“Kiss of the Spider Woman”: the fight for sexual liberation that conquered Broadway

45 years ago, Manuel Puig he put politics and sexuality in the same prison. For the first time in Argentine literature these presumably antagonistic worlds intersected in such an explicit and sensitive way. To achieve this pending debate in leftist organizations, The kiss of spider women focused on two characters locked up in the Villa Devoto jail during the government of María Estela Martínez de Perón. Molina, a romantic gay prisoner, and Valentín, a political prisoner, who tries to intellectualize each story from a class B movie that his cellmate makes.

Puig, who was one of the founding members of Homosexual Liberation Front -before having to go into exile after receiving a telephone threat from Triple A-, he crossed both subjectivities to conceive an overcoming vision of what the liberation of the peoples should be. He did not believe that homosexuality should meet in ghettos, he believed that segregation should be fought. And towards the end of the novel, she understands that that has to be her purpose as an activist as well. “Promise me that you are going to make them respect you, that you are not going to allow anyone to treat you badly or exploit you,” Valentin begs Molina in his most loving moment.

The novel became the greatest success of the one born in General Villegas. Its publication was a phenomenon in Mexico, Spain, Brazil and the United States, while in Argentina it was prohibited until the dictatorship ended. Those pages motivated many organizations to rethink their dogmas. “We are going to defend an attacked minority position, unite to defend it better, but we do not think that this is the end point.. Thus, heterosexuals would also be right in defending their closed positions ”, Puig acknowledged in an interview with The Corner Lamp and rescued by magazine Transas.

Despite the great reception that the novel had in gay communities, some members of these movements questioned that Molina was not a “strong homosexual.” A criticism that was not valid for Puig, who was convinced that the feminine dimension that lies in the protagonist serves to reflect that women are also victims of macho authoritarianism.

The dialogues contained in the novel were not long in reaching the stage. And, after several versions, the director Hector Babenco conceived a film adaptation co-produced by Brazil and the United States in 1985. The kiss of spider women was nominated for four Oscars, of which only one won: Best Actor for William Hurt, who played Molina. But beyond the awards, the film was a success in several countries and made homosexuality a central issue in a mass phenomenon. Something that turned it into a hinge production of that independent cinema that was beginning to be an alternative to mainstream.

William Hurt and Raúl Julia, gave life to Molina and Valentín in the film version of 1985. (Photo: HB Filmes)

After the film version came a musical version written by playwright Terrence McNally and directed by Harold Prince. Its premiere was on October 20, 1992 in the West End at the Shaftesbury Theater, where it had 390 performances and a year later it would arrive at the Broadhurst Theater, where it exceeded 900 performances. “It presents police torture in another kitsch element of show business. It is as empty as the clichés of parodied movies in their celluloid fantasies, ”noted a review by The New York Times. Despite negative reviews, the adaptation won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Introducing “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” starring Chita Rivera. (Photo: File)

This musical arrived at the Lola Membrives Theater in Buenos Aires (Argentina), on May 2, 1995, in an adaptation into Spanish by Pedro Orgambide and Alberto Favero. The protagonist was Valeria Lynch, who was in charge of driving the plot with his songs, while Juan Darthés played Valentine and Hannibal Silveyra to Molina. This version was a phenomenon for which its actors won several ACE awards. A disc with all the compositions that made up the work is also available. “If he is in a cell now, your fantasy will save you”, sang the protagonist in the central theme.

Valeria Shone like Spider Woman in the adaptation of the Broadway musical that was made in Argentina. (Photo: File)

One of the most successful local adaptations was carried out by Rubén Szuchmacher in 2009. The central characters were played by Martín Urbaneja and Humberto Tortonese. Minimalist and oppressive, this version stirred the guts of the novel: the certainty that the struggle has to include minorities and the conviction that love is a transformative tool. Something that may seem like a cliché until we get behind bars with Valentín and Molina: the personal is political. Because that is the journey they undertake without leaving a dungeon. They feel their differences, but above all they worry about how to overcome them.