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Mario Bencastro on the character of words.

MARIO BENCASTRO stepped into the international limelight with his first novel, Disparo en la catedral (A Shot in the Cathedral) set in his native El Salvador. Published in Mexico in 1990 (after being selected as a finalist in the 1989 International Novedades y Diana Fiction Competition), Disparo en la catedral describes everyday life in San Salvador during a period beset by unemployment, hunger and violence, culminating with the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980. The author meticulously depicts such chilling scenes as arriving home to find one's room ransacked and family members gone. However, rather than a political message, this novel is a portrayal of the perseverance and ultimate triumph of the human spirit. Bencastro's characters go about the normal activities of working, raising children, singing and dancing, and falling in love, despite the terror that permeates the atmosphere and affects every aspect of their existence. Recently, Disparo en la catedral was selected for the Seventh International Romulo Gallegos Novel Award.

Bencastro is also an accomplished writer of short stories--his pieces appear in various anthologies, including Where Angles Glide At Dawn (1991) and Texto y vida, edited by Barbara Mujica and scheduled for publication by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1992. He is currently working on a second novel which deals with the dilemna of the Hispanic immigrant in the United States.

Mario Bencastro was born in Ahachapan, El Salvador, on March 20, 1949. Since 1978 he has lived laternately between the United States and his native country, maintaining ties to both cultures. Not only has he achieved wide recognition as a writer, but he has also pursued a successful career in the visual arts, exhibiting his paintings in over 45 individual and collective shows. In contrast to his literary work, which almost always carries a social message, his paintings are abstract--visual exercises in color and form.

Bencastro has also worked in the audio visual medium. In 1987, he wrote and directed the video documentary La historia de Carmelo, el indocumento, which focused on the problems of illegal migrant workers in the United States.

More recently, Bencastro has poured his creative energies into theater. His first play, La encrucijada (Crossroad), has been produced in the U.S. and is soon to be staged in El Salvador. The author is now adapting the text of this play, a subtle combination of politics and philosophy, for publication as bilingual edition. In a recent interview for Americas, Bencastro elaborated on his approach to theater.

Americas: When and how did you begin writing plays?

Mario Bencastro: I started experimenting with theater in 1980, when I was writing my novel Disparo en la catedral. One of the stories--that of a newspaper of unofficial line, "The Popular Tribune," whose office is mysteriously burned--is written like a play. Later I wrote a one-act play. At around the same time I participated in the formation of the theater group of the Hispanic Culture Society, which I later directed in its performance of La encrucijada (Crossroad), my first performed work.

With regard to the creative process, what differences exist between writing novels and composing plays?

When I write plays I immediately imagine a stage and, of course, an audience. I think strictly in terms of physical space, a set, and of actors and their movements, expressions and words. Perhaps the greatest difference is that in theater, the actors' voices are the principal vehicle for projecting the story. It is the spoken word which communicates the drama. In the novel and the short story, it is the author who provides details of all kinds, phycial and intellectual, about the characters and their environment, and complements the description with the characters' diaglogue. In narrative even the dialogue can be omitted, as in the case of the omniscient narrator, who takes on the task of describing everything, and even speaks for the characters. In theater the opposite situation exists; there can be no omniscient narrator because the characters are the ones who must speak and project the drama, helped somewhat by the sets, constumes and music. In extreme cases even the scenography can be dispensed with and the spoken word, then, is the sole sustainer and communicator of the drama.

As an artists, which of the two activities gives you most satisfaction and why?

Both genres give me great satisfaction and each has its own unique characteristics. Theater predisposes me to see things, to create, from the viewpoint of the performance. It gives me space and freedom to use different characters and bring them together in one place, and cause them to contradict each other or to harmonize, within the performance. Theater is for me a vehicle for expressing the grotesque, the exaggerated and the absurd, the real and the unreal, in the same space and time. There everything is possible, provided that it can be staged and that the audience accepts it. The novel is special, also, because it offers me unlimited space to recreate a story or create fiction which is perhaps impossible to adapt for the stage. I reserve the study of political and social problems, or any difficult circumstance of humankind, for the novel. The novel makes me think about the construction of characters and situations, about structures and the development of the plot. In the novel I also confront the problem of language and stylistic elaboration, and the game of words to express something in a way that is different but that will sound natural, clear and direct, so that the language will not come between the reader and the story but rather will be the element that unites them. Narrative is a game of words; theater is a game of characters.

Theater incorporates visual, audio and intellectual elements. Does your training as a painter have any influence in the creation of the performance?

Possibly, although perhaps not as much in the process of writing the play as in the process of preparing it for the stage, in the sense of establishing a balance among the characters' positions and movements, and the configuration of the stage and the scenography. That is, in painting one seeks contrast and balance of color and form in order to construct images and form objects with decorative goals. In this sense, it is possible that painting helps or influences me so that my scenes have a certain "pictorial" quality.

Has traditional Spanish theater or contemporary Hispanic American theater had any influence, direct or indirect, on your work?

The first play I remember having seen is Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Vega, and it made a profound impression on me and taught me the elements of theater--performance, artistic creation, and social concern--which still remain present in my work. I admire the works of Garcia Lorca, especially La casa de Bernarda Alba, which I consider a compact work, lacking nothing yet with nothing in excess. I also admire the plays of Bertolt Brecht because of his social conscience. But, undoubtedly, what has influenced me most in contemporary Latin American theater, because it brings together and fuses all the styles and philosophies of the drama of the past and of the present and above all, it collects and reflects the present-day realities of our peoples. In this sense, the playwright who has impressed me most in Osvaldo Dragun of Argentina, whose Historias para ser contadas and El amasijo to me represent a true example and challenge in the field of theater.

Why did you decide to employ allegorical elements in La encrucijada?

The idea of the character of the Devil grew out of my reading of the story El mundo es malo by Nicaraguan writer Jose Coronel Urtecho, a picaresque tale in which the devil is the character that propels the actions of three children. Then, in order to oppose the Devil, I had to use the character of God; later it occurred to me to include the character of Death to complicate things a little more. One of the reasons for the use of these allegorical characters is their spectacular visual impact, because by their color and supernatural appearance they contrast with the other natural characters.

What can you tell e about the political content of this work?

La encrucijada has several themes, among them oppression, faith and freedom, but I believe that the main theme, more than a political one, is a critical attitude toward the use and abuse of power. Power is disputed at several levels and in each scene. A woman's love, the government of a country, the obedience of subjects, and even the property rights to the universe are disputed. All of these are metaphors which are developed in this play in order to show the absurdity of man's behavior in his quest for power.

How do you explain the conclusion?

The conclusion is quite theatrical. God regains the power that the Devil had usurped from him, and the Politician, who at one time was allied with the Devil, loses the opportunity to govern the "Earth." The Politician is to die of natural causes and Death seeks him out. But the Devil claims him because the Politician sold him his sould in exchange for the government of the "Earth." Death and the Devil both appear to have a right to the Politician who, formerly an unbeliever, now begs God for forgiveness, and God tells him: "I leave you in their hands." The Devil and Death have no alternative other than to roll the dice to see who gets the Politician and, as they are doing so, the curtain falls. I would like to mention that this ending received spontaneous applause and great laughter from the audience, likely laughter of approval because the Politician finally got what he deserved. The applause and laughter were so intense that the actors had to wait a moment before finishing the scene.

What relationship do you see between La encrucijada and your novel Disparo en la catedral?

I believe that the basic themes of both works have a certain affinity, although they are not exactly the same. The novel, as the jury of the Novedades and Diana International Literary Price declared: "is a mural which links historical characters in a story whose backdrop is the sordid universe of war, where death no longer surprises anyone and torture has become a daily reality ..." The theme of oppression, for example, which is present in the novel, is reflected in the play in the situation of the prostitute and the carpenter, who represent the common people and are repressed by the Politician. In the novel these elements appear as characters and situations of a period in history. Theater permits us to use these characters in a more exaggerated and spectacular way. But I believe that the play and the novel basically show us the same realities.

What problems exist for a playwright who writes in Spanish in this country? In what sense does the theater serve to create a certain cohesion among the Hispanic community? What is the function of the playwright?

The greatest problem facing a playwright who writes in Spanish in this country is that there is little likelihood of his or her works being performed. This is because there are very few Spanish-speaking theater groups in this country, and those which do exist are always going through difficult economic situations and are forced to think about their survival. Therefore, they have little freedom to try new things and are mainly interested in performing works of established reputation. That is why theater is something very special and costly to produce and, therefore, something which is generally unavailable to the community. Additionally, theater is not as attractive to our community as many of us wish it were. This is because the majority of our peole in the United States are always working just to survive in a material sense, and are constantly suffering under the rigors imposed by cultural adaptation, a new language, customs, climate, job and distance from their roots and their land. Theater also suffers from these difficult situations and, as a result, so does the playwright, who is, we could say, the spiritual receptor of the emotional problems of the community. And the function of the playwright is to fuse all this drama and convert it into a work of art. Because theater is also an exaggerated mirror of life.

What other works have you written? Where have they been performed? Is your work known in the United States or in El Salvador?

My second play, El fotografo de la muerte (Photographer of Death), is an adaptation of the story by the same name. It is about an employee of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador, who each morning travels through the city taking pictures of the victims of the previous night's violence. The relatives of those who have disappeared come to the Commission looking for information about their loved ones. The photographer consoles them, helps to identify the bodies, and accompanies the relatives to claim the remains and bury them as God commands. Eventually the photographer himself becomes a victim of the violence he is trying to combat. It is a graphic and heart-rending work, a testimony to the socio-political violence which is currently destroying El Salvador. The adaptation of this story for the stage was a true literary experience for me. It helped me to understand the concrete differences between narrative and theater, to the point where I would advise writers, especially young writers, to try to adapt a short story for the theater. They will discover how everything is transformed, and how even the last detail must be spoken by an actor or shown in the scenography, depending on its importance. This last work, interestingly, was rehearsed but still has not been performed. My literary work, in general, is known only in certain circles in El Salvador, essentially because my country is in the midst of a civil war which has gone on now for almost 12 years and has claimed more than 80,000 victims. People who suffer from this kind of political and social upheaval do not have the time nor the enthusiasm to admire their artists. In situations of life and death, art is surplus.

What projects are you working on now?

Currently I am working on the final phase of my third play, El pequeno circo del mundo (The Little Circus of the World), based on one of my most popular stories, "Cuenco de payaso" ("Clown's Story"), which was translated into English and included in the anthology Where Angels Glide at Dawn along with works of great Latin American authors such as Julio Cortazar, who some consider one of the fathers of the Latin American short story. For me it is a true honor to be included in that book. The Little Circus of the World is the story of a clown who is trying to earn a living making people laugh in a country at war. "It's hard being a clown these days," says the clown in his monologue. "Especially because the country is in a civil war. People live thinking about death, and they have forgotten how to laugh." The basic theme is the moral, social and political collapse of a society, seen through the life of a clown and the performances of a circus. It is a mix of comedy, tragedy, fiction and reality. In a way, The Little Circus of the World is like an artist's comical portrait, because we artists are always looking for a way to entertain the world with our fantasies, but the world's worries and concerns are greater, and the world does not have time to listen to our jokes.

What is your philosophy of drama?

To me, theather will always be tied to man and his circumstance, and I believe that in Latin America, theater is even more involved with our problems. Like Osvaldo Dragun says in the introduction to Historicas de las historias: "And only the third world can produce a theater of the absurd as vital and committed as the grotesque. Europe with its destiny plotted out and in fact already having returned, produce the absurd from its intellectuals. Passive. Compromised. As a minority. But only Latin America, irrational nebulousness in search of a destiny, could produce, through its absurd grotesque, just the opposite: an active, committed, anarchistic, popular, baroque and vital genre. If nothing makes sense to the European absurdist, nothing makes sense to the Latin American absurdist, but we have to fight it out just the same, which means we have found the reason in it: rebellion." These words of one of the great playwrights of Latin America establish the philosophy of theater in our countries, which opens up to us a great stage and invites us to play in it and with it, to invent characters without prejudices or limitations of any kind. Freedom in art, and therefore in theater, exists only to the extent to which the artist decides to use it.

Barbara Mujica is a writer and professor of Hispanic literature at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., where she also directs El Retablo, a Spanish-language theater group. Susan Geirsback Rascom is an attorney who teaches Spanish at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
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Author:Mujica, Barbara; Rascon, Susan Giersbach
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:interview
Date:Jul 1, 1991
Words:2873
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