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Revolutionizing Greek Tragedy in Cuba

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The twentieth century was a formative period for the adaptation of Greek drama in Latin America. Throughout the century Latin American dramatists repeatedly engaged with their classical forebears in order to interrogate and debate new political, social and religious paradigms. In this paper I examine some of the region’s most innovative adaptations of Greek tragedy: Virgilio Piñera’s Electra Garrigó, José Triana’s Medea in the Mirror (Medea en el espejo), and Antón Arrufat’s Seven Against Thebes (Los siete contra Tebas), plays which were written and staged in Cuba in the years immediately before and after the Revolution. Greek tragedy had a unique and brief flourishing in the island as writers began to appropriate and reform ancient dramatic texts for the new Communist Cuba. I discuss the ways in which these Cuban dramatists with varying degrees of success make use of Greek Tragedy as a medium for political and social expression, and in particular how two of these plays (Electra and Medea) garnered general acclaim for the manner in which they created hybrid and semi-comic adaptations that cleverly blended Cuban and classical in order to celebrate a specific Cuban experience, in a process best described by the anthropological term transculturation. My paper will then examine Antón Arrufat’s explosive 1968 adaptation of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, which, despite being the most faithful to its Greek source text, was the most controversial of the three. Arrufat chose to deviate from the successful hybrid and transcultural model of classical reception that was espoused by his predecessors, and instead, sought a more original and faithful way of presenting the ancient source text, creating a serious drama that in his own words did not ‘hide from the text of Aeschylus but rather sank itself in it’. Despite winning the prestigious ‘José Antonio Ramos’ prize from the Cuban writers’ and artists’ guild (UNEAC), the play, with its unique focus on politics and violence rather than the ‘safer’ social themes of Electra and Medea, was immediately banned on the grounds that it was ‘counterrevolutionary’, and Arrufat, once the darling of the Havana literary and theatrical scene, was banished to work alone in the basement of a municipal library where he tied boxes of books with rope for the next two decades. As I argue, these Cuban examples offer a valuable insight into the potential of —and especially the limits of — ancient classical drama to address fraught political and social realities in the modern world.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Classical Reception Seminar Series series.

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