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ON BOOKS

Looking Forward to the Past

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

THERE'S NOTHING more loveable about the sisters in Carlos Fuentes' Orchids in the Moonlight than the force with which they hate one another. The sisters, faded Hollywood starlets, bicker constantly, often as the characters they played in their youth.

After Maria exhausts her dramatic repertoire--which includes mother, daughter, sister and husband to Dolores--she takes an asp in hand and reclines on a banquet table to die as Cleopatra.

Drama Contemporary: Latin America

edited by Marion Peter Holt and George W. Woodyard PAJ Publications; 186 pp.; $9.95.

The sisters struggle against the barrier that divides reality and fiction, and so does the reader of Fuentes' Orchids, which the American Repertory Theater staged in 1982. For Fuentes and the three other writers featured in Drama Contemporary's Latin America, the barrier gives way to a "New Realism." Weakness and strength, male and female--seemingly antithetical forces--merge, furthering exploration and transcendence of artistic and human limitations.

The Drama Contemporary volume includes short plays by leading architects of the New Realism: Manuel Puig, Antonio Skarmeta, Mario Vargas Llosa, as well as Fuentes, who will resume teaching here as a visiting professor next year. The startling newness of the plays does not emanate from tinsel and glitter but from evocative use of the past. The writers use the symbols of the past to understand the present and as sign posts to a hopeful future.

The future of the sisters in Fuentes' Orchids becomes entangled with the past when the writer of an obituary column--their only source of information about the outside world--arrives at their door and turns out to be a fan who remembers their years on the stage.

Fusion of seemingly antithetical forces not only is a major thematic concern for the four writers, but also is a fundamental principle of their methodology. Each of the authors is best known as a novelist but transcends the genre gap to write plays.

Llosa's play Kathie and the Hippopotamus is itself about writing. Kathie and Santiago, the main characters, create their fiction out of the material and people of their pasts. As the characters of the past appear and hold discussions with the writers, time ceases to consist of events stacked neatly one upon another.

Kathie, flirting with Santiago, idealizes him as a sexy revolutionary, while the ghost of Santiago's ex-wife, Ana, criticizes him as impotent, lazy, and generally mediocre.

As soon as Kathie begins to convince Santiago that he is, in fact, a hero, the specter of his wife, Ana, appears. She reminds him that the Marxist study groups, "bored you to tears."

"It was more like...accusing the Maoists of being Trotskyites, the Leninists of being Stalinists, the socialists of being revisionists and everyone else of being fascists, Nazis and spies," she says.

Santiago's relationships with Kathie and Ana suggest that the individual can be a myth determined by his associations. Santiago's archetypical heroes, Victor Hugo and Karl Marx, flow into his present through their writings and influence his every action. The result: simultaneity.

Simultaneity allows the human spirit to transcend the strictures society imposes. The authors express the society's attempt at confinement by confining their characters to single rooms or--in the case of Skarmeta's play--a tiny island.

Skarmeta, like Llosa, chooses a writer--Chilean poet-hero Pablo Neruda--as his protagonist. The lines vibrate with metaphor. Poetry intermingles with the text of the play in a way that emphasizes the living spirit of Neruda in the hearts of revolutionaries.

"From early morning," Skarmeta's Neruda says, "the ocean begins its fantastic way of rising. It seems to be kneading an endless loaf of bread."

DESPITE THEIR brilliance, Llosa and Skarmeta seem to strain for metaphors and one-liners. ("Let's not carry democracy to the point of taking a vote to see who our father is," says Skarmeta's ever-composing Neruda.) On stage, an actor's delivery might compensate for much of the stiffness, but in print, it is trying.

Perhaps Fuentes' and Puig's works seem more fluent because they represent the influence of past art on present artists by--within their plays--showing films of what influences them to write. The others expose their own arts and become all too obvious as they write about the process of writing. Llosa and Skarmeta portray writers-at-work who pace back and forth creating poetry and writing and erasing the multiple climaxes of a trash novel.

Whether one prefers Llosa's and Skarmeta's direct discussion of their artistic process or the tantalizing clues provided by Fuentes and Puig probably depends on whether one approaches literature analytically or emotionally. But whatever your literary yen, this book will fulfill it--and in large measure.

These authors do not view art as a luxury. It is the key to human survival. Their plays are fascinating, short and well-worth the read.

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