“El trueno Electra”: Trauma, Classics, and Cuba

“El trueno Electra”: Trauma, Classics, and Cuba

by Eduardo García-Molina

Cover picture: Playbill for the 1978 Miami production of Electra Garrigó; University of Miami Library’s Cuban Heritage Collection

On November 3rd, 2020, the United States of America’s nation once more fixed its gaze on the contentious electoral battle in Florida and the crucial results coming in from Miami-Dade County, an area characterized as having a large population of Cubans. Soon, social media was filled with dismissive hot takes about the conservatism that has become emblematic of this group. This was further exacerbated by political pundits, who quickly realized that the monolithic voter category of “Latino” is actually comprised of a variety of peoples with different lived realities. In this post, I want to examine closely and contextualize this Cuban conservatism through a Classicist lens by discussing a Cuban adaption of a Greek tragedy: Electra Garrigó by Virgilio Piñera. By doing so, I also seek to wrestle with my own experiences as a young, gay Latino who has personally dealt with the transgenerational conflict caused by the collective trauma of the Cuban Revolution.  

Many members of the conservative Cubans residing in Miami are the children and grandchildren of those who initially arrived after the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959). The movement of Cuban refugees into the United States is not an isolated incident. South Florida has continually received a fluctuating stream of political refugees from Cuba since the early 1960s (another spike being the Mariel Boatlift that was then problematically depicted in 1983’s Scarface; fig.1) This is an important point to keep in mind: The links between Cuba and South Florida were not severed after the initial exodus. There has been no cathartic, decisive break (and there rarely is after periods of deeply rooted instability).

Figure 1: “Garry Lenton, photographer, Cuban Refugees at Ft. Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, 1980. Lebanon Daily News. Lebanon, Pennsylvania.” Source: https://centralpalgbtcenter.org/withopenheart

Before I dive into the relationship between the performance of tragedy and the renegotiation of collective trauma within displaced communities occupying an interstitial space, let us tackle the elephant in the room. Discussion of the Cuban revolution is divisive. Lost within the mire of the endless debate about the merits of socialism, however, is the trauma brought about by an intrastate war. One needs not incessantly summon the specter of Thucydides (typically the first tool in the hands of an opinionated Classicist) in order to conceptualize the profound ruptures such conflicts create among the citizen body. Consequently, wounds are incessantly pried open by both political parties and leftist, privileged academics that seek to prop up the revolution as an exemplum for their theories on the efficacy of socialism while largely excising the suffering of a divided people. When I speak of “privilege”, I am underscoring the ability of certain academic circles to disassociate the trauma of other peoples from their observations. An American colleague can casually cite the Cuban Revolution, joke about the failure of the Bay of Pigs as a jab towards the US, and proudly display the Che Guevarra sticker he bought from Etsy without being reminded of the stories his family members have told him about the uncertainty and horror of intrastate war. As a descendant of such refugees (my family moved to Puerto Rico instead of the US), I am not afforded that luxury. Moreover, I find the negative characterization of Cuban immigrants as desperate wealthy people seeking shelter from the boogeyman of socialism tediously oversimplified and problematic. If we dismiss the first wave as such, we trivialize the real violence taking place in Cuba and the harsh crackdown on dissidents afterwards. People also fled after legislation like the 1979 Ley de Peligrosidad (“Law of Danger,” which called for homosexuals to go into government reeducation camps) was passed. Such harmful simplifications typically come from an academic community that jokes about migrating to Canada or Europe when faced with the prospect of living under a conservative government. For some, mass displacement cannot be relegated to a punchline.

Unsurprisingly given that I study the ancient world, I have chosen to frame this discussion around Virgilio Piñera’s Electra Garrigó (figs 2 and 3). It is a three-act play that covers the Oresteia through a non-linear narrative taking place on the porch of a mansion (casona) in Habana. Originally written in 1941 when Virgilio was 29 and performed once in 1948 in Cuba as a response to the oppressive regimes of several US-backed puppet dictators and presidents, this play did not gain popularity until after the revolution and the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961). Its initial show in 1948 largely received negative reviews from Cuban critics for its use of colloquial language, Cuban setting, and its tongue-in-cheek lampooning of the Greek originals (considered sacrosanct by elite theater critics.) It was staged several times in Cuba and Miami and would also have a run in New York in 1973.

Figure 2: Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979) by Ida Kar (1964). Copyright: National Gallery
Figure 3: Playbill for the 1978 production in Miami featuring a Carnaval costume. From the University of Miami. Library. Cuban Heritage Collection

Virgilio’s adaption wrestles with the moral questions brought about by internecine strife and the relation of the individual to their fellow citizens and the apparatus of the State. These topics are all nestled within a narrative centered on a Cuban family. Its relative popularity after the revolution is an indication of the role that theatrical works have within the continued reliving, renegotiation, and recontextualization of societal norms and values after a period of collective trauma. While it was written before the revolution, audiences found its tragic themes analogous to their own experiences during that period. Here I echo Patrick Duggan’s definition of “trauma-tragedy” in Trauma-Tragedy: Symptoms of Contemporary Performance (2012). Trauma-tragedy does not seek to heal the traumatic schism it addresses. Instead, the goal of trauma-tragedy is to provide an experiential performance that closes the gap between event and experience. This blurring would certainly be exacerbated if we acknowledge that the audiences for Electra Garrigó would be composed of Cubans who lived through the revolution. While the actors on stage are performing the tragic downfall of the house of Garrigó, their movements, the stage, and even some auditory cues all contribute to the melding of performance and experience. To best see how trauma-tragedy forces the viewer to fluctuate between a sense of ‘reality’ of the performance and the underlying understanding of its mimetic nature, let us turn to the play itself.

Figure 4: Scene from the 1978 production in Miami featuring Manny Fernández (Pedagogo), Alina Interián (Electra Garrigó), and Julio Ambros (Egisto Don). Image taken by Asela Torres and featured in Rizk (2016). Actor information from the Cuban Theater Digital Archive

I will not be discussing all the ways this adaptation differs from the ancient plays. There is no need to because of Rosa Andújar’s masterful chapter on the subject in The Oxford Handbook of Greek Drama in the Americas. Instead, I want to focus on a select few examples to underscore how this play seeks to blur the line between reality and mimesis. It would have been a simple exercise by Virgilio to follow closely the ancient originals. Instead, the Greek tragedians trade their himation and wreath for the guayabera and cigar. This is evident in the title. Electra, Agamemnon, and Orestes are given the Spanish surname Garrigó. Clytemnestra is Clytemnestra Pla. The play, as Andújar notes, dramatizes various aspects of Cuban life and the family, and employs Greek tragedy and myth as its framework. What I wish to stress, following Andújar’s sketch of the play, is how the tragedy of a nuclear family on stage is a broader commentary on the civil strife within Cuba. This is certainly why the play found new life after the revolution.

The stage itself is not meant to reflect an ancient setting since the play does not even take place in Mycenae. Habana is depicted with distinctly colonial neoclassical architecture in Electra Garrigó. When staged in Cuba, the usage of neoclassical architecture evokes negative experiences of Cuba’s colonial past and the oppressive regimes before the revolution. This is further compounded among Afro-Cubans when one factors in the history of slavery on the island and the conscious implementation of neoclassical architecture by wealthy Spanish and Cuban landowners as indicators of white superiority. That being said, rampant racial inequality is still prevalent even within the new government; a disproportionality that is sobering given the notable and praised history of resistance against oppression by Afro-Cubans. I mention this simply to highlight that even after the revolution, Afro-Cubans could look at this neoclassic architecture and be reminded of current situations as well. Conversely, the usage of this staging among the Cuban diaspora in Miami and New York would serve as a sobering reminder of their past and their current displacement. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword. It provides a comforting (albeit static) image of the past while generally souring the present as the picturesque image must eventually yield to lived reality. Even before the first line of dialogue is uttered, Electra Garrigó forces the audience to confront the traumatic past through its scenery (figs 3 and 4).

Figure 5: Scene from the 1987 production of Electra Garrigo in Miami. María Rojas (Clitemnestra Plá), Gerardo Barrios (Egisto Don), Marilyn Romero (Electra Garrigó), and José Zubero (Agamenón Garrigó). From the University of Miami. Library. Cuban Heritage Collection

The chorus is a lone peasant who belts out the lines to the tune of Guantanamera, the unofficial national anthem of Cuba, whose verses call back to the poems of Cuban revolutionary José Martí. This character, introducing and commenting on the play throughout, provides an auditory experience by blending the fall of the house of Garrigó with cues from this national song. The tone of the chorus is that of a prophetic lamentation with verses that decry familial strife, the state of Cuba, and the inescapability of destiny. For those in the diaspora, it serves as a grim reminder of their loss by recontextualizing the crumbling house of Garrigó within their own experiences during the period of internecine warfare. The use of the patriotic Guantanamera, laced with the revolutionary verses of José Martí, can exult the revolutionary movement for audiences in Cuba or it can serve as a sobering reminder of their country for those in the Cuban diaspora.

While the visual and auditory aspects play a considerable role in conveying Cuba, it is the plot that lands the most impactful blow. Electra and Orestes Garrigó live under the thumb of Agamemnon Garrigó and Clytemnestra Pla. Each parent expresses possessive love over the child of the opposite sex. Clytemnestra orders Aegisthus to kill Agamemnon, whom she calls “el gallo viejo” (“the old cock”), in a manner that mimics a cockfight. Orestes poisons Clytemnestra with a “fruta bomba,” a Cuban term for papaya since the word “papaya” itself is slang for vagina (an interesting weaponization of femininity.) The entire tragic plot, at times undercut with knowing jokes and allusions in the style of Cuban farce (“choteo”), centers around the chaotic disintegration of the familial structure. At the end, Electra ushers Orestes to the doors of destiny and mocks the absence of Furies (“inexistentes Erinnias.”) The trials and tribulations of the house of Garrigó do not end with the moral finality exhibited in the original Oresteia. There are no Furies to hound the matricide and subsequent legal disputes. The Garrigó siblings simply enter the doors of destiny and depart.

What is interesting here is the figure of Electra and the conflict present in the house of Garrigó. She is spurred to revolution in the beginning of the play by her tutor, an educated centaur who is likely a reference to the academic circles where socialist theories were entertained and discussed (also a possible tantalizing allusion to Rubén Darío’s Coloquio de los centauros). Agamemnon Garrigó is portrayed as drunk and overtly possessive, Clytemnestra Pa as doting of Orestes and manipulative towards Aegisthus, and Orestes as a wistful young man. The house of Garrigó, however, is quickly dominated by Electra. When speaking to the tutor, Clytemnestra laments: “Aquí todo es Electra” (“Here everything is Electra”). The ending, while indicative of a triumph of revolution and the upturning of the status quo in Cuba, was negatively perceived by audiences in Miami in 1978, when policies about allowing family visits to Cuba were still under debate. Certainly, the focus for audiences at that time was fixed upon the ruination of the house of Garrigó and not the personal victory of Electra. When emphasis was being placed on the possible reconciliation of families separated by the revolution, the destructively individualistic person of Electra fomented disdain among the diaspora.

Much like today among the Cuban diaspora, there is also a generational issue. Trauma has the ability to be cross-generational as it is reaffirmed and renegotiated through a variety of means. The most ubiquitous of these for children and grandchildren of displaced peoples are family gatherings that serve as focal points for the construction and renegotiation of cultural memory through stories and personal anecdotes. Tension is also present as the older generation, nursing a much more intimate and vivid trauma, confronts the younger generation that does not have immediate access to the memories of pre-revolutionary Cuba. This is one of the reasons why the older generation can seem obsessively attached to the past; they fear that the memories of their trauma have dissipated and that the younger generation will ultimately suffer a similar fate.  The generational conflict between Agamemnon and Electra Garrigó, the latter wishing to escape from the patriarchal rule of the former, can easily be transferred onto the dissonance present between older and younger family members of the diaspora. Electra wishes to marry her suitor, but her father wishes her to remain at home with him. Destructive individual liberty clashes with domesticity as Electra shouts “El tema de la libertad no es un asunto doméstico” (“The topic of liberty is not a domestic matter.”) For revolutionary Cuba, this is indicative of the radicalism of the younger generation. For the Cuban diaspora, Electra’s destructive notion of liberty is a threat to the tight familial structure of immigrants and, ultimately, the memory of their people’s collective trauma. It is this tug-of-war between the older generation’s experiences and the younger’s lived realities in another country that define the struggle of many displaced families. The cast itself in Miami, comprised of younger actors, possibly added a visual layer to this cross-generational tension. In effect, the outrage expressed in Miami over Electra Garrigó could be attributed to the older generation of exiles feeling threatened that their traumatic experiences would be erased by a play that seemed to mete out no punishment for the destruction of the house of Garrigó and exults the revolutionary, individualistic persona of Electra.

Dramatic reading of Electra Garrigó organised by the Cuban Cultural Center of New York and the Teatro Columna theater group; Leyma López dir. (2020)

Electra Garrigó offers much more upon further readings. Of note is the complicated relationship Cuba has with queerness (Orestes’ depiction as a mama’s boy being the most intriguing.) Virgilio Piñera openly admitted he was a homosexual and was imprisoned and subsequently exiled by the Cuban government in 1961. When Ernesto “Ché” Guevara was touring a Cuban embassy in Algiers in 1964, he saw Virgilio’s Complete Theatre (1960) and exclaimed after throwing it across a table: ¿Por qué tienen aquí un libro de este maricón? (“Why do you have here a book from this faggot?”) Homosexuality was anathematic to the prevailing notion of revolutionary machismo in Cuba, encapsulated in an article in the newspaper El Mundo written by a prominent Cuban artist, Samuel Feijóo. Titled “Revolución y vicios,” it states: “Porque ningún homosexual representa la revolución, que es un asunto de varones, de puño y no de plumas […]” (“Because no homosexual represents the revolution, which is a matter for men, a matter of fists not feathers […]”) Virgilio eventually returned to Cuba in 1964, but his legacy was largely suppressed by the Cuban government until his death in 1979.

As a Latino maricón myself, the treatment of Virgilio and the complicated picture of familial conflict and ruination evoked by Electra Garrigó and its performances in Cuba and Miami all resonate deeply. I want to end here by discussing what this piece is and what it is not. It is an attempt by me, spurred by the recent discussion of Cuban conservatism, to examine the complexities of cultural trauma through Virgilio Piñera’s adaption of Electra Garrigó. It is not a rebuke of aspects of socialism. It is an attempt to show how cultural trauma is constantly being recontextualized and renegotiated; this is even more notable when we discuss cross-generational trauma and the performative and ritualistic aspects of reliving trauma during family gatherings. It is not an apologia for entrenched conservatism within the Cuban diaspora. I simply wish to elucidate a small aspect of the complicated history of the Cuban diaspora as occupiers of an interstitial space by examining some of the themes present in Electra Garrigó. My life has been more or less defined by this tension within my family between the conservative Cuban elements and my sexual and political identity. It is only by taking a step back and examining the history of the Cuban diaspora and the ways in which collective trauma is expressed through media like Electra Garrigó that we can fully grasp why conservatism is prevalent within this community. With each new generation, the house of Garrigó rises anew and “el trueno Electra” (“Electra the thunder”) roars once more.

Note: Many thanks to the readers who graciously offered their time and provided me with wonderful feedback.

Eduardo García-Molina is a PhD student in Classics at the University of Chicago. You can find him on twitter under @eduardo_garcmol.

References

Andújar, Rosa. 2015. “Revolutionizing Greek Tragedy in Cuba: Virgilio Piñera’s Electra Garrigó.” In The Oxford Handbook of Greek Drama in the Americas, Bosher, K. et al eds. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 361–79.

Duany, J. 2019. Picturing Cuba: art, culture, and identity on the island and in the diaspora. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Duggan, P. 2017. Trauma-Tragedy: Symptoms of Contemporary Performance. Oxford: Manchester University Press.

Latner, T.A. 2017. Cuban Revolution in America: Havana and the Making of a United States Left, 1968–1992. Justice, Power, and Politics. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Mayer-Garcia, E. 2016. “Cuban Routes of Avant-Garde Theatre: Havana, New York, Miami, 1965-1991.” LSU Doctoral Dissertations. 36.

Prizant, Y. 2014. Cuba Inside Out : Revolution and Contemporary Theatre. Theater in the Americas. Carbondale [Illinois]: Southern Illinois University Press.

Rizk, B. J. 2016. “Post-Memoria o ‘Memoria Prostética’: Virgilio Piñera a Través de Teatro Avante de Miami.” Latin American Theatre Review 49 (1): 45–59.

Rosa, A. & Nikoloutsos, K.P. 2020. Greeks and Romans on the Latin American stage. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

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