… when you spoke to me at the farewell party, I felt as though someone wanted to knock down my door … a very big door … And then, you see, I couldn’t offer you this … this house …
Fragmented personas from the past and from the future, from memory and from fantasy inhabit the stage in Dragún’s play, Pulped. José and María are a shy bachelor and diffident spinster, working together in an office, and are forever on the point of getting together, but never quite do. In contrast, Ricardo, their colleague, seems to conduct his romantic liaisons with bravado and with ease. But for José and María the same conversations make up the repetitive rhythm of a courtship which can’t get off the ground. Burdened by their fear, age, wounds from the past and sickly mothers, they struggle to strike out for a shared future.
There is no linear narrative in Dragún’s play of 1968; it is the fragmented yet poignant story of two office workers, José and María, both shy and fearful singles who have started to see each other in a new light. Without a traditional notion of plot, the play forms a collage of key dramatic encounters which revolve around one possible scenario: a date. Memories, flashbacks, fantasies and snapshots of conversations from the present begin to build a picture of two people who yearn for something beyond the rigid roles which their life of a nine-to-five office job offers them.
The play begins with María who is crestfallen and tearful, dressed smartly in her ‘Saturday best’, waiting to be taken out on a date. Someone knocks at the door. It’s José and he too is dressed in ‘Saturday best’. Ricardo, their womanising colleague from the office, has let them both down. María was under the impression she was to be taken out by him. José, on the other hand, had been led to believe he was going on a double date, paired off by Ricardo with the blonde receptionist.
Smarting from their respective disappointments, it dawns on the two singles that they might consider each other as a possible date. This is the first appearance of a central impulse within the play which is endlessly frustrated: by their fear of rejection; by their sickly mothers who repeatedly call out for their medication from offstage, disrupting the possibility of intimacy; by their preoccupation with their mothers’ illnesses and the responsibility this burdens them with.
The play is composed of conversations between the two about their mothers and banalities to do with their working life at the office, their fearful attempts at arranging a date and then the attempts to cancel it, cursing themselves for having arranged it in the first place. These conversations and monologues are not direct repetitions but become subtle variations on the same themes.
We also see what takes place in the minds of José, María and Ricardo. In these enactments, Ricardo plays the roles of Maria’s past lovers and depicts past separations and disillusionments. We see possible projections into the future with José and María shown, at one point, as an established married couple.
José and Ricardo perform for each other as men. Outwardly, they play the role which society demands of them - men full of bravado who brag about their sexual conquests and show no weakness. But there are also depictions of more internal events which disclose their self-doubt and fears.
At one point these depictions take on an absurd expression. In one episode, Ricardo is telling José about going to a hotel room with the blonde receptionist. As he undressed her, he discovered her hair was a wig and beneath it she had black hair, but this too was in fact a wig and she was actually bald. This sends him into a rage. When he shook her by the arms, her arms came off in his hands. Her whole body disintegrates before his eyes.
The last episodes in the play take place in an amusement park and Ricardo assumes the role of the master of ceremonies. Music in the amusement park reaches a crescendo and there is an expressionist sequence in which José and María have a dialogue repeating the same empty topics of conversation which have formed the most part of their communications (mothers’ medication, life at the office etc.) but at a much faster pace as they soar and dive on the fairground ride.
Finally, the two confess to having feelings for each other. They acknowledge how their age lends an added pressure to opening themselves up to love. ‘It’s harder work for us, the forty-somethings, to hand over what has been handled roughly, scorned so many times …’. But this truly intimate exchange is once again interrupted by the sickly mothers who call them from offstage and the spell is broken. The two begin to retreat from the bond they have formed, making an arrangement, which they then break, claiming to be opting for a life of ‘freedom’: a claim which rings hollow to the audience.
We see a repetition of José as he first reprimanded himself for having made a date with María. Once again he telephones her but this time it is with a sense of desperation and of urgency. He is calling because his mother died five years ago and he is completely alone. María tells him her mother also died five years ago.
María and José do come together in the end, but as forty-somethings and within the rigid constraints which society has offered to them. They have been released from the burden of their parents but they are left drenched in a sense of nostalgia for all the time they have lost in their lives of half-lived conformity.
Dragún’s play is comic but it is also moving. It is the two sides of the mask, the smile and the grimace which has long characterised the Argentine grotesque.
Dragún is widely regarded as one of the most significant Argentine playwrights of last half of the twentieth century. Although his plays are keenly observational of city life in Buenos Aires, his works also transcend this context to resonate universally. In 1962 Dragún was awarded the prestigious Casa de las Américas prize with his play Milagro en el mercado viejo, and then once again in 1966 for Heroica de Buenos Aires.
Dauster, Frank, Lyday, Leon and Woodyard, George, eds. 1979. 9 Dramaturgos hispanoamericanos: Antología del teatro hispanoamericano del siglo XX, vol. I. Ottawa, Ontario, Girol Books
Crew Leonard, Candyce. 1983. ‘Dragún’s Distancing Techniques in Historias para ser contadas and El amasijo’, Latin American Theatre Review, 16.2, 37-42
De la campa, Roman. 1977. ‘Interview with the Argentinian dramaturge Osvaldo Dragún’, Latin American Theatre Review, 15.3, 35-41
Gladhart, Amalia. 1993. ‘Narrative Foreground in the Plays of Osvaldo Dragún’, Latin American Theatre Review, 26.2, 93-109
Schmidt, Donald L. 1969. ‘El teatro de Osvaldo Dragún’, Latin American Theatre Review, 2. 2, 3-20
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Entry written by Gwendolen Mackeith. Last updated on 5 October 2010.