For Antonio Buero Vallejo, tragedy is an all-embracing quest for understanding, an intuitive investigation of an enigmatic reality. Rejecting prescriptive considerations, he considers that tragedy is the representation of human beings’ struggle against their limitations, for their freedom. In their quest for understanding or truth, for the light that will permit them to overcome their limitations, many of Buero Vallejo’s protagonists—whose prototype is the blind Oedipus—embody the preoccupations of the dramatist. In their struggle against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, they often evince the idealism of Don Quixote. Buero Vallejo’s attitude toward the struggle that tragedy implies is ultimately one of hope. Tragedy, Buero Vallejo has stated, proposes an encounter with those truths that can, perhaps, free human beings from their blindness.
The very foundation of Buero Vallejo’s theater is his passion for truth. The human condition is seen as characterized by self-deception and unwillingness to face the harsher realities of life. To express this idea, Buero Vallejo often uses the symbolism of blindness and vision, of darkness and light. Indeed, this symbolism appears in the very first play he wrote: In the Burning Darkness, whose alienated protagonist, Ignacio, yearns to see. The new arrival in a school for the blind, he merges his desire to overcome his physical limitation with his metaphysical anguish, seeking a light that represents spiritual truth or vision. It is significant that he is the model for many of Buero Vallejo’s later dreamer-protagonists. The other students, content in their world of darkness, refuse to face the reality of their limitations; they represent humankind in general, self-condemned to a spiritual blindness.
The blindness that Buero Vallejo depicts is universal. Nevertheless, it is possible to see in many of his dramas the tragedy of Francisco Franco’s Spain. The school of In the Burning Darkness, whose students conform to its rules and deny the reality of their situation, the dark apartment of El tragaluz (the basement window), whose inhabitants invent fictitious versions of the tragic events that happened to them at the end of the Civil War in an effort to go on living, and especially, the prison cell of The Foundation, one of whose inmates deludes himself into believing he is doing research in a beneficent “Foundation”—all are microcosms of Franco’s Spain.
Buero Vallejo’s plays are never politically programmatic, for he does not present solutions to the questions raised. In his tragic theater, Buero Vallejo attempts, rather, to bring about, on the part of the spectators, what he calls a type of “active contemplation.” There is always a delicate balance between communicative emotion and critical reflection. Identification and distancing become complementary functions of dramatic structure. It is significant that his theater is characterized by a continuous process of technical experimentation and creative innovation. Buero Vallejo has been especially interested in the problem of spectator participation and has devised a technique to achieve such a participation that constitutes one of his most original contributions to modern drama. He uses what are known as effects of interiorization, “immersion,” or psychic participation, through which the spectators are brought to identify with his protagonists. In his early dramas, these effects often take the form of peculiar sense perceptions—or the lack of them—that are shared on brief occasions by the protagonist and the spectators. In his dramas of the 1970’s—The Foundation, The Shot, and Jueces en la noche (judges in the night)—these effects are extended throughout a major part of the action. What the spectators see is, to a great extent, the materialization of the perceptions, thoughts, and dreams of the protagonist. The true action thus occurs within the mind of his character, and Buero Vallejo lets the audience see this action directly.
In the Burning Darkness
In the Burning Darkness constitutes an inquiry into the mystery of life, an inquiry characteristic of Buero Vallejo’s entire theater. The light, the more authentic reality for which Ignacio, the blind student, yearns, is symbolized by the distant stars. That the light for which he longs is metaphysical becomes obvious, for he states that, even if he could see the stars, he would die because he cannot reach them. The other students of the school, where an atmosphere of superficial optimism and gaiety prevails, refuse to confront the tragedy of their limitations. They refuse to acknowledge that they are blind, feigning a normality that does not exist and even referring to those who see as “sighted.” The institution or school is a world of darkness and shadows that has been compared to Plato’s cave. Isolated in this world of darkness, the students are ignorant of the light that shines outside.
Ignacio, however, soon turns the students’ tranquil blindness into painful awareness as he points out the fiction on which their lives are based. For him, the meaning of existence is to be found only through searching for the truth, despite the suffering that this imposes. For him, there is another world, a transcendent reality to which most men are spiritually blind, a world symbolized by the distant stars for which he longs.
In the end, Ignacio succeeds in making his opponent, the leader of the students, understand his anguish. This leader, Carlos, has considered Ignacio’s attitude harmful to the morale of the school and has sought to discredit him. In a pivotal scene, Buero Vallejo makes the spectators experience the same anguish that Ignacio feels by means of an “immersion” effect—a slow blackout of the stage and houselights as the protagonist describes how those who can see, close their eyes to imagine the horror of blindness. In the end, Ignacio is murdered by Carlos. His dreams, however, live on in his murderer, who repeats the dead man’s words about the distant stars as the curtain falls.
On a metaphysical level, the institution represents this world, and the students, human beings in general, who are spiritually blind. Ignacio’s yearning to see even though he feels it is impossible, evinces the passion for the absolute that typifies the writings of the Spanish existentialist philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, who has strongly influenced Buero Vallejo. Ignacio’s desire to transcend his limitations and to penetrate the mysteries of humankind and the universe is characteristic of many of Buero Vallejo’s dreamers. Buero Vallejo’s tragedy depicts the human condition, which he sees as a constant struggle between faith and doubt, with the continuing accompaniment of hope. His anguished protagonists, torn between faith and doubt, as well as the theme of physical and spiritual blindness, place the author clearly in the tradition of Unamuno. Also present in this play are echoes of the Spanish mystics, especially Saint John of the Cross, who wrote of the “dark night of the soul.”
On a political level, the institution for the blind suggests any authoritarian regime that tries to convince its citizens that they are free and happy when they are not. It is a regime that does not hesitate to resort to violence when its authority is challenged. The institution has thus been seen as a symbol of Franco’s Spain with its violence, injustice, and lies. Significantly, Buero Vallejo conceived the idea for the play while in prison.
El tragaluz is the story of a Madrid family destroyed by the Civil War and forced to take refuge in a sordid basement apartment. The action is narrated by investigators of a future century, whose progress allows them to detect images or holograms of the past that have been mysteriously preserved. The holograms that the investigators project represent not only actions but also thoughts, and the boundaries between the two are blurred as the cameras capture the totality of human experience. At the end of the war, this family had been unable to board the crowded train that was to return them to Madrid, with the exception of the elder son Vicente, who was carrying their scant provisions. Despite his father’s command to get off, he had continued to Madrid; during the following days, his baby sister had died of hunger before the family found shelter in the basement apartment, where they have lived in poverty for nearly thirty years. In order to make life bearable, they invent a fictitious version of these events that absolves Vicente of all responsibility. The dark basement apartment, like the institution of In the Burning Darkness, represents a refuge from the light of reality—the light that enters the narrow window projecting shadows on the opposite wall that is visible to the spectators.
The old father, traumatized by the disloyalty of his son, constantly relives the past, insisting that the basement window is the window of a train. Furthermore, he spends his time cutting out human figures from old postcards and watching the anonymous people who pass the window—just as his two sons did years ago when they pretended that they were in a theater. Contemplating these figures, the father asks a persistent question: “Who is that?” For the younger son Mario, a dreamer like Ignacio of In the Burning Darkness, this apparently incoherent question suggests the enigma of humankind’s identity—a concern common to both Søren Kierkegaard and Unamuno. Indeed, the father has been compared to the old madman of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (pr., pb. 1958), who is absorbed by this same enigma. Like Ignacio, Mario longs to transcend the limits of human understanding, to penetrate the ultimate mysteries of the universe.
Mario, the idealistic dreamer, chooses to remain in the basement, disdaining material success in a world in which the only way to get ahead is by deceit, precisely the means used by Vicente, who left home years ago to achieve economic prosperity and who now holds an important position. Mario has deliberately chosen poverty and obscurity. The opposition between the two brothers is heightened by Mario’s concern for Vicente’s secretary, Encarna, a poor country girl exploited by Vicente, who has forced her to become his mistress. For Mario, she represents the latest in a series of victims that began with his baby sister.
The opposition between the two brothers—which is not unlike that between Ignacio and Carlos of the preceding play—culminates in the “trial” scene, in which Mario accuses Vicente not only of responsibility for the death of their sister and the madness of the father but, even more important, of having victimized others ever since. Vicente “took the train” to success years ago and has never gotten off. Alone with his father, Vicente confesses his guilt. Believing, however, that change is impractical or impossible, he prepares to leave, to return to the “train that never stops.” The father, reliving the past, believes that Vicente is once again about to board the real train that took him away years ago. He then stabs his son in a burst of madness—or of sanity—as the sound of the locomotive (heard whenever the characters look out the window) becomes deafening. Ambiguous and mysterious, the father is both a pitiable madman and an all-knowing judge and God figure.
(The entire section is 4710 words.)