(Nicaragua) are three of the few recorded indigenous dramas of the New World which survive today. I have chosen these as a vehicle through which to teach comprehension and language arts skills to mainstream 6th, 7th, and 8th grade E.S.O.L. (English to Speakers of Other Languages) students since they are relatively brief with high interest/low vocabulary and have universal themes portrayed by easily recognizable characters. The
develops along the lines of an interchange between two competing warriors; the
has at its core an almost
theme of forbidden young love; and the
is a light comedy in which the protagonist’s dialogue is a constant play on words as he feigns deafness when it suits his purposes.
Contained in this unit will be the historical background of each play, plot summaries, structural analyses, technical notes on costumes and music, and lesson plans incorporating language arts skills. The teacher therefore can use the unit either in its entirety to produce a staged version of each play, or in part for simple readings.
The following tribal and linguistic map approximates aboriginal conditions and shows the whereabouts of the various social, linguistic, and cultural divisions when they were first known to Europeans:
(figure available in print form)
(Warrior of Rabinal)
This work was originally known as the Dance of Tun (a native Mayan drum), but was given its present title by Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg after his discovery, transcription, and publishing in 1862. Brasseur, born in France in 1814, had been appointed Abbe of the small town of Rabinal in Guatemala and convinced his Indian parishioners to allow him to document this piece of their oral tradition after he had seen the work performed in 1859.
was presented periodically during the three centuries of Spanish dominion over Guatemala. Native spectacles frequently formed part of the public entertainment and were repeated annually in each local festival on the day of the patron saint. The play was performed before Brasseur on January 25 (the feast of the conversion of St. Paul), 1856, in the Queche language. Brasseur translated it from Queche to French and includes notes on the movement and technical characteristics of the drama.
(in order of importance):
Queche Warrior (CavokQuecheAch’)—a prince of the Yaquis and son of the Chief of the Queches
Rabinal Warrior (Rabinal Ach’)—son of Chief Hobtoh and highest dignitary among the warriors
FiveRain (AhauHobtoh)—governorchief of Rabinal
IxokMun—favorite servant of the Rabinal Warrior
Mun—a slave of the Rabinal Warrior
Precious Emerald—a princess, promised bride of the Rabinal Warrior (nonspeaking)
Xox Ahau—chief wife of Hobtoh (nonspeaking)
Twelve yellow eagles, twelve yellow jaguars—(warriors of Rabinal)
“A great number” of warriors and servants who take part in the dances
Only the first seven, plus the leader of the Jaguars and the Eagles, participate in the action. The others appear only in the many dances or in the ritual combat. Scenes I and III take place in front of a fortress, and Scenes II and IV, within the fortress.
Rabinal Ach’ is a warrior who takes captive a distinguished foe, Queche, and brings him before the ruler of Rabinal, Ring Hobtoh. The fate of the prisoner is immediate death and he knows it, but his audacity and bravery do not fail him. He boasts of his warlike exploits and taunts his captors as his enemies listen with respect. He even threatens the king and has to be restrained from attacking him. As his end draws near, he asks to drink from the royal cup and eat from the royal dish; it is granted. Be then asks to be clothed in the royal robe; it is brought and put on him. Once more he makes a request—to kiss the virgin mouth of the king’s daughter and dance with her—this too is conceded. His last petition is for one year’s grace in order to bid farewell to his native mountains. The king hears this in silence and Queche disappears only to return in a moment and scornfully inquire whether they supposed he had run away. Be then bids a last farewellto his bow, shield, warclub and battleaxe and is slain by the warriors of the king.
The single most noticeable characteristic of this work (and of the
is its parallelism—the use of slightly varied repetition which gives subtle new meanings to some words and completes and clarifies others. This is a common element in indigenous New World literature and serves to convince those who otherwise doubt its authenticity. In addition to the parallelism of single verbs, nouns and adjectives, the
contains parallelism of phrases, sentences, and whole paragraphs. An example of this technique is found at the very beginning of the work as the two warriors insult each other while dancers in a circle simulate an attack:
Queche: Come here, odious, despicable chief! Will you be the first whose very root, whose trunk, I cannot cut? This I swear to do before heaven and earth ...
Rabinal: Aha! Courageous warrior. Chief of the Cavek Queche. Thus you spoke before heaven and earth: “Come near odious chief, despicable chief. Will you be the only one whose very root, whose trunk I cannot cut?...” Did you not say that? Yes, by all means! Heaven and earth bear witness!
Another convention is that of formal courtesy. Each speech begins with a salutation and closes with a phrase of courteous leavetaking. Each character replies in this form and repeats in part the speech which he just finished hearing.
Spectacle and Music:
Because of the nature and quantity of dance in the
Ach’, music and spectacle are inseparable. The play begins with the melancholy sound of the sacred drum. In 1856 the orchestra consisted of two trumpets and the sacred drum. As the play opens, a rounddance is being performed by Rabinal Warrior, IxokMun, Eagles and Jaguars, as Queche Warrior darts among them with threatening gestures. The following music, written down by Brasseur, can accompany a reading or presentation of the play:
(figure available in print form)
The performance that Brasseur saw took place on a stage platform which was constructed in the courtyard under the balcony of his parsonage after the morning mass was conducted. He mentions no formal scenery but that all characters wore costumes and many wore masks.
An account of a production given in Antigua, Guatemala in 1955 is believed to have differed little from that described by Brasseur in 1862. The principal differences were in the reduction of the unwieldy number of supernumeraries and the slightly more modest costumes. The preparations as reported by Francisco Rodr’quez Rouanet who witnessed them, were elaborate. A series of rites were performed in the twenty days preceding the performance, and sexual continence was required of everyone connected with the performance for thirty days preceding and following the show. Each dancer, in order to get permission from “the spirit of the high land” had to take candles, chocolate, bread, fruit, aguardiente, and incense to offer, and pray to the five mountains mentioned in the dance. Within the principal mountain of the five it is believed that Chief Hobtoh still lives. Stories abound of people, some alive today, who were given aid or great wealth by Chief Hobtoh who is believed to still live in a cave in the mountain, along with the Princess, the Eagles, and the Jaguars. The cave is said to be difficult to find and is supposedly guarded by a great snake and other animals.
The “Watch of the Masks” occurred the night before the performance. On an altar, in addition to its more conventional religious paraphernalia, were the costumes, masks, drum, and trumpets to be used in the play; before it paraffin and fruit were burned, thus gaining from the god permission to perform and protection against accidents. After the performers were costumed, aguardiente was sprinkled on the inside of the mask accompanied by a prayer, after the prayer the actor took a drink, and put on the mask.