Live from the Pampas! Nationalism and Narrative at the Creole Circus

Interview with Latin American literary and culture studies scholar William Acree

For the late 19th-century denizens of Argentina and Uruguay’s Río de la Plata region, the greatest show on earth was the Creole circus. William Acree, associate professor of Romance languages and literatures and a Faculty Fellow in the Center for the Humanities, describes the phenomenon that still resonates today in the area’s theater-going tradition. 

Briefly, what is the Creole circus? What does the term “Creole” mean in this context?
The Creole circus was an entertainment phenomenon that developed in the region known as the Río de la Plata, comprising Argentina and Uruguay, in the 1880s and 1890s. In the mid-1880s traveling circus troupes, which had crisscrossed the region for decades, incorporated short plays called Creole dramas into their acts, and these became the namesake of the Creole circus.

Creole (criollo) was a colonial term denominating Spaniards born in the Americas and their privileged social status. By the second half of the 1800s, however, and in line with the appropriation of the term across Latin America, Creole had come to designate what and who was “authentically” local — in this case, Argentine or Uruguayan and clearly not European.

One of the recurrent Creole dramas performed was that of the story of Juan Moreira, in short, the tale of a good-gaucho-gone-bad, based loosely on a real-life outlaw who became a folk hero. Why did this story resonate with the people? And how does it relate to nationalist ideologies?
There are many reasons the story of Juan Moreira became so popular, beginning with its entertainment value. The story first appeared as a serialized narrative in an Argentine newspaper, quickly becoming a best-seller. Over the course of a couple months in 1879–80, readers followed the arc of Moreira’s noble life on the pampa, his persecution by corrupt state officials, and his downfall that fed a larger-than-life myth of the man. The daily installments inspired suspense — like telenovelas do so well today. The dramatic representation of Moreira only heightened the entertainment quality, for spectators were treated to horse races, knife fights, music and dance, all of which made for sold-out shows.

There were deeper issues at play, too, that attracted spectators. The transformation of the Argentine countryside — from a space devoted to raising livestock (cattle and sheep) to one centered on cereal cultivation — altered work opportunities as well as ways of life. Tensions surrounding immigration also feature in the Moreira drama as well as many others. Waves of mass migration to Argentina and Uruguay between 1870 and 1914, primarily from Italy and Spain, led to a demographic transformation in the region. During these same years, there was a proliferation of Creole literature as well as the growth of nativism as a powerful ideology that overlapped with nationalism. Finally, the shifting economic landscape resulted in rapid urbanization of the port capitals of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, where the majority of both countries’ populations were concentrated. With these changes, people welcomed the chance to celebrate the “simple life” of the past the Creole dramas portrayed, albeit an idealized or imaginary version. 

What are your research sources?
Sources for the project are quite varied, from the texts of plays themselves to memoirs of actors and newspaper collections. For example, I worked with several decades’ of the local press since it provides the clearest portrait of “public diversions” and reviews of shows. Police records document some of the reactions to performances or instances of having to restrict ticket sales to prevent overcrowding at venues. I also benefitted from photography collections of plays and performers housed at national archives and the National Institute of Theater Studies in Argentina.

A little more off the beaten path were experiences at the Elías Regules Creole Society in Uruguay, the oldest Creole club in the region. Regules was a medical doctor who was also an avid supporter of all things related to the countryside and author of a couple Creole dramas himself. The society has a private archive full of unique photographs of its early activities, letters between Creole drama actors and Regules, and other documents that showcase the intersection of the Creole drama atmosphere with this social club. Working there was eye opening for the sources not found elsewhere and unlike experiences with other collections: as I poured through photographs during the cold winter days of July, I shared the space with several roosters pecking at the ground in a setting designed to represent life in a 19th-century Uruguayan town.

Likewise, I learned a great deal about the Creole circus from conversations I had with a retired salesman who spent 20 years, beginning at the age of 65, following news of circus troupes in the region. Though not a professional academic, he had dreamed of one day writing a history of the circus in Uruguay and Argentina. For months, we met on a weekly basis in his studio apartment, sitting in the kitchen that measured about 4 feet wide by 8 feet long, hunched over a tiny table, talking about his discoveries as the television blared Argentine entertainment shows.

Has there been anything in your research that surprised you?
The proliferation of Creole dramas throughout the region surprised me. I knew that troupes traveled around, but had no idea of the performance circuit they forged, nor that they basically stayed as long as possible in one town, until audiences began thinning, before moving on to the next. Sales drove their repertoire as much or more than politically oriented dramas. I was also impressed by the deep impact Creole dramas made in small towns as harbingers of the theater. In effect, these shows introduced theater to these places that had little or no contact with theatrical productions before.

What is the lasting legacy of the Creole circus in the region today?
The legacy of the Creole circus in the Río de la Plata can be seen in the vibrant theater culture of the region that rivals that of New York, Paris and London. Theaters abound in Montevideo, while its sister city Buenos Aires has its own Broadway in the famed Corrientes street. In the age of digital culture, the theater remains a mainstay of cultural life and a central place to socialize for Argentines and Uruguayans.