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Zoom (2010)

by Enric Gallén
Carlos Batlle has always been concerned that authors of contemporary Catalan drama, the movement which began to develop during the nineties, show no curiosity or interest in bringing their immediate history or their own stories, past or present, into their projects. In accordance with this reflection he wrote the monologue Bizerta 1939 (Bizerte 1939), which is the point of reference for and immediate origin of Zoom. Both stem from an anecdote told by his maternal grandfather, Agustí Jordà, about a real but little-known situation that developed during the last moments of the Spanish Civil War.

The real historical facts which formed the basis of writing Zoom are thus: on the 4th March 1939 a Francoist military insurrection was triggered at the Cartagena naval base at precisely the same time when in Madrid the success of Colonel Casado and the Republican Army’s coup d’état was being celebrated. Given the inevitable Republican defeat – the very next day in fact – the squadron commanded by Captain Miguel Buiza decided to sail immediately to the military base at the port of Bizerte, Tunisia, where the French Navy would have to support the Spanish. The Republican fleet comprised a total of 3,800 soldiers and 350 civilians. After disembarking on 7th March, the fleet were able to choose between returning to Spain (theoretically, all those who had not been involved in any bloodshed were able to do so) or staying in Tunisia. A number close to the 1,600 people who decided to stay in Africa, including five officers more sympathetic to the Republican cause, were interned near to the desert in the Meknassy concentration camp in some of the worst living and working conditions. The officers closer to the Francoist cause, who in the end had less to lose, returned to the mainland.

Given its historical accuracy, and his position as both playwright and theatre theoretician, Batlle has not missed the opportunity to turn this piece into a testing ground for the application of his dramatic musings. In Zoom he goes one step further in relation to his idea of contemporary drama and one of the key concerns he has expressed as a theorist: how to deal with point of view and multiple focal points. The playwright proffers a hardworking and intelligent dramatic ‘game’, loaded with intrigue and suspense, which perhaps may initially disconcert the audience. Zoom has two levels of ‘reality’ with two seemingly different stories and time periods. The first takes place on March 6th 1939: a clear literary parallel to historical events. The other is placed exactly seventy years later, on March 6th 2009. In the first plot, Batlle brings into focus and "literaturises" a specific past event in the figure of Marc Blanch, the commander of the destroyer Lepanto, who questioned the decision of his superiors to give the Republican fleet over to the French government, whilst he knows he is being manipulated by la Dona (the Woman), a former lover, and watched over by his shipmates represented by the character of el Mariner (the Sailor). In the second, two men and a woman involved in the screenplay and production of a film propose reproducing the captain’s story seventy years after it happened. Carlos Batlle shows himself to be particularly skilled at creating a dramatic structure that aims to keep the audience in suspense, openmouthed and hold their interest, all whilst suggesting details and features that allow them to build links between events and characters in a different story. However, the audience must wait until the third and final scene to see if they can tie up all the loose ends and fit the pieces of the puzzle back together, or if they will have to give up because the author, witty and playful at the same time, requires them to invest quite some effort to discover the complex rules of his twisting dramatic game.

The playwright has intentionally constructed certain details of the dramatic structure so they do not escape the audience’s attention. One which must be noted in particular: the distinct role given to the stage directions in the course of the three scenes. Their more personal character in the first scene contrasts sharply with the conventional treatment they receive in the second scene and that of the third, where they are most ambivalent. In the first scene the ‘narrator’ that arises from the stage directions, as if to ‘represent’ the audience, makes suggestions, comments and purposefully leads the story without inhibition. He is not there to make comment on the artistic uniqueness of the text or plot, that has kept the audience in suspense and of which he only reveals his impression at the end of the first scene, once the context and the captain’s story become clear. Immediately, the audience is invited to move to the second scene which, because of the ambivalent mood set up by the author, could be the first – if the play were one in which everything were completely explicit and in which everything were completely understood. However, what happens is that the events are considered and evaluated from a new perspective. They now talk about, and disagree over, the story of the first scene that they have to reconstruct in terms of ‘fiction’ in which l’Altre (the Other) demands that the two screenwriters have respect for the true story, whilst they speculate and have doubts about the characteristics of the protagonists of the text they are writing. They disagree over the love affair between the captain and an ambassador’s wife, which is in turn transferred to their own story – that of the screenwriter and the wife of l’Altre – in a process of disintegration of history and fiction. Beyond the possible identifications and fusions that could be created between one character and another, the new perspective on the story renders the audience doubtful because events are not understood or translated into ‘fiction’ in the same terms as in the first scene. The space may be the same, yet it is different, as is the lighting and the way the characters are dressed. Oh, and what is l’Altre doing in a trunk with a couple of scripts?
A possible solution to this dual conflict and the two scripts must lie in the third scene, or possibly also the second according to the playwright’s indications. Will he resolve the ‘what’ of History? The fact remains that we haven’t moved from the same spot throughout the course of the three scenes. We are in the cabin of a ship as indicated by the script’s footnote which maintains the impersonal nature of the second scene along with four significant stage directions that form part of the text and the performance. Will we only see l’Home guionista (the Male screenwriter) and la Dona guionista (the Female screenwriter)? It seems this way at least. Both of them reconstruct the events of the first scene – that of the captain and the ambassador’s wife – as well as the doubts of l’Home guionista, at the same time as seeming perplexed about the very essence of their being. Their past is reconstructed in a manner different to that which they perhaps lived it. Where are the new boundaries between the "fact" and the "fiction" of a screenplay? Will we return to the place where the author took us? Will the door be opened or not?

In the end, the audience of Zoom knows how to grasp the originality of a text in which the lack of continuity, fragmentation and multiple focal – and view – points make a distinct alternative to a conventional text: one with a more complex approach, yet at the same time more open and less influenced by a pre-determined ideology when facing up to History, be it that which is linked to great periods, or small, personal stories. In short, Batlle offers us a genuine and most unusual piece, which corresponds perfectly with a moment in history as complex and disconcerting as was the time when he wrote it.

Translated by Katherine Reynolds
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