Alfonso Sastre sees drama as an instrument of social reform. For him, a successful play is one that works on the spectator’s conscience and produces a reaction. Through his works, Sastre seeks to investigate the causes of social injustice and of individual unhappiness. He asks himself, “Why does man suffer and who is the guilty party?” In his article “El teatro de Alfonso Sastre visto por Alfonso Sastre” (Alfonso Sastre’s theater seen by Alfonso Sastre), he states that he approaches theater as a form of criminal investigation. It is not surprising that some of his works, such as Muerte en el barrio, revolve around the investigation of a crime.
Sastre’s purpose is not to provoke anarchy but to create an atmosphere of inquiry and analysis that will lead to the establishment of a new order. His plays often present no clearly defined answers but rather raise questions that produce a catharsis by leading the spectator to agonize over possible solutions. This is what Sastre calls “theater of anguish.” Thus, although Sastre reflects Sartre’s influence in that his plays convey existential pain and the need for reform, the Spanish playwright does believe that theater must promote a definite political ideology.
The vehicle that Sastre prefers is tragedy. According to ideas set forth in Drama and Society, tragedy awakens in the spectator a profound sense of guilt. This experience purifies him and makes him susceptible to change. The result may be a social revolution or, at least, a new willingness to address social problems.
Sastre’s works deal with a variety of subjects, although nearly all have reformist or existential overtones. Political revolution is the theme of Pathetic Prologue, El pan de todos, Red Earth, Sad Are the Eyes of William Tell, In the Web, and Crónicas romanas (Roman chronicles). Uranio 235 and Asalto nocturno deal with atomic terror. El cuervo (the raven) and Cargamento de sueños deal with existential anguish. Anna Kleiber is a love story.
Structurally, Sastre’s plays range from the classically Aristotelian to the highly experimental. As a rule, his plots are functional and unadorned. His language is concise, conversational, and nonrhetorical. His characters are real people with real problems, victims of an unjust society or of their own weaknesses.
Like that of Sartre, Sastre’s theater is largely situational. Characters find themselves in predicaments in which they are forced to act or be overcome by circumstances. In several plays, especially among the earlier ones, characters are alienated from society and from one another. They are swept up by history; they are not makers of history. They do not act, but are acted on. These plays convey a sense of anguish and frustration.
Anna Kleiber is an example of this type of drama. The play begins at a hotel in Barcelona, where The Writer, identified as Sastre, is being interviewed by two reporters who systematically misinterpret his responses. In a separate conversation, a man urges his distraught mistress to have an abortion, while she complains of feeling emotionally abandoned. This preliminary dialogue introduces the major themes of the work: lack of communication, isolation, and the individual’s inability to find happiness in love. The Writer’s involvement suggests a secondary theme: the creative process by which a dramatist writes a play.
Anna Kleiber, nervous and upset, asks for a room and requests that she be awakened early the next morning because she has an appointment so important that it will determine her future. During the night, she dies of a heart attack. At her funeral, The Writer encounters Anna’s former lover, Alfredo Merton, who, through a series of flashbacks, tells Anna’s story.
Anna and Alfredo met in Paris, when Anna was on the verge of suicide. After spending eight wonderful days with Alfredo, Anna abandons him, unable to bear the happiness and fearful of bringing him misfortune. Alfredo follows her to Germany, where she is acting in a small theater company. Cohen, Anna’s former impresario, torments Alfredo with allusions to his previous relationship with her. In a rage, Alfredo kills him. Then, overcome with terror at the act he has committed, he yields to the entreaties of a young Nazi fanatic who praises him for killing the Jew and offers to recommend him to the Nazi authorities. Anna is disgusted by Alfredo’s cowardliness, and once more the lovers separate. Anna, a libertine ever in search of new experiences, seeks thrills through sex and alcohol. When she once again joins Alfredo, however, they set up a household and she becomes a “model housewife.”
When the war breaks out, Alfredo obeys the call to duty...
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