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– An Ethno Rock Musical

The Story

In the seventh century of our era, Mayan civilization was flourishing. One of its most famous city states
was Tikal, center of great artistic achievement. A gleaming white gem in the jungle – filled with temples,
pyramids, ballcourts, market plazas. The artists of Tikal sold their creations throughout the Mayan world.

But trouble was brewing. The ambitious ruler of the city-state of Caracol, Lord Kan II, was wreaking havoc
everywhere, conquering rival cities and sacking them of their valuables – and their artists! Maya specialist
Linda Schele says: “Defeated cities were forced to give up precious commodities like obsidian, shell
currencies, heirlooms, craftsmen, handwoven cloth, and highly skilled artists. This tribute was key to the
domination Caracol held over this region.” Caracol’s rampage is sometimes called “the star wars,” because
Lord Kan would only launch his attacks when the evening “star,” Venus, was in proper position in the

Within this setting, Schele detects the unmistakable signs of a “love story.” Archaeologists have found the
tomb of a noblewoman of this period in Tikal whose burial was accompanied by “extraordinary pomp and
honor.” She was entombed with one of her most precious possessions, a stunning polychrome bowl with
painted images of the Celestial Bird and glyphs showing that it was given to her by “Ruler I” of the
neighboring city-state of Naranjo. Schele says there was clearly a “special association” – love affair? –
between the noblewoman and the ruler of Naranjo.

Other known facts: Lord Kan conquered Tikal and looted the city of its artistic heritage and its artists. He
then went on to conquer Naranjo. It is also believed that Ruler I was at some point captured by Kan and
subjected to horrific rituals that led to his death. Eventually, the ruler of Dos Pilas, whose family originally
came from Tikal, freed that city from Lord Kan’s yoke, restored its artistic treasures and helped it regain its
former glory.

Given this historical context, here is the personal story: The Tikal noblewoman (call her Lady Xoc –
pronounced “shock”) has known Ruler I (call him Chan) since they were children and met at a festival in
Tikal’s grand plaza. They are both artists: he paints vivid murals, she plays the flute and composes. Like
any crown prince, he studies martial arts and the sacred ball game, among other pursuits. But painting
remains his first obsession. Xoc’s haunting music, meanwhile, captivates the nobility of Tikal. As a youth,
Chan sends a gift to Xoc: a stunning polychrome bowl, which he has painted with an image of the Celestial
Bird, as a token of his devotion to her.

Chan and Xoc plan to marry, even though her family has another match in mind. They want her to marry
Yax-Pac, a distant cousin, ruler of Dos Pilas. Yax-Pac is a good man – Chan knows him well – but Lady
Xoc will have none of it, she loves Chan.

Later in the year, Chan’s father dies, and the young man succeeds to the throne of Naranjo. Xoc’s family
relents. Now he can fulfill his dreams and make Xoc his queen. He paints, over many weeks, an immense
dream-mural, portraying himself and his bride-to-be in a wild and beautiful jungle paradise. Their wedding
day draws near.

But fate intervenes. Enter Lord Kan and his reign of terror. One by one, he is conquering the city-states of
Maya-land. Tikal is next on his list. The people of Tikal have heard how he saps the lifeblood from cities,
denuding them of their artworks and artists, destroying spirit, society and economy in one fell swoop. Some
townspeople flee to the jungle, others stand and fight. Ruler Chan, in nearby Naranjo, hears of Tikal’s
plight and is worried for Lady Xoc’s safety. He musters a force to aid the remaining warriors of Tikal in
their defense of that legendary city.
His response is too little and too late. Lord Kan and his forces take the city and pillage it. Among Lord
Kan’s booty: Lady Xoc, artist and noblewoman.

Chan of Naranjo appeals to Lord Kan for the release of his fiancee. Kan laughs, and says, “If you want her,
you must compete for her – in the Sacred Ball Game.” The winner will take the Lady Xoc. The loser is to
be sacrificed on the temple steps. Chan has run out of options: he accepts the challenge.

The rules of the Sacred Ball Game are unknown to us. But there are only two players here: Chan and Lord
Kan. Lady Xoc watches them compete from atop a wall. We see closeups of the players, on a large
videoscreen. The ritual game – choreographed, like dance—is intense and exhausting. Just when Lord Kan
appears on the verge of victory, Chan takes the game, spinning the ball through the vertical stone hoop.

Lord Kan gets to his feet and faces his victorious opponent. He smiles and says, “Well fought, Chan. But
since Tikal is now my city, the rules of the game are also mine. This time the winner will be sacrificed.”

Chan is brutally put to death, in the public square, but mercifully out of our view. We see instead the
devastated Lady Xoc, seeking solace in her music. The arts and artists – and as result all life – are sucked
from the once glorious city.

Yax-Pac, ruler of Dos Pilas, takes to the battlefield to crush Lord Kan once and for all and rescue Lady
Xoc. But alone in her chamber, she takes her own life, determined to join Chan in the Otherworld. Yax-Pac
is victorious, but without the final victory of Lady Xoc.

The people and their arts return to Tikal, to begin the long rebuilding process. Yax-Pac and the people of
Tikal hold an extraordinary funeral ceremony for Lady Xoc, who has come to symbolize all that Tikal once
stood for and will once again represent: the humanized arts…

In a farewell ritual, Yax-Pac, her family and close friends gather in her burial chamber. The far wall of the
chamber is the grand fantasy-mural that Chan painted for her wedding. It seems almost alive… On her
stone sarcophagus sits the polychrome bowl that he sent to her as a token of his young love. Somehow, the
music of her flute has not been stilled by her death….

The end.
TIKAL! – An Ethno Rock Musical

A Treatment

[NOTE: This musical theatrical drama is based on an episode in the history of the Maya city-state of
Tikal, center of arts and culture, whose ruins lie in modern-day Guatemala. During the Classic Period,
from about 200-850 AD, Tikal was a major political, economic and military power in the Maya region,
and its artistic flourishing was legendary.]

PROLOGUE – Archaeologists Find a Tomb

Two archaeologists enter an ancient tomb in Tikal and discover the long-sought sarcophagus of Lady Xoc,
legend of the celebrated jungle city. Atop the sarcophagus is a beautifully painted ceramic bowl. Behind it,
a large mural, hidden in shadow.


Scene 1 – The Marketplace of Tikal

The people of Tikal celebrate their annual Creation Festival, marking in exuberant song and dance the birth
of the humanized arts. A centerpiece is the “Palo Volador,” in which dancers atop a central pole,
representing bird gods, fly down in circles, attached to unfurling ropes.

Scene 2 – The Meeting of Two Children

The families of the rulers of Tikal and Naranjo meet at the festival, and dine together. Young Xoc, daughter
of the ruler of Tikal, gets to know Chan, son of the ruler of Naranjo.

Scene 3 – The Education of Xoc and Chan

Xoc and Chan are schooled in the skills of the noble class. Both have other ideas, however. Xoc challenges
the age-old patriarchal society. Chan is reluctant to accept his role as crown prince of Naranjo. Between the
two of them is the heir of the ruler of Dos Pilas, Yax-Pac, who happens to be a distant cousin of Xoc and
friend of Chan. The families have agreed that someday Xoc and Yax-Pac will marry, to solidify the strong
ties between their two city-states.

Scene 4 – The Arts of Tikal

Xoc and Chan pursue their respective arts – she music (singing and composing) and he painting. We see
Tikal’s love for artists and their works. We also see how the arts are viewed as infused with magic, and link
the real world with the world of dream.

Scene 5 – Storm Clouds: Lord Kan

Lord Kan, ruler of Caracol, charts a course for conquest of the Mayan heartland, one city at a time. He
devises a plan to strip of the great cities of their artists and artworks, thereby enervating them, crushing
their spirit and draining their economies.

Scene 6 – The Love of Xoc and Chan

Chan is drawn to Xoc, but hesitates to admit it, because he knows she is destined to become the wife of
Yax-Pac, future ruler of Dos Pilas. Xoc, for her part, finds Chan an interesting artist, but has no time for
romance. She is certainly not attracted to Yax-Pac, a very traditional young man. But art eventually draws
Chan and Xoc closer together, and they surprise themselves by falling in love. They carry their love beyond
accepted social bounds.

Scene 7 – Family Matters and Rivalry

Chan and Xoc try to come to terms with their illicit relationship. They battle their respective families. Chan
paints a marvelous polychrome bowl for Xoc. Because she sings like a beautiful bird of the rainforest, Chan
has painted a Celestial Bird on the bowl. Yax-Pac comes to learn of their relationship, and confronts his
friend Chan. Their schooling over, Yax-Pac and Chan return to their home cities, their friendship
apparently shattered forever.

Scene 8 – Naranjo’s New Ruler

Chan arrives home to learn that his father is dying. He steels himself to the prospect of ruling Naranjo. His
father dies, and Chan becomes ruler. After a suitable interval, he petitions the ruler of Tikal for his
daughter’s hand.

Scene 9 – Wedding Plans

Xoc persuades her father to accept the marriage. He comes to see it as the only way to keep his strong-
willed daughter from challenging the political order in Tikal. Better that she move to Naranjo and practice
her radical feminist politics there. Chan begins to paint a grand mural that places Xoc in a jungle of great
beauty and imagination. It is to be a wedding present for her.

Scene 10 – The Thunderclap of War

Lord Kan is on the move. He has begun conquering smaller cities, stripping them of their cultural riches.
His ultimate goal is Tikal, whose wealth is greatest of all cities in the Maya heartland.


Scene 1 – Tikal Must Decide

The ruler of Tikal agonizes as Lord Kan’s army draws closer. Should he surrender peacefully or fight? Xoc
believes in resistance, because she sees the true nature of Lord Kan’s strategy. Some of her father’s
advisers believe that Tikal should submit peacefully, to avoid great bloodshed.

Scene 2 – Naranjo Watches, Then Acts

Chan, ruler of Naranjo, watches helplessly as Tikal is encircled. Some of Tikal’s nobles have fled; others,
including the ruler, have stayed behind to fight. Chan, worried most about Xoc, rallies and force and heads
to Tikal. Meanwhile in Dos Pilas, Yax-Pac, the crown prince, receives his father’s blessing to take a force
to Tikal as well. He, too, wants to rescue Xoc.

Scene 3 – The Sack of Tikal; Xoc in Bondage

Lord Kan conquers Tikal. He has captured the royal family, including Xoc, who as one of the artists will be
carried off to Caracol. Tikal is being steadily looted of its treasures. Chan and Yax-Pac meet at the outskirts
of the city; they are too late. With the royal family held captive, they dare not attack. The two young
leaders try to rebuild their friendship, but a fundamental friction remains.

Scene 4 -- Chan’s Challenge to Lord Kan

Chan offers a challenge to Lord Kan: He will play against Kan in the Sacred Ball Game. If Chan wins, the
royal family of Tikal will be freed, and allowed to seek refuge in Naranjo. If Kan wins, Chan will surrender
his city without a struggle.
Scene 5 – The Night Before

Chan meets with his old teacher, Ah-Bac, and comes to terms with his destiny. The young ruler believes
that life contains many parallel threads, some tragic in their endings and some sublime. He is convinced
there is a reality, among many realities, in which he and Xoc will live a fulfilling and happy life. He is
ready to compete against Lord Kan.

Scene 6 – The Sacred Ball Game

Chan walks alone into the great plaza of Tikal. Amid great ceremony, he and Lord Kan walk to the arena.
The game begins. It is intense and dramatic, as the two men battle, using hips, thighs and shoulders but no
hands, to control the large rubber ball and pass it through the vertical stone ring at center court. Xoc
watches from atop a wall. Close to defeat, Chan rallies and wins. But Kan goes back on his word, and
orders Chan to be sacrificed on the steps of the great pyramid. Chan is brutally put to death.

Scene 7 – Tragedy and Rescue

Xoc retreats to her quarters. Her world is collapsing around her. She determines to destroy Lord Kan, by
enticing him to her bed and poisoning him with a lethal drink. Kan, suspecting such a ploy, switches drinks
with her, and forces her to drink with him. But Xoc has taken the ultimate step, and poisoned both drinks.
Kan sits on the edge of the bed. His head drops forward. She pushes him and he falls on his back. She then
sits at the end of the bed and awaits her fate. She is not afraid, because she sees Chan approaching her. She
takes his hand.

Scene 8 – The Artists Return

With Lord Kan dead, his forces flee, and Yax-Pac’s army moves into Tikal. The artists return to the city.
Yax-Pac’s men have recovered the cultural treasures and returned them to Tikal. The city’s lifeblood
begins to flow again.

Scene 9 – Final Ritual in Tikal

An elaborate ritual takes place as the Lady Xoc is interred in her tomb. People realize that she has saved the
city. Her father realizes that he was no ruler, but his daughter was. The grand mural that Chan painted,
portraying Xoc in a dream-jungle, has been disassembled and brought to Tikal, where it stands behind her
tomb. The polychrome bowl is placed on her sarcophagus. Xoc’s sweet voice is heard singing from the


Chan is also known as Pakal.

The Great Cosmic Bird is called Itzam-Yeh.

Communication with the Otherworld involves the Cosmic Sap, or Itz, which among
today’s Maya is used to refer to excretions from the human body like sweat, tears, milk
and semen, but also to morning dew, flower nectar, tree sap and melting wax.

Pottery items – plates, bowls, pitchers – were regarded by the ancient Maya as much
more than mere crockery. They were magical instruments used to convey sacrificial items
– such as food and drink – to the gods.

The Opening Dance:

Ancient Tikal had a population of close to half a million. The ruins are cloaked in silence
now, but once these plazas reverberated with rhythmic drums and the thud of dancing
feet as the people celebrated the re-creation of the world. “Dancing Across the Abyss,”
Linda Schele called it: the Mayans danced across the abyss of drought and death to the
green rebirth of life and abundance.

Not only did average citizens take part in these rich and complex rituals; Mayan kings,
queens, their courts and their nobles were above all public performers, whose role in the
dance rituals was an affirmation of their links to heaven and to their power on earth.
Sometimes this dancing led to altered consciousness. The ancient Mayans are known to
have engaged in “trance dancing,” similar to the Dance of the Sufis.

To choreograph the Mayan dances in this work, the director, choreographer and
composer should travel to Chamula, Mexico, in late February (Carnival or Mardi Gras
time), to witness the annual Festival of the Games, which includes a rendition of the
Creation dance performed since ancient times.


The inspiration for this story is an epic poetic cycle on the creation of the arts in Maya mythology by
Guatemalan Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias. I have translated this work into English: Clearvigil in
Spring: A Mayan Myth (A Translation of Asturias' Clarivigilia Primaveral) by Robert Lebling

© Robert W. Lebling 2011

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