Griselda Gambaro (born 1928) is a powerful, world-renowned, prize-winning playwright, novelist, and short story writer. For decades she has been creating allegorical dramas that deal with issues relating to the oppressive political and social environment of Argentina in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Although her characters and their situations offer a commentary on Argentine society and government, Gambaro's work reached beyond the country's borders to make universal statements about power dynamics, human nature, and the role women play in the larger social order.
From Humble Beginnings to Recognition
Gambaro is a second-generation Argentine with Italian roots. She was born in Buenos Aires on July 28, 1928. Growing up as the only girl amongst four older brothers in a poor family was not easy. Her father was a postal worker of limited economic means, tending to the most basic needs of his children. As a result, the young girl had little access to books and plays, and her public schooling did not provide her with good formal education. Gambaro was highly motivated, though, and refused to be stopped by her circumstances. She taught herself about drama and literature by going to the public library and immersing herself in the works of dramatists such as Eugene O'Neill, Anton Chekhov, and Luigi Pirandello. After finishing high school in 1943, she began working in a publishing company. She later moved into business and accounting and remained there until she married sculptor Juan Carlos Distefano by whom, she said in Women's Voices from Latin America, she was "emancipated." Together, they had two children, Andrea in 1961 and Lucas in 1965.
Gambaro began writing at a young age, but her work was not immediately successful. "When I was twenty-four, I published a book of stories that I don't want to remember. It was so immature, so full of the sort of imperfections that mar many first books," she confessed in Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. In her mid-thirties, however, Gambaro suddenly started to enjoy great recognition and success as a writer. Madrigal en ciudad, her second volume of short stories, won an esteemed prize from Argentina's National Endowment for the Arts, which resulted in publication in 1963. At the same time, she became involved with the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, an avant-garde foundation formed in Buenos Aires in 1958 that combined sociological studies with the fine arts until it was forced to close in 1971 due to the repressive political climate. The Instituto achieved a name for itself in the 1960s as a hot bed of groundbreaking experimental art, music, and theater. It was at the Instituto's theater that Gambaro put on a series of four plays responsible for her international success. Each of these plays— Las paredes ("The Walls," 1964), El desatino ("The Blunder," 1965), Los siameses ("The Siamese Twins," 1967), and El campo ("The Camp," 1971)—was developed alongside a corresponding prose piece. El desatino, for example, was also a collection of short stories, which gained attention from literary critics and won the Emecé Publishers Prize for 1964.
Gambaro's plays share the common theme of everyday people wrapped up in oppressive power relationships. Gambaro's characters are victims and oppressors locked into situations in which the victim remains helpless and unable to rebel against the cruelty of his oppressor who often takes the form of friend or family member. These early plays, as Gambaro herself acknowledged in Women's Voices from Latin America, are largely concerned with the subject of passivity. "One often has a single theme, and I probably have mine, the problem of passivity. It must be due to personal reasons; I am a very cowardly woman. Very cowardly in every way. I'm not brave; I find it difficult to be brave. I am very preoccupied with passivity and the non-assumption of individual responsibility. In society it is that way and, also, in my plays." In The Female Dramatist, Gambaro was quoted as having said that she was also majorly preoccupied with "violence—its roots, manifestations, and spheres of influence, as well as the ways in which it may be perceived, masked, and denied."
Gambaro's style involved black humor, focusing on the absurdities of the Argentine political situation, and it broke with realistic drama insofar as her plays were not set in a specific time or place. The dramatist did not locate her plays literally within Argentina by use of identifiable nationalist themes or specific references to her native country. Instead the physical and mental abuse played out by her characters mirrors the reality perpetrated by the Argentine military in the 1960s through the Dirty War ending in 1983. Adding to the surreal nature of her work was the fact that the action of the plays was rarely linear or logical, and it was almost always terrifying. Las paredes, for example, is about a nameless Youth who is abducted and questioned by an Official and a Custodian in a well-decorated room. Nobody seems to know why he is being held captive, but the tormentors are dead set on breaking his will and torturing him, regardless. As the walls close in and the room begins to literally shrink in front of the audience's eyes, the Youth can no longer deny that he has "disappeared" from the world. Still, at the end of the play, he is unable to bring himself to walk out the open door because he is so deeply traumatized.
Years in Exile
Gambaro managed to remain in good enough favor with the Argentine regime until 1977 when her novel Ganarse la muerte was banned. Copies were confiscated and President Rafael Videla did not allow the book's sale. "There were raids, the army paid us 'visits' during which they looked at all the material in the house. As any material was considered subversive—Marx, Freud—a big burning of books resulted. Everyone who owned books burned them," Gambaro explained in Interviews. She even burned the manuscript to her visionary masterpiece, Información para extranjeros ("Information for Foreigners," 1971) and had to reconstruct it years later. She refused to publish it for many years because of its obvious political message and the certain negative repercussions that would ensue once it was released. The piece predicted the rise of the government's intellect police who eventually came to murder, torture, and kidnap thousands of Argentines because of their thoughts.
Gambaro and her family went into self-imposed exile for three years in Barcelona, Spain, from 1977 to 1980. When the Argentine dictatorship's control over society began to diminish in the early 1980s, Gambaro returned home and participated—along with the foremost directors, actors, and writers in the theater community—in staging the Teatro Abierto ("Open Theater"). It was a creative protest against the government's on-going repression, and in 1981 the Teatro released 20 plays, most of which, including Gambaro's Decir sí ("To Say Yes," 1981), were political attacks on the military government and the commercial nature of Argentine theater. Soon after, when the Argentine government lost the Falklands War, failing to expel the British from the Falkland Islands off Argentina's coast in 1982, Argentina began a period of extended democracy, the likes of which had not been in place in many years. The attempt to drive Great Britain from the Falklands was one of the Argentine dictatorship's last efforts to gain popularity and maintain power. When it failed, a new era of freedom began, exemplified by the fact that a formerly banned playwright, Carlos Gorostiza, was named minister of culture.
Homecoming: More Freedom and a New Voice
Since Gambaro herself had been a "prohibited" writer under the former administration, the democratic shift in Argentina's political climate affected her very personally and allowed her the freedom to influence Argentina with her bold art. Although the political climate in Argentina had calmed, the writer was no less passionate in her work. In 1987, she finally published Información para extranjeros, an arresting work that challenged spectators to comment on and engage the brutal actions they witnessed on a "stage" that did not have clearly defined boundaries. The stage directions called for an entire house to be used as the backdrop for some actors who perpetrated violent acts, such as murders and kidnappings, while others played children's games. The audience members encounter harmlessness or torture, depending upon which room they enter, and they were to be led by an actor/guide who interacted with spectators along the way. The surreal writing style and contrast between the actions taking place in the different rooms reflected Gambaro's belief that, "[Argentina] is a schizophrenic country, a country that lives two lives. The courteous and generous have their counterpart in the violent and the armed who move among the shadows… . One never really knows what country one is living in, because the two co-exist." Gambaro created a drama in which viewers were not permitted to be passive bystanders to terrible acts of violence, for the guide forced them to question and respond to their surroundings and the events that take place within them. The play, which powerfully addresses the reality of Argentina's past military regime and the way average citizens were implicated—through their silence—in the brutalization of their neighbors, was a commentary on passivity in the face of horror. It indirectly, but clearly, was a reminder of the phenomenon of desaparecidos ("the disappeared"). These vanished Argentine citizens, many of whom were intellectuals or politically conscious members of society, were commonly dragged off to a horrible fate, often in the dead of night, by the former dictatorship while their neighbors pretended they did not see what was happening.
During Gambaro's time in exile, the playwright had the opportunity to engage the feminist movement in Europe and develop consciousness about women and their issues. At the time, Ganarse la muerte had been published in France and Gambaro was invited there. "I had the opportunity to meet the feminists of France, and I began reading about the specific problems related to women. I started to realize things which, before that time, I had only felt in an instinctive way," she told Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig in Interviews. In the 1980s, Gambaro's writing reflected, embraced, and contributed to the growing women's movement in Argentina. She created a number of plays with strong female characters. These women, like the geisha Suki in Del sol naciente ("From the Rising Sun") and Antígona in Antígona Furiosa, represented powerful models who rejected the confines of stereotypical female roles. "The title character of her 1986 play Antígona Furiosa hauntingly mirrors Gambaro herself. She, like Antígona and her Greek namesake, is intent on burying her dead, her disappeared ones. She renounces the traditional sphere, home and hearth, and refuses to remain silent," Elaine Parnow commented in The Female Dramatist.
Starting in the mid 1980s, many of Gambaro's characters—not just women—shifted in such a way that those in the victims' roles managed to confront and fight back against their oppressors. For example, marginalized characters in Del sol naciente joined forces at the end of the play, their solidarity and humanity undermining the oppressive system in which they found themselves. This transformation from passive characters to consciously united, active ones reflects the way in which Argentine society was unable to fight government oppression until the Falklands War brought about a group effort to overcome it.
It was only in the 1990s, after decades of recognition in Latin America and Europe, that Gambaro's work began to be performed with some frequency in the United States. In this era, her plays began changing in texture and theme-personal emotions, rather than state control became the main subject. Penas sin importancia, written in the early 1990s, has been described by reviewers as having a gentler tone than her previous work, reflecting the transitions— socially, economically, and politically—that have occurred in Argentina since Gambaro began writing. Since the early 1960s, Gambaro has let loose her words through plays, fiction, and essays. In the face of terror, exile, repression, and financial challenges, the dramatist has never failed to offer creative, poignant, relevant, and painfully true perspectives on politics and human nature.
Betsko, Kathleen and Rachel Koenig, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, Beech Tree Books, 1987.
Garfield, Evelyn Picón, Women's Voices from Latin America: Interviews with Six Contemporary Authors, Wayne State University Press, 1985.
Marting, Diane E., editor, Spanish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Source Book, Greenwood Press, 1990.
Partnow, Elaine T., editor, with Lesley Ann Hyatt, The Female Dramatist, Facts on File, Inc., 1998.
Kozilowski, Thomas, "Griselda Gambaro," Gale Contemporary Authors Online, http://www.gale.com, (February 8, 2003).