- Aztecs on Stage: Religious Theater in Colonial Mexico
Louise M. Burkhart, professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York, Albany, introduces us to the complexity of Nahuatl drama through an English translation of six Nahuatl plays.
In her introduction, Burkhart traces Nahuatl drama from 1533 forward as a blend of Aztec and European traditions, explaining that the rituals of the Aztec people had a theatrical component that was rapidly recognized by the monks and identified with the Spanish religious theatre. Nonetheless, although the Nahuatl drama form has its base in the European religious theatre, “Nahuatl theater belonged to the Native American people” (p. 6).
Burkhart divides the Nahuatl plays into two types: morality plays, characterized by the importance of confession, and stories inspired by the Bible in which Native Americans could see their own history reflected. She also looks at the structure of Nahuatl drama and its close relationship to Spanish religious theatre. “Most Nahuatl plays have a single act, without intermission, like sixteenth-century Spanish plays. However, later developments in Spanish theater influenced some writers of Nahuatl plays to make the production longer” (p. 8–9); for instance, a writer might divide the play into three acts and perhaps incorporate the figure of the fool. Burkhart reminds us that these plays were performed on the patio of churches during Christian festivities like Lent or Christmas (p. 21) and contained dance, music, and special effects like fireworks.
Since these dramas were performed in Nahuatl, the author explains that no scripts existed until some Catholic clergy started to transcribe native languages into the Roman alphabet (p. 9). Two important aspects of Nahua drama are the uses of translation and the ways in which “colonial Nahuas experienced Christian teachings” (p. 26). The author pertinently signals the struggle in translating theater terminology from Spanish to Nahuatl and in converting to Nahuatl the basic concepts of the European religious theatre, such as the fight between good and evil. In fact, “Good and evil for the Nahuas were not absolute forces” (p. 17). Therefore, the public associated the plays with their own recent history or with concepts from the Aztec mythology that had remained part of their culture, for example, the connections that Nahuas created between various Christian figures and nature. [End Page 136]
The plays that Burkhart, Sell, and Poole present to us in translation are representative of different types (morality plays or stories from the Bible), with different structures (one or three acts) and of different moments. The Nobleman and His Barren Wife tells the story of a husband who goes to heaven and his wife, who goes to hell. Final Judgment is a morality play in which “someone commits a lot of sins and fails to confess them properly” (p. 61). The Three Kings is based on the Gospel of Matthew and is “a story about pagan kings being led to Jesus by a prophecy” (p. 82). The Tepaltzingo Passion Play “covers events from Palm Sunday, when Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem, through his death on the cross on Friday” (p. 104). Dialogue on the Apparition of the Virgin Saint Mary of Guadalupe tells us in three acts the “story of how a Nahua man named Juan Diego encountered the Virgin Mary in 1531” (p. 147). Finally, The Animal Prophet and the Fortunate Patricide illustrates the medieval legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaler. However, the authors offer no reasons for having chosen these scripts over others.
This book succeeds in helping the reader understand the richness of the plays and provides the necessary tools to understand these works from the Nahua perspective. The authors offer a historical setting going back three centuries and a useful guide for readers that includes vocabulary, examples of rhetorical figures, and even a pronunciation guide to help the reader imagine how the theater works were performed. The appendix not...