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In Guanajuato, a Cervantes Play’s the Best Thing

<i> Smith is retired TV critic of The Times. </i>

No matter where you are in Mexico (during the fall), an absolute must is to get to Guanajuato to see the Entremeses Cervantinos. --Terry’s Guide to Mexico. --A church bell peals in the darkness, quieting the crowd. Across the worn paving stones of the Plazuela de San Roque a lamplighter with a flaming torch runs to set the street lights afire.

By the flickering firelight a 16th-Century Spanish town emerges--strutting soldiers in silver helmets, gallants with plumes in their hats, silk-stockinged caballeros arrayed in peacock finery with their somber senoras, tradesmen and workmen. There’s a street vendor crying his wares, children with their nanas, a barefoot girl leading a train of heavy-laden burros, two saber-wielding cavalrymen on horseback, beggars and monks and servants, a teeming street.

Quite suddenly the street is frozen. Nothing moves. A blue spotlight catches a tall, sorrowful figure, thin as a pencil. He moves among the motionless townspeople, his creations. He is the poet, Miguel de Cervantes. . . .

Thus begins the “Entremeses Cervantinos” (The Interludes of Cervantes). These are the collection of short plays the Spanish master published in 1615, designed to be performed as curtain raisers and at fiestas and banquets. They are farces and comedies mostly, but with Cervantes’ great gift for creating social reality as absurdity, but an absurdity of positive values; a collection of braggarts and fops and whores and swindlers playing a kind of hide-and-seek with truth, essentially Quixotes all.

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In 1952, under auspices of the University of Guanajuato, several of the entremeses were woven into an evening of theater to be performed on the streets as a tribute to Cervantes. They were so successful that they have been repeated every year, and eventually the distinguished Guanajuato fall festival of the arts (Temporada Cultural de Otono) was built around them.

Major Roles

The major roles of the entremeses , triple cast, are performed (and brilliantly) by the people of Guanajuato, merchants and lawyers and workmen and housewives and the like, augmented in the huge casts by students from the university.

Their stage is the rough paving of the plaza, their backdrop the towering, 300-year-old Church of San Roque, their sets the residences that face the square with their flower-bedecked balconies. Residents of these homes put on monk’s robes or 16th-Century costumes to leave their houses on the nights of the entremeses .

Audiences arrive early for the 9 p.m. performances to find seats on the makeshift bleachers or on stoops and doorsteps. Performances are, of course, in Spanish, but language is no barrier.

For the first time in more than three decades there was the possibility of no entremeses last fall. When the devastating earthquakes hit Mexico City in September, Guanajuato canceled its festival. However, when the dust settled there was a change of mind; the festival was only postponed from October to November.

Alicia Alonzo brought her National Ballet of Cuba to perform in the exquisite Teatro Juarez, the most beautiful theater in Mexico, perhaps in the Western world. The National Symphony of Mexico, the National Compania de Danza, the exciting young Ballet de Espacio (Ballet of Space) from Mexico City, various soloists, popular artists and musical groups from Russia, Belgium, Britain and Japan performed.

There were band concerts, dances, plays at the Teatro Principal, guitar concerts at the house where Diego Rivera was born, now a museum, various other entertainment, mostly on weekends.

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In depressed Mexico with tourism far below normal, attendance was not all it has been, but a Friday night on the Jardin, Guanajuato’s central square, simply bursts with life, rich and colorful. (Probably the postponement held down attendance; Guanajuato is a tropical city but more than a mile high, and even though the days are hot, November nights can be very cold.)

Whatever companies appear in Teatro Juarez, they are hard put to outshine the theater. What a magnificent structure this is, a French opera house with Moorish overtones in an architecture that has been described as “delirious,” but which somehow works, somehow is breathtakingly beautiful.

Gathering Place

With its broad steps, its Doric columns and bronze rooftop statues, the theater faces the Jardin and is a gathering place for daytime activities, political speeches, concerts on the steps, impromptu entertainment. Unfortunately, the theater is dark much of the year, but there are daily tours.

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Guanajuato is a fascinating city at any time, not only for its entremeses . Crawling up two mountainsides above a central gorge (once a roaring river, now a major highway through the city, mostly underground), it was once the richest city in all Mexico, its mines pouring out a fabulous river of gold and silver, mostly shipped to Spain.

It was said that the Conde de Rul, owner of the Valenciana mine, spent a million gold pesos a month just on incidentals. He built one of Mexico’s most exquisite churches at his mine about four miles from the city, adorning it with a king’s ransom of gold and silver, mixing (so legend has it) silver powder and vintage Spanish wines in the mortar.

Mexico’s most violent revolutions centered around Guanajuato. Father Hidalgo led the ragtag army that threw out the Spaniards from nearby Dolores Hidalgo. Later, the Spaniards cut off his head and those of his lieutenants, Allende and Aldama, and hung the heads in cages at the corners of the massive Alhondia de Granaditas fort in the center of the city, now a splendid historical museum.

The monarchy of Emperor Maximilian came to an end in Guanajuato and the emperor was executed by a firing squad here. During the long dictatorship of Profirio Diaz, Guanajuato was the cultural and social center of the nation. Visiting royalty and celebrities avoided Mexico City, which was primitive and provincial; they stayed in Guanajuato.

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French Influence

It was under Diaz that the Teatro Juarez was built. He and his cabinet and the diplomatic corps attended the premiere performance in 1903 when reportedly the most lavish production of “Aida” ever staged in Mexico, or possibly anywhere, opened the theater. Although Diaz was a leader of the revolutionary army that drove out the French and toppled the throne of Maximilian, he was a Francophile, and the French influence in theaters and architecture throughout Mexico is largely due to his tastes.

To the tourist, Guanajuato is an exceptional city, because it is so tightly knit that you can walk almost everywhere (it would be a blessing if the city, with its tiny twisting streets, would ban automobile traffic in the downtown area, as nearby Queretaro has done).

Strong walkers can make it out to see the famous mummies in the Panteon or climb the mountainside to the monument of revolutionary hero La Pipila.

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Unfortunately, most of the better hotels and restaurants are outside the city, notably the elegant Castillo Santa Cecilia, an imitation Norman castle with a splendid dining room, and the sprawling Real de Mians Hotel.

On the Jardin, the Posada Santa Fe and the San Diego Hotel are convenient and inexpensive. Bus and limousine service from Mexico City and Guadalajara are available for Guanajauto; it’s on the trunk train line from Juarez. The nearest airport is at Leon, about 30 miles northwest.

It’s best to drive to Guanajuato, but when you get here, park the car and walk.


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