This interview constitutes Luis Enrique Gutiérrez Ortiz Monasterio's last public interview. The esteemed playwright passed away on May 23, 2022, in the city of Xalapa (Veracruz, Mexico), leaving the Mexican theater community, his family, and friends mourning his loss and honoring his legacy. This interview was supposed to be carried out over various conversations. However, it was only possible to complete it in two conversations due to reasons beyond LEGOM's control. This has left me with many questions that I will not be able to ask the playwright and my friend. I wish to add that in addition to the official record of his works produced up until 2018, others have been appended, including his creative and pedagogical activities during the pandemic lockdown. I would also like to extend my appreciation to Luis Mario Moncada, director of the Universidad Veracruzana Theater Organization (ORTEUV), for providing the images featured in this interview, which belong to the Company. Special thanks are also owed to Prof. Ana Puga and Dr. Bernard Gordillo for their assistance with this translation. - Elka Fediuk

Luis Enrique Gutiérrez Ortiz Monasterio, also known as LEGOM, describes himself as sad because "he always wanted to be a novelist." This back and forth between drama and novel, or narrative storytelling, will be a constant feature to explore. In lieu of biographical information available through various sources, I endeavor to examine the following telling statistics: between 1999, which marks his debut, and 2018—not including his latest works, some already premiered—LEGOM created eighty-nine artistic works among which forty-two are full-length and twenty are short, [along with] five plays for young audiences, nine titles that comprise the Chato Mckenzie series (2007), three collaborative texts, and one adaptation. [LEGOM was] born in 1968, a mythic year on account of the political events in Mexico and the world that accelerated the social consciences of civil society, while [new critical] thought gave positivism and structuralism a turn of the screw, leading to Foucauldian, Derridean, and Deleuzian deconstruction.

Despite the limitations of the concept of "generation"1 applied to writers (Treviño) or, in our case, to playwrights, it is undoubtable that there exists a contagious pulsing, that no matter how diverse the routes taken may be, immerses all in the same debates. Nevertheless, individual and artistic personality will be a filter in the perception of contemporary phenomena, in the Agambian sense.2

LEGOM, supported solely by his autodidact training "for better or for worse" as he himself puts it, has garnered recognition as a playwright since his debut, adding to date two international awards: Las Chicas del 3.5 Floppies [The girls from the 3.5 floppies] (Fringe First Award, 2005), and Un día de trabajo [A Day's Work] (Iberoamerican Playwrighting Award, 2001), in addition to eleven national awards and one state award. To this we must add that fifty of his works have been staged, some repeatedly; twenty of them are published and five have been translated into several languages. This productivity speaks to a frenetic creativity, as if he were in a race with time. His style plays with words extirpated from the real, and then transforms them into dramatic discourse, repeating these fragments and assembling structures that reverberate, like ritornello by Deleuze y Guattari, "always familiar, always baffling."3 

Figure 1. Luis Enrique Gutiérrez Ortiz Monasterio (LEGOM). (Photo: Sebastian Kunold.)
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Figure 1.

Luis Enrique Gutiérrez Ortiz Monasterio (LEGOM). (Photo: Sebastian Kunold.)

 

The Interview

ELKA FEDIUK (EF):

With nearly one hundred works written, staged, published, awarded, and translated, do you still doubt your vocation as a playwright? How did you get your start? What or who motivated you to write?

LEGOM:

I know exactly when I began wanting to be a writer, it's crystal clear. When I was 9 years old I read a lot and I would hide to read, like in a Dickens novel. An aunt who lived next door had a very large library, and I read, well, you know, the Salgari Brothers, Jules Verne, etc., and among those books of piracy, of adventures, came one novel after another. There were about three from an author named Joseph Conrad …

EF:

A citizen of the world with a British passport and a Polish soul.

LEGOM:

Exactly. I am never going to write like Conrad did—not as wonderfully or as much—but that was when I told myself: I'm definitely going to be a writer. Since then I have tried … I have done many other things in my life, but there are things I have never stopped doing: gambling, writing, and lying.

EF:

Your first success came directly from the stage, I think in Chicas del 3.5 Floppies [2003] whose fame came to Mexico from Edinburgh, with characters and environments that have become staples of our daily life. You talk about women trapped in an underworld of drugs, where their grip on their own history evaporates.

LEGOM:

And about the incapacity of the modern human being—as [Elias] Canetti foresaw it—to grasp reality and claw into it.4 We have less and less contact with reality. Something really interesting happened with this play. This one and the Beasts one [De bestias, criaturas y perras (Of Beasts, Babies and Bitches, 2004)], I wrote them at the same time. In México they tried to accuse me of being a misogynist, because, they said, I treated women badly. When we took it to Bogotá, there was a bit of nervousness about how the festival would take it. At the end of the play a representative of a Miami-based festival stood up and said, "[t]his is a portrait of the working-class Latin American woman"—she shouted it there in the theatre and took the play to her activist festival. Everyone reads what they will, what I wrote was: two helpless women in a violent world. At that time gang culture seemed extravagant. Unfortunately, the case of femicide in Juarez, when this play was written, referred to extraordinary events and now it's part of our new normal.5

EF:

Of Beasts, Babies and Bitches is precisely another play that touches on the polemic tone of your early work. It reveals the battle inherent in the promise of life in a relationship.

LEGOM:

I speak of love! Of Beasts, Babies and Bitches talks about love. There are a lot of ways to talk about love. And again, this human being! It may be excessive … but [I speak of this] guy who is now called "Godínez," this guy that goes to 7-Eleven every day for his cup of noodles and his hot dog; who goes early on the weekends to the supermarket to buy tuna, drinkable yogurt, and toilet paper. … This life so empty, so without meaning. I think I was confronting this and myself, what I was always afraid of: living a mediocre and empty life. Some write about what they wish to be, others of us write instead about what we don't want to be or about what we lived. Because you can place a guilty one there, but in reality you have two empty people who don't know how to talk about love, they want to love but they don't know how.

The staging had two versions: the first one a staged reading in Querétaro—that's where I became famous. The success of the mythical staging [of] that first Young Playwright Festival continues to this day. Jorge Ávalos and Beatriz Luna read it and there it was clear [that thing about how "they want to love and they don't know how"]. When the play finished, the whole theatre was crying and I was surprised: that had never happened to me before. The stage production came out of there, with the same actors from the staged reading and the same director. Originally, the actors read it with three or four stage directions, as in any staged reading, but then the director stepped in and gave more weight to the idea of the victim and the victimizer. And it was horrible. While in one performance we all cried, with the same play and actors as in the other, [this time] we all fell asleep, because it's a play that doesn't abide moral judgments. It's a play that speaks to how we face love in our condition as modern subjects, this idea of a human being whose life passes him by. What will almost always be present in my plays is the idea of the "tiny man,"6 and I don't see him from afar, since I am an "insider"7 to the tiny man.

EF:

What you just underlined is your view of reality. It reminds me of the film Un borghese piccolo piccolo from Mario Monicelli (1977), and I particularly relate it to the characteristics that describe your main character in Demetrius o la caducidad [Demetrius or Expiration, 2008]. The critics took advantage of the peripeteia of the characters to talk about economic oppression in a neoliberal México; however, the "tiny man" and the weight of his daily tragedy are presented with humor in this play, which implies distance.

LEGOM:

Demetrius is a play in which I tried to unlearn what I have already done. Demetrius was to capitulate and finally talk about the common man in common terms and a common language. [It's] an ugly play. A play that didn't want to be pretty, although it turned out beautifully, because it speaks to what you said—that which touches the heart of the common man. Naturalism was interested in talking about the common man and finding the extraordinary in him. That proved unachievable, thus we quickly moved on. [Even] in the twentieth century, the character is once again spoken of in classical terms and speaks of the extraordinary.

I attempted to approach a character in naturalistic terms: one with no extraordinary traits to speak of, but that ended up representing all that is extraordinary about our epoch. It ended up representing this strange world that we live in, where life is a comedy within another extremely bitter comedy. It's bitter in literary terms due to its language, and in its shape, it is poor. It is extremely bitter in moral terms, because the characters suffer from a monstrous moral poverty. In terms of life, it is extraordinary: how can someone go around the world without the faintest idea, without the faintest understanding of "why was I here?" It is something like the opposite of extraordinary, and it is terrible. The opposite is what's terrible. I narrated the terribleness of the common man. 

EF:

You also employed a canonical structure with a Brechtian touch in Civilización (Civilization, 2006).

LEGOM:

Your use of "Brechtian" honors me, and it makes me think that my idea of what is canonical was very corrupted by Brecht's ideas, both formally as well as politically and theatrically. My idea now of what is canonical is based more on a single play by Sophocles and in one by Aeschylus. In that moment, my idea revolved around epicity without a much formal structure, but writing Civilización enlightened many parts of what is "poetic truth" for me.

The character in real-estate development tries to bribe, with little success, the permit clerk, the tiny man, but who holds the power over permits; until he has a revelation and says, "You are going to authorize this because you studied engineering." A stupid, yet brilliant thing: "If you study engineering it is because you want to build big things"—his cunning is brilliant. What did the character do by being there, in the circumstances I put him in, in order to reach the lucidity of poetic revelation? I don't know, because I am not sure I've had an idea of that size. Those are the characters that surprise you, like [Harold] Bloom says referring to Shakespeare: "that are better than you."

EF:

Then you devise your dramaturgy based on Aeschylus, and idea that was portrayed in Máquina de Esquilo [Aeschylus' Machine] released in March 2020 over Zoom; and also, in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, like we see in the capsules of El Rinconcito de Legom [LEGOM's Little Nook, ORETUV channel in YouTube] and, in a broader sense, in your book Dramática descriptiva: Arquitectura del relato [Descriptive DramaticsThe Architecture of Story, 2021].

LEGOM:

Well, when I give playwriting classes, mainly of literary creation, I don't care if they [the students] are learning, because I am learning a great deal by wanting to explain the ideas. You know what? I used to not like Oedipus because it seemed excessively mathematical, it is very mathematical. Oedipus is the summation of strategies based on symmetry, repetition, and scales. When I started writing, it was a common idea among playwrights and scholars that the character has no major role in a drama and is dead. Meanwhile I said, "No, the character is the drama." That was the extent of my intuitive stubbornness, and afterward, in Sophocles' [dramaturgy], I was able to fit together all the fragments I had been finding and then I started getting down to the principles of drama until I got to the principles that describe the action.

EF:

I will await the next volume that starts from these bases. Meanwhile, let's talk about the narraturgy that stands out in your productions, a concept created—unintentionally—by Sanchis Sinisterra and that took hold despite the critiques.8 In theatrical jargon, it refers to the "playwrighting" propelled by narration, which allows momentary appearances of other characters next to the narrator, executed by single or multiple actors. As a form of writing, it is narrative and drama at the same time, like in Chato Mckenzie, Cherán o la democracia según cinco indias rijosas [Cherán or Democracy According to Five Rowdy Indians, 2020] and Odio a los putos mexicanos [I Hate Fucking Mexicans, 2007]. Abirached's thesis about the death of the character in modern theatre9 creates a variant in Odio a los putos mexicanos; there, you expose the precarious existence of characters, who are reduced to the form of language. The opening of this play in 2007  produced a shock that sealed your adventure with the Compañía Titular de Teatro de la Universidad Veracruzana [ORTEUV]. How was the process of its writing and reception?

Figure 2. Still from Cherán o la democracia según cinco indias rijosas (Cherán or Democracy According to Five Rowdy Indians, 2020). (Photo: Sergio Carreón.)
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Figure 2.

Still from Cherán o la democracia según cinco indias rijosas (Cherán or Democracy According to Five Rowdy Indians, 2020). (Photo: Sergio Carreón.)

 

 

Figure 3. Odio a los putos mexicanos (I Hate Fucking Mexicans, 2007). (Photo: Afiche creativos.)
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Figure 3.

Odio a los putos mexicanos (I Hate Fucking Mexicans, 2007). (Photo: Afiche creativos.)

 

LEGOM:

Look, that play, like any other, has its particular process. Also, everything I say is a lie from what I really remember from the process fifteen years ago. … There are things I remember and things that, surely, I made up along the way. The most reliable memory is that it was a verbal act. I mean, a poem was my starting point, a poem based on repetition and wordplay. It was based on two things; at the level of formal exercise, it was a pastiche of Cristo vs Arizona by Camilo José Cela;10 and on the other hand, I was trying recapture William Faulkner's world, that Yoknapatawpha County, the one from the Snopes's saga.11 It is not gratuitous, because practically all the Latin-American Boom comes from Faulkner's work.12 So there are the cultural ties and the literary migrations.

EF:

And you have been to the Deep South whose language is portrayed in the play?

LEGOM:

No, not at all. Just like the authors of the Boom were never there. That is why I speak of a cultural migration. I speak about our migrations, but it is an inverted migration in the cultural sense, how we appropriate this Faulknerian world. Just like them, the ones from the Boom, I did not take the tour.

But curious things happened, now that you mention it, with language's role. This play has been staged in many places; it is a play that has run a long way, it's the type that goes out in sneakers and lives in its sneakers. They are about to stage it in Rome in October, translated by Chiara Lippi from the Università degli Studi di Modena e Reggio Emilia; it was staged in Kazakhstan, translated into Russian. And obviously the staging in New York with Ana Graham was lovely. But before that, there was a very small presentation that I did not see, but afterwards when the actress Laura Crotte came to Mexico and participated in a staged reading of this play with Boris Schoemann: it was a poignant thing. In Chicago, they would present it in bars, particularly in a bar that was a meeting place for migrants and as a means to discuss migration. This topic is hard-hitting. In this business of the engagement with literature, theatre, and in acts of representation, I am very cautious. I don't like muddling activism, because normally this takes us to false activism: we didn't have to ride atop of a train nor did we have to swim a river, but from afar we are practiced at wielding an activist pen. But they were hit by that, they are affected by it. Laura Crotte said that, more than once, someone commented that they thought it was a badly translated play—it's a marvelous comment, although it might sound aggressive at first—they thought that the play was written in English and translated by a Chicano. They related all the day-to-day dirty slang with a poor translation.

For me it was a compliment, because the verbal aspect, perhaps by mistake, was accomplished. That play is a verbal act from end to end, it is a speech act. It doesn't seek to problematize the scene head on—the moment I present it and I say, "this is theatre," I pose a problem in many senses.

Not only that it is fully verbal, in third person, past tense, etc., but also [it's] the opposite of drama that facilitates the understanding of the staging. It detonates, from the verbal act, with a lot of references, mainly to Faulkner and another text that I like a lot, and that is also an act of speech: Cristo versus Arizona, which reclaims that little thing that I think those migrants in Chicago identified, saying things a certain way, like a badly spoken English, including city names, in a space, now intercultural, in between a place in which you are in the United States and you are [simultaneously] in Mexico. For example, when referring to "Tombstone" in his Cristo versus Arizona, Camilo José Cela writes "Tomistón." It is these types of phonetic approaches that I'm playing with in the play.

It is a text that plays with language, a very silly thing, [through] the idea of an alien, both in the sense of a foreigner and alien in the sense of an extraterrestrial. So I accept the idea of confusing Mexicans with extraterrestrials. Afterwards, someone asked me if I had based my work on the texts of a crazy gringo who says that Mexicans are extraterrestrials, that it is the only way of explaining why we are the way we are. I have never read it, but surely it is [because of] this idea [that] we landed in the same place, the lunatic and me. Let's say that they were the referential feet of that text.

When all is said and done, what I did and [what] I think attracted attention when we took the play to New York—where it made a splash—was that it ended up being a sort of cartoon, because that is what it is: the characters are very cartoony, the same way that they, the gringos, portray us like Speedy González. It was fun to return the slap. I recently gave a talk at the University of Genova, I was telling them—because they didn't want me to talk about the play, they wanted me to talk about migration—that is like asking El Greco to give a talk about San Antonio just because he painted a pretty painting of San Antonio of Padua. I am not a specialist in migration and, again, I am not an immigration activist. My sister Lourdes is. My sister risks her neck every day working at the UN, actually fighting on the side of migrants in Central America.

EF:

I understand your stance: on one side, you manifest respect towards true activism, and on the other you defend the autonomy of art that abstains from moral judgments and from being "politically correct." Your author's gaze chooses the dark side of reality, and you add to that a sour, black or gray humor—whichever you prefer—without affirmations or solutions. That is why I was surprised by your recent play, Cherán o la democracia según cinco indias rijosas, staged in collaboration with the Compañía Nacional de Teatro and the Compañía de la UV. Is it not activism to help an ethnic group fight for their habitat?

LEGOM:

I knew we would arrive at Cherán … because it is a very curious place that I fell into, in this business of writing. I fell there a little by mistake, but with great pleasure. On the contrary, it is a tribute. You know what? I never swallowed the naturalist ideas of drama, I always held fast to the classic idea of drama. The classic idea of drama is based in exemplariness, of "Why am I going to tell this story?" Because this story, and this character, were exemplary of something, for better or for worse. Here, we are speaking of some exemplary women, beyond civic duty. That is why distance needed to be taken from the ethnic, poverty, marginalization, etc. They are five admirable women who did something out of the ordinary. But see, the thing is, this is a documentary play and for me that's extremely rare.

I like historical plays and I have [written] several. I dig deep into documents, try to go to the sources and go at this for months, then I write. In this case, it was a weird documentation for me, because looking in between journalistic reports on the internet, most of the information was on YouTube, even more than in journalistic reports. What we did know was because of this very odd intermediary that trivializes what happened there and fits it into a set of discourses that currently are popular because they are easy to buy into. For example, the Indian is good, and yes, the Indian is good, but when I say "Indian," I am already disparaging him. In social media anything can be stated. The Indian is good, and people buy this, and we love the Indian, but we perpetuate the discriminatory and disparaging discourse. Of all these discourses, I already had a background that bothered me from when I adapted Otro día de fiesta [Another Fiesta Day], a play by Marco Petriz that talks about the Muxes, the mythical third sex of Tehuantepec.

EF:

Nevertheless, there is the critique.

LEGOM:

I critique in a sense. In Mexico City, the play was well-received, but here in Xalapa they were very upset about my treatment of the topic. They said that I disrespected these women. In one scene, when they are going to ask the council of elders how to govern, the wife tells him, "Where did you get all of this from? You are an old drunk," and he responds, "What do you want me to tell them? That our ancestors governed themselves by machete chops?" It is a very interesting form of organization, what the ancestors say seems much more like democracy, as understood by the Greeks, than to the form of government of these towns. What I was denouncing wasn't that they copied Greek democracy—there is nothing wrong with that—but that they gave us the information and dressed it up with pro-Indigenous airs that are completely premanufactured.

My axis is these women, who did something exemplary and got a shitshow in response, because they can't even be voted for now because there is a price on their heads. It's a pretty thing when reality hands you your hat. One of the characters, the sister-in-law, is based on a classical model, on Ajax from The Iliad. She is Ajax the Great: she is big, strong, a giantess. A few months after this, the famous Reinota [Big queen] appears all over social media, throwing a smoke bomb at the grenadiers [riot police] in Mexico City.13 It was my character. They said, "You got ahead of La Reinota" and I made her an Ajax. And that Reinota was Ajax, and she was here in real life in a feminist march, throwing a smoke bomb back at the grenadiers. It was mythical; the same image of inferiority against the enemy that is attacking the women with smoke bombs and this brave woman throws it back. Besides, she was big—she was my character. It is because of these revelations that sometimes we say, even if it isn't true, "This is why I write for the theatre." 

 

Footnotes

1. Elsa M. Treviño, "The Concept of Generation in the Study of Twenty-first-Century Mexican Literature: Usefulness and Limitations," Lingüística y literatura 34, no. 74 (2018): 110–29.

2. Giorgio Agamben, Desnudez (Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo, 2011).

3. François Zourabichvili, El vocabulario de Deleuze (Buenos Aires: Atuel, 2007), 6.

4. Elias Canetti was a Bulgarian thinker and writer in the German language. He authored several essays, novels, and plays and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. Here, LEGOM refers to Canetti's book, Kafka's Other Trial (1969).

5. This refers to the wave of femicide in Juarez City beginning in the 1990s. By 1995, there were already 700 cases whose perpetrators escaped with almost total impunity.

6. Or "common man."

7. Here, LEGOM uses the English word insider.

8. José Sanchis Sinisterra, Narraturgia. Dramaturgia de textos narrativos (México City: Pasodegato, 2012).

9. Robert Abirached, La crisis del personaje el teatro moderno (Madrid: Asociación de Directores de Escena de España, 1994).

10. Camilo José Cela (1916–2002) was a Spanish writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989. His book Christ v. Arizona centers on the events in 1881 that surrounded the shootout at the OK Corral, where Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Virgil and Morgan Earp fought the Clantons and the McLaurys.

11. Faulkner's Snopes trilogy—The Hamlet (1940), The Town (1957), and The Mansion (1959)—takes place in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, based on the real county of Jefferson, Mississippi, and its county seat of Oxford. The name Yoknapatawpha is derived from authentic Native American names found on old maps of Jefferson County.

12. The "Latin-American Boom" refers to the literary movement of the 1960s and '70s featuring experimental work by writers, including Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez.

13. The real events occurred during the women's demonstration on March 8, 2021 in Mexico City. The National Palace was protected with fences from where the smoke bomb was launched against the protesters. This was intercepted by "Reinota" (so-called in the "memes" of Facebook) and relaunched toward the policemen. See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-21/la-reinota-epic-queen-becoming-symbolof-mexico-feminist-protest/13264754.