Reconciling with History - An Interview with Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón

Guillermo Calderón is an innovative Chilean playwright who has written many acclaimed plays, such as Villa and Discourse, that delve into Chile’s political past. He also achieved fame as a screenwriter with the award-winning films The Club (2015) and Neruda (2016) both directed by Pablo Larraín. His current play ‘B’, being given its world premier at The Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre, is a dialogue between generations and their contrasting expressions of political resistance. Latino Life talked to Calderón just before the opening night.

“I’m looking for a very intimate, political audience, people a little bereft like me, trying to find, again, a sense of community,” says Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón, who is in London with the world premiere of ‘B’.

“B” stands for the unmentionable (bomb), as the play challenges the state of denial that still hangs over his country since the days of the Pinochet dictatorship. While Calderón himself lost family during the Pinochet dictatorship and remains deeply affected by how violence alter people’s lives, in the play, Calderón recognizes the generation who, grew up after the military regime, who inherited by fear and violence if not directly affected by it, but are still desperate for change.

With his production at the Jerwood Theatre (under the Royal Court), Calderón follows the footsteps of challenging and restless theatre greats such as John Osborne, Samuel Beckett, Ann Jellicoe, Arnold Wesker and David Hare, who began their illustrious careers in ‘the writer’s theatre’.

The small intense cast selected for “B” features Aimée-Ffion Edwards, Paul Kaye, Sarah Niles and Danusia Samal. In “B”, Calderón questions the differences in attitudes to violence that exist between people who lived through the dictatorship and those who did not. The new generation (Alejandra and Marcela) want to be heard, rather than create violence, but are clearly confused. The appearance on the scene of José Miguel from an older generation changes the dynamic: “We used to kill kings… now all we do is make threats on the internet.”

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Latino Life: What could you tell us about the origins and motivation behind the subject matter of “B”?

Guillermo Calderón: In Chile, obviously, there was a lot of violence. The resistance to the dictatorship also used violence. This violence never really went away despite the fact that the dictatorship formally ended in the 1990s.  Right up until the year 2007 there were bomb blasts.  There was a new generation that placed bombs in bank, No one died, because they took place in the middle of the night and no one knew what to do about it.  These bombs were almost an irrelevant political act because the banks did not want any images of their banks to appear in the news… all destroyed… so they never took any photographs and so these events were never featured on television… as if they were in denial. The events were ranked like minor traffic offences, but in truth it was a phenomenon and it continued right up till 2009, and there were… I don’t know… about 60 bombs a year. A big phenomenon! Incredible! So it was interesting for me to be able to enter that world a little. Although it had similar motivations to those during the dictatorship, they were different. It was another generation, with different aspirations and another political viewpoint, but nevertheless, there was a certain continuity.”

LL: Is that why you introduced a character from the past, José MIguel?

GC:“Exactly! A character that corresponds more closely to my generation… that meets other characters who are younger, and there they meet politically and discuss… what are the different alternatives.  It is not an explicit discussion. This is not a play about the discussion of ideas, but it touches on that… among other things.”

LL: How far do you think your own personal and family experiences affect the choice of subject matter in your work?

GC: “What I write has always come from a space of frustration and anger and I have no qualms about recognizing that fact. The theatre is a way of using that anger that is not expressed… let’s say ...  it is not expressed in the streets today, so we have to make a stage within 4 walls. It is an exercise in drowning out that frustration.  It is not because after working on it, or elaborating it, one gets to feel any better, but because the mere fact of sharing it within a space already gives it a certain projection that is more social and even … intimate.”

LL: You grew up in a dictatorship, what are your most potent memories of that experience as a child and later as an adolescent?

GC: “As a child, it was the silence. Basically, anything you heard …  be it around the table… or in your home, in the family… could never be repeated! It was a culture of never repeating anything, to be careful never to say what you were really thinking… to be unable to be yourself, to not think! And later, when I became an adolescent, it was the resistance… popular resistance you could say, against that. These are two things, and both are incorporated into the theatre, mainly the idea of silence.”

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LL: How do people who are not properly informed about the actual background to these themes react? Do they understand?

GC: Yes, but it is very complex. Obviously, people have very strong opinions about what took place in Chile. So, it’s a very complex sensation… there are some that really like to see these things on film or in the theatre, saying: It is really good that people who think like I do, are making theatre about this etc.! Those that do not…  feel a mix of horror and shame.   Horror because it might be a reality that they had never seen, and they are being faced with it for the first time, but also, there is the shame of:  How did I not know about this before? Why did my family never tell me about it? How could I have lived a parallel life during that period of repression?

LL: Do you think it is because they do not understand repression?

GC: No, because one of the ways that the dictatorship was organized, meant that if you followed the rules, you could live a peaceful and happy life… well, I don’t know if happy… but at least the life of a child, a life of ignorance.  But, if you decided to challenge those rules, then the full force of the dictatorship landed upon you.  So, the dictatorship in effect, created two countries in one.  You could be living in the country that obeyed the rules, where everything that was taking place was denied… then the problem, with that appears when the son of that family finds himself in a theatre in the year 2017 and he asks himself: How did I lose my life? Why have I not lived the history of my country?  There is a conflicted relationship because some still continue to deny everything, and others say: It is my duty to become involved and find out.

LL: Do you find that living in the United States has helped your objectivity with this dense subject matter? Does the geography help?

GC: Yes, of course, you are able to look at the country from the outside and you can see it with … less suffering. That daily pain of living in the country… there is a lot of pressure living in the southern cone. So, to live without that weight, it is easier to understand the country …to see the good things and the bad things, it gets easier to reconcile oneself with history.


LL: In that context, do you think you were able to better understand Pablo Neruda as well, given the way you tackled that subject in the film Neruda?

GC: Yes, well, when you are in Chile, Neruda is a huge, even an oppressive figure… because he’s a national poet, He’s a sort of local Shakespeare, he’s [sacred]… a national hero, … even an industry!  Well, clearly, he deserves to occupy that important place and in our culture, he is extremely important. From outside, of course, you can see what is important and what it not, what is sacred and what is not, and that gives it substance. For example before, when I was in Chile, I had not really taken on board just how important a figure he was, but when I was abroad I thought: It is so significant that [in Chile] we had a poet, who at 44 years of age was a Senator of the Republic!

It was that element of combining art and politics in a sense … to discover his maximum expression.  He had that way, of joining the worlds of culture and politics with the history of the communist Party. In many ways, he articulated what was later to become the Popular Unity coalition and all the movement that Allende was to lead. I had not realized that before, but now, I can see just how different all that was, from the United States as well.

LL: How would you compare the experience of writing for the screen and writing for the theatre? In which medium are you most comfortable?

GC: “I feel freer in the theatre because I am the boss: I am the one who writes and the one who directs!  In film, I need to collaborate… and I have bosses above me… who may or not like what I do.  [At the same time] it is good, because one learns to submit to others, to the collaboration, and as they are talented and intelligent people there is much to learn. So, you submit, but knowing that there are some ideas that are better than yours. It is also an exercise in humility, which has come at the perfect moment, because after having been the absolute boos for many years, it is like being a student… and learning…  and it has been really good for my head to start again, and even, to be born again as a writer too!

“B” will play at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs Sept 28th – October 21st 2017. Translated by William Gregory and directed by Director Sam Pritchard.

Guillermo Calderón is working on a number of new projects, including one immigration. He is also working on a new project with Andrés Wood, for whom he wrote the screenplay for Violeta se fué a los Cielos (2011), (Violeta went to Heaven) about the Chilean poet and musician Violeta Parra.