- The Unfinished Art of Theater: Avant-Garde Intellectuals in Mexico and Brazil by Sarah J. Townsend
As its title suggests, Sarah J. Townsend's innovative book emphasizes avant-garde theater's "unfinished" nature and argues that this characteristic complicates critical avowals that such art represented a complete break with the status quo. In a series of carefully reasoned arguments supported by meticulous archival research, Townsend affirms that avant-garde projects of the 1920s and 1930s, ranging from a technology-lauding Mexico City children's radio show to Oswald de Andrade's experimental play, O homem e o cavalo, were tied to "sociopolitical and economic stakes" (3) that kept them grounded in the past. Whether performed in a studio or a stadium, or ultimately left unwritten or unstaged, Townsend underscores how these pieces transgressed the "bounds of existing disciplines" (6) while they were still "bound up in the experience of dependency, delay, and the uneven development of capitalism" (5).
In large part, the book revolves around projects produced in and around Mexico City and São Paulo from roughly 1917 to 1934. Each chapter unfolds to reveal a "specific stor[y]" (6), one considered in the context of "intersections with politics and economics . . . anthropology, musicology, philosophy, new and old media technologies, and other cultural practices" (6). In this ambitious effort, the author examines opera libretti, plays, radio program archives, police reports, photographs, play programs, musical recordings, and numerous periodicals, among other archival sources. After an intriguing introduction that delves into the concept of how "unstaged pieces . . . [and] would-have-been performances . . . seem to be evidence of an unfinished or uneven historical transition" (5), the book's first three chapters focus on Mexican avant-garde intellectuals' projects, and the last three sections concentrate on Brazil. Although each chapter could be studied individually, reading the book in its entirety allows a larger picture to emerge and shows how artists in both nations shared the desire to create a kind of transformative theater that would triumph over genre-bound limitations and expectations. These intellectuals' ideas, as Townsend shows, took many different forms.
The first chapter begins by exploring José Vasconcelos's key role in creating conditions for avant-garde art to flourish in post-revolutionary Mexico. As the founding director of the Secretariat of Public Education, he "promoted the 'art of the future,'" (28) which he anticipated would counteract imperialism. As a writer, Vasconcelos also contributed to such expressions through his own futuristic 1920 closet-drama, Prometeo vencedor, a text that Townsend affirms demonstrates the "gist of the idea that would become the cosmic race" (51). In the next chapter, the author examines the fascinating history of an example of "synthetic" theater, the Teatro del Murciélago. This ensemble involved "indigenous subjects of artist-ethnographers who joined with members of the estridentista avantgarde" (4) to create skits attempting to synthesize the "primitive and the modern along with an amalgamation of music, song, dance, painting, and mime" (63). [End Page E10] Townsend details the inspiration for the troupe, a Russian touring revue, and analyzes the Teatro's 1924 debut before an audience of visiting U.S. industrialists. Next, the author rounds out her consideration of Mexico with an exploration of its heterogeneous intelligentsia, describing a "fraught alliance among the artistic avant-garde, the communist Left, and the cultural bureaucracy of a 'revolutionary' state" (101). New media played a role in the vanguard's ability to develop and disseminate its message(s), and the section details how Troka the Powerful, a children's radio character likely inspired by Russian folk puppet theater, praised technology, machinery, and progress on a government-owned radio station.
The book's second half sets the stage by considering the "birthplace of the Brazilian avant-garde," São Paulo's ornate Theatro Municipal, where the Semana de Arte Moderna took place (137). Here and in other parts of the text, Townsend draws on Roberto Schwarz's ideas about incongruity and the existence of a "peculiar sense of dissonance at the core of Brazilian identity [dating] back to...