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Setebos Interviews: director Mónica Maffía

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on May 20, 2022 at 09:57 PM in Project News

While visiting Argentina recently to attend performances of Cimbelino en la Patagonia, Randall Martin spoke with Mónica Maffía, the driving force behind this brilliant Shakespeare adaptation. Today, we present a transcript of Randall and Mónica’s conversation, which traces Mónica’s background and concept for the adapted play, the histories she layered into it, and the spiritual resonance in reclaiming ancestral myths and memories. 

Setebos Interviews: director Mónica Maffía

[Content warning: this conversation describes in detail incidents of colonial violence committed against Indigenous peoples, including the commodification of their bodies, both living and dead.]

Cymbeline in the Anthropocene: Good evening, Mónica. Thanks very much for joining me and talking about Cimbelino en la Patagonia. Could we start with how you became interested in eco-drama? You have written many plays, but environmentalism is a relatively new interest, I believe. Where did it come from? 

Mónica Maffía: I didn’t really know I had an interest in eco-drama until I was invited to write a play for that purpose for an ecological theatre event in Madrid. So that’s when I wrote En Carne Viva [a recreation, in part, of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People]. Then I realized those were things I’ve always been interested in. I’ve always been interested in sciences, and the arts. We have different orientations in secondary school, and I chose sciences. My fellow students said, “why are you studying sciences?” Now, they are all doctors and biologists and I am in theatre. But I was interested in biology, and I also registered to be a vet. 

CA: Isn’t that interesting! 

MM: But I was also studying music, playing in an orchestra, and my life was piano playing. But it was far too much and I decided for the arts. But that didn’t stop my curiosity in scientific subjects. 

CA: Yes. 

MM: So my writing usually has to do with things that range from law to sciences. Those are things I’m very interested in, and the destinies of man. I think that’s a circle of interests that all have to do with ecodramaturgy. And as you detected [in earlier conversation], my love for myths appears in different things I wrote, such as Lilith, Black Moon, which is an opera and begins with Genesis. And in Cimbelino en la Patagonia, where I take the Tehuelche myth as the theogony and conception of the beginning of the world, and what for, and who are the inhabitants of that world. So I think my eco-interests are very natural! 

CA: I understand completely. I’m a Shakespearian, of course, but I’ve always had an interest in science. I didn’t go into sciences because my maths weren’t very strong. I was interested in astronomy and biology. So it’s a not dissimilar path, which has developed from arts and humanities into ecological interests, and which contemporizes the traditional subject of Shakespeare and nature. Our paths have converged! 

MM: Yes, and there’s also this thing of asking questions: that’s scientific method and thought. And that’s what Shakespeare does, he asks questions. And so every age has to rethink Shakespeare. That’s why all these sciences, not only natural sciences but also in law, and philosophy, it’s all there in Shakespeare. So that’s why I love it! And all the musical thinking that Shakespeare has also appeals to me, because I’ve studied quite a lot of music. The way phrases are created and flow in the actors’ speech. That’s quite a thing to care for when I translate Shakespeare. Trying to get some things that come from music -- dynamics, and rhythms of silences and pauses. 

CA: Yes, absolutely. And that’s a nice segue to my next question. Music and the sciences can be immersive experiences. And there’s a line in Cimbelino en la Patagonia where one of actors quips, “oh yes, this is ‘site specific.’” But really, their experience of El Chaltén is physically immersive. I wonder if you could tell me, as you were thinking about the adaptation and its metadramatic conceit of performing Shakespeare in [Los Glacieres] park, what are your thoughts about what the characters go through in the play as an immersive and transformative experience?   

MM: Because the characters come from different parts of Argentina, when they talk about what’s typical of each province, they begin competing: “You have alligators?” “Well I also have alligators” etc.—and also, in the hurting feeling of the [wild]fires, the floods, the rivers at their lowest levels. Well, “we have that problem,” and “I have that problem in my place.” So it’s a choral work. 

CA:  Like a chorus? 

MM: Yes, a chorus. There’s not just one voice over the others. They are there all the time on stage. Which was quite complicated to rehearse, to get all the actors there. But the structure, it’s a choric thing. But then they stop competing and start to listen [to their surroundings]. That’s a perception of what is new for them, the Tehuelche myth. When they begin to listen to that, they begin to flow into that direction. It becomes a more harmonious place. 

CA: Yes. You use a phrase, “una memoria ancestral.” Is that also connected to a deeper memory, a forgotten memory, that is being evoked by the power of place? 

MM: Yes, something they didn’t know, because they didn’t care to watch, until suddenly it appears like an epiphany—which makes them go back to their provinces illuminated. They need to go back, which is why [at the end of the play] they ask for [the audience’s] help not to get stuck there. They go back with a richer view of life. 

CA: Yes, after this ancestral and ecological memory has been rediscovered. And the play makes it clear at the beginning that that memory is buried partly by technology – Teresa comes in always trying to use her mobile phone. Is there a sense that the rediscovery is connected to a “sympathy” with, or sensitivity to, the natural world that has been disrupted by colonialism, by the history of Argentina as conquered lands? 

MM: Yes, there’s a connexion through Caliban [from The Tempest], which is where this adaptation of Cymbeline comes from for me, because Caliban prays to his god, which is Setebos. Researching who Setebos was, I found that in [Antonio] Pigafetta’s chronicles of Magellan and the first [circum]navigation; and through those chronicles we learn that when [the Spanish] met the Tehuelches, [the latter] were very tall. And that in their funeral rites, they said that Setebos appeared, and with smaller “devils.” So Setebos is both a hero and a god-devil figure. Which can be associated with Carnival. That’s why I thought it was quite organic with Cymbeline, a play with a [dramatic] masque scene [of Jupiter descending]. So those are the kind of associations I had. Masques, the music which goes with masques, and Carnival. Also because I was doing the finishing touches [on the play] during Carnival. 

CA: Yes of course, in February. 

MM: Which is when an ecological disaster, a terrible disaster, was going on in Argentina [wildfires destroying forests and Indigenous communities]. It’s all in there so naturally. And I thought, well, let’s do this staging. I want people to know my interpretation, which is that Caliban is Tehuelche. I would like one day to do a staging of The Tempest, and I would get an actor who is much taller than the rest to play Caliban. 

CA: That would be a wonderful production. I like the idea of how you connect Setebos the fire-god and the disasters that were occurring at the same time—with that history of colonialism which is now globalization. It’s not just happening in the past but also in the present. And it’s ecological profile is now greater, as we become aware of how environmentally destructive globalization is.  

MM: There was something else too: these people were so tall and so impressive to the Spanish colonizers, that they traded with their corpses. They took some of the Tehuelche to Spain alive, and then some them died on the voyage, but the Spanish still put their corpses in an exhibition to show them. And I read about a corpse which was so tall, three metres, and the Spanish just took the dead Tehuelche corpse from Spain to the UK and from there to the States. 

CA: That trope of “Come see the Indian Giant.” 

MM: Yes. It went with stories of South America, the mines of gold, and stones and diamonds etc. etc. 

CA: There’s another connexion with The Tempest, of course, because there, Stephano talks about the “dead Indian” who was taken from the New World and exhibited for profit. And Stephano makes a remark that people will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, but will lay out ten to see a dead Indian. It’s social satire. 

MM: I find that Shakespeare through those passage tries to denounce things that were too painful to communicate directly. He did it through jokes. 

CA: Yes. Shakespeare often talks about the most serious subjects, especially topical things,  under the veil of humour or comedy. That includes colonial and environmental issues. It’s partly a way of steering clear of the censor or political risk. 

MM: Which is also a way of showing the hypocrisy towards these subjects. 

CA: Absolutely, like The Tempest example you just referred to. Two more questions: one is related to my conversation with [VJ] Alejandro Delgado today [for a forthcoming blog interview]. We talked about the spirituality of the play and the environment, and I’d like to hear your thoughts about that. Alejandro said that, “I’m not a believer, I’m an atheist, but I still think the environmental experience represented in the play is spiritual [paraphrased].” What’s your concept of that relationship? 

MM: I refer you to a little anecdote which was most important for me, interested in sciences as I am. I used to direct the theatre group of the faculty of philosophy and literature here in Buenos Aires. And one of my actors was a geologist. I loved talking to her. For example, we did a staging of The Symposium by Plato, and I put the Nine Muses there, and I asked her to be Urania. This girl and her husband, who was also a geologist, were in Patagonia, studying volcanoes, and there were other vulcanologists there, and at one moment they had this feeling that somebody was watching them. They both turned and saw a little little figure with skin that was “leñosa”, meaning wood, very old, that you could use for fire. 

CA: “Very dry” -- “seasoned wood” in English. It’s the best wood for burning because it burns cleanly. 

MM: Well, they saw this woman, so small, 

CA: … with dry skin! … 

MM: just watching them, very seriously, looking daggers at them. The geologists looked at each other and then looked back and she wasn’t there any longer. They tried to explain this to me, because they both saw her. That story was a turning point for me. So, “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio … ”. So why not. That’s behind the play. 

CA: Yes, something that goes beyond, in the Western tradition, empiricism, logic, the material, and thinking according to those principles. And how this is now being rediscovered by ecologists and environmentalists partnering with Indigenous people and learning their ways of knowing that are more sensitive and receptive to phenomena that can’t be fully explained, and relationships in the natural world that can’t be fully quantified by empirical science, and need to be taken not as superstitions, but as – to put it in scientific terms – as hypotheses, rather than being dismissed as unsupported by evidence. This is so strong in Canada now with environmental projects, because Indigenous people know the land better, and are in different kinds of relation with it—often spiritually. That’s a very strong aspect of your play. It’s spiritual, but in a non-religious sense. We need another word for it.

MM: An energy? 

CA: Right! Thanks very much. One more question. How do you see the connexion between the birth of Setebos and the regeneration of the actors in the “Shakespeare en la Patagonia” workshop? 

MM: That was a way of answering to Jove appearing on an eagle, and in dreams. I tried to find an equivalent of that, and I thought that Setebos was the one. And to make them discover this “energy” we were talking about. Because we couldn’t say exactly what happened, but they all experienced those strong feelings and made a change in their minds. Whereas, if I had to put on Cymbeline, I would cut that scene because it’s in a dream, and all the family is there, and that’s not the point. And Jupiter is “grrr, grr, grr” … 

CA: Irascible.

MM: Yeah, it’s not too spiritual! But I took that idea from Shakespeare and translated that to this other idea of Setebos appearing and manifesting himself. 

CA: I think it’s a wonderful transculturation you’ve found, for many reasons. It goes back to the idea of another kind of ancestral memory being rediscovered. But also, the whole myth of Setebos works so well because it clarifies what Shakespeare’s dream sequence is doing, since the birth of Setebos is a violent event but it’s also rebirth. And Shakespeare’s play conveys that in Jupiter’s prophecy when he talks about “lopped” dead branches—that implies violence against nature. They haven’t just fallen down like the trees in last night’s windstorm around the city [of Buenos Aires]. They’ve been cut and they’ve been left, and then they’ve been brought back to life. Shakespeare uses a grafting metaphor to imply that revival, but it’s not entirely logical because the lopped branches are dead … so I think your myth of Setebos is a very fruitful equivalent for the dream. Many productions often cut that scene. 

MM: What I thought of is the parallel between Greek and Tehuelche mythology, because Setebos created the Tehuelche people through animals. There were many things I wanted to add [to my script], but I had to stop somewhere! When Setebos appears at the end of the play, he appears with a torch because he created fire, and the Tehuelches. He’s like a Prometheus figure. Also, in design, the warp and weft of the lines [of the Indigenous artworks projected on the screen in front of the dumbshow of Setebos’s birth] were similar to Ancient Greek design. We walk through that parallel [mythical] path. 

CA: Mónica thank you very much, this has been fascinating. After your illuminating discussion, you deserve a drink and some dinner!