The stage lights rise, and Michelle Bachelet — former political prisoner, torture victim and socialist president of Chile from 2006 to 2010 — braces herself to deliver a dramatic farewell speech. “Pardon me if I offend the fascists,” she tells her audience in Spanish, “or if I offend those that want a happy ending. But I prefer bittersweet endings.”
In the compromise-seeking world of contemporary Chilean politics, such a declaration might be tantamount to career suicide. But when Bachelet’s fiery language is spoken by three young women in Guillermo Calderón’s play “Discurso,” the actors tell us, “it’s as if someone were putting words in my mouth. It’s as if an opportunist were taking advantage of my body.”
That opportunistic someone is Calderón, Chile’s most acclaimed playwright-director of the last two decades. During that turbulent period, Chile has transitioned from the dictatorial reign of Gen. Augusto Pinochet to a neo-liberal democracy in which human rights abuses and press restrictions are way down, but income inequality and youth unrest are way up.
These political tensions and contradictions regularly seep into Calderón’s works like “Discurso,” which will be performed in Spanish with English subtitles April 25-28 at REDCAT, along with a companion piece, “Villa.” In “Discurso,” Bachelet’s dialogue is fictitious, expressing in alternately prosaic and poetic language what Calderón wishes Chile’s first female president had said while in office.
Putting words in other people’s mouths is, of course, what playwrights do. But for many Chileans, and not only politicians, the playwright believes, saying what you really think doesn’t come easily, especially when it relates to the Pinochet era.
“Chile is a country where one doesn’t speak that much, where ideas aren’t expressed very well, because it is a country that’s a little more silent and a little more violent” than other countries, Calderón said in Spanish this month, speaking by phone from Boston. “I like to create characters who talk,” he continued, “because to me this is a reaction against the culture of self-censorship and secrecy of the dictatorship.”
What preoccupies Calderón isn’t simply Pinochet’s legacy but rather what he views as Chile’s post-Pinochet mindless consumerism and growing social inequality and its eagerness to embrace a mushy political centrism so as to avoid making tough choices. Time and again, his plays return not only to politics and human rights but also to themes of economic disparity and the plight of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche Indians.
“One of the problems of the world today is that no alternative exists to this wild neo-liberalism,” he said, using a term that denotes largely unfettered free trade and privatization. “It’s very difficult in Latin America to take another road. Because there simply is no other.”
His nation’s preference for accommodation and consensus over confrontation has created an opportunity, or obligation, for novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, musicians and other artists to “convert ourselves into the bearers of bad news,” Calderón said. “Chile is a country that’s very good at forgetting. And so the project of remembering is very big.”
For the last several years, Calderón, in his early 40s, has been at the forefront of a tide of young creative talent in Chile. The group includes musicians such as Ana Tijoux and Pedropiedra, writers like the poet-novelist Alejandro Zambra and such filmmakers as Pablo Larraín (“No”) and Andres Wood, who collaborated with Calderón on the screenplay for a new film about the great Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra. All of them came of age as artists after the dictatorship ended and often have shown more willingness than previous generations to wrestle with the nation’s demons.
“I would say that since we were blocked during the dictatorship, we weren’t to publish, to make any movie, there was a whole generation who suffered that silence,” Larraín said this year. “So we’re still carrying the legacy somehow, we cannot avoid it. But it’s a whole new perspective. We are able to analyze this because we didn’t directly suffer.”
Carla Romero, one of the three actors who’ll perform at REDCAT, said via Skype that the works of these younger artists reflect a generation of Chileans that has become “much more radical,” as evidenced by mass student demonstrations that have rocked the country in recent years.
“Our parents recuperated democracy,” Romero said, but many younger Chileans believe those gains haven’t been fully realized. “Chile is a country of riches,” she said, “but they’re very badly distributed.”
Calderón’s willingness to articulate what other Chileans merely ponder in silence has brought his work international attention. His “Diciembre” (December), a black-comic family drama in which Chile’s 19th century War of the Pacific against Bolivia and Peru collides with latter-day atrocities, was performed at REDCAT three years ago by Calderón’s Santiago-based company, Teatro en el Blanco (Theater On Target). In an interview then, Mark Murphy, REDCAT’s artistic director, described “Diciembre” as, “almost like Chekhov on speed.”
In June 2011, Calderón’s “Neva,” a haunting cross-examination of artistic and political commitment, set in Anton Chekhov’s St. Petersburg, was performed at REDCAT as part of the inaugural RADAR L.A. Festival. This summer, an English-language version of “Neva” will be presented in the Upstairs space at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, in a co-production of Center Theatre Group, South Coast Repertory and the La Jolla Playhouse.
Although “Neva” takes place in 1905 Russia, the parallels it draws with 1970s Chile are clear. Like so many of Chekhov’s characters, Calderón’s often are trapped in, or torn between, a past they can’t escape and a future they can’t bear to face. That dilemma also defines this week’s REDCAT double bill of “Discurso,” written by Calderón on commission for London’s Royal Court Theatre, and “Villa,” in which the same three female actors will appear.
“Villa” refers to the Villa Grimaldi, an infamous detention center in Santiago where Bachelet (then in her early 20s) and her mother were interrogated and tortured during Pinochet’s crackdown on suspected opponents. (Bachelet’s father, a former general charged by Pinochet’s regime with treason, had died several months earlier while in custody.)
As “Villa” unfolds in the present, three women have been charged with deciding the notorious site’s fate. Should it be razed to create open space? Converted into a museum? Or perhaps memorialized with an installation that would allow visitors to vicariously experience the agonies of the thousands of people who were tortured and murdered there?
Characteristically of Calderón, the play’s dialogue begins in terse, Pinteresque exchanges, alternately ominous and comic, that suddenly turn into longer poetic monologues. The playwright believes that because his works are very Chile-centric, they generally “don’t translate well.”
Yet reviewing a production of “Villa” and “Discurso” last summer in Edinburgh, Scotland, critic Lyn Gardner in the Guardian newspaper praised the tandem of plays that “examine the shards of memory that stab at the heart of a nation unable to forget.”
“This work, ‘Villa + Discurso,’ deals with a very Chilean theme, but nonetheless it’s the work that has traveled the most,” Calderón said.
For unforeseen reasons, it may travel more in the years to come. A few weeks ago, Bachelet announced that she planned to seek a second term as president. Already, that news has altered the context in which the plays are performed, said Macarena Zamudio, another of the three actors, who compares her role in “Discurso” to that of a modern-day Greek chorus.
But Zamudio believes that Bachelet’s announcement will make the plays even more pertinent in giving voice to Chile’s unassuaged ghosts. “It seems to me this country was very castrated, very afraid,” Zamudio said, speaking in Spanish by Skype from Santiago. “This work is a historical revision, a critical look at an internal conflict that goes far beyond the current political context. It’s the problem of the past.”