A Petrel professor in Paris: Taking OU’s Spanish curriculum to the Sorbonne

On May 25, 2023, I gave a presentation at the Sorbonne University in Paris on “Social Dehumanization and Family Disintegration in The Story of the Man Who Turned into a Dog by Osvaldo Dragún,” at a colloquium on Family Stories, National History: Reflections and Mirages in Contemporary Hispanic Stages.

Dr. Viviana Plotnik at Sorbonne University in Paris.

Dr. Viviana Plotnik at Sorbonne University in Paris.

We were 20 academics from American, Spanish, and French universities who discussed Hispanic Theater in its political context for two days.

I talked about a play I teach at Oglethorpe in SPN 302-Introduction to Hispanic Literature, a course required for majors. This course involves introducing students to four literary genres: narrative, poetry, drama, and essay from Spain and Latin America, including main characteristics and history of each genre, movements, and authors, as well as the appropriate terminology useful to discuss and analyze works.

When we get to the section on drama, one of the plays we study is Osvaldo Dragún’s The Story of the Man Who Turned into a Dog. This text usually makes a strong impact on students because of its brutal and tragicomic plot.

Osvaldo Dragún (1929-1999) was an Argentine playwright influenced by European movements and authors such as Bertolt Brecht, the Theatre of Cruelty, and the Theatre of the Absurd. He joined the Argentine independent theatre movement in the 1950s when he premiered his first dramatic works such as The Pest Comes from Melos (1956), a piece based on the coup d’état that in 1954 overthrew the president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, and The Story of the Man Who Turned into a Dog (1957). This drama portrays the process of degradation suffered by an unemployed man. Unable to find a job, the protagonist is forced to accept a position replacing the dead guard dog at a factory. The job offer includes the provision of food, a doghouse, and regular access to a veterinarian. After accepting the position, the man moves into the canine dwelling, gives his meat allowance to his family, and resigns himself to eating the bones. He progressively behaves like a dog: instead of talking, he barks, and instead of walking, he moves on four legs. As a result, his humanity is degraded, his social relations become distorted, and the family is destroyed. In fact, his pregnant wife leaves him, terrified of giving birth to a child-dog.

Program cover of Sorbonne University colloquium attended by Dr. Viviana Plotnik.

Critical readings of this drama typically highlight the influences of the mentioned European movements, as well as its themes and techniques. There is no shortage of mentions of the alienation of the individual in modern society and the implicit criticism of social conformism embodied in the protagonist who accepts a dog’s job. Undoubtedly, this drama has had and still has a universal resonance, demonstrated by its staging in many countries over the last decades. However, the universalist and abstract notions with which the play is read constitute ahistorical evaluations that ignore the specifically Argentine social context in which this work from 1957 is inscribed. The text was written during a military dictatorship characterized by its trampling on workers’ rights. It is connected to the Argentine political climate of the late fifties, articulating an atmosphere of economic insecurity, unemployment, strikes, hostility towards workers, and their despair. Therefore, my presentation focused on the relationship between text and context.

In 1955 there was a military coup that ousted Juan Perón before his second presidential term ended. The Peronist government had built a substantial welfare state. The mainstay of the Peronist movement had been the unions. Workers had acquired extensive labor rights and occupied the center of the political scene. The project of the new regime, led by General Aramburu, was to eradicate Peronism from Argentine political life and repeal the social and labor measures established during the past government. Civil rights were suspended, and some opponents were executed. Congress was closed, and all members of the Supreme Court and provincial governments were deposed. Strict censorship was established in cultural life.

The military government adopted a set of measures aimed at weakening union power and redistributing income to the detriment of workers. The economic policies resulted in an increased fiscal deficit. To cover that deficit the government resorted to foreign bank loans so the country accumulated a debt that it could not pay back, leaving it on the verge of default. A devaluation led to a rise in prices, but wages were not adjusted, and poverty and unemployment rose. The deterioration of wages in the face of inflation provoked violent conflicts with trade unions. In factories, strict labor discipline and a ban on strikes were imposed at gunpoint. Each strike was brutally repressed, and torture became common. Finally, under pressure, the regime called for elections in 1958, with several parties banned.

Although Dragún was not a Peronist — he, like most Argentine intellectuals and artists in the fifties, thought Perón was an authoritarian leader with fascist tendencies — the benefits that workers had acquired during his government were evident, as was the deterioration of the social situation during the military dictatorship that overthrew him. The oppressive social climate and persecution against workers left its mark on The Story of the Man Who Turned into a Dog. Despite the conformity and docility implicit in accepting the job of a dog, the man ended up locked in a kennel; therefore, he could not escape a fate of confinement and possibly death. Given the context of brutal repression during the Aramburu dictatorship, the kennel alludes to the imprisonment of innocent citizens stripped of their rights and even their lives.

I wish my students of SPN 302 had been at the Sorbonne to listen and participate in the discussions that took place. I am sure they would have enjoyed them.

Dr. Viviana Plotnik is a Professor of Spanish and Coordinator of the Latin American Studies Program at Oglethorpe University.

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