- Remembering the CoupChilean Theatre Now
In January 2014, theatre audiences in New York City got a two-hour sample of what audiences in Santiago, Chile had consumed regularly over the preceding twelve months. This morsel was Argentine playwright-director Lola Arias’s El año en que nací (“The Year I Was Born”), which visited La MaMa Theatre under the auspices of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. Arias’s project launched in 2011, when she brought her show Mi vida después (“My Life After”) to the Santiago A Mil international festival in Chile’s capital city. In Mi vida, young Argentines born during their country’s dictatorship (1976–1983) tell their parents’ stories of living through that era with the aid of documents, letters, photos, clothes, and other objects from the past. Santiago a Mil’s organizers also invited Arias to offer a performance workshop for Chileans likewise born under dictatorship (in Chile, between 1973 and 1990). Arias had not intended to create a new piece out of this, but the stories shared by the fifty-odd participants about their lives and the lives of their parents led to the genesis of El año, which features eleven of them. (Nine appeared in the New York production.) The performers’ varied reconstructions of the past through archival materials and their own personal and familial memories reveal the inherently subjective nature of historical narrative.
El año highlights how much these performers have to say—and disagree—about their country’s dictatorship and its repercussions, which continue to be felt even today. After the evening show on Saturday, January 11th, Arias and the cast remained for a talkback in which they described the challenge of collaboratively crafting the piece. One actor explained how Arias pushed them to discuss topics they had always considered taboo; another admitted the emotional difficulty of confirming truths that he’d always suspected but never known. Yet the performers also acknowledged a profoundly therapeutic element of the work: the man who mentioned the unearthing of taboo subjects also noted that his colleagues’ willingness to grapple with hard issues inspired him to follow suit, while another girl said the process allowed her finally to understand her parents’ pasts and present identities. Arias noted the recent phenomenon in Chile of unprecedented public discussion about the dictatorship, which coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 military coup that [End Page 87] toppled the country’s democracy. She suggested a need on the part of the younger generation—the one to which the El año performers belong—to engage with the past, in their own ways.
As Arias’s comments imply, El año was just a sliver of the yearlong activities, in theatre and beyond, that surrounded the coup’s fortieth anniversary. Indeed, this context entirely changes the play. Despite its relatively faithful transfer, the New York production, presented with English subtitles and a short program note on Chile’s recent history, must have been starkly different from the one in Santiago in 2013. The Chilean production was performed in the audience’s own language and even local idiom, on the anniversary of an event that took place a mere subway ride away and that has since affected every Chilean’s life. On September 11, 1973, with backing from the CIA, the Chilean Armed Forces staged a violent attack on the presidential palace in order to overthrow the socialist, democratically elected president Salvador Allende, who committed suicide during the siege. A junta led by General Augusto Pinochet came to power, instituting neoliberal policies that led to economic prosperity. It also, however, used repressive methods to maintain authority. Over the course of the regime, which lasted until 1990, 3,200 people were killed, some 38,000 tortured, and hundreds of thousands exiled.
In 1988, in accordance with the 1980 Constitution, Chileans voted on a plebiscite that would determine whether Pinochet could retain power for eight more years, and with fifty-five percent voting “no,” Pinochet had to step down and allow democratic elections. The “No” campaign evolved into the center-left coalition known as the Concertación, whose leader Patricio Aylwin took...