The Republic of Nicaragua (Spanish: República de Nicaragua), a multiethnic country in the Central American isthmus bordering Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south, like the region in general, was absorbed into the Spanish Empire from the early 16th century. What is now known as Nicaragua declared its independence from Spain in 1821, becoming an independent republic in 1838.
As in other countries in Latin America, Nicaragua’s performing arts were affected by the popular theatre that mixed Pre-Colombian culture with medieval Spanish tradition, as well as a “formal art form” strongly influenced by imitations of the Iberian drama of the 19th century. If we set aside the güegüense, a very particular type of show involving mime and dance (“comedia maestra”, as José Martí called it), the earlier theatre of Nicaragua presented anonymous works of mixed cultures that were greatly encouraged by the missionaries of the Spanish Conquest. Meanwhile, the later theatre allowed the first national authors to express themselves. The encounter between the indigenous peoples and the Spanish cultures created new forms of artistic expression in music, theatre, circus arts, and even in the language itself.
Nicaraguan Theatre in the 19th and 20th Centuries
In the 19th century, Nicaraguan children’s favourite distraction was the cuentos del camino (Tales of the Road), which adults would relate to them while working in the fields, and they would avidly follow the adventures of Tío Coyote (Uncle Coyote) and Tío Conejo (Uncle Rabbit). These tales became famous in Central America and can also be found in the puppet theatre.
On a literary level, it is important to note the role played by the famous Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío (1867-1916) who originated the modernist movement in Latin America and promoted modern poetry in Castilian Spanish. “Poema del otoño y otros poemas” (Autumn Poem and Other Poems, 1910), dedicated to Margarita Debayle, served as the model of a tale set in verse and drama. At the same time, others of his texts were developed for children and are used in the theatre and in puppetry. While he was Consul-General of Colombia in Buenos Aires, Rubén Darío met the British clown Frank Brown (1858-1948), with whom he became friends and whom he mentions in his autobiography; this clown, acrobat and puppeteer, who lived in Buenos Aires until his death in 1948, enjoyed success in Argentina and especially with children.
In the literary avant-garde movement – Movimiento Literario de Vanguardia – that emerged in Granada, Nicaragua, in the 1930s it is possible to see the beginnings of the performing arts renewal in the country. In effect, in the first manifesto that appeared in 1931, the founders of the movement announced they would open “a little theatre anywhere, whether stage or fair booth in which they would present the works of modern and foreign theatre, autos mysteries, ballets, colloquiums, pastorals, and all kinds of stage performances for actors and puppets, from the colonial theatre and the popular theatre”.
This is how Pablo Antonio Cuadra created, in 1935, the Teatrito Lope (Little Lope Theatre) in the courtyard of the Casa de los Exalumnos del Colegio Centroamérica (House of the Alumni of the University of Central America). The avant-garde artists who had been trained by the Jesuits in this institution presented adaptations of the classic and medieval theatre repertoires, while at the same time discovering typical Nicaraguan works such as the güegüense. While it is more literary than folkloric, El Güegüense or Macho Ratón (Macho Mouse) is a satirical theatrical presentation whose origins go back to Pre-Colombian times. Through the use of dance, costumes, masks, and songs it shows how the Nicaraguans made fun of the Spanish and fooled the proud Conquistador. This very lively tradition continued in popular culture with shows such as La gigantona y el enano cabezón (The Big Giant and the Midget with a Fat Head) during the famous Big-Head Processions (cabezudos) that are part of the popular Nicaraguan theatre (see Giant Puppets), as well as in annual fiestas still enjoyed by the population each year, particularly in the León region.
In the 1940s, the art of puppetry began blending with street theatre and circus arts. During the 1970s, Mucris and his puppet character, Negrito Chocolate, became very popular. Then during the next decade, the Nicaraguan puppet theatre was enriched by the contributions and creations of the Teatro Estudio de la Universidad Centroamericana (TEUCA) directed by Mario González Gramajo. They became known in 1976-1978 through La Cenicienta (Cinderella), their special adaptation of a Charles Perrault’s story, and by the staging of several works for children by the Nicaraguan writer, Octavio Robledo. These included La gallina ciega (The Blind Hen) and Un jardin para ser felíz (A Garden in which to be Happy), as well as Dormite niñito (Sleep, My Child) by Salvador Cardenal Argüello. Mention must also be made of the work done by the Centro Escolar Leonor García de Estrada which, in 1977, presented La pájara pinta (The Spotted Bird) at the Teatro Nacional Rubén Darío, a work written and set for the stage by Floricelda Rivas Aráuz.
Nicaraguan Puppetry After the Revolution
After the Sandinista Revolution of 1979, a Ministry of Culture was created with a department exclusively dedicated to puppet theatre. The company Teatro de Títeres Guachipilin, founded in 1981 by Fernando Gonzalo Cuellar, is representative of that era. Then came the Marionetas Traca-Traca, directed by Mario Martínez; the Compañía Teatro de Títeres Juguemos, directed by José David Sánchez; the Teatro de Títeres Zig Zag (also Zig-Zag or Zigzag), of Roberto Barberena; Teatro de Títeres Masayá (Teatro Escolar); the Grupo de Títeres Sonrisas, directed by Diana Brooks; and the Compañía Nacional Infantil de Teatro y Títeres.
- Arellano, Jorge Eduardo. “Los altibajos de una tradición” [The Highs and Lows of a Tradition]. Un siglo de teatro en escenarios de dos mundos. Inventario teatral de Iberoamérica [A Century of Theatre on Stages of Two Worlds]. Madrid: Centro de documentación teatral, 1988.
- Calderón, José Manuel, ed. Rubén Darío para niños [Rubén Darío for Children]. Illustrations by Rafael Contento. Madrid: Ediciones de la Torre, 1988.
- Darío, Rubén. Margarita. Illustrations by Monika Doppert. Santiago du Chile: Editorial Pehuén, 1990.