The two 9-11s

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Chilean coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power. September, a new show by Brazilian playwright Tereza Briggs-Novaes prompts us to think about responsibility, love and betrayal, writes Vanessa Baird.

A scene from the coup: A tank belonging to Augusto Pinochet's military junta approaches the government palace in 1973. WikiCommons

One fateful date: 11 September. Two murderous cataclysmic events: the 1973 military coup in Chile and the attacks on New York in 2001. And a new play that links and interweaves the two, three decades apart, through the lives and losses of its three main characters.

It’s an ambitious plot, but Brazilian playwright-director Tereza Briggs-Novaes rises to the challenge. September, her latest work that was given its first showing in London’s tiny Calder Bookshop and Theatre last month, is complex, moving and gripping – with moments of wry humour too.

The set-up is simple enough. Isabel and John, a wealthy American-British, 50-something couple living in downtown Manhattan, are going through what seems to be an endless relationship breakdown. It’s her birthday. He gives her a present; she tells him she wants out. They row. He’s about to catch a plane for a work conference. It’s 11 September, 2001.

Isabel (played by Stephanie Ellyne) recalls – literally as well as metaphorically – a young Chilean woman who played an unforgettable role in the couple’s life when they were living in Santiago in 1973. She’s a student leader called Ana-Maria (played by Bianca Beneduzi), much admired by Isabel, then a young, American visiting academic, high on the romance of revolution, and lusted after by John, a newly arrived, predatory British journalist (played by John Terence).

The choices we make in the pressure cooker of such events, when our desires clash with our ethics, our courage with our fear, our altruistic politics with our selfish interests, may shape us forever

Ana-Maria is drawn to this foreign power-couple by her sexual attraction to, and infatuation with, Isabel. Complicated. And it gets more so. The web of surprises, betrayals, both amatory and political, becomes increasing tangled as the play switches back and forth between its two time zones, three decades apart.

News footage and soundtrack, of the assault on the presidential palace that killed Marxist leader Salvador Allende or of planes going into New York’s Twin Towers, tell us where we are in time, but so do variations in the language of political discourse and sexual mores.

The tension ratchets almost unbearably as General Pinochet’s murderous coup takes hold during the course of the day. Then, switching forward three decades, we see the longtail of consequences of actions taken or not taken, the psychological impacts of years of festering guilt and recrimination.

The play’s conceit, the two 9-11s, shows how such traumatic world events affect individual lives. But more than this, it displays how the choices we make in the pressure cooker of such events, when our desires clash with our ethics, our courage with our fear, our altruistic politics with our selfish interests, may shape us for ever. It’s up to us, is the final message. Which may be a parable for our times too – as we face challenges such as rising authoritarianism, new and complex threats to democracy, erosion of civil liberties and resistance to meaningful action on global heating.

Anniversaries aside, there seems to be a flurry of creative interest in tackling Latin America’s dictatorship years. Chilean director Manuela Martelli’s remarkable debut film, 1976, (reviewed in New Internationalist May-June issue) also takes an intensely personal perspective, in this case focusing on a middle-class woman drawn out of her comfort zone and the complacency of privilege by the (mainly hidden) horrors of the Pinochet regime. While Santiago Mitre’s legal drama 1985 tells the story of the lawyers who defied death threats and took on the junta that had headed Argentina’s bloody military dictatorship, bringing justice to victims which has not yet been replicated elsewhere on the continent.

Each in their own way remind us of human frailty, of how difficult it can be to do the right thing, but also how important it is to care, to be brave, even when the odds are so heavily weighted against such action.