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.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.