Antonio Buero Vallejo 1916–-2000
The following entry presents an overview of Buero Vallejo's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 15 and 46.
One of Spain's leading dramatists, Buero Vallejo has contributed significantly to the revitalization of postwar Spanish theater. Eschewing the frivolous plots and comforting sentimentality of much early twentieth-century Spanish drama, Buero Vallejo writes deeply serious, moralistic plays that frequently depict characters consumed by despair and frustration. He is commonly regarded as a tragedian and advances a conception of drama characterized by the redeeming presence of hope. Buero Vallejo suggests that by inviting people to confront reality without self-deception, the writer of tragedies raises issues fundamental to human existence and the improvement of society.
Buero Vallejo was born in Guadalajara, Spain, in 1916 to Francisco Buero, a military engineer, and Cruz Vallejo. From 1934 to 1936 he studied painting at the San Fernando School of Fine Arts in Madrid. Buero Vallejo was a medical assistant in the Loyalist army during the Spanish Civil War; for his involvement in the war he was imprisoned for six years by the regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. When he was released from prison in 1949, Buero Vallejo introduced his play Historia de una escalera (1949) which presents a brutal picture of postwar Spain. The play won the Premio Lope de Vega prize and gained Buero Vallejo a position of prominence in Spanish drama. Many artists chose to flee the repressive censorship of Franco's government, but Buero Vallejo decided to stay and vent his frustrations in thinly veiled metaphorical and symbolic dramas criticizing government policies. In 1972 he was elected to the Real Academia Española. He was awarded both the Medalla de Oro al Merite en las Bellas Artes and the Medalla de Oro de la Sociedad General de Autores de España in 1994.
In his plays, Buero Vallejo presents many of the problems of Francoist and post-Francoist Spain, but the dramas always suggest the hope that problems can be overcome. Buero Vallejo uses a series of author surrogates to infuse his political ideology into his work. He commonly creates sensory experiences through music, art, and set design, termed “immersion effects” by critics, to cause the audience to feel the same sensations as the protagonist and thereby identify more closely with him. In En la ardiente oscuridad (1950; In the Burning Darkness) Buero Vallejo uses the mental and physical impairment of his protagonist to symbolize the condition of Spanish society. The play is about a conflict between two students at a blind school, one of whom refuses to accept his blindness. One of Buero Vallejo's stage effects in this play is the darkening of the theater to simulate for the audience the experience of blindness. The play is seen as a metaphor for the Spanish people's passive acceptance of totalitarian rule. La doble historia del doctor Valmy (1968) covers the themes of torture, guilt, cowardice, isolation, and loss of communication. While the drama is an indictment of police torture, it unfolds from the point of view of a security police officer in the fictional nation of Surelia. El sueño de la razón (1970; The Sleep of Reason) is based upon Spanish artist Francisco de Goya's resistance to the tyranny of King Ferdinand VII. To dramatize Goya's deafness, Buero Vallejo's characters engage in incoherent dialogue and use sign language or notes to communicate with the protagonist. Buero Vallejo projects Goya's famous Black Paintings at the rear of the stage to reflect the cruelty and terror Goya experienced at this time. In La fundación (1974; The Foundation), Buero Vallejo's first drama about life in Spain as the Francoist regime is ending, he proposes that to achieve true freedom one must pass through a series of prisons, and that each small step toward freedom is important. In this work Buero Vallejo employs an immersion effect that causes the audience to share the main character's hallucinations. La detonación (1977; The Shot) traces Spain's transition from a dictatorship to a liberal monarchy in the last ten years of the life of critic José Mariano de Larra. The play parallels the modern-day transition from the Franco regime to democracy. Buero Vallejo fictionalizes and uses the character of Larra to voice many of his own beliefs about the role of the intellectual in a repressive and censored society. Jueces en la noche (1979; Judges in the Night), Caimán (1981), and Diálogo secreto (1984) all delve into the problems of building a democracy after years of authoritarian rule.
Reviewers note Buero Vallejo's innovative dramatic techniques, including his use of immersion effects to fully involve the audience's senses and create a psychological bond with the protagonist. Some reviewers complain that, later in Buero Vallejo's career, his symbolism and imagery became overwhelming and too disparate. A few critics, however, hold that Buero Vallejo's imagery is well-researched and demonstrates a calculated use of certain songs and artwork. Critical discussion of Buero Vallejo's work often centers on his relationship with censorship in Francoist Spain rather than his dramatic technique. Some critics disagree with his decision to continue to write under the restraints of censorship, but many praise what they consider his courageous attempt to voice his criticism of the political and social climate. In retrospect, many reviewers are surprised that Buero Vallejo was able to slip as much past the censors as he did. Martha T. Halsey stated, “In spite of censorship and other restraints imposed by a triumphant and exclusionist Francoist culture that dominated the national scene for some forty years, Buero succeeded in exposing the dark recesses, the hidden reality of Spanish life.” Many reviewers praise Buero Vallejo for his insistence on facing the reality of political and social tragedies that many prefer to ignore. F. Komla Aggor commented, “What distinguishes Buero Vallejo is precisely this competence to revive a tragedy evaded by others as an instrument to question and judge history and thereby awaken consciousness to a precarious social reality.” Reviewers generally agree that the overwhelming concern of Buero Vallejo's work is to inspire action to fight against political and social ills. Halsey concluded, “The solution to the problem of human suffering, Buero suggests, is action. It is not enough to face our limitations; we must struggle to overcome them.”