From her New York City apartment, playwright Caridad Svich graciously agreed to an hour-long phone chat last week, to talk about the GALA’s staging of The House of the Spirits/La casa de los espiritus, based on the best-selling, eponymous novel, by the award-winning Chilean-American author Isabel Allende.
In 1981, Isabel Allende, a journalist cousin of the former deposed leader, was living exiled in Venezuela. Her grandfather was dying in Chili but it was too dangerous for her to return to his side. In order to lift the spirits of the 99-year-old family patriarch, Allende wrote about her idyllic childhood in a letter that developed into the best-selling novel.
It was “daunting,” Svich said, to accept the challenge of adapting for the stage Isabel Allende’s novel, teeming with the life of “50-plus characters” and a convoluted plot, that traces four generations of a Chilean family from the early 20th century through the politically turbulent 1970s. Civil strife, that gradually estranges the family, culminates in the 1973 military coup and suicide (controversial until confirmed by a 2011 autopsy) of democratically-elected, socialist President Salvadore Allende, who refused to submit to the junta of General Augusto Pinochet.
But then, Caridad Svich, who won a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her dramatization of this novel, is a risk-taker, as you can read here.
How did you adapt this labyrinthine 433-page novel (my Bantam edition), published in 1982, into this play? What ran through your mind as you worked on it?
Caridad: “I read the novel many times but didn’t use Isabel’s language verbatim. I’m a big fan of the (surrealist) painter Francis Bacon. He came to mind. There is Bacon’s painting of the Pope Innocent X “after Velazquez.” [It’s a painting inspired by the 1650 Velazquez’ masterpiece, “Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” (1950), except that Bacon’s Pope is a nightmarish metamorphosis that shows the Pope, open-mouthed, screaming from behind a dark, purple, diaphanous curtain.
“I can count on one hand the number of plays dealing with the patterns of European colonialism, and the legacy of violence in Latin American history. I wanted to make the oral, personal family saga immediate and cozy, all in one sitting, to make you feel that it’s important now. That is the excitement of what only the theatre can do.
“I put a big map on my wall and drew lines [connecting characters with events]. How were we going to jump from one character’s story to the other? Once I decided on starting with Alba in the torture chamber, everything fell into place. The scenes that followed were her flashback memories.”
Definitely, your adaptation is not a Cliff’s Notes condensation of the novel’s plotline. Why?
[In the introduction to the script, “Re-constructed acts: Capturing the spirit of a novel,” Caridad calls her play “…a meditation and reflection on Isabel Allende’s landmark novel……an ‘After Isabel,’ like Francis Bacon’s ‘After Velazquez.'”]
Caridad: “I merged characters and pared down to a little over two hours what could have become a four-to-eight hour Eugene O’Neill-like, mega-family trilogy. It’s the kind of story that could have a sequel.”
Caridad said she found “a trick” in the Allende’s novel that frames the story. Two viewpoints from two narrators. Esteban Trueba speaks in the first person and represents a conservative, old world viewpoint of the landed aristocracy, even though he starts out as a coal miner, in a time when there is little social mobility. Pitted against him is Esteban’s modern-age, granddaughter, Alba, a reformer, who writes as an omniscient third person, searching for reunification of the estranged family and her identity by reading her grandmother’s notebooks.
For the play, however, Caridad said that once she decided to start the play with Alba’s imprisonment and interrogation by Esteban Trueba’s bastard son, Esteban Garcia, the scenes that followed fell into place.
Why did you start the play with Alba in prison being tortured? Isn’t that risky, to start a play with physical torture? Won’t it freak-out some audience members who won’t be able to sit through it?
Caridad: (Laughing) “No, I don’t think so. The torture scene in prison is the frame where Alba’s psyche is being split by violence. Alba, who is always on stage, is a witness to history. She is living it and at the same time trying to retrieve the past through memories recorded in her grandmother Clara’s notebook about their close family life and her happy childhood in the country. Alba’s memories of who she is help her survive. Besides, the torture scene is short and moves quickly into the playful, garden scene between Clara, who is Alba’s grandmother, as an innocent child, feeding the dog Barabbas. Then a highly-romantic love scene with Rosa, the beautiful, and Esteban Trueba follows.”
Okay, that makes sense. What was the hardest challenge you faced?
Caridad: “The character of Esteban Trueba, who is the perfect storm of the monster anti-hero. I didn’t like him. He’s greedy for land and power. He’s ruthless, deeply animalistic, and he has this aristocratic sense of entitlement. He’s raped a lot of local women. Esteban is the cause of his granddaughter, Alba’s abduction, imprisonment and torture by the illegitimate Esteban Garcia, a colonel. That creates a weird kind of conflict in Alba (that means dawn in Spanish). She feels great love for her grandfather, who is also well-meaning and has so much good in him. Yet she also grows aware of what a monster he is.”
Do you talk to your characters while you’re creating them?
Caridad: “Oh, yes, yes, I talk to my characters. I asked Esteban, ‘You’re not going to rape another woman, are you?’ I even wrote to Jose Zayas, the director, and told him I was having difficulty with Esteban. So, I just kept working and working on this one character. Once I felt committed to empathizing with him, I decided that like classical characters, he had this tragic flaw. His irrationality and blind rages. I tried to understand and feel his sadness that links to the loss of Rosa, his first great love. That sadness makes him strangely, weirdly noble.
“And Alba told me she has an obligation of telling the younger generation her story. Her torturer, Esteban Garcia, is the illegitimate son of Pancha, one of the peasant women Esteban Trueba raped. So remember, Alba’s grandfather is responsible for her torture, yet she loves him. The result is the creation of a weird dramatic tension.”
Why do you eliminate the character of Miguel, Alba’s lover, who seems so important in the novel?
Caridad: “I had to cut somewhere for length. The play could have gone on for another hour with Alba’s love affair with Miguel, the political activist. I thought it would get too confusing. You already have several love relationships going. I wanted to focus on the mother-daughter and grandfather-granddaughter relationships.
What personal connection do you have with the novel’s story?
Caridad: “My background is Cuban-Argentine, Spanish and Croation. My family – the Argentine side – lived through the Dirty Wars.”
No one in her Argentine family was tortured or thrown in jail or “disappeared,” but her family lived through the Juan Peron Revolution [against the People’s Revolutionary Army or communist ERP] and was aware of the disappearances. Dissidents who spoke out against the ruling class were jailed or tortured. Hearing those stories was “part of my upbringing,” Caridad said. “There’s a great deal of denial going on. I personally feel that in Argentina today, many people refuse to accept the past. It’s like the Holocaust in Europe. Oh, it wasn’t that bad. Just a few people were killed. But writers must record and not let the audience forget. Cultural reparation is needed.”
A confrontation for healing?
Caridad: “Absolutely. In my play, there is a lot of forgiveness that goes on in the relationships between the family members, so they, and we, can move forward. Through the generations of women, there is a legacy of telling a different story. Instead of focusing on the male point of view, as we do in Marquez’ novels, in Isabel Allende’s novel we hear from the generations of women telling a darker history from a female point-of-view.”
What do you mean by the “burden” of magical realism that you speak of in the play’s introduction? Why a burden?
Caridad: “Historically, magical realism is in response to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Nobel Laureate and author of One Hundred Years of Solitude). The House of the Spirits, the novel by Allende, is written in that tradition and certainly has elements of magical realism. Rosa, the beautiful, has green hair, yellow eyes, porcelain white skin and is like a siren released from the sea. Who has green hair in reality? In the U.S., however, plays that are not magical realism are given that label. I feel magical realism is misunderstood and that’s a burden. The House of the Spirits is a violent and sexy book. There is a sepia-toned nostalgia to Allende’s history story. But it’s still a political novel dealing with shameful things that really happened and are not magical. Realistic stories from Clara’s notebook give Alba the courage to live and not commit suicide. I wanted to put that front and center.”
The use of the puppet for Barabbas, Clara’s mysterious dog, who appears on stage with a knife sticking out of his back, is really baffling. What is the significance of that?
Caridad: “Ha, yes. Once you have a puppet on stage, it’s not realism anymore. Clara’s dog has been stabbed but it is deliberately never explained. Barabbas represents a pure love between child-like Clara and a devoted animal. And that relationship gets destroyed.”
In other words, it represents the death of innocence?
Caridad: “Yes, it’s foreshadowing the violence to come.” [In the human world of romantic love].
What is a “memory bleed”? It’s written in the script.
Caridad: “I asked myself how can you put an autopsy on stage? In the novel, Rosa’s autopsy is quite graphic and chilling. This is the event that causes Clara, who is clairvoyant, to feel responsible for her sister’s death and to stop talking. In GALA’s staging, we use videos, designed by Projections Designer, Alex Koch. Clara looks through the kitchen window and has a vision of Rosa’s autopsy. [From the script: “An image of Rosa is seen: an abstracted projection of her anatomy floating in a framed space.“] Then the projection of Rosa’s body is superimposed over Alba tortured in prison.”
So it’s a projected image on a screen that can be imposed on an actor who is playing a character. How else do you use projected imagery?
Caridad: “It’s part of the theatricality of this adaptation. Projected images create a vocabulary, their own unreality–you can’t touch them. We couldn’t have the actors walking around like ghosts haunting the stage. So these images on the video screen become ghosts on stage.”
Closes March 10, 2013
GALA Hispanic Theatre
3333 14th Street, NW
Tickets: $36 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
Spanish with English surtitles
You also compose and insert original music and your poetic lyrics. Is this part of your creative adaptation to make palatable the violence on stage?
Caridad: “Garcia Lorca was going through my mind. The way he used poetry in his plays. I wanted moments of openness and tenderness. A lullaby is part of the play’s vocabulary. There are also pastoral scenes with Alba as a child.”
You and the director, Jose Zayas, have produced your adapted The House of the Spirits in several cities. Have you made changes after seeing performances?
Caridad: Oh, yes, definitely. I tweak it a little, change idiomatic expressions in the Spanish version, depending on the region. I started at Repertorio Español in New York City, aware that in the U.S., Latinos come from all over. Castilian Spanish for the older generation characters is just one of them. I wanted a universal reach for all Latinos so I used a mix of different dialects from many different countries. I made a lot of changes in Denver. I didn’t try to localize the story in Chili, where interestingly in 2010, the play had been very well received. We had a two-year run in Santiago, Chili, the longest run we’ve had so far.
What genre would you call your play and what do you want your audiences to take away from seeing your play?
Caridad: “The play, The House of the Spirits is an elegant ghost story. But ultimately, it’s a teaching story. We Americans in the U.S.A. still haven’t reconciled ourselves with our past. I wrote this play with former President George Bush and the abuses of Abu Ghraib in mind. We have to look at the past– both good and bad. Don’t whitewash history. Learn from it.”