Vargas Llosa muses on fiction, theater as GALA revives ‘The Young Lady From Tacna’


Carlos Castillo as Belisario and Luz Nicolás as Mama-E in GALA Hispanic Theatre’s “The Young Lady From Tacna.” (Lonnie Tague/Lonnie Tague)

Looking back on his first literary stirrings as a teenager in Lima in the early 1950s, Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa says his instinct wasn’t to become a novelist at all.

“Theater was for me, I think, my first vocation,” he says by telephone from Lima. “If there had been a theatrical movement [in Peru], the possibility of seeing your plays produced, probably I would have been a playwright.”

A world without such fiction masterpieces as “Captain Pantoja and the Special Service” and “The Feast of the Goat” is hard to imagine. Blame Arthur Miller for that near alternative reality: The young Vargas Llosa saw a production of “Death of a Salesman” and was enthralled by the daring handling of time and space onstage. Inspired, at about 16, he wrote the first creative work that he self-consciously subjected to revision and crafting — a play called “The Flight of the Inca.” It wasn’t very good.

“I thought I had destroyed all the manuscripts I had of the play, but one was rescued by my mother and is now in the Princeton University library,” he says. “But don't read it!”


Mario Vargas Llosa, Peruvian novelist and playwright. (Sergio Urday/Sergio Urday )

He turned to fiction — a book of short stories, then his first novel, “The Time of the Hero,” in 1963, and a great career was launched.

Yet, “my love for the theater never ended; it dozed, curled up in the shadow of novels, like a temptation and a nostalgia,” he later explained, upon accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010.

Now Washington can sample what it might have been like if Vargas Llosa had stuck with theater, as GALA Hispanic Theatre presents a revival of his 1981 play “La Señorita de Tacna” — “The Young Lady From Tacna.” The work marked his first attempt as a mature artist to fulfill his initial ambition to write for the stage.

Tacna is a city in southern Peru, near the border with Chile. The drama is about events that affect a family’s destiny across three generations and 80 years of history. Not unlike “Death of a Salesman,” past and present share the stage, and shattering secrets are probed.

The unmistakable Vargas Llosa stamp is the play’s preoccupation with how stories are born, and how history and memory are stirred into the “true lies” of fiction. “Imagination fills in the gaps which are usually deliberate . . . governed by that strange force which is not the logic of reason, but the logic of a dark unreason,” he writes in the play’s introduction.

The idea for the play sprang from Vargas Llosa’s memories of a cousin of his maternal grandmother who lived with his grandparents, in the same household where Vargas Llosa also lived as a boy. That woman, who lived to be more than 100, inspired the character of Mama-E in the play.

“Particularly, I remembered her old age, in which she finally cut completely with the time in which she was living and regressed to her youth and infancy, which took place in Tacna,” Vargas Llosa, who is 77, says. “You could see a whole epoch reproduced in the memories of this very old lady.”

One story about the lady, who never married, was that she had been engaged as a young woman, but she suddenly broke off the engagement and burned her wedding dress. She never explained why.

“That was the great curiosity in the family,” Vargas Llosa says.

He set out to write a play about her life and the extended family. As he wrote, he found himself not just depicting her, but also a middle-aged writer — the spoiled grandson who grew up in the household — trying to write a story about the old lady and his family, years after all the principal characters have died. The writer finds he has to fill gaps in his boyhood memories, and he discovers that his characters sometimes act unpredictably, independent of his intended writing plan.

This is exactly the process of creating literature, Vargas Llosa says.

“You never write using only imagination, because I think memory is a very important raw material for a writer,” he says. “Memories are the basic point of departure for all the fictions I have written. . . . The beginning is just an image, a souvenir of something that happened, a character, a situation.

“What I never know is why certain memories are so productive in the literary sense, and why the rest, not at all. Certain experiences give me images that become a kind of encouragement, a stimulus to start fantasizing about.”

When the imagination starts elaborating on the memory, the fiction and the characters “take on a life in a way that you must respect,” he says. “When you manage to produce something that has a kind of life, there are personalities that develop, relationships that develop, and you can’t force them without destroying them. This is because when you write, you don’t write with your knowledge, with your intelligence. You write, too, with your emotions, with your passions, with your instincts. . . . You open doors that you don’t even know exist in your personality but are deeply submerged in the subconscious, and suddenly you are really surprised with what you have written, without taking control of that.”

GALA was eager to present “The Young Lady From Tacna” because of Vargas Llosa’s strong local following of readers who may not know his theater work, says Hugo Medrano, GALA’s producing artistic director. He plays the role of Grandfather Pedro.

A challenge of mounting “Tacna” is reflecting the fluid, non-chronological use of time, and the actors must channel their characters at different points in life, says director José Carrasquillo.

“Ultimately, we have to filter it all through the mind of a writer,” the character Belisario, who is always onstage drafting his story, and interacting with his remembered loved ones, Carrasquillo says. “What makes it special is discovery. The writer discovers, and I am directing it so that every discovery is the audience’s discovery with the writer.”

Since “The Young Lady From Tacna,” Vargas Llosa has written about half a dozen plays, compared with a dozen novels in the same period.

“I know from the beginning when a story should be a play or should be a novel — but I cannot tell why,” he says. “My impression is that each story has an ideal genre.”

Lately he is back to novel-writing. The English translation of “El Héroe Discreto” (2013) — “The Discreet Hero” — is due in 2015. It’s about an entrepreneur of modest origins who is threatened with blackmail by gangsters.

“I won’t tell you what happens,” Vargas Llosa says, “so you will be forced to read.”

La Señorita de Tacna (The Young Lady From Tacna)

at GALA Hispanic Theatre, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through March 9, in Spanish with English surtitles. $38-$42. 202-234-7174. www.galatheatre.org.

David Montgomery writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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