This play predicted Argentina's Dirty War — and has a chilling message for our own time
The Walls is about the 'danger of not seeing what is in front of us,' says director Beatriz Pizano
*This episode originally aired on April 28, 2021.
In Griselda Gambaro's play The Walls, a young man is detained in a room where nothing is what it seems and is slowly stripped of his belongings, perceptions and sense of self.
His captors tell him they're worried he might be Ruperto de Hentzau — the name of a villain in a novel. Until they can verify that he isn't, he can't leave this room.
The main character — known only as the Young Man — hears distant screams in other parts of the house. But his captors promise him there's no reason to be alarmed. After all, this isn't a prison.
The play is about the "danger of not seeing what is in front of us," said Beatriz Pizano, the director of Soulpepper Theatre Company's audio drama production of The Walls. The play is part of the theatre company's audio drama series Around the World in 80 Plays.
The 1963 play was also a chilling prediction of the violence, disappearances and state torture that haunted Argentina during the Dirty War military dictatorship, which lasted from 1976 to 1983.
"[Gambaro] predicted the Dirty War before it happened. What happens in The Walls is the kind of tortures that were happening … People would get arrested for no reason," said Pizano.
Gambaro, now 92, is one of the most influential Latin American writers of her generation. She told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed from her home in Buenos Aires that the play reflects her long history of living in Argentina through "semi or entirely dictatorial situations."
It also reflects her long-standing concern with passivity in the face of repression.
"Passivity in society is very dangerous," she said from her home in Buenos Aires. "I believe society has to turn a critical eye to the uses of power. Only then can you know if you are living in a democracy or not."
The Young Man is held in a "bedroom in the style of the 1850s, very comfortable, practically luxurious," according to the stage directions.
"This staging is very important because we don't see a jail. We don't see a chamber of torture, ever," said Pizano.
"So immediately the characters are deceived … But she's playing with us in the same way, of, are you really not seeing the truth?"
From the moment he arrives, the Young Man is gaslit by his captors, who are referred to only as the Usher and the Functionary. When the Young Man says he doesn't know why he was brought there, the Usher immediately quibbles with his use of the word "brought."
"Did they chain you? Did they drag you by the hair? No. They invited you. Politely. I know them. You agreed: with your own legs you climbed into the car," the Usher says.
Soon after that exchange, the Young Man starts to correct himself, dropping the word "brought" and agreeing that he "ended up in" this room.
"So it's this constant manipulation of language … until the Young Man is repeating the change in the concept," said Pizano.
'Victims and victimizers are not born. They're created'
At this stage in her career, Gambaro returned over and over again to the question of "why the victim doesn't act," said Pizano.
"She says victims and victimizers are not born. They're created. And that's very, very important."
The Usher and the Functionary take advantage of the Young Man's pre-existing faith in authority to mold him into the role of a victim.
"He knows he's in trouble. But he's trusting that when they see that he's innocent, that's going to save him," said Pizano. "He trusts the system and he knows that they can go and check the name, which is absurd. And that that is going to save him, because that's how the system works."
Acknowledging that he's actually in mortal danger would require the Young Man to destroy his faith in the system — which he's not willing to do. "To admit the truth to himself is to destroy all the beliefs that he has about himself," Pizano said.
"I don't see it as blaming the victim. It's showing us that incredible dynamic of [what happens] when we don't question the power."
In Gambaro's later plays, victims of repression take a more active role in resisting their tormentors. "In her second decade [during the Dirty War], it's all about the disappeared in Argentina, and they start reacting. But again, the power has more power than they do," said Pizano.
She said that in the late 80s, which she considers Gambaro's third phase, her plays featured individuals understanding the role that they had played.
"We see the consequences of not acting or questioning an institution … They can take back their power," Pizano said. "Whether they succeed or not, the important thing is that they see that connection, that everything is connected."
Destruction of the self
As The Walls progresses, the Usher and the Functionary slowly strip away the Young Man's sense of self, his faith in his perceptions and his physical belongings.
"That's very intentional — the dispossession of the only things that are yours," said Pizano.
The room also starts to shrink. At first, the Young Man's captors refuse to acknowledge anything is changing. But towards the end of the play, the Usher finally tells him the truth: the walls are going to fall in on him.
"I've been thinking a lot about if I were to stage this piece, would I even have the walls actually really falling on him? Or is that a beautiful metaphor for your world getting smaller and smaller and smaller inside of you?" said Pizano.
"And that's death. The moment they kill your soul, you're dead. They don't need to do anything else to you."
Over 50 years after she wrote The Walls, Gambaro said the play still echoes what is happening around the world.
"Today, in some part of the world, unfortunately, something similar is happening," she said. "We can be almost certain that it is happening somewhere."
Guests in this episode:
Beatriz Pizano is the director of The Walls for Soulpepper Theatre Company. She is a Colombian-Canadian playwright, director and actor, and the founder and Artistic Director of Aluna Theatre, a company dedicated to connecting the Americas through arts.
Griselda Gambaro is Argentina's most renowned playwright. Her plays, novels, short stories and essays often focus on political violence, passivity in the face of repression and the relationship between victims and victimizers. She spent three years in exile during the Dirty War military dictatorship.
Click HERE for a full list of credits for the audio play The Walls.
* This IDEAS episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth. Spanish interpretation and translation by Rosie Fernandez.
Around The World in 80 Plays is an audio drama series mounted by Soulpepper Theatre Company that takes listeners on a trip around the world. IDEAS will be your guide on that journey with radio documentaries exploring the cultural and historical context from these countries. Find more episodes from this series here.
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