Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Emilio Carballido has died and with him the Mexican Modern Theatre.

Even when in Mexico there are still left many important playwrights, heirs to Modernist Drama, Emilio Carballido was without question the highest exponent of this school because of his considerable work, his quality and his substantial group of disciples.

Like within a family, I have seen colleagues and teachers die and leave behind their theatrical work, and I had seen how Carballido had been one who stayed for many years, always on top, working, receiving honors everywhere, living; he seemed destined to never die. Oscar Liera, Sergio Magaña, Héctor Azar, González Dávila, González Caballero, Hugo Argüelles, every one dying and putting Carballido in a more important position; older than anyone of them, some would say ‘bigger’.

Today, Tuesday February 12th 2008 I have read in some Mexican electronic newspapers the news: Emilio Carballido has died in Veracruz, the beloved province he was from. Only Mexican newspapers, no international, no Chinese ones. After reading it, I saw his portrait with a cat, “El maestro” (the master) I said to myself, and I started to remember.

I remember how during my adolescence my teacher, Antonio González Caballero, talked about Carballido, sometimes referring to him as a good friend, sometimes as a rival in work; many times he mocked Carballido’s tone of voice (which, coincidentally, was similar to his own). I also recall the moment when he, laughing, said how common people got confused with their names, naming him as ‘González Carballido’, and telling Carballido that he had written “Señoritas a Disgusto” (Carballido didn’t like hearing that, said González Caballero).

Those were my first remembrances, yes; then I was able to go deeper into my own experience with his work and his personality.

I remember his plays during my school ages; those plays written specially for students, Mexican students: short plays, simple characters, most of them comedies but also farces. He was a master at portraying Mexican customs, making those plays understandable to anyone in Mexico. That dialogue, so well done, simple, always simple and full of bad words (very Mexican), and I remember something else, his almost lack of writing down any important speech; I know he didn’t like that, he refused to protest against anything, to say something and change lives with his words, he wanted to tell stories.

Many people tried to introduce me to Emilio Carballido, 4 or 5 times indeed, and every one of them was like the first time to him: he never remembered me. Some of my older friends, his disciples, talked to him about me, some gave him plays written by me, he was moral sponsor of one Drama Reading organized by me (on that occasion I said something he refuted in front of the same public!) but, as always, he didn’t remember we had been introduced before. It was not annoying, it was funny. At the beginning I thought it was because he was always drunk, but that didn’t mean anything, drunk or not, he was always very brilliant and lucid; then, I thought it was simply because I wasn’t anything, because I didn’t have anything of interest to offer him; well I tried to put myself in that position and the experience was even funnier; again and again it was like the first time like, we were destined to be just unknown to each other.

His words, his ideas and plays never came to me like any thing coming from a master, those were ideas, words and plays by the master of others, the master of another way of doing theatre.

I remember when an American researcher (she was a specialist in Carballido’s work and Mexican Drama in general) got slightly interested in reading my plays, reacted negatively when I asked her to read my work putting aside references to the usual Mexican drama and, especially, to put aside Emilio Carballido’s vision of theatre. She never asked me why I had said such thing, her face was so transparent, showing her disgust at my insolence. Of course I couldn’t expect more, and she never talked to me again about my writings.

Dozens upon dozens of Mexican playwrights owe Carballido some published work (he was director of one drama magazine and chief publisher at many editorials), some sponsorship (like my drama readings in 1996), or even some government help (it seems he had always been in good terms with the PRI governments). The press always referred to him as ‘the master...’, as ‘the important playwright...’, and in times of scandal he was always respected, with the press keeping quiet. I remember gossips and some bad comments, but I can’t vouch for their truth.

I visited his house in Mexico City once, while one subway line was being built. But I don’t remember more, I don’t remember why I went there that day. I have the image of a large table with papers and books, old paper, magazines, dust, cats and their smell, one window and him, I was probably accompanying someone. Maybe it is a dream and I was never there. That’s an unwritten story, something to create from that vague recall.

I have talked about Modern Theatre because I see it in his whole work. The ideals of Modernist Drama in Mexico died with him; Realism (Naturalism would say some others) can also close its whole book, his Mexican master of the genre, dies with it.
The master of portraying died, the master of colloquial language, the master of historical realist drama. Of course, he wanted to say something, inside his characters, inside the stories, inside the language.

Why did Carballido never really explore other genres, styles and vanguards? Bar some isolated plays, he didn’t do it. It was like he didn’t want to risk his achievements. He was very important, he was at the top of the mountain, but at the top of the Mexican mountain, in a movement whose highest international figures polished and refined this way of writing and seeing theatre almost 50 years before his first premier at Bellas Artes Palace in Mexico City.

I’m sure that the movement called “Costumbrismo mexicano” will be remembered in Carballido’s complete work, as it won’t be with the plays written by González Caballero or Sergio Magaña or Hugo Argüelles, who are also called “costumbristas”, but they could survive with only one or two of their adventurous plays that Carballido never wrote.

I remember those “historical performances” during the 80’s with the National Theatre Company (Compañía Nacional de Teatro), 4-5 hour-long performances, you had to go for two days and book in advance; but I also remember many college productions, and those called ‘commercial’; every one of his plays were a success, people wanted to see Carballido’s plays, they enjoyed them. That is something good I think, that is something to recall, of course.

Emilio Carballido has died, and after the death of a great playwright as he was, I can only keep thinking about him and his work. I have to read his plays again and read those which I never did; I will recall more of his words, of his speeches, I will try to keep in my memory his tones and gestures, and then, years in future, I will see what happened with all that.


( Of course Emilio Carballido’s work and life are much more than these few words I have written, but this is not a study about him and his work, this is a short article where one person, a Mexican playwright also (almost 50 years younger) expresses his experience after reading those bad news. This is a moment for sharing also. )


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