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Parodying Eva Perón

Copi and an Argentinian classic of queer theatre.

Eva Peron
Eva Peron in 1951. Photo: Getty Images

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.