Parodying Eva Perón

Copi and an Argentinian classic of queer theatre.

Sixty years since her death, dramatisations of Evita’s life and early death abound. The most famous remains Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical; the most notorious is still Eva Perón by Copi, whose premiere in Paris in 1969 was disrupted by Perónists who hurled stink bombs, tore down the set, attacked the cast and threatened to burn down the Théâtre de l’Epée de Bois before the police intervened.

Born Raúl Damonte Botana in Buenos Aires in 1939, the son of an anti-Perónist politician and periodical editor, Copi (from copito de nieve, Spanish for "little snowflake") spent years in Uruguay and New York before settling in France in 1962. He set up as a costume designer before joining the Panic Movement, founded by Fernando Arrabal, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor in response to a sanitised version of Surrealism becoming co-opted into mainstream culture.

The Panic group fused ideas from the most sexually and politically radical Surrealists – Un Chien Andalou co-director Luis Buñuel, authors Antonin Artaud and Benjamin Péret – and American and Viennese performance art to create confrontational, chaotic happenings. Copi took this aesthetic into theatrical scripts, influenced by Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams, and the transvestite and transsexual performers of Parisian cabarets. Copi and his works outraged French critics: reviewing Eva Perón, conservative newspaper Le Figaro called him "sinister, inept, indecent, odious, nauseating and dishonest".

Calder Publications released Plays: Volume 1 in 1976, Copi’s only publication in English (Drag Ball, from his novel Le Bal des folles was planned but never appeared). Now reissued by Alma Classics as Four Plays, Anni Lee Taylor’s versions provide some idea of why his dramas caused such controversy – and why Eva Perón remains best known and most staged.

The use of drag queens heightened the furore around Eva Perón. Originally, La Grande Eugène, one of Paris’s best known artistes, was intended for Evita, but attended rehearsals drunk and, used to lip-synching, couldn’t learn the lines: Copi tried starring himself, but director Alfredo Arias cast Argentine-born Facundo Bo in a golden gown. Figaro objected to a "grimacing transvestite" representing Evita, but who portrayed her didn’t matter. Queer interpretations of femininity were embedded into all of Copi’s texts, working to strongest effect in his savaging of the Peróns’ private and public politics.

Set during her final hour, Evita’s first words set the tone: “Shit! Where’s my presidential robe?” Besides referencing the “Merdre!” that initiated Alfred Jarry’s proto-Absurdist Ubu Roi about a grotesque power-hungry King, starting a near-riot on its 1896 debut, Copi launches a play about Evita’s image: her obsession with it, and the gulf between her family’s treatment of her and their planned manipulation of her posthumous cultural meaning.

Former actress Evita’s apparently apolitical connection with Argentina’s working classes, particularly women, was crucial in securing popular support for her husband’s regime, but fearing her growing influence, the army crushed her plans to run for vice-presidency. Copi frames this conflict within her home, casting Juan Perón as an unprincipled opportunist and her mother and brother as calculating grave-diggers, impatient for cancer to kill her – vested interests which Evita sees full well.

Giving her little substance, Copi portrays Evita as a foul-mouthed, morphine-addicted hedonist whose primary interest is how her body will be embalmed and displayed. (“You told me it’s the same man who did Stalin. But he’s Spanish. Don’t you think we should have got an American?”) However, the audience are still invited to sympathise with her. Copi’s Evita is a tragic heroine, not exempt from her family’s culture of cruelty – she hits her mother before telling her that “In a month’s time you’ll be back in Monte Carlo getting yourself screwed by French gigolos” – but mistreated by the men around her and desperate to escape.

The atmosphere is paranoid: Evita accuses her husband of poisoning her, blaming him for her cancer. All four plays operate on the fringes of reality and delirium, however, and having rejected radio bulletins on her health, Copi’s Evita fakes her own death, murdering her nurse and absconding without disclosing the numbers for her Swiss bank accounts, undermining not just Juan Perón’s sanctifying epitaph (“Eva Perón is not dead, she is more alive than ever”) but his patriarchal, militaristic style of governance.

Copi’s refusal of logical narrative or character development works best in Eva Perón, his hallucinatory humour failing to carry his plots when his satire is less pronounced. Each play is less comprehensible than the last, and his attempts to shock haven’t always aged well. The Homosexual (or the Difficulty of Sexpressing Oneself) is amusing, but the twist that several characters (including Greta Garbo) have visited Casablanca for sex reassignment surgery offers less sensation than in Coccinelle’s day, and there is little else to hold the interest – that Taylor offers no information on its first performance is telling.

The Four Twins is equally farcical, with two sets of sisters fighting over ill-gotten money, incessantly killing each other, reviving themselves and killing each other again. Passing too far beyond the edge of possibility, Copi cannot create tension, but by over-playing the fundamentals – sex, crime and death – renders theatrical drama as ridiculous as Perón’s depthless politicking.

In Loretta Strong, an astronaut travelling to Betelgeuse murders her co-pilot and launches into a surreal, scatological monologue. As in Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, we hear one end of a telephone conversation, but the scenario is too baffling for an audience to fill the gaps. Perhaps Loretta could only be played by Copi – who did so in Paris and Washington as part of the American bicentennial celebrations, wearing just high heels and green make-up.

One critic described Copi, who died of AIDS in 1987, as “more than an eccentric, less than a genius”, and this feels a fair assessment. Three of the Four Plays strike as bizarre period pieces, but Eva Perón periodically revived on the stage across the world, remains a minor classic of queer theatre. Its return to print in English reminds us of its distinctive place within the plethora of works on Evita – and of its sustained power to surprise.

Eva Peron in 1951. Photo: Getty Images

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit