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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge