Antonio Buero Vallejo

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Buero Vallejo, Antonio 1916–

Buero Vallejo is a Spanish playwright whose poetic dramas depict the anguish of modern life. A writer of tragedy, he creates characters with shattered ideals who seek solace in love and hope for the future. Buero Vallejo's serious treatment of his themes, as well as his concern with dramatic form, have established him as a major figure in the contemporary Spanish theater.

Kessel Schwartz

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Catharsis, as Buero views it in almost all his works, is a sublimation, an improvement rather than a relief. Compassion, terror, and anger, once sublimated, must clearly approximate the human condition which tragedy attempts to define for us, but every spectator will react differently to the pathetic, moral, or religious ingredients of the tragedy. The theater's function, whether it leaves us passive or calls us to social action, is to elevate. (p. 817)

Buero states that he writes theater of a tragic nature about the problems of man and their doubtful final outcome, factors inherent in all tragedy, whether it be labeled realistic, symbolic, or imaginative. Considering tragedy a flexible phenomenon which may include disparate elements foreign to the dictionary definition of the hero conquered by fate, elevated action, noble language, and fatal denouement, he uses a variety of labels for his dramatic works such as tragedia, fantasía, drama, tragicomedia, parábola, and fábula. In these works he proposes that man is not necessarily a victim of fate—a tragic affirmation which stresses human capacity for overcoming obstacles and reverses….

The chance for a better world creates a tragic possibility for man based on a future hope which may not provide a solution. Man lives in a world where he must fail, triumph, and live. (p. 818)

At the heart of all tragedy Buero finds the problem of hope. When we despair or feel anguish, it is as though we were projecting the reverse side of the coin of hope, which insists on maintaining its force within our heart. Without light there can be no darkness; without good, no evil; thus, without hope there can be no despair or existential anguish. Man may deny life, but his rebellion occurs within the framework of unfulfilled and existing hope, at the very least, for change. One always hopes…. [The] existential characters within a given work are not inevitably doomed to death and destruction as victims of an adverse fatality which, at the whim of the gods, may destroy them.

In the twentieth century, tragedy, implying the need for an heroic and loving response to the fear of a meaningless world which causes our anguish, may result not only in catastrophe but in victory…. Even when a catastrophe occurs, as in the Greek theater, moral order remains…. Spiritual struggle, as it promotes nobility of soul in the tragic conflict, will lead to a kind of affirmation.

Buero accepts the Greek's moral transcendence as well as a duality of negative and positive poles where arousal leads to assuagement, destruction to renewal, and suffering to expiation. This kind of tragedy in its metaphysical or human aspect is part of a great vital affirmation whose eternally positive quality "confirma la función positiva de la tragedia" [confirms the positive function of tragedy]…. (pp. 818-19)

Buero claims his tragedy reveals his preoccupation with man's fate, both metaphysical and social, as reflected in the repeated conflicts one finds in his theater between individuality and collectivity, between necessity and liberty…. Being a realist, Buero realizes that true Christian love is difficult to promote in a world of established material values, but each individual, he feels, must strive to overcome his own shortcomings as a human...

(This entire section contains 893 words.)

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being and in the process aid his society. (p. 821)

[Buero] claims that only social drama which aids one to feel more deeply the problem of man and his destiny deserves the name of tragedy. This problem may involve the elevation as well as the destruction of the hero, and the spectator may be as much moved by the former as by the latter. Buero rejects strictly social works which neither promote catharsis nor possess unique tragic importance, but he cannot, as some do, accept the idea that "where the conflict can be resolved through social means we may have serious drama but not tragedy." He rejects also those doctrinaire critics who accuse as reactionary those works which fail forcefully and openly to advance social causes. Through an exclusively didactic treatment of social problems, unless they involve individual conflicts and concrete situations, one may produce sociology instead of social theater. One must maintain a balance between the lyrical and poetic on the one hand and the didactic on the other, while achieving artistic integrity; for esthetic and ethical considerations, which are far from being mutually exclusive in the modern drama, serve to reinforce one another. (pp. 821-22)

Buero's social message has not been more explicit, not because he denies esthetic liberty and responsibility, but because he realizes the inefficacy of direct action against the resistance of the spectator to change his established ideas. In order to produce works of some originality, Buero had to invent special filters for his message which attempted to overcome these prejudices….

Buero stresses the impossibility of absolute freedom in writing, not only in Spain, but also in countries considered politically free. All writers are conditioned, even though they are not always aware of it. (p. 822)

[Buero] encourages the hope which lies in the human soul, postulating the possibility that one has of gaining victory over himself, because as long as man fights for faith and against his own evil, humanity and the world will survive. (p. 823)

Kessel Schwartz, "Buero Vallejo and the Concept of Tragedy," in Hispania (© 1968 The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc.), Vol. LI, No. 4, December, 1968, pp. 817-24.

Francis Donahue

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Since the end of the Civil War, the Spanish theater has been plagued by the arrested historical development of the country—an amalgam of authoritarian rule, censorship, a predominantly conservative theater-going public, and a marked cultural lag in the appearance in Spain of new currents and works of the modern theater.

Out of these singular conditions has emerged a Spanish Theater of Commitment whose allegiance is to Matthew Arnold's concept that art is meant to be a criticism of life, but whose dramatic thrust is modified by the special conditions existing in Spain today.

Leader of this new theater is Antonio Buero Vallejo…. The Theater of Commitment is characterized by the importance of the dramatist's political views in relation to his art. It may be best described by the term zeitstuck, a play that tries to cope with a problem of the day. It is not a literature of approval or tribute, but rather of protest and outrage. What is important is less the script itself than the terms of when and where and how it is presented. Its message must be put across in a special way. It does not lay claim to portraiture, nor an interest in all of a man or of a social class. As Eric Bentley points out in The Theatre of Commitment …, the ending is open. Just before the curtain falls, the playwright seems to say, "What happens after this is up to you, the public." (p. 354)

As for the "open" ending, Buero Vallejo, just before the curtain falls, sometimes has a character pose a question which is left unanswered. The Spanish playwright has said, "Answers to that question belong to life, not necessarily to art."

While the term commitment usually suggests engagé, Spanish dramatists do not regularly strive to present the philosophical superstructure which frames the works of Jean-Paul Sartre….

Buero Vallejo and his followers generally use lower-class characters in their home habitat. The protagonists struggle against something undefined and undetermined in the play. That something would be, in the normal play, the antagonist, and it would be specific. Not so here, because the antagonist in the Theater of Commitment is the Establishment. To point out specifically the nature of that antagonist … would mean the play would remain unstaged. That antagonist does not appear on stage. It exists in the mind of the audience. The cause of the evil conditions remains unspecified, but implied: the Spanish Establishment. (p. 355)

These, then, are plays of protest and outrage directed to the middle-class theater-going public. There is no direct protest, yet their hoped-for effect—on middle-level people "who may be vaguely sympathetic to the cause preached but are a little sluggish and sleepy about it"—is one of thoughtful anger.

Ushering in the Commitment style in Spanish drama is Buero's Historia de una escalera ["Story of a Stairway," 1949], the first truly distinguished play of the post-Civil War era in Spain. (pp. 355-56)

["Story of a Stairway"], which recalls the work of Elmer Rice, Sidney Kingsley, and Arthur Miller, is in the social-realist vein, plotted carefully to avoid censorship. Buero cross-laces the lives of families living in a Madrid tenement at three separate dates…. The story line follows the competition between a sincere, hard-working proletarian type and a would-be petty-bourgeois individual for success….

Coursing through the play are sharp scenes of individual conflict which gather like a summer storm and break with lightning rapidity over the staircase. Simmering there are such words as: misery, squalor, pettiness, quarrels, anguish, poverty.

Buero's thesis is clear: Successive generations of Spaniards remain shackled to a pattern of life which does not change. Yet each generation begins by rebelling against the atmosphere of poverty, misery, and rancor which it has inherited, intent upon making its way out of the social dead end. In due time, because of concessions, indecision, or lack of personal vigor, that generation too allows itself to be defeated by life, as had the previous ones….

With this melodramatic yet effective play, Buero Vallejo shook up audiences and critics alike. He struck a social nerve. Although opinion was not unanimous on the work—and it does reveal structural flaws—most critics saw in this play an affinity with the tragic theme in Spanish letters. (p. 356)

As he gained in technical competence, Buero Vallejo turned to writing dramas of a historical nature which, by symbolic application to life in Spain today, reflect the playwright's commitment just as fully as do [his earlier plays]. These plays are in the tragic vein, but, since Buero is dealing basically with historical material, he does not use the lower-class element or humble apartment locales of his other plays.

In his historical cycle, the dramatist reveals a growth in symbolical depth, imaginative concern, and universal appeal. While modifying his field of operations, Buero Vallejo has not changed his objective—which is still commitment, through theatrical invention, to a change in the pattern of life for large segments of the Spanish population. (p. 357)

Francis Donahue, "Spain's Theater of Commitment," in Books Abroad (copyright 1969 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 43, No. 3, Summer, 1969, pp. 354-58.∗

Robert L. Nicholas

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Un soñador para un pueblo (1958) and Las Meninas (1960) constitute something of a digression in the career of Antonio Buero Vallejo. They are preceded by ten years of largely realistic playwriting and followed by what appears to be a renewal of that realistic current. The central characters in these plays are not middle class figures, but intellectuals and artists cast in a heroic mold. Buero is more interested in having them make statements of artistic and political truths than in engaging them in psychological involvements. The settings, of course, do not reflect a contemporary, middle class environment. Both character and scene are historical in nature, but this does not diminish the contemporary relevance of the problems treated by the playwright. Indeed, his main reason for selecting such an era is to criticize the present through the perspective of the past. (p. 281)

By developing the action of these plays according to the requirements of artistic philosophies and forms, the playwright is, I suggest, attempting to approximate, in the plays' structures, the spirit of the historical moment depicted in each play. The systematic juxtaposition of characters and attitudes in Un soñador para un pueblo facilitates the contrasting of political ideologies and, therefore, is an evocation of the atmosphere of eighteenth-century Spain, an epoch characterized by ideological struggles. The impressionistic manner of Las Meninas, with its movement and shifting focus, is meant to reflect the suspicion, disloyalty, vested interests and fear of Inquisitional Spain of the seventeenth century. (p. 283)

[Un soñador para un pueblo] is not an indictment of the society's class structure. It shows, rather, in its structural arrangement, the good and evil elements present in every social class. Buero's presentation of Esquilache in each interior scene of Part I does seem, however, to encourage a fluid social structure, one which would allow change and progression for the individual. (p. 285)

Buero's evocation of an eighteenth-century atmosphere is markedly enhanced by the clear, orderly arrangement of the action of the play's first part…. [In this way he] has attempted to reflect the spirit of classicism, the dominant artistic mode of the epoch…. (p. 286)

Character development in Part I [of Las Menias] is not structured in an orderly, sequential pattern; here Buero emphasizes the spatial rather than the linear. Action shifts to various areas of the stage within the same scene. This section is an impressionistic "painting"—a dramatic Las Meninas—which offers an overwhelming impression of intrigue and subversion in everyday court life. Buero converts Velázquez's pictorial technique into a dramatic medium through the use of multiple scene changes, simultaneous actions and different degrees of illumination. (pp. 286-87)

Las Meninas is more than a play about painting or artistic theory; it is a painting. The impressionistic technique which Velázquez expounds is the dramatic technique Buero employs in the first part of this drama…. Many things are suggested but none explained or justified. Attention moves quickly from one character to another, from one place on stage to another, from one action to another. The result is an enigmatic kaleidoscope of purposeful confusion and suspicion. Secondly, the characters are developed according to the way they see each other and in their very efforts to see or to conceal…. (p. 289)

In Part II Buero interprets, through trial procedure with its systematic appearances of witnesses, the impressionistic details of the first part. The characters' secret motives are brought into the open, into sharp focus. This is symbolized by the suspension of action in the play's final scene. There the characters take the places of their namesakes in the painting Las Meninas. (p. 290)

In his painting Velázquez tries to give a true picture of court life by the action of freezing people at work rather than having them assume poses…. Buero, in his Las Meninas, has brought to life the frozen expressions and postures of Velázquez's masterpiece. With regard to technique, the play is pictorial just as the painting is dramatic.

The interaction between drama (life) and painting is also reflected in the thematic development of the play. If the portrayal of servants and artist at work is the true representation of court life, then the reflection of the posed figures of the king and queen in the mirror at the back of the painting symbolizes the falseness of that life. (pp. 290-91)

Buero seems to be saying that only he who appreciates artistic beauty can comprehend how intolerable is the suffering of the world. Conversely, only he who is cognizant of human suffering can comprehend the beautiful in art. (p. 291)

These two history plays together represent, I think, the greatest technical achievement of Antonio Buero Vallejo. The innovation distinguishing them from his realistic dramas is not so much their historical settings as it is the fact that they fuse other art forms with the dramatic. This fusion causes the magnifying of the role of one or more of the traditional dimensions of a dramatic presentation, the visual, the auditory and action itself. The presentation thereby acquires an affective intensity calculated to engulf the spectator with an overwhelming emotional impression. (p. 292)

[Buero] wants to trigger an emotional reaction in the audience in spite of the historical distance of these plays. The supreme function of tragedy, according to Buero, is revelation and its resultant provocation to action. And this provocation to action—the desire to help one's fellow man—must come through catharsis…. (p. 293)

Robert L. Nicholas. "The History Plays: Buero Vallejo's Experiment in Dramatic Expression," in Revista de Estudios Hispanicos (reprinted by permission of The University of Alabama Press), Vol. III, No. 2, November, 1969, pp. 281-93.

William Giuliano

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The underlying theme of Buero Vallejo's plays is unquestionably man's efforts to realize his full capacities against the internal and external forces that restrain him. These efforts are directed toward the search for truth, the essence of reality, the creation of social justice, the attempt to establish personal, political, and artistic freedom, and other aspects of the human condition. Hope is eternally present, but the nature of man and of things is such that life is inherently tragic and happiness and self-fulfillment is achieved only through great effort….

[In Buero's] dramas man succumbs to circumstance primarily because his inability to face reality and his inclination to delude himself leads to procrastination which in turn paralyzes the will and shackles him to inaction and subsequent defeat.

Urbano and Fernando (Historia de una escalera) are complete failures because they talked and dreamed about what they were going to do, but did nothing to further their dreams. Some critics have blamed their failure on their environment,… yet others in the play did manage to raise their standard of living…. (p. 21)

Silverio (Hoy es fiesta) also suffers from inertia…. [The protagonist] spent years brooding, trying to make up his mind to speak frankly to his wife.

Another character defeated because of his inability to face reality is Juan (Las cartas boca abajo). He refused to admit openly the merit of Carlos Ferrer, and failed to win a professorship because he was unable to answer questions concerning Ferrer's authorative books. (p. 22)

Mario of El tragaluz may also be considered unsuccessful, even though at the end he is hopeful of a better future. His brother Vicente showed greater strength of character but unfortunately was selfish in his actions. Mario, on the other hand, although morally upright, was afraid of life and preferred to know the world only through the window of his basement apartment which he rarely left….

Not all of Buero's characters are overcome by life's circumstances. Some of them, although they meet death, are not tragic in Buero's ideology since they have realized their capacities to the fullest and have contributed something to the future of mankind. (p. 23)

[Buero himself points out that the two blind protagonists, Ignacio (En la ardiente oscuridad) and David (El concierto de San Ovidio)] sought to surmont the limitations of their handicaps. David, being older and more experienced, was better able to understand the world and had greater success. (pp. 23-4)

Perhaps the most outstanding protagonists of Buero's plays are Esquilache (Un soñador para un pueblo) and Velázquez (Las meninas) for having realized their abilities to their greatest extent. Both were men of humble birth who rose to positions of importance…. Esquilache did more than any other character in Buero's plays to raise the level of Spain in many aspects. His forced departure might be considered a tragedy, but he was really triumphant as his reforms, having been won against bitter opposition, were preserved for future generations. (p. 24)

In keeping with Spanish tradition … the activities in which the above-mentioned protagonists engaged are reserved for men. Women are concerned, in Buero's plays, primarily with love and the begetting of children…. The desire to love and be loved is the greatest motivating force in the behavior of the women in Buero's dramas, and … their degree of happiness or unhappiness and fulfillment of self is directly proportionate to the depth of the love they feel for a particular man and the intensity of the response inspired.

The character who achieves the greatest heights in the realization of her role as a woman is Amalia (Madrugada), the central figure of one of Buero's most tense dramas. Amalia, who felt a coldness developing in her husband Mauricio's attitude toward her, was unable to find out the reason for it before his death. Feeling that it was the result of gossip spread by one of his relatives before his death, she called them to her home minutes after his demise, pretending that he was still alive but liable to pass away at any moment. She attempts to extract the truth, promising that she will not permit her husband to leave her his wealth, but to leave it to them instead. By playing on their lust for money she finally discovers that her conjecture was correct, and, moreover, that her husband had loved her deeply to the end.

Vying with Amalia for success in carrying out a woman's function in life to its greatest heights and as a richly developed dramatic character is Penelope, protagonist of La tejedora de sueños. Buero destroys Homer's characterization of Penelope as the perpetually faithful loving wife, and substitutes for it a Penelope who, true to her womanly instincts, cannot wait indefinitely for a husband who has abandoned her to fight a war over another woman. She falls in love with Anfino, one of her many suitors, who loves her sincerely. Their love, however, remains platonic. When Ulysses returns and slays the suitors, including Anfino, Penelope reproaches him for his long absence and his cowardliness in disguising himself, and declares her undying love for the deceased Anfino. Both Amalia and Penelope, therefore, give meaning to their lives only through fulfillment in a love which transcends mortal existence. (pp. 25-6)

[Buero's important female characters] are not virtuous women by normal standards. We see, therefore, that for Buero, the spiritual union of a man and a woman transcends conventional morality as well as mortal existence. (p. 26)

The character who reaps the most tragic consequences of the failure to be true to her womanly role in life is Adela (Las cartas boca abajo). (p. 27)

Adela was the most active of Buero's female characters in betraying her role as a woman. To lure a man she did not love from another woman, and later to marry a man she did not love, were grievous sins in the eyes of Buero Vallejo, and for these she received a severe punishment—the loss of even her son's love and respect. At the end she was a tragic figure, more to be pitied than to be condemned….

In spite of the repeated criticism that Buero's plays are entirely pessimistic and devoid of hope, by using the criteria of the author it can be said that there is much optimism and achievement in the actions of Buero's heroes and heroines. The fact that many of them die does not make them tragic figures…. [Individual] deaths are irrevelant and not necessarily tragic [for Buero; rather] a man's success in life is to be measured by the importance of the contribution he has made to the betterment of society, and a woman's success by the depth of a requited love and her role as a mother. (p. 28)

William Giuliano, "The Role of Man and of Woman in Buero Vallejo's Plays," in Hispanofila, No. 39, May, 1970, pp. 21-8.

Martha T. Halsey

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Buero Vallejo's theater represents … a quest for understanding about man and the universe. This quest, according to the dramatist, if it is to reach any profundity, must necessarily take place within the framework of tragedy…. (p. 21)

Buero Vallejo … whose plays postulate free will, finds in catharsis the ultimate justification for his theater. He interprets this term as much more than simply a pacification or dissolution of the pity and fear felt by the spectator of a tragedy. Catharsis is, according to his point of view, the transformation or elevation of these emotions from a primitive to a moral or ethical plane. Buero's own tragedies aim to "move the spectator and move him deeply, to confront him with his personal capacity—sometimes so limited!—for becoming cordially interested in human sorrow." In other words, Buero believes that tragedy is an experience that ennobles the individual. (pp. 21-2)

Buero Vallejo holds the opinion that the aesthetic is not divorced from the ethical or moral in tragedy. Disagreeing with Schopenhauer, Buero Vallejo maintains that tragic destiny is not something irrational or arbitrary, but to a large extent the creation of man himself. Fear at the apparent caprice of the gods, in Greek theater, or fear at the apparent meaningless or absurdity of the world, in modern theater, Buero believes, are but conceptual and emotive substrata of tragedy. Tragedy tries to show that catastrophe is the consequence of man's errors, of his violation of moral order…. Buero's own plays underscore [the] element of human responsibility. The universe imposes limitations, but it is the individual's own moral blindness—his self-deception or unwillingness to confront the reality of his situation, as well as his innate egoism—which prevent him from overcoming these limitations and which bring down upon him suffering and grief. (pp. 22-3)

If tragic destiny, according to Buero Vallejo, is not unjust, neither is it always unfavorable. Buero Vallejo, who is concerned primarily with the sense or spirit of a literary work rather than with prescriptive considerations, defines tragedy as a conflict between "liberty" (free will) and "necessity" (human limitations)…. This struggle between freedom and necessity which tragedy depicts, however, does not end necessarily with the victory of the latter. Adverse destiny is a grave probability of man, but not an intrinsic condition of being human. (pp. 23-4)

Nietzsche to the contrary, Buero Vallejo believes that tragedy is the very opposite of pessimism. The sorrow portrayed in tragedy does not necessarily signify pessimism any more than the laughter in comedy necessarily signifies optimism. Important bases of Greek tragedy, Buero points out, were "joy" and "hope" in the "resurrection of Dionysus." Nor can modern tragedy be considered pessimistic, even when the author so intends, for behind his pessimistic philosophy, "there continue to operate, although under very different names, Dionysus and his possible—or certain—resurrection. Authentic pessimism is the opposite of tragedy. Pessimism denies all, but tragedy proposes all types of valaes." It represents, for Buero Vallejo, an heroic act through which man attempts to understand grief without resigning himself to the idea that it and the world are arbitrary. (pp. 25-6)

Buero believes that the purpose of theater—which is to agitate and disturb, to make man think—is accomplished more through pathetic than dialectic means. He usually leaves the ideological conflicts, in his own plays, as unanswered questions. The fact that tragedy often provides no answers does not mean that it is not optimistic; for tragedy, according to Buero Vallejo's concept, is founded not on concrete affirmations, but on the psychological reality of hope.

Buero Vallejo has [also] stated that the essence of all tragedy is probably hope and that this is present even in the apparently most unpromising situations. This tragic hope is, for him, all-embracing. In general, however, it has two aspects, which are never mutually exclusive: hope in an earthly solution to human problems and hope in some sort of transcendent order in the universe. (pp. 28-9)

Always interested in formal renovation, Buero has been particularly concerned, as far back as his earliest plays, with the problem of audience identification with the dramatic action. He points out that "participation" of the spectator has always been the aim of theater, from the time of its origin with the Greeks, despite current use of the word to describe certain dramatic techniques now in vogue—techniques which evolved as a reaction to the "theater of consumption." (p. 34)

The psychic participation which Buero advocates is best illustrated by two of his own plays. In one of his very earliest plays, In the Burning Darkness, the characters are blind. Instead of having the actors approach the spectators to shout at them the horrors of blindness or forcibly to blindfold them, he extinguishes, at one point, both the stage and house lights. That this participation, although less ostensible, was effective was proved by the screams of the audience. In a very recent work, El sueño de la razón (The Sleep of Reason), the protagonist is deaf. Rather than the actors violently covering the spectators' ears and then screaming at them, they move their lips but utter no sound whenever the protagonist is on stage, thus permitting the audience to enter into his world of deafness. Thus there is produced a more authentic participation in the reality of the tragedy—a reality which is symbolic, for the blindness portrayed represents, as we shall see, man's lack of spiritual vision and the deafness, his alienation or estrangement from his fellow human beings. (pp. 37-8)

For Buero Vallejo, as we have seen, tragedy, like all art, represents an intuitive form of perception and exploration of reality, a search for understanding about man and the world. This quest for truth which tragedy proposes may take the form of a search on the part of one or more of the characters, who embody the preoccupations of the author. Often, although not always, the characters' search is a conscious one. Some of Buero's characters search for the understanding or truth which will permit them to find an earthly solution to human problems; others, for the truth which will enable them to find a metaphysical justification for the world. Of course, these two searches for truth usually overlap, for the transcendent is rooted in everyday life. (p. 40)

A major obstacle to solving human problems, in Buero's theater, is man's self-deception, his unwillingness to confront the reality of his situation, to face truths which may be painful but without the acceptance of which there can be no possibility of solutions. A question basic to all of Buero's theater, therefore, is that of escapism versus realism, illusion versus truth. (p. 41)

The attitude of Buero is the exact reverse of that of the "theater of evasion." In the latter, the characters escape from the real world, with its anguish and suffering, to a world of pretense, of illusory appearances, of darkness. This world of darkness or blindness is precisely where Buero's tragedies start. The search for "light" in both ancient Greek and modern tragedy is accompanied by anguish; but underlying this anguish is always hope: hope in man's attaining deeper understanding both of himself and of the universe. (pp. 41-2)

For convenience of discussion, we divide Buero's tragedies into two major groups corresponding to what he has pointed out as the two poles of all theater: (1) the social or vital pole, where the solution to the problems presented is generally human; and (2) the metaphysical pole. These two groups are formed by those plays which deal primarily with the two themes with which, Buero states, tragedy deals: man's search for the understanding which may enable him to (1) realize his human potential and (2) find metaphysical meaning in life. We shall see, however, that these two searches are almost never mutually exclusive.

In the first group of tragedies dealing with man's struggle for self-realization are several works which depict the problem of achieving meaningful human relationships. Buero Vallejo is concerned with the theme—so important in twentieth-century theater—of the radical solitude of the individual and his seeming inability to communicate meaningfully. We see the constant conflict which seems to characterize human relationships and the barriers which separate man from his fellow human beings. Indeed, effective communication or unity with other individuals often appears virtually unattainable. This lack of comprehension and communication is often the result of man's spiritual blindness—the egoism which prevents sympathy, compassion, and charity. (p. 42)

Almost a Fairy Tale, like The Words in the Sand and The Dream Weaver, contrasts blind egoism and incomprehension with pure disinterested love and human understanding. In all three plays, we [see] that this contrast is developed by the use of sets of opposing characters, a technique which Buero uses in many of his works. The egoist, usually the practical man of action, is contrasted with the idealist or dreamer. (p. 55)

The Dream Weaver is significant, also, in that, interwoven with the major theme of love and understanding, are suggestions of additional ideas quite important to Buero's theater. Strong antiwar sentiment, particularly, is seen in Penelope's condemnation of the contest fought "because men … reasoned and decided that, in order to avenge the honor of a poor idiot named Menelao, it was necessary to spill blood in a war that lasted ten years." Important also, is the metaphysical emphasis…. Penelope, like many of Buero's characters, even in those plays nearer the social than the metaphysical pole of his theater, conveys a consciousness of the mystery which lies beyond man's grasp and the possibility of a transcendent reality to which many men are spiritually blind.

All three tragedies are illustrative of the diversity of technique in the playwright's theater. In the search for eternal truth about man which tragedy proposes, many techniques are valid. Through the re-creation of biblical episode and Greek myth, that is, through a return to an historical or legendary past, Buero treats themes relevant to all ages. (pp. 55-6)

[In addition to these three tragedies] five other plays of Buero deal primarily with the problem of meaningful personal relationships—Madrugada (Dawn), 1953; La señal que se espera (The Awaited Sign), 1952; Hoy es fiesta (Today's a Holiday), 1956; Las cartas boca abajo (The Cards Face Down), 1957; and La doble historia del doctor Valmy (The Double Case History of Doctor Valmy), 1968. These plays deal particularly with man's search for the truth about his relationships with others or with his attempt to evade this truth…. This problem of man's willingness or unwillingness to search for truth becomes a predominant theme in [these five plays]…. In Dawn and The Awaited Sign especially, we see, in a very explicit manner, the tragic protagonists' search for the illumination upon which a deeper understanding may be based. Even though there exists the risk that the truth which the protagonists seek may result as painful and difficult to face, it is only after its acceptance that the ground is cleared for the possibility of any genuine hope. (p. 57)

In all these plays, Buero's "extraordinary capacity to extract from ordinary everyday life all in it that is … tragic" is evident.

The realism in these plays, however, is much more than a reflection of external reality. It is realism of a symbolic sort. Therefore, it would be a serious mistake rigidly to classify these tragedies as "realistic" in opposition to others such as The Dream Weaver and Almost a Fairy Tale, which are "symbolic" or "spiritual"—which is precisely what many critics have done. We have seen that Buero himself rejects any such divisions and prefers to speak of a "symbolic realism." In the plays in the group just discussed, as in all Buero's theater, external reality is endowed with symbolic, and often mysterious, meaning. (pp. 84-5)

Whereas the emphasis in the preceding plays is upon man's struggle to realize himself through creating meaningful human relationships, the emphasis in several other plays falls upon his efforts to fulfill himself through his work. These latter plays represent a search for the "light" or understanding which may enable him to accomplish something worthwhile, something to give meaning to life. The obstacles which the protagonist must overcome include social and economic limitations imposed by society as well as his personal limitations. The theme of self-fulfillment through constructive endeavor has been seen in Today's a Holiday, in which Silverio fails to fulfill his potential and abandons ambitions he once had to become an artist, and in The Cards Face Down, where Juan is unable to win a professorship. In the latter tragedy, moreover, we witness the characters' concern with the passage of time, which seems to accentuate man's failures—their references to their apartment's everwidening cracks and crumbling cornice. These themes, however, are secondary, for it is the characters' failure in the area of personal relationships which is largely responsible for their defeat. In three tragedies, however, these themes become paramount: Historia de una escalera (Story of a Stairway), 1949, El tragaluz (The Basement Window), 1967, and Concert at Saint Ovide, 1962. (p. 86)

Those plays which testify directly to contemporary Spanish life, with the exception of The Basement Window (1967), were written early in Buero's career. They develop in the Ibsen manner around psychological motives. They are generally characterized by a "closed form" in which the unities are carefully observed—especially that of place, which is used symbolically. The stairway and the terrace rooftop … represent man's desire to advance socially and financially, while the basement symbolizes his inability to do so. The historic plays, on the other hand, all of which were written after 1958, employ an "open" or "epic" structure, plastic effects, and devices usually associated with Brecht, such as narrators like Valentín Haüy in the epilogue to The Concert at Saint Ovide. Although no illusion of reality is created, the emotional involvement of the spectator is preserved; for … Buero considers that both critical reflection and emotive participation are essential. Whereas the first group of plays are psychological in emphasis, the historical ones are dialectical or ideological. (p. 106)

[In Buero's] historical plays and the fantasies … the protagonists seek to bring the light of understanding to a nation or society obscured by social injustice, moral decadence, and war. These tragedies thus constitute a search for the comprehension which will permit society as well as the individual to surmount its limitations, although the protagonists achieve self-realization through their efforts on behalf of their fellowmen. These plays include Un soñador par un pueblo (A Dreamer for a People), 1958; Las Meninas (The Ladies-in-Waiting), 1960; El sueño de la razón (The Sleep of Reason), 1970; Aventura en lo gris (Adventure in Grey), 1963; and Mito (Myth), 1968.

The protagonist in these plays is usually a dreamer or visionary like Mario, who dreams of a perfect society in The Basement Window. More often than not, he is a rebellious dreamer like David, who struggles to put his dreams into action. Since these protagonists include an enlightened politician in A Dreamer for a People, artists in The Ladies-in-Waiting and The Sleep of Reason, and a university professor in Adventure in Grey, these tragedies constitute a statement about the role of the intellectual in society. (pp. 107-08)

"Bueroism" has been spoken of [by Sergio Nerva] as a "search for love, faith, justice, and, in short, peace. Or if one prefers, for truth," and as a way of "understanding the problems of our time … a way of fighting for a better world where injustice is impossible and where man … advances, confident and secure, in search of widespread perfection." The protagonists of [these] five works struggle for this better world, striving to enlighten society about the evils of social injustice, hypocrisy, and war. Esquilache institutes a series of reforms to cure his country of its stubborn blindness and to bring "light" to an agonizing people; Velázquez struggles to declare the truth and to paint the injustice, pretense, and hypocrisy of his epoch; and Goya, to depict the monstrous evil of his own. Silvano and Eloy both endeavor to impart their dreams of peace and reconciliation. A basic aim of Buero's theater is to overcome the fanaticism and sectarianism which have darkened Spain's history—the fratricidal rage of Goya's Fighting with Clubs.

For Buero …, this reconciliation may be accomplished only through the misericordia or compassion with which the neighbors in Today's a Holiday forgive the poor old woman who has sold them false shares of a lottery ticket. The families in tragedies such as The Cards Face Down, Story of a Stairway, and The Basement Window, with their petty conflicts and quarrels, their blind incomprehension and lack of generosity, are, in fact, microcosms of the society seen in the historical tragedies and the fantasies…. (pp. 134-35)

A fundamental affirmation of all Buero's theater is the necessity of the individual exercising his inviolable liberty by winning a victory over himself, by overcoming his innate egoism. The evidence of man's love for his fellow human beings must be his kindness and abnegation…. Past culpability can be erased only through efforts on behalf of others; individual victory can be realized only in and through society. Moreover, man's ethical concern … must necessarily be translated into political activity. For Buero, even the activist and politician must be an altruistic dreamer like Esquilache.

Buero's dreamers, who strive to create the better world they envision, although morally superior to those around them, are derided as ingenuous or deluded idealists and madmen. Tragic heroes who strive to transform society into the image of their chosen ideal, they are defeated by a reality which seems unchangeable. We see the seemingly inevitable failure of human ideals and aspirations to change the world. In their struggle, however, they show their true greatness—their integrity and refusal to compromise. (pp. 135-36)

[All of these plays] evince Buero's "lack of aesthetic satisfaction" and his continuing search for appropriate techniques to express the problems of present-day society: historical distancing, fantasy, and music. Notable, especially, are the auditory and visual effects in the recreation of Goya's caprice in The Sleep of Reason and the daring, almost surrealistic dream of Adventure in Grey which is absolutely essential to the play's meaning. Buero's constant experimentation reaches a climax in Myth, a most unusual experience in Spanish theater, comparable to Brecht's efforts, in The Threepenny Opera, to create a new type of musical theater appropriate to contemporary times. (p. 136)

[Whereas the preceding tragedies] evince the social emphasis of Buero's theater, two others gravitate toward a metaphysical or philosophical pole. En la ardiente oscuridad (In the Burning Darkness), 1950, and Irene o el tesoro (Irene or the Treasure), 1954, represent a search for metaphysical "light" or understanding. Neither, however, lacks social significance, for all of man's problems, even when metaphysical in nature, possess social transcendence. Buero's entire theater is an effort to understand what he calls "the great miracle of reality." (p. 137)

[In these two plays] as in most of Buero's theater, the metaphysical is intermingled with the social. It is not only his blindness—both physical and spiritual—against which Ignacio rebels, but the attitude of society which minimizes its significance. Irene's dreams likewise represent a judgment upon the other characters…. Here, as in most of Buero's tragedies, we see the contrast between man's egoism and his kindness. In its exposition of social realities, Irene or the Treasure obviously resembles Story of a Stairway and Today's a Holiday, which depict the misery and sordidness of the existence of the lower economic classes. This sordidness of Irene's surroundings is indeed underscored by its contrast with the new world of "light" that she dreams of.

Both In the Burning Darkness and Irene or the Treasure exemplify the same sort of symbolic realism we have seen in many of Buero's plays, such as The Awaited Sign and Today's a Holiday, which, also, have metaphysical or transcendent elements. In Irene or the Treasure, we have a lyric and poetic atmosphere quite similar to that of The Awaited Sign, Almost a Fairy Tale, and The Dream Weaver. The visual and auditory effects so noted by critics in Buero's recent works, such as The Sleep of Reason, are not absent from these plays even though In the Burning Darkness is the first play he wrote and Irene or the Treasure among his earliest. The visual contrast of the green leaves with the bare tree branches in In the Burning Darkness—which reminds us that Buero, like several of his characters, was once a painter—sets the anguished tone of the play in much the same way as the music of "Moonlight Sonata" and "Aase's Death" from the Peer Gynt Suite, which is heard when Ignacio is murdered. The lullaby which Irene hums when she dreams of her child recalls the violin music which David of The Concert at Saint Ovide plays whenever he dreams of Melania, symbol of the ideal, and Handel's "Water Music," which sounds whenever Leticia of Almost a Fairy Tale sees the ugly Prince Riquet through the eyes of love. Indeed, the skillful use of music, which reaches a climax in Myth, is a major characteristic of all of Buero's theatrical works. (pp. 147-48)

Buero's tragedies generally end ambivalently with a question the purpose of which is to lead the spectator to reflect upon the problems presented. However, even the tragedy ending in catastrophe without apparent hope, such as The Words in the Sand, invites him to avoid the mistakes of the protagonist; for Buero believes that theater ends not with the final scene, but with the possible spiritual ennoblement of the spectator.

From an analysis of Buero's plays, it is obvious that he has followed very closely his own concept of tragedy as a phenomenon which is always positive, which proposes an encounter with the truth which may free man from his spiritual blindness. His plays propose this encounter, but they do not affirm it. Therefore, his attitude toward this struggle for truth which his tragedies propose, is hardly the "resounding 'yes'" for which he says the writer of tragedy longs. Since most of them end with a question rather than any definitive solution, his attitude is rather one of unending hope, that heralded by doña Nieves in Today's a Holiday: "One must hope … always hope…. Hope never ends. Hope is infinite." (p. 150)

Martha T. Halsey, in her Antonio Buero Vallejo (copyright © 1973 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1973, 178 p.

Ida Molina

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The central theme of … Buero Vallejo's Aventura en lo gris … deals with the question of the relative value of truth [and its relationship to compassion]….

In Buero's play, the pragmatic doer, Alejandro, is contrasted with Professor Silvano, a thinker and idealist who sets high value on the pursuit of truth. Silvano is also a compassionate man, capable of sacrifice in the name of his convictions. (p. 217)

Buero takes the position of condemning the use of truth solely as a means for attaining personal goals of aggrandizement. Alejandro embodies this concept and commits numerous crimes motivated by his insatiable passion and lust for power. For him the concept of truth is meaningless. He twists and distorts it to satisfy his hunger for power. (p. 218)

In his fearless pursuit of truth, Professor Silvano, Buero's idealistic protagonist, had denounced Goldman [, a dictator] whose dishonest manipulation of national interests endangered the well-being of his native land. (pp. 218-19)

At every point, Silvano was thinking and weighing the moral impact of his actions. While deciding to sacrifice himself for [an orphaned] baby, he said, "salvemos el mañana," indicating his deep awareness of the existence of a transcendental moral order and relating it to his immediate actions. (pp. 219-20)

[Compassion] was a dominant trait in Silvano's character…. [He] sacrificed his life because of it…. [This] compassion did not come as the result of a violent break with the past, but rather, it grew in an ascending sequence of incidents until reaching the point of supreme negation. (p. 223)

Professor Silvano is predominantly a thinker. He neither engaged in a struggle for power nor in any political activity which would stop Goldman. The only weapon he used was his word, a typical weapon of a thinker who is dedicated to the pursuit of truth. Under the most adverse circumstances, at the climax of the play, he acts decisively and courageously. Characteristically, he thinks and justifies his actions by logical arguments. He is clearly aware of why and for what purpose he gives his life. In contrast to his previous behavior, at the most dramatic moment of the play, Silvano accomplishes a perfect merging of act and thought. (p. 224)

On the surface, Professor Silvano seems to place supreme value on the truth, but in the ultimate analysis his pursuit of truth was really in the name of the well-being of society which cannot exist without compassion. At the moment of his supreme sacrifice, truth and pieté seem to merge into a sublime act of negation. (pp. 224-25)

Ida Molina, "Truth and Compassion; 'Aventura en lo gris' and 'La maison de la nuit'," in Revista de Estudios Hispánicos (reprinted by permission of The University of Alabama Press), Vol. XII, No. 2, May, 1978, pp. 217-25.




Vallejo, Antonio Buero