How Theater Can Help Us Survive

How Theater Can Help Us Survive

The saga of Chilean director and playwright Oscar Castro is a vivid example of how art can help us endure—and thrive.


At a time when we have been deprived of live theater for over a year, I can think of no one as inspiring, no one who proves more vividly why theater matters as it faces an uncertain future than Oscar Castro, a Chilean actor, director, and playwright who died of Covid in Paris on April 25 at the age of 73.

Oscar Castro’s saga began, like that of so many of his compatriots, when the Chilean military overthrew the democratically elected government of Socialist Salvador Allende in September 1973 and installed a reign of terror. While many of Chile’s cultural figures—I was among them—opted for exile, my friend Oscar decided to stay behind and test the limits of the regime’s ferocious censorship.

A little over a year after the coup, on October 14, 1974, Oscar and his company, El Aleph, premiered a play that cobbled together texts from the Bible, Don Quixote, Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. It was all presumably innocuous material, save for two scenes. In one, the captain of a shipwrecked boat goes down, vowing that better days would someday come, and in the other, at the end of the play, a prophet promises that his words of hope and courage would outlive him, continue beyond death. Oscar hoped that the audience would understand the allegorical references to Salvador Allende, who had died in the presidential palace defending democracy, but that the secret police would be less savvy.

He was right about the audience that flocked to the show—and wrong about the secret police. A month later, they came for him and his sister, the actress Marietta Castro. They were interrogated, tortured, threatened with execution. Something worse, however, was in store. Some weeks later, their mother, Julieta Ramírez, and Marietta’s husband, Juan Macleod (also a member of the troupe), were arrested when they visited their detained relatives. To this day, both Julieta and Juan are among the desaparecidos, the disappeared, of Chile.

Despite the terrible price Oscar Castro had paid for his devotion to art and free expression, he did not let this tragedy dampen his creativity. Over the next two years in a number of detention centers across Chile, he worked with his fellow prisoners to put on plays, some of them from established authors, like Sophocles (Antigone), Brecht (The Trial of Lucullus), and Albee (Zoo Story), but mostly his own work. He would often have to change the text. One Captain demanded that the word “red” in Albee’s play be changed to “pink,” so it would sound less revolutionary and subversive. Another officer was outraged at the use of the word “Salvador” in an Easter play about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On another occasion, Oscar convinced the commandant of the Melinka Camp that the programmed play had been penned by an Austrian refugee in Buenos Aires, a Jew called Emil Kan (anagram for Melinka) and the Commandant had nodded sagely, of course, he had heard about this famous author, of course there was no objection to the performance.

Besides these plays—filled with melancholy and hopefulness and humor, with oblique references to struggle and memory and sex—Oscar also organized delirious happenings. Pretending that the detention center was a town and that he was its mayor, he dressed up in a top hat and a tuxedo (recovered from an aid package for the detainees) and greeted the bedraggled prisoners who had just arrived after many days of torture and beatings. They were entering, he said, the only free space in the country. All those people out there, especially the soldiers, were, in fact, imprisoned behind the barbed wires. He went on to apologize for the town’s transportation problems. Although trucks and buses arrived with efficient regularity, departures were, alas, unpredictable and arbitrary, so it might be a while before anyone could leave. In the meantime, championship games were being held, including a marathon, and all the new arrivals were welcome to participate in ways beneficial to their health and sanity. Having established the whole camp as a stage for his feverish imagination, Oscar prolonged the illusion day after day, entrancing those fellow prisoners with his playfulness and optimism, finally saying good-bye when the day came for them to be discharged, congratulating them on the many races they had won.

That same indomitable spirit accompanied Oscar when it was his turn to be released. Banished to France, he laboriously rebuilt his theater company and started to stage some of the plays written in the camps and newer ones that explored the challenges of exile. It was not an easy transition. Rooted in the Chilean vernacular, with a visceral relationship with the dispossessed and neglected sectors of his land, he had to adapt to an alien environment, find a language that could pass barriers and frontiers. If he succeeded it was because he was also an heir to Fellini and Grotowksi, Augusto Boal and the Beatles, able to find common ground with audiences that he thrilled with his versatility and inventiveness.

As in the concentration camps, Oscar managed, with precarious means and under extremely adverse conditions, to create life-affirming work, sending out the same message of hope and belief in the defiant value of art that we can ill afford to ignore as we cope, all these decades later, with so much global grief, silence, and despair.

That hope is also alive in Oscar’s work in film, most notably a 1983 movie called Ardiente Paciencia, based on Antonio Skármeta’s eponymous novel. Skármeta decided that Oscar would be ideal as a tongue-tied postman who, very much in love, seeks advice from Pablo Neruda to conquer the girl of his dreams. This is, of course, the plot of Il Postino, the award-winning remake that Michael Radford filmed 11 years later, transferring the story to Capri and casting Massimo Troisi as the postman who proves that poetry can triumph over fascism.

Troisi died a few hours after the film wrapped. Oscar, the original postino, lived on till the pandemic took him from us, killed the man whom the plague of dictatorship was unable to subdue or suppress, the actor who, many decades ago, stepped onto a small stage in Santiago, and, embodying the role of a prophet, promised that the words he had cast into the whirlwind would outlive him, continue beyond his death.

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