“Information for Foreigners”: A Dissection

6 pages, 12-pt Times New Roman, double-spaced.

Griselda Gambaro’s Information for Foreigners explores the themes of action, voyeurism, and accountability. The play, produced in 1972, could be seen as prescient in terms of predicting future violence, culminating in Argentina’s “Dirty War” from roughly 1976 to 1983. Diana Taylor[1] writes, “In Argentina during the 1970s both State and anti-State terrorism competed to capture the public’s attention and control its behavior by staging highly dramatic acts of violence. Terrorism, with its scenes of torture and abductions, proved highly theatrical both on a practical and on a symbolic level” (Taylor 1990). In the play, action becomes a double-edged sword, and passivity becomes accepted. This leads into the play’s themes of voyeurism, where a complicit audience stands around watching, not doing anything, save for the actors in the play who portray audience members. The lack of action also draws into themes of accountability—who is responsible for the sideshow of horrors throughout the performance? Who will stop it? Can it be stopped?

The play has a very unusual structure. According to Taylor, “By introducing fragments of theatrical scenes with acts of criminal violence, Gambaro indicates the degree to which theater in Latin America is the arena of intense and dangerous conflict.” Gambaro uses this technique to display real-life events—fictionalized to a certain degree—like a haunted house, only it is meant for adults and addresses true horrors under a military regime. Different groups within the audience can see scenes out of order, as long as Scene 20 is performed last. At times, the play can be like a game show, asking the audience, “What’s behind this door?” The audience feels as if it were visiting a museum while the tour guide shows them through a live-action instillation. It borders on the farcical in a number of scenes, with policemen and suspects dressed bizarrely and comically overacting. This combination of verisimilitude and farce is used to show the very ordinariness of Argentina’s violent history, and the complicitness of its citizens. Taylor goes further into this idea, comparing the audience, actors, and torture victims to one another, as they “stood in (albeit unwillingly) for someone or something else.”

In the play, the tour guide stands in for both the perpetrators of and witnesses to Argentina’s criminal acts. Since the audience does not know how to navigate the play’s bizarre sets, he is the only one who can show everyone where to go. As a result, he is privy to the actions contained within the play. He knows what happens throughout the play and in its sets, yet he does nothing to prevent the horrific scenes portrayed. He recites cases from newspaper articles as “information for foreigners,” events in which ordinary citizens accused of “subversive behavior” were tortured, kidnapped, and often never found. He speaks matter-of-factly, as if the occurrence of these events is as ordinary as soccer games. Thus, he is rendered as both active participant and inactive spectator.

This perceived normalcy combines audience participation and action, to a certain extent. The audience’s actions consist of physically walking around the performance space, as opposed to sitting in cushy seats away from the stage. This set-up goes a step beyond “breaking the fourth wall,” although Information for Foreigners uses this theatrical device many times throughout. Instead, participants are asked to walk around, led by an actor/tour guide. However, they do little else besides walk around the performance area and drink wine—offered by another actress in the play. Taylor writes, “The witnesses [of Argentinean terrorism], like obedient spectators in a theater, were encouraged to suspend their disbelief.” In this statement, Taylor draws a parallel between the audience and witness, as both are spectators to something much larger than themselves. Information for Foreigners goes a step further, as it makes a distinction between the “active” spectator and the “passive” one. In witnessing such violence, people remain inactive, as it is implied that there is nothing they can do.

However, Information for Foreigners’ audience is an active one—they’ve paid admission for the performance and walk around the set. In setting the play in such a way, Gambaro implicates the audience, for they are just as guilty as witnesses to Argentina’s real-life crimes. Despite the audiences’ movement, there is still total inaction on its part. The audience is asked to travel back in time and witness violence that many Argentineans faced during the 1970s. Throughout the play, the audience sees various levels of power, control, and authority. This is best demonstrated in Scene 4, in which the audience watches a reenactment of the famous Milgram experiment, which tested participants’ willingness to bow to an authority figure—a scientist in this case—despite personal conflicts about hurting a second subject, unknown to the participants. The experiment was conducted in the United States, as well as Germany. Participants overwhelmingly listened to the authority figure while ignoring their personal morals. This bowing to authority is interesting in the social context of the play, given Argentina’s sizeable German community, as well as its history as a safe haven for Nazis escaping prosecution after World War II. Taylor writes in reference to the Milgram experiment, “Torture and torturers are not quite the monstrous Other we like to imagine. And the audience obediently moves from room to room.” While watching this reenactment, the audience is powerless to stop it, as they under the control of the tour guide who, presumably, knows what he is doing and where he is going as the play progresses. The audience then becomes helpless voyeurs, watching a piece of violent history that may have been prevented otherwise.

Taylor makes an interesting parallel between in/action and voyeurism: “there are many ways of watching… some with perversity and criminality (voyeurism).” When watching such atrocious acts on stage, is the audience able to take action? No, as the audience is rendered passive, as it us unable to do anything about the violent acts they watch in the performance space. In witnessing such crimes, voyeurism becomes passivity and inaction, and the audience is forced to suspend disbelief and process the actions performed in front of them.

Many scenes in Information for Foreigners integrate spectatorship and voyeurism with the abuse of authority. The first tour guide becomes an authority figure who abuses power himself. This happens most explicitly in Scene 10 when he humiliates the wet girl with a pistol seen in Scenes 3, 7, 8, and 14. She has been held underwater, tortured, and given a pistol so she can commit suicide. The tour guide berates her and makes her aware of the audience, saying the audience can watch because “they paid admission” (p. 96). He puts his hand up her skirt and threatens her with this pistol. Another tour guide comes into the room; however this interruption is not so much an intervention as it is a transition to another room/scene. Throughout this entire exchange, the audience does nothing except follow the tour guide from room to room.

A similar situation also occurs in Scene 7, where the second tour guide participates as well in furthering the girl’s humiliation and torture. He spots dirty graffiti on the wall, and tells the female audience members to look away. He accuses the wet girl of drawing it, accuses her of lying, and berates her lack of virginity. Before the second guide and his group leave the room, he says to the girl, “I’m meddling in something that’s none of my business” (p. 90) while smiling. He too, like the main tour guide is a complicit authority figure. He tells his audience to follow him to another room so they can drink free wine. The audience willingly accepts his direction, and everyone leaves the tortured girl behind.

In Scene 11, the two tour guides once again interact with each other. The first guide, annoyed and confused by a vertical box on set, says to the second guide, “I give the orders in my group! And if they don’t get it, too bad for them!” (p. 97). He leads the audience away, passing a door where a death rattle is heard. This brief scene is an eerie parallel to the experiment shown in Scene 4, with the tour guide as the Coordinator and the audience as Teacher. Once again, the tour guide demonstrates his authority over the audience, and the audience does nothing to question it.

The lack of accountability and responsibility throughout the performance is also shocking, and the play’s fragmented structure helps to emphasize that fact. Since the play is not structured as a traditional, causal narrative, we have no idea who the real perpetrators are and why they are performing such heinous acts. For example, in Scene 9, a mother and father are arrested, and the police take them away from their children. The scene is briefly interrupted by the tour guide, who says, “(choked up) It gets to you, doesn’t it?” (p. 95). Yet he does nothing to stop the psychologically damaging effects of familial separation. Instead, he leads his group into another room so they can witness yet another round of humiliation and torture. The audience is affected in such a way as to confuse them, and to question who is truly responsible for the staged acts, as well as the real-life instances of torture.

However, the tour guides are not the only characters who abuse their authority. In Scene 12, the tour guide gives the audience another “information for foreigners” story, this one about an attorney resisting an attempting kidnapping. However, the man was subsequently arrested and imprisoned. During this monologue, the tour guide says, “It’s not my responsibility” (p. 101) in regard to the question of the man’s innocence or guilt. In the reenactment of this event, the official says to the man, “The one who gives the orders here is me” (p. 102) after the suspect asks to see his attorney. The police official too, has become complicit in maintaining an unjust and authoritarian regime.

Taylor writes, “Information is metapolitical theater in that by constantly pushing aesthetic forms to the limits it enables us to carry that inquiry over into politics.” Gambaro’s Information for Foreigners is most definitely a product of its social context, as no work of art exists in a vacuum, and the play also functions as a critique of Argentina’s military history and human rights abuses. The play’s format is particularly effective in demonstrating blind acceptance and willingness to comply, creating a parallel between the participating audience and Argentinean citizens living through the country’s horrors during the 1970s and 1980s.

[1] Taylor, D. (1990). Theater and terrorism: Griselda Gambaro’s “Information for Foreigners. Theatre Journal, 42(2), 165-182.

Published in: on October 3, 2010 at 7:12 PM  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://theimaginedaristocracy.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/information-for-foreigners-a-dissection/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: