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Rabinal Achi (Man of Rabinal in English), also known as Quiché Vinak (Lord of Quiché) and Xajoj Tun (Dance of the Trumpets), provides an invaluable glimpse at the highly ritualized nature of ancient Amerindian performance. The two warriors, the Rabinal warrior and the Queché, are locked in a stylized battle that ends with the death by sacrifice of the latter. The plot is straightforward: the Queché warrior attacks the neighboring people of Rabinal and is caught by their warrior, the king's son. Codes of honor govern the ways in which the captors treat their illustrious captive. While it is clear to all from the onset that the Queché warrior must die, he will be shown every honor until the final moment.
The play consists of verbal and physical dueling as the two characters literally go around and around-dancing, fighting, and challenging each other. The action moves from the present of captivity into the past as we discover the acts and ancient animosities that provoked the current crisis. The plotline, then, is almost circular. The end brings us up to thepresent moment and moves on to the foreseeable end-the death of the Queché warrior on the sacrificial stone.
The circularity is reinforced by the repetitive nature of the dialogue as each actor sums up what the other has said before adding his own words. In part, the repetition is an integral characteristic of the oral tradition. Peoples without writing need a repetitive, codified mnemonic structure in order to remember. Pragmatics rather than aesthetics originally dictated these stylistic choices. Still, what we know is inseparable from how we know it. In other words, the Maya-Quiché worldview of cosmic order and balance is intricately embedded in the circularity of expression. This circularity underlines what French scholar Georges Raynaud in 1928 identified as pre-Conquest notions of equilibrium and parallelism-pairs, balanced images, matching dialogues, mirrored movements, and so forth. Nonetheless, the stark oppositionality at the heart of the work, reflected concretely by the two warriors confronting each other in the circle of seemingly endless motion, also points to the Mesoamerican sense of conflict at the very center of the cosmos. The universe, for the Mesoamericans, was both perpetually in circular motion and at risk of ending abruptly due to warring elements that need to be confronted and vanquished daily.
Rabinal Achi belongs to a tradition that Angel María Garibay, in Historia de la literatura náhuatl, calls the "baile de los cautivos" (dance of captives). Garibay makes a connection between this work and the pre-Conquest practice of highly ritualized human sacrifices, which involved elaborate costumes and codified acts. Some scholars believe the work dates to pre-Conquest times untouched by European influences. Raynaud claimed in the 1920s "that this is the only work of ancient Amerindian theatre that has reached us in which we cannot discover a trace-either in form, in content, in words, ideas, or events-of European origin." Others couch such claims. The U.S. scholar Dennis Tedlock, for example, argues that it is a "direct descendant" of "one of the most popular plays to emerge during the early colonial period" and that it "had an all-Mayan cast of characters speaking all-Mayan dialogue, featured Mayan music played on long wooden trumpets, and dramatized the capture and sacrifice of a prisoner of war." He notes European influences in the text but stresses that Mayans did not simply adopt European performance modes wholesale. According to Tedlock, the work centers on events that took place during the reign of Quicab, the most famous Quiché king, who led an expansionist campaign in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. A revolt initiated by Quicab's son (the possible model for Cawek, the Queché Warrior in the play) was responsible for the unauthorized invasion of the neighboring regions of Rabinal and Cakchiquel. However, Tedlock states that "as a representation of Mayan culture, and the culture of Mayan royalty in particular, it reaches much deeper into the past"-at least to the classical period, which lasted from the fourth through the tenth centuries.
In one version or another-not necessarily the one we have inherited-Rabinal Achi is likely a song-dance (mitote) from the fifteenth century. References to danzas del tun (dance of the trumpets) can be found in sixteenth-century documents prepared by the Inquisition that prohibit them. In 1702, Fray Francisco Ximénez referred to a song-dance that "the Quiché Indians continue to celebrate in their dances, for they do not dance others in their fiestas except this one, that they call Quiché-Vinac, that means Lord of the Quiché." Rabinal Achi has been performed periodically for the past three hundred years during the fiestas patronales (patron saint's day festivals) held in January in the town of Rabinal, Guatemala. An elder, Bartolo Zis, the holpop (singer/performance specialist) who performed the play, wrote down his memory of it as "Baile del Tun" in 1850. In 1855 he dictated a version of the play to a French priest, Charles Etienne Brasseur, who saw the danced performance. Brasseur transcribed it in Quiché and translated it from Quiché into French in 1862 with the help of three native specialists. Years later Raynaud complained that Brasseur's translation indirectly introduced a "nefarious European influence"-that is, the fact that religion plays almost no role in the work and that the number of warriors (thirteen, a number sacred to the Mesoamericans) was changed to twelve, which had particular significance for the Europeans. This should be kept in mind when reading the translation included in this volume, which is based on Brasseur's version.
The textual basis and "authenticity" of indigenous performance practices have long been debated and contested in the Americas. Original documents disappear, copies and transcriptions lead to errors, and translations vary in their faithfulness to the spirit and language of the original. To further complicate matters, it is important to remember that "originals" are based on actual performance practices that undergo change. While performance specialists guarded the script (and continue to do so in many native performance traditions), actors never memorized the lines exactly. The relationship between the script and the performed event has always been a fluid one. So which is the "authentic" cultural manifestation? This is not simply a problem that plagues historical scholarship in this field. New versions, such as Dennis Tedlock's recent translation, are often influenced by the specific performances in which the translators participated. The live, changing relationship between the performed and scripted works is a characteristic of indigenous performance practice both past and present.
As important as examining the text, then, is an understanding of the context of the performance. Rabinal Achi, like many quasi-religious dance-dramas, requires ritual preparation by participants. For the 1955 celebration of this work, according to one observer, "a series of rites were performed in the twenty days preceding the performance, and sexual continence was required of everyone connected with the performance for thirty days before and thirty days after the performance." These mandates were accompanied by others: salutation and offerings to the surrounding hills, prayer, the drinking of aguardiente (cane alcohol), and the preparation and blessing of the costumes, masks, and musical instruments before the performance. And, like almost all indigenous performances, this one is staged outdoors either in the plaza or in front of the church. Tedlock, who saw the dance in 1998, describes "a theater of four sides and four corners, like the four sides and corners of the Mayan world." The Costa Rican performance specialist Alejandro Tosatti, who witnessed the same performance, mentions that the best position from which to view the play is from the church, as the performance is staged for the holy image inside rather than the people standing around outside. The coexistence of pre- and post-Conquest elements is not surprising. Many traditional Amerindian performances are multilayered and double or triple coded as pre-Conquest elements hide behind contemporary forms, adapting in order to stay vital. While they may retain elements that predate the arrival of the Europeans, their current enactment is often linked to events in the Christian calendar. Rabinal Achi now celebrates the feast days of Saint Sebastian (January 20) and Saint Paul (January 25), the patron saint of Rabinal. As these performances were frequently targeted by the Inquisition and government edicts, they often underwent change in order to placate the authorities. Originally, as Tedlock notes, the dance-dramas were sung and danced not recited. But since the Conquest indigenous "dramatists" seeking to keep "the memory of Mayan court drama" alive and avoid censorship have "separated the words from the music and removed all but the outlines of the original religious content from public view. To this day, the dialogue is spoken by actors rather than sung by a chorus, and the dance music is purely instrumental." As time passes, the performances outlast social memory. They become a way of both remembering and forgetting what came before. That is, while the adaptations in form and calendar were responses to specific kinds of social pressure, the people who enact them may very well have forgotten that the pressures brought about the change in the first place. For some dancers today, the performance is offered up to the holy image in the Catholic Church, and it is not certain that they recall that the change in venue was an adaptive one initially forced by the conquering Christian powers.
Now, as before, the fiestas involve many events and performances taking place at the same time. The performance is only part of a much larger celebration that includes worship, feasting, drinking, socializing, and other activities. Dancers in the Rabinal Achi wear elaborate costumes and masks. They dance and recite, though their words are often incomprehensible-at times because the words are archaic, at times because the masks muffle the voices. Both men and women perform. The musical instruments seem much the same as those mentioned in documents four hundred years ago: two trumpets, a tun (sacred drum), wood and clay instruments, and flutes. Maracas made of gourds and gourds with metal wires are also used, as are marimbas.
Nowadays, dancers perform this ancient work only sporadically. For one thing, its presentation involves a major commitment of economic and human resources; dancers have to commit to dance seven years in a row, memorize long speeches, and make their masks and costumes. Interestingly, sometimes outsiders will underwrite the costs for specific reasons. The 1998 performance was paid for by the International Red Cross to underline the concept of treating one's enemies honorably in an area devastated by decades of civil war. Yet the aim of the sponsors might have little to do with the intentions of the performers. And, although the dance-drama is not regularly staged, it receives only passing attention from spectators. The performance event has no clear beginning or end. At times it starts up and peters out only to start up again later. Rabinal and other traditional indigenous communities have no tradition of watching a play as if it were Western-style theater. Spectators come and go. There is no such thing as a "director." The keeper of the script, rather, coaches the actors with their lines and checks for orthodoxy. Performers seem to address religious forces rather than the immediate audience; they conceal their identities-they are, as Alejandro Tosatti calls them, danzantes de fe (dancers of faith) who see their participation as a form of religious and social debt payment-not entertainment. There is little dramatic action, and the movement is slow and repetitive. Nonetheless, an important drama is staged every time the performance takes place-the drama of communal memory itself: interrupted, sporadic, often ignored, yet always vital to the way the community thinks about itself. -Diana Taylor
Rabinal Achi Translated by Richard E. Leinaweaver
CHIEF FIVE-RAIN, Governor of the town of Rabinal
RABINAL WARRIOR, highest dignitary among the warriors; son of Five-Rain
QUECHÉ WARRIOR, Governor of the Grand Council of Cunen and Chahul, son of the Wizard of the Warriors, Wizard of the Woven Bundle, Governor of the Queché men
The WIFE of Chief Five-Rain
PRECIOUS EMERALD, Mother of the Green Feathers, Mother of the Green Birds, promised bride of the Rabinal Warrior
A SERVANT of the Rabinal Warrior
Twelve YELLOW EAGLES, twelve YELLOW JAGUARS, young warriors of the town of Rabinal
Numerous WARRIORS, numerous SERVANTS
The action takes place in Cakyug-Zilic-Cakocaonic-Tepecanic.
In front of the fortress
(The RABINAL WARRIOR and his people dance in a circle. The QUECHÉ WARRIOR suddenly arises and begins to dance in the middle of the circle moving his short spear as if he intends to wound the RABINAL WARRIOR in the head. With each revolution the movement of the circle becomes more rapid.)
QUECHÉ WARRIOR: Come here, odious chief, despicable chief! Will you be the first whose very root, whose trunk, I cannot cut; that chief of the Chacach, of the Zaman, the Caük of Rabinal! This I swear to do before heaven and earth; and for this reason I need say no more. Heaven and earth be with thee, oh most remarkable of the stalwarts-Warrior of Rabinal.
RABINAL WARRIOR: (As he starts to dance he twirls a lasso with which he threatens to subdue his enemy.) Aha! Courageous warrior. Chief of the Cavek Queché. Thus you spoke before heaven and earth: "Come near, odious chief, despicable chief. Will you be the only one whose very root, whose trunk I cannot cut. I, chief of the Chacach, of the Zaman, the Caük of Rabinal." Did you not say that? Yes, by all means! Heaven and earth bear witness! Surrender to the son of my arrow, to the son of my shield, to my mace, to my stranger's axe, my net, my accoutrements, to my sacrificial earth, to my magic herbs, to my vigor, to my courage. Be it thus or no, before heaven and earth will I bind you with my strong lasso. Heaven and earth be with thee, courageous warrior, my prisoner and my captive!
(He snares him with the lasso, which he pulls in order to bring his prisoner towards him. The music stops and the dance is interrupted. There is a prolonged silence during which both men, feigning anger, face each other, without musical accompaniment or dancing.)
Now, valiant warrior, my prisoner and my captive. Already your heaven and earth wither! Truly the heaven and earth have delivered you to the son of my arrow, to the son of my shield, to my stranger's mace, to my net, to my accoutrements, to my sacrificial earth, to my magic herbs. Speak now. Reveal the location of your mountains and of your valleys; and if you were born on the side of a mountain, at the back of a valley. Are you not a son of the clouds, a son of the mist? Have you not come flying before spears, before war? Thus speaks my voice before heaven and earth. For this reason I will speak briefly. Heaven and earth be with thee, prisoner and captive!
Excerpted from STAGES OF CONFLICT Copyright © 2008 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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