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The Theater in Cuba: past and present

The Theater in Cuba: past and present

Havana, as one single example, puts on shows for all tastes, from classical theater, often staged by the Hubert de Blanck Company, to the experimental, avant-garde theater of the Teatro el Público or the Argos Teatro. Frequently, foreign plays are re-contextualized to fit the Cuban reality. There are Cuban playwrights who debut in theaters all over the Island and their work is many times translated to film, such as, for example, Lester Hamlet’s Casa vieja¸ based on the classical Cuban play of the same name by Abelardo Estorino; or Ernesto Daranas’ Los dioses rotos based on Carlos Felipe Hernández’ play, Réquiem por Yarini. I admit that I miss theater “of days gone by,” something that may be close to extinction in this day and age of modernization and adaptation. Will my kids be moved to tears by Romeo and Juliet? I’m not sure. Maybe I have fallen behind the spirit of modern times. Or perhaps, hopefully, we shall be able to take one of those trips into the past very shortly.

There are theater companies in every province of Cuba, both for adults and children. Even some of the more remote towns have produced important groups such as the Teatro de los Elementos in Cumanayagua, Cienfuegos. In Cuba, the Camagüey and Havana Theater Festivals are the most important of the theatrical events. Both Cuban and foreign theater companies put on emblematic plays and premieres but they also bring together actors, playwrights and critics in order to examine the activity of artists on the Island. The festivals are great celebrations that beckon huge crowds into the theaters.

It is impossible to speak of Cuban theater without going over some of its history. Back in pre-Columbian Cuba, areitos were magical-religious ceremonies that expressed aboriginal Cuban culture, mixing singing, dancing, oral traditions and pantomime. As the aboriginal communities disappeared, the areitos also vanished and the Spanish occupation brought with it their Corpus Christi festivities that consisted of religious dramas accompanied by dance and song.

Between 1730 and 1733 the first theatrical work in Cuba made its appearance and on January 20, 1775, El Coliseo, the first theater on the Island was born. From 1800 onwards, temporary theaters began to appear, many of them in simple sheds covered with awnings. But just a few years later on February 28, 1838 the people of Havana had a new theater that was described as one of the best in the world: the Tacón Theater, today, the beautiful García Lorca. 

From early days, there were popular characters, talkative and sarcastic, who would deliver social criticism and the joking around that was characteristic of the nineteenth century opéra bouffe. Francisco Covarrubias was the actor and playwright dubbed the founder of the national Cuban theater; he adapted short popular Spanish plays, sainetes (one-act farces), to conditions and personages in Cuba, using popular language and creating the figure of the negrito.

The nineteenth century also belongs to Romantic Cuban theater with its precursor the successful poet and playwright José Jacinto Milanés who committed suicide after twenty years of madness caused, so they say, by his forbidden love for his cousin. His life was as romantic as his work. Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda was another Romantic playwright who left Cuban literature a treasure trove of twenty works for the stage (tragedies, comedies, dramas, adaptations and one-act plays). And National Hero José Martí was also a Romantic; his dramatic oeuvre is not extensive within the huge body of his literary output but it does begin to announce the arrival of Modernism in Hispano-American arts and letters.

After the creation of the Republic, vernacular theater attracted huge audiences. The opéra bouffe, as started by Covarrubias, developed and gave rise to new characters such as the gallego and the mulata who joined the negrito to form a trio that still makes its appearance nowadays on stage. They lampoon reality with laughter. Vernacular theater used music as an essential element and many of the numbers that were performed went on to become popular songs outside of the context of the plays. Even though this type of theater started to die out after 1959, its characteristics still influence Cuban drama to a large degree. Today’s strong comedy movement has inherited much from it and it enjoys its own institutions and events, the most important of which is the Aquelarre Humor Festival.

There was also more “serious” theater during the Republican Era. It was less popular and had a smaller following and less government funding. Besides, it had to compete with the vernacular theater and the attractions of movies and that new invention of television. Frequently ,it would be financed by the actors and playwrights themselves who would have to earn the money by doing all kinds of other jobs and live on the brink of poverty. This was the case of Virgilio Piñeira, playwright and creator of very Cuban characters and situations that went beyond the superficiality of vernacular theater in the overwhelming milieu of a country that apparently had no solutions.

The triumph of the Revolution brought huge changes to the stage. In the wave of optimistic euphoria, under the auspices of a State that supported culture, new groups and theaters were created and the work of directors, playwrights and actors received hitherto unheard of social acknowledgement. The Teatro Nacional de Guiñol (National Puppet Theater), created before 1959 by the Camejo Carril brothers, expanded into all the provinces. Each province now has a theater dedicated to puppetry and child audiences. Teatro Estudio was an extraordinary group started up by the brother and sister team of Vicente and Raquel Revuelta. It premiered important contemporary plays and enjoyed both critical and public success throughout its existence.

The history of post-1959 theater went through a “dark age’ in the 1970s. This was an intolerant and unfair period for Cuban cultural policy, generating censorship, breaking up companies, firing staff and generally receiving the name of the “grey decade.” However, the storm subsided and even though it left scars, the theater soldiered on. Successive graduations from the National Theater School and the Higher Institute of the Arts brought advances. By the 1980s, another important group was born, Teatro Buendia, directed by Flora Lautens. It espoused experimentation and the search among our Caribbean roots. Then the 1990s brought the Special Period and many theaters were forced to close down again in a reaction to the country’s precarious economy. In the midst of all this, two companies appeared on the scene: the controversial Teatro El Público, and Argos Teatro, the latter proving to be the most solid theatrical company in terms of repertoire and trajectory. And then there was Teatro de la Luna. Closer to our days, filmmaker Juan Carlos Cremata’s project called La Carreta never tires of scratching the surface of life until it hurts. And the list of companies goes on and on.

Nowadays, theater abounds in Havana and all over Cuba. Sometimes it is successful and sometimes it is not so successful but the playwrights and directors are searching for the right path. Try leaving a tiny space in your schedule when you visit Cuba and come to the theater. You may well be surprised and it is certainly one more way of getting to know Cuba. Octuber 2014 This article formed part of the August 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

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