What do we make of the end of Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics? The antagonist, the progress-embracing, Russian-novel-hating Cheché has just shot the factory’s lector, bringing his recitation of Anna Karenina to an end if not a close. And then the lector-averse Palomo completes the novel and seems to offer reconciliation with his wife, Marela, who had been having an affair with the lector. Meanwhile, the verdict on the company’s new “Anna Karenina” cigar has not yet emerged. Will the company’s fortunes continue to decline or will this new line–the owner’s option rather than bringing in the latest in cigar-rolling machines–provide the needed future success?
Anna concludes, like most good plays, with a number of unresolved questions. But as I watched a recent production, I couldn’t help thinking about James B. Duke, the name and money behind Duke University. I see Duke in the character of Cheché, the man so fixated on keeping up with the latest trends, so dedicated to increasing profits and gaining greater control of the factory that he loses sight of even the people closest to him. Cheché’s wife, we learn, has run off with the previous lector, which provides some of the man’s animus toward that profession, but, getting to know Cheché on the stage, we can well imagine that his wife ran as much from him as toward the lector. Cheché loans his friend, partner, and employer, Santiago money with which to gamble at the play’s outset. He knows that Santiago is on a losing streak and that a true friend would not lend the money, but he sees an opportunity. He allows Santiago to pledge even more ownership of the factory should he default on the loan. A friend would have refused, but Cheché accepts the pledge and Santiago’s IOU, written on the bottom of his shoe, which he carries around to prevent the evidence from being scuffed off. When Santiago repays the loan, Cheché seems disappointed. He didn’t really want to be repaid, but wanted this supposed friend to fail and lose his business. Cheché can see nothing but his own bank account. He charges into bringing a cigar-rolling machine into the factory, despite the fact that all of his co-workers object. Such a machine, although more profitable, is less humane. Its noise will prevent conversation or the reading by the lector. It will produce more cigars for less expense, but jobs will disappear. Cheché, however, doesn’t care.
James B. Duke, in the years before when Cruz’s play is set, built up the cigarette industry through his monopolistic American Tobacco Company. As the overwhelming buyer of tobacco crops, Duke could dictate prices, forcing many hard-working farmers to produce their crops at virtually no profit. As the overwhelming producer of cigarettes, Duke contributed to the increased consumption of tobacco–an after-dinner cigar giving way to a number of packs per day. Again, with his eye on the bottom line, James B. Duke thought little about the human cost paid by others in the production of his fortune. His supposed philanthropy in endowing Trinity College to such an extent that it became Duke University was made possible by the misanthropy of his business dealings.
As I watch Cruz’s characters, I recognize that I would rather spend my time, share my home, my workplace, my church, and my community with the improvident but nonetheless passionate and humane Santiago rather than the scheming and aloof Cheché. Despite the largesse of the profitable empire-builders large and small, I’d opt for a man who treats people as people rather than commodities and customers.