Theatrical Virgilio / Miguel Iturria Savón

More than two decades after the postmortem repair of the literary legacy of Virgilio Piñera (Cardenas-Havana, August 4, 1912 – October 18, 1979), most people who speak of the author have barely read his stories, poems, essays, dramas and tragedies. What are they talking about then? His homosexuality and aspects of his personality such as his verbal duels with the critics, his sarcastic answers, and even trivia about the suit he wore, his umbrellas, cigarettes and even his fear or, better yet, his intellectual honesty in front of the Commissioners of Culture of the Cuban military regime.

Except for actors, playwrights, storytellers and those knowledgeable about our literature, Piñera is an echo of echoes, a literary myth, a protean creator, experimental and challenging, who merits a re-acquaintance with his writing and the staging of his dramas, tragedies and comedies.

The year 2012 could be a propitious occasion because it his the centenary of his birth, and there is a program of tributes, complete editions of his works, and presentations of his theatrical pieces, which is appropriate because from 1961 until his death he continued writing which he supported himself as a translator of French, but his plays ceased to be performed, his stories, poems and essays were not published, until his name disappeared from the magazines and newspapers.

Virgilio Piñera represents the antithesis of José Lezama Lima, another famous writer excluded from the literary pantheon for political rather than aesthetic reasons. To the censors, they were both troublesome because of their contempt for the myth of violence and the so-called Socialist Realism. Paradoxically, both would be reinstated after death. Lezama as a symbol of the “writer’s-writer,” that is “unencumbered” or just committed to artistic creation. Virgilio, less baroque and more colloquial, became the paradigm of contemporary Cuban theater.

Like all celebrated creators Virgilio had his black legend: famed for being clownish, intolerant and hypercritical to tradition, not with his disciples, to whom he offered his human profile and the keys to allow us to enter his narrative and theatrical legacy. The playwrights who perceived his mastery and meaning were attracted by the echoes of “his disdain for the official world, his corrosive humor, his position as a sniper, his iconoclastic rebellion and even his dark legend of countless literary duels.”

Virgilio, essentially theatrical, used the scene as a mental exercise, valid to relieve the poverty that marked his family and the provincial insular environment. “I am the one who makes the serious more serious with humor, the absurd and grotesque.” To justify himself he adopted the role of rescued scapegoat and divided the human race into the elected and neglected, settling among the latter.

He lived nearly a decade in Buenos Aires, but his plays are essentially Cuban, a Cuban identity that comes not from the comic or didactic and moralizing theater, but from the handling of Creole issues and circumstances and from dialogues and phrases coined by the populace.

Prior to 1959 published three parts and released four: Garrigó Electra (1948), Jesus (1950), False Alarm (1957) and The Wedding (1958). Later he represented five titles, edited nine books and two periodicals. In 1960 his Complete Theater was released, expanded and reissued later by Rine Leal. Outside the island Garrigó Electra and Two Panicked Old Men were staged, winning in 1968 the Casa de las Americas prize; Cold Air and An Empty Shoe Box.

Anyone wishing to know the work of this author should get the anthologies Virgilio Piñera Complete Stories of Anton Arrufat, published in Havana in 2002 and 2004, Complete Theatre, arranged and introduced by Rine Leal-Cuban Literature Library, 2002 and 2006; volumes that will appear again in the Havana 2012 Book Fair , with collections of his poems, essays and articles, and testimonials written by friends and followers of Piñera, described as a belligerent intellectual, sharp conversationalist, and creator of the theater of the absurd — his Garrigó Electrapredates The Bald Soprano accredited to Ionesco.

On the occasion of the centenary of his birth it is nice to return to his dramas, tragedies and comedies, to the incessant throbbing searches and expressive experimentation, as well as to his apparent simplicity, achieved on the basis of Cuban dialogues so sharp, full of tragicomic and absurd situations, sometimes gritty realism, like Cold Air, inspired by his family.

Rine Leal described Piñera as a transitional dramatist who influenced the later playwrights and elevated the Cuban scene to levels reached before in music, poetry, narrative and visual arts. The critic puts the great playwright in the aesthetics of denial and value as he enters the absurd paradoxes, the game of mirrors and the ritual of the masks, in sharp avoidance as a means of resistance to the stresses of his day .

We recall, for example, that Garrigó Electra was considered by Maria Zambrano in 1948 as “the most beautiful work, brave and capable by a Cuban author premiered in Havana … performed with consistency and fairness, and the honesty of that terrible suicide.” In Jesus, Piñera weaves a poignant parody of an allegorical value, where the main character, the barber of 33 years Jesus Garcia, a resident of Havana refuses to work miracles on rumors from neighbors and authorities, to whom he represents a challenge to absurd expectations.

We could continue with notes on the The Philanthropist, False Alarm, Two Panicked Old Men and other memorable works by Virgilio Piñera, but we prefer to let the reader come to him though reading or attending theatrical performances of his legacy on the occasion of his centennial of life.

February 19 2012