held [End Page 106] as "legalized" prisoners, at the dispositon of the Executive Power (Poder Ejecutivo Nacional [PEN]) in an official jail, in this case the "showcase" Devoto Penetentiary, as opposed to one of the 300 secret concentration camps established by El Proceso in Argentina. Nevertheless, many prisoners held by the PEN had previously passed through the camps or were tortured in the process of their "legalization," and were even subjected to severe measures of punishment in the jails.

At the same time, they discarded more familiar individual responses to their situation, opting instead for innovative collective expressions, therapies, and politics. The transcripts of their meetings repeatedly reveal that imprisonment and torture are not individual traumas but rather social traumas.

While making these concerns clear, the women struggled with two central problems: (1) How could they construct their own subjectivity--their agency, their responsibility--in the face of such an experience; and (2) How could they represent the experience itself, as well as the agency that emerged from it? They found solutions to these dilemmas in their political practices, in the forms of nurturance that they provided for each other, in their theatre performances in jail, and in their meetings once freed. They adopted an inclusionary...


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pp. 106-124
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