How the Mexican Revolution Transformed the Stage

Pre-Revolution Mexico's elite ignored social injustice, favoring weepy Spanish plays and fancy operas. The Mexican Revolution ignited a theatrical shift. Playwrights exposed pre-Revolution hypocrisy, dramatized battles, and later criticized the Revolution's failings.

How the Mexican Revolution Transformed the Stage
The grand theaters of pre-Revolution Mexico, where the elite sought escapism.

The heart of Mexico City, buzzing at the twilight of the 19th century. Grandiose French-inspired mansions, built for the emerging wealthy elite, line the new Roma colony. Yet, just beyond the city limits, a sea of hardship unfurls – families crammed into decaying colonial houses, displaced Indigenous communities brutally suppressed, and armies of laborers languishing in textile factories and mines. It's a city of stark contrasts, of glittering surfaces and festering injustices – the so-called 'Porfiriato' under the iron fist of President Porfirio Diaz.

You might glimpse the old guard, the once-noble Creole families, clinging desperately to their fading colonial splendor. These are people who cling to titles as their fortunes erode, remnants of a social order being ruthlessly swept aside by Mexico's industrial boom. And amidst this old, decaying beauty, the opulent Roma colony rises, a nouveau riche testament to the new era of Mexican capitalism. Imagine Parisian boulevards transplanted onto Mexican soil, where the upper classes indulge in conspicuous consumption while ignoring the growing cracks in society.

Beyond these zones of wealth lies the real heart of darkness. The 'pelados', the urban poor, and the vast mass of Mexico's Indigenous population are confined to the city's outskirts. To the government, they are nothing more than troublesome vagrants. Law enforcement – the notorious 'gendarmes' – maintain an iron cordon, ensuring that those on the margins cannot blemish the 'civilized' façade of central Mexico City.

And behind the scenes, fueling the extravagant lifestyles of the elite, lurks exploitation. Textile workers toil in virtual slavery, miners risk their lives daily for scraps, and entire communities of Indigenous people are systematically robbed of ancestral lands by timber interests. There's immense profit to be made, and the state turns a blind eye – even providing military muscle to quell uprisings. After all, such grim realities have no place in the dazzling image Mexico projects to the world.

Decent people, you say? Perhaps. Yet, these 'decent' citizens of Mexico City turn their backs on the harsh realities undergirding their newfound comfort and prosperity. Businessmen rake in vast sums while the laborers live hand-to-mouth. Politicians tout 'modernization' while entire populations are systematically dispossessed. It's a moral blindness born of convenience, greed, and an unshakeable belief in progress through brutal social engineering.

A vintage poster for a Mexican revista, featuring a showgirl, a leading man, and a comedian.
Mexican revistas combined playful humor, showgirls, and catchy music, drawing inspiration from Spanish zarzuelas.

When Drama, Dictators, and Double Meanings Took the Stage

It's early 20th-century Mexico. Tears are flowing freely in dimly lit theaters, a dictator graces lavish opera premieres, and laughter erupts at every suggestive lyric in a cheeky local revue. Oh, the drama! Oh, the fun! Let's take a closer look at how Mexicans amused themselves in this era of delightful extremes.

Mexican society adored a good old-fashioned tearjerker. Melodramas were all the rage – the more tangled the plot, the more sniffles heard in the audience. If that wasn't enough, they also took a fancy to renowned Spanish playwrights like Jacinto Benavente and José de Echegaray. No doubt their plays provided hefty doses of emotional catharsis. Then there was Don Ramón Del Valle Inclán, a modernist so brilliant that a whole street in Madrid bore his name. What were his plays like? Who knows! Maybe folks were still waiting for those tear ducts to recover from the melodramas.

Opera was a highbrow affair, often the domain of traveling Italian companies. These lavish productions drew not only opera fans but a certain power couple: the beloved dictator (in full military finery) and his lovely wife, Doña Carmelita. Their presence at grand premieres practically guaranteed a booming season. But Spanish zarzuela with its catchy tunes and relatable humor? Now that was something anyone could get behind.

Inspired by the success of zarzuela, Mexican writers and composers dreamt up the “revista mexicana”. Imagine slapstick humor, beautiful showgirls, and tunes filled with cheeky innuendos – what's not to love? But that was just the tip of the iceberg. For true thrills, one need look no further than the circus, adrenaline-pumping bullfights, daring balloon ascensions, and of course, those lively religious festivals.

Vintage Mexican Revolutionary theater poster with dramatic soldier figure.
Before the Revolution, Mexican theater often focused on romantic ideals and social dramas.

Mexican Theater Gets Real (And a Tad Weird)

If you want to really feel the Mexican Revolution, it turns out you've got to hit the stage. Now, we're not talking about heroic speeches and dramatic flag-waving here. Before the Revolution, Mexican theater was more concerned with silly stuff like honor and jealousy – basically, recycled romantic plots with a splash of local flavor. Yawn.

But the Revolution changed everything, much like a theatrical earthquake shattering the old set pieces. And guess what? We can still feel those aftershocks! A smart fella (a theater historian) named Antonio Magaña Esquivel sorted all the Revolutionary plays into three piles:

  1. The Buildup: Plays exploring the years leading up to the Revolution, full of simmering social inequality and mustache-twirling bad guy politicians.
  2. Viva la Revolución!: Where else can you see Pancho Villa rendered in dramatic soliloquies? These plays tackled the war years themselves.
  3. The Morning After: Once the bullets stopped flying, writers finally asked, “So…what now?”. Enter plays digging into the messy aftermath and betrayals of revolutionary promises.

Now, I won't bore you with a who's-who of forgotten (and some not-so-forgotten) playwrights. Instead, let's go on a literary treasure hunt for the highlights:

The Warm-Up Act:

  • Federico Gamboa – Kinda like Mexico's answer to Jane Austen, but with sharper social commentary.
  • Marcelino Dávalos – Remember those dramatic speeches I said we weren't doing? Well, he did 'em, loud and proud.
  • Luisa Josefina Hernández – A dash of realism in the sea of melodrama.

The Main Event:

  • Mauricio Magdaleno – Raw and gritty, the unfiltered stories of the Revolutionary fighter.
  • Elena Garro – Not just battles, but the way lives were disrupted. Kinda haunting, to be honest.

The Hangover:

  • Rafael Bernal – The Revolution got real corrupt, real fast. He wasn't afraid to spill the tequila on that.
  • Jorge Ibargüengoitía – Imagine if SNL wrote a Revolutionary drama. It'd be his weird, hilarious (and tragic) plays.

Just listing these titles feels like a whirlwind, right? That's how history sometimes goes – not nice and neat, but messy with bits of humor, horror, and the downright bizarre. Don't get me wrong; a traditional look at the Mexican Revolution is crucial, but if you want to understand the heart of it, turn to these playwrights. It ain't always pretty, but it sure is real. Think of it this way: history tells you what happened, but theater shows you how it felt.

The Fires of Discontent

Plays revealing the rotten underbelly of pre-Revolution Mexico. Works like Federico Gamboa's dramas unveiled the hypocrisy of the upper class, while Marcelino Dávalos bared the hardships of everyday folk. The audience squirmed, but they watched.

Black and white portrait of Federico Gamboa, a middle-aged man in a suit with a serious expression.
Federico Gamboa, a study in contradictions: novelist of social realism, supporter of an oppressive regime. Credit: Academia Mexicana de la Lengua

The Blind Spot of Federico Gamboa

Federico Gamboa was a walking contradiction. On one hand, the Mexican writer (1864-1939) championed a literary brand of gritty realism. His novel Santa was so scandalous and enduring it spawned numerous film adaptations. On the other hand, he was a diehard social and political conservative whose personal career peaked while serving a dictatorship.

Don Federico (we must grant him his air of respectability) wasn't content just to watch the privileged classes enjoy their privileges. Oh no, in 1904 he penned The Revenge of the Gleba (that “gleba” bit means the peasants). Ironically, he dedicated the book “to the rich of my land” — one can just imagine them sipping brandy on fine verandas while being thoroughly scandalized.

The novel tells the tale of Damián, a laborer with a tragic secret – he's the illegitimate son of his hacienda's lord and master. Trouble is, Damián has fallen for Blanca, his lovely half-sister and therefore way out of his league. Some have tried to read this as a prophetic foreshadowing of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Sadly, they give Gamboa far too much credit. All Damián's revolutionary potential gets swept away by his we-were-fated-for-tragic-love nonsense.

Here's where it gets real way-out: while Mexico was literally aflame, Gamboa kept climbing the diplomatic ladder. His finest hour came in service to the notorious Victoriano Huerta – a military strongman who seized power, then did exactly what those folks tend to do, becoming even more repressive than the regime he overthrew. Gamboa rose to Foreign Secretary within Huerta's dictatorship.

In those dark, revolutionary days, a writer famed for his melodramatic depictions of social struggle somehow missed the most spectacular story of his lifetime. It seems that for all his gritty literary style, Federico Gamboa preferred the comforts of the old order to the revolutionary potential of the new. Perhaps his literary focus on doomed love affairs was more prophetic than we realised — his career certainly became a tragic victim of Mexico's revolutionary upheaval.

Black and white portrait of Marcelino Davalos, a Mexican intellectual and social critic.
Marcelino Davalos, a multi-talented and fiercely outspoken figure in Mexican history. Credit: Las Crónicas de mi Patria

Marcelino Dávalos and the Mexican Revolution

Meet Marcelino Dávalos (1871-1923), a man of many talents and an appetite for adventure that matched his versatile nature. Born in the bustling streets of Guadalajara, he emerged from humble beginnings, navigating the maze of poverty with the swagger of a true maverick.

His journey began in the halls of education, where he treaded the path of law at the School of Jurisprudence. Yet, his heart yearned for more than just legal jargon and courtrooms. He dabbled in the arts, embracing the canvas with strokes of creativity and gracing the stage with his presence as an actor. But his talents didn't stop there; he serenaded crowds with his voice, advised military strategies in the exotic lands of Quintana Roo, and even delved into the world of politics, serving as a deputy and stirring up trouble against the powers that be.

In 1908, from the depths of his adventurous soul, he penned “Sirena Roja,” a dramatic prophecy that crackled with the flames of rebellion. Set in the backdrop of Vigía Chico, Quintana Roo, this experimental piece painted a vivid picture of human misery, urging the downtrodden to rise against tyranny. In its final scene, echoes of defiance reverberate as slaves, shackled by their chains, are called upon to sacrifice until the oppressor meets his demise.

As the Mexican Revolution raged on, Marcelino found himself in the thick of the action, rallying alongside Madero and later joining forces with Carranza. His life mirrored the chaos and fervor of the times, and his spirit and pursuit of justice. Alongside his political endeavors, he penned literary works like “Simple Pages” and “Literary Pages,” leaving an unerasable mark on the cultural landscape.

His words found sanctuary in the pages of publications like El Universal and Revista de Revistas, where his voice echoed across the nation, stirring hearts and igniting minds. But alas, every adventure must come to an end. In 1923, Marcelino bid farewell to this world, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire and captivate to this day.

Luisa Josefina Hernández, a force in Mexican theater and a relentless decoder of historical narratives.
Luisa Josefina Hernández, a force in Mexican theater and a relentless decoder of historical narratives. Credit: Cultura

Luisa Josefina Hernández and the Not-So-Peaceful Peace

History has a funny way of glossing over the uglier bits, doesn't it? Take the era of President Porfirio Díaz in Mexico – a period known for its grand European-inspired architecture and modernization efforts. But there's the rub: it also bore witness to simmering discontent, inequality, and the seeds of the Mexican Revolution.

Enter Luisa Josefina Hernández, (2 November 1928 – 16 January 2023), playwright, novelist, and theatrical icon in her own right. Hernández, armed with wit and words, was determined to shed light on the injustices behind the façade of progress. A student of the renowned dramatist Rodolfo Usigli, she eventually claimed his post as professor of Dramatic Theory and Composition at Mexico's most prestigious university. She, like her mentor, had a keen eye for the human condition.

Her writing explored a concept you might call 'fictitious peace.' You know, those gilded cages of supposed calm built atop seething unrest. Think of it like this: Imagine an elegant cake. Sure, the frosting's immaculate, but those layers hide a world of unsavory ingredients.

Hernández wasn't content being a silent witness to Mexico's hidden tensions. Her dramatic works, with their focus on characters wrestling against social forces, offered a stark contrast to the sanitized narratives of the “Porfirian Peace.”

Let's be honest, history can be a bit dry occasionally. But think of Hernández not just as a scholar, but as a theatrical demolition expert. With each script, she carefully detonated the myths about her country's past, ensuring future generations wouldn't mistake shiny frosting for genuine progress.

War as Stagecraft

As the fighting raged, plays sprang up portraying the battles themselves. Imagine historical reenactments on steroids, minus the dusty history books. Think Mauricio Magdaleno's works – fervent portraits of real-life revolutionary figures fighting the good fight on stage.

A vintage black-and-white portrait of Mauricio Magdaleno with a focused expression.
Mauricio Magdaleno, the Mexican playwright who wrestled with history on stage. Credit: SIC

Mauricio Magdaleno's Curious Take on Mexico

History fans, if you thought Mexican history was all swaggering revolutionaries and feisty soldaderas, meet Mauricio Magdaleno. Born in Zacatecas in 1906, this wordsmith had a passion for the stage and an eye for the overlooked tales within Mexican history. Forget dusty textbooks – Magdaleno was about bringing the past to kicking, screaming, dramatic life on stage.

He co-founded a little something called “El Teatro de Ahora” (“The Theater of Now”) in 1932, clearly deciding that dusty old theaters of the past were yesterday's news. Now, Magdaleno wasn't about fluffy romances. He tackled big, thorny issues with plays like “Pánuco 137” and “Trópico”. No heroes and villains in the classic sense here; he focused on the complexities of people and the price of progress. Think if a history lecture and a telenovela had a dramatic love child – that's Magdaleno's brand of theater.

Let's dive into “Emiliano Zapata,” a play so revolutionary it probably had its own tiny mustache. Now, while this one didn't have sword fights or horseback chases, it did showcase something equally intense: the battle of ideals. “Emiliano Zapata” focuses on the revolutionary leader's tragic final days, where bloodshed is drowning out agrarian reforms like a poorly sung anthem at a village fiesta.

Think of Magdaleno as a playwright-cum-historical commentator, giving audiences a front-row seat for the tragic unraveling of the Mexican Revolution. Sure, his plays might not have all the bells and whistles of modern cinema, but the real fireworks happened in the minds of his audience.

So, next time someone says history is boring, toss Magdaleno's name their way. History isn't just about the facts, it's about the drama, the struggle, the moments that shape who we are. And who better to capture them than a playwright with a flair for the unconventional?

Black and white portrait of Elena Garro, a Mexican playwright, with a whimsical expression and historical texts.
Elena Garro – Master of theatrical mischief, she rewrote history in her own captivating script. Credit: Cultura

Elena Garro's Theatrical Time Machine

Elena Garro—oh, that incomprehensible Elena! Did she truly wield her birth certificate as a time-traveling prop, or was it all a arbitrary smokescreen masking an even more curious reality? Who's to say with a woman who bent the rules of history with the same gusto she bent the boundaries of theater.

It's easy to slot Garro into the tidy “magical realism” category alongside literary giants like her ex-husband, Octavio Paz. Yet, those tags don't do her justice. Her work was a wild mixture of historical fact and searing personal visions. We like to think of her as a literary historian channeling spirits—and a sprinkle of mischief—on her personal Ouija board of playwriting.

In 1953, this sorceress of the stage unleashed a trio of one-act plays so brazenly original they must have caused conservative theater lovers to clutch their pearls. Fresh, fantastical, and unabashedly avant-garde—this was Garro's theatrical calling card.

One can't simply talk about Garro's playful subversions without the elephant in the room: “The Death of Felipe Ángeles.” A dramatic retelling of a revolutionary general's court-martial? Sounds a bit…stiff for this theatrical firecracker, right? And that's where Elena Garro sneaks up and smacks you with genius.

The play, bursting with documentary accuracy, isn't a stiff history lesson. Instead, it's a razor-sharp commentary on justice itself, its messy contradictions exposed through stark theatrical techniques. It debuted years after her whimsical trio, proving that even when “buttoned up” by historical weight, Garro always finds ways to unpin the brocade of conformity just a little.

Her work isn't just about challenging literary expectations—it's a challenge to the very nature of historical writing. Who says dramatizing the past must be confined to a musty library? Garro drags it onstage, infuses it with her changeable imagination, and makes you feel history's echoes in your very bones.

Let those in stuffy tweed jackets debate labels and genres. While they dissect, Garro fine art. Because let's be honest, if Elena Garro was born in any historical era, it would have adjusted to her, not the other way around.

Further Reading: If you're intrigued by this theatrical wild child, seek works like “Andamos Huyendo Lola” and “A Solid Home” – they're full of delightfully head-scratching Garro-isms with just enough substance to get your history buff heart fluttering.

Revolution Unmasked

Victory didn't bring a fairy-tale ending, did it? Playwrights turned critical towards the Revolution's flaws. Luisa Josefina Hernández tackled the hypocrisies that remained, while Elena Garro delved into the lives of marginalized women during the turmoil. They refused to paint a pretty picture – this was a theater showing the Revolution, warts and all.

Mexican author Rafael Bernal, a commentator on the realities of the Mexican Revolution.
A black and white portrait of Rafael Bernal, his expression thoughtful and slightly skeptical. Credit: CNL-INBA Archive and ELEM

Rafael Bernal and the Underbelly of Change

Sometimes, history's most insightful commentators stand a touch outside the mainstream. While some might idealize a nation's revolutionary era, others bring an offbeat, unconventional perspective that reveals unexpected truths. Mexico's Rafael Bernal (1915-1972) embodies just such a figure.

Bernal's background might lead us to expect conservative allegiances. Yet, the critic Magaña Esquivel highlights that despite family traditions, Bernal still had several reservations about the Mexican Revolution – it seemed those ancestral influences couldn't entirely silence his independent viewpoint.

So how did Bernal express his idiosyncratic critiques? Not through fiery polemic, but through literary artistry. Around 1960, his work “Corn in the House” emerged as a darkly compelling short story or novella (sources are a bit vague!). While ostensibly fictional, the tale aimed a stark spotlight at the complexities of Mexico's agrarian reform following the Revolution.

Don't expect a celebration of heroic peasants here. Bernal flips the narrative. In his story, the peasant becomes tragically vulnerable, not to some mustache-twirling landowner, but to an avaricious government official – the ejidal commissioner. This figure, meant to represent progress, instead embodies corruption and cruelty. Jealous of the peasant's successful harvest, he attempts to seize it, and shockingly, resorts to arson and devastating violence when thwarted.

Was Bernal simply anti-reform? Absolutely not. His writing style implies the system, rather than its ideals, is at fault. In a sense, he performs a literary 'autopsy' – revealing the disease (bureaucratic greed) rotting the still-vital body of revolutionary dreams. There's a macabre oddity to the work, almost a dark fable against the dangers of unaccountable power.

However, it's important to note that “Corn in the House” is a work of art, not purely historical documentation. Its power lies in dramatizing, perhaps heightening, the potential abuses lurking within any ambitious program of social change.

Portrait of Mexican playwright Jorge Ibargüengoitía, a master of political satire and biting social commentary.
Black and white portrait of Jorge Ibargüengoitía, with a wry, slightly knowing smile. Credit: Wikidata

Jorge Ibargüengoitía's Controversial Plays with a Side of Prophecy

Jorge Ibargüengoitía's work often felt like historical prophecy disguised as satire. This master of dark humor was born in 1928, in Guanajuato, and met his tragic end above Madrid in 1983. Yet, his plays and novels continue to hold a scathingly accurate mirror to Mexico's political and social landscapes.

Take, for example, his pièce de résistance, El Atentado (The Assassination). Written in 1962, this “enormous political farce” chronicles the real-life killing of President-elect Álvaro Obregón. Now, a dry factual account of assassinations doesn't tend to tickle ribs, but Ibargüengoitia infused his work with a unique absurdity.

Using court transcripts for source material, Ibargüengoitía meticulously reconstructs events surrounding the assassination. Yet, he weaves in the broader political circus with the speed and flair of a silent-era filmmaker. Think political backstabbing, rigged elections, and enough contradictions to make even the most committed idealist question everything. It's not grotesque, mind you. The playwright sticks close to historical reality, making the laughter that much more unsettling.

El Atentado debuted onstage in 1973 amidst heavy pushback from authorities. They saw too much uncomfortable truth and contemporary politics mirrored in the past. Cut to the year 2000, when the National Theater Company revisited the play at the Cervantino International Festival. What might have started as a tribute became an unwittingly prophetic gesture — a reminder that Mexico's revolutionary heroes had indeed faded into memory, leaving behind more wounds than applause.

Jorge Ibargüengoitía might not have been a clairvoyant, but his ability to expose hypocrisy and societal absurdities within historical narratives proves eerily timeless. It's no wonder they called him the court jester of Mexican history – he used laughter to reveal the uncomfortable truths no one wanted to confront.

Further Reading: If you enjoy biting satire with a historical bent, consider finding translations of Ibargüengoitía's other works, including “The Dead Girls” and “The Lightning of August.”

A dimly lit theater stage, empty except for a single spotlight shining on a worn wooden chair.
The stage after the Revolution — no longer a place for frivolities, but a forum to reflect a changing nation.

Curtain Call for a Changed Nation

The number of works that were written inspired by this period is so overwhelming that it would fill several volumes, many of them are excellent, some are bad and many others are terrible, but those that Wilberto Cantón collects in his anthology are truly among the best.

The Mexican Revolution didn't just bring political change – it changed art itself. Tearjerking tragedies and Spanish farces faded, replaced by biting comedies, gritty dramas, and works that asked awkward questions. Sure, the odd balloon ascension or bullfight still held an audience, but now folks were demanding something more.

As for those French-style mansions? Some held revolutionary generals now. Maybe some even hosted discussions about art's role in a new Mexico. While we don't know for sure, one thing's certain: after the Revolution, the theater was never the same. It was the mirror that forced Mexico to finally confront the face it had hidden for so long.

In-text Citation: (Arellano Heredia, 2000, pp. 40-42)