Alfonso Sastre was a child of ten when the Spanish Civil War erupted and an adolescent during the harsh years following the conflict. He developed professionally during the dictatorship of Franco, when severe censorship was in effect. His work, like that of many other Spanish artists of his generation, was a response to the political absolutism that prevailed until late 1975, when Franco died.
Sastre is from an artistic family, several of whose members he characterized as Bohemian. His father did some acting and then gave it up for economic reasons. Sastre began his theater career in 1945, when he participated in the founding of the Arte Nuevo theater group. Arte Nuevo performed Sastre’s first plays, Uranio 235 (uranium 235) and Ha sonado la muerte (death has sounded), the latter written in collaboration with Medardo Fraile. In 1947, Sastre and Fraile wrote another play, Comedia sonámbula (sleepwalker’s comedy), which was not performed. Arte Nuevo presented one more drama by Sastre, Cargamento de sueños (cargo of dreams), before it collapsed in 1948. That same year, Sastre became theater editor of a new student magazine, La hora. During his student years and beyond, Sastre acted in several plays.
In the late 1940’s, a theater of social concern was beginning to develop in Spain. Antonio Buero Vallejo’s Historia de una escalera (pr. 1949, pb. 1950; Story of a Staircase, 1955) was staged to critical acclaim. Although Buero Vallejo’s works were not adamantly countercultural, Sastre’s were, and they therefore provoked the animosity of the theater establishment. In 1950, when Sastre and José María de Quinto issued their manifesto for the TAS, the effort was largely futile. In 1951, when Sastre submitted his Pathetic Prologue to the María Guerrero National Theater, it was rejected. The next year, it was rejected a second time. Finally, in 1953, a university theater group presented The Condemned Squad at the María Guerrero. Audiences responded enthusiastically, and although authorities closed the play after three performances, Sastre became known as a promising young playwright. That same year, Sastre completed his university studies but without receiving a degree, for he failed to show up for a crucial exam. He also finished writing El pan de todos (community bread), begun the year before.
During this period (from 1949 until 1953), Sastre wrote prolifically. His output included essays as well as plays. His articles appeared in several periodicals and consisted of commentaries on the nature of drama, criticism of Spanish theater, and reviews of books and films. During the years before 1953, Sastre underwent a religious crisis resulting from his struggle with the absolute values of Catholicism. On the one hand, he advocated a relativistic approach to life, arguing that any doctrine must be constantly questioned and reevaluated. On the other, he sought some sort of creed to replace the vacuum left by the disintegration of the faith of his childhood. Politically, Sastre was becoming more and more radical. Marxism, with its emphasis on change and, at the same time, its insistence on moral purism, was increasingly attractive to him. In addition to suggesting a means to reconcile the opposing extremes that dominated Sastre’s thought, Marxism provided a basis for the theater of agitation.
In the early 1950’s, Sastre was influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre’s doctrine of artistic engagement, which claimed that the artist must put his work at the service of an ideology. In 1951, however, he opposed a proposed festival of Catholic theater on the basis that it would be nothing more than an instrument of Catholic propaganda and agitation. That is, he was drawn to the concept of an ideological theater when it promoted the goals of political reform but opposed such a theater when it promoted the ideals of Catholicism. Sastre’s essays of this period reveal much vacillation. Although he adhered to the principles of engagement, Sastre was aware of the doctrine’s weakness: If an artist seeks to advance one particular ideology exclusively, he must necessarily close his eyes to the advantages of other ideologies. The need to remain open-minded while at the same time advocating a new political system created a major dilemma for the young playwright.
During this period, Sastre continued to identify...
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