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 nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times