Academic journal article Early American Literature

A Mexican Drama of Late-Colonial Politics

Academic journal article Early American Literature

A Mexican Drama of Late-Colonial Politics

Article excerpt

A theater piece performed in Mexico City in 1796 as part of a public display of colonial loyalty can be read at one level as just that but also at another level as revelatory of thoughtful questioning of Spanish rule in the distant Americas, as expressive of new feelings of detachment; in 1810, Mexico would begin its independence war. The performance, which the viceregal government authorized and which therefore must be assumed to have conformed to official expectations, can be understood, when the play's text is read, as also reflective of that Mexican generation's awareness of opening rifts in the empire and thus ambivalence toward its colonial status. The protestation of loyalty to the Spanish king, which the play's scenario apparently teaches, is at the same time a staged disruption of the established order. The story line, when examined closely, reveals Mexican knowledge of metropolitan weakness at that historical moment and points to a breakdown in the trust that was supposed to join protector and protected. The play, La lealtad americana [American Loyalty], was performed in Mexico City's Coliseo theater on December 9, 1796, in celebration of the birthday of the Spanish queen, but also to mark the erection of a statue of the king in the central plaza of Mexico City. Its author was Fernando Gavila, principal actor of the Coliseo company, who dedicated the performance to the "virreina," the Marquesa de Branciforte, wife of the viceroy. (1)

The play's title has been known, but discovery of the text reveals how close study of theater and its interpretative possibilities in this late colonial period might throw light on the possibility of disintegrating political ties. The seventy-one-page script survives in the Sutro Library (California State System, San Francisco), printed by D. Joseph Fernandez Jauregui; D. Joseph Bernabe Ysita, described as an "asentista" or overseer, paid for the printing. This printing preserves the author's dedication, the official permissions with censors' understanding of the play's merit, and a preliminary note by Gavila telling that he drew his plot, based on Henry Morgan's attack on the Spanish colony of Panama in 1670, from the account in Piratas de la America (Pirates in America, 1678), written by the historian and pirate himself, Esquemeling (Alexander Olivier Exquemelin). Exquemelin's book was published for the first time in Dutch in Amsterdam and was soon translated into Spanish (1681) by Dr. Alonso de la Buena Maison, a medical colleague in Amsterdam who altered the text to laud the Spaniards and censure the pirates' violence. (2) Translations into German, French, and English followed. The French edition (1686), which was rewritten to make France seem heroic, for many years was thought to be the original. Esquemelin appears as a figure in Gavila's drama, a soldier among Morgan's invaders.

We know little about Gavila other than that he was Mexican, a dramatist and actor, who had come to Mexico's capital from Puebla. (3) He wrote several other plays: La mexicana en Inglaterra (The Mexican Girl in England, 1792), La morbella (1792), and the "zarzuela" La linda poblana (The Pretty Girl from Puebla, 1802). (4) The latter was not performed and has only recently been discovered--as was another Gavila play, Bonaparte al encuentro de la batalla de Arcol (Bonaparte in the Encounter at the Battle of Arcola). (5)

My first task in this essay, then, is to explore Gavila's use of a seventeenth-century historical event to dramatize eighteenth-century politics. Mexicans in the late colonial period, as I will show, felt threatened by political upheaval in Europe and activity around them in the Americas, and they recognized they were coming to the moment when they would have to choose where to place their loyalty. Gavila amazes in his knowledge of earlier history and international politics, beyond the Spanish sources we think colonials normally had access to. Next, I will move to the play's denouement, when the actor playing the part of the Spanish administrator brings out a portrait of the king, reminding the Panamanians of their fundamental loyalties--a theatrical device that causes the populace to repudiate Morgan's invitation to go over to English rule. …

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