Magic realism is a literary device that injects illusion or fantasy into “normal” life. “In the theatre magic realism is magic from the standpoint of the audience, but realistic from the standpoint of the characters in the play.”[i] In other words, the characters in the play are caught up in the illusion of magic realism much as humanity today is caught up in the illusion of the “play” called P-B. The search for reality becomes a very elusive goal for the characters on stage and challenges an open-minded audience in a similar fashion.
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is often thought of as the father of modern Latin American writing and of magic realism. He was influenced by the work of Franz Kafka (1883-1924), the Czechoslovakian writer whose story Metamorphosis is about a man awakening to find himself transformed into an insect. Magic realism can be traced back to the 16th century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) who wrote Don Quixote, about an idealistic knight who lived in an illusory world. Actors in a play that employs elements of magic realism are also living in an illusory world. “Don Quixote’s belief in what he perceives is absolute but can be seen by his companion—and the reader—differently.”[ii]
Sancho Panza his “sane” and pragmatic squire are like the audience who think they are watching from the context of reality but find that their worldview and identity are challenged by what is happening on stage. Ironically, anyone who advocates for P-A is likely to be accused of a kind of Quixotic idealism, a purveyor of a kind of magic realism.
Cervantes’ character Don Quixote saw the beauty of Dulcinea, her True self that lay beneath the surface illusion of her false-self identity of “prostitute.” Who had really “gone mad,” Don Quixote or all the rest of his society? Who was engaged in a genuine quest, the noble knight of La Mancha or his fellow countrymen tilting at the windmills of security, power and sensation? These last two questions can only be profoundly answered from the perspective of a new story rooted in the soil of the present moment. We are all “Quixotic” adventurers waiting to awaken and begin the real adventure of life.
So we are suggesting that magic realism existed long before modern critics realize. For example in Genesis, we find an early attempt to answer the Three Great Questions, which is after all what all of human creative energy is trying to do. Genesis is replete with magic, with human invention to explain natural phenomenon. This made-up story is perfectly valid as myth and magic. When religious myth or magic realism is taken literally, however, it loses its magical powers to convey a deeper truth. Magic realism demonstrates how fear can prevent humanity from entering the present moment where the real “magic,” the authentic power, of human imagination exists. As the philosopher Lucretius reminded us “Fear of death was the first thing on earth to make the gods.”[iii]
The observer of the content of magic realism whether in a play, story or painting acts much like a person in meditation observing the reality of P-B. The objectivity of being able to see the illusion associated with identifying with the mind, body and emotions gives the observer the ability to experience reality, to distinguish reality from illusion.
The insight that accompanies a “breakthrough” shift from P-B to P-A is often preceded by extraordinary pain on the part of an individual or a collective. As an example, after her defeat in World War I, Germany experienced political chaos, widespread violence and economic collapse which set up the conditions for an artistic expression of magic realism. At the same time we find German art critic, Franz Roh, using the term magic realism to “define a kind of painting that had a representation of mystical, non-material aspects to it. ‘For the new art, it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive [emphasis added] way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world.’”[iv] Such is the function of art.
In the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014), depicts a society where the birth of a baby with a tail is considered normal. “When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, Garcia Marquez explained how the tumultuous past and present of Latin America lends itself to magic realism ‘due to its ability to convey the unearthly tidings of Latin America.’”[v] Those “unearthly tidings” are the whispers of the still small voice of the True self, a gentle warning that we have chosen a self-destructive story founded on self-delusion.
The Mayan myth of the “rain woman” is another example of magic realism with a message that remains hidden in P-B. Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974), a Guatemalan novelist incorporates Mayan mythology and the history of P-B colonial oppression to call for the return of harmony between nature and humanity. The “rain woman” is caught between the worlds of earth and sky. “When the man finds his ‘rain woman’ wife, he appears to be reunited with the earth (land) taken away from him by the colonists.”[vi]
Isabel Allende (b. 1942), the goddaughter and cousin of Argentine ex-president Salvador Allende, is the first published woman writer from Latin America. She experienced the military dictatorship, police brutality, and chaos of the government of Colonel Pinochet. In her novel The House of the Spirits (1982), she uses the “magical” appearance of the ghost of great aunt Clara (representing the wisdom of human intuition). “Clara’s spiritualism simply represents happy times that are destroyed by natural and political cataclysms.”[vii]
Another Chicana writer, Laura Esquivel (b. 1950), uses magic realism in her novel Like Water for Chocolate (1989). A food recipe from a monthly magazine begins each chapter. “The novel proceeds from the recipe’s instructions and relates the tragic love affair of Tita, the cook and her sister’s husband. Tita’s food communicates her emotions to such a degree that the people who eat it enact her emotions for her.”[viii] The narrative reveals the domestic life of women in a macho patriarchy who are rejected by their racist and socially ambitious families. In other words, magic realism expresses the yearning on the part of humanity to awaken from the nightmare of suffering that is the old narrative.
American playwright Tony Kushner (b. 1956) used magic realism in a powerfully imaginative way with his angel (played by Emma Thompson in the movie) in Angels in America which premiered in 1991. In this play the crisis driving the pain experienced by the characters was the newly emerging HIV virus. Each major character was struggling with an identity dictated by their survival strategy but one which caused them agonizing suffering. As each character struggled within the madness of a toxic society, some are destroyed and some move forward into the resolution of compassion for one another. And as we all know, compassion is an expression of an open heart, of finding the present moment.
Whether we label the problem of the male in the global village patriarchy or machismo, it is a defining characteristic of the P-B worldview. “In his essay ‘I’m the King: The Macho Image,’ Rudolfo Anaya believes that macho behavior is instilled in young boys because both parents want the child to be manly.”[ix]
As more and more families, not only Latino-American families, are headed by single women, the role of the father is not as influential in shaping the identity and behavior of boys. José Cruz González (b. 1957) says: “Instead, young males will be influenced by the Anglo culture around them—the world of MTV, rap music, movies, TV and gangs. Anaya believes young Mexican males can grow up to be ‘pachucos’—adolescents who use drugs, drive fast cars, drink liberally, dress provocatively and are liberated sexually. They live la vida loca, the crazy life.”[x]
González teaches theatre at California State University in Los Angeles and uses magic realism to engage his audiences in a way that can suggest the insights common in the context of Simple Reality. As a playwright, Gonzalez is seeking answers to questions that humankind has been asking since the beginning of civilization.
We’ll get through this. You’ll see:
we’ll have our sunsets and margaritas too.
— Luz Serrano
In González’ play Sunsets and Margaritas (premiered at the Denver Center Theatre in 2009) Luz and Gregorio Serrano are about to retire and are looking forward to travel, grandchildren and financial independence. They are faced with an aging parent, problem children and spirit visitations.
Candelario who is 78-years-old, crashes his red Cadillac convertible through the wall of the family restaurant, thinks he is being pursued by Koreans and grieves for his dead wife, Olivia. When Candelario learns that Gregorio and Luz want to put him into a retirement community, he tries to relieve his panic attacks by breathing into a paper bag.
Gabby Serrano is a 29-year-old unmarried Republican lesbian. “She is a drama queen with raging hormones which produce tears and lactation at inconvenient times.”[xi] While dreaming of being a gangster fashion designer, 22-year-old Jojo Serrano, rides a low-rider wheelchair.
Magic realism is mixed into the witches’ brew of machismo, myth and mirages to produce a comedy wherein the Serranos try to hold la familia together within the paradigm of la vida loca. “The audience, from its perspective, is able to isolate elements and symbols; the characters are not. Magic realism allows symbolic reality to be brought to life. The invisible may be made visible, and it becomes possible to transform the world and see glimpses of new possibilities.”[xii] Magic realism can be used by all artists to reveal the “new possibilities” of Simple Reality.
[i] Inside/Out. “Sunsets and Margaritas.” Denver Center Theatre Company, April 2009, page 3.
[ii] Bowers, Maggie Ann. Magic(al) Realism. New York: Routledge, 2004, page 17.
[iii] Seldes, George. The Great Thoughts. New York: Random House, 1985, page 252.
[iv] Roh, Franz. German Art in the Twentieth Century. London: Thames and Hudson, 1968, page 24.
[v] Bowers, op. cit., page 39.
[vi] Inside/Out, op. cit., page 4.
[vii] Bowers, op. cit., page 45.
[viii] Esquival, Laura. Like Water for Chocolate. London: Black Swan, 1989, page 39.
[ix] Inside/Out, op. cit., page 6.
[x] Gonzalez, R. [ed.]. Muy Macho: Latino Men Confront Their Manhood. New York: Anchor Books, 1996., page 66.
[xi] Inside/Out, op. cit., page 2.
[xii] Ibid., page 3.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.