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Close and Distant: A Journey to Cuba

Cuba is a fertile soil in which to plant Much Ado About Nothing. In the mid-20th century the Cuban Tourist Commission’s slogan was “Cuba—So Near… And Yet So Foreign.” It is easy to forget how close we are to our neighbors—less than 100 miles from Key West. The island has become invisible in the cultural imagination: a political vestige of the iron curtain. Yet, we also hold in our minds the lingering memory of something else. We have another picture of Cuba, a picture created before Castro. This picture is tropical, filled with music, rum and cigars, luxurious resorts and rural estates. It is romantic and exotic.

Shakespeare sets Much Ado About Nothing in Messina, on the island of Sicily. For Shakespeare, Sicily could be a land that was comfortable yet distant, relatable yet also titillating, a Catholic island where he could place a story of love and honor. In the United States, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, Cuba existed as a similarly imaginary place where someone could escape her everyday life for sensual and swashbuckling pursuits. In films such as The Cuban Love Song (1931), Havana Widows (1933), Wife vs. Secretary (1936), Week-End in Havana (1941) and Cuban Madness (1946), a visitor to Cuba has their world turned around. The most recognizable version of this reversal is in Guys and Dolls. In the 1955 film adaptation of the popular Broadway musical, gangster Sky Masterson takes missionary Sarah Brown on a date to Havana. Plied with Bacardi and forced to dance in a Havana nightclub just distant enough from their New York apartments, prim Sarah Brown becomes reckless and tough-guy Masterson softens. Cuba becomes a transforming space.

While Hollywood movies showcased the glamorous side of the island, the land was going through its own changes. Just as the U.S. was hit by the Great Depression, the Cuban economy was ravaged. The population, especially plantation workers, students and intellectuals, started demanding action. Small rebellions became nationwide in 1933, when Sergeant Fulgencio Batista led a large-scale military revolt that overturned the sitting government. The United States government supported the changes that came into place through Batista—and Batista turned a favorable eye to U.S. corporations eager to take advantage of the island’s deregulated utilities and productive plantations. Yet through these internal struggles the effects on the relationship with the United States was minimal, and tourism continued. In the 1933 film Havana Widows, Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell play showgirls who’ve come to Cuba on a mission to find wealthy husbands. Hollywood was in the business of making Great Depression audiences forget their worries, and Cuba was just the place to do it. There was no need to look at what was really happening on the island just to the south, especially when rum cocktails still encouraged vacationers to let loose and lose themselves to a Cuban rhythm.

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