72nd Post: 2nd URUGUAY – The White Minstrel Show

Diego at the Anglo-Uruguayan Cultural Centre, Montevideo,2015 October: Friday

At 5pm Diego, the promoter of my first show, arrived at the hotel to drive me to the theatre. Having met him and his partner at a dinner the previous night I had gained the impression that he was very good at his job – and so it proved. He combined efficiency with charm – an elusive quality. 

The Instituto Cultural Anglo-Uruguayo, known as ‘The Anglo’, was a surprising building. It was tucked away in an Old Town street and had an extraordinarily ornate façade. The building was about sixty feet high and, on either side of the front door, two white columns rose to full height. Each column was decorated with extravagant coats of arms inscribed with such titles as ‘The White Lion of Mortimer’, ‘The Black Bull of Clarence’, and ‘The White Greyhound of Richmond’.

The Anglo-Uruguayan Cultural Institute. Montevideo

They were undoubtedly redolent of medieval English history but still seemed slightly odd. They sounded more like pubs than an aristocratic roll call. I suggested to Diego that they added ‘The Beige Ferret of Macclesfield’ but I don’t think he relished the idea.

The ground floor windows were covered in cartoon figures of British culture – Robin Hood, Shakespeare, Elton John, Sherlock Holmes, David Bowie, Queen Elizabeth II, and Mr Bean – the bed rock of modern Britain.

British Culture in Montevideo

As we entered the foyer I spotted another bust of Millington-Drake – in fact the theatre was named after him. At the same moment I saw a cleaner mopping the floor – he gave us a sullen glance then continued mopping. The slogan on his T-shirt read ‘GERMANY’. A strange moment – was the spirit of the Graf Spee still with us?

The German Supporting Cleaner at the Anglo

The performance itself was a mixed bag. For this tour I was using the ‘talk’ format in which I inserted the theatre performance between an introduction and an informal ending of anecdotes, followed by questions and answers. Gratifyingly every seat was occupied and an unusually high proportion (at least 90%) were women.

The great problem with a talk as opposed to theatre is that one can see the audience. One of the few men present was a student of about twenty. Come what may I could not get any reaction from him other than a set look of mild annoyance. It dawned eventually of course that Wilde’s high wire linguistics were way too advanced for the average student of Basic English. And so it proved throughout the tour – great responses from the British contingent and baffled silence from the Spanish. Even the question and answer section proved a problem as, much as I prodded them to do so, no one would ask a question. Diego told me later that Uruguayans were too reserved to involve themselves in audience participation. I was rescued eventually by a stalwart lady who fed me enough questions to keep going. She hailed originally from Hampshire.

Audience members at the Shannon Bar

2015 October: Sunday

The next few days were spent meandering around Montevideo. I became quite fond of the 18th century Spanish Old Town, with its string of plazas linked by pedestrianised streets and bordered by the sea on three sides. It had a genuinely relaxing quality about it – the heartland of people-watching and ‘manana’. I noticed that many of these southern South Americans have a dried autumn leaf complexion unlike anywhere else. Three other aspects of life here also struck me as unusual.

A Gaucho statue in Montevideo

One was the city taxi. At first sight they look fairly ordinary – yellow and black four-door saloon cars. It’s only when you try to enter them and squeeze on to the rear seats that it turns odd. You are completely sealed off from the driver by a roof to floor plastic and metal partition which leaves very little room for such fripperies as luggage or legs. All financial transactions take place through what looks like an old flip-out ashtray in the partition – you stuff the money in on your side and push it through to the driver, who returns any change by pushing it back to you. I later learned that this was necessary to prevent the city junkies from robbing the drivers. It seemed a bit pointless – if you were going to rob him you could just hail the cab and push your revolver through the front window, surely? The city buses had suffered the same problem – they were solving it by switching to cashless card transactions.

Tango Dancers on a Montevideo Street

Another idiosyncrasy was the very common sight of people strolling along while sucking liquid via a small straw from a gourd, usually with a thermos flask strapped to their shoulder like a gun holster. The liquid was called maté, a green tea made from yerba leaves – and the thermos was used to replenish the gourd when necessary. This habit seemed popular with all ages. Well, admittedly the English are also fond of tea but they don’t actually carry the pot around with them.

Constitution Plaza, Montevideo

The third oddity happened right outside my hotel bedroom window on Sunday evening. About 9pm, the silence was broken by the sound of heavy drumming. I looked out to see a crowd of about one hundred people moving slowly in ranks along the street, led by about twenty teenage girls dancing to the rhythms of the thirty drummers behind them – the rest were spectators. As I watched they stopped the march and gathered in a large circle while one of the drummers lit a small bonfire on the pavement. After twenty minutes the march resumed and the dancers, drummers, and their supporters disappeared into the night.

Later I learnt that this procession was called the Candombe and Jonathan told me the story. Although Uruguay did not hold many slaves, there being no mines or plant crops or other labour-intensive work in the district, some were introduced as domestic workers, etc. It became a tradition that these slaves would be given one day off each year. This day was dedicated to carnival and the drum and dance idea became popular. It served the dual purpose of being in honour of their African (mostly present day Angolan) origins, but also as a satiric mockery of their masters.

The Mercado at the Port, Montevideo

Around the 1850s, the black population began to abandon the Candombe in favour of the more sophisticated European dances such as the waltz and the polka. In a weird reversal, the Candombe then became all the rage amongst the white population. Blackening their faces with burnt cork and wearing slave sunhats the whites took up the craze. In the Northern hemisphere the related idea that found expression in the Black and White Minstrel shows later became politically infra dig. However, it has remained a staple of Uruguayan life ever since and now there are dozens of groups all over the country who regularly rehearse the Candombe in readiness for the main carnival that takes place every February. The bonfire, incidentally, is lit to ‘heat the drums’.

2015 October: Monday

One of the sparkiest contacts I made in Uruguay was called Jack and he was the director of a small semi-underground theatre named the Montevideo Players. I accepted his invitation to visit it during the afternoon. From the street frontage there was nothing that could have told a passer-by that this was anything but an ordinary private house.

Once inside the door though, the place ballooned into a charming little theatre, complete with a 60-seat auditorium, an adequate stage, a props room and a green room, a garden suitable for open-air productions, and a full-size bar. Over a gin and tonic in the latter, Jack said that the theatre worked under the radar – it did not officially exist but the authorities turned a blind eye as long as they didn’t cause trouble.

Jack in the Players Theatre auditorium, Montevideo

He then explained something that had puzzled me. On the face of it, South America should be booming. It suffered virtually nothing from the World Wars of the twentieth century, it can feed its population several times over, there is plentiful land for all, and very few indigenous problems. Yet it is a financial and social calamity. Jack said that the heart of the problem was corruption. It was ruining country after country. Uruguay was bad but on a small scale – Argentina and Venezuela were truly outrageous, and Brazil not much better.

He added that there was a real difference between the north and south banks of the River Plate. Uruguay had been settled mostly by rural Spaniards while Argentina was settled mostly by urban Italians, and their modern societies reflected these racial origins. Although the Argentines were perceived as having a patronising affection for Uruguayans, the Uruguayans loathed them in return. They were seen as flash, brash, and arrogant and Jack said that this anti-Argentine prejudice was shared by the rest of South America. But, despite throwing off the political yoke back in the 19th century, Uruguay was still forced to cringe financially as Argentinians had made huge investments in the place. The country was seen as a rest home for stressed Argies.

On an entirely different subject, Jack pointed out that Sir Eugen Millington-Drake was not unanimously revered – his nickname in certain quarters was Sir Eugen Fluffington-Quack.

Jack in the Players Theatre bar

2015 October: Tuesday

During the morning I strolled along the seashore going east towards the suburb of Pocitos. A mist rolled in from the south Atlantic taking visibility down to about 100 yards. I could just make out the sight of a large gun projecting in front of an elegant white building on the rocky shore. From the notice outside I deduced that this was the Uruguayan Naval Museum and went inside.

Navy Museum, Uruguay

Although there seemed to be an admittance charge required there was nobody in the entrance booth to take it. While quite alone in the museum itself, I did hear voices coming from an open door and glanced inside. Five men were lounging around in shirt sleeves, playing cards and brewing maté. They did not notice me and I continued my lone perusal of the galleries.

Montevideo – map of the old city

Suddenly a lavatory flushed and another man emerged. He spotted me and did a double take. Straightening up, he strode towards the open door and started shouting orders in Spanish. The five men inside leapt to their feet, spilling mate, scattering the playing cards, and struggling into ties and uniform jackets. Two of them ran into the modern day gallery and turned on the display lights and video screens for the Graf Spee exhibition. Another rushed to stand to attention next to a model of a Spanish galleon. A further man came forward, saluted, and apologetically asked for the sixty peso fee. The museum hummed with embarrassment. It appeared that they had so few visitors that my arrival was seismic. I had caught the Uruguayan Navy napping.

Montevideo – Painting of the old city

Next Tuesday October 23 – Crossing the River Plate as Oscar makes an appearance in the Argentine.

2 thoughts on “72nd Post: 2nd URUGUAY – The White Minstrel Show

  1. Dear Neil, I’ve just come across this wonderful account of your visit to Uruguay, it was a real pleasure to have you in Anglo, your show was superb!

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