A memory. A memory so unique and complete that it can bring me happiness in spring and melancholy in autumn. It’s the only thing I’m missing, and you, sir, could never just pull it out of your pocket, not even if you were a magician.
Life is about to change in the Lost Property section of Rosas & Co. department store. The manager and his secretary encounter an elderly customer who’s in search of something she’s lost. At first, they are more than happy to help, until they realise that what she’s looking for is a memory. At first, they dismiss her as a confused and stubborn old lady who’s making a nuisance of herself, but the play soon reveals her to be a vital intervention in their lives. In this beautiful play of 1957, Gabriela Roepke inflects the absurd with a poetic sensibility which celebrates hope and champions the unseen, enigmatic and transcendent.
The Lost Property section of Rosas & Co. department store becomes the setting for a story of salvation, with an unexpected saviour. The manager is Mr Smith, a man who prides himself on his methodical efficiency, impressing upon his wistful secretary, Luisa, the importance of keeping her mind on the job. When she brings flowers to the office, a tentative gesture towards something livelier than the humdrum of lost umbrellas, handkerchiefs and gloves, Mr Smith calls them a useless distraction in a place of work and demands that they be thrown in the bin.
A colourful host of characters pass through the office, among them the inconsolable widow, Amanda; the teacher who loses books on purpose so as to have an excuse to visit Luisa; and the neurotic Mr Hurried who speaks as if he is delivering a telegram. Then there is a customer they have not encountered before: an elderly lady in search of something she has lost. Luisa is happy and willing to lend her assistance, but when she tries to ascertain what kind of object it is, and where she thinks she lost it, it becomes clear that what the old lady is missing will not be easy to find: she’s looking for a memory.
At first Luisa and Mr Smith believe they are dealing with a confused old lady who’s wits and doesn’t understand that a memory is not something you can find like a piece of lost property. But the old lady’s persistence - and her conviction that they will be able to recover it for her - begin to become convincing. What’s more, she begins to perceive things about them which are difficult to ignore. She sees their loneliness ‘crying in the corners, blowing across them like a gust of frozen air’. She warns them against a half-lived life, a life which could come to an end with nothing more than a room full of other people’s possessions and no real memories of their own. She ignites the possibility of a latent affection between Mr Smith and Luisa, planting the seed in each mind that they are loved by the other and that they too love. We hear the undermining voice of Luisa’s mother who tells her love isn’t important, what matters is that Luisa marries a wealthy man. In an act of defiance against her mother and Mr Smith’s joyless work ethic, Luisa restores the flowers to the table from the bin.
Once Luisa has been convinced by the value of things beyond the physical, material world, she and the old lady must persuade Mr Smith to accept what they both now see. Bound by his deeply ingrained external markers of success and satisfaction, Mr Smith resists their perceptions. The old lady asks him to find the memory she is looking for and, at first, all he can offer are memories of himself through other people’s eyes. But this won’t do. It’s when he recalls saving a white butterfly that the old lady is satisfied. This was the memory she was looking for.
Roepke’s play is brought to life by a sense of the ridiculous, a tender humour and a version of absurd theatre which is gentle, poignant and profoundly poetic. We are left at the end of the play with a suggestion of a union between Mr Smith and Luisa, and a song of praise to the ability of humans to transcend the mundane by valuing what is meaningful to us, but not always visible to the outside world.
In 1954 Roepke’s play, The Invitation, won both the Santiago and the Caupolitán prize, but it is The White Butterfly which is widely regarded as the most distinctive and well developed of her plays.
Roepke, Gabriela. 1966. Una mariposa blanca. Santiago, Zig-Zag
Bello, Andrés. 1982. El teatro chileno de mediados del siglo XX, pp.163-72. Santiago, Andrés Bello (in Spanish)
Ehrmann, Hans. 1970. ‘Theatre in Chile: A Middle-Class Conundrum’, Drama Review, 77 – 86
Knapp Jones, Willis. 1961. ‘Chile’s Dramatic Renaissance’. Hispania, 44.1, 89 - 94
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Entry written by Gwendolen Mackeith. Last updated on 5 October 2010.