The Rabinal Achí (Man of Rabinal) is a Maya play that predates the arrival of the Spanish to the New World. Little is known about its origins. Through dialogue, music, and dance it recounts events of Maya history that culminate in the early fifteenth century. During the colonial period the Rabinal Achí was eventually transcribed using alphabetic script; the date of the first transcription remains unknown. The play was published in 1862 as a French translation of a copy that Father Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg made of an earlier manuscript that was read to him while serving as parish priest in the town of Rabinal. All current publications are based on Brasseur's French translation or on his original Maya script, which Manuel Pérez copied in 1913. Translators who have worked directly from the Maya text include Georges Raynaud, Alain Breton, and Dennis Tedlock. For his English translation, Tedlock also used a video recording he had made of performances in Rabinal in 1998 under the direction of José León Coloch.
Although the play may have acquired European stylistic influences over the centuries—in the design of masks, for instance—its style and delivery put the Rabinal Achí in a class of its own. Its repetitive and static dynamics are unparalleled in colonial drama. The play dramatizes the trial of Cawek, a renegade Quiché Maya warrior who fought against the neighboring Mayas of Rabinal and was captured. Cawek, the Man of Quiché, emerges as the main character in the drama. He is allowed to explain his actions, defend himself against accusations, and freely express his wishes until his inevitable execution concludes the drama.
Tedlock stresses in his translation that the execution of Cawek is not a heart sacrifice as earlier translations had rendered it, but a beheading. This removes from the play an inaccurate bit of Aztec exoticism that may have been introduced by Brasseur de Bourbourg in his nineteenth-century translation. The death of Cawek is not a ceremonial sacrifice but a quick execution preserving his dignity as a warrior, which his enemies profoundly respect. Paradoxically, the play is a celebration of valor and mutual respect among peoples. Laws of warfare and death, although inevitable, appear trivial in comparison with the underlying sense of humanity and self-respect that the play ultimately conveys. In 2005 UNESCO proclaimed the Rabinal Achí one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Luis O. Arata