Officially the Eastern Republic of Uruguay (Spanish: República Oriental del Uruguay), Uruguay is located in the south-eastern region of South America. It is bordered by Argentina and Brazil. Portuguese and Spanish arrived in the region in the early 17th century resulting in Uruguay becoming a zone of contention between the empires of Portugal and Spain. Uruguay’s independence came into effect in 1830. Montevideo is the nation’s capital. (See Latin America.)
It was a trivial event reported during a Montevideo burglary trial in 1792 that the name of a certain Juan Camacho appears, victim of a theft while he was amusing the public with his “caxa” of títeres (box of puppets). Before the construction of the Casa de Comedias in Montevideo in the late 18th century, puppetry in Uruguay cannot be traced, except for incidental evidence like this puppeteer mentioned by an anonymous reporter. There is little documentation of the cultural and artistic life of the early 19th century. The country was experiencing significant political and military upheavals that led to independence in 1830. It must be remembered that mass immigration from many countries of the world brought to Uruguay great cultural diversity.
Around 1840, the character of Misericordia Campana (Mercy Bell) appeared, a glove puppet created by Ambrosio Camarinhas, a celebrated bell ringer for La Iglesia Matriz (The Mother Church) in Montevideo and a fugitive slave born in Pernambuco, Brazil. It is interesting to note that both of these characters, the puppet and his puppeteer, were black in one of the largest slave ports in Latin America. Moreover, utilizing the puppet as a club, its creator adapted capoeira, the Brazilian fight-dance born in the prisons and practised with swaying body and blows both with the feet and head. Misericordia Campana became a true hero everywhere he appeared, righting wrongs, protecting young women, using no other weapon than his head.
Around 1870, companies of foreign puppeteers made their appearance – with their string puppets and rod marionettes (French: marionnettes à tringles) in particular – including the famous Italian pupi and the showman-actor Salsilli. Towards 1887, London’s Fantoches arrived (see Fantoccini) and in 1898 the English company of Thomas Holden, renowned in Europe, appeared in the region of the Rio de la Plata. These various influences enriched the Uruguayan theatrical milieu and the public more and more appreciated circus spectacles and puppetry performances.
The 20th Century
Between 1900 and 1930, many foreign companies (such as the Italian company Teatro dei Piccoli of Vittorio Podrecca, at the Solis Theatre) did several tours throughout the country, while Uruguayan actors from the circus, such as the brothers Podesta, contributed to the growth of theatre. The Argentine puppeteer Javier Villafañe was extremely influential, not only for his artistic endeavours by also for his profound effect on education. With his troupe, La Andariega, Villafañe traversed the country with puppet shows, and, in collaboration with educators, offered introductory courses to the schools.
The presence of the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca between November 1933 and March 1934 and the presentation, one day before his departure, of El retablillo de Don Cristóbal (The Puppet Play of Don Cristóbal), marks an important moment in the development of the theatre community in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The production featuring actress Helena Cortesini occurred later, who, with Spanish actor Andrés Mejuto, appeared with the theatre El Guirigay of Margarita Xirgu in the capital and also in the interior of the country. As recalled by Villafañe himself in one of his writings from 1938, the poet Humberto Zarrilli, Fernando Amado, and a group of teachers, gave several puppet shows in Montevideo.
In 1940, Felipe Novoa directed the theatre of the Universidad Popular Central (an extension of the Universidad de la República) in Montevideo and presented in the city neighbourhoods works of illustrator and cartoonist Julio Emilio Suarez, creator of the character Peloduro. Similarly, the painter Carlos Prevosti, Elsa Caraffé de Marchand, and Hortensia G. de Heijo worked with the experimental schools presenting shows using puppets. In those years, while gaining renown as an author, Juan Manuel Tenuta pursed his theatre interests in Montevideo. There was the guiñol (glove puppet) company of the Pagani brothers, directed by Juan Pagani, painter, sculptor, musician and cabinetmaker; although based in Argentina, it made several trips to Uruguay, and resurrected the character of Misericordia Campana.
In the 1940s, the appearance in Montevideo of Catalan actress Margarita Xirgu brought to the Uruguayan theatre scene a decisive change. Separated from her homeland by civil war and then by Franco’s dictatorship, she spent her years in exile among various Latin American countries, first Mexico, then Chile and finally Uruguay, where she died in 1969. She did a remarkable job of teaching and training several generations of actors as head of the Escuela Municipal de Arte Dramático (Municipal School of Dramatic Art), created in Montevideo in 1949. Several puppeteers attended her classes and participated in her theatre company including Andrés Mejuto, a leading Spanish actor exiled between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and Helena Cortesina, both who were already puppeteers in Spain in the 1930s, and who would present works for puppets by Javier Villafañe and Argentine puppeteer and director Mané Bernardo, and would give classes at the Universidad Popular in Montevideo.
The company El Duende (The Goblin) was founded in 1940 by Rosita Bafico. With her husband, Armando González (puppet creator), Juan Manuel Tenuta, and Bruno Musitelli, the group was invited to Chile by Pablo Neruda in 1946-1947. For political reasons, the troupe moved to Bolivia in 1947 where Bafico was hired by the Ministry of Education to teach and give performances. Juan Manuel Tenuta moved to Concepción, Chile, where he directed Compañía de Arte “Pinocho” (Pinocchio Art Company) in 1948.
At Tacuarembo in Uruguay, Pato Escayola (1901-1979) led pioneering work that contributed to the development of puppet theatre in the country and left an extensive archive as well as his own puppets made from the pulp and wood of the ceibo tree. The contribution of Irma Abirad must also be mentioned. An actress and teacher, she joined the faculty of the School of Drama sponsored by the Servicio Oficial de Espectáculos y Radiodifusión (SODRE, Official Broadcasting and Entertainment Service) and, together with her students, created Teatro de Títeres Maese Pedro (Master Peter Puppet Theatre) with repertoire consisting of works by Cervantes and Javier Villafañe, among others. During her long career, she made friends with many famous puppeteers including Villafañe, the French Marcel Temporal, and Russian Sergei Obraztsov. In 1963, she abandoned her work as a puppeteer and became director of educational programmes on television for secondary education and devoted herself to research and to her remarkable collection of puppets.
Among the many artist that appeared on the theatrical scene in the 1950s were: Roberto Rius and his string puppet company founded in 1948, which was active in several Latin American countries; Jaime Pares and Selva Suffo and their company Vidalita, active since 1954 and very popular in both Uruguay and Argentina; and especially the theatre El Galpón (The Hangar The Shed), the most significant artistic venue in the country for puppetry.
Since its founding in 1949 and being convinced of the urgent need to develop new audiences and educating the public to be future audiences, El Galpón was intensely devoted to children’s theatre, puppetry in particular, under the leadership of Juan Manuel Tenuta and Bruno Musitelli. In 1952, the institution founded a school for puppeteers, led since 1955 by Rosita Baffico. This school subsequently joined the Argentine showman Eduardo Di Mauro. Later, puppet performers such as Nicolás Loureiro, Curi, Salcedo, Miguel Cherro, Aída Rodríguez, Blanca Loureiro joined other troupes. Moreover, the Teatro Circular de Montevideo (The Circular Theatre) was launched in 1954 with works for children such as Pluft el fantasmita (Pluft, the Little Ghost) by Brazilian María Clara Machado, and El altillo encantado (The Enchanted Attic Closet).
Other artists brought their talents to puppetry in those years (Alice Soler Petit, Luis Mario Somun … ) and today the country has between twelve and fifteen troupes and individuals, professional and amateur, who perform in the major cities of Uruguay: Montevideo, Piriápolis, San José, Punta del Este and Canelones. In 1978, when UNIMA-Uruguay was created, it was headed by Adriana Cabrera of the company La Gotera.