Aztecs on Stage: Religious Theater in Colonial Mexico

By Lipsett-Rivera, Sonya | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

Aztecs on Stage: Religious Theater in Colonial Mexico


Lipsett-Rivera, Sonya, Canadian Journal of History


Aztecs on Stage: Religious Theater in Colonial Mexico, edited by Louise M. Burkhart, Translated by Louise M. Burkhart, Barry D. Sell, and Stafford Poole. Norman, Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. x, 233 pp. $24.95 US (paper).

The Aztecs had a long history of performance before their conquest by Spanish forces, Indeed many of their religious ceremonies had elements of high drama and their life philosophy was rife with dark and melodramatic prophecies. This book provides a glimpse into the way that Franciscan missionaries channeled the Aztec propensity for theatricality into a Christian vessel. In the pursuit of effective evangelization, the missionaries took a European tradition religious theater and created plays in Nahuatl, the language spoken by most indigenous people in Central Mexico. In these productions, performers would don costumes and reenact stories from the Bible, the lives of various saints or a moral lesson. Indigenous actors performed these works for special occasions such as Christmas, Easter, and the feast of Corpus Christi. This project took on a life of its own as indigenous people embraced the plays and began to incorporate them into their own community events. The works were transmitted through various generations and some of the scripts still exist today.

Louise Burkhart is a preeminent scholar of the contact period in Mexico and her fine studies have illuminated the way in which Spanish Catholic culture meshed with indigenous ideas. Along with Barry Sell and Stafford Poole, she translated the plays in this volume. This book is a smaller version of their four volume study of Nahuatl-language theatre. Their work is part of a larger trend in historical studies of Mexico to work in indigenous language documents and texts. The book consists of a short introduction and the English translation of six plays that were originally written for and performed by post-Conquest Aztecs in Mexico. Each play is also preceded by an explanatory note which provides both general information about the genre and the characters in the piece. The plays themselves are a bit leaden; the various characters have long, ponderous speeches. …

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