The theatrical life in Argentina begins to become intense only from the organization of the Republic (1853) onwards. Before, the economic and political situation had not favored artistic activities in general, although the people had shown a preference for stage shows which often served to ignite civil passion in the struggles for independence and national unity.
The first theatrical performances, which probably go back to the principles of the century. XVIII, they gave themselves among the Guaranies populations in the missions founded in the northwest by the Society of Jesus, forming a vast patriarchal empire, in whose work centers the Indians learned music and literature along with the crafts useful for production. Even in the universities of Córdoba and Chuquisaca, allegorical and moral performances were given on the occasion of great anniversaries, but inaccurate references remain to them. The first public spectacle recorded in Buenos Aires is that of the feasts for the coronation of King Fernando VI of Spain, during which the Indians of the missions, specially brought by Yapeyú “sang with a sweet proportion of voices a ‘ work of measured score that they had learned “, and the officers of the garrison performed on an improvised stage in the fort – residence of the viceroy – the comedies Las armas de la hermosura and Efectos de odio y de amor by Calderón, on 15 and 16 November 1747. The actors were amateurs, but undoubtedly some of them knew, in addition to acting, the technique and movement of those comedies: the decorations and the materials, the magnificence of which is described in the chronicle, are justified only by admitting the presence of people skilled in the theater.
The success of these shows was such and so strongly echoed by the audience, that a few days later “twelve people from Spain gathered and formed a company to represent two other comedies”: Primero es la honra and La vida es sueño were chosen ; and performed them at the expense of six of the companions in a magnificent stage, “the front of which was composed of seven arches of showy drapes and crimson damask wallpaper, which were used for entrances and exits; the rear part was made of three ornate arches in the same way, that all along the scenery they fell in various draperies “. The anonymous chronicler indicates where the building stood, but calls it “a spacious and magnificent theater worthy of being considered and praised among the best”.
From then on, there was no shortage of companies of professionals or amateurs who gave spectacle to the open air in open fences, according to the Spanish custom, with a scenery in the background and a high gallery around. However, official documents do not give any news of these enterprises, while they regulate the bullfights, the national spectacle that Spain spread in the colonies and which continues, as well as in the Iberian Peninsula, in some of its ancient possessions (Peru and Mexico). The repertoire must have been the usual, abundant and mediocre one of the century. XVIII. In the National Library, among the works taken from the archives of more recent theaters, some are found, which evidently belonged to companies that gave outdoor performances, in the second half of that century, it is not known by what means or where.
It is necessary to reach the viceroyalty of don Juan José de Vertiz (1778-1784) to find documents of the construction of a permanent building used for dramatic performances. The famous statesman, to whom the colonial city owes much of its progress, decided to found a Casa de Comedias of the type that in the Spanish provinces at that time gave considerable income to the treasury. He granted his construction to Don Francisco Velarde, and allocated any profits to charitable works, to attract the sympathy of the ecclesiastical element. He wanted the theater to be built on land adjacent to the market, called La Ranchería, probably because it was occupied by ranchos, the mud and wood huts of the beggars and the subjugated Indians. The wooden, thatched theater began its performances in 1778, probably with an improvised company of actors in the city. The interior was very simple: numerous rows of long pine benches formed the stalls; on the sides simulacra of boxes, one of which is more comfortable and decorated for the authorities, and on the top of the proscenium a sign with the inscription: Ridendo corrigo mores. The place cost two reales, one real paid for black people.
The Casa de Comedias, thus officially called, did not obtain favor among the society educated to the strict Catholic principles. In vain the viceroy assigned the profits of the theater to the support of the Casa de Expósitos, and in vain did he himself walk the streets, followed by servants with lanterns, to induce the people to attend the shows, and had candlelight lamps placed at the songs of the houses; the performances declined due to the scarce favor of the wealthy classes, and the impresario Velarde complained of his fate and reduced the offers for the renewal of the contract.
The repertoire of interlacing works and swashbuckling dramas that was then raging in Spain, alternating with the usual farces and songs, was at that time the only one possible. Nevertheless, in 1789, the Siripo tragedy by the Argentine writer Manuel J. Labardén was represented with some success, and it was repeated several evenings, but it was soon forgotten and replaced by popular productions, among which the typical sainete El valiente y la is remembered. ghost, by an anonymous native author.
The decline of the theater was accentuated more by the economic repercussions of the French revolution. Isolated as it was by the trade regulations that governed its exchanges, the colony could not help but feel the worldwide consequences of that movement, and the crisis, the decrease in legitimate exports or smuggling had serious repercussions on public welfare.
The Ranchería theater was destroyed by fire on August 16, 1792. Buenos Aires, however, was not without performances. It appears, in fact, that in 1797 the comedy Lograr el mayor imperio por un feliz desengaño, by an anonymous author, was given, and that from 1794 to 1801 El buen y el mol amigo, by Zabala y Zamora, El licenciado Vidriera, by Moreto, Luis Peres el Gallego, by Calderón, and other works. However, these shows took place in unsuitable, uncomfortable and unsafe rooms, and, in 1803, to bring the capital of the viceroyalty up to date, the cabildo he finally entrusted a commission with the task of having a large theater capable of seating three thousand spectators built on a government site in Piazza Maggiore; on the other hand, the brothers Tosi and Pedro Olaguer Feliú, conspicuous people, asked for permission to build a temporary theater on a piece of land they owned, opposite the church of La Merced. The construction of the first was suspended in 1806 due to the English invasion, when the scaffolding of the roof was already in place, and remained so until 1855. The second was quickly finished, and since 1804 there are reports of representations given, up to down with the usual repertoire, from companies made up of local actors, none of which came to fame.
The provisional Coliseum, as this theater was called, was a large hall with a roof made of tiles, the stage at the back and, behind it, the other ancillary rooms; all around were the tiers of boxes and the gallery for the ladies, and in the middle, in the stalls, a few rows of benches (lunetas) separated from the space for standing spectators by a railing called decolladero. In this theater, which from 1804 to 1828 was the only one in the city, shows were given to celebrate the triumphs of national arms in the wars of independence and Brazil. And also the repertoire was renewed at this time due to the influence of the ideological movement that stirred consciences; so were represented, translated, works by Goldoni (La serva padrona), by Voltaire (Rome sauvée), by Kotzebue; and when the popular movement of emancipation broke out in 1810, the theater followed the new currents with productions that inflamed patriotism, denouncing the injustices of the oppressors.
Badly built and equipped with very little material, the provisional Coliseum was restored several times, and the police, which under the ephemeral governments of independence had municipal functions, ended up taking possession of the theater and exploiting it on their own. From 1810 to 1817, the Argentine scene did not progress, the attention of the public being entirely absorbed by politics. In 1817 the “supreme director” Don Juan Martín de Pueyrredón founded, among the most authoritative people in the city, the Sociedad del buen gusto del teatro to increase the performances, and under the patronage of the new institution, renewed the material and reformed yet another turn the Coliseo, artistic manifestations came back to life. The Peruvian actor, author and translator Don Luis Ambrosio Moranti cooperated in this revival which marked the beginning of the triumph of the first national actress Trinidad Guevara, the later famous Juan Aurelio Casacuberta, and the beautiful Matilde Díez., Racine, Alfieri, Shakespeare, Schiller, Molière joined the authors of the Castilian language, and from 1817 to 1825 the theater carried out considerable activity, also giving the first performance various works by Argentine authors, such as S. Wilde, Morante, F. Varela, etc.