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Obituary: Atahualpa del Cioppo

Atahualpa del Cioppo, theatre director: born Uruguay 1904; died Havana 2 October 1993.

ATAHUALPA DEL CIOPPO was the most revered figure in Latin American theatre this century, long before political exile forced him to leave his native Uruguay.

In Latin America his contribution to the stage ranks with that of Peter Brook, Yuri Lyubimov or Peter Stein in Europe. Unlike Brook, however, del Cioppo did not produce any substantial publication of his views on the theatre or the ethics of the artist, a subject which was most dear to him. He did not seem to have time for that in his itinerant life on the boards, which took him to many countries in Latin America where he spread his creed with passionate commitment and inescapable charm. A man of great learning, he was immersed in society, always keeping a profound interest in everything around him. 'Theatre people,' he believed, 'cannot perform their art unless they understand how society works.'

Del Cioppo's 60 years in the theatre coincided with turbulent changes in Latin America. The region was shaken by revolutions and dictatorships; indeed, one cannot envisage his commitment to the theatre, arts and society outside this frame of violence and hope. It was the political turmoil of his time which strengthened his plea for the role of theatre as a driving force towards change and improvement. He was one of the founders of El Galpon ('The Shed'), an independent theatre group whose members were ferociously persecuted (some of them jailed and tortured) by the Uruguayan dictatorship in the Seventies. In fact, del Cioppo was more than a founder: he was the flame, the inspiring force and the moral authority always needed in any human enterprise.

He was able to ignite an infectious feeling of teamwork in his fellow artists, stemming from the conviction that theatre is a microcosm of society and that it can therefore only be the collective product of individuals trying to achieve a common goal.

Curiously enough, nobody addressed del Cioppo but by his 'Christian' name Atahualpa which he adopted in 1930, when he was a young poet of 26: A name with all the indigenous resonances of the Inca murdered by Pizarro and his men. On the other hand, he preferred to address us, his colleagues in the theatre, by our family name.

Del Cioppo was endowed with a charismatic personality. His piercing eyes, aquiline nose and wonderfully expressive hands, his white hair and the sunken-cheeked wrinkled face of later years, gave him an imposing presence like that of a guru or a prophet. If you were an actor, he made you feel - however fleeting the moment you appeared on the stage - that you were the protagonist on which the entire success of the production depended.

I was a young actor when he directed me in the first ever production in Spanish of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle, in 1959. One of the five roles I had to play was that of the milkman, a character for whom I felt very little sympathy if any. He was an old peasant mean enough to deny his commodity to a starving child.

I was then a lathe operator (actors in those days had to earn a living outside the theatre) and presented del Cioppo with the three piastres demanded by the milkman. I had made them in copper, engraved with some 'Caucasian' features which, of course, would be totally unseen by the audience. He was absolutely delighted. Like a baby with a new toy, he dangled the coins in the air and said to me: 'Right, now you must bite them hard to check they're real metal, not only to make sure you're not being cheated but also because your own survival is at stake. Your milkman, too, is a human being in need.'

Atahualpa's teachings are scattered in numerous articles, interviews and talks, master-classes and letters (one of which I treasure). Such views were, of course, brilliantly reflected on the stage with memorable productions of vernacular plays along with the great works of Chekhov, Ibsen, Miller, Gorky, Weiss, Hochwalder and, especially, Brecht.

The fruits of his teachings are seen today all over Latin America. Directors like Ugo Ulive in Caracas or Jorge Curi in Montevideo (to mention but two of his most talented disciples) are shining examples of Atahualpa's influence on other generations.

Back in 1985, in an interview about his lifetime vocation for the theatre, del Cioppo had this to say:

Theatre is science, technology and magic. We can use this sophisticated tool to discover and treat human nature as an object of investigation. The writer, the artist, the theatre, do not solve the problems of society but they expose attitudes and conduct, they carry out an inquiry on the contradictions of the human condition. Theatre shows, the spectators draws the conclusions.

The important thing is to expose and to show with such 'finesse' that you catch and win the audience, contributing to the development of their conscience and humanity. Thus, theatre can help towards an ideal of justice for it is only through justice that we can affirm freedom. And only a lucid conscience can save us all from becoming beasts in these difficult times. We have to carry love in one hand, justice in the other.

(Photograph omitted)