Basque Theatre: of Giants and Ants

Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.


The Basque Country enjoys a vibrant theatrical scene. Aizpea Goenaga and Pedro Barea have complied the history and diversity of Basque theatre in a book called exactly that: ´BASQUE. Theatre´. The book is part of a collection created by the Etxepare Basque Institute dedicated to twelve cultural disciplines. The first edition, published eight years ago, has now been updated and the complete series will be released this year.

The authors focus mainly on theatre produced in the Basque language. Goenaga explains the crucial role language plays in this cultural expression in terms of development, production and diffusion. Plays intended for children are performed mainly in Basque but there are very few professional companies that produce plays for only in Basque.

The second most important feature or condition of theatrical works in Basque is mobility. The groups usually give one performance in each town or theater; indeed, the Basque theatrical model is one of performing in the loosest sense possible. In most cases, groups give one performance of their work in each town or theatre. If they have two versions, one in Basque and another in Spanish, they typically perform both in the same theatre, but generally only perform one or two days in the same place.

As a result, productions are easy to set up, small in size, with few actors and minimal staging. The third feature would be the lack of public productions of Basque theatre. And yet, the level of theatre creation is very high.

A Brief History of Basque Theatre

Dances, festivals and other ritual manifestations date back to ancient times in the Basque Country. The images that have appeared in Basque caves also show that ritual dances were already being performed back then. The authors explain that especially in the Northern Basque Country, traditional theatrical expressions fortunately have survived with the development of society. Pastoralak (pastorals) and maskaradak (masquerades) are examples of this. Popular expressions based on oral tradition have also survived in the Basque Country, most importantly, bertsolaritza (sung oral improvisation), which is very much alive.

The first written work of theatre was written the 18th century by Pedro Barrutia, the scribe of Mondragón. The short play titled ‘Gabonetako ikuskizuna’ or ‘Acto para la Nochebuena’ was discovered in the 19th century and published in the journal Euskalzale by Resurreción María Azkue.

After the 18th and 19th centuries, Goenaga tells readers how Basque theatre began looking to the outside world. In the first half of the 19th century, authors such as Toribio Altzaga (San Sebastian, 1861-1941) began to address universal concerns, becoming one of the most important promoters of Basque theatre. At an early age Altzaga and his group of friends put together an extensive repertoire of plays and performed them all over the Basque Country.

Basque theatre gained momentum during the Second Spanish Republic. It benefitted from teamwork and a collective spirit. It was an activity aimed at entertainment, bringing together different generations and spread common values. In general, it became a very powerful tool for reinforcing the Basque language.

Following the first decade of the Franco dictatorship, theatre was slowly revived. Many of the plays were promoted under the auspices of the Church; the aim was to keep Basque and the spirit of Basque nationalism alive. In the 1960s and 70s, winds of change blew into the theatre world, and in the face of traditional popular theatre based on Christian and Basque nationalist values inherited from the previous century, several young groups began performing modern, innovative theatre.

Thus, the first years of democracy ushered in new ideas in theatre. The artistic level was also strengthened, primarily in plays performed in Spanish, but also in the Basque language, especially in children´s theatre. Basque theatre groups and actors did extraordinary work in standardising the language, promoting a more dynamic use of the language and avoiding overly technical usage.

In this way, the book describes the first theatre group associations and theatre festivals, the earliest professional Basque theatre companies, theatre networks, and the creation of schools, conferences and gatherings. It also examines the first grants set aside for theatre, as well as collaboration with public institutions: in short, the process of professionalising the sector. The actors who came from these groups and schools were highly talented, the technicians began to specialise and directors developed a new dramatic language.

Quality Theatre but Precarious

The first thing the author highlights concerning the theatre of the 21st century is the precariousness of creative personnel and actors. They point out that on the one hand, high quality performances are staged in terms of art, aesthetics and poetic language, yet the global world paradigm has come to the Basque scenario too; in other words, although the quality of the theatre is very high, other ways of consuming culture have led to a decline in audiences.

After a survey of the past two decades, Pedro Barea examines the themes of Basque theatre, starting with the Franco era. Nationalism, identity, terrorism, legends, wars, the tension between good and evil...

Barea also analyses the contribution of women to Basque theatre in the section titles ‘The Female Impetus in Basque Theatre’. In heroic eras of alternative theatre, a number of women stand out. Ofelia Rivero (Ateneo, Akelarre) and Maribel Belastegi (Orain) stand out for their direction and leadership. Together with the historical puppeteer Enkarni Genua (Txotxongilo), Carmen Ruiz Corral (Denok and Escuela de Vitoria) and Maite Agirre (Agerre Teatroa) they constitute the avant-garde, the generation of the 1960s and 1970s. A later and brilliant age group would be that of 1980, with Yolanda Martínez (leader of the Mari Urrike group), Elena Armengod (from the Bekereke company, author of Cuando el hielo arde (When ice melts), her latest work) and Elena Bezanilla, a teacher in Andalusia, Helena Pimenta (UR, Catalan National, Galician Drama Centre and National Drama in 2011, a director and especially dramatist), Ana Pérez (Legaleon), the director and actor Olatz Beobide, Mireia Gabilondo (Antzerti, Tanttaka) and Agurtzane Intxaurraga (Hika), amongst others

The author also discusses a number of particular works and explains how the subject matter is not always feminist. However, when addressing certain issues, it is not paradoxical that women predominate. In terms of gender, three themes have prevailed: political action in a sexist culture, women’s experiences in their struggle for sexual liberation, and the much more universal theme of individualism and fulfilment, common to men too, but more difficult to achieve for women.

The book closes with a review of the Basque artistic diaspora, an analysis of the sector´s infrastructure, a review of the development of Basque drama and a reflection on the future.

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