"Man of Rabinal"

Release Date: March 20, 1998

Among the plays performed in Mayan communities since the European invasion, there is only one whose characters and plot belong entirely to pre-Columbian times. This same play is one of a very few whose dialogue is entirely in a Mayan language, rather than in Spanish. The language is Quiché (K'iche'), which has a million speakers today, and the play is Xajoj Tun, "Dance of the Trumpets," also known as Rab'inal Achi, "Man of Rabinal." Never before has it been translated directly into English.

In the 17th century, when plays with the same plot as this one were popular in Mayan communities, missionaries tried to forbid them. By the mid-19th century, only one example survived, in a mountain valley north of Guatemala City. There, in the town of Rabinal, the play still sees occasional performances.

The main characters are two warriors, one of whom is taken prisoner by the other, and a lord who has the captor in his service and presides over the sacrifice of the captive. The man who is captured is Man of Quiché, called Cawek of the Forest People in the dialogue, and his captor is Man of Rabinal, who serves and protects Lord Five Thunder. The only other characters who speak, briefly, are a man slave and woman slave in the court of Lord Five Thunder.

Also present at his court are his Lady, who sits beside him, and a maiden called Mother of Quetzal Feathers and Mother of Glistening Green, who stands at his side and later dances. In the courtyard before Lord Five Thunder and the two women are Golden Eagle and Golden Jaguar, who dance with the captive and then sacrifice him. Other dancers may include as many as 20 warriors and slaves.

Lord Five Thunder rules from a fortress on Red Mountain, near the eastern frontier of the ancient Quiché kingdom. His people are members of the Rabinal nation, long-time allies of the Quiché nation, and he owes fealty to that nation. Their capital is a city called Quiché Mountain, Quiché Valley, at the center of the kingdom. Both the fortress and the capital are ruins today, one on a hilltop immediately north of the town of Rabinal and the other on the western edge of the town of Santa Cruz del Quiché.

The tragic twist of the plot is that the characters are put in the position of having to sacrifice a warrior who was sent originally to save them from their enemies. That warrior is Cawek, born into the nobility only to become a landless renegade. Man of Rabinal, the captor, was awarded his own noble title and land for distinguished military service. Lord Five Thunder muses that if things had gone differently, Cawek might have been a suitable husband for his maiden daughter. Among the last requests he grants Cawek is to dance with her before the court.

Cawek admits his mistakes, but is defiant to the end, raising the specter of revenge by subtly likening himself and the maiden to characters in a myth. Here the play links up with the sacred Quiché book known as the Popol Vuh, which tells the story of an avenging hero whose father (read Cawek) was sacrificed by an evil lord (read Five Thunder) and whose mother (read the maiden) was the lord's own daughter.

The play's script, first published in 1862, was dictated to Brasseur de Bourbourg in 1856 by Bartolo Ziz of Rabinal. Ziz knew the entire play from memory, but it later turned out that he possessed a manuscript, written in Quiché (using the Roman alphabet) at some time during the colonial period. Dennis Tedlock's translation is based on Brasseur's text, on a more recent handwritten copy produced in Rabinal, and on Tedlock's own tape-recordings of recitations by José Léon Coloch, who produces the play in Rabinal and teaches the actors their parts.

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