"La Cautiva" Generates Polemic from the Peruvian State

October 10, 2016

La Cautiva premiered at the theatre La Plaza ISIL in Lima, Peru last October, instantly captivating audiences and drawing public attention. Critics applauded the work, which was written by artist Luis Alberto León and directed by Chela de Ferrari, praising it for confronting difficult topics of Peru’s recent, violent past. The play also generated controversy when Dircote (Dirección contra el Terrorismo), the Peruvian government’s anti-terrorism branch of the national police, began to investigate the play due to its polemic message.

La Cautiva takes place in a morgue in Ayacucho in 1984, during the height of the internal conflict in Peru. Mauro, the young morgue assistant, encounters the body of María Josefa, a 14-year-old girl who was assassinated by military officers. As he prepares to clean the dead girl’s body, the corpse suddenly comes to life. María Josefa begins to tell her story, but clearly only Mauro can communicate with the animated corpse while the other characters, including the doctor and the military officer, simply see a lifeless body.

León’s work deals with controversial issues that must be addressed when piecing together the occurrences and formulating a narrative of what happened during this part of Peru’s past. He highlights the negative impact of military involvement through the character known as The Captain. This sinister character is portrayed as a drunken authority figure, whose main goal in the action of the play is to rape the corpse of María Josefa. Mauro realizes that in preparing the girl’s body for her executioners, he is also preparing her for her defilement. He defies authority by denying the captain access to the girl’s body.

Because of the polemic topics that this play discusses, La Cautiva received mixed reactions from its audience. Many, such as critic Patricia del Río, applauded the play for its bold beauty. In an article published by El Comercio, she writes, “In ‘La Cautiva’ there are soldiers, there are terrorists, there is Ayacucho and Lima. There is innocence and desperation, and there is the cruelest human brutality. And nevertheless, although it sounds paradoxical, and even though it is one of the strongest plays written in Peru, ‘La Cautiva’ is a beautiful work.”* 2

I saw this work in December while studying in Peru and believe that it creates a poignant space for the nation’s self-reflection, for the public to remember the horrific violence that took place during this time, and for its viewers to question their role in relation to the complex conflict.

La Cautiva also caught the attention of the State. Shortly after its release, the play was put under investigation by Dircote, the state-sponsored body in charge of anti-terrorism investigation. The organization attacked the play on the grounds that it could be read as “an apology to the terrorists”.1 María Josefa’s character is a young girl who was assassinated along with her family because her parents had been identified as terrorists. Dircote interpreted this as an apology to terrorists for not being given a fair trial during the internal conflict and for brutally murdering innocent family members and other relations.

Although Dircote read this play as borderline pro-terrorism, the playwright had presented the themes of responsibility, guilt and culpability as subjective labels. María Josefa tells Mauro the story of her death by reenacting the military officials accusations. The audience is left to ponder whether her parents’ death was justified by the fact that they were terrorists, or whether it was a brash action committed on uninvestigated claims. La Cautiva highlights the clash of ideologies and interpretation not only through the themes of the play but also through the real-world implications surrounding its public performances.  

In response to Dircote’s investigation, the Ministry of Culture announced a press release that strongly stressed the play’s fictional nature.3 The release stated, “The Ministry of Culture understands and recognizes that every work of art can be inspired both by real facts and by events that come from the creator’s imagination and that in both cases the work forms part of the fictional universe.”*3 While some may have interpreted the work as a documentary piece, the playwright had intended it to be a work of fiction, inspired by the events that took place in the past and by information collected through research and testimony.

Dircote’s rapid denunciation of the play highlights the fact that the memory of the violence is still fresh in the nation’s mind. While this play takes a step in the right direction by commemorating aspects of the internal conflict that up to this point have often been neglected, the government’s reaction to La Cautiva shows that some are still unprepared to take this step into the future. Issues such as rape and the nature of the government’s response to the terrorism have often been ignored by official sources such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report. La Cautiva brings these controversies to the forefront of the public debate of the truth of the internal armed conflict.   

León has received much praise for his first play. Despite this, he emphasises the fact that he does not come from a theater background, and that he had not sought to generate such controversy with his first piece. In an interview with La Republica, León stated, “I am not a playwright, I am a student. La Cautiva is a work of learning. It is a theme that others have touched and I follow this line, I am not the first and I hope that I am not the last.”*4 León also revealed that La Cautiva is intended to be the first play in a triology of works that each deal with a different episode from Peru’s history.

The government backlash that this play received shows that the issues of diversity and social difference that allowed the conflict to continue for so long are still relevant in Peru today. Dircote’s choice to denounce this work of art demonstrates the State’s intolerance for divergent points of view. The public, however, has shown that they support La Cautiva’s message. Shortly after Dircote’s investigation began, a Facebook group advocating to save the show appeared. This shows that while some may wish to try to forget what happened, other voices are coming forth to demand an open dialogue that seeks to understand what happened in Peru during the internal conflict. Hopefully, as León states, this work will not be the last that seeks to question the truth behind the violence and others will attempt the controversial, difficult task of remembering this time period.


Works Cited:

  1. “PNP investiga a obra ‘La cautiva’ por apología al terrorismo.” El Comercio. 11 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. Available at: http://elcomercio.pe/politica/actualidad/pnp-investiga-obra-cautiva-apologia-al-terrorismo-noticia-1784150

  2. del Río, Patricia. “La bella y la bestia, por Patricia del Río.” El Comercio. 6 Nov. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. Available at: http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/rincon-del-autor/bella-y-bestia-patricia-rio-noticia-1768471?ref=nota_politica&ft=mod_leatambien&e=titulo
    *Translated from original text: “En ‘La cautiva’ están los soldados, están los terroristas, están Ayacucho y Lima, están la inocencia y la desesperación, y está la más cruel brutalidad humana. Y sin embargo, aunque suene paradójico, y pese a que es una de las obras de teatro más fuertes que se hayan escrito en el Perú, ‘La cautiva’ es una obra bella.”

  3. “Ministerio de Cultura se pronunció sobre obra ‘La cautiva’.” El Comercio. 12 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. Available at: http://elcomercio.pe/luces/teatro/ministerio-cultura-se-pronuncio-sobre-obra-cautiva-noticia-1784321
    *Translated from original text: “El Ministerio de Cultura comprende y reconoce que toda obra de arte puede estar inspirada tanto en hechos reales como en sucesos que parten de la imaginación del creador y, en ambos casos, la obra forma parte del universo de la ficción.”

  4. Barrenechea, Melissa. “Luis Alberto León: ‘Mi intención no fue escribir una obra controversial’.” LaRepublica.pe. Grupo La República Digital. 3 Nov. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. Available at:http://www.larepublica.pe/03-11-2014/luis-alberto-leon-mi-intencion-no-fue-escribir-una-obra-controversial
    *Translated from original text: “Yo no soy dramaturgo, soy un estudiante. La Cautiva es una obra  de aprendizaje. Es un tema que otros han tocado y  yo sigo esta  línea, no soy el primero y espero no ser el último.”



About Author(s)

Madeline Townsend's picture
Madeline Townsend
Madeline is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. She is pursuing a degree in Spanish and Global Studies, with a focus on the Latin American region. She plans to present an honors thesis on visual representations of the internal conflict that occurred in Peru between 1980 and 2000. She also studies Portuguese and Film Studies as minors and works as one of the Panoramas interns.