Somigliana, Carlos

Somigliana, Carlos
   Argentine playwright and screenwriter. Born in Buenos Aires, Somigliana attended the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. In 1958 he relocated to the city of Ushuaia, where he began a long career as a functionary of the Argentine federal Judiciary. While in Ushuaia, he wrote his first play, Amarillo (Yellow), and participated in local theater groups. After Somigliana returned to the capital, Amarillo premiered in 1965, attracting the attention of theater circles. His second play, Amor de gran ciudad (Love in the Big City), debuted a few months later. In 1970 Somigliana collaborated with Roberto Cossa, Germán Rozenmacher, and Ricardo Talesnik in El aeroplano negro (The Black Airplane), a carnavalesque exploration of the impact of the figure of Juan Perón on the national psyche.
   The collaboration with Cossa, a close friend, would also result in other ventures, such as a dramatic version of Martín Fierro, Argentina’s national poem, a play that debuted in Rosario in 1967; the volume Cuentos populares (Popular Stories), also in collaboration with Raúl Rubén Peñarol Méndez; and the script for the thriller El arreglo (The Deal, 1983), directed by Fernando Ayala. In 1984 Somigliana would also write the script for the historical crime drama Asesinato en el Senado de la Nación (Murder in the National Senate, 1984), directed by Juan José Jusid. He is also remembered for two adaptations of William Shakespeare for the Argentine stage: Macbeth (1980) and Richard III sigue cabalgando (Richard III Rides On). In addition to his work for the cinema, between 1970 and 1980 he produced several scripts for television, such as Esta noche . . . miedo (Tonight . . . Fear, 1970); Alguien como vos and Alguien como usted (Someone Like You, 1973); Historias de medio pelo (Half-Price Stories, 1974); Mañana puedo morir (I Can Die Tomorrow, 1979); and Hombres en pugna (Men in Conflict, 1980).
   A member of the Generation of the ’60s, along with Roberto Cossa, Griselda Gambaro, Carlos Gorostiza, Ricardo Halac, and Rodolfo Walsh, among others, Somigliana is associated with the social-realist-theater movement of that decade. Among his plays are the one-act La bolsa de agua caliente (The Hot-Water Bottle, 1967), De la navegación (Concerning Sailing, 1969), El ex-alumno (The Alumnus, 1970), Historia de una estatua (Story of a Statue, 1983), La democracia en el tocador (Democracy in the Boudoir, 1988), and Homenaje al pueblo de Buenos Aires (Homage to the People of Buenos Aires, 1988), though he is best remembered for two works from the 1980s: El Nuevo mundo (The New World, 1981) and Oficial primero (First Officer, 1982).
   El Nuevo mundo depicts an imaginary, farcical trip by the Marquis de Sade to an unnamed Latin American capital, where those in power freely confess themselves his disciples and fault the French libertine only for his lack of hypocrisy. One of de Sade’s disciples says, “¡Extermine a los pobres pero hágalo en nombre del bienestar futuro!” (Exterminate the poor but do it on behalf of future progress!) This work premiered in Buenos Aires in 1981 as part of the first cycle of Teatro Abierto Argentino (Open Theater of Argentina), the best-known example of cultural resistance to emerge in Argentina during the years of the military junta.
   His play Oficial primero (First Officer) introduced the topic of the desaparecidos (missing) to Argentine theater audiences. Presented in 1982 as part of the second cycle of Teatro Abierto Argentino, it depicts a courtroom where the first officer of the title shifts habeas corpus writs from one side of his desk to the other, while scores of young actors signifying corpses tumble onto the stage with each new denial of the writs—the macabre, silent scene underscored by the strains of Viennese waltzes. According to one spectator: “Luego de la caída del telón y la oscuridad de la sala, tras helados segundos de consternación, el público descargaba en aplausos la angustia y el llanto contenidos.” (After the curtain fell and in the darkness of the theater, after a few seconds of frozen consternation, the audience discharged in applause the anguish and the tears that had been held back.)
   One of the less-remembered chapters of Somigliana’s life is his direct involvement in the trials of the military juntas following the restoration of democracy in 1983. A longtime functionary with the federal judiciary, Somigliana was approached by Julio César Strassera, the lead prosecutor, during the months leading to the first trials, to help with the investigation into the abuses perpetrated by the military and to aid in preparing legal briefs. In addition, Somigliana also collaborated directly in elaborating a 12-hour television series, never seen in its entirety, based on courtroom video footage.
   The story of the series, and its eventual fate, illuminate the precarious hold of democracy in Argentina during the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín. The trials were set to occur between 22 April 1985 and 14 August 1985. Two stationary cameras were placed in the courtroom, although it was determined that they would not focus directly on any of the defendants. The Argentine media were set to receive three minutes of video, no audio, for daily broadcasts to the nation. Audio of the trials, however, was heard twice by radio audiences during those months: once, during Admiral Emilio Massera’s historic defense (“En primer lugar, me siento responsible pero no me siento culpable, sencillamente porque no soy culpable” / First, I feel responsible but not guilty, simply because I’m not guilty), and on 9 December 1985, when Carlos Arslanian, the presiding judge, handed down final verdicts.
   Not long after, in April 1986, a group assembled in an apartment in the historic district of San Telmo to collaborate, in secret, on the projected miniseries. According to Claudia Selser, a member of the group, the idea for a series had received the blessing of President Alfonsín. Other members of the team included the journalist Mariana Taboada, the lawyer and human-rights specialist Juan Antonio Travieso, and Somigliana, who was chosen to write the script. The team labored until 24 December 1986 choosing a musical score, selecting, writing, and editing for the series, which lacked a voice-over narrative. In the end, despite dissension, the team decided to let the material speak for itself.
   The series creators thus planned to reveal to Argentine television audiences practices such as the illegal adoption of children born in captivity to tortured prisoners, a fact then unknown to many Argentineans; the detention and execution of high school students in the La Perla secret detention center; the torture of prisoners to the ebb and flow of music from televised World Cup games; and the grotesque situations engendered by the social reality—like the one related by the journalist Jacobo Timerman, who, while masked and handcuffed in a cell, was asked by one of his captors for the correct spelling of the word “lobby.” In all, 530 hours of courtroom footage were distilled into a 12-hour miniseries, set to conclude with the historic sentencing by the court.
   At the conclusion of the project, Somigliana decided to use a pseudonym for the credits, fearing his links to Teatro Abierto Argentino and the federal judiciary would compromise the series in the public’s mind. The name he chose, Carlos Mentana—foreshadowing perhaps the fate of the series—paid homage to a 19th-century ancestor who died in battle in Garibaldi’s Italy.
   In April 1987 Lieutenant Colonel Aldo Rico led the first of the so-called Carapintadas uprisings against Alfonsín, and the projected broadcast was shelved, thought too incendiary given the social and political climate. Copies of the series were then made and entrusted for safekeeping to the Somigliana family, to some judiciary members who had presided over the trials of the junta, and to a representative of the Asamblea Permanente por los Derechos Humanos (APDH, Permanent Assembly for Human Rights). Copies were also smuggled out of the country and into the fireproof vaults of the Swedish Parliament in Oslo. It is unclear, however, whether copies of the miniseries still exist outside their presumed resting place in Sweden. Although the series itself remains unseen, some of the original courtroom footage was eventually incorporated into documentaries. One of them, by the journalist Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú, is titled ESMA: El día del juicio (ESMA: Day of Judgment, 1998). It revisits the notorious detention center the Escuela Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA, Navy Mechanics School), updating the story of one of the children born within its walls. Also in 1998, the APDH gave a copy of the series to the Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional (Library of the National Congress).
   In 2000 the Archivo General de la Nación (General National Archive) began making copies of the original 530 hours of video footage. Four years later, the city of Buenos Aires ruled that the material would be transmitted on cable television in 23 installments and that the final installment, to be shown on a giant screen in the Plaza de Mayo, would coincide with a commemorative march on 9 December 2005 by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Finally, also on 9 March 2005, the television newsmagazine A dos voces presented a 90-minute program titled Lo que nunca se vio del juicio de las Juntas Militares (What Was Never Seen of the Trials of the Military Juntas). The program incorporated some of the original footage. Among Somigliana’s many admirers, it is generally felt that his dedication to the miniseries, along with a lifelong tobacco habit, led to his early death, by heart attack, on January 1987, scarcely a month after its completion. A few months earlier, he had founded a new theater group, Teatro de la Campana, along with Cossa, Pepe Bove, Rubens Correa, Osvaldo Dragún, and Raúl Serrano—some of whom were former colleagues in the Teatro Abierto Argentino—in the basement of the historic Teatro del Pueblo, in Buenos Aires. In 1990 the directive of the Teatro del Pueblo founded the Fundación Carlos Somigliana (SOMI, Carlos Somigliana Foundation) to support Argentine playwrights. Cossa, who still speaks movingly of the author, is the president of SOMI.
   In November 2007 the Teatro del Pueblo and SOMI staged a sixday cycle of plays in honor of the 20th anniversary of his death. The plays were a major success, and all tickets were distributed free to an appreciative public.

Historical Dictionary of the “Dirty Wars” . . 2010.

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