Antonio Buero Vallejo

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Douglas R. McKay (review date Winter 1986)

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SOURCE: A review of La doble historia del doctor Valmy, in Modern Languages Journal, Vol. 70, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 440–41.

[In the following review, McKay praises Buero Vallejo's La doble historia del doctor Valmy and recommends it as part of an undergraduate curriculum.]

Buero Vallejo's nineteenth performed work has much to offer Spanish language students as a drama of provocative intensity. This edition commends itself superbly as that vehicle: it will challenge young readers, already grappling with identity crises and the meaning of social responsibility, to search further for the reality of their relationship with others. A lengthy play of symbolic realism, La doble historia del doctor Valmy deals earnestly with such themes as torture, guilt, self-deception, cowardice, evasion, human isolation, and the breakdown of caring and redeeming communication. It was written in 1964 but not performed in Spain until after Franco's death. While Buero strongly deplores the cruelty of police action under a dictatorship, he allows the reader or spectator the privilege of passing final judgment; hence, the work is particularly well suited to invite an intellectual response from thoughtful students. As a thesis work of outstanding contemporary relevance, the play's multiple levels of significance require a perceptive teacher to guide student readers to the intended awareness underlying the playwright's avowed intent to make us reflect on the anguish of who we are and what our world is really about. This is clearly not a tame piece of literature. Educators seeking a stimulating indictment of torture at any level—mental, emotional, or physical—will not be disappointed.

Apart from Buero's text, which William Giuliano has sensitively glossed with 131 footnoted Spanish-to-English explanations of terms and idioms, the editor also provides over forty pages of exercise materials. These strike a fine balance between vocabulary enhancement, textual comprehension, and thematic topics for conversation or composition. No attention is accorded grammatical problems or usage in this section, but the omission is by no means lamentable in view of the strong focus on almost exclusive target language application throughout the exercise apparatus.

Buero's play lends itself exceptionally well to classroom study and discussion. It is relatively free of irksome colloquialisms and convoluted constructions. The language flows with vivid, dramatic force and is easily adaptable to the active vocabulary of the intermediate or advanced level student. Giuliano deserves congratulations for having prepared an edition free of errata and teeming with sound, helpful exercises. This book is an intelligent contribution to undergraduate course work and is worthy of serious consideration.


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Antonio Buero Vallejo 1916–-2000

Spanish dramatist.

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.

Biographical Information

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...

(This entire section contains 1043 words.)

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by the regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. When he was released from prison in 1949, Buero Vallejo introduced his playHistoria 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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Eric Pennington (essay date Summer 1986)

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SOURCE: “La doble historia del doctor Valmy: A View from the Feminine,” in Symposium, Vol. XL, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 131–39.

[In the following essay, Pennington focuses on the character of Mary to show that Buero Vallejo's La doble historia del doctor Valmy indicts patriarchal society in addition to political torture.]

Antonio Buero Vallejo's La doble historia del doctor Valmy (1964) brings to the stage the difficult issue of political torture. Daniel Barnes, the protagonist, works as a member of a security police force in the fictional country Surelia, and as part of his profession regularly utilizes physical torture as a means of obtaining confessions from his prisoners. He does not relish his work, however, and much of the action of the play charts his efforts to win permission to leave his employment. By focusing on the predicament of the torturer instead of the fate of the victim, the playwright prevents the play from slipping into melodrama, and the spectator from losing focus of its central issue: the global issue of torture itself and society's reactions to it.1 The question, how potent a denunciation of torture the play sounds, can be answered partially by way of a review of the censorship problems the author experienced in having the play approved and performed.2 Further confirmation of the work's forcefulness can be found in literary critics' evaluations of its caliber, and in the more than six hundred consecutive performances following its Spanish premiere.3 I suggest that La doble historia del doctor Valmy communicates more than an outcry against inhuman political practices, that it is not just the story of Daniel, but perhaps more a tale of his wife Mary. By observing the world in which she must move, as well as focusing on her character and behavior, one may interpret the drama as a resounding indictment of a savage, insensitive patriarchy, as stifling to women as to political prisoners.

The initial point of tension in the play occurs as Daniel discovers he can no longer perform sexually. His condition results from his involvement in emasculating a prisoner, Aníbal Marty. Though the problem resides in Daniel, his wife suffers equally, and naturally shares his desire for a solution. In this respect one could safely designate her a coprotagonist, as Doctor Valmy, in effect, does at one point in his narration.4 In an engaging article, Frank Dauster argues the existence of more than one protagonist should not be termed unusual and sides with Clifford Leech, who offers, “We have to recognize that the tragic burden can be shared.”5 Not only does Mary share her husband's tragic condition. In the end, her burden is heavier. She must learn the previously hidden truth about the nature of Daniel's profession and decide how to act upon this knowledge. Thus critics perceive in Mary more psychological change and certainly a rounder character than is the case with Daniel. González-Cobos Dávila views her as the best-drawn character of the play and the only one “que asume la verdad de una manera total y valiente, al afrontar los sufrimientos y decepciones que ello le pueda acarrear.”6 Iglesias Feijóo adds she “es la única que evoluciona ante la verdad” (p. 332). Doménech regards her as perhaps the most interesting character and, with the possible exception of the narrator, “el personaje a cuyo através el espectador puede—es invitado a—hacer la experiencia del problema trágico planteado.”7

In light of such comments it seems appropriate to examine the play from a feminine perspective, particularly Mary's. Such an approach reveals a woman dependent upon man for fulfillment, a victim of man's wars and torture machines, a person treated insignificantly, who must endure verbal humiliation and physical threats, while being limited in her creative expression. Mary's final destructive act of killing her husband then can be interpreted not so much as a move of desperation, but as one of liberation and hope. Her deed will be seen to symbolize not only a rebellion against what man (generic) does to man, but what man (specific) inflicts upon women.

If a reader, spectator, or critic approaches the drama sensitive to the feminine point of view, he or she rapidly concludes that the words, attitudes, and actions of the men of the play reflect disregard for the dignity of women. The female characters are treated either negatively and with condescension, or as simply inferior human beings. This attitude surfaces early in the play, as the spectator witnesses Daniel's patronizing remark to his wife, implying that her previous nervous problems were cured by marrying him: “A ti te alivió el matrimonio, pitusa” (p. 36). Daniel's conclusion is false, however, for Doctor Valmy clarifies that, despite her marriage, “En el fondo seguía siendo una persona nerviosa” (p. 29). We note that Mary's initial mental or emotional problems were not produced by the absence of man, but because war, man's doing, had taken her loved one from her: “Me habían matado a mi novio en la guerra” (p. 57). Rather than the cure, man is, then, the cause of Mary's problems. Only after she has irreversibly distanced herself emotionally from her husband, at the conclusion of the play, does Daniel realize that his wife, “Mi paciente, mi abnegada mujercita” (p. 109), has suffered at his hands rather than received a cure: “No he logrado enjugar aquellas lágrimas; todo ha sido una gran mentira” (p. 99).

Daniel's affection for Mary appears suspect when we scrutinize the curious description she gives of his first attraction to her: “Era muy afortunado con las mujeres; yo creo que se casó conmigo por compasión” (p. 58). One is not surprised to learn, then, that Daniel's concern for his sexual relations with his wife reached the point that he attempted sex with another woman in order to determine if their problem was specifically his: “Y me fui, tan confiado, con otra mujer que también me gustaba” (p. 42). While such regard for his marital relationship is not convincing, this passage subtly reveals the basic inequalities between man and woman. Daniel's account of this episode raises not the slightest rebuke or censure from Doctor Valmy for his patient, neither in his office consultation nor in his narrative commentary. There is nothing objectionable in that Daniel has another woman who “también me gustaba.”

Upon analyzing further Mary's relationship with Daniel one can determine that she suffers from the ingrained expectations of a patriarchal society: a woman should marry young and bear children or suffer subsequent humiliation for not having done so. When Lucila, one of Mary's former students and the wife of the imprisoned Marty, visits her teacher, Mary recounts her prior embarrassment at being an old maid while teaching school and marrying late in life: “es que a mí sí me dio vergüenza, Lucila. Ante vosotras … me creía una vieja” (p. 57). As she continues she reveals the pain and fear at being left alone, unmarried: “os veía y pensaba: ellas crecerán, se casarán … y yo seguiré siendo la señora maestra. Tú nunca sabrás lo que es eso, Trencitas …” (p. 57). It is possible to decipher from such words the power of socialization that prompts many women to feel they can only be fulfilled through marriage: “Women have internalized the norms prescribing marriage so completely that the role of wife seems the acceptable one. And since marriage is set up as the summum bonum of life for women, they interpret their marriage as happiness, no matter how unhappy the marriage itself may be.”8 Such an attitude or outward appearance is evident in Mary. Her unhappiness is denied, but seeps through her gushing description of her marriage to Daniel: “Tenemos nuestros problemillas, pero también pasarán” (p. 58). Doctor Valmy notices, as they chat some time after her marriage, that she is uncomfortable talking about her husband: “Él … siempre anda tan ocupado” (p. 29). Furthermore, he mentions how her promised invitation to dinner never arrived, raising the implication that their “problemillas” are more than Daniel's impotence, and that the term expresses a fundamental discomfort in the marriage.

To trace some of this marital friction, attention should be drawn to what Mary relinquished when she married: her teaching position, or in Simone de Beauvoir's term, “gainful employment.” In The Second Sex Beauvoir concludes that, in accepting the economic support of man, a woman remains “dependent, she lives through another, for child-breeding and domestic chores are not transcendent activities or projects but mere continuation of life.”9 To become an authentic human being, woman must work in the whole-hearted and total way that men do—for money, Beauvoir suggests. Mary eventually offers to return to teaching so that Daniel may quit his job outright but, in a significant revelation of his sexist stance, her husband refuses to address the issue and changes the subject of their conversation (p. 75). Additional irony in the imbalance between their creative or transcendent activities can be seen when we recall that, while Daniel writes articles for a magazine, likes to read, and admits, “Me gusta la cultura” (p. 43), he expresses incredulity that a book sent to their house could be for his wife (p. 71). Claude Levi-Strauss observes, “The invention of writing meant a new source of power in the development of patriarchy permitting men to exclude women,” and this exclusion is represented in this passage of Buero's play.10

Mary's dealings with her mother-in-law demonstrate another burden of women in traditional society. Daniel's mother lives with the couple, her jealousy scarcely veiled. A recent study on women in Spain provides an objective report of the factors which come into play in such situations:

The tension between a mother and her son's wife … centers on the son, and the right and responsibility to think out his daily needs and to meet them and extends from there to the organization of the lives of the other household members and of the house itself. A mother and her daughter-in-law are competing for the same niche. In effect, when a son marries, he brings his mother's replacement into the house, another woman who threatens to deprive the mother of part of herself.11

This tension and competition for territory can be seen as Mary and the grandmother practically argue or debate over who is to change the diapers of the child (p. 31), prepare the biberón (p. 32), and fix the puchero (p. 32). Mary is good-natured about their relationship and recognizes the rivalry: “Le gustaría quedarse sola con su hijo y su nieto, ¿eh, abuela? Pero no te guardo rencor” (p. 32). But she speaks these words knowing that the near-deaf woman cannot hear, and she quietly explains to Daniel: “Está celosilla” (p. 34). The psychological burden is indeed great and volatile, the conflict between a mother and her son's wife being described by Harding as “one of the most serious confrontations that women experience in their lives,” and it is a by-product of marriage (p. 167).

Venturing outside Mary's relationship with Daniel, we see women treated more negatively by Daniel's co-workers. Rather than patronizing or superior attitudes, it becomes a more severe question of verbal abuse, ridicule, and ultimately physical torture. The first clear example appears as Marsán telephones inquiring about Daniel, and Mary, who has answered the phone, must endure the flirtatious remarks she hears (p. 37). Though such a scene might be interpreted as serving no other purpose than demonstrating the torpidity of Daniel's companions, it is pertinent to note that such ridicule and humor have been termed “the psychic counterpart of violence to blacks.”12 Later, when Marsán stops by their house to investigate Daniel's absence, Mary is subjected to an extremely degrading instance of coquetry, dramatizing again the social disadvantage which she suffers because of the traditional restraints imposed on women's language:

Mary (fría): El caso es que yo iba a salir ahora mismo.

Marsán (se levanta): ¡Magnífico! ¿Me permite que la acompañe?

Mary (contrariada): ¿Cree que estaría bien?

Marsán (se acerca): ¿Por qué no? Yo no tengo prejuicios.

Mary: Yo sí.

Marsán: ¿Y … son muy fuertes, señora Barnes?

Mary: ¿Qué quiere decir?

Marsán (se acerca algo más): No puede imaginar cuánto me gustaría que no lo fuesen.

Mary (se aparta un paso): No le entiendo.

Marsán: Sí que me entiende. Me entiende desde la primera vez que vine a esta casa.

Mary: Señor Marsán, haga el favor de salir.

Marsán (le tiembla la voz): La vida ofrece pocas cosas agradables, Mary. No me diga que es feliz con su marido: eso nunca es cierto. (Avanza).

Mary (retrocede): ¡Salga!

Marsán: Hay algo en usted … irresistible. Algo que no tienen las demás.

Mary: Es intolerable que en mi propia casa se atreva usted a …

Marsán (fuerte): ¡Yo soy muy terco, Mary! Usted lo pensará.

Mary: ¡Váyase ahora mismo!

(p. 66)

This scene presents an example of a female holding to the tentative and nonassertive language which Robin Lakoff has shown to be a manifestation of women's role-related difficulties.13 Only after enduring numerous insulting remarks does Mary mount a firm command, one that she doubtlessly felt like voicing upon first hearing Marsán speak.

Another manifestation of the verbal barriers women in the play encounter appears in Lucila's frustrated endeavors to address the authorities concerning her husband's unlawful torture. She knows it useless to attempt to bring his case before a judge (p. 59). Talking with a lawyer has only left her with advice that she do nothing, lest matters become worse (p. 58). For this reason she is left to address Mary, who would then request that Daniel intercede.

Lucila's visit also underscores the insignificant position of Mary in her relationship with her husband. She is the classic inessential Other, denied knowledge of the specifics of her husband's employment. Though an accurate description of his work would be an unpleasant revelation for most people, in shutting his wife out of the professional aspects of his life Daniel demonstrates again his faithfulness to traditional male behavior. The phrase “trained incapacity to share” reflects such a posture and is produced by the ideal of masculinity that “To gripe about the job carries the connotation of weakness.”14 Thus Daniel remains silent for fear of his wife's incomprehension and disapproval as well as for ingrained fear of appearing unmasculine. As Kamarovsky puts it, “A strong man bears his troubles in silence and does not dump his load on the family” (p. 189).

Nowhere does one observe a total disdain for women symbolized more explicitly than in the rape of Lucila. In an attempt to force Marty to confess, a few days before his castration his wife is brought before him, and he must watch the physical abuse she suffers. As ugly a vision as the act conjures, it merits special attention. For it discloses that, in the eyes of these men, women serve the same function as tools or objects used to achieve desired results. The scene reflects what Susan Brownmiller terms “a male ideology of rape”: “It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”15 Such fear is felt by Mary as she listens, at first in disbelief, to her former student's account of the horrors inflicted where Daniel works. She lives in relative ignorance and bliss until Lucila shatters her world with her accusations. Like Campbell's hero experiencing the unexpected call to adventure, she is roused from a state of psychic inactivity and thrust upon a journey for the truth of Lucila's words. Her quest toward enlightenment impresses because of the high stakes involved: the only happiness she knows; her traditional roles as wife, mother, and female.

As she discovers the particulars of Daniel's daily actions and realizes his genuine lack of resolve in dissociating himself from his work, Mary begins to experience increasing repugnance and fear of the world such men have created. She suffers nightmares wherein she sees Daniel trying to mutilate their son (pp. 91–93); regrets bringing a child into the world (p. 94); wholly refuses the idea of additional children (p. 90); wishes she had never met her husband (p. 110); and feels “una infinita desgana, una gran indiferencia” (p. 94) toward everything except her son, “¡Pobre hijo mío!” (p. 94). Prompted by this concern for her son, coupled with the disgust she feels for such a perverted world, Mary takes Daniel's pistol and uses his own weapon against him. By usurping the act of giving death, historically reserved for men, she symbolizes her rejection of the deviant patriarchy and signals how far she has evolved from her initial passive stance.16 So Mary's action acquires political symbolism. Since the torture described in the play can be interpreted readily as a reference to the Franco regime (hence the censorship the work encountered), Mary's change of attitude and final action can also symbolize total rejection of the existing political situation. Janet Pérez has observed and discussed such techniques of literary dissent in Franco's post-war Spain, and notes that the “slaughter of sacred cows” is a common form of attack. Authors would sometimes consciously undertake to express a subtle rejection of “myths and stereotypes promulgated by the regime via the creation of counter-myths.”17 In a passage which corresponds to what Buero accomplishes in La doble historia del doctor Valmy she explains:

The Madonna/mother stereotype—a chaste, long-suffering woman, self-sacrificing, faithful to husband, and god and country, a model of virtue and abnegation, domesticity and altruism—a character inhuman and angelical, was rejected by liberal writers as being on the one hand limited and unrealistic and on the other, an embodiment of Falangist ideology. Thus women characters who did not conform to the stereotype constitute a rejection, symbolic or real, of traditional programs and values.

(p. 224)

As her name indicates, Mary clearly stands as a Madonna archetype. But much of the play's power derives from her conscious rejection of this role as she lashes out against a world become vicious, inhuman to all weaker human beings.

Such an act of rebellion is inherently positive and not lessened by the fact that Mary is insane as the play concludes. It would seem that Buero has deliberately played on the sanity/insanity concept he develops more perfectly in El tragaluz.18 Mary had emotional problems before she met Daniel and the latter jokes throughout the play of curing her. Yet Daniel is the one who is sick, and Doctor Valmy and Daniel himself voice this diagnosis (pp. 84, 112). Mary's movement towards “insanity” parallels her distancing from Daniel and his infirm environment, and reminds one of el padre retreating from Vicente's world of “devorar o ser devorado.” In the end, Mary's act of shooting Daniel makes as much sense as the Father's stabbing of Vicente.

A confluence of images occurs as the play closes to support the thesis that the conclusion is more positive than pessimistic. As the abuela recites the fable to Daniel's son which opened the series of flashbacks, Brahms's Lullaby is also heard again in the background. It is noteworthy that the fable and lullaby, as well as nursery rhymes and folktales, are regarded as feminine genres of creative expression. Commenting on the factors which lead to the “silences” which prevent creative expression, Tillie Olsen remarks, “Very close to this last grouping are the silences where the lives never came to writing. Among these the mute inglorious Miltons: those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; woman. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most humanity. Traces of their making, of course, in folk song, lullaby, tales. …”19 Coincidentally, Brahms's Lullaby was taken from a folk tune, embellished by the composer, and dedicated to celebrate the birth of a female friend's son.20 Finally, the grandmother's second rendition of the fable does not faithfully duplicate the version recited by her earlier. She omits one line which referred to Daniel: “Y todas las nenas se volverán locas por él” (p. 30). As La doble historia del doctor Valmy graphically depicts, this passage also referred literally and tragically to Mary. The grandmother's failure to repeat the line may represent her comprehension of the tragedy she has seen unfold, or symbolize a resolution. The omission perhaps represents the hope that Danielito will not repeat the errors of his father in dealing with his fellow man … and woman.


  1. Juan Mollá, “Doce años después,” El Ciervo, 227 (February 1976), 31.

  2. One of the best summaries of such censorship issues is to be found in Luis Iglesias Feijóo, La trayectoria dramática de Antonio Buero Vallejo (Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, 1982), pp. 319–20. For a comment on the specific issues raised by censors see Patricia W. O'Connor, “Censorship in the Contemporary Spanish Theater and Antonio Buero Vallejo,” Hisp, 52 (1969), 282–88, particularly p. 286.

  3. William Giuliano states flatly, “La doble historia del doctor Valmy es uno de los mejores dramas de Buero.” See his Buero Vallejo, Sastre y el teatro de su tiempo (New York: Las Américas, 1971), p. 140. Iglesias Feijóo reports that “la acogida de la crítica fue esta vez unánimamente favorable, así como la del público (se sobrepasaron las 600 representaciones), lo que prueba el permanente interés de la obra” (p. 320).

  4. Throughout this study the following edition of the play is cited: Antonio Buero Vallejo, La doble historia del doctor Valmy. Relato escénico en dos partes, edición, prólogo y notas por Alfonso M. Gil (Chicago: Rand McNally, The Center for Curriculum Development, 1970). Doctor Valmy's allusion to Mary as protagonist occurs as he reflects on Daniel's case: “Ella vino días después a contarme otras cosas. El caso es más frecuente de lo que el profano cree: un enfermo nos confía algo y luego vemos en nuestra consulta al otro protagonista de la obra” (p. 84).

  5. From Clifford Leech, Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1964), pp. 45–46, quoted in Frank Dauster, “Toward a Definition of Tragedy,” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, 7, 1 (October 1982), 9.

  6. Carmen González-Cobos Dávila, Antonio Buero Vallejo. El hombre y su obra (Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1979), p. 162.

  7. Ricardo Doménech, El teatro de Buero Vallejo. Una meditación española (Madrid: Gredos, la Reimpresión, 1979), p. 237.

  8. Jessie Bernard, “The Wife's Marriage,” in Mary Evans, ed., The Woman Question. Readings on the Subordination of Women (Oxford: Fontana, 1982), pp. 115–16.

  9. Jean Leighton, Simone de Beauvoir on Women (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1975), p. 35.

  10. This quotation is from Marielouise Janssen-Jurreit who paraphrases Levi-Strauss in her Sexism: The Male Monopoly on History and Thought, trans. Verne Moberg (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1982), p. 284.

  11. Susan Harding, “Women and Words in a Spanish Village,” in Dorothy G. McGuigan, ed., New Research on Women and Sex Roles (Ann Arbor, MI.: The University of Michigan Center for Continuing Education of Women, 1976), p. 166.

  12. See Wendy Martyna, “Beyond the ‘He/Man’ Approach: The Case for Nonsexist Language,” in Evans, The Woman Question, p. 422, where she quotes Pauli Murray, testimony, United States Congress, House, Special Committee on Education and Welfare, Discrimination against Women, 91st Congress, Second Session, 1970, on section 805 of HR 16098.

  13. Robin Lakoff, Language and Woman's Place (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), particularly p. 61.

  14. Mirra Komarovsky, “The Quality of Domestic Life,” in Evans, The Woman Question, p. 189.

  15. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975), p. 14.

  16. Concerning the role-related significance of killing, Simone de Beauvoir suggests “superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills,” see her The Second Sex, trans., H. M. Parshley (New York: Wiley, 1968), p. 64.

  17. Janet Pérez, “Techniques in the Rhetoric of Literary Dissent,” in Harry L. Kirby, Jr., ed., Selected Proceedings of the Third Louisiana Conference on Hispanic Languages and Literatures 1982 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1984), p. 224.

  18. For a broader discussion on Buero's use of insanity see Kenneth Brown, “The Significance of Insanity in Four Plays by Antonio Buero Vallejo,” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, 7 (1974), 247–60.

  19. Tillie Olsen, “Silences: When Writers Don't Write,” in Susan Koppelman Cornillon, ed., Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1972), p. 100 (first published in 1965).

  20. Peter Latham, Brahms (London: Dent [1948], 1951), pp. 34–35.

Principal Works

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Historia de una escalera (drama) 1949

Las palabras en la arena (drama) 1949

En la ardiente oscuridad [In the Burning Darkness] (drama) 1950

La señal que se espera (drama) 1952

La tejedora de sueños [The Dreamweaver] (drama) 1952

Casi un cuento de hadas: Una glosa de Perrault (drama) 1953

Madrugada (drama) 1953

Aventura en lo gris (drama) 1954

Irene o el tesoro (drama) 1954

El terror inmovil: Fragmentos de una tragedia irrepresentable (drama) 1954

Hoy es fiesta (drama) 1956

Las cartas boca abajo (drama) 1957

Un soñador para un pueblo [A Dreamer for the People] (drama) 1958

Teatro 2 vols. (dramas) 1959–1962

Las meninas: Fantasia velazquena en dos partes [Las meninas: A Fantasy] (drama) 1960

El concierto de San Ovidio [The Concert of Saint Ovide] (drama) 1962

Buero Vallejo: Antologia teatral (dramas) 1966

Teatro selecto (dramas) 1966

El tragaluz [The Basement Window] (drama) 1967

La doble historia del doctor Valmy (drama) 1968

El sueño de la razón [The Sleep of Reason] (drama) 1970

Llegada de los dioses (drama) 1971

La fundación [The Foundation] (drama) 1974

La detonación [The Shot] (drama) 1977

Jueces en la noche [Judges in the Night] (drama) 1979

Caimán (drama) 1981

Diálogo secreto (drama) 1984

Lázaro en la laberinto [Lazarus in the Labyrinth] (drama) 1986

Música cercana [The Music Window] (drama) 1989

Obra completa 2 vols. (dramas, poetry, prose, and essays) 1994

Las trampas del azar (drama) 1994

Martha T. Halsey (essay date Fall 1986)

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SOURCE: “Writers and Their Critics: Buero's La Detonación,” in Hispanic Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 47–60.

[In the following essay, Halsey discusses Buero Vallejo's relationship with Franco-era censors by tracing the author's use of José Mariano de Larra in La detonación.]

Many of Buero's protagonists represent author surrogates. However, with none of them does Buero so closely identify as with José Mariano de Larra of La detonación (1977), the dramatist's first play authored and premiered in post-Franco Spain. This identification is quite natural given Buero's well-known passion for truth and given, also, his well-documented difficulties with government censors during the Franco dictatorship.1 After the death of Fernando VII, during the subsequent regency of María Cristina, with its rapid alternation of ministries that defrauded the Liberals' hopes, Larra stated that to write in Madrid was to weep. Buero no doubt experienced the same sentiment during the Franco era and initial transition period.2

La detonación is a study of a time of historical change that closely parallels Spain's present transition from dictatorship to democracy; it is, also, an important statement on the role of the intellectual in a repressive society—a problem Buero has dealt with in his earlier Las Meninas (1960) and El sueño de la razón (1970). Although Larra is never idealized in La detonación, Buero's admiration for the critic is obvious. Larra succeeded in publishing some of the most penetrating and lucid political essays Spain has ever known, many so progressive that they could not have easily been printed in the Franco era. Buero states in an interview: “Desde el punto de vista del cumplimiento de su misión del escritor crítico, Larra es paradigmático.”3 Similar words have sometimes been used to describe the role Buero himself has played now for some thirty-five years.

La detonación covers the ten years preceding Larra's suicide in 1837—a suicide that Buero makes clear was caused, not by an unfortunate love affair, but by despair over the destiny of his country. Larra relives, judges, and comments on these years in an extended flashback as memories race through his mind in the seconds before he pulls the trigger. The audience enters the very mind of the tormented writer and experiences, along with him, the actions, thoughts, and even dreams that he both re-enacts and witnesses as the spectator of his own theater.4 The flashback takes the form of a phantasmagoric delirium in which all of the characters save Larra and his friend Espronceda appear masked.5 The action moves constantly between three parts of a multiple-stage set: Larra's apartment, the Ministerial Offices, and the “Parnasillo,” as it was dubbed by the Romantics, where the literati of the day meet to discuss both literature and politics.6 Words about government repression spoken in Larra's apartment are followed, as the writer becomes lost in thought, by the appearances in their offices of the minister and censor. We witness the literati in the cafe cheer or decry decrees of the ministry, and the ministry react to the literati's cries. The nightmarish quality of the flashback, with its vertiginously frantic rhythm that accelerates as the end approaches, is no doubt inspired by the lugubrious and macabre elements that predominate in the essays of Larra's last years.

In the dialogue of the flashback Buero intercalates passages from Larra's essays. Larra both paraphrases and quotes himself; moreover his disembodied voice furnishes even further critique. The passages utilized include, not only political commentary highly relevant to Spain of the 1970s, but important statements on Larra's mission as a writer and on his position in the face of government censorship.

In the initial dialogue of the flashback, a young Larra speaks of his intent to snatch off the masks that society wears and of his passion for truth. In response to his father's protests that he will go to prison, Larra suggests that he may be able to “hablar … sin hablar,” i.e., to use “medias palabras,”—powerful weapons that have always been utilized whenever there have been gags. The masks worn by the other characters, both literati and politicians, will, in effect, fall as Larra exposes the falsehood that they represent—even the mask worn by Don Homobono, the ever-present censor who, first seen striking out words with a large quill pen, remains as new ministers come and go. Larra's own mask will be his laughter but, for those who are able to understand, it will hide nothing.

The horrors of such censorship are underscored in a dream Larra recalls near the end of the flashback. The satirist sees himself mutilated by the minister Calatrava and Don Homobono, who cut off his tongue and right hand and, then, slowly exit, carrying off their trophies. This dream is reminiscent of the nightmare in El sueño de la razón, during which Goya is attacked by monsters from the capricho whose inscription Buero uses as the play's title and his mouth covered with a strange wire muzzle which is secured by the Cat Figure, who noisily turns the key in the padlock.

Several of the passages utilized from Larra's essays during the discussions in the “Parnasillo” deal with the possible stances of the writer confronted with such censorship. Buero's own stance during the Franco regime closely reflects that of Larra as expressed in these passages. Utilizing Larra's words, Buero thus reiterates his own ideas on the correct conduct of the democratic writer under a repressive regime. So close is this identification between Larra's attitude and Buero's own that one critic states: “Existe evidentemente una respuesta de Buero Vallejo, a través de la figura de Larra, a los ataques a su postura personal durante la dictadura. Pero no se trata de una autojustificación, sino de la exposición de una opción que se considera correcta política y humanamente.”7

These debates in the “Parnasillo”, which extend over several years, replace, in a sense, the one climactic trial scene of Las Meninas, where Buero's Velázquez—like Buero's Larra the historical conscience of his time and target of political as well as religious censorship—must defend not only his canvasses against the charges of the Inquisition but, also, this method of painting against the attacks of a fellow artist.8 The dialectics of La detonación lie in the confrontation of divergent points of view that provide multiple perspectives on the issues raised and, at the same time, often expose the egoistic motives of the debators. Although the exact words of Larra are frequently used, more often than not it is the spirit, rather than the letter, of Larra's criticism that is present.

Larra first rejects the position of those writers, represented by Mesonero Romanos, who, in effect, collaborate with a repressive regime by not opposing it. After describing to Larra, who has just arrived in Madrid, the various literati and politicians of the “Parnasillo”—whose figures appear in the café as he speaks—Mesonero warns of the dangers of the wasps' nest it represents. Mesonero warns him to avoid its sting, to limit himself to writing cuadros de costumbres rather than serious satire. Larra's words however, reveal the fear behind Mesonero's mask. When the latter then asks if they do not have the right to live peacefully as possible, even though it means closing their eyes to ignominy, Larra replies that he will denounce that ignominy for the sake of the populace, which suffers.

Larra next rejects the stance of those who remain silent when unable to speak out clearly. During the harsh censorship that precedes Fernando's death agony, Larra himself struggles tenaciously to speak out. However, he is attacked by those who charge that what he does manage to publish is inoffensive since otherwise it would be prohibited. For example, Clemente Díaz, who calls himself a poet even though he publishes nothing, states that he prefers to maintain his silence rather than sign himself with a pseudonym, as does Larra, or to write about Spain and call it another name. Such practices, Díaz charges, prostitute one's pen. However, Larra's barbs unmask him for the hypocrite he is. Significantly, it is Díaz, a writer who secretly envies Larra's limited successes at getting his works published, who attacks him most strongly. Larra's attitude has already been made clear in a well-known passage from his essays that Buero has him quote to his servant, insisting that he will speak out:

“Mil caminos hay; si el más ancho, si el más recto no está expedito, ¿para qué es el talento? Tome rodeos y cumple con su alta misión. … En ninguna época, por desastrada que sea, faltarán materias para el hombre de talento: … si no las tiene todas a su disposición, tendrá algunas. ¡No se puede decir! ¡No se puede hacer! Miserables efugios, tristes pretextos de nuestra pereza. ¿Son dobles los esfuerzos que se necesitan? ¡Hacerlos!

(p. 76)9

When greater freedom is anticipated with the regency of Maria Cristina and the return of the exiles, Larra even suggests that, with an end to censorship, his manner of writing might not be very different. Díaz then reiterates his own position:

DÍAZ. O sea, lo de siempre. Fígaro dirá, y nada dirá. …

VEGA. ¡Claro que dirá! Y más desde hoy, si quitan la censura.

LARRA. No lo dé por seguro, Vega. Pero gracias.

DÍAZ. Pues si no desaparece habrá que enmudecer. Lo contrario es ceder ante ella.

LARRA. … O ella ante nosotros. ¿Quién podrá más?

DÍAZ. ¡Embolismos! Hay que hablar claro o callarse.

(p. 97)

Furthermore, when the expected freedom does not materialize under the paternalistic ministry of Céa Bermúdez and Larra's articles are all prohibited, the writer recalls in the presence of Don Homobono another pertinent passage from his essays: “Géneros enteros de la literatura han debido a la tiranía y a la dificultad de expresar los escritores sus sentimientos francamente una importancia que sin eso rara vez hubieran conseguido.”10 Conque imagínese lo importante que me siento (p. 107).

With the passages cited from Larra's essays and the dialogue he invents between Larra and Díaz, Buero suggests that literary conventions are useful disguises in times of absolutism but also valid vehicles to express the truth even when writers are free to speak more clearly.11 That this is so is, of course, evinced by the renewed interest in Larra's essays today.12

Larra's words on literary convention—his own, of course, is his satire—recall debates on technique in Las Meninas and El sueño de la razón. Velázquez is forced to defend his famous “abbreviated” style, with its lack of detail that represents an attempt to paint the impression left upon the eye for a fleeting moment. It is through this method that he suggests the reality of his Spain in Las Meninas, which pictures living ghosts of persons whose truth is death. The surrealism of Goya's Pinturas Negras, which enables him to suggest the irrational evil that possesses a country when reason sleeps, is likewise called into question and even confused with senility or madness.

After attacking the position of those writers, like Mesonero, who collaborate out of fear and of those who, like Díaz, remain silent when unable to speak out clearly, Larra rejects the position, also, of those who, like his friend Espronceda, provoke confrontations that prove suicidal. When the Liberals pin their hopes on the new minister, Martínez de la Rosa, who has just returned from exile, and when Espronceda returns to found a new journal, El siglo, Larra warns the latter that things are not what they seem. Larra advises him to protect his journal from treachery, to beware of the secret police and censors who frequent the café. The time for precaution and “medias palabras” is not over. However, having only recently returned, Espronceda underestimates the danger, expressing reservations at Larra's advice.

As Larra suspected, under Martinez de la Rosa's ministry censorship continues in the person of the same Don Homobono and an entire issue of El Siglo is soon prohibited. When Espronceda decides to publish the entire issue with all of the page blank except for the titles of the forbidden articles, Larra warns him against such a provocation at a time when the government is besieged with problems and the very throne threatened by Carlist victories. The following exchange takes place between the two friends:

LARRA—¡No suicide su propia voz!

ESPONCEDA—¡No sea tan miedoso, Figaro! Publicaré El Siglo en blanco.

LARRA—Será un desafío y nos costará caro a todos.

ESPRONCEDA—¡Sea más valiente!

LARRA—¡Yo no soy cobarde! Yo sólo pienso. …

VEGA—¡Figaro, él tiene razón! ¡La campanada será enorme! …

LARRA—Y estéril.

(pp. 122–23)

As Larra foresees, Espronceda's action proves counterproductive; the publication of the journal is suspended and the latter, exiled. “‘En tiempos como estos,’” Larra's voice proclaims, “‘los hombres prudentes no deben hablar, ni mucho menos callar’” (p. 125).13 Larra thus shows little sympathy for a radicalism that serves only to provoke government repression. In his essay, “Larra y Espronceda: dos liberales impacientes,” C. Alonso states that for the latter, “víctima de su generosa imprudencia … no es hora de actitudes políticas definidas rigurosamente, sino de gestos dramáticos y espectaculares.”14

C. Alonso describes Larra's attitude through 1834, i.e. up to his final two years, as “un esperanzado y entusiasta posibilismo.”15 It is precisely this aspect of Larra that Buero underscores. “Entre el gesto y la eficacia,” writes one reviewer of La detonación, “Buero apuesta por la eficacia. … Porque Buero apuesta por la Historia.”16 The posibilismo of Larra, with which Buero strongly identifies, is also the attitude of Asel of La Fundación (1974), another important author surrogate. La Fundación is, among other things, a judgment on Franco Spain; however, it is also a meditation on the politics necessary to transform it. Asel, a political prisoner, tells his cellmate that efficacy in the struggle depends upon moderation and prudence, given the limited resources they have to use in confronting the established order. Asel emphasizes the importance of each step, of each political gain, each concession won from an authoritarian regime—no matter how provisional or illusory it may seem—as we journey from one prison to another in the struggle toward freedom.17

Posibilismo in politics and literature—as reflected in the passages cited from La detonación and Asel's advice in La Fundación—has been the credo of Buero during his entire career: from 1949, when as a recently released political prisoner he dared to submit his Historia de una escalera with its depiction of the tragic reality of post-war Spain and won the Lope de Vega prize,18 to 1974, when, by then a member of the Real Academia,19 he depicted still harsher truths in La Fundación, suggesting, in fact, that all Spain was a prison, to 1979 and 1981, when in Jueces en la noche and Caimán, he underscored the deficiencies of the present transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy.

That Buero succeeded in conveying such messages despite the censorship of the Franco period now seems extraordinary. However Buero heeded early on the lesson of Larra: “Mil caminos hay. …” Using such masks as allegory (Aventura en lo gris), fantasy (Irene o el tesoro), myth (La tejedora de sueños), science fiction (Mito,El tragaluz), and, above all, history (Un soñador para un pueblo,El concierto de San Ovidio,Las Meninas, etc.) he subtly mocked the censors and spoke the truth without avoiding controversial and seemingly—but only seemingly—impossible subjects that did not exclude police torture of dissidents (La Fundación). In words as relevant now as they were twenty-three years ago, Pérez Minik describes the result of this “restauración de la máscara”: “Después de nuestra guerra civil, la historia de la convivencia española necesitaba un proceso. De esto no cabe duda. Nuestro dramaturgo no ha hecho otra cosa, a lo largo de su brillante carrera escénica, que abrir un proceso a gran parte de la existencia de nuestro país.20

Despite these achievements, when government censorship finally ended, Buero evidently felt the need to defend, or at least, clarify, his stance during the Franco era. Just as Larra's essays, especially the passages cited, constitute an answer to the critics of the latter's day, so La detonación represents, among other things, a reply to those who, like Alfonso Sastre and Fernando Arrabal, attacked Buero's position in the 1960's and 1970's. The well-known and often bitter polemics which these fellow playwrights began with Buero has come to be known in the history of contemporary Spanish theater as the “posibilismo-imposibilismo” debate. The content of both polemics is closely reflected in the passages from Larra's essays that Buero utilizes in his drama.

In 1960 Sastre attacked Buero's well-known position that it was essential to write dramas that could be staged in Franco Spain even if some degree of adjustment to censorship was necessary. Writing in Primer Acto, Sastre maintained that all theater should be considered “possible” until proved otherwise. To write with censorship in mind meant to accept and normalize its existence and, given the contradictory and unpredictable way in which the censors operated, to risk needless sacrifice, creating obstacles that might not actually exist. Sastre concluded that progress is achieved, not through accommodation, but through dialectical opposition. He ended by asking if authors such as O'Neill, Brecht, A. Miller and Sartre, who seemed “impossible” in their time, were not better examples than “los predicadores de tácticas y acomodaciones” and by recalling that, in 1949, he had applauded Buero's own Historia de una escalera precisely because it represented “una obra imposible.”21

In the same article, Sastre refuted the position of comedy writer, Alfonso Paso, who maintained that playwrights should “sign a pact” with the establishment in order to get their plays produced so as to be able, later, to betray the clauses of this pact writing socially progressive works. Sastre noted that the first stance, posibilismo, could lead to the second, that is, Paso's position, although he did not charge that such had happened in Buero's case. Sastre stated that he refuted both positions, in which he perceived a lack of logic, “ya que no lo que en el lenguaje sartriano se señalaría como una forma de ‘mauvaise foi’, o, en otras palabras, conformismo.”22

Buero's elaborate refutation of Sastre's attack appeared in the very next issue of Primer Acto. After explaining that he considered such public polemics among writers with similar objectives a great error and that he, himself, that never publicly criticized Sastre by name, Buero noted that Sastre had attacked not only his theories but, by extension, his theater and that the words cited above constituted a serious reproach to his professional conduct that he could not leave unanswered. Buero charged, in fact, that for some time he had noted an insidious campaign against his work by Sastre and the latter's friends, who considered it “insuficientemente positiva y contaminada, por el contrario de conformismo y acomodación.”23

Buero flatly rejected Sastre's contention that, since in theory all theater is possible, dramatists must write with absolute inner freedom. He noted that the unpredictable nature of censorship is relative and does not preclude foreseeing that certain themes, concepts, etc. may be approached only in certain ways. He, himself, then quoted Sastre, reminding Sastre that writers must live their situation, acting upon their circumstances—even if they sincerely believe they are disdaining them—struggling successfully or otherwise, and taking the risks, although not rashly, of being censored or misunderstood. Finally, Buero explains that “posibilitación” is not “acomodación” and advocates:

un teatro difícil y resuelto a expresarse con la mayor holgura, pero que no sólo debe escribirse sino estrenarse. Un teatro, pues ‘en situación,’ lo más arriesgado posible, pero no temerario. Recomiendo, en suma, y a sabiendas de que muchas veces no se logrará, hacer posible un teatro ‘imposible.’ Llamo, por consiguiente, ‘imposibilismo’ a la actitud que se coloca, mecánica y antidialecticamente, ‘fuera de situación’: la actitud que busca hacer aun más imposible a un teatro ‘imposible’ con temerarias elecciones de tema o expresión, con declaraciones provocadoras, con reclamos inquietantes y abundantes, y que puede llegar tristemente aún más lejos en su divorcio dela dialéctica de lo real: a hacer imposible un teatro … posible.24

Buero pointed out that, with his “imposibilista” stance, Sastre gave the impression that certain of the latter's works were impossible for reasons of censorship when, in reality, other reasons might exist. He noted that certain of what Sastre himself called “cripto-dramas” have been considered accommodations to censorship rather than “impossible” plays. Therefore, Sastre himself does not exemplify the absolute inner freedom he advocates—a freedom indeed impossible. Nevertheless, Buero concludes, Sastre attempts to justify his own works since he has appointed himself the standard bearer of theatrical revolution in Spain.

Sastre's brief response added little to what had already been said. After denying the possibility of such a contradiction as that supposed by radical theories and plays written as accommodations, as well as the supposition that his theories represented a tactic to explain failures not attributable to censorship, Sastre attempted to re-define somewhat his concept of absolute inner freedom. However, he reiterated his belief that the “posibilista” stance might be a mask for conformity.25 Various ideas that Sastre expressed in this debate are obviously reflected in the positions both of Clemente Díaz and Espronceda of La detonación.

The entire polemic was renewed, in 1975, by Arrabal's attacks in Estreno. Arrabal cited the cases of Picasso, Cassals, and Alberti, who, he noted, like himself preferred exile to silence, and, also, implied that Sastre's imprisonment for political motives at the very time when Buero accepted his chair in the Real Academia de la Lengua, showed that Sastre's stance in the debate of the 1960's had been the correct one.26 After refuting such logic and pointing out actions contradicting Arrabal's own “imposibilismo”—Arrabal's compliance with the censor's demands in two books, his use of the anagram, “Ciugrena” for “Guernica” in a play title, as well as his acceptance of the aid, during his trial of 1967, of various members of the very Real Academia he said he despised—Buero replied that the real purpose of Arrabal's statements in Estreno and elsewhere was to deny that writers in Franco Spain could produce anything of value without being muzzled, imprisoned, or exiled. Buero further charged that, in order to magnify the importance of his own theater, Arrabal scorned important efforts by those who struggled to keep alive, in difficult times, a culture that was independent—including authors much more important than either he himself or Arrabal. Buero reminded Arrabal that such assertions as he had made may enjoy a good press but that important accomplishments cannot be negated with the stroke of a pen. Moreover, those Spaniards who chose exile have the least right to so simplistically judge and condemn those who remained to struggle. In short, revindicating positive achievements of the last forty years, Buero again lamented the common misconceptions that an innovative and critical theater is impossible in countries where creativity encounters the obstacle of censorship and that the only alternatives for honest writers are exile or silence.27

Arrabal then charged that instead of pronouncing a clear “J'accuse,” Buero had adopted the very arguments of the Franco propaganda machine by defending two myths: that theater went on much as usual despite occasional difficulties (proved by listing the few exceptions to the general rule) and that authors subsidized and honored by the regime enjoyed international prestige (proved by listings of amateur and school performances abroad of their plays). Arrabal concluded that the only real distinctions a tyrant could confer upon writers without dishonoring them were persecution and censorship.28 To Arrabal's accusations Buero responded with concrete data showing that many authors, theater groups, and directors, who received awards and subventions from the government, had waged an effective battle to speak out independently. Moreover, he charged that for Arrabal, then in Paris, to appoint himself political mentor and try to give lessons in anti-fascism to those who had remained in Spain to struggle was simply unacceptable. Buero then declared, as he had done in the debate with Sastre, that for his part, the polemic was concluded.29

In an overview of theater and society in Franco Spain, Luciano García Lorenzo quotes the words of Monleón, in 1966, describing the outcome of the posibilista debate with Sastre: “El posibilismo se ha cumplido, con ciertas limitaciones, en Buero; Sastre hace años que no estrena y Paso que habló de una revolución desde dentro, acabó por estar dentro sin hacer ninguna revolución.” García Lorenzo added, as he wrote in 1973: “Evidentemente, efectividad y calidad artística no son términos incompatibles y ahí está el ejemplo de Buero.”30

Under Franco Buero knew that it was necessary to take “mil caminos” to speak the truth. However, since the abolition of censorship, he has continued to write much in the same way as before even though in La detonación criticism is clearer—due, in part, to the utilization of Larra's own essays—and in Jueces en la noche and Caimán grave social and political problems of post-Franco Spain are dealt with directly, without masks of any type whatever. Nevertheless, these dramas demonstrate, no less than his earlier one, the beliefs he expressed early in his career: excessive rationalization or didacticism may be a grave defect, implication is preferable to explication, the enigmatic is a positive value, and art must approximate the playwright's intuitions, presenting problems in all their complexity. Otherwise, Buero believes, plays would be, not works of art, but political acts or gestures.31

Indeed Buero clearly stated, in 1978, that his manner of writing could not change, contrary to what seemed to be the expectations of at least one critic, who hypothesized that La detonación (actually written after Franco's death) would be the last drama of the playwright's “Francoist phase” before some sort of radical change would occur. Buero added that, with or without censorship, “la oblicuidad, en sus diversos grados, suele ser condición intrínsica de la obra de arte. Es más, bien puede suceder que con mayor libertad, la oblicuidad estética se acentúe, mientras que, bajo la censura, se ha procurado no pocas veces dar precisamente obras más directas.”32 In 1979, while acknowledging that in La detonación, despite its historical distancing, he speaks more clearly than was hitherto possible, he reiterates: “Pero no por ello voy a tirar a la basura la expresión oblicua o sesgada o indirecta o alusiva o metafórica o simbólica. De ninguna manera. Con censura o sin ella estas son … grandes riquezas de lo literario y yo no prescindiré de esas riquezas.”33 After insisting that, even without censorship, his La doble historia del doctor Valmy would have been set in an imaginary country and recalling that Brecht's Mother Courage, written without censorship, is a much more effective anti-war drama than one that clearly explained the atrocities of Dunkirk, for example, Buero concluded: “Así que you seguiré escribiendo, poco más o menos, como he escrito hasta ahora.”34

As Buero, himself, has pointed out, some of the greatest writers of the world, such as Cervantes, Gorki, and Gogol, have written their works under difficult—but not insuperable—conditions of censorship.35 Repressive and difficult situations saw the creation, in Spain, of such masterpieces as Don Quijote,Lazarillo de Tormes, and Quevedo's Sueños.36 Nevertheless, strangely enough there has persisted both outside of, and to some extent, within Spain, the myth that nothing of value can be produced under a repressive regime. This attitude has led to clear prejudices against authors who, like Buero, did not go into exile but remained in Franco Spain to speak out from within, despite all the difficulties this implied. For years such prejudice together, of course, with distaste for a totalitarian regime, resulted in a curtain of silence that separated Spanish culture from that of the rest of the world.37 This silence, which has gradually been broken as literary imports from Spain have found acceptance, especially in Latin America and Europe, ignored the emergence of new voices, including voices of protest. In the words of Larra, Buero tells us that such an attitude results from gross misconceptions as to the nature of creativity in Franco Spain.


  1. See Patricia O'Connor: “Government Censorship in the Contemporary Spanish Theater,” Educational Theater Journal, 18, No. 4 (December, 1965), 17–24; “Torquemada in the Theatre,” Theatre Survey, 14, No. 2 (Novembre, 1973), 33–45; “Censorship at Work,” Spain Today, 6 (1966), 443–449; and, especially, “Censorship in the Contemporary Spanish Theater and Antonio Buero Vallejo,” Hispania, 52 (1969), 59–63. O'Connor was expelled from Spain in 1972 as the result of her research on censorship.

    Buero succeeded regularly in getting his plays premiered during the Franco period. However, Aventura en lo gris, written in 1949, was prohibited until 1963; and La doble historia del Dr. Valmy, written in 1964, was not allowed to open until 1976, after Franco's death. Although both dramas are set in an imaginary country, Surelia, the first describes situations with numerous parallels to the Spanish Civil War; and the second deals with police torture of political dissidents. The year before it was written, Buero, together with other leading intellectuals, had signed an open letter demanding an investigation into the alleged torture of striking miners in Asturias. Charges, later dropped, were brought by the government against those who had signed.

    In “De mi teatro,” Romanistisches Jahrbuch, 30 (1979), 217–227, Buero reveals that his habit was to write a drama without conscious concern with censorship and, then, to add ten or twelve “barbaridades,” which he had no intention of keeping, as bait for the censors. Since the latter had to make some concessions so as not to project abroad the image of a closed country, they took the offered bait, even if conscious of the trick. This tactic, Buero states, almost always worked even though, of course, at times other phrases were also suppressed. See p. 220.

  2. In “Horas de invierno,” 1936. Larra's words are quoted in Buero Vallejo, La detonación. Las palabras en la arena (Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1979), p. 89.

  3. In “‘no hay que suicidarse, sino seguir viviendo’: Buero Vallejo estrena La detonación, sobre Larra,” Hoja informativa de Literatura y Filología, No. 54 (Fundación Juan March: November, 1977), pp. 4–5.

  4. For studies of Buero's dramatic technique in this play see Luis Iglesias Feijoo, La trayectoria dramática de Antonio Buero Vallejo (Santiago de Compostela, 1982), pp. 465–495, and especially Janet W. Pérez, “Buero Vallejo's Larra: La detonación,Estreno, 5, No. 1 (Spring 1979), 33–35.

  5. The carnival motif is doubtlessly inspired by Larra's essay, “El mundo todo es máscaras; todo el año es carnaval.” (1833).

  6. The “Parnasillo” is the Café del Principe situated adjacent to the Teatro del Principe, where the Teatro Español now stands. See Gregorio C. Martin, “El Parnasillo: origen y circunstancias,” La Chispa 81: Selected Proceedings, ed. Gilbert Paolini (New Orleans, 1981), pp. 209–218. Martin notes that under Fernando VII, the tertulia “existía como una necesidad de discutir lo que no se podia escribir.” (p. 209). A very similar role was played, in the Franco period, by the tertulia that met in Madrid's old Café Lisboa, where Bruno met with such aspiring young writers as García Pavón, Arturo del Hoyo, and Vicente Soto, at the time when he was writing his first dramas. See García Pavón, “Antonio Buero Vallejo: sus trabajos y sus días,” Destino (Barcelona), No. 1742 (February 20, 1971), p. 22.

  7. M. B., “La detonación, Larra-Buero: ‘No soy cobarde, solo pienso.’” Cuadernos para el Diálogo, No. 231 (October 1–7, 977), p. 7.

    In various talks and interviews Buero makes quite explicit his admiration for, and identification with, Larra's posture. See, for example, his comments, published without title, in Teatro español actual (Madrid: Fundación Juan March and Cátedra, 1977), pp. 69–81. Buero states: “Entre los que han hablado, y siguen hablando y seguirán hablando de que la literatura inevitablemente se falsea y se empobrece y se deforma [bajo la censura y la coerción social] y que hay que marcharse o callar, yo asumo la respuesta de Larra y el deber que entonces Larra nos enseñó a todos.” p. 80.

    In “De mi teatro,” cited in note 1, after naming great works of literature produced under difficult situations, Buero states: “Bajo circunstancias españolas bastante parecidas ya a las del franquismo … las del poder absoluto de Fernando VII, Mariano José de Larra fue capaz de darnos la literatura—en su caso periodística y crítica fundamentalmente—más satírica y más clara, dentro del embozo inevitable, que se pudo dar en cualquier momento de la historia ante una situación criticable. Estos ejemplos luminosos, perfectamente racionalizados por sus autores—y sobre todo por Larra, que ha dicho acerca de ello, palabras definitivas,—podían ser y fueron de hecho nuestros guías” (p. 218). In a similar vein Buero has spoken of his admiration for Velázquez. See Arcadio Baquero, “Buero Vallejo, pintor,” La Estafeta Literaria, No. 198 (August 1960), p. 15.

    As was, perhaps, to be expected, Buero was charged with writing a play about himself. Carlos G. Reigosa writes: “En escena está Buero y no Larra. … Ha sido una pena que para hablar de sí mismo, Buero haya recurrido al gran Fígaro.” “Larra, según Buero: historia de una suplantación,” Ozono, No. 25 (October 25, 1977), p. 48. In similar fashion the playwright was attacked for using Velázquez, in Las Meninas, as a vehicle for expressing his own ideas on artistic freedom and on censorship.

  8. See Sheehan's discussion of Las Meninas in “Censorship and Buero Vallejo's Social Consciousness,” Aquila: Chestnut Hill Studies in Modern Languages and Literatures (1969), 121–137.

  9. From “Reflexiones acerca del modo de hacer resucitar el teatro espanol,” 1832. Passages from Larra's essays appear within quotation marks in the text.

  10. From “Panorama matritense. Artículo segundo,” 1936.

  11. Carlos Seco Serrano states with respect to Larra: “La censura de prensa—tan odiada por Figaro … contribuirá también—eso no lo percibe Larra—a perfeccionar al escritor; a ella debemos la finura de conceptos y la sutileza de intención de algunos de sus mejores artículos.” “Estudio preliminar,” in Larra, Obras (Madrid: Atlas, 1960), pp. LIII–LIV. BAE, No. 127.

  12. For an overview of recent interest in Larra on the part both of leftist critics who sometimes idealize him as well as those scholars who write more objectively, see the beginning of Paul Illie's “Larra's Nightmare,” Revista Hispánica Moderna, 38 (1974–75), 153–166. Illie writes: “With increasing exaggeration, Larra is becoming the hero of modern leftist scholarship.”

    For a list of studies of Larra consulted by Buero for his play see Ricardo Salvat, “Entrevista a Buero Vallejo.” Estreno, 14, No. 1 (Spring, 1978), 15–18.

  13. From “El siglo en blanco,” 1834.

  14. In Literatura y poder: España 1834–1868 (Madrid: Editor Alberto Corazón, 1971), p. 18. C. Alonso is quoting, in part, from Patricio de la Escosura.

  15. Ibid., p. 19.

  16. M. B., “La detonación. …” p. 7.

  17. See my article, “Reality, Illusion, and Alienation: Buero's La Fundación,” forthcoming in Hispanófila.

  18. The manuscript of the play was submitted anonymously.

  19. Of course, the prestige of membership afforded Buero considerable protection after his election in 1971. There is a parallel between his election to the academy and Larra and Espronceda's candidacy for the Cortes under Istúriz in 1836. In Buero's play, Espronceda states: “En las Cortes seremos invulnerables, y la censura no podrá silenciar nuestra palabra.” (p. 155).

  20. “Buero Vallejo o la restauración de la máscara,” in Teatro europeo contemporáneo: su libertad y sus compromisos (Madrid: Ediciones Guadarrama, 1961), p. 385.

  21. Alfonso Sastre, “Teatro imposible y pacto social,” Primer Acto, No. 14 (May-June 1960), pp. 1–2. Sastre also refuted what he perceived to be Buero's prior insinuations that he deliberately wrote an “impossible” theater to attract attention in certain circles and to get his works published and performed abroad.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Buero, “Obligada precisión acerca del ‘imposibilismo,’” Primer Acto, No. 15 (July-August, 1960), pp. 1–6.

  24. Ibid. For a more detailed account of this debate see Kessel Schwartz, “Posibilismo and Imposibilismo: The Buero Vallejo-Sastre Polemic,” Revista Hispánica Moderna, 34 (1968), 436–445.

  25. Sastre, “A modo de respuesta,” Primer Acto, No. 16 (1960), pp. 1–2. Sastre continued his attack, also, in Primer Acto, No. 29–30 (December 1961-January 1962), pp. 26–27, and in his book Anatomía del realismo (Barcelona, 1965).

  26. Arrabal, “Objecciones de Arrabal al articulo de Dowling, Estreno, No. 1,” Estreno, No. 3 (Fall, 1975), p. 5.

  27. Buero, “Desde España,” Estreno, No. 3 (Fall 1975), pp. 13–17. Buero included in his comments a lengthy list of documents he had signed defending young Spanish authors (including Arrabal) in trouble with the authorities.

  28. Arrabal, “La alienación franquista,” Estreno, 2, No. 1 (1975), pp. 9–10.

  29. Buero, “Confusión sin ceremonias,” Estreno, 2, No. 2 (Fall, 1976), pp. 5–7. Buero tells of his astonishment when, at Arrabal's trial in 1967 for a “Panic” inscription written in a book he autographed (“Me cago en Dios, en la patria y en todo lo demás”), the playwright failed to use the occasion to utter his own “J'accuse,” calmly declaring that the word “Dios” referred to “Pan” and that “Patria” was really his cat “Patra.” He was acquitted. Some sort of deal had obviously been made with the government in view of Arrabal's international reputation.

  30. Luciano García Lorenzo, “Teatro y sociedad en la España de posguerra,” in El teatro y su crítica: reunión de Málaga de 1973 (Málaga, 1975), p. 263. See, also, Francisco Ruiz Ramón's lucid “De El sueño de la razón a La detonación (Breve meditación sobre el posibilismo),” Estreno, 5, No. 1 (Spring 1979), pp. 7–8.

  31. For Buero's early statements see the second chapter of Martha T. Halsey, Antonio Buero Vallejo (New York: Twayne, 1973).

  32. “Deslinde e índole de la obra postfranquista de A. Buero Vallejo (dos cartas del autor sobre este tema y otros afines),” Bulletin ode la Societé Belge des Professeurs d'Espagnol, No. 19 (December 1979), p. 4.

  33. Buero, “De mi teatro,” pp. 224–25.

  34. Ibid.

  35. Ricardo Salvat, “Entrevista a Buero Vallejo,” Estreno, 4, No. 1 (Spring 1978), p. 10.

  36. “De mi teatro,” p. 219.

  37. For whatever reason, this silence has persisted in the United States, especially in regard to the theater. Except for Hispanists, American theater-goers are virtually ignorant of any Spanish playwright since Lorca. A case in point is Buero's own drama. His plays have been regularly produced for a number of years in such places as the Soviet Union, all of the Eastern European countries (where they have found especially imminent directors) the Scandinavian countries, Iceland, Italy, and West Germany. However, his professional opening in the United States came only in 1984, with the premiere of Marion Holt's English version of El sueño de la razón at Baltimore's Center Stage.

Martha T. Halsey (essay date May 1987)

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SOURCE: “Reality, Illusion, and Alienation: Buero Vallejo's La Fundación,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 90, No. 3, May, 1987, pp. 47–62.

[In the following essay, Halsey discusses Buero Vallejo's techniques for exposing the human condition in his La Fundación and other plays.]

From En la ardiente oscuridad (1950) to La Fundación (1974) a paramount concern in the theater of Antonio Buero Vallejo has been alienation, our inability to face the tragic reality of the human condition. The dialectical struggle between tranquil blindness and painful awareness that occurs on both the socio-political and metaphysical levels characterizes all of Buero's dramas. However, it is in La Fundación that this struggle is seen in all of its complexity and where ideas presented in earlier dramas are developed most skillfully. Indeed this tragedy is one of Buero's most significant plays to date for both its ideas and dramatic technique. The reflections in the present paper constitute an interpretation of this drama and an attempt to situate it within Buero's theater.

Both the Center for the blind of En la ardiente oscuridad and the dark basement apartment of El tragaluz (1967) are microcosms of Spanish society and precursors of the prison cell of La Fundación. In their tranquil self-deception and unwillingness to confront the abnormality of their situation, the students of the first drama refuse to admit their blindness—an affliction that may be interpreted as both political and metaphysical. In accord with the former interpretation, the Center that, with its atmosphere of artificial gaiety and material comforts, inculcates an absurd optimism, represents any established order based on a lie. In this case the lie is that its citizens are normal, free, and happy.1 By maintaining the illusion that all is well, this order denies its citizens responsibility for their own destiny. Furthermore, as we see with the murder of the rebel student Ignacio, it never hesitates to resort to violence when its authority is challenged. The same fiction, hypocrisy, and cheerful negation of reality are seen in El Concierto de San Ovidio (1962). Like the Center of En la ardiente oscuridad and the hospice of El Concierto, the basement apartment of El tragaluz also is a refuge from the “light,” in this case, the uncomfortable truth of certain tragic events that occurred in the family shortly after the end of the Civil War.

However, the alienation of contemporary Spanish society (or society in general) is nowhere more evident than in La Fundación, where, in a delusion, Tomás sees a squalid prison cell as a beneficent “Foundation” for writers and scientists. His absurd optimism is reminiscent of the attitude of the blind students of En la ardiente oscuridad. Self-interest and fear deform reality, and we often see luxury, comfort, and miraculous sunlit vistas where there are really only prison bars and death.

This blindness is not unlike the self-deception of Barnes, a National Security Policeman in La doble historia del doctor Valmy (1976), who convinces himself that torture of political prisoners is justified. This blindness is likewise similar to the deafness of the Grandmother, who refuses to hear the truth about Barnes' activities, and to the madness of two of Doctor Valmy's former patients, who inform us that the psychiatrist's story of torture and mutilation by Barnes is false or, at least, exaggerated. When we later learn that these same former patients once interrupted the doctor to call him a liar as he was telling the policeman's case history to fellow patients in an insane asylum, it becomes obvious that the patients, are we, the spectators of the play, as we are encouraged to share in this self-deception. As will become evident, the alienated characters of La Fundación, like those of La doble historia …, also include the spectators; for we, too, are invited to enter the hospitable “Foundation.” In both plays Buero makes it clear that those who refuse to believe in the existence of crimes, torture, suffering, and imprisonment are guilty of escaping into a world of illusion.

Buero himself has emphasized the influence of Calderón and especially Cervantes upon his theater—from En la ardiente oscuridad, the very first drama he wrote, to the one under consideration, which portrays the gradual confrontation with—and acceptance of—reality by the protagonist. Tomás' inner journey from illusion to reality parallels closely the change in attitude of the blind Carlos of En la ardiente oscuridad—proof of the basic unity of the playwright's theater. Like Don Quijote, Buero's alienated characters live in a world of illusion and deception that they themselves create and, like the former, they too must return to reality—as must also, in Buero's view, the spectators. Like Don Quijote or La vida es sueño, Buero's dramas describe “un proceso que podríamos llamar de desalienación. Seres sumergidos en una atmósfera irreal y engañosa terminan por llegar, con dolor, a la realidad, a la verdad.”2 Many of Buero's characters, like Tomás of La Fundación, are victims of an alienation that permits them beautiful but illusory visions. Nevertheless they eventually achieve a lucid comprehension of reality. Unwilling at some point to confront their situation, they at last face harsh and terrible truths necessary to a solution of their problems.

At the beginning of La Fundación the action appears to take place in an elegant center for research, as we see a comfortable room with a view of a magnificent landscape with majestic mountains, green forests, and a silver lake that sparkle like jewels; at the end, we find ourselves in a prison cell and understand that the five major characters are not writers and scientists but prisoners condemned to death for activities against the established order—the circumstances of which are purposely left unspecified. As later becomes clear, this change in our perception is the result of the change in that of Tomás, as he gradually overcomes his alienation to perceive the same pathetic reality seen by the other condemned men. Tomás, who was arrested for distributing political propaganda and who revealed the name of a comrade when tortured—a betrayal that eventually resulted in the arrest of his cellmates—was incapable of facing the reality of his guilt. He therefore created an illusory world, a world without pain, torture or death, thus rejecting the truth for a lie. Buero suggests, in effect, that Tomás suffers from a type of schizophrenic delusion.

From the beginning of La Fundación the spectators see what Tomás sees in his delusion, as the curtain rises to reveal a room pleasantly furnished with fine crystal, silver, and linen as well as a television, magazines, a book of color reproductions of paintings, porcelain figurines, lamps, and leather armchairs. A picture window opens upon a luminous Turner landscape with far-off buildings resembling strange cathedrals. As its rainbow-hued light floods the room and the serene music of Rossini is heard on the stereo, we hardly notice the incongruously bare grey walls and polished concrete floor or the numbers on the shirts of the men who share the room with Tomás. Tomás states that these men are Tulio, an exceptional photographer, Max, an eminent mathematician, Lino, an engineer, and Asel, a doctor—all recipients of grants from the “Foundation.”

In La Fundación we perceive reality through the eyes of the protagonist. Just as we become blind to reality with the students of En la ardiente oscuridad or deaf with Goya in El sueño de la razón, we become alienated with Tomás. Through techniques of psychic participation or interiorization that have been termed “efectos de inmersión,” Buero often forces us to confront certain deficiencies of our own.3 This technique is particularly prominent in La Fundación.

The illusory reality into which we are plunged in La Fundación is not static but constantly changing. We begin by sharing the perplexities experienced by Tomás at certain words and gestures of his cell-mates that do not seem to correspond to the situation as he—and we ourselves—perceive it; and we end up by losing our confidence in his and our own vision. The playwright's purpose is to disconcert us with the contradiction between the world of Tomás and that of the other prisoners and thus to make us question the former by plunging us into a world of falsehood, so that we may slowly emerge into a world of truth. Buero's technique of portraying realistically the subjective and inner perceptions of his protagonist has been called the visualization of an interior monologue.4

Similar effects of interiorization have been utilized in El sueño de la razón; Buero not only makes us deaf with Goya (by having the other characters move their lips without uttering any sound when the latter is on stage) but lets us experience his terrifying obsessions and hallucinations. In Llegada de los dioses the dramatist blinds us in the conventional sense but lets us perceive the horrible threatening visions of the world experienced by the sightless Julio. Moreover, in such earlier plays as Irene o el tesoro,Casi un cuento de hadas (1953) and Mito, for at least brief moments we share visions experienced by alienated protagonists considered deranged by other characters. So common is alienation in contemporary society that, at the beginning of La Fundación, we feel little discomfort in sharing a vision not far removed from our own.

In La Fundación, one of Buero's most carefully structured dramas, it is Asel, the most mature and experienced of Tomás' cellmates who, with his skillful questions, undertakes gradually to “cure” Tomás by leading him to discover the lie represented by the “Foundation.” Like Dr. Valmy, Asel is clearly a surrogate for Buero himself—who is, as Sheehan has so aptly stated, the real “médico de su obra.”5 Under the guidance of Asel and with the acquiescence of the other prisoners, Tomás begins his slow journey to reality. He starts to demand explanations for strange occurrences that, he realizes, surprise only him and not his companions. For example, when Tulio attempts to amuse him by pretending to take pictures, the camera he thinks the latter is using disappears to be replaced by a simple metal cup; when the prisoners go through the motions of drinking beer, Max seems to take a drink without pouring it; the glasses Tulio pretends to remove while clearing the table are not the same ones that Tomás sees; the tobacco Tomás is sure he put into his pocket cannot be found; the lights, television, and stereo fail to function; and familiar objects disappear or are replaced by strange ones.

The drama depicts the dialectical struggle between illusion and reality, in regard to both the “Foundation” and our own world that the latter symbolizes. This tension is evident, from the beginning of the drama, in a dialogue that Tomás sustains with Berta, the fiancée who he believes visits him at times. Berta, who is perceived by only Tomás and the audience, appears with a white mouse used in laboratory experiments that she calls “Tomás” and speaks of saving. It is significant that twice she declares: “Aborrezco a la Fundación.”6 Like the Elf and the Voice of Irene o el tesoro, Berta is a manifestation of the protagonist's subconscious.

The dialectical tension is seen, likewise, in the dialogue Tomás sustains with El Hombre, a cellmate whose death the prisoners conceal so that they may divide his ration and whose silence they explain to Tomás as being the result of severe illness. In this dialogue we see Tomás' struggle between his desire to deny suffering, pain and death and his need to acknowledge them. As Tomás describes the beauty of the sunlit landscape and the joy of the persons he sees through the window, Asel asks him if he does not see the sadness in their faces. Then, when Tomás declares that men are beginning to become human, El Hombre—like Berta a manifestation of the former's subconscious—shouts in opposition such phrases as “¡Fieras! ¡Hipócritas! … ¡Asesinos!” and speaks of “la pesadilla de los antropoides” (p. 182). In Tomás' refusal to accept the words of El Hombre, we see our own refusal to accept the truth of our own world. Part I of the drama ends with the discovery by the officials—and by Tomás—of El Hombre's death, which constitutes a significant step in the protagonist's journey to reality.

This journey continues in Part II as Tomás notes the disappearance of the lamp and telephone he attempts to use as well as other changes such as the darkening of the landscape hitherto sunlit regardless of the time of day or night. After a second dialogue with Berta in which he asks “¿Por qué es tan inhóspita la Fundación?” he tells her to go into the bathroom as his cellmates awaken. In order to prove to the latter the reality of her visit, he calls her to join them. When she fails to merge, Tomás confesses for the first time that she really never came at all. In answer to Asel's question Tomás is now able to admit that they are all in prison and have been condemned to death. The final apparition of Berta holding a dead mouse suspended by its tail signals the death of the old, alienated Tomás.

By the end of the drama Tomás is able to confess his betrayal of his comrades. Lino and Max, we now learn, are not an eminent engineer and mathematician but a simple lathe operator and a bookkeeper, just as Asel is not a doctor but an engineer. Unable to face his guilt, Tomás invented the immense fantasy of the “Foundation”—from the sunlit landscape to the sparkling bathroom he imagined behind the curtain in the corner of the cell—as he also invented the doctor he needed to cure him.

The “immersion effect” in La Fundación is one of Buero's most elaborate and complex experiments with this technique. From the very beginning of the drama the spectators share Tomás' perceptions as illusion (the “Foundation”) gives way to reality (the prison). This return to reality is completed only in the fourth and final scene. It has been pointed out that while some of the words and actions of Tomás' cellmates seem inexplicable to us when they first appear, “the fact that many of his own words and actions, though natural and understandable to us, seem strange and suspicious to the other characters, intensifies both our involvement in the mystery and our identification with him.”7

However, the perceptions of Tomás that we share are not only aural but visual; the set undergoes constant modifications, both during and between the four scenes. These modifications both maintain our curiosity and underscore the dialectical opposition of the two worlds depicted—that of Tomás and the spectator and that of the former's companions. The luxurious furnishings of the “Foundation” gradually disappear as Tomás discovers the stark truth of his grim prison cell. Armchairs are replaced by bedrolls; wall panels descend to cover the refrigerator, bookcases, and telephone; the impeccably dressed “waiters” who serve exquisite meals appear in aprons, grey shirts and old pants to collect the trash; crystal and linens are replaced by metal cups and spoons; the hanging lamp with the elegant shade vanishes into the ceiling; the bit of landscape visible through the open cell door disappears to be replaced by a dull grey wall with rows of identical doors; the sunlit landscape seen through the picture window darkens; and finally the window itself vanishes behind a portion of the wall, signifying the final triumph of reality.

As in many of his dramas, Buero makes effective use of light and darkness. After the discovery of the dead man, the rainbow-hued light that emanated from the window disappears and a white light, which becomes harsher as wall panels hide various luxuries, marks the boundary between what remains of the reality Tomás sees and the reality the other prisoners see. When the curtain that Tomás believes conceals an elegant bathroom finally disappears above and the light in the corner comes up like that in the rest of the room, we see only a toilet without a lid. Tomás, who believed himself hidden, is seen squatting over the bowl. At this point he has lost his last refuge. The set prescribed by Buero, who was once a painter, thus becomes a metaphor.8

After leading us to identify emotionally with Tomás and to see the world through his eyes, Buero now invites us to reflect critically, along with the protagonist, upon the significance of this experience. For Buero Vallejo tragedy always implies both emotive identification and critical reflection since both are necessary to bring about the active contemplation for which he believes all art strives.9 Again, it is Asel who guides Tomás and the spectators as the former attempts to find answers to questions that are also his own. While realizing that his “Foundation” is not real, Tomás now asks himself if the rest of the world is any more real—if the prison, their suffering, death sentences, and even they themselves, are not equally illusory. If this is true, he wonders, why attempt to escape—as Asel wants them to do—only to discover another prison or a freedom that is equally deceptive? The only true freedom, Tomás reasons, would be to destroy the illusion, to find the authentic reality which, if it exists at all, must exist within their prison or within themselves, wherever they are and whatever happens to them. Asel agrees that perhaps nothing is more than a gigantic hologram, like the ones Tulio, the photographer, worked to perfect before being imprisoned.10 However Asel points out the inadequacy of Tomás' response:

asel.—Tal vez todo sea una inmensa ilusión. Quién sabe. Pero no lograremos la verdad que esconde dándole la espalda, sino hundiéndonos en ella. [ … ] Yo sé lo que te pasa en este momento.

tomás.—(Trémulo.) ¿El qué?

asel.—No es que desprecies la evasión como otra fantasía, sino que te acobardan sus riesgos. No es desdén ante un panorama quizá ficticio, sino temor. [ … ] [Duda cuanto quieras, pero no dejes de actuar. No podemos despreciar las pequeñas libertades engañosas que anhelamos aunque nos conduzcan a otra prisión. … Volveremos siempre a tu Fundación, o a la de fuera, si las menospreciamos. Y continuarán los dolores, las matanzas … ].

(p. 240)11

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. The fear that all life may be nothing but an illusion must not paralyze us and no progress, however limited, must be disdained. We move from one prison to another, from one illusion to another. But just as each of Tomás' responses to Asel's probing brought him one step closer to the realization that his “Foundation” was false, each step may bring us closer to reality. Only through action—represented symbolically by the excavation of the dark tunnel planned by Asel—can we hope to reach truth and freedom.

asel.—Has descubierto una gran verdad, aunque todavía no sea la definitiva verdad. [Yo la encontré hace años, cuando salí de una cárcel como ésta. Al principio, era un puro deleite: deambular sin trabas, engendrar un hijo. … Pero pronto noté que estaba en otra prisión.] Cuando has estado en la cárcel acabas por comprender que, vayas donde vayas, estás en la cárcel. Tú lo has comprendido sin llegar a escapar.

tomás.—Entonces …

asel.—¡Entonces hay que salir a la otra cárcel! (Pausa.) ¡Y cuando estés en ella, salir a otra, y de ésta a otra! La verdad te espera en todas, no en la inacción. Te esperaba aquí, pero sólo si te esforzabas en ver la mentira de la Fundación que imaginaste.

(pp. 240–241)

After journeying with Tomás from the comfortable “Foundation” to the inhospitable prison and after reflecting with him upon Asel's advice—that is, after emotional identification and critical distancing—we witness the former's efforts to overcome the obstacles of this newly discovered reality. After Tulio is called to be executed, Asel explains to Tomás and Lino his plan for their escape, an escape possible only if they are moved to certain basement cells which are used for punishment, that will require six nights of excavation and that must be finished under constant fear of their execution before its completion.

For Asel himself it is too late. The authorities, aware of his desire to be sent to the basement cells, call him for interrogation. Afraid that he will break under torture and reveal the truth, Asel then commits suicide in order that Tomás and Lino may have the opportunity to escape. Through his action to avoid betraying his comrades, Asel reveals himself as an idealist whose precursors are Silvano, the idealistic history professor of Aventura en lo gris (1963), who lets himself be killed by enemy soldiers in order to save an innocent child, and Eloy, the actor of Mito, who draws police fire upon himself to protect a companion.

After the death of Max, who is impetuously killed by Lino for having informed the authorities of Asel's desire to be taken to the basement cells, Tomás and Lino are summoned—to be led either to the basement from which the tunnel to freedom may be possible, or, more probably, to their execution. It is upon a lucid awareness of their situation that they base their hope. Having learned the necessity of action, Tomás decides that they will attempt the tunnel if given the opportunity. However, it will be with the realization that their dream may be only an illusion and with the resolve that, if death becomes his fate, he will accept it. Only after the worst possibilities have been confronted can human hope be genuine; only after the darkest tunnels have been excavated can ascent to the light be possible. Even if the two manage to survive, however, the world that awaits them outside will be a deceptive one that still attempts to blind them with its false lights instead of encouraging them to open their eyes.12

That this deceptive world continues is seen clearly when the Encargado appears once again dressed as a hotel manager to welcome new occupants of the cell, which is once again transformed into the comfortable room seen at the beginning of the drama. The spectators are thus invited to reenter the “Foundation” together with the new occupants as the drama begins all over. Will we enter or have we, through our identification with Tomás, begun to reach a new lucidity and commitment that will prevent us from closing our eyes, from being deceived by “Foundations” that alienate us? As Asel has reminded Tomás, one day even prisons will have televisions, books and music, and it will be difficult to remember that we are not free. Co-protagonists with Tomás of the drama we have witnessed on stage, we now become protagonists of our own dramas that we must live out in life. One critic observes: “La catarsis constituye, cara al héroe, el punto de llegada a la lucidez, y, cara al espectador, el punto de partida de la lucidez. Para ambos la existencia o la condición humana [ … ] arroja su máscara y desnuda su rostro. El héroe termina sabiendo y el espectador empieza a saber.”13

For Buero tragedy is always positive. The playwright himself explains the purpose of his dramas: “El pesimismo de salir para llegar a creer que la cárcel es una ‘Fundación’ … y la esperanza—¡incluso el optimismo!—de salir para comprender, y advertir a los demás, que la ‘Fundación’ es otra cárcel. Cuando eso se advierte, cuando se logra comunicar, las rejas se corren, la humana liberación empieza a ser realmente posible. Tragedias que se muestran para liberar, no para aplastar … Sí. Eso ha pretendido ser mi teatro, escrito frente a ‘Fundaciones’ que nos deforman, o nos miman, o nos anulan.”14

Both the “Foundation” and the Center of En la ardiente oscuridad are images of our world seen through the eyes of estrangement or alienation. In both a limited happiness is possible but only at the cost of a full life, i.e., of our freedom. It is against such repressive socio-political systems that blind us to our enslavement with the lure of material comforts that Asel has warned, speaking of prisons that will one day have luxuries. Both the “Foundation” and the Center of En la ardiente oscuridad are institutions founded on a lie.

It is precisely this revelation of a lie that is achieved through the effects of identification of “immersion” used in both dramas. In En la ardiente oscuridad we identify initially with the view of reality held by Carlos and the other students, who are content and happy in the belief that their blindness is normal until Ignacio makes them aware of the reality of their situation. By means of a slow blackout of the stage and house lights as well as of the stars shining in the distance Buero makes us share the students' newly-felt anguish. Ignacio's words to Carlos as he explains how sighted people close their eyes to imagine the horror of blindness insure the impact of this brief stage effect. At the end it is with Ignacio's view of reality that we, like Carlos, finally identify, as well as with the former's yearning for light.

In La Fundación we identify initially with Tomás' vision,15 then, however, we gradually come to realize that the vision of Asel and the other prisoners is the more valid. Neither Ignacio nor Asel has reached the light; neither has achieved a vision that is definitive. However Asel—perhaps a more mature Ignacio—has reached partial insights. His advice to Tomás to attempt the difficult tunnel represents a call to life. Asel thus combines the most positive qualities of Ignacio—his contemplative nature and his passion for truth—and of Carlos—his iron will and conviction that life, although harsh, is worth living. Just as Carlos inherits the intransigent realism and the idealism of Ignacio, Tomás makes his own the insights of Asel.16

In La Fundación, a much more complex and mature drama than the earlier one, the extended “immersion” effect permits us to experience the entire dialectical struggle within Tomás; his entire journey from alienation to lucidity. Moreover, at the end we share the new vision Tomás achieves as the set is dismantled, as Tomás' fictitious world crumbles and reality emerges. This is a vision not afforded us in the first drama. In La Fundación what we see when the process is completed is our own world, now exposed for what it always has been and still is despite our refusal to recognize it.

On the socio-political level La Fundación is Buero's response to the reality of Franco Spain—or any other country where man is not free.17 The drama thus expresses the profound solidarity that may come, paradoxically, to a great writer as the result of the distance and solitude demanded by his craft. This dialectical relationship is expressed in Asel's answer to Tomás' request for an explanation as to why they are in prison, condemned to death (a restatement of the question posed earlier by his subconscious: “¿Por qué es tan inhóspita la Fundación?”). Asel's explanation, his denunciation of a civilized world in which people are still condemned by secret tribunals and slaughtered for reasons of race, religion, dissidence or so-called subversion, is reminiscent of Eloy's indictment of contemporary civilization in Mito or Goya's description of Spain under Fernando VII in El sueño de la razón.

Nevertheless, Buero's conviction is that this world can be made as beautiful as we see it in our illusions. “[Has soñado muchas puerilidades],” Asel tells Tomás, “pero el paisaje que veías … es verdadero” (p. 241). This landscape, although it fades away like everything else Tomás sees in his delusion, can become the future: “Una deslumbradora evidencia. El mundo es ya un vergel … Los hombres lo han logrado al fin, amasando agonías, lágrimas” (p. 181). Tomás, in his delusion, believed that this future was theirs; however, El Hombre reminded him that it is yet to be achieved since the nightmare of the anthropoids has not ended. However, if achieved, this future will be more beautiful than a Turner landscape because it will be real.

The terrifying vision seen in Asel's denunciation of contemporary society must not paralyze us. The luminous Turner landscape into which our dark reality may be transformed represents a vision similar to those seen in prior Buero dramas. If La Fundación develops ideas that have their genesis in En la ardiente oscuridad, it also expands upon an ideal suggested in Aventura en lo gris,El sueño de la razón, and Mito. In the sordid grey reality of a country overrun by enemy soldiers, Silvano of Aventura … dreams a recurrent dream of green fields abundant with tranquil water and proud matrons and men like angles without wings. Goya speaks of a citadel in the hills beyond his villa, far removed from the cruelty and hate below, inhabited by flying men. Eloy of Mito sings of a distant galaxy at peace, whose inhabitants will one day sow our universe with seeds of grace. Such descriptions of the ideal are indeed a constant in Buero's tragedies. Furthermore, it is an ideal that is true, that cannot be destroyed. Asel explains: “El mundo es maravilloso. Y esa es nuestra fuerza. Podemos reconocer su belleza incluso desde aquí. Esta reja no puede destruirla” (p. 187). The drama thus expresses the playwright's hope for a better future which, even though hidden and glimpsed only through the eyes of delusion, may become reality.

In the dialectical process depicted metaphorically by the drama, the sordid reality of the prison vanquishes the imaginary “Foundation.” Nevertheless, the ideal—symbolized by the landscape beyond the window—remains, enriching the sordidness of our life in the prison or mouse's cage and suggesting a future liberation. In his delusion Tomás, like Irene of Irene o el tesoro, the Father of El tragaluz, or Julio of Llegada de los dioses, glimpses or envisions a facet of reality that reason cannot always illuminate. Nevertheless, this future liberation can be achieved only by recognizing the sordidness that surrounds us—by keeping our eyes open when we dream—and by acting to overcome it. Here we see one of the major ideas in Buero's tragic theater: the need for both contemplation—solitary by nature—and action in solidarity with others. It is through his dream (initially negative in that it is associated with his evasion of reality) that Tomás is finally led to the acceptance of the need for action. The same can be said of Eloy of Mito and Silvano of Aventura en lo gris, whose dreams lead to positive action to help save the future for generations to come. Tomás' vision of the sparkling landscape thus becomes part of the truth the drama imparts and symbolizes his hope for a better future, if not for himself, for future generations.18

This better future so ardently desired by Buero is possible only if individuals succeed in overcoming their egoism. La Fundación constitutes a judgment on contemporary society but also a meditation on the politics necessary to transform it. Asel explains to Tomás: “¡Debemos vivir! Para terminar con todas las atrocidades y todos los atropellos. [¡Con todos!] Pero … en tantos años terribles he visto lo difícil que es. Es la lucha peor: la lucha contra uno mismo. Combatientes juramentados a ejercer una violencia sin crueldad … e incapaces de separarlas, porque el enemigo tampoco las separa” (p. 220). In view of the tactics of the established order, historical violence employed to liberate may be necessary, but never cruelty. The murder of Max by Lino to avenge the execution of Tulio is condemned by Asel as unnecessary and even possibly counterproductive. Buero thus returns to the denunciation of cruelty and torture seen in such plays as La doble historia del doctor Valmy and Llegada de los dioses.

Efficacy depends upon moderation and prudence. “Prudencia, astucia, puesto que nos obligan a ello. Pero ni un error más,” states Tomás, who has learned the lessons of Asel. “Si no acertamos a separar la violencia de la crueldad seremos aplastados” (pp. 255–256). We have the right to become indignant at injustice, but overriding this is the duty to win. The necessity for caution and intelligence is a major idea in La detonación (1977), Buero's drama dealing with Larra. The writer is attacked as a moderate (as Buero himself has been) merely because, unlike Espronceda for example, he puts results over empty gestures and heroic stances, achieving the possible. Buero underscores the importance of each step, of each political gain, each concession won from an authoritarian regime—no matter how provisional or illusory—as we journey from one prison to another in a struggle for a freedom we must always work for despite our recognition that we may never achieve it completely. The hope with which La Fundación ends springs from the synthesis of Asel's insights, which are inherited by Tomás, and Lino's youthful determination.

If La Fundación is an attack upon socio-political systems that deceive and enslave—against the oppressive “Foundations” of our world and their ideology—it is, even more importantly, a parable of the human condition. The question “¿Por qué es tan inhóspita la Fundación?” must be answered not only on a political, but on a metaphysical level; the prisons that Buero speaks of are not only those that enslave the body but those that enslave the mind as well. La Fundación, like all tragedy, represents a search for the truth that may enable us to be spiritually free. For Buero all art represents an intuitive investigation of a reality that is not only physical but spiritual, a quest for meaning in an enigmatic world.

As we have seen, the passion for truth evinced in Buero's theater is often symbolized by light. It is a passion expressed most clearly in the well-known words of Ignacio of En la ardiente oscuridad: “¡Ver! Aunque sé que es imposible ¡ver! … No puedo conformarme.”19 That the vision for which Ignacio yearns is not merely physical but spiritual is clear, for he knows that if he could see the distant stars, “moriría de pesar por no poder alcanzarlas.”20 This yearning reappears in Mario of El tragaluz, Asel of the present play, and other characters who embody the playwright's own Unamunian passion for the absolute.

In La Fundación the symbolism of light and darkness is seen primarily in the discussion in which Tomás comments upon three paintings in the imaginary book of reproductions. The Turner painting, “un diamante de luz” almost as splendid as the landscape beyond the window, represents the truth and freedom that may exist at the end of the tunnel from the prison—the mouse's cage of another of the paintings. Buero's own preoccupation with light and the mystery it represents may be reflected in the third painting: Vermeer's “The Art of Painting.” Just as the artist seeks to capture this mystery on his canvas, so the playwright struggles to find it through his writing. (It is significant that in Las Meninas Buero makes Velázquez' questions about the meaning of light synonymous with his inquiry into the ultimate meaning of reality.) Since transformations of light peculiar to primitive lens systems are a striking feature of Vermeer's painting, the latter's work is not unrelated to the art of holography discussed by the prisoners. Holography represents still a further step in the search for the meaning of light. And although the world may be only an hologram or illusion, the truth behind this illusion, Buero suggests, must still be sought.

The journey from darkness to light is one in which appearances are deceptive. Like La vida es sueño,La Fundación deals with the confusion of dreams or illusions with reality as well as with the question of human freedom and its limitations. If Calderón's drama depicts the education of Segismundo, who is initially imprisoned in a dungeon, through his own experiences and the awakening of his conscience, Buero's drama shows a very similar process. A parallel process, of course, occurs in El Criticón. Buero's drama thus has deep roots in the best tradition of Spanish literature.

Given this human tendency toward delusion or self-deception, our journey, Buero suggests, must be gradual; we must proceed with the desperate hope that, with each step, our blindness will be less and our vision greater as we progress toward a truth that may never be definitive. This process has been Buero's own. His trajectory as a playwright represents a search for truth in which, if definitive answers have seldom been found, the questions at least have become clearer. Truth and freedom are never achieved instantaneously. The journey, his play suggests metaphorically, must be both inward (in Tomás' case to his own true past) and outward, through a universe that consists of a series of concentric prisons from which we must open tunnels toward an ever-brighter light. “Cuando has estado en la cárcel,” Asel has stated, “entonces hay que salir a la otra cárcel” (pp. 240–241). This journey is obviously similar in certain respects to the inward journey of the soul described by Santa Teresa de Jesús through concentric rooms until it meets God, whose light is perceived more brightly at each step of the way.21

In Buero's tragic theater—which is obviously existentialistic rather than dogmatic—this definitive light is not reached, if indeed it exists and is not a mere hologram. Asel declares that Tomás' luminous landscape is true; nevertheless, his words may indicate the former's desperate hope rather than any irrefutable affirmation on the part of the playwright. As in Calderón's play the solution is to be found in the acceptance of life and its responsibilities. Tomás' alienation—and our own—are thus condemned as inauthentic.

In summation, La Fundación, like En la ardiente oscuridad and other plays, represents Buero's attempt to unmask the institutions or “Foundations” that alienate us, to make us truly see. The playwright's attitude toward this struggle continues to be one of hope—a tragic hope encompassing both faith and doubt. It is the same hope he expressed early in his career when he stated that tragedy affirms nothing definitive regarding our limitations but rather proposes “el encuentro con aquellas verdades o, al menos, aquellas búsquedas que podrían, acaso, liberarnos de nuestras cegueras.”22 Even if Tomás is denied the opportunity to excavate the tunnel to freedom, there remains the hope that we, the spectators, may work at our own private tunnels. This lucid renewal of hope is precisely what Buero proposes to accomplish by the catharsis he achieves through the extended “immersion” effect in La Fundación—perhaps his most profound portrayal to date of the human condition.23


  1. This interpretation follows Jean-Paul Borel's in his Teatro de lo imposible (Madrid: Guadarrama, 1966), p. 241, and Ricardo Doménech's in his El teatro de Buero Vallejo (Madrid: Gredos, 1973), p. 53. See, also, the introduction to Hoy es fiesta, ed. Martha T. Halsey (Salamanca: Ed. Almar, 1978), pp. 9–39.

  2. Antonio Buero Vallejo, comments in Teatro español actual (Madrid: Fundación Juan March/Cátedra, 1977), p. 76.

  3. It is Doménech who first used this term in his book cited above, pp. 49–51. However, the most thorough study of this subject is the excellent article of Victor Dixon, “The ‘immersion-effect’ in the plays of Antonio Buero Vallejo,” in Themes in Drama 2: Drama and Mimesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 113–137.

  4. Emilio Bejel, “La Fundación de Buero Vallejo: ¿un holograma de un holograma?”, Kentucky Romance Quarterly, 25 (1978), 53. See also Bejel's “El proceso dialéctico en La Fundación de Buero Vallejo,” Cuadernos Americanos, 219 (1978), pp. 232–243.

  5. See Robert Sheehan's “Buero Vallejo as ‘el médico de su obra’,” Estreno, no. 2 (1975), pp. 18–22.

  6. Antonio Buero Vallejo, El concierto de San Ovidio. La Fundación (Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1977), pp. 140, 143. Colección Austral, no. 1569. Subsequent page numbers refer to this edition.

  7. Dixon, p. 131.

  8. Critics strongly praised the ingenious set designed for the opening of La Fundación, in 1974, by painter Vicent Vela. José María Claver states: “El aparato escénico [ … ] un decorado ‘activo,’ diríamos, con su alevoso giro de goznes; paneles metálicos en función de celosía, laberinto, guillotina y jaula, no puede ser más congruente y adecuado a la metamorfosis, de situación y de significado, en que la pieza abunda.” Review from Ya (January 17, 1974), reprinted in Teatro español 1973–74 (Madrid: 1975), p. 217.

  9. Buero Vallejo, “Sobre teatro,” Cuadernos de Agora, no. 79–82 (1963), p. 12.

  10. A hologram is a photograph of the light waves reflected by a laser-illuminated object. It is three-dimensional, just as real objects are. Buero employs this concept of images also in El tragaluz, where the two investigators from a future century project holograms, representing thoughts as well as actions, from a remote past, which is really our own present.

  11. Brackets around portions of the text indicate parts omitted during the play's performance in order to make it conform to the usual length of works presented in Spain, where there are two performances nightly.

  12. See Buero's comments in José Monleón, “Entrevista con A. Buero Vallejo,” Primer Acto, no. 167 (1974), p. 6.

  13. Francisco Ruiz Ramón, Historia del teatro español. Siglo XX. (Madrid, 1975), p. 383.

  14. José Monleón, “Entrevista con A. Buero Vallejo,” p. 13.

  15. It is, of course, well known that in many of Buero's dramas it is the character who suffers physical limitations who is the most perceptive. In many ways the blind David of El concierto de San Ovidio, the tormented Father of El tragaluz, the unbalanced Irene of Irene o el tesoro and the deaf Goya of El sueño de la razón, intuit certain realities which escape others who are considered normal. Here, however, it is the character with the physical limitations who is the most in error.

  16. Ignacio is the realist in that he insists upon facing the fact of his blindness; at the same time, however, he dares to dream the seemingly impossible: that the blind may some day see.

  17. The prison, like the beaterio of M. Recuerda's Las arrecogías del Beaterio de Santa María Egipciaca, is one of the clearest examples of the “espacio cerrado” that Francisco Ruiz Ramón considers one of the major structuring devices in the committed theater of the Franco era. See his Estudios de teatro español clásico y contemporáneo (Madrid: Fundación Juan March/Cátedra, 1978), pp. 195–214.

    The Center of En la ardiente oscuridad is, also, in many respects, a prison and it is significant that the idea for the play was conceived while Buero was incarcerated at the end of the Civil War for having fought on the Republican side. La Fundación draws even more heavily on this experience. Furthermore, it is obvious that for the political prisoners who, like Buero, were eventually released, Franco Spain represented still another prison. See Buero's comments in Javier Alfaya, “Antonio Buero Vallejo: En la ardiente lucidez,” La Calle (Madrid, September 25, 1979), and, also, the interview with J. Monleón cited in note 14.

  18. At a session of the MLA in December 1978, Buero related how, as a child of four, he thought he saw two sparkling jewels on top of the father's desk only to discover that they were merely round silver-plated finials at the ends of the volutes of an old-style ink well. Buero stated that this anecdote suggests the problem of any committed writer: “el de restaurar la verdad, [ … ] aunque ésta fuese fea; pero recuperando, al hacerlo, la más bella y sutil fantasía; es decir, volviéndose a apropiar del brillante.” “Respuesta de Antonio Buero Vallejo,” in Estreno, 4, no. 1 (Spring 1979), p. 11. This idea is quite relevant to the present drama. We must exchange the false “Foundations” that we create for the truth, but without rejecting our ideals or dreams—which are much “brighter” than the false lights of our contemporary world that lure and blind us to reality.

  19. En la ardiente oscuridad (Madrid: Escelicer, 1951), p. 30.

  20. Ibid., p. 60.

  21. Echoes of the Spanish mystics are obviously present in En la ardiente oscuridad, as the title itself shows.

  22. Buero, “Sobre la tragedia,” Entretiens sur les Lettres et les Arts, no. 22 (Rodez, France, 1963), p. 53. If Buero wrote tragedy about Spain in the difficult Franco era it was obviously because he did not resign himself to the irreconcilability of the situation. See his recent comments in “De mi teatro,” Romanistisches Jahrbuch, 30 (1979), p. 224.

  23. La Fundación is one of the three plays of Buero (the others are El concierto de San Ovidio and El sueño de la razón) that have achieved the greatest international acclaim, having been performed (often in the official state theater) in Rostock (German Democratic Republic), 1976; Kaposvar (Hungary), 1978; Timişoara (Hungary), 1977; Bucarest, 1978 (and later performed by the same Rumanian Company in Paris); Stockholm, 1977; Tampere (Finland), 1978; Helsinki, 1980–81; and Oslo, 1979. The reader may find of interest Buero's drawing captioned “El Dueso, sin el cual no se explica La Fundación” reproduced in Juan Emilio Aragonés, “Buero Vallejo, sin tapujos,” Nueva Estafeta, no. 30 (1981), pp. 52–61, as well as Buero's poem entitled “La Fundación” published in El Urogallo, no. 33 (Madrid, 1975), pp. 5–6.

    On this play, see also the following excellent articles: Peter L. Podol, “Reality Perception and Stage Setting in Griselda Gambaro's Las paredes and Antonio Buero Vallejo's La Fundación,Modern Drama, 24 (1981), pp. 44–53 and Robert Sheehan's “La Fundación: Idearium for the New Spain,” Modern Language Studies, 8 (1978), pp. 65–71.

The author wishes to thank the American Philosophical Society whose grant made this article possible.

Martha T. Halsey (essay date Fall 1987)

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SOURCE: “Dictatorship to Democracy in the Recent Theater of Buero Vallejo (La Fundación to Diáalogo secreto),” in Estreno, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Fall, 1987, pp. 9–15.

[In the following essay, Halsey analyzes how Buero Vallejo portrays Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy in his plays written in the 1970s and 1980s.]

Ricardo Doménech has demonstrated that Buero's entire theater up to 1971 constitutes a meditation on Spain.1 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. Therefore it is hardly surprising that Buero's dramas of the late 1970s and early 1980s deal with the problems of the nation's difficult transition from dictatorship to democracy. As a leftist writer who considers the theater not only a means of reflecting society but of transforming it, he has always found political ideology and action very appealing topics. Now, however, these themes move closer to the forefront and are dealt with much more explicitly.

In La Fundación (1974) Buero suggests that to achieve true freedom it is necessary to pass through a series of concentric prisons. It is obvious that, even before Franco's death, he is thinking ahead to the future transition as he underscores the importance of each small step or gain, no matter how seemingly illusory or provisional.

The “Foundation” or elegant research center seen by Tomás, a young political prisoner who suffers from a schizophrenic delusion, is really a prison. From the beginning of the drama, the set represents what Tomás sees—pleasantly furnished quarters and a sparkling landscape whose rainbow-hued light floods the room. Since the spectators are led to identify with him, they too become victims of a delusion. However, when they share also in his gradual return to lucidity, they obtain a clearer understanding of their own situation. Buero's message to the Spanish viewer of 1974 is clear. Tomás' “Foundation” is an image of Franco Spain seen through the eyes of estrangement. In Tomás' rejection of reality, the spectators are to confront their own refusal to see the reality of their own world. When Tomás' fictitious “Foundation” crumbles and reality emerges, they are to see Spain for what it is in 1974 and has been for some thirty-five years. In an interview, Buero speaks of “el pesimismo de salir para llegar a creer que la cárcel es una ‘Fundación’ … y la esperanza—¡incluso el optimismo!—de salir para comprender, y advertir a los demás, que la ‘Fundación’ es otra cárcel. Cuando eso es advierte, cuando se logra comunicar, las rejas se corren, la humana liberación empieza a ser realmente posible.”2

As a dramatist desirous of a clean break with the past, Buero renders a judgment upon Franco Spain, as well as other authoritarian systems that deceive and oppress—upon the “Foundations” of the world and their ideology. However he also suggests the politics necessary to transform Spain, to create a society as beautiful as the luminous Turner landscape Tomás believed he saw beyond a picture window. Buero clearly expresses hope for the future as Asel, the most mature prisoner and a clear author surrogate, tells Tomás: “Nunca olvides lo que voy a decirte. Has soñado muchas puerilidades, pero el paisaje que veías … es verdadero” (p. 240). The prison vanquishes the imaginary “Foundation”; but the ideal represented by the imaginary landscape remains. However, ideals must be put into action. Asel explains that the world outside is still another prison and that the struggle for freedom is a continuous process: “Cuando has estado en la cárcel acabas por comprender que, vayas donde vayas, estás en la cárcel. [ … ] ¡Entonces hay que salir a la otra cárcel! (Pausa). ¡Y cuando estés en ella, salir a otra, y de ésta, a otra!”3

When Tomás questions the wisdom of attempting to escape only to encounter a freedom as illusory and deceptive as his “Foundation,” Asel responds: “Duda cuanto quieras, pero no dejes de actuar. No podemos despreciar las pequeñas libertades engañosas que anhelamos aunque nos conduzcan a otra prisión … Volveremos siempre a tu Fundación, o a la de fuera, si las menospreciamos. Y continuarán los dolores, las matanzas” (p. 240). Fears, Buero suggests, must not paralyze Spaniards and no progress, however limited, can be disdained in the transition to democracy. He underscores the importance of each step, each concession won from an authoritarian regime as Spaniards begin to move toward the liberated society he believes possible.

La detonación (1977), Buero's first drama written and staged in post-Franco Spain, shows parallels between the times of José Mariano de Larra and the late 1970s. Since the last years of Ferdinand VII and the regency of María Cristina were a time of transition from authoritarianism to a liberal monarchy, the drama constitutes a valid mirror for the viewer of 1977. Both periods are times of political instability, ideological confusion, and changes that are only surface deep. “Vista de cerca la situación que estamos viviendo”, Buero stated in 1979, “presenta aún deficiencias de democratización y liberalización tan grandes que su parecido con la época postabsolutista vivida por Larra es notable.”4

An extended flashback permits the spectators to experience events of the ten years preceding Larra's suicide in 1837, to share with the tormented protagonist the actions, thoughts, and even dreams that he not only re-enacts but witnesses. The tragedy, which begins as Larra is seen holding the pistol to his head, takes the form of a phantasmagoric delirium. The audience is forced to share this delirium just as it shares Tomás' delusion in La Fundación. The nightmarish quality of the delirium is accentuated by a vertiginously frantic rhythm that accelerates as the end approaches, thus communicating the accumulation of events that crushed Larra's spirit.

Buero's Larra evinces the dramatist's own passion for truth in a time of falsehood and deception. The falsehood Larra sees is represented by masks worn by politicians and writers, masks that fall as Larra exposes the truth behind each of them. Of all his protagonists, Larra, who succeeds in fulfilling his mission as a critic of Spanish society in a time of absolutism and censorship, is the one with whom Buero most closely identifies. In the dialogue Buero intercalates relevant passages from Larra's political essays, although more often it is the spirit, rather than the letter, of the satirist that he communicates. Larra quotes himself and his disembodied voice provides still further commentary, the lucidity of which contrasts sharply to the delirium of his nightmare. This commentary constitutes a significant message and a warning.

Larra's attacks upon Absolutists who parade as Liberals when change is in the wind is as relevant to the late 1970s as to the 1830s. Indeed, Mesonero Romanos states that the best-known secret in Madrid is that the Liberals do not exist. Moreover, the words used by Larra to characterize Spain under Cea Bermúdez' ministry that Buero utilizes in his play could just as well refer to the situation in 1977: “‘Es decir, que más parece que se columpia, sin moverse de un sitio, que no que anda.’”5 Larra's attacks upon Martínez de la Rosa evince a controversy over reform versus authentic ruptura that finds its parallel in the very similar polemic during the initial transition governments of Arias and Suárez. The satirist mocks Martínez de la Rosa's 1834 Estatuto Real. Fearful of Absolutist reaction, on the one hand, and of anarchy, on the other, the Liberal minister compromised, limiting suffrage and adding an upper chamber to the Cortes. His politics of moderation—with its emphasis on order, the continuity in power of cabinet members who had served under Ferdinand, and reforms that were purely administrative—is not unlike the politics of the early post-Franco transition. Moreover, Larra's charge that the Liberals' refusal to recognize the fueros of the Basques prolonged the Carlist War, in which the latter, along with the clergy, supported the pretender, has special significance in 1977, when the problem of regional autonomy remains unsolved. Moreover, Larra points out that it is precisely the Liberals' failure to curb Carlism that led to the street violence and massacre of friars by mobs resentful of the government's impotence. In the words of Larra, Buero thus warns against unfounded fears and half-way measures that paralyze a nation, thwarting true progress.

The Moderados betrayed the hope for change; the Exaltados, the other Liberal party, were no different. The latter's limitation of suffrage to the wealthy and the disentailment of church properties in a way that put these lands in the hands of the highest bidders rather than the peasants under the minister Mendizábal, a wealthy financier, are indignantly denounced by Larra as betrayals of the common people. His words about the necessity for economic justice and for interesting the masses in the political process are as relevant during the present transition as then. Moreover, Larra unmasks the opportunism of Mendizábal and Istúriz—representatives of the mercantile interests of two different sectors of the middle class—that prevented them from working together to benefit the common people. The Exaltados or Progresistas succeeded only in creating a new system of injustices, “otra sustanciosa etapa de privilegios” (p. 151). Then as in the initial transition period of the 1970s, ministers alternated but nothing changed. Significantly all of the ministers are played by the same actor behind their different masks.

Larra's disillusionment leads him, together with other dissident Progresistas, to support Istúriz and to run for election to the Cortes—a decision that represents the sort of posibilismo Buero defends in La Fundación.6 Of course the uprising of the sergeants of the queen's guard at La Granja prevents the satirist from occupying the seat he wins. Moreover, Larra, who has supported a more advanced constitution for 1836 than for 1812, is branded a Moderate. As the flashback draws to its conclusion, Buero underscores Larra's desolation at seeing freedom betrayed from both right and left, Liberals divided by a deepening abyss, and his own political ambitions frustrated. Spain is but a mascarade of Absolutist-Liberal governments characterized by the same corruption, egoism, and—above all—hypocrisy. “‘El mundo todo es máscaras: todo el año es carnaval,’” states Larra near the end, quoting words as applicable to 1977 as to the 1830s. One reviewer states: “Este es el pesimismo radical de Buero, coincidente con el de Larra. [ … ] El espejo es claro: hombres y gobiernos se suceden, para que nada cambie. Frase: ‘Los liberales no existen. Todos son absolutistas cuando llegan al poder.’ Sólo el pueblo permanece inalterable victima.”7

It is this tragedy that results in Larra's suicide. The silent shot that plunges the stage into darkness is followed by a brief epilogue in which Larra's servant Pedro, who represents the voice of history, comments upon the futility of his master's suicide and the need for endless perseverance: It is Pedro, symbol of the common people, who will some day, as the real protagonist of Spain's history, resolve what Larra has denounced. Freedom succumbed in Larra's time. In La detonación, Buero expresses his hope that history will not be repeated as Spain commences the transition of the late 1970s. His drama represents “una súplica … para que se llegue a una vida democrática sin que suenen nuevas detonaciones.”8

In La detonación Buero portrays Liberals who become Absolutists when they attain power; in Jueces en la noche (1979), a drama dealing directly with the transition, he depicts Absolutists who pretend to be Liberals in order to attain power. Jueces analyzes the reality—every bit as phantasmagoric as in Larra's time—behind the facade of the initial transition period. Buero's purpose is to “machacar [ … ] las conciencias de un país engañado y que se dejaba engañar.”9

Jueces is the drama of a tránsfuga, Juan Luis Palacios, a former cabinet member under Franco who now serves as a diputado representing the centrist party in power. Although he has seemingly embraced democratic change and broken with the past, his true sentiments are probably those he expresses when he states: “Ahora todos tenemos que jugar esta partida miserable de la democracia, pero con la esperanza de recobrar un día la España verdadera. Y si para ello hay que llegar a la violencia, Dios nos perdonará.”10 When surprise is expressed at such words from one whose public image is that of a Liberal, the diputado's reply is especially revealing: “Hemos tenido que descubrir esta amarga verdad; cuando la libertad es mayor hay que ser más hipócritas” (p. 72).

In La detonación successive ministers wear a series of different masks that conceal an identical ideological posture. In Jueces, one politician dons different masks as the times change although his ideas remain basically the same. Moreover, in both dramas, party interests conceal desire for personal financial gain and political power. During the first years of Spain's evolution toward democracy, Fascism remains in power because key political roles are played by the same figures as before. Jueces reflects the pessimism of Spain's Left when the possibility of a democratic break with the past is thwarted by such politicians as Juan Luis who, although he mascarades as a Liberal when it is to his advantage, has yet to be really convinced of the virtues of democracy.

As the drama begins, Juan Luis faces the dilemma of whether to do his duty and denounce a terrorist plan to assassinate an important general for the purpose of provoking a military coup or remain silent to avoid having certain facts that would destroy his marriage come to light. He finally allows himself to be blackmailed; his wife, however, learns the truth about their marriage through other means and assumes her place among the victims that become Juan Luis' judges.

Jueces chronicles political problems which would have been difficult to treat earlier as directly as Buero does in the present play: the wave of terrorist activity, the possibility of a military coup, the danger of a return to Francoism, the activities of policías paralelas, the attitude of the army, etc. That the purpose of the rumored atentado is to discredit the Left will become obvious with the involvement of the ex-policeman who blackmails Juan Luis. The latter, himself, explains: “algo que parezca ejecutado por revolucionarios, y que acaso lo lleven a cabo verdaderos fanáticos de la extrema izquieda …, porque en sus organizaciones hayan sabido infiltrarse hábiles agentes” (p. 74). Buero thus suggests that the terrorism of the late 1970s and early 1980s is, to some extent at least, a continuation of the official, legally-sanctioned terror unleashed by the Franco regime, master-minded by the extreme Right and carried out with the complicity of politicians of the center, like Juan Luis, who remains silent.11 Its purpose is to destroy Spain's new democracy before it can be stabilized.

Like many Buero plays, Jueces constitutes a judgment. In this case the judgment is the protagonist's own. Juan Luis' fears that the ex-policeman will reveal his sordid past precipitate a crisis in which the diputado's victims—both past and present—summoned by his subconscious and converted into his judges, materialize in a series of four nightmares. These nightmares, like the delusion of La Fundación and the flashback of La detonación, permit the audience to enter the mind of the protagonist.12 In this “Misterio profano”—as Buero subtitles his drama—the phantoms or ghosts of the diputado's past that return to torment him assume the form of mysterious musicians of a string trio to play at his forthcoming twentieth wedding anniversary celebration. As will gradually become clear, they are his judges: the first, his wife's ex-fiancé, a young medical student who died in prison some years ago; the second, a political prisoner for whose execution Juan Luis voted; and the third, his wife, Julia. That the diputado already intuits his wife's place is with his victims is suggested by the empty chair with the abandoned viola, the notes of which sound together with those of the other two instruments during the three dreams that precede her suicide, as well as by the music of Julia's favorite piece, the joyous March from Beethoven's “Trio Serenade in D Major, Opus 8.”

Juan Luis' first two dreams deal with his wife's former fiancé. Fermín. In the initial dream, the musicians introduce a re-enactment of the diputado's deception of Julia some twenty years earlier, as the latter tricks her into believing that, under police torture, Fermín has falsely implicated her in illegal political activities. Then, with the aid of his ex-policeman friend, Ginés Pardo, he pretends to save her from arrest. Julia's loss of faith in Fermín and her marriage to Juan Luis occurred shortly thereafter. The second dream recalls Fermín's death as a result of being beaten by prison guards. However, the second dream not only evokes past events for which the diputado experiences guilt but anticipates the future as he sees himself forced to personally execute the general who will be the victim of the atentado—just as Larra, in his delirium, imagines himself obliged to fire on death squads on both sides in the Carlist conflict. The third dream introduces the story of Juan Luis' second victim, Elidio González, executed with the ex-minister's approval for alleged plans for sabotage and assassinations as well as unproved crimes during the Civil War some three decades earlier—even though those guilty of the greatest atrocities against the Loyalists were pardoned.13 “Durante años y años,” recalls the Cellist, “dos varas de medir” (p. 126).

The dream sequence constitutes a trial not only of the diputado but of an entire generation of Spaniards for their conduct during the Franco years. This trial is strongly reminiscent of that of Vicente in the earlier El tragaluz. In Jueces Buero suggests that Spaniards like Juan Luis must put behind them the Civil War of their childhood. “Creemos, como tú,” the Violinist tells the latter, “que hay que dejarla atrás” (p. 127). However, events of the following decades must be confronted and responsibility acknowledged. “A esos años sí hay que juzgarlos,” states the Violinist, “Y a los que en ellos se hicieron hombres” (p. 127).

To Juan Luis' first defense, that although he has committed errors, he has also created wealth and prosperity for his country, the Violinist responds by reminding him of his money in foreign banks. To the second defense, that he believes in democracy and will work to save it, the Violinist reacts by asking if he will notify the police of the atentado. Juan Luis shows himself unable to leave his past behind him. By the time the final dream begins the question posed by the Violinist has been answered. There remains only for the verdict to be delivered. Despite his remorse, Juan Luis is judged unfit to help build a democratic Spain because he has proved himself unable to break with the old one. This judgment obviously extends to all those Spaniards who, through their silence and passivity, stand in the way of progress toward democracy.

The dream ends as a radiant Julia enters to pick up the viola and bow and join the violinist in the trio as it begins the euphoric Beethoven March, the hymn to hope that Fermín has taught Julia to love. For Juan Luis her suicide thus represents the definitive victory of the rival he tried to destroy.

Jueces provides a microcosm of post-Franco Spain. The characters exemplify the forces or institutions playing key roles in the transition.14 Although the diputado has, like so many politicians, moved to the left within his party,15 he is more concerned with personal power and profit than with ideology. That his behavior has not changed is evinced by the favors that win his position with the multinational, Indelecsa. However, Buero does not present him as a totally negative figure, but, rather, a man of anguish, contradictions and doubts. It is precisely the problem of guilt and responsibility that gives Jueces—like La Fundación and La detonación—a universal dimension, as the protagonist attempts to come to grips with the voice or voices of his conscience.

Ginés Pardo, the ex-policeman who left the force to devote himself to “actividades paralelas,” is the professional agent provocateur responsible for various terrorist activities. Significantly enough he remarks that his former companions on the force are never very efficient in investigating such crimes because some of them do not want to be. The identity of the sinister forces—whether Spanish or international in origin—that Ginés represents is never revealed, although it is implied, of course, that they are Fascist. Buero treats the problem of Spain without masks of any kind. Nevertheless, he states that in Jueces “hay problemas [ … ] en que yo no puedo ni quiero ir más lejos, porque yo no tengo las claves de ellos. [ … ] Yo no puedo llegar más que adonde llego, presentando un problema, eso sí, muy real.”16 Don Jorge of Indelesca, which Juan Luis has defended in the Cortes, represents economic interests whose close ties to politics become clear when the latter consults him about the advisability of a move further left. Padre Anselmo, who supported Franco's cause, has changed to the extent that he would not now advise the execution of a political prisoner like Eladio González. Nevertheless, his failure to counsel Juan Luis to report the atentado reveals the same inner contradictions and inability to break with the past that characterize the latter.

Cristina, Fermín's companion in resistance during the dictatorship, represents the leftist activist who has remained faithful to her ideals. Just as Buero shows the humanity of his diputado, he points out the failings of the Left as Cristina speaks of “Impaciencia, oportunismo, sectarismo … Inmadurez, en suma, que ya cuidó muy bien el antiguo régimen de fomentar” (p. 56). Obviously Buero's purpose in Jueces is not to present a folletín of stereotypes that perpetuate the concept of a divided Spain. It is rather to underscore the continuing responsibility of all Spaniards. Speaking of the war and post-war period, the Cellist clearly states: “La sangre derramada nos mancha a todos. Entonces y después” (p. 126).

If Jueces constitutes a timely warning of the possibility of a coup (such as the one attempted just months after the play's premiere), Caimán, 1981, shows other important problems of the transition, together with the sense of desencanto typical of the time. The play's opening was attended by so many government ministers and political leaders that F. Umbral wrote: “La apertura del Parlamento, este año, ha tenido lugar en el teatro Reina Victoria. La primera sesión de Cortes ha sido el estreno, la otra noche, de la obra Caimán [ … ] Y no sólo porque en el teatro estuviese toda la clase política [ … ] sino porque la comedia plantea todos los problemas políticos y sociales de la actualidad.”17

Caimán depicts the problems of 1980 that Néstor, the political activist, enumerates as he speaks of the demonstration he has helped to organize “contra el paro, contra el terrorismo, contra las violaciones, contra las intentonas del fascismo.”18 All of these problems affect the lives of Néstor's wife, Rosa, and her neighbors in a poor district on the outskirts of Madrid. Rosa, who has become deranged since her young daughter fell through an opening to the sewers in an abandoned building site, believes that this daughter, whose body was never found, lives in an underground water garden similar to the one in a reproduction of the painting from Monet's Water Lilies series that hangs on the apartment wall. She imagines that her daughter, whom she and the audience hear speak in a series of hallucinations, will return to rescue her from the jaws of poverty and injustice that entrap her and her poor neighbors—just as, in an old Indian legend, the son of an ancient chieftain rescues his father unharmed from the jaws of the cayman that has swallowed him. Buero depicts a society that, as one critic states “grita desde la entraña del caimán por la salvación.”19

Rosa's husband Néstor, who like Asel of La Fundación has spent years in Franco's prisons, works actively for justice. He explains to Rosa that the legend of the cayman is poetry, not reality, that it exalts the impossible. Through Néstor—an author surrogate like Asel—Buero suggests that Spanish society of the transition must escape the cayman's jaws through sustained, collective action. The transformation of Spain into the genuine democracy of which so many have dreamed will come, not through miracles, but through the efforts of those Spaniards themselves who, like Néstor, work to make it possible. Rosa's refusal to face reality, like Tomás of La Fundación, is shown to be a grave error that leads only to failure as she meets her death attempting to join her daughter in the fantastic water garden. In Jueces, Cristina admonishes Julia: “No vale dar la espalda a los problemas que nos acosan” (p. 56); in Caimán, the message is summed up in Néstor's words to Rosa: “Lo primero que todos debemos hacer es afrontar la vida y trabajar” (p. 29).

The narrator, speaking from a future that is close to the end of our century, states that persons like Néstor represent hope: “son la salud y el ánimo frente a la desesperanza y el suicidio” (p. 108). Nevertheless Buero's conviction in Caimán—as in his entire theater—is that action without dreams or ideals is insufficient. As the drama ends, the narrator explains that Rosa's marvelous garden (which is not unlike Tomás' sparkling landscape) represents “otra luminosa fuerza sin la que el caimán tampoco podrá ser definitivamente vencido” (p. 108).

Diálogo secreto (1984), written after two years of Socialist government, presents a vision of Spain even bleaker than Caimán. In Diálogo, as in La detonación and especially Jueces, Buero condemns the falsehood and hypocrisy he finds prevalent in Spanish society. Like the politician of Jueces, who hides his real ideas, mascarading as a Liberal, Fabio of Diálogo, who is a renowned art critic, desperately conceals the fact that he has always been color blind and, thus, lived a lie. This lie is finally discovered by his daughter when a young artist she loves commits suicide after Fabio, who detested him, unjustly attacks his painting. The daughter then threatens to reveal her father's secret to the press. It is Fabio's constant fear of being discredited that occasions a series of “secret” or imaginary dialogues with his father in which he admits the truth that he refuses to acknowledge publicly. These “secret” dialogues thus reveal or make public to the audience the inner torment of the protagonist. “Vivir alerta ha sido mi cárcel,” Fabio confesses in words that might be used also to describe the plight of the protagonist of Jueces, “No soy más que mi pánico. El constante pánico de ser descubierto por todos.”20 The function of the imaginary conversations in this “fantasía”—as the play is subtitled—is thus identical to that of the delusion in La Fundación, the flashback in La detonación, and especially the nightmares in Jueces.

The imaginary dialogues take place before a large reproduction of Veláquez' famous painting, “Las hilianderas,” which is the subject of Fabio's current study or “Diálogo del Arte.” Since the reproduction's brilliant colors turn into lustreless ochre and sepia, gloomy browns and blues, when contemplated by Fabio, Buero forces the spectators to share the latter's limitation. More importantly, Buero utilizes the painting to underscore the universal dimension of this drama of contemporary Spain. Gazing at the figures of Arachne and Pallas Athene in front of the tapestry that the former dares to weave revealing the errors of the gods, Fabio identifies with the maiden, whom the goddess is seen turning into a spider.21 Significantly, Fabio declares that this punishment is not for presumption or ambition on Arachne's part but for deceit. In his “Diálogo del Arte” Fabio has Pallas state to Arachne that she is condemned “por mentirosa. Las lacras que les achacas a los dioses no son más que tus propias lacras” (p. 49). Fabio fears that, just as Pallas punishes Arachne, so his daughter will punish him for his lies in his criticism of the works of the painter whom he hated.

Despite his remorse and thoughts of suicide, Fabio, like the protagonist of Jueces, is incapable of confessing the truth. One character tells him: “Tu eres tu mentira. Si prescindes de ella, ¿qué serás?” (p. 117). A complex character as are all of Buero's protagonists, Fabio himself explains that it is not so much his shame that prevents him from revealing the truth as his yearning to attain the impossible. Fabio defines himself as “un amante de los colores que ignoro … Un irrevocable explorador de esa belleza para mí incomprensible que irisa las formas [ … ] El perseguidor de un mundo desconocido sin cuya posesión no puedo vivir” (p. 131). These words obviously recall those of the blind Ignacio of En la ardiente oscuridad and other of Buero's dreamers who struggle against physical limitations that are symbolic. In Buero's drama, Arachne is not condemned for striving to excel in her weaving nor Fabio for attempting to study art in spite of his handicap. Both are condemned for their lies.22

It is Gaspar, an old dissident who has spent more than twenty-four years in Franco's prisons, who makes clear the social implications of Buero's drama. His words underscore the collective dimension of Fabio's tragedy. Like the words of Asel of La Fundación and Néstor of Caimán, his words also constitute an important message to today's Spaniards, who are called to greater sincerity and authenticity. Gaspar explains to Fabio that deception is the norm in a society that deems it necessary to deceive or be deceived and that disclosure of the truth will not destroy him: “Es la solidaridad en el basurero. Al sinvergüenza le amparan los sinvergüenzas. Sonrisas maliciosas sí, hasta que líes el petate. Pero con un poco de cara, sigues adelante y hasta das conferencias sobre moral. Y te ponen una medalla” (p. 118). In 1981 Buero pictures a society caught in the jaws of the cayman, paralyzed by the problems that threaten it. In 1984 he describes his society in far more pessimistic terms: it is a “basurero.” Gaspar comments on this “basurero,” concluding with a sharp warning: “Está muy organizadito y hasta ha inventado las buenas maneras, pero es un cotarro de daltónicos [ … ] cada uno a su modo … Y entre todos nos está llevando a un pelo de la catástrofe” (p. 119).

Despite the pressures of society, Fabio must accept his share of guilt for he has deceived others, concealing his limitation and, what Gaspar condemns even more strongly, he has worked only for his own benefit, not society's. Buero contrasts Fabio's “solidaridad en el basurero” with Gaspar's ethics of true solidarity—which are also the ethics of Néstor in Caimán.

In Diálogo secreto, hope for the future rests with a new generation of Spaniards. Fabio's daughter Aurora inherits Gaspar's passion for truth—in much the same way as Tomás of La Fundación receives the legacy of Asel. Her name obviously suggests a new beginning, as does her final move from her parents' home. Like the young girl in the background of “Las hilanderas,” whose face is turned toward the viewer—and whom Fabio's wife mentions as the play concludes—Aurora seems to communicate a sense of hope.

Diálogo secreto, like Buero's other most recent plays, thus shows serious problems that still persist in Spain's transition. The plays of the decade 1974 to 1984 doubtlessly reflect the concerns of many Spaniards. In La Fundación the playwright suggests metaphorically the difficulties to be encountered in the transition period. In La detonación and Jueces he warns that violence in the form of civil conflict remains a grave possibility in the late 1970s. He charges, also, in the latter two plays that change is only surface deep and Spain's new democracy a façade. In Caimán the playwright focuses on the concrete problems of the early 1980s that result from this lack of substantive progress. In Diálogo Buero renders his harshest judgment yet, returning to one of his favorite themes: the hypocrisy of Spanish society so strongly condemned in Las Meninas (1960), a play constituting a veiled indictment of Franco Spain. However, Buero's attitude is not one of hopelessness. It is true that the sparkling landscape in which Asel of La Fundación asserts his faith seems far away. Nevertheless, Néstor of Caimán and others like him still work to achieve it, and Gaspar of Diálogo secreto reaffirms this commitment when he states to Aurora: “Es que hay que luchar por lo imposible. Aunque nos quedemos a medio camino” (p. 71). Indeed these latter words express a conviction central to Buero's entire theater.23


  1. See his El teatro de Buero Vallejo (Madrid: Gredos, 1973).

  2. José Monleón, “Entrevista con A. Buero Vallejo,” Primer Acto, No. 167 (1974), p. 13.

  3. Buero Vallejo, La Fundación. El Concierto de San Ovidio. (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1974), p. 241. For Buero's reactions to the Spanish society he encountered upon his own release from prison in 1947, see Javier Alfaya, “Antonio Buero Vallejo: En la ardiente lucidez,” La Calle (Madrid: September 25-October 1, 1979, pp. 42–44.

  4. “Deslinde e índole de la obra postfranquista de A. Buero Vallejo,” Bulletin de la Societé Belge des Professeurs d'Espagnol, No. 19 (December 1979), p. 4.

  5. Buero Vallejo, La detonación. Las palabras en la arena. (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1979), p. 106. This sentence is one of the many statements from Larra's own essays that Buero utilizes in the play.

    For a study of Buero's dramatic technique see Janet W. Díaz, “Buero Vallejo's La detonación,Estreno 5 No. 1 (1979), pp. 33–35.

  6. Istúriz' ministry represented the opportunity for younger men to share in shaping a new modern constitution. C. Alonso states of Larra: “Lo urgente era actuar con eficacia. Y ni a la izquierda ni a la derecha halló programa más aceptable que el de Istúriz.” See “Larra y Espronceda: Dos liberales impacientes,” in Literatura y poder.España 1834–1868 (Madrid; 1971), p. 54.

  7. José Antonio Gabriel y Galán, “El enigma de España siempre vence a Buero,” Nuevo Fotogramas, October 14, 1977.

  8. José Monelón, “Larra, Buero y nuestra época,” Triunío, No. 766 (October 1, 1977), pp. 38–39.

    Obviously Buero is to be counted among such recent admirers of Larra as Juan Goytisolo, historian Seco Serrano, C. Alonso, and Manuel Lloris. Nevertheless, unlike some of the above writers, Buero reveals the writer's defects and inner contradictions, reproaching him for intellectual pride, unconscious class prejudice, and the acceptance of class privileges incompatible with his politics—as well as for his suicide. See “‘No hay que suicidarse sino seguir viviendo’: Buero Vallejo estrena La detonación, sobre Larra,” Hoja Informativa de Literatura y Filología, No. 54 (Fundación Juan March, November 1977), pp. 4–5.

  9. Alfonso Gil, Commentary broadcast by Radio Exterior de España, October 4, 1979.

  10. Buero Vallejo, Jueces en la noche. Hoy es Fiesta (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1981), p. 72.

  11. This hypothesis reflects a theory often advanced by the Spanish Left.

  12. The protagonist thus becomes a first-person narrator as Luis Iglesias Feijoo has shown, although in Jueces the narration is broken by action taking place in the “real life” of the drama. See his La trayectoria dramática de Antonio Buero Vallejo (Santiago de Compostela, 1982). Feijoo shows how the more extensive use of these techniques in the dramas of the 1970s results in an increasingly subjective theater.

  13. There are obvious similarities with the case of Julián Grimau, executed despite international protests in 1963 after a trial described by several foreign lawyers as a tragic farce.

  14. Buero notes that his characters “aunque se puedan parecer a muchos personajes y figuras de la actualidad, no aluden directamente a ninguna a ellas. Son seres inventados.” Olga Alvarez, “Buero Vallejo: ‘La insuficiencia democrática culpable de la crisis,’” Blanco y Negro, October 16, 1979, p. 48.

  15. As Carlos García-Osuna states, the same progression “ha ocurrido con los principales adalides del franquismo que hoy lo son de la democracia,” El Imparcial, October 5, 1979, p. 22. Of course his words refer to the situation in 1979.

  16. Alfaya, La Calle, September-October 1, 1979, p. 42.

  17. Francisco Umbral, “Eurobuero,” El País, September 13, 1981, p. 24.

  18. Buero Vallejo, Caimán. Las cartas boca abajo (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1981), p. 54.

  19. Lorenzo López Sancho, “Caimán, una vuelta de Buero Vallejo al sainete melodramático y social,” ABC, September 12, 1981.

  20. Buero Vallejo, Diálogo secreto (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1985), p. 85.

  21. On the role of the painting see Margaret Jones' excellent “Psychological and Visual Plans in Buero Vallejo's Diálogo secreto,Estreno (Spring 1986), pp. 33–35.

  22. See Leopold de Luis, “Buero Vallejo y el mito de Arachne,” Anaquel (Badjoz), No. 1 (December 1984), p. 47.

  23. Buero's attitude during the Franco period was, also, one of hope. He states: “Cuando los escritores bajo el franquismo nos planteamos, sobre todo en el teatro, la inexorabilidad de la tragedia y lo necesario que era para nosotros escribirlas [ … ] ninguno de nosotros se resignaba a que la tragedia real que estábamos viviendo fuera una tragedia irreconciliable y sin esperanza.” “De mi teatro,” Romanistisches Jahrbuch, 30 (1979), pp. 223–24.

Eric Pennington (essay date Fall 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4833

SOURCE: “Art and Music in Buero Vallejo's Diálogo secreto,” in Hispanic Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 51–61.

[In the following essay, Pennington analyzes Buero Vallejo's use of art and music in Diálogo secreto, and asserts, “The art and music interpolated into the imagery of the drama betray serious, purposeful research and selection, and suggest other components of the play may be investigated with fruitful, valid results.”]

In Diálogo secreto, Antonio Buero Vallejo's recent play (1984), the dramaturge bombards the spectator with multiple themes and images which at first glance give the impression of having little in common. Coupled with the issue of critic versus creator, one hears a technical explanation of how perfectly complementary colors form white light; references to middle-class morality and revolutionary ideology are absorbed by an audience which also hears allusions to Calderón de la Barca, Ortega y Gasset, Velázquez, and El Greco; actual dialogues intertwine with imaginary ones and at times give way to flashbacks. Complicating further the baffling barrage, one person is a live character in the play as well as a stone bust to which people direct difficult questions; and another veridical character in the play also appears as an imagined personage with whom the protagonist converses. So disparate do much components of the play appear, that one is left to wonder if Buero, after more than thirty-five years as Spain's most prominent playwright, has not gone overboard with his means and messages in this case.

Part of the problem of critical interpretation lies in the fact that the dramatist employs in the play some visual and aural imagery which require close examination. For example, in the background of the stage setting, on the wall hangs a large copy of Velázquez' masterpiece, Las hilanderas. Iglesias Feijoo, in the Introducción of the Austral edition of the play, refers to the painting as an essential key to understanding completely this Fantasía en dos actos:

Toda consideración de la última producción del autor que no tuviese en cuenta la importancia conferida en ella a la pintura velazqueña y, en concreto, al cuadro de Las hilanderas sería forzosamente incompleta.1

This present study endeavors to demonstrate how the painting and the myth it depicts are inextricably linked to the exposition of one of the central themes of the play.2 Then the focus of this essay will shift to the music heard throughout the play to discern that the aural imagery reiterates a co-equal motif. Once these two elements of the play's imagery are scrutinized, other constituents of the drama begin to make more sense. For instance, Gaspar's ostensibly mindless, rambling remarks throughout the play will be seen to coincide with and buttress the theme underlined by the music and art. In the end, after cutting through the surface, it will be possible to appreciate that Buero is far from past his creative prime, and Diálogo secreto may be one of his most complex and unified works to date.

Since the play is new and the text only recently published and available in the United States, a significant portion of this study will be descriptive as well as evaluative. A synopsis, here, is in order. The play centers on the dilemma of a middle-aged art critic and historian (Fabio) who has risen to respectable fame and economic status. He lives comfortably in a contemporary Spanish home, surrounded by his wife (Teresa), father (Braulio), daughter (Aurora), and one of his father's old friends from the days of the Civil War (Gaspar). But Fabio's happiness and well-to-do professional position are built on a deception: he is color-blind and has revealed his deficiency to no one, though he believes his father must know.3 As the play opens, Fabio's lifelong cover-up has brought him to a state bordering on neurosis: he imagines himself talking secretly with his father in an effort to ascertain the patriarch's motives and reasoning for allowing him as a youth to pursue professions (art and, subsequently, art criticism) he was ill-equipped to master. Years of deception and insecurity have left Fabio unstable, as his “diálogos secretos” reveal. His fragile emotional condition is threatened more as he learns a young promising artist committed suicide following his latest published review of the painter's works. Though the critic admits to no regret regarding the incident, he is forced by circumstances to question the objectivity, or hypocrisy, of his articles. For the victim (Samuel Cosme) was known by Fabio and hated. He was the lover of Aurora, and Fabio had resolved to do anything to protect his only child from this drug-addicted, depressive mamarracho (p. 43). Fabio apparently acts out of love and concern for his daughter, but he receives the understandable hatred of Aurora. She resolves to determine whether her father actually is color-blind, as Cosme once suspected: “Este padre tuyo parece daltónico” (p. 81). She ultimately succeeds in uncovering his disability and gives an ultimatum: Fabio must compose a letter to his editors confessing his handicap, or Aurora will send the revelation herself. He refuses, his chief concern being not the disapproval of his peers or the public, but the loss of his wife's respect and love. When Teresa learns the truth, Fabio believes, she will have no desire to remain with him. As the play draws to a close, Aurora leaves home vowing never to return, after having disclosed Fabio's secret to Teresa. Presently, Fabio, when left alone, enters his study to commit suicide rather than face life without his wife's love.

Literally framing this action is Velázquez' painting, and one must first address the issue as to how the work of art relates to the plot and themes of the play. Perhaps more to the point, why is this particular painting hanging in Fabio's house? To respond to this query one should reflect that though the work is referred to in the play as Las hilanderas, the original title given by Velázquez was La fábula de Aracne, which may, therefore, be judged as the central allegory being communicated to the viewer.4 The painting is composed of two quite different scenes—in the foreground and in the upper background—but a number of art historians feel it actually depicts two episodes of the same story: the myth of Arachne—her weaving contest with and defeat by Pallas Athena.5 In the foreground of the painting some women of the working class are seated spinning or winding yarn. Most prominent are an older lady at the spinning wheel, and a younger woman placing thread on a spool with her back to the viewer. In the background, on a higher plane, is another group of women dressed as court ladies of Velázquez' era since, as Fabio explains, “El pintor traslada la fábula antigua a su actualidad, o sea a todos los tiempos” (p. 48). One person wears armor and has an arm raised as if to denounce a young woman farther in the background. For centuries the painting's subject has been the source of controversy and confusion. Some held it was a genre scene of the royal tapestry shops, others considered the armor-clad figure and the cowering girl part of the tapestry on the rear wall.6 The divergent interpretations have hardly diminished in the present century, but most pertinent to this study is the interpretation Buero chooses to incorporate in the play.7 Echoing Ortega y Gasset's opinion as to what the foreground symbolizes, Fabio sees the working women as the Fates: “las dueñas del tiempo en el primer término: las Moiras. Es decir, las Parcas. Ortega lo apuntó …” (p. 48).8 The action portrayed in the background is from the myth and represents the moment Athena turns Arachne into a spider at the conclusion of the competition. The two figures are not part of tapestry on the wall because it is a woven version of a well-known painting by Titian, The Rape of Europa, which hung in the court of Phillip IV during Velázquez' time.9 Fabio clarifies: “Esa hipótesis (that the figures are part of the tapestry) se desechó hace tiempo” (p. 47), and, “Se conoce el cuadro de ese tapiz y no hay tal figura” (p. 48).10

When attempting to establish the reasons a person chooses a painting to decorate a home one can presume the selection would be for positive purposes: the art communicates some message with which the owner identifies or, he or she simply likes it. A few comments by Fabio connote he, as art critic, feels a kinship with Pallas Athena as standard bearer of the arts (Athena was goddess of the domestic arts). In an attempt to explain his oftentimes harsh professional opinions he states: “La pintura se ha vuelto tan libre e imprevisible que apenas quedan criterios firmes para juzgarla” (p. 65); “Pero un crítico debe restaurar normas; está obligado a la severidad cuando es necesario” (pp. 65–66).11 Most likely, Velázquez' The Fable of Arachne reinforces or has reinforced for Fabio the moral necessity for someone to uphold artistic standards in a modern world lacking them. Such a person should also be unflinchingly severe in maintaining such “normas.” But as Diálogo secreto divulges, events internal (Fabio's secret dialogues) and external (Cosme's death), force the critic to reassess his figurative position as Athena. And as his secret begins to be exposed he increasingly sees himself as Arachne, shrinking before the all-knowing, condemning gaze of the goddess.

This new self-perception, wherein Fabio sees himself as the victim, is reinforced in the passage where he imagines Pallas saying, “No te castigo por ambiciosa. Por mentirosa” (p. 49). He realizes this denunciation applies to him. Iglesias Feijoo explains that as the play progresses Fabio identifies “más y más con la tejedora castigada por la diosa” (p. 28). Toward the end of the play the art critic recognizes Athena has conquered and he has become Arachne: “La araña que se encoge de vergüenza” (p. 84). Earlier one might have identified Fabio as Athena and Samuel Cosme as Arachne. But Fabio eventually assumes Cosme's position and, as the younger artist did, turns to suicide. In this role-change Aurora is seen incipiently as the punishing goddess and Fabio's earlier words, “Los dioses antiguos no tenían piedad” (p. 47), become a telltale foreshadowing of the bitterness and lack of mercy Fabio will experience later at the hands of his daughter.

Yet since it is apparent that Buero chose Velázquez' painting (distinctively as it treats the Fable of Arachne) as “símbolo central de la obra” (p. 26), it is necessary to apprehend completely the myth which Velázquez understood. Ovid's Metamorphoses was among the Baroque artist's personal reference books and it is widely believed that Velázquez used Ovid's classical version of the myth as his source material.12 Given Buero's penchant for meticulously researching and crafting his plays it would be informative to examine scrupulously Ovid's tale. All goes as generally understood: Arachne's talent and haughtiness, Athena's disguise and indignation, the weaving competition. But then Ovid's original version differs significantly from what one encounters in many references in art anthologies. The result of the contest is the question here. “Arachne lost, and to punish the girl, Athena turned her into a spider,” is one rendering.13 Or, Arachne is simply, “the mortal who dared to challenge the goddess to a competition in the art of weaving and, being the loser, was metamorphosed into a spider.”14 Again, in an article from The Art Bulletin: Arachne “was punished by being transformed into a spider.”15 Iglesias Feijoo, with his remark about “la Palas que destruye a una osada Aracne, víctima de su poder” (p. 27), sounds a consonant understanding of the myth (emphasis added in all quotes). But these interpretations or condensations of the myth are misleading. When the weaving contest concluded the goddess became enraged at the audacity of the mortal to depict the sins of the gods themselves. There is no indication of Arachne “losing” the competition: “Not Pallas, nor Envy himself could find a flaw in that work.”16 But Athena's wrath and indignation were enough to make the girl cower: “The wretched girl could not endure it, and put a noose about her bold neck.”17 Arachne thereupon committed suicide. Then in a display of compassion not normally attributed to her, the goddess acted quickly: “As she hung, Pallas lifted her in pity, and said: ‘Live on, indeed wicked girl, but hang thou still …’”18 By so saying Athena changed the young woman into a spider. But to term Arachne's metamorphosis a punishment is inaccurate. Pallas saved, or resurrected, Arachne, from a self-imposed castigation, and the goddess' action is described in the original Latin as miserata.

Once the Ovidian version of the myth is fully exposed, one can descry the parallels between the tale and the play. For Fabio, as Arachne, at the drama's climax enters his cubicle to take his life out of humiliation also, similar to the mythological girl. At this point he sees Teresa as the goddess who will condemn him: “Ella, tan verdadera, verá en mí, de pronto, a un bicho repelente” (p. 84). The door of his study closes, but his wife comes on the scene moments later, frantically intuiting what is happening. In one of the finest monologues of Buerian theater she turns toward the darkened cubicle and pleads that her husband return to her. With this highly emotional plea Teresa reveals she has known for years of Fabio's handicap and nevertheless continued to love him. Indeed, she consciously decided to suffer with him. Her words fall into the silent darkness until at last, almost completely drained of emotion, Teresa (with words analogous to Athena's) cries out, “Resucita, muerto mío” (p. 129). Then, in a significant departure from what Frank Casa designated “The Darkening Vision” of Buero's later plays, Fabio slowly emerges to embrace the love and constancy of a companion who has never faltered.19

By accepting Athena as a life-restoring goddess of compassion and grasping the formal similarities between her and Teresa, the motif of Woman as Savior begins to emanate from the play. This idea lies not only implicit in the painting on the rear wall, but also in the musical imagery permeating the action on stage. The only music heard throughout the drama is from Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman (El buque fantasma), Act Two, the “Spinner's Chorus.” A correlation between Arachne's weaving and the spinning of the woman in the opera is at once evident. But the full connection cannot be understood without comprehending the essential argument and theme of Wagner's opera. The story is based on a Romantic tale of a sailor who sells his soul to the devil in return for rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

But then the devil naturally endeavors to get the best of his bargains. In fact, the devil condemns him to sail on for ever, with one proviso. Every seven years the Dutchman is allowed to halt his ghostly vessel and try to win the heart of a faithful maiden upon dry land. If she will follow him even unto death, on board his ship, then Satan's curse can be lifted.20

The opera specifically deals with one such episode when the Dutchman's ship docks at a small port in Norway. Tempted by the Dutchman's riches, Captain Daland, who lives at the same port, invites the weary traveler to his house. The opening of Act Two is described thus: “In Daland's house the nurse Mary and some girls are spinning. Senta (Daland's daughter) is dreamily contemplating a portrait of the fabled Dutchman, and sings the ballad that tells his story, expressing her pity for his fate.”21

The music heard in Buero's play is from the song the girls sing as they weave, and the text of the music is as follows:

Hum and buzz, good wheel,
gaily, gaily turn!
Spin, spin a thousand threads,
good wheel, hum and buzz!
My love is out at sea,
he thinks of home
and his true maid;
my good wheel, hum and sing!(22)

From the words of the song and a knowledge of the opera's overall premise one can espy that the atmosphere implanted at the beginning of Act Two of the opera is one of longing, love, and dedication. Musically, the leitmotif of redemption (to blossom more fully later in Senta's ballad) is introduced in the “Spinners' Chorus,” and is “the thematic kernel of the work.”23 This music is heard intermittently throughout Diálogo secreto, and it seems plausible that the playwright is drawing parallels between Senta's love and dedication for the unfortunate Dutchman, and Teresa's unwavering affection for her troubled husband. Wagner considered Senta “the character from whom the drama really springs;” and, “woman in all her infinite femininity, woman as yet unknown but intuited, longed for—in short, the woman of the future,”24The Flying Dutchman turns out to be, as one music critic suggests, “a love story through music,” and, by association, one senses that Diálogo secreto is also.25 Therefore the music in Buero's play must be regarded more profoundly than as merely a reference or foreshadowing of death, which Iglesias Feijoo proposes in his Introducción (pp. 28–29). One could more likely defend an opposite stance that the “Spinners' Chorus” is symbolic of life and love. The redemption leitmotif introduced at the first of the Second Act is heard again as the opera concludes. Another music critic describes the moment as

A moment of victory, of the transfigured Dutchman and his redeemer. Clasped in each other's arms they rise in a vision above the wild sea that has brought death to one but deliverance to the other, and the music gently subsides as the woodwind, piano, play for the last time the languorous redemption motif.26

As Diálogo secreto ends, after Teresa has brought Fabio back from the brink of suicide, the “coro de las hilanderas” is heard (132). Linked by Wagner's leitmotif to the “moment of victory” described above, Buero's play also communicates a triumph of a sort as Fabio embraces his redeemer. Hence one can perceive that Wagner's music complements the myth of Arachne in calling to mind the same fundamental theme: the salvation of man through women the compassion and steadfast treue of woman in the face of her companion's suffering.27

Probably not coincidental is a reference in Diálogo secreto to another art masterpiece which hints at the identical intendment of the imagery discussed to this point. It is the passing remark about El Greco's El Expolio (The Disrobing of Christ) (p. 80). One of the remarkable features of the painting is the liberty the artist took in depicting the three woman dear to Jesus in the scene. There is no biblical justification for such a rendering, but El Greco was adamant when asked to remove the figures from the painting. Basing his artistic inspiration on Saint Bonaventure's Meditations on the Passion of Jesus Christ, the artist reasoned these three Marys, so staunch in their spiritual dedication to the Christ, should not be left out of a scene picturing Jesus' moment of greatest anguish.28 One tends not to doubt Buero knew the significance of this liberty by El Greco, given his knowledge of art (he originally studied to be an artist), and the fact he specifically, for some reason, makes reference to this painting. In a limited manner it ties in with the idea of woman as faithful companion in times of trial.

With the theme of the constancy and redemptive powers of woman coming into clearer focus some of the remarks of Gaspar become decipherable. Many times in the play the old iluso spouts phrases which appear to make little sense, until Teresa's stature is revealed. He rambles on, voicing such irrelevant comments, as “Las mujeres son lo mas grande del mundo. Ya quisiéramos nosotros …” (p. 66). Fabio upon hearing him, “menea la cabeza, lamentando su incoherencia” (p. 66). Gaspar soon repeats, “Son lo más grande del mundo … Sí … Ya lo creo” (p. 67). Later, “Si no fuera por las mujeres … ¡Ah! Sois de abrigo … Fuertes como panteras” (p. 72); and Teresa reports him saying, “Que las mujeres somos listas como diablos” (p. 91). Once the deception is revealed and Fabio unmasked, Gaspar takes a moment to speak privately with Teresa. The old revolutionary confides: “Teresa, tengo setenta años y no puedes echar a mala parte mis palabras. Ojalá hubiese encontrado a tiempo … una mujer como tú. Pero veinticuatro años de cárcel no dan muchas oportunidades … (p. 114). With a sad smile she thanks him and Gaspar concludes, “¡Qué compañera habrías sido!” (p. 114). Thus the old gentleman himself clarifies to a degree his earlier puzzling remarks and one sees his words reinforce the message of the art and music of the play while foreshadowing the climax.

Another passage of the play corroborates the thesis that one of the strongest themes of the play is Woman as Savior. We recall it was Gaspar's sister who brought him food to the prison during his war-time incarceration (p. 50). With these “paquetes de una hermana suya” (p. 50) he provided Fabio's father with enough nourishment that he might survive also. Braulio explains to his son, “Y por eso tú también le debes la vida” (p. 50). Indirectly, Fabio owes his life to one woman (Gaspar's sister), and directly to another—Teresa, after his brush with suicide.

It becomes transparent how Buero's play, then, is a figurative homage to woman.29 This concept is denoted in the images of the merciful Athena, Senta's pity and constancy, the dedication of the biblical Marys, the selfless acts of Gaspar's sister and, above all, in “la compasiva piedad de Teresa,” “el personaje más fuerte de todos” (p. 29). After being drawn from the archetypal cave of his study to a new state of awareness, Fabio signals his recognition of the monumental strength and love of such women when he admits to Teresa, “lo superior a mí que tú eres” (p. 130). And in a move of great symbolic importance he seats her on the diván, “en el mismo lugar que ocupó Braulio” (p. 130), when he would imagine himself talking to his father privately. The spectator is left to hope, because of this move, that Fabio's secret dialogues will soon dissolve, for he has finally accepted his wife as an equal partner—the complementary color with whom he may now form “la luz blanca” (p. 55) of honesty and truth.

As this study attempts to show, reports of Buero's artistic demise, specifically regarding Diálogo secreto, are exaggerated.30 John Kronik once said of El tragaluz, “a scrutiny of its formal elements shows that these are integrally related to the exposition of his (Buero's) theme,” conveying that the playwright knew exactly what he was doing in constructing a tightly woven whole.31 Every structure in that 1967 play was interrelated and nothing left to chance or coincidence. Diálogo secreto may not be far from a similar appraisal. The art and music interpolated into the imagery of the drama betray serious, purposeful research and selection, and suggest other components of the play may be investigated with fruitful, valid results. It is certainly clear the play merits more than being passed off as, “Ya visto, ya oído.”32 What initially seems to be a rehashed plethora of confusing images, themes, characterizations, and techniques is in reality a carefully polished gem from the workshop of a master craftsman at the height of his creative powers.


  1. Antonio Buero Vallejo, Diálogo secreto: Fantasía en dos actos, intro. Luis Iglesias Feijoo (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, Colección Austral, 1985), p. 25. All further references to this play, or to Iglesias Feijoo's Introducción, will be indicated in parenthesis in the text of this study.

    Iglesias Feijoo's statement that the painting must be understood to evaluate properly the play is undoubtedly correct. The approach of this present essay will be similar to David Herzberger's as he reviews the function of art in El sueño de la razón: “Unlike in a picture book, where illustrations often serve an augmentative function, safely paralleling what has been conveyed in language, Buero's incorporation of painting into Sueño creates an iconicity that defines the nature of the entire aesthetic enterprise.” Thus I endeavor to show how the art and music of Diálogo secreto “inform and structure the play.” See “The Painterly Vision of Buero Vallejo's El sueño de la razón,Symposium, 39, No. 2 (1985), 94, 103.

  2. See Leopoldo de Luis, “Buero Vallejo y el mito de Aracne,” Anaquel, No. 1 (Badajoz, Dec. 1984), pp. 46–47.

  3. A color-blind art critic is unlikely, but hardly inconceivable. See Eric Pennington, “La ceguera del crítico: Reexamining Buero's Premise in Diálogo secreto,Estreno, 12, No. 2 (1986), 2–3.

  4. Buero is aware of the original title of the painting, which he terms Fábula de Palas y Aracne (p. 37), but evidently opts to use the title Las hilanderas since that is how it is popularly known in Spain.

  5. In 1940 Enriqueta Harris was one of the first to see the classical allusion in the background of the Fable of Arachne. For in-depth background comments on the most prominent interpretations of the painting, see Madlyn Millner Kahr, “Velázquez' Las Hilanderas: A New Interpretation,” The Art Bulletin, 52 (1980), 376–85.

  6. Millner Kahr, pp. 376–78.

  7. One of the latest theories posits the painting has nothing to do with the Fable of Arachne, but takes as its source an engraving titled Lucretia Spinning With Her Maids by the Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius. Millner Kahr, 379–85.

  8. See José Ortega y Gasset, Obras completas, Vol. 8 (Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1962), pp. 481, 628–29, 646.

  9. See Dale Brown, The World of Velázquez 1599–1660 (New York: Time-Life Books, 1969), p. 142.

  10. In “Psychological and Visual Planes in Buero Vallejo's Diálogo secreto,Estreno, 12, Vol. 1. (1986), 34; Margaret Jones writes that the story of Arachne is the subject of the tapestry. As mentioned, art critics at one time did accept this theory as plausible, but Fabio, in any case, does not.

  11. There is a small linguistic link between Athena and Fabio also. Following her contest with Arachne the goddess beat the girl with the “boxwood shuttle” on the loom, that is, with a type of wooden instrument. See Mark P. O. Morford and Robert J. Lenardon, Classical Mythology (New York and London: Longman, 1977), p. 103. When Fabio comments on the severity of his review of Cosme's works, he refers to having delivered him a “varapalo,” a blow with a stick (p. 43). Figuratively, both Athena and Fabio dispose of their rivals by the same means.

  12. See Enriqueta Harris, Velázquez (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 160.

  13. Brown, p. 143

  14. Harris, p. 159

  15. Millner Kahr, 377.

  16. Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1946), Vol. I, p. 297.

  17. Ovid, p. 297.

  18. Ovid, p. 297.

  19. Casa's article charts the increasing violence and pessimism of Buero's plays since El sueño de la razón in 1970. See “The Darkening Vision: The Latter Plays of Buero Vallejo,” Estreno, 5, No. 1 (Spring 1979), 30–33. For the first time in many a play Buero's latest drama does not conclude tragically, although disaster is barely averted.

  20. Phillip Hodson, Who's Who in Wagner (New York: Macmillan, 1984), p. 35.

  21. Alan Blyth, Libretto Notes, The Flying Dutchman, by Richard Wagner, cond. Otto Klemperer, New Philharmonia Orchestra and B. B. C. Chorus, Angel, SCL-3730, n.d., p. 3.

  22. Blyth, Libretto, n. pag.

  23. Blyth, Libretto Notes, p. 2.

  24. Ronald Taylor, Richard Wagner: His Life, Art and Thought (New York: Taplinger, 1979), p. 63.

  25. Paul Bekker, Richard Wagner: His Life in His Work, trans. M. M. Bozman (New York: W. W. Norton, 1931), p. 127.

  26. Taylor, p. 62.

  27. This is the German term used to characterize Senta's love: “‘Faithful’ or ‘true unto death’ are hardly good renditions of Wagner's Treue. Utter dedication through empathy comes perhaps closest to an adequate translation of the word.” See Robert Raphael, Richard Wagner (New York: Twayne, 1969), p. 22. By extension the word characterizes Teresa's devotion.

  28. Jonathan Brown, et al., El Greco of Toledo (Boston: Little, Brown, 1982), pp. 232–33.

  29. Such a tribute is seen in Buero's La tejedora de sueños (1952) and Madrugada (1953). The playwright also cogently depicts the strength of woman in La doble historia del doctor Valmy (1964). See Eric Pennington, “La doble historia del doctor Valmy: A View from the Feminine,” Symposium, 40, No. 2 (1986), 131–139. Diálogo secreto however, must be deemed a culmination, in certain aspects. Nowhere has Buero expressed as explicitly the quasi-divine qualities or potential of woman.

  30. One critic states:

    La sensación es que Buero ha dejado pasar delante de él algunos buenos temas, pero que sus fantasmas personales, su desconfianza por las sutilezas y los matices del arte dramático, su necesidad perentoria de convencer a toda costa y la ceguera para los colores del arte dramático los han dejado ir intactos.

    See E. Haro Tecglen, “La-ceguera del autor,” rev. of Diálogo secreto, El País, 26 Aug. 1984, “Espectáculos” section, p. 30, col. 5. As I have shown, perhaps Buero is not the blind one. See note 3 of this study.

  31. John W. Kronik, “Buero Vallejo's El tragaluz and Man's Existence in History,” Hispanic Review, 41, No. 2 (Spring 1973), 371.

  32. See Juan Luis Veza, “Diálogo secreto. Ya visto, ya oído,” Reseña, No. 153 (Nov.–Dec. 1984), pp. 16–17.

John Philip Gabriele (essay date Fall–Winter 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4678

SOURCE: “Death and Dying in En la ardiente oscuridad,” in Language Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, Nos. 1–2, Fall–Winter, 1987, pp. 13–16, 19.

[In the following essay, Gabriele discusses the themes of life and death in Buero Vallejo's En la ardiente oscuridad.]

Out of the very love one bears to life one should wish death to be free, deliberate, and a matter neither of chance or of surprise,

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Numerous analyses have convincingly illustrated that the dramatic structure of Antonio Buero Vallejo's plays is often supported by otherwise non-dramatic elements which the playwright ingeniously incorporates into his works. In Las meninas and El sueño de la razón, for example, paintings not only serve the playwright in the development of theme and plot, but also help to structure the play.1 In El concierto de San Ovidio,El tragaluz and La doble historia del doctor Valmy, Buero employs yet another fine art, in this case music, in such a way as to allow the aural element to contribute significantly to the dramatic make-up of each play.2

Buero's choice of supportive material logically complements the subject matter he treats. Such is the case of the paintings in Las meninas or the music in El concierto de San Ovidio. Contrarily, there are times when the playwright's choice is less obvious. This can be said of El tragaluz where Buero's primary concern is the depiction of social and economic immobility. Regarding this play, Eric Pennington has demonstrated perceptively that even a passing reference to music—an element that has no apparent bearing on the theme—may function as an integral part of the dramatic framework.3 Observations such as this are testimony to Buero's skill and craftsmanship as a playwright.

Critics have identified several symbolic modes that constitute fundamental elements of Buerian tragedy. I refer particularly to light, darkness, vision and blindness.4 A number of Hispanists have also noted that two levels of reality may be distinguished in Buero's theatre. One critic writes that “Buero Vallejo creates two levels of reality, the material and the spiritual”.5 Another, Robert Nicholas, in speaking of En la ardiente oscuridad, states that “in addition to the surface realism”, the play “features a psychological realism”6. Noteworthy as well is that symbolism functions as an element of the “psychological” or “spiritual” facet of the world which Buero creates on the stage. Nicholas further observes that in En la ardiente oscuridad “Buero's depiction of Ignacio's deepest psychological motives and needs is achieved … through the evocative force of symbolism.”7

Buero's second play, En la ardiente oscuridad (1950), concerns itself with human existence, as does the corpus of his work. The symbols of light and darkness, vision and blindness abound in the play and have been sufficiently, if not exhaustively, treated by critics. The importance of each element to the play's theme and setting is all too evident, the characters are blind and the action transpires in a school for the blind. It is not my intention in the foregoing paragraphs to reconsider these elements but rather to focus on the broader opposition of life and death that unfolds within the play.

The development of action in En la ardiente oscuridad is analogous in many respects to the transition from life to death. Throughout the play, we detect the gradual, yet unmistakable, advent of death in the descriptions of the setting and characters as well as in the dialogue. The presence of death is obvious when one compares the lush foliage described in the stage directions for the opening scene (“Las ramas de los copudos árboles que en él hay se abren tras la barandilla, cuajadas de frondoso follage, que da al ambiente una gozosa claridad submarina”)8 to the barren and lifeless scene at the beginning of Act II (“Los árboles del fondo muestran ahora el esqueleto de sus ramas, sólo aquí y allá moteadas de hojas amarillas. En el suelo de la terraza abundan las hojas secas, que el viento trae y lleva” [p. 51]) and the final, somber funeral-parlor-like setting of Act III (“Cerca de la radio, una mesa con una lámpara portátil apagada. Sillones, veladores. Encendida la luz central” [p. 931]). Equating blindness with death on one or more occasions also suggests a lifeless atmosphere. One of the students, Miguelín, is initially introduced as “un estudiante jovencito y vivaz, que lleva gafas oscuras, porque sabe por experiencia que su vivacidad es penosa cuando las personas que ven la contrastan con sus ojos muertos (p. 4).” In contrasting Miguelín's liveliness to his “dead eyes”, blindness becomes analogous to death.

The most comprehensive presentation of death is associated with the development of Ignacio's character. The correlation between Ignacio and death is first revealed in his mode of dress. Upon arriving at the Center we are told that he “viste de negro intemporalmente” (p. 9). Later, Elisa points out that Ignacio seems distant, cold and bitter. “Cuando estaba con nosotras”, she claims, “me pareció percibir una sensación de ahogo, una desazón y una molestia … Y cuando le di la mano se acentuó terriblemente. Una ano seca …” (p. 38). And on yet another occasion she describes him as a “Cristo martirizado” (p. 65). Ultimately, Ignacio's rebellious behavior is defined in terms of a principle of death. This occurs in a final scene with Carlos:

CARLOS: Yo te explicaré lo que pasa: Tienes el instinto de la muerte, Dices que quieres ver … ¡Lo qye quieres es morir!

IGNACIO: Quizá … Quizá. Pueda que la muerte sea la única forma de consequir la definitive visión …

CARLOS: O la oscuridad definitiva. Pero es igual. Morir es lo que buscas, y no lo sabes, Morir y hacer morir a los demás. Por eso debes marcharte. ¡Yo defiendo la vida! ¡La vida de todos nosotros, que tú amenazas! Porque quiero vivirla a fondo, cumplirla, aunque no sea pacífica ni feliz. Aunque sea dura y amarga. ¡Pero la vida sabe a algo, nos reclama! (Pausa breve.) Todos luchábamos por aquí … hasta que tu viniste. ¡Márchate!

(pp. 108–109)

Several critics, in considering Ignacio's character, have made mention of the deep-seated anguish and psychological motives of his words and actions.9 While his behavior may be attributed to his refusal to accept the school's illusion of normalcy, no effort has been made to consider Ignacio's intransigence in light of the principle of death he so staunchly upholds. In view of the correlation previously established between Ignacio and death, and recognizing that his only physical impairment is his blindness, I maintain that a closer analysis of the character's behavioral pattern reveals a specific psychological and attitudinal criterium most often associated with individuals faced with the inevitability of death.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her study titled On Death and Dying discusses five different stages of behavior in terminally ill patients.10 The clinical data gathered by Kübler-Ross is useful in understanding Ignacio's personality in En la ardiente oscuridad. Characteristic of Ignacio's personality is the obstinate and abrasive behavior he displays at the beginning of the play, a behavior which eventually alienates him from the other students. Upon his arrival at the school Ignacio is quick to disapprove of the institution's norms. Refusing to adopt the routine familiar to the students, he criticizes the use of such words as invidente to refer to the students while openly proclaiming his blindness: “Dejadme, Yo … soy un pobre ciego” (p. 10).

When Carlos and Juana suggest that Ignacio give up his white cane he reproaches them vehemently, reiterating his unwillingness to conform to their superficial way of life: “No, no. Yo … soy algo torpe para andar sin él. Y no os molestéis tampoco en enseñarme el edificio. No lo aprendería” (p. 24).11 And Andres' congenial invitation to join him in a cigarette meets with similar rebuke. “¿Para qué fumar?” replies Ignacio. “Para imitar a los videntes?” (p. 58). The reason for Ignacio's negative disposition is not clear, however. He himself suggests the defiance is more the result of a deep personal desire to see than a direct attack at the school's norms. “Aunque sé que es imposible, ¡ver! Aunque en este deseo se consuma estérilmente mi vida entera”, he exclaims, “¡quiero ver! No puedo conformarme. No debemos conformarnos. ¡Y menos sonreír! Y resignarse con vuestra estúpida alegría de ciegos, ¡nunca! Y aunque no haya mujer de corazón que sea capaz de acompañarme en mi calvario, marcharé solo, negándome a vivir resignado, ¡porque quiero ver!” (p. 50). Likening his non-conformity to intense mental anguish (“un calvario”) the image Ignacio invokes is one of suffering and solitude.

The first recognizable stage in the behavioral pattern of a terminally ill patient is known as “denial and isolation” which, according to Kübler-Ross, is “used by almost all patients, not only during the first stages of illness or following confrontation, but also later on from time to time.” Initial reaction to the hopeless prognosis of their condition often takes the form of obstinate behavior and a desire to be left alone. She explains that “denial is a temporary defense and will soon be replaced by partial acceptance.” It “functions as a buffer after unexpected shocking news, allows the patient to collect himself and, with time, mobilize other, less radical defenses” (pp. 35–36). In addition, Kübler-Ross records in her findings that “anxiety and fear of impending death” is in many cases overcome with the help of a therapist (p. 41).

Ignacio's stubbornness is accompanied by a volatile temperament as witnessed in frequent and unanticipated outbursts of anger. In Act I Juana's compassion and concern meet with unfounded animosity. When she suggests to Ignacio that what he needs is a good friend he can talk to about his problems he responds shouting “¡Calla! Todos tenéis el acierto de crisparme: ¡Y tú también! ¡Tú la primera!” (p. 44). Later in a scene with Carlos, Ignacio's anger surfaces once again with no seeming provocation from Carlos. Carlos proposes that Ignacio remain at the school and contribute to the deception in an effort to maintain stability within the institution. Ignacio reacts with explosive opposition and rage: “A mí no me interesa! Eate Centro está fundado sobre una mentira. ¡No discutiremos nada! No hay acuerdo posible entre tú y yo. Hablaré lo que quiera y no renunciaré a ninguna conquista que se me ponga en el camino. ¡A ninguna! (p. 80–81). Ignacio's impulsive nature is also exposed through numerous words and expressions such as furioso, sumido [Ignacio] en su amargura, violento, quizá al borde del llanto and accionando para él solo, con sus manos llenas de anhelo y violencia, used repeatedly to refer to him.

Kübler-Ross designates ‘anger’ as the second phase in the behavioral development of the terminally ill patient. Regarding this stage, she explains that it is difficult for others to cope with the patient's anger because the “anger is displaced in all directions and projected on to the environment at times almost at random” and “has originally nothing to do with the people who become the target of the anger” (pp. 44–46). The diagnosis is an appropriate, if not factual, evaluation of Ignacio's treatment of Juana.

Ignacio reveals symptoms comparable to those detected in the psychological development of terminally ill patients. Ignacio's recalcitrant behavior and sudden outbursts of anger correspond respectively to the first and second stages discussed by Kübler-Ross. Another parallel may be found in Ignacio's relationship with Juana. When Ignacio arrives at the school Don Pablo gives Juana advice for dealing with him. He explains to her that “hay que convencerle que es un ser útil y de que tiene abiertos todos los caminos, si se atreve. Es cierto que aquí tiene el ejemplo, pero hay que administrárselo con tacto, y al talento de ustedes … recomiendo … la creación de una camaradería verdadera, que le alegre el corazón … Los muchachos de esta tipo están hambrientos de cariño y alegría y no suelen rechazarlos cuando se saben romper sus murallas interiores” (p. 35). What Don Pablo prescribes has definite therapeutic overtones and in fact echoes Kübler-Ross' own words regarding the importance of a therapist whose primary goal is to help patients forget “reality for a while” and allow them to “function as creative” individuals (p. 41). In considering the congeniality, compassion and understanding that Juana shows Ignacio, we might very well consider her treatment of him as a form of therapy.

Ignacio's relationship with Juana illustrates yet another feature of the psychological behavior of terminally ill patients as diagnosed by Kübler-Ross. Stage three is considered a transitional stage and is referred to as “bargaining”. According to Kübler-Ross, this constitutes a period in the patient's confrontation with the idea of death in which he or she seeks to “postpone the inevitable” (p. 73). In Juana's initial meeting with Ignacio she pleads with him to remain at the school and accept the way of living it promotes. The scene has all the markings of a bargaining session:

IGNACIO: ¡Al diablo todas, y tú de capitana! ¡Quédate con tu alegría; con tu Carlos, muy bueno no, muy sabio … y completamente tonto, porque se cree alegre … Y como él, Miguelín, y don Pablo, y todos … ¡Todos! … ¡Ciegos! ¡Ciegos, y no invidentes, imbéciles!

JUANA: No sé qué decirte … Ni quiero mentirte tampoco … Pero respeta y agradece al menos üuestro buen deseo. ¡Quédate! Prueba …


JUANA: ¡Por favor! No puedes marcharte solo ahora, sería ascandaloso. Y yo … no acierto con las palabras. No sé cómo podría convencerta.

IGNACIO: No puedes convencerme.

JUANA: (Con las manos juntas, alterada.) No te vayas. Soy muy torpe, lo comprendo … Tú aciertas a darme la sensación de mi impotancia … Si te vas, todos sabrán que hablé contigo y no conseguí nada. ¡Quédate!

IGNACIO: ¡Vanidosa!

JUANA: (Condolida.) No es vanidad, Ignacio. ¿Quieres que te lo pida de rodillas?

IGNACIO: (Muy frío.) ¿Para qué de rodillas? Dicen que ese gesto causa mucha impresión a los videntes … Pero nosotros no lo vemos. No seas tonta; no hables de cosas que desconoces, no imites a los que viven de verdad. ¡Y ahórrame tu desagradable debilidad, por favor! (Gran pausa.) Ma quedo.

JUANA: ¡Gracias!

IGNACIO: ¿Gracias? Hacéis mal negocio.

(pp. 47–48)

Juana's pleading meets with the usual sarcasm and scorn. Though Ignacio ultimately decides to remain at the school, there is no noticeable change in his outlook or disposition.

The previously discussed points are by far the most visible features of Ignacio's behavior. Nevertheless there remain two less conspicuous aspects of his character to be discussed. As mentioned before, Kübler-Ross studies five distinct stages in the behavioral pattern of terminally ill patients. The fourth and fifth stages are termed depression and acceptance respectively, Kübler-Ross points out that “encouragements and reassurances are not meaningful” during stage four and that the “patient should not be encouraged to look at the sunny side of things, as this would mean that he should not contemplate his impending death”, concluding that “it would be contraindicated to tall him not to be sad” (p. 77). Furthermore, she observes that the patient is noticeably less vocal about his opposition and characteristically he or she will display signs of melancholy which are indicative of phase five: “acceptance”.

By the final phase “the patient will have been able to express his previous feelings, his envy, … his anger … and will contemplate his coming end with a certain degree of quiet expectation.” He will be tired … he will have a need to doze off or to sleep often …” Nevertheless, “this is not a sleep of avoidance … it is not a resigned and hopeless ‘giving up’, a sense of ‘what's the use’ or ‘I just cannot fight any longer’ (p. 99). It is, on the other hand, a period of “void of feelings” in which “the patient has found some peace and acceptance” recognizing that the “struggle is over” (p. 100).

Several points of behavior pertaining to stages four and five coincide with Ignacio's emotional stage as witnessed toward the end of the play. Unlike the violent outbursts at the beginning of the play, in Act II there are moments when Ignacio reiterates his opposition while maintaining total composure. He tells Carlos, “No intento nada. Me limito a ser sincero, y ese contagio de que me hablas no as nada más que el despertar de la sinceridad de cada cual. Me parece muy conveniente, porqua aquí había muy poca. ¿Quieres decirme, en cambio, qué derecho te asiste para recomendar constantemente la alegría, el optimismo y todas esas zarandajas?” (p. 79).

The stage directions are equally indicative of Ignacio's vanishing determinism. At the end of Act II we read that “Ignacio queda solo. Silba, melancólicamente, unas notas del adagio del ‘Claro de luna’. A poco apoya las manos en el bastón y reclina la cabeza” (p. 81). His behavior begins to show definite signs of resignation and acceptance. In his final confrontation with Carlos, Ignacio intimates that death is the ultimate solution to his dilemma (“puede ser que la muerte sea la única forma de conseguir la definitiva visión …” [p. 108]) which in turn suggests his acceptance of death. The final description of Ignacio and the last words he speaks before his death reveal a note of serenity and composure previously undetected: “(Cansado.) No díacutamos más. Y dispensa mis ironías. No me agradan, pero tú me provocas demasiado. Lo siento. … La noche está muy agradable y quiero cansarme un poco antes de dormir. (Serio.) Las maravillosas estrellas verterán su luz para mi aunque no las vea” (p. 111).

For many critics, the ultimate message of En la ardiente oscuridad is one of hope. This provides yet another parallel between Ignacio's personality and the data compiled by Kübler-Ross. I have shown that it is possible to trace the psychological development of Ignacio's behavior in light of the five different stages discussed by Kübler-Ross in her study on terminally ill patients. These phases may be viewed as a series of defense mechanisms used by the patient when faced with tragic news of the inevitable and may last for different periods or exist side by side. According to Kübler-Ross, “the one thing that usually persists through all these stages is hope” which maintains the patient “through days, weeks or months of suffering” (pp. 122–123).

Whether on a human or metaphysical plane, the idea of hope is an essential element within the organic make-up of Buerian tragedy in that it plays a crucial role with regard to the protagonists on his road to awareness. Buero sees hope as a constant in man's life. Man, as a spiritual being, cannot exist without hope.12 Though failure may be imminent in searching for his authentic existence, the Buerian protagonist is sustained in his struggle by hope. Ignacio, rebelling against his irreparable physical condition, is driven throughout the play by his “burning desire” to see (hope). The most lucid symbol of this hope are stars glittering in the distant heavens to which Ignacio draws our attention shortly before dying (p. 111).

For Buero Vallejo, tragic is always positive. Through it he seeks to ennoble the individual.13 In this particular play, the tragic conflict and the cathartic experience are inextricably linked to Ignacio's and Carlos' antagonistic relationship.14 Here again, close scrutiny of the behavioral pattern of the character can be helpful in tracing the development of the playwright's tragic vision. To this end let us now consider briefly certain facts concerning Carlos' personality in the light of what we have already disclosed with regard to Ignacio.

Though initially Ignacio's most stalwart opponent, descriptions of Carlos as early as Act I reflect a behavioral pattern similar to the one displayed by Ignacio. Shortly before the end of Act I, references to Carlos suggested that his self-assurance was faltering, yet he continued to reveal elements of denial and isolation (“Carlos pierde su instintiva seguridad; se siente extrañamente solo. Ciego, … [p. 50]). This initial allusion to insecurity eventually becomes an open admission of the undeniable limitations of the students in the school. Where once Carlos denied the reality of the situation within the institution, he soon dispels any and all illusions declaring, “¡Basta! Luz, visión … Palabras vacías. ¡Nosotros estamos ciegos!” (p. 106). We are made aware of changes in Carlos' emotional state as the play progresses. Worlds and expressions such as, “en el colmo de la desesperación”, “violento”, and “con rabia contenida”, used more frequently to refer to Carlos, indicate a change in his attitudes. In other instances we detect signs of depression. One of the final stage directions reads, “él [Carlos] melancólico y ella [Juana] vibrando” (p. 129). In the final moments of the play when Doña Pepita makes an effort to elicit a confession from Carlos regarding Ignacio's death he displays inordinate hostility toward her. Once again he openly refutes the illusion he originally nurtured, declaring that “sight does not exist” in the school:

DORA PEPITA: (Lívida.) Es usted cruel … No lo seré yo tanto. Porque, hace media hora, yo trabajaba aquí, y pudo ocurrirseme levantarme para mirar por el ventanal. No le hice. Acaso, de hacerlo, habría visto a alguién que subía las escaleras del tobogán cargado con el cuerpo de Ignacio … ¡Ignacio, desvanecido o quizá ya muerto! (Pausa.) Luego, desde arriba, se precipita el cuerpo …, sin temer la precaución de pensar en los ojos de los demás. Siempre olvidamos la vista ajena. Sólo Ignacio pensaba en ella. (Pausa.) Pero yo no vi nada, porque me no levanté. (Aguarda, espiando su rostro.)

CARLOS: ¡No, no vio nada! Y aunque se hubiese levantado y hubiese creído ver … (Con infinito desprecio.) ¡Qué es la vista? ¿Cómo se atreve a invocar el testimonio de sus ojos? ¡Sus ojos! ¡Bah!

DORA PEPITA: (Llorosa.) Hijo mío, no es bueno ser tan duro.

CARLOS: ¡Déjeme! ¡Y no intenta vencerme con sus repugnantes argucias femenías! (p. 135).

The scene serves to demonstrate that Carlos' view of reality has been drastically altered. It is now Carlos who attacks outright the school's illusion of normalcy. As such this represents an essential phase in the realization of the cathartic experience. Moreover, Doña Pepita's display of concern and Carlos' unfounded hostility recall similar moments between Ignacio y Juana designated the “bargaining” phase in accordance with Kübler-Ross' data. It is, however, in the closing lines of the play where it is most evident that the tragic conflict and Ignacio's resulting death has moved Carlos to resignation and acceptance. Alone with Ignacio's lifeless body and “en la suprema amargura de su soledad irremediable”, Carlos utters words that echo sentiments expressed by Ignacio before his own death: “… Y ahora están brillando las estrellas con todo su esplendor, y los videntes gozan de su presencia maravillosa. Esos mundos lejanísimos están ahí, tras los cristales … (Sus [Carlos'] manos como las alas de un pájaro herido, tiemblan y repiquetean contra la carcel misteriosa del cristal.) ¡Al alcance de nuestra vida! …, si la tuviéramos …” (p. 137).

One of the overriding themes of Buero's theatre is man's unwillingness to confront the reality of his situation. The various stages of development in Ignacio's (and Carlos', though to a lesser extent) behavior as witnessed in En la ardiente oscuridad is demonstrative of the transition from denial of the inevitable to acceptance, of life to death. Hence a study of Ignacio's character in light of the data put forth by Kübler-Ross is altogether appropriate. Ignacio is beset by profound internal strife which stems from the opposition of a “burning desire” to see and the tragic realization that such a wish will never become reality. It is this conflict that leads Ignacio to his death or, as he puts it, that “no me deja vivir” (p. 49). The same may be said of Carlos whose behavior develops in a pattern similar to Ignacio's, though less explicitly so. While Carlos insists on the use of “invidente” instead of “ciego” and the notion that the norms must be respected for the sake of stability in the school, his desire to see is no less compelling. Ignacio's resistance to the school's illusion of normalcy is as strong as Carlos' defense of it. As so many critics have indicated, both speak of sight: one symbolic, the other physical. Each challenges the other's view of reality. Neither is willfully compromising. When Ignacio is removed from the scene, the process of awareness is transferred to Carlos and so, too, is the tragic vision.

It is a well-known fact that Buero is a careful researcher of his subject matter. Though undoubtedly familiar with the behavior of individuals blind since birth, I would hesitate to speculate on whether Buero availed himself of attitudinal studies regarding patients faced with the hopeless prognosis of a terminal illness while composing En la ardiente oscuridad. One fact does remain. In demonstrating that Ignacio's character follows a particular developmental pattern, it has been my intention to elaborate further on Buero's unique skill in conveying the various dimensions of the tragic experience through the plight of the tragic hero.


  1. Regarding the importance of visual imagery in Buero's works, see Ida Molina, “Authority versus Truth in Las meninas and Galileo”, HISPANÓFILA, 57 (1976), pp. 61–64; Fermín de Urmenta, “Antonio Buero Vallejo o el teatro pictórico moderno”, Revista de Ideas Estéticas, 28, 112 (1970), pp. 301–03; and David K. Herzberger, “The Painterly Vision of Buero Vallejo's El sueno de la razón”, SYMPOSIUM, 39, 2 (1985), pp. 99–103.

  2. See particularly Eric Pennington, “The Role of Music in El concierto de San Ovidio”, ROMANCE NOTES, 26, 1 (1985), pp. 18–21, and Eric Pennington, “La doble historia del doctor Valmy: A View from the Feminine”, SYMPOSIUM, 40, 2 (1986), pp. 131–139.

  3. See Eric Pennington. “El misterio de Elche in El tragaluz”, Cuadernos de ALDEUU, 1, 1 (1983), pp. 83–89.

  4. Worthy of mention in this regard is Martha T. Halsey's ongoing treatment of the importance of these elements in Buero's theatre. See, for example, the following: “‘Light’ and ‘Darkness’ as Dramatic Symbols in Two Tragedies of Buero Vallejo”, HISPANIA, 50, 1 (1967), pp. 63–68: “More on ‘Light’ in the Tragedies of Buero”, ROMANCE NOTES, 11, 1 (1969), pp. 17–21; and Antonio Buero Vallejo (Boston: Twayne Publishing, 1973), pp. 40–42 and 149–150.

  5. David Ling, “Symbols of Hope in Three Plays of Buero Vallejo”, ROMANCE NOTES, 13, 3 (1972), p. 419.

  6. Robert L. Nicholas, The Tragic Stages of Antonio Buero Vallejo. Estudios de Hispanófila. (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina, 1972), p. 27.

  7. Ibid., p. 29.

  8. Antonio Buero Vallejo, En la ardiente oscuridad. Ed. Samuel A. Wofsy (New York: Scribner's, 1954), p. 1. All subsequent references are based on this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the study.

  9. See, for example, Halsey, Antonio Buero Vallejo, p. 139; Nicholas, p. 29; and Reed Anderson, “Tragic Conflict and Synthesis in Buero Vallejo's En la ardiente oscuridad”, SYMPOSIUM, 29. 1–2, (1972), pp. 3–4.

  10. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969. Subsequent references are to this work and will be cited parenthetically in the study.

  11. It is curious to note that Reed Anderson in his article (cited in note 10) uses the term “therapy” when referring to this particular scene between Don Pablo y Juana. He writes that “he [Don Pablo] proposes a therapy designed to ensure his [Ignacio's] happiness by bringing him into conformity with the school's norms of ethics and conduct” (p. 4).

  12. See Halsey's excellent discussion of hope in Buerian tragedy in Antonio Buero Vallejo, 29–32. Also, see the playwright's own ideas as expressed in “La tragedia”, in El teatro: enciclopedia del arte escénico. (Barcelona: Editorial Noguer, 1958), pp. 63–87.

  13. In addition to his essay “La tragedia” (cited in note 11), Buero has expressed his views on the concept of tragedy at length in “Sobre la tragedia”, in Entretiens sur les Lettres et les Arts (Rodez, France), No. 22 (1963), pp. 52–61.

  14. Although Ignacio may be considered the main character of the play, several critics have stated that they consider Carlos' role to be indispensable to the effective development of Buero's tragic vision, among them Anderson (see note No 10), p. 10; Francisco Ruia Ramón, Historia del reatro español, Siglo XX (Madrid, Cátedra, 1975), p. 347; and Carmen González-Goboz Dávila, Antonio Buero Vallejo. El hombre y su obra (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 1979), p. 74.

Malcolm Alan Compitello (review date September 1989)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

SOURCE: A review of Las Meninas and Today's a Holiday, in Hispania, Vol. 72, No. 3, September, 1989, pp. 569–70.

[In the following review, Compitello praises the English versions of Buero Vallejo's Las meninas and Hoy es fiesta.]

As Hispanists we tend to take for granted Antonio Buero Vallejo's right to place among contemporary drama's major figures. Yet the attempt to solidify that position has been hampered by the limited access of his works in translation, especially into English, a factor that has also made difficult his works for English-speaking audiences. Both volumes under consideration here respond to the need to make Buero's impressive dramatic corpus available to the English-speaking public. Furthermore the English version of Hoy es fiesta—which served as the basis for the English premiere of this play—obviously contributes to the work's accessibility to English-language theatergoers.

Few Hispanists have worked as hard to widen the acceptance of Spanish drama in the United States as has Marion P. Holt. Through his critical studies, translations and other efforts, he has fomented interest in contemporary Spanish drama that has led to major productions of works by Buero and other dramatists. His excellent translation of Las meninas is the second volume of his translations of Buero's plays to be published by Trinity, and easily measures up to the superior level of his translations of La Fundación,El sueño de la razón and En la ardiente oscuridad.

Holt's succinct and informative introduction locates Las meninas in the author's dramatic trajectory and highlights its most important structural and thematic characteristics. It is followed by brief suggestions for further reading and a translator's note in which Holt makes clear that the main purpose of his version of Buero's historical drama is to serve as the basis for the theatrical production of this work. An appendix provides a full translation of Buero's detailed description of the set for Velázquez's studio. Several excellent photos from the 1960 Madrid production illustrate the text, and the color reproduction of Velázquez's painting adorns the cover. Holt has also provided the original notation of Milan's First Pavan for the Vihuela, the music that accompanies the beginning of the second part of Las meninas.

The English version of Las meninas is a joy to read. It fully succeeds in Holt's aim in that it could easily serve as the basis for a fine production of the work, and it is hoped that now that this translation exists, a theater company will attempt such a staging. The quality of the translation is in no small part due to the translator's ability to render the nuances of language registers so central to the meaning of this important historical drama in an English that is colloquial and elegant at the same time.

The translation of Hoy es fiesta served as the basis for the American premier of the play by the Department of Speech and Theater at St. Olaf's College in February of 1986. It is preceded by a short introduction to the play that one supposes is to serve non-specialists. While it provides some interesting biographical material on Buero, and a useful synopsis of Today's a Holiday, some of its critical assessments are questionable at best. To lump together Claudio de la Torre, Calvo Sotelo, José María Pemán, Juan Ignacio Luca de Tena, and López Rubio as dramatists who “attempted to address serious moral and social questions in addition to simply entertaining” (xi) is simply to not recognize the enormous ideological differences that separated such disparate authors, and an assessment of this sort borders on a misrepresentation of what social theater did exist and what it accomplished under Franco.

The translation is adequate if at times a bit stilted. Yet it does provide access to one of Buero's earlier plays for English readers, and allowed American theatergoers to see in production the work of one of Europe's most important dramatists.

It is hoped that the translators of the two volumes considered here will continue their efforts by making available more English versions of works by Buero and other Spanish dramatists, thus widening Buero's readership and making it possible to stage productions of more of his plays.

Martha T. Halsey (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5818

SOURCE: “Plays of Impasse: The Recent Tragedies of Antonio Buero Vallejo,” in Anales de la Literatura Española Contemporanea, Vol. 18, No. 3, 1993, pp. 539–52.

[In the following essay, Halsey discusses four of Buero Vallejo's plays from the late 1970s and 1980s, asserting their prominence as tragedies of personal and social impasse.]

Paramount in Buero's tragic theater is the idea of individual responsibility. In his drama the ethical and the social are inseparable. He explains the apparent emphasis on the former: “Hay, pues, en mi teatro—creo—una problemática ética más ostensible que la social, pero porque la problemática social debe ser, en mi opinión, casi siempre implícita, aunque no menos básica e importante. Es cuestión de estructura artística” (Bejel 75–76). The personal responsibility of the individual is foregrounded. Buero deals with social problems “intentando penetrar en cuestiones más oscuras, relacionadas con la interioridad de unos seres humanos, y su conducta dentro de esa atmósfera social” (“Buero Vallejo gana …”). The emphasis is therefore on the inner self of the individual; and the action focuses on the necessity for confronting the consequences of past actions that necessarily determine the present, entrapping those who cannot rectify, or at least acknowledge, them and in so doing win the battle within. Indeed, drama from the time of the Greeks on has often assumed the form of an investigation that culminates in the trials and verdicts so common to the plays of the transition period now under consideration.1

The deceptions and errors Buero sees as typical of the Spain of the 1970s and 1980s2 are represented by protagonists who are brought to judgment; and this judgment constitutes the key moment of each tragedy. The earlier El tragaluz (1967), especially, contains a climax that constitutes a trial. Such trial scenes become very frequent in the transition tragedies as hidden errors committed in the past and sometimes continued into the present (a pattern also seen in El tragaluz) are revealed, as lies lived by the protagonists are exposed and judged. Since the errors that the protagonist must confront are ones that Buero obviously considers characteristic of the times, it is not only the individual but also society that is judged. The latter obviously includes the audience.

Lukács has used the phrase “day of reckoning” dramas to describe those where a protagonist has reached the point in life where past accounts must be settled (101). This term is highly appropriate to many Buero plays but especially to the recent Jueces en la noche (1979), Diálogo secreto (1984), Lázaro en el laberinto (1986), and Música cercana (1989)—as it is also to the earlier El tragaluz. “Called to account” (102) for failing in their responsibility vis-à-vis society, for rejecting their duty to history, these individuals must “settle accounts,” that is, discover and face the truth about themselves. Lukács notes that in drama, as in life, the consequences of earlier deeds and, especially, of the general attitude toward others that occasioned these deeds, often multiply to the point that they obsess those who are guilty, threatening them with virtual destruction (101). The play's action thus focuses on the protagonist's handling of this crisis. It is significant that in most of Buero's recent plays the errors for which the protagonist must account—often involving the deception of others by pretending to be something he is not—have continued into the present as he goes on living a lie. Of course consequences of past deeds may affect the protagonist long after the latter changes his pattern and leads a seemingly exemplary life—as is true in the case of Lázaro. Such is not usually the case in Buero's recent tragedies. This settling of accounts, or reckoning, has obviously been a central idea from Oedipus Rex to the plays of Ibsen.3

The struggle to settle accounts is waged within the protagonist's mind; therefore, the action must be interior or psychological. In a last-ditch effort to achieve a breakthrough, to confront the guilt and fear of discovery that imprison them, the protagonists wage a battle that is necessarily inner. The inward nature of the struggle, however, makes it no less dangerous or difficult than those fought on the battle field. Yeats once stated, “A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself” (Mack 58). Tragedy is a search for truth and, as Cleanth Brooks emphasizes in Tragic Themes in Western Literature, this truth or knowledge to which the tragic hero or protagonist aspires includes, in a special way, the truth about the self (5). Such is the case in Buero's tragic universe. As Mariano de Paco notes, this search has become increasingly important in recent plays—“quizá por advertirnos que la sociedad únicamente será libre y justa, por encima de las palabras, si es recto y moral el comportamiento de sus miembros” (“La verdad” 43).4 The revelation attained by Buero's protagonists is what Brooks, in his discussion of Oedipus, calls a “damning vision”—which in the latter's case, cost him his very eyes (6).

Tomás, the young political dissident of La Fundación, unable to face the fact that he broke under torture and gave information that led to the arrests and death sentences of his cellmates, takes refuge in the delusion that they are all professionals, living in a beneficent research foundation that has awarded them grants. He thus protects himself with a lie, which the older prisoner Asel helps him to uncover so that he can face and confess the truth. We, like Tomás, also discover the truth which we have been unable to see at the beginning and come to realize that it is our truth, as well as Tomás's.

In La detonación Buero's Larra likewise confronts truths about himself. Asel's role is now played by Pedro, Larra's servant-valet from the latter's essay “La nochebuena de 1836”—a piece that itself constitutes a public confession of guilt. Pedro forces Larra, even against his will when necessary, to face his intellectual pride and inability to understand the very populace he defends publicly but whose suffering he has never shared; before his suicide the writer confesses that he, no less than others, has always worn a mask and never known his real self.

Like La Fundación (1974) and La detonación (1977), the four following plays—Jueces en la noche,Diálogo secreto,Lázaro en el laberinto and Música cercana—are tragedies of inauthenticity. Nevertheless, there are significant differences. In the latter four plays, unlike the first two, the deceptions to be confronted are long-standing ones. Moreover, the protagonists are no longer youths like Tomás of La Fundación or even Larra of La detonación—who, were it not for probable execution, in the former's case, or suicide, in the latter's, would have time to build a new life. Juan Luis, the ex-Franco minister of Jueces, Fabio, the renowned art critic of Diálogo, Lázaro the book dealer, and Alfredo, the successful financier of Música, all look backward and discover that the lives they have lived are lies. In the cases of Juan Luis and Fabio it is the fear that this lie will be discovered by others and, in Lázaro, the protagonist's own reluctance to face it that occasion the need for a reckoning. In Música it is Alfredo's fear of old age and loneliness together with the growing realization that, behind the façade he sees on the video screen, he is nothing. Politician, art critic, book dealer and financier—all are figures in Victor Dixon's words, “dominadas por experiencias vividas por los mismos en un pasado bastante lejano pero silenciadas durante ańos, cuyo recuerdo y revelación los atormentan y destrozan en el presente” (121). In Fabio and Alfredo's cases, these experiences—these deceptions of others—continue into the present; the fiancé of the former's daughter and the latter's daughter herself will become their victims.

In Jueces, the first of these four tragedies, Juan Luis, a member of Congress in transition Spain who pretends to embrace democracy, is tormented by fears of losing his wife if she learns how he deceived her into leaving her former fiancé, the student arrested for anti-Franco activities and who later died in prison. The protagonist's “day of reckoning” is precipitated by the arrival of the ex-policeman friend who knows the truth of this deception. When Juan Luis learns the latter has come to direct the assassination of an important general in order to discredit the Left and provoke a coup, he must choose between denouncing the plot—which will result in the revelation of his deception of his wife—or remaining silent. Also to be accounted for on his “day of reckoning” is his vote, while a cabinet member in the Franco era, to execute an important prisoner for unproved war crimes. To denounce the assassination would thus be to break with the lies, deceptions, and other crimes that have characterized Juan Luis's personal and political life, to prove himself capable of change.

Like Juan Luis, Fabio, the art critic of Diálogo, lives in terror that his readers, but especially his wife and daughter, will learn his secret—in his case the fraud he has perpetrated by concealing the fact that he is color blind. His “day of reckoning” is precipitated by his guilt over the death of his daughter's fiancé, the young artist whose use of color he has harshly criticized, and by the terror he feels upon suspecting that his daughter has intuited his secret. The latter, Fabio believes, will punish him, just as Minerva punished Arachne for the lies—he imagines the goddess tells the girl—she wove about the gods. Fabio's fear of discovery is thus no less than Juan Luis's. Both are men in torment. For Fabio, to acknowledge publicly his deception would be to win the inner battle.

In Lázaro en el laberinto the protagonist's culpability, or probable culpability, is limited to a single action in the past. As in the case of Jueces, the incident that torments him involves a woman, in his case a student who was fatally beaten by ultras after a political demonstration in the 1960s. Lázaro remembers the incident in two different ways: in one, he intervened to try to save her and, in the other, he stood by paralyzed by fear. The labyrinth in which Lázaro is lost is not his bookstore (which bears that name) but the doubts and fears that prevent him from discerning the truth. Iglesias Feijoo speaks of the “agónica perplejidad que obsesiona [a Lázaro] que ya no puede siquiera saber cuál fue realmente su actuación” (“El último teatro” 116). Although Lázaro's memory loss is not willful, like Tomás's delusions it enables him to avoid accepting what is no doubt an unpleasant reality. Indeed, Mariano de Paco calls Lázaro's conduct during Silvia's beating “un suceso, muy probablemente negativo, cuyas particularidades se silencian por un miedo egoísta” (“Introducción” 21). What intensifies Lázaro's fears as the tragedy begins is a friend's statement that he has seen the former student, Silvia, whom Lázaro does not know died shortly after being beaten. The protagonist now assumes she will contact him if she has returned. He thus awaits the telephone call that can either condemn him or give him new life like his Biblical namesake.

Música cercana follows the same pattern of discovery and disclosure of past errors as do the preceding tragedies. However Alfredo, the ruthless bank executive, shows no signs of remorse until the very end, when the results of his immoral investments in drug operations hit home. What brings about Alfredo's examination of his past life is not so much guilt but loneliness and fear of old age and of the passage of time as he realizes that his immense fortune from the sordid deals of which he chooses to feign ignorance and his life of privilege are not enough. Having sacrificed everything for wealth and power, he returns to his childhood home and attempts to build a new life with his estranged daughter, Sandra, and even dreams of sharing the remainder of his time with a woman he once thought he loved.

Frye speaks of tragedy as a “plunging down to catastrophe through a series of recognitions, usually of the inevitable consequences of previous acts” (25). This progressive discovery pattern is striking in Música cercana. A series of concatenated discoveries will reveal to the protagonist—and to us—the results of a life of wrong choices, of lost opportunities. Alfredo's egoism condemns him to an existence that is totally empty. It is only the final discovery involving the stabbing of his daughter, Sandra, that produces remorse or change. Alfredo is responsible for a death, just as Lázaro most probably is; however, since this discovery comes just minutes before the final curtain, the tragedy focuses only briefly on his reaction.

Since the action of all these tragedies centers on the moment in which the protagonist must finally face the consequences of past (and continuing) errors, it covers only a part of the story, beginning just prior to the climax—the tragic recognition or anagnorisis: “It is especially characteristic of drama not to portray the slow and gradual amassing of consequences, but to take usually a relatively brief and decisive period of time, in fact, that dramatic moment in life itself, in which the accumulation of consequences is transformed into action” (Lukács 102).

In A Structural Approach to the Analysis of Drama, Paul Levitt quotes Clayton Hamilton who points out that the main events in such plays with a late “point-of-attack” do not emphasize the future but look backward to the results of past actions (24). In plays where the viewpoint is distanced, that is with an early “point-of-attack,” the protagonists still have time to make their own futures. On the other hand, the fate of protagonists such as Juan Luis, Fabio, Lázaro, and Alfredo is mostly, to use Paul Levitt's words, “stamped in prior actions and decisions” (27). In Jueces and Música cercana we have a close-up view of the moment in which the protagonist's actions result in irreversible catastrophes that the latter cannot ignore: Julia's suicide in the first play and Sandra's murder in the second. In Diálogo secreto and Lázaro, on the other hand, such catastrophes as the young artist's probable suicide, in the first, and Silvia's death resulting from the beating, in the second, are past; and whereas in the first case Cosme's suicide is recent, Silvia's death is not. Both plays, nonetheless, focus on the moment, long delayed for various reasons in Lázaro's case, when these consequences are faced. Alan S. Downer states that in late “point-of-attack” plays “the hero's doom is decreed before he is permitted to assume the role” (Levitt 27).5 Nevertheless, the inner battle remains: to discover and accept oneself. This is precisely what tragedy depicts.

Since the events depicted on stage result from choices made before the curtain rises, there is necessarily a heavy emphasis on exposition. The past is gradually uncovered as we discover stories of culpability and responsibility not apparent to us as the play begins. In theater such exposition normally is accomplished through objective scenes involving discussion and debate, although, of course, flash-backs, dreams and other techniques are common. For example, in Tragic Drama and Modern Society, John Orr states: “The theatre invariably imposes a distance between the spectator and the hero. … It has no equivalent of the novelist's ‘point of view’ which can lead us, through indirect speech, into the mind and sensibility of the character” (52).6 As we have seen, Buero uses the “immersion effects” first analyzed by Doménech to establish a subjective point of view that Iglesias Feijoo calls “first person”; it is through such subjective scenes that Buero provides expositions, as he enables the audience to perceive the recollections or fantasies of the protagonist, which are dramatized before our eyes, and to share their guilt and fears (La trayectoria dramática).7

The sense of guilt suggested by the subjective scenes is real even if the anguished protagonist does not manifest it on the conscious level; otherwise there would be no imaginary dialogues, unreal telephone rings or secret windows to the past. Within his delusion Tomás of La Fundación has conversations with an absent fiancée, Berta, whom he claims visits him, and with a dead cellmate whose demise the others conceal to get his rations. Both figures act as Tomás's alter ego, questioning the reality of the comfortable “Foundation” he invents when unable to face his guilt. The delirium of a suicidal Larra contains two phantasmagoric dreams where he sees himself forced to participate in firing squads in the Carlist War and to witness the death of his servant Pedro's son in the conflict. Both dreams evince the satirist's sense of guilt and impotence vis-à-vis the war in which he did not participate personally.

The sequence of four nightmares in which Juan Luis of Jueces summons his victims, and through them, accuses himself and, at the same time, tries to justify his past, represents an anguished inquiry into the truth. The first of the three judges—who assume the form of musicians of a trio to play at his forthcoming wedding anniversary—the young student his wife once loved, recalls how the politician got his policeman friend to pretend to arrest her for implication in her fiancé's subversive political activities and then pretended to save her. The second judge, the prisoner he voted to execute for unproved war crimes, recalls the double standard of the times when crimes by the other side were ignored. For these crimes—and for the assassination he now sees himself execute personally and which in “real life” he fails to denounce—Juan Luis passes sentence on himself, judging himself unworthy to play any role in Spain's new democracy. His punishment is the loss of his wife, who commits suicide before his final dream. In the latter she will take her own place as the third member of the trio. These dreams—as well as the hallucinations in which Juan Luis sees Fermín's father—immerse us in the tormented mind of the protagonist so that we not only serve as his jury but at the same time identify with him and, to the extent that we do so, judge our own actions.

In Diálogo secreto Fabio's imaginary conversations with his father fulfill the same function as Tomás's delusion, Larra's delirium, and Juan Luis's nightmares, as the art critic attempts to discover why he ever launched a career so unsuited to a person blind to color. When his father rejects Fabio's accusations that he encouraged his son's aspirations, it is clear that Fabio is accusing himself in much the same manner as does Juan Luis. These “secret dialogues,” that are preceded by moments in which the reproduction on the wall of Velázquez's Las hilanderas loses its brilliant colors, permitting us to share the critic's handicap, constitute trial scenes similar to those in Fabio's dreams. The father's phantom which appears, also, outside the “immersion effects,” like Fermín's father in Jueces, comes to represent Fabio's conscience. The secret dialogues, hallucinations, and also a flashback in which the critic explains to his young daughter the complementary theory of color all represent the materialization of Fabio's thoughts in his anguished search for inner truth.

Lázaro's case, of course, is different from Fabio and Juan Luis's given his perplexity over past events. The critic's secret dialogues and the nightmares where the politician renders his own verdict and passes sentence on himself make clear that they accept their culpability. The bookseller's doubts are manifested in an initial “immersion effect” as he tells Amparo, the young writer who has come to take the place of the dead Silvia in his affections, the two ways he remembers the latter's beating. Lázaro, Amparo (in the role of Silvia) and the two masked ultras reenact the two versions, in which Lázaro first intervenes to defend Silvia and then stands by overcome by fear. In a later scene Lázaro imagines—and we see—the same masked figures rain blows on Amparo (who now appears as herself). In his nightmare, after Amparo finally rejects his marriage proposal and leaves him, the two figures reappear to torment him. The imaginary rings of the telephone that Lázaro—and the audience—hear on various occasions as he awaits the call from Silvia, who he believes may be in Madrid and who can tell him the truth, represent the voices of his conscience; they are summons to confront the truth. Moreover they enable the audience to enter the labyrinth of doubts and fears where the protagonist is lost. After Lázaro learns of Silvia's death, telephone rings sound throughout the entire theater as the audience is called to examine its own past conduct—both individually and collectively.

In the case of Alfredo, the middle-aged bank executive of Música cercana who has spent his life acquiring wealth, this concern for the past is evinced by the video cassette he has made of himself at various ages and which he often stops at an image of him as a young man of twenty. Looking at this image and listening to the same music from across the patio that he heard as a youth, he attempts to go back in time, to recover what might have been had his priorities been different. The melodies that come from the window where he used to see Isolina, the young girl he once loved, sit and sew—the same ones that her father once played on his phonograph when she was a child—are usually objective and, at times, commented on by other characters. Sometimes, however, when we hear them, the protagonist may only be remembering them. In effect the melodies introduce two “immersion effects,” in which we see the window across the patio opened by a pretty girl of seventeen, who sits down to sew and shyly glances at Alfredo. In a second effect the magical window in Alfredo's mind opens again as he dreams of still winning the woman, now middle-aged, who might have been his and who still lives across the patio. Two additional effects reveal to us Alfredo's fears of losing his daughter, Sandra, who now loves a young South American dedicated to winning for his country a freedom and justice that she contrasts with the corruption and hypocrisy of her father. In these prophetic nightmares, she leaves her father despite his pleas for a second chance, as we hear the funeral march from the Eroica.

Ruiz Ramón explains the result of the “immersion effects” in such earlier plays as El sueño de la razón,Llegada de los dioses,La Fundación and La detonación as follows: “El ojo que mira, juzga e interpreta desde fuera la acción vivida por los personajes ha sido desplazada al interior del drama” (8). In the present plays these subjective scenes are much less extensive. The relative brevity of these scenes, in recent plays, makes them no less important: “Sólo si oímos el teléfono y vemos a los enmascarados con el librero y sentimos la presencia de Isolina joven ‘que cose en el pasado’ con el padre de Sandra, podremos percibir la dimensión cabal del drama y la auténtica condición de sus personajes principales” (De Paco, “La verdad” 45).

The transition tragedies are plays about human inadequacy. Like Oedipus and other tragic heroes, Buero's recent protagonists, although they search for truth about themselves—a search the subjective scenes allow us to share—fail to do what, in Richard B. Sewall's words, ancient Greek heroes do: “gain sufficient grasp of themselves and their universe to make, at a given point in time, permanent, heroic commitments between well-understood alternatives” (Sewall 110).

Tomás's commitment, after he accepts his situation, to attempt the tunnel to freedom is the exception, while Larra's suicide represents the ultimate rejection of commitment. Juan Luis of Jueces fails to denounce the assassination he knows is planned. Even though he may see his life in a new perspective as the result of his confrontation with his conscience, he lacks the inner reserves, the hidden potential to change—to leave the errors of the past behind him. The result is the loss of his wife, who acts as his final judge, sentencing him to expiate, alone, a life of deception and lies.

Fabio of Diálogo secreto wins a very limited victory after the death of the young artist he unjustly attacked, as he resolves never to judge another's use of color again; but the critic is unable to make public his terrible secret. Without his lies, explains Gaspar, who condemns Fabio's deception and acts, in effect, as his judge, the critic would be nothing: “Tú eres tu mentira. Si precindes de ella ¿qué serás?” (117) Fabio is fortunate in that he retains the love of Teresa, who now saves him from suicide, explaining she has always known his secret and shared his suffering: “Yo he compartido día tras día la prisión donde te sientes encerrado, la desesperación de no ver lo que ven los demás” (129).

The ringing of the imaginary telephones at the end of Lázaro en el laberinto make clear that the bookseller remains prisoner of his doubts and fears, as he fails to confront the truth that he says escapes him but which he probably knows yet cannot face. Just as fear prevented him from loving Silvia enough to save her when she was attacked, so fear prevents him confessing the truth to Amparo, whom he asks to judge him in his victim's name. The loss of Amparo, who turns down his proposal of marriage, is no less Lázaro's fault than was his loss of Silvia. If Fabio is coaxed by Teresa out of the locked room where he contemplates suicide, Lázaro is left alone in the labyrinth he cannot exit—as the ringing before the final curtain demonstrates. Despite his seemingly impeccable life subsequent to his victim's death, he is incapable of confronting his past.

Alfredo of Música cercana, who attempts to examine the past through the video cassette he makes, represents and has helped to create the moral corruption against which his daughter Sandra rebels and of which she is finally an innocent victim. Involved in laundering drug money as well as manufacturing arms, the now middle-aged executive, who has sacrificed all for wealth and power, is led by loneliness and fear of time to confront his past. However, the images he recovers—which remind us of the holograms projected by the Investigators of El tragaluz—in his case are “meras apariencias en un espejo que sólo recoge sombras” (De Paco, “La verdad” 45). Alfredo, as M. de Paco states, does not really want to illuminate a life of errors any more than he wants to know the details of the sordid financial transactions he leaves to his son (45). Alfredo's experiment with his video cassette brings about no tragic anagnorisis. Only after Sandra dies, knifed on the sidewalk by an addict, and René renders his verdict—“en la punta de la navaja estaba usted”—does Alfredo order his son to withdraw their money invested in the firm involved in drugs. The telephone call from the bodyguard Sandra eluded, although real and not imaginary like the calls Lázaro hears, summons Alfredo to examine his conscience. For Sandra, it is too late. At the end, therefore, Alfredo like Lázaro is left alone to expiate a lifetime of deception, “atrapado por el tiempo, castigado y vencido por su egoísmo” (45).

In Alfredo's case, as in the cases of other recent protagonists, a kind of implacable fatality seems to be at work within him which proves stronger than his will.8 The result is final isolation and the “irreparable loss” that Raymond Williams considers the essential tragic experience (56–61)9: the murder of Sandra, which corresponds to Silvia's death from the beating in Lázaro, to Julia's suicide in Jueces, as well as to the departures of the art critic's daughter Aurora in Diálogo secreto and of Amparo, the young woman who has come to fill Silvia's place but who leaves Lázaro when she realizes that his basic egoism precludes real love for another.

Buero's recent protagonists who fail to make the ultimate commitment between alternatives and let themselves be shaped by events rather than help shape these events, stand in contrast to previous individuals in his tragic theater who show their greatness: their integrity and refusal to compromise. Although defeated by events, they reveal their human potential, and the tragedies in which they appear become affirmations of the human spirit. Buero's Goya in El sueño de la razón is a clear example.10 The protagonists of Jueces,Diálogo secreto,Música cercana, and to a lesser extent, Lázaro en el laberinto, are not victims of tragedy but its catalysts. They share responsibility for the problems that post-transition Spain must solve.

John Orr states that what characterizes the “social” mode of modern tragedy (as opposed to the “divine” mode of Greek, or the “noble” mode of Renaissance tragedy) is alienation from bourgeois society. From Ibsen to García Lorca, Orr states, the “social” mode of tragedy evinces the estrangement of the protagonist from the values of the bourgeois order (xvi). Ignacio of En la ardiente oscuridad, David of El Concierto de San Ovidio, Buero's Velázquez in Las Meninas, and his Goya rebel against the established values of their time, denouncing lies and hypocrisy—as does Buero's Larra. The opposite is the case in Buero's recent plays. Juan Luis, Fabio, Alfredo, and, in part Lázaro, represent the very values against which the earlier protagonists rebel; they reflect the errors the playwright denounces and cause the catastrophes that result. None of these protagonists prove capable of real change, of freeing themselves from their chains to the past.

The unifying image of Buero's recent plays is thus that of “impasse”—the impasse of protagonists trapped in situations where they prove powerless to initiate any action that would free them.11 In all of these plays we see a radical closure of the tragic space within; the plot is concerned with bringing about the ending that is inevitable or fore-doomed because of their inability to act, to struggle for the only victory possible in their situations: the victory within. The controlling symbol is thus the prison, the tomb, the labyrinth.

This symbol of the prison is at the same time individual and collective. Raymond Williams states that the “deepest crisis in modern literature is the division of experience into the social and personal” (121). He notes the pressure to depict the controlling reality presented as either ultimately personal—in which case “the crises of civilization are analogues of a psychic or spiritual maladjustment or disaster”—or ultimately social—in which case “the destructive loneliness, the loss of reasons for living are symptoms or reflections of a disintegrating or decadent society” (121). In Buero's tragic theater this division disappears, as we see the protagonist in the context of transition Spain. The lies, hypocrisy, and façades of this world extend into the life of the individual, who lives them as personal experience, even as his own errors contribute to this process in society. Impasse or entrapment is thus personal and social at the same time; and the same set of symbols is applicable to both the individual and the collectivity.


  1. Iglesias Feijoo, for example, calls the recent plays “indagaciones, búsquedas, revelaciones, procesos judiciales a través de los cuales los protagonistas habían de encararse con la verdad, rechazando, en consecuencia la mentira” (“El último teatro” 115).

  2. In effect, Buero's theater of the transition of the 1970s and 1980s represents a radical criticism of the reality—both individual and collective—of the period, with its myths of democracy, justice and prosperity. He shows a society in which content is converted into empty form, façade, or mask—which ultimately can serve only to immobilize, to perpetuate a certain order of things rather than to change it. Buero's theater still constitutes the investigation into, and the judgment of, Spain about which Pérez Minik spoke back in 1961 (381–95).

  3. Victor Dixon emphasizes the importance of these models in his “Los efectos de immersión en el teatro de Antonio Buero Vallejo: una puesta al día.”

  4. Mariano de Paco calls Lázaro en el laberinto, “una indagación de la verdad personal”—as is, he notes, also Jueces en la noche and Diálogo secreto (“La verdad” 43).

  5. Levitt states that early “point-of-attack” plays “panoramically survey life” whereas late “point-of-attack” is “close-up” because the play commences just before the climax (27).

  6. Orr says that Strindberg's expressionism, for example, led “into the more abstract and more objective forms of German expressionism, which in turn reached a theatrical impasse and provoked, in counter-response, the epic theater of Picator and Brecht” (52).

  7. Iglesias Feijoo states: “Se trata, siempre, de ‘el pasado que vuelve,’ para decirlo con el título de una obra teatral de Unamuno. Y ahora nos explicamos la razón de esas escenas subjetivas, que transmiten eficazmente el irreprimible desasosiego interno de quienes se han negado a encararse con la verdad y han basado su vida en el engaño y la mentira” (“El último teatro” 117).

  8. See Buero's own recent comments in Mauro Armiño.

  9. On this idea, see also Orr, Tragic Drama and Modern Society, xii, and Tragic Realism and Modern Society, 20–23.

  10. Of course, as we have seen, there are weak protagonists like Juan of Las cartas boca abajo, whose only victory is the recognition of his mistakes, as well as such negative types as Valindin of El Concierto de San Ovidio and Vicente of El tragaluz.

  11. Carol Rosen has used the word “impasse” in her discussion of modern drama. Although Rosen discusses plays that are set in confining institutions (hospitals, prisons, asylums, etc.), she notes that the “mode of impasse” is seen also in plays which are not set in such institutions: “This dramatic form has become so central that it is now an underlying assumption of most plays: the givens of a play of impasse are as much taken for granted, I would argue, as were the five-act divisions of French classical drama.” … Indeed, in plays by virtually all the major contemporary dramatists, beginning with O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, characters are lost, reacting to an overwhelming situation rather than instigating action themselves (23). Rosen cites Beckett's Endgame as the most extreme play of “impasse,” noting that it begins with the words, “Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be finished” (269).

Michael Thompson (review date January 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Buero Vallejo: ‘El concierto de San Ovidio,’ by David Johnson and The Shot (‘La detonación’), by Antonio Buero Vallejo, translated by David Johnson, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 88, No. 1, January, 1993, pp. 242–43.

[In the following review, Thompson lauds Johnson's critical guide to Buero Vallejo's El concierto de San Ovidio and his translation of the dramatist's La detonación.]

The most impressive feature of Buero's best plays is the way in which each of them is totally integrated around a powerful dramatic nucleus of character, situation, and visual or aural effect: the Mario/Vicente conflict, the skylight, the train noises, and the ‘pregunta tremenda’ in El tragaluz, for example. David Johnston brings out this clarity and coherence very well in his guide to El concierto de San Ovidio and in the introduction to The Shot. Both plays emerge as complex structures conveying important ideas, as well as cathartic theatrical experiences.

The critical guide to El concierto is itself clear and carefully unified (marred by only one practical oversight: a late addition to the bibliography means that almost all the reference numbers in the text are out of sequence). Johnston develops a very coherent argument, interweaving biographical information, intertextual comparisons, and discussion of historical and philosophical contexts with shrewd analysis of character, structure, and staging.

The first chapter, ‘Historical Drama’, introduces the argument, assessing the impact of El concierto in 1962, outlining the historical perspectives, making comparisons with other texts by Buero and other authors, and summarizing the dramatic strategy. Johnston rightly emphasizes Buero's skilful linking of past and present, private lives and public history, politics and metaphysics, spectators and stage. There is recognition here of the importance of considering issues of performance and reception of the text, although the point about the stage being ‘fully acknowledged as stage’ (p. 24) is not convincingly explained, and the whole question of realism is dealt with rather summarily.

The remaining three chapters develop the argument in detail. In ‘The Denials of the Past’, historical circumstances, political issues, and social structures are discussed as obstacles to human fulfilment, dramatically embodied in Valindin, the Priora, and the group of blind beggars. The brief references to feminist theory are useful, but could have been pursued further (I would argue that Buero's outlook is essentially male-centred: female characters tend to have the function of contributing to the self-realization of male characters).

‘The Historical Hero’ counters the sense of alienation and despair with the positive potential of individual will, focusing on David and Haüy as representatives of heroic subjectivity. Although Johnston convincingly defends Buero from the charge of Nietzschean élitism, it must be acknowledged that Buero's treatment of the pueblo does tend to be slightly paternalistic.

Finally, ‘The Tragic Sense of Life’ gives a concise account of Buero's theory of tragedia esperanzada. Tragedy is presented as a synthesis of the negative dimension (in Chapter 2) and the positive dimension (in Chapter 3), and a search for emotional impact and aesthetic value beyond both of these. Johnston shows how the elements of blindness, music, and historical circumstances are brilliantly combined to form a powerful meditation on history, Spain, and the human condition.

The introduction to The Shot adopts a similar approach, but is briefer, and consequently less convincing without the full working-through of the issues of tragedy, historical consciousness, and inter-relatedness of the personal and the political. Staging (perhaps a more promising topic here than in El concierto) is given scant attention.

The overall tone of the translation itself is well judged. In the guide to El concierto, Johnston describes the language of Buero's history plays as designed to seem ‘familiar, and yet slightly dated, to the audience’, so as to ‘underline both the historical nature and the contemporary relevance of the action’ (pp. 30–31). The language of La detonación is modern, but never obtrusively so, while certain phrases sound slightly stilted or archaic. Johnson's translation succeeds in reflecting this mixture of familiarity and ‘elucidative strangeness’, although not always in the same places: for example, the straightforward ‘Hasta ese lujo se ha permitido, sí señor. Grimaldi, dígale de qué …’ becomes ‘Indeed, you did make so bold. Grimaldi, apprise Señor de Larra of what …’ (pp. 96–97).

The assessment of the success of any translation also depends upon an accumulation of detail: on the balance between adroit solutions and appropriate idioms on the one hand, and inelegant expressions and outright errors on the other. There are examples of all of these in this version, but the overall balance is positive.

The worst cases on the negative side actually create confusion over who is who and what is going on: ‘the romantic hordes who still cling to the old glories’ turns on its head what Mesonero refers to as ‘la hueste romántica, que va acorralando a las viejas glorias’ (pp. 34–35); the syntax of ‘Te hará volver tu pasión’ is inverted, producing ‘It'll give you your passion back’ (pp. 146–47).

On the positive side, there are some instructive examples of the need to pad out in English utterances that are laconic in Spanish: ‘So you've made up your mind to leave us?’ for ‘¿Quieres dejarnos?’ (pp. 22–23). In other places, the original is constructively expanded and clarified: ‘a healthy sense of irony that cuts through the lives we have to live’ is more effective than ‘la ironía saludable, el latigazo a esta sociedad hipócrita’ (pp. 88–89). The sense of some idioms is successfully conveyed by English equivalents, rather than translations: ‘Escribe que no va a meterse en honduras; que no quiere que le rompan la cabeza’ becomes ‘He writes that he's not going to tackle anything too big; that he values his hide’ (pp. 48–49).

All in all, these are valuable additions to two excellent series. Buero Vallejo certainly belongs amongst the Hispanic Classics.

J. J. Macklin (essay date October 1993)

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SOURCE: “Tragedy and Politics in Jueces en la noche,” in Neophilologus, Vol. LXXVII, No. 4, October, 1993, pp. 587–600.

[In the following essay, Macklin traces how the private and political intersect to create the tragedy in Buero Vallejo's Jueces en la noche.]

Jueces en la noche (1979)1 may not be one of Buero Vallejo's best plays, but it is the one which most directly engages with the issues of the day, namely, the political dangers besetting the Spanish state in the immediate post-Franco era.2 On one level, then, it is an overtly political play, dealing with the transition from the old to the new order and with the difficult accommodations which established politicians have to make in order to survive. This fundamental theme is set in the context of the rise of the Left, the continued power of the Right and, above all, the threat of terrorist violence to the stability of the new democratic institutions. This engagement with actuality on Buero's part has attracted both criticism and praise; criticism, because it is felt that the theatre is not the place for political statements, praise, because it is an act of moral courage to deal with such issues on the contemporary stage. At the same time it is important to recognise that, as in all of Buero's work, the play's exploration of problems confronting the collectivity is firmly rooted in the portrayal of the individual and his tragic dilemma. In Jueces en la noche private and public interact in conformity with the dramatist's assertion, in a phrase with unmistakable Unamunian resonances, that in all his artistic endeavour “lo social nos interesa por cómo repercute en seres concretos de carne y hueso”.3

Jueces en la noche was written in 1978 and 1979 and received its first performance in the Teatro Lara in Madrid on 2nd October 1979. The immediate reaction was not favourable. Alberto Fernández Torres and Moisés Pérez Coterillo described the play as “una incómoda y patética confesión de impotencia teatral”,4 and Fernández Torres, writing alone, claims that Buero has put himself into “un claro callejón sin salida” and that the play is flawed technically.5 For this critic the language is careless, the staging conventional, the use of dream sequences excessive and clumsy, and all the characters save the protagonist are portrayed with a rigidity and coldness which deprive them of all authenticity and vitality. Fernández Torres' real concern, however, is that Jueces en la noche aims to be a political play but has no statement to make on politics. The issue is rather “la de un conflicto ético entre un hombre agobiado por sus muchas contradicciones y su mala conciencia”, with the result that we are faced with “un texto agarrotado, que intenta impotentemente decir algo sobre la política, cuando lo único que puede decir es algo sobre la moral”. Moreover, the play says precisely the opposite of what it intends to say: a political reading will lay the blame for the failure of democracy on the centre, whereas the theatrical reading shows an individual struggling with his conscience and being justified, indeed being absolved, “ante la Historia”. This is a curious commentary upon the play, to say the least. For one thing, it is difficult to see how a political and a theatrical reading can be separated, or even defined, and, for another, how a man's conscience and the “presente histórico-político” can be conflated. One might be forgiven for thinking that Fernández Torres is attempting to be over-subtle. Nevertheless, one has no difficulty in accepting the notion of the play's moral dimension, although one would want to argue that this is a strength, not a weakness. Buero Vallejo is not making an original political statement in the sense of a commentary on contemporary events—major writers rarely do—but he is drawing on an immediate set of political circumstances in order to dramatise a clash of values and to explore the interrelated questions of guilt, responsibility and punishment. What one might concede is that the political references are a little too intrusive in a play which purports to be the artistic representation of an acute personal dilemma. At the same time, questions of guilt and responsibility lie at the heart of Buero's analysis of post-Franco society, and the crucial point of convergence between the theatre and politics is their mutual concern with role-playing, with the mask. In Buero's previous play, La detonación, the protagonist Larra, as he puts the pistol to his head, looks at his own image and asks himself who he is: “Ahora comprendo que también es una máscara. Dentro de un minuto la arrancaré … y moriré sin conocer el rostro que esconde …, si es que hay algún rostro. Quizá no hay ninguno. Quizá sólo hay máscaras”.6 The role that one is called upon to play in life is, of course, corrosive of authenticity and it is the falseness at the root of human affairs, and hence their fundamental unreality, which forms the theme of Jueces en la noche, and nowhere is it more clearly seen than in the political sphere.

While Jueces en la noche is far from being a political tract, the political positions portrayed in it are relatively straightforward. Juan Luis Palacios, a former minister under the Régimen, is now a centrist deputy whose main aim is to hold on to his political position, but is unable to free himself from the phantoms of his past, a past in which his private life and public role, as a result of an unscrupulous, though hidden, deceit, are inextricably intertwined. The main action of the play concerns the slow and painful revelation of this secret, namely, that Juan Luis had used his dubious right-wing associations to trick his wife into marrying him by alienating her from her boyfriend, a left-wing activist. This act of deception returns to destroy his present life, although it is clear that his marriage, conceived in falsehood, was vitiated from the outset. Here we find a classic Buerian theme, that in the moral order acts of wrong-doing will inevitably haunt their perpetrator and that relationships can only prosper if they are genuine and authentic. The return of the agent of his deception, Ginés Pardo, apparently planning an act of political assassination, offers Juan Luis the opportunity to act honourably and restore the moral order, but he is prevented by the fear that his wife will leave him if the truth of their marriage is revealed. This dilemma is thus explored in the context of a very real political situation, the early years of Spain's tentative emergence from dictatorship to democracy. The fragility of the new order and the reality of Buero's fears about the survival of the new institutions were confirmed in less than two years in the attempted coup of 23-F. The forces that characterised Spanish society of the late 1970s are represented emblematically in a number of characters: Padre Anselmo (the Church), D. Jorge (capitalism, the business world), Un General (the Army), Cristina (the Left), Ginés Pardo (the militant Right), Julia (the apolitical middle class) and, as we have seen, Juan Luis himself (the politically opportunist centre).

The symbolic nature of the characters is made manifest from an early stage (and, if early reviews of the play are to be believed, the nature of the acting tended to emphasise this) when Anselmo calls the general and says “La Iglesia tiene que decirle algo a la Milicia” (p. 39), thereby reminding the audience of the alliance of Church and Army in Franco's Spain as well as of the power of the Church and the idea of Spain as a unified Catholic State. Indeed, the general recalls the ideal of the Christian soldier (“fiel cristiano y velando las armas”). The General, in fact, plays no major role in the play other than to be assassinated (or perhaps more accurately to signify the assassinated general). The priest, on the other hand, plays a major role in the second act. As we have seen, Juan Luis suspects strongly that Ginés Pardo is in Madrid to organise an assassination in order to destabilise the country and provoke a right-wing coup, but is afraid to go to the authorities lest his wife learn, through Pardo's confession, the truth about the past. This crisis of conscience leads him to consult Padre Anselmo. Juan Luis's Catholicism is rooted in his upbringing and naturally forms part of his fundamental conservatism. It is embodied in the presence of the large crucifix in his room, but it is a Catholicism which is outward and conventional and Julia casts serious doubts on its sincerity: “No cree en nada, salvo en Dios … si es que en realidad cree en El” (p. 83). If this is so, then religion is part of the social fabric and hence Juan Luis goes to the priest to seek confirmation or justification of the course of action he wishes to take. The Church can find justification for all kinds of actions depending on the circumstances. As an illustration, it is evident that Juan Luis once shared the attitudes of Ginés Pardo: “La agresividad nos parecía un deber, una defensa de España contra la subversión”, a position which Anselmo can qualify as “fanatismo, a veces bien intencionado” (pp. 106–07). The priest speaks using the typical formulae of the Church, which signifies unoriginal thinking and narrow-mindedness, but he can still recognise Juan Luis's sophistry and point it out to him, despite Juan Luis's desire to keep the whole issue on an abstract level. Nevertheless, the Church's capacity for prevarication is apparent, as is its desire to preserve the social order of which the family is the cornerstone. Political circumstances may change, but “la integridad de la familia cristiana debe defenderse a toda costa, en bien de nuestra fe y de la estabilidad social” (p. 109). Juan Luis can read this as an indication that he should do nothing. At the very least, Anselmo's advice is ambiguous and the interview serves to underline the moral impotence of the Church. Anselmo himself is aware of this when he contacts Juan Luis after the assassination and both seek justification. To Anselmo's question “¿se decidió dar algún aviso?” Juan Luis replies “Usted no me lo recomendó”, to which the priest further replies “¡Tampoco se lo desaconsejé! … ¡Yo le remití a su conciencia!” (p. 140).

The telephone conversation also raises a point about terrorism which is a recurrent theme in the play. Anselmo accepts the conventional view that terrorism is the weapon of the left, but the ensuing dialogue expounds the thesis that the right have a vested interest in creating this scenario:

P. ANSELMO: (Distante) Rece mucho, hijo. Todos tenemos que rezar para que la extrema izquierda no nos lleve al caos.

J. LUIS: No olvide que la extrema insania no es exclusiva de ese campo. No olvide a los militantes de izquierda asesinados últimamente … y años atrás.

P. ANSELMO: No lo olvido. Pero hechos como el de hoy imponen la evidencia: terroristas de la izquierda. No lo dude.

J. LUIS: Aunque así sea, puede haber alguien detrás

(p. 140).

This is merely a repetition of what he had said earlier to Ginés Pardo: “Algo que parezca ejecutado por revolucionarios, y que acaso lo lleven a cabo verdaderos fanáticos de la extrema izquierda …, porque en sus organizaciones hayan sabido infiltrarse hábiles agentes como tú” (p. 74). This is indeed the role played by Ginés Pardo, a former policeman and agent provocateur, who appears in the first dream sequence in the play. Present, though initially passive, he re-enacts, in a flashback, his role in the destruction of Julia's relationship with Fermín Soria. This scene reveals the sinister relations of power under the dictatorship in which Juan Luis's right-wing allegiances are made clear, firstly through his father (“Medalla individual en la Cruzada y miembro de la Casa Militar de su Excelencia”), then through his employer (“Sanz Moles. Ya sabe, fundador del partido”), and finally through the fraternal solidarity of the victors of the Civil War (p. 48). Ginés Pardo's presence suggests the secret police, detention, interrogation and torture, all employed to “defender la paz de España” (p. 50), and is intended to indicate the continued existence and clandestine power of right-wing elements: “Organizaciones de ultra-derecha, policías paralelas del exterior …” (p. 72), with whom some sectors of the police are in sympathy, if not connivance: “Nunca son tan eficientes mis antiguos compañeros, entre otras razones porque algunos no quieren serlo” (p. 74). In a moment of candour, Juan Luis admits his real political beliefs, which continue to be rooted in a non-democratic past and from which even Ginés Pardo, in a spirit of “Hay que adaptarse a la nueva situación” (p. 72), has evolved: “Ahora todos tenemos que jugar esta partida miserable de la democracia, pero con la esperanza de recobrar un día la España verdadera. Y si para ello hay que llegar a la violencia, Dios nos perdonará” (p. 72). Ultimately Ginés Pardo, although involved in political activity for mercenary ends, comes to recognise the emptiness of political ideals and accept that all sides fundamentally are self-seeking and that personal motive and ambition always take precedence over professed beliefs:

Yo tuve mis ideales, que eran los tuyos. ¿Y qué he visto durante años y años? Que todos los traicionabais. Por dinero, por ambición o por subsistir. En toda esa gentuza de la izquierda no se podía creer; pero resultaba que tampoco se podía creer en los nuestros. (Baja la voz) El mejor de todos, un farsante

(p. 142).

From a different perspective Julia is equally cynical about politics, as her initial dialogue with Cristina makes clear: “Toda la política es una engañifa” (p. 54). Cristina, however, is the voice of radicalism and revolt in the play and makes the most potent political intervention in the play when she says: “No vale dar la espalda a los problemas que nos acosan” (p. 56).7 For her, Julia has the luxury of despising politics and hers is essentially the argument of the Right and one which permits the status quo to continue. To be cynical or devoid of interest implies acquiescence. Cristina sees this in part as a legacy of the regime, which cultivated apathy among the population, but also led to political immaturity among the committed, who are victims of “impaciencia, oportunismo, sectarismo” (p. 56). But Cristina still believes in the possibility of change and is conscious of the need to guard against the forces standing against it, those who are aided by terrorism. Democracy can be blamed for instability when there is still “mucho nostálgico de la dictadura” (p. 80) on the part of those who wish to “asustar el país con el coco rojo” (p. 56). Julia's disillusionment is of course largely due to the circumstances of her life which is characterised by emptiness (“años vacíos”, “insustancial”) and lack of idealism caused by her conviction that Fermín betrayed both her and his colleagues: “Desde entonces no he podido creer en nadie ni en nada” (p. 85). In other words, the personal and the political are entwined in her relationship with Juan Luis Palacios.

Juan Luis is the classic politician of the “transición”, the former minister trying to find a role and hold on to his position. What he most fears is obscurity and in the first dream sequence he sees his guests make their excuses and depart since they recognise that “Está hundido” (p. 44). It is an insecurity which is inherent in politics but is even more acute in Palacios' case because of his past, revealed in the reconstructed scene involving himself, Ginés Pardo and Julia. In a sense, Juan Luis is a prisoner of his time, his allegiances formed in “la atmósfera de triunfalismo y de privilegios en que crecí” (p. 153), the ambivalence of his new position seen in his unwitting use of “procuradores” instead of “diputados”, and in his uncertainty as to which political grouping to belong. His rumoured intention of joining the Socialists cannot be separated from Cristina's revelation of the electoral gains being made by the Left. Indeed, Juan Luis's desire to be all things to all men is evident in his appropriation of historically incompatible affiliations: “Católico, liberal y socialista” (p. 59). His new socialist leanings have also to be seen in relation to his associations with the business world and also in his hard-headed and prophetic observation in the context of Spanish socialism that “las decisiones de la alta politica no se pueden tomar ignorando los grandes poderes económicos” (p. 62). In fact, it is to Don Jorge that he confides his thoughts about a change of party not in order to “abandonar la moderación” but to “ocupar áreas que no debemos dejar escapar” (p. 87) and to dilute the worst tendencies of socialism by making it come to terms with “la economía del mercado y el incentivo de beneficios legítimos” (p. 88). Curiously, Don Jorge in the dream sequences is given the role of Fermín's father in which he represents the voice of the vanquished of the Civil War and of the oppressed under the dictatorship. His son and Eladio González, to whose execution Juan Luis had agreed, represent the militant opposition and their strength resides in their capacity to resist and oppose. This is their victory: “decir ‘no’ es vencer” (p. 98). Their victory is a personal one and in it lies the hope for a more humane future against the dark impersonal forces which seem to intervene anonymously in human affairs. The argument that the system is too complex to identify personal responsibility is Don Jorge's justification. The idealist seems naive to the sophisticated man of the world:

Ni usted ni yo somos niños. Los dos sabemos que en el mundo actúan intereses poderosos y que a veces no vacilan en recurrir a métodos reprobables … Cumplamos honestamente nuestro trabajo sin especular demasiado acerca de esas oscuras fuerzas, con las que quizá estemos condenados sin saberlo a fatales conexiones, dada la intricada estructura de la economía moderna

(p. 137).

There is a fundamental divide, however unreal, between the two sides and in the ideology of the right the battle against the left is a war against evil which threatens all the traditional values. As the violinist points out to Juan Luis, he has created his own undoing: “Y eres tú quien sigue enarbolando como un garrote el fantasma de las Españas” (p. 163). So whereas Don Jorge expresses the view that Juan Luis's time has come (“la patria te va a necesitar” [p. 159]) while his personal life is ruined, the violinist sees clearly that “no creo que tú puedas ayudar a nuestra patria … Tu pasado te lo impide” (p. 163).

While Jueces en la noche may ultimately concern the personal tragedy of a man who is destroyed by his own ambition, it nonetheless makes a coherent statement on political conditions in contemporary Spain which, while in no sense original, correctly identifies the forces at work and the vital issues at stake to the extent of being, in a sense, prophetic. To that extent we can agree with Carlos Muñiz's assessment of Buero as a committed writer: “El escritor está comprometido en la medida en que se pone en contacto con los problemas de su tiempo y adopta, frente a ellos, actitudes radicalmente críticas. En este sentido no se puede negar a Buero su condición de autor comprometido”.8 Drama, however, is not made of political statements alone and it is now necessary to see how this context underpins and indeed embodies a characteristically Buerian modern tragic vision. In fact, Buero views the tragic dimension of his work as a safeguard against its falling into pure propaganda or, for that matter, merely committed literature. If it is excessively affirmative a work “se saldría del marco de la tragedia para entrar en el de la propaganda doctrinal”.9 Even on the level of politics, Jueces en la noche transcends its immediate historical context to embody more universal concerns—the nature of democracy, the interaction of private and public, freedom and historical inevitability, the workings of power. Thus, while Buero wishes his audience to see in his work a reflection of their own times, he also wishes them to consider individual, as well as national, destinies, and to recognise the inevitability of suffering in human affairs.

While it is undeniable that the contemporary political and social dimension of Jueces en la noche forms part of its impact, no play by Buero has ever limited itself to a specific time or restricted its relevance to a call for a specific kind of social action. He makes this clear in his essay on the nature of tragedy: “si ante una obra de tema social de nuestros días el espectador sólo experimenta deseos de actuación inmediata y no se plantea—o siente—con renovada viveza el problema del hombre y de su destino, no es una tragedia lo que está viendo” (T, 67–8). If, up until now, we have seen Juan Luis simply as the embodiment of the unscrupulous politician, it is important to recognise that he is not a unidimensional creation devised simply to carry the weight of an ideology which is the object of the playwright's critical focus. In fact, in the case of Juan Luis it is probably inappropriate to speak of an ideology at all. Juan Luis is disembodied of conviction, “no tiene nada dentro” (p. 83), in Julia's words. But he is a complex individual whose identity has disintegrated into the roles he is called upon to perform and who seeks a core of being in an authentic relationship with another being, although he himself has condemned that relationship to inauthenticity from the start. Juan Luis is essentially divided between his inner self and his public projection, not only in the sense of the external image of the politician, but also in the sense of the pathetic reality of his life which is hidden behind the façade of his public success. In the words of Luis Iglesias Feijóo, he is “un personaje complejo, dubitativo por debajo de su aparente seguridad y contradictorio”,10 and this makes the play ultimately more compelling in terms of its dramatic conflict. If Juan Luis's public self is located in history, his intimate self is revealed in the manifestation of his agony. Buero dramatises the inner torment of his protagonist as he wrestles with his past, his conscience and his unshakeable feelings of guilt. The judges who come to interrogate him in the dream sequences are his own creation and the interplay of dream and reality is also the persistence of the past in the present. We could in fact say that the reality of the political world is unreal whereas the dream scenes are those which are most real. This technique, as well as Juan Luis's monologues, objectifies the inner forces to which he is subject and provides the dynamics of the dramatic action. On the structure of the play, Gregorio Torres Nebrera writes: “Jueces en la noche se construye mediante sucesivos enfrentamientos dialécticos, en varios planos y en diversas direcciones, que van delimitando las responsabilidades de un pasado—el de Juan Luis y Julia—cuando se enfrentan con un presente crítico que exige actitudes de diverso signo moral”.11

The moral dimension is of course a constant in Buero's theatre and he himself has written: “La belleza estética no es una categoría divorciada por fuerza de la ética … Lo estético lleva implícitos con gran frecuencia valores éticos” (T, 68–9). The form of Jueces en la noche is carefully structured and crafted in order to provide a series of perspectives on the question of responsibility for one's actions and for the consequences of those actions.

That the consequences of Juan Luis's actions are tragic in the broad sense is undeniable, for death and suffering, essential ingredients of any tragic work, are integral parts of it. What we are concerned with, however, is not any rigid formal notion of tragedy, but a combination of elements which may be said to constitute a tragic vision. These may be seen to be fate, guilt, death, suffering and recognition, and must operate in a sufficiently complex and awe-inspiring way to produce in the spectator the appropriate tragic emotions of pity and terror. For this to occur, it is important that the tragic hero should stand above ordinary man, that his fall should in some way be momentous. It is not easy to concede the title of hero to Juan Luis Palacios, though his eminence as a public figure makes his plight more dramatic. What does border on the tragic is that curious interaction of character and circumstance which is essential to tragedy in the idea that the tragic figure in some measure contributes to his own downfall. While Juan Luis is a prisoner of the society into which he is born, he also makes the choices which eventually shape his destiny. Tragedy implies a view of human existence where the threat of suffering is always present, and this suffering is neither willed nor totally unmotivated. This paradoxical quality is central to the tragic vision, which is founded on tensions and ambiguities. Characters are forced to make decisions and choices upon which their future happiness depends, but these choices involve of necessity either sacrifice or conflict with the desires of other people. Such situations are the seed-bed of tragedy and for them to occur it is necessary for the tragic hero to be in some way divided within himself. To undergo the truly tragic experience, he must attain a growth of self-knowledge, a state of recognition. Arguably, this recognition is to be found only in Julia, for Juan Luis is always aware of his dilemma and seeks merely a way out of it. By making Juan Luis so manifestly guilty, Buero robs him of the potential to be great tragic figure. Recognition can of course be transferred from the characters to the audience or spectator, and it is in this sphere that Buero Vallejo makes his particular contribution to a concept of modern tragedy.

Buero's views on tragedy are relatively straightforward and he has expounded them in several of his essays, most notably in “La tragedia”, to which I have already made reference, published in 1958. His fundamental idea that tragedy and hope are not incompatible underscores his thinking to such an extent that David Johnston can write: “The phrase ‘tragedia esperanzada’ has become emblematic of his theatre as a whole”.12 His essay “La tragedia” is an extended justification of this notion of “tragedia esperanzada”, drawing on Greek tragedy both in its formal characteristics and also on what he sees as its essential spirit, the recognition of suffering leading to a greater humanity and dignity. In many of his plays, this vision is made explicit, but in Jueces en la noche, concerned as it is with the inauthenticity of contemporary politics, it is revealed more obliquely. Arguably, the recognition is on the part of the spectator rather than of the characters themselves. This is the special meaning Buero gives to dramatic catharsis: “La catarsis no es ya descarga, sino mejora” (T, 67). The awakening of pity and terror, and their sublimation, lead us to “actitudes humanas de valor permanente”, and is therefore an ennobling experience. Morality, as we have implied already, is inseparable from Buero's tragic vision and in his essay he in fact writes of “la moral trágica” (T, 68). He accepts the Greek idea of error followed by punishment, hubris leading to nemesis, and therefore acknowledges man's complicity in his own downfall. While there may be at work some inscrutable fate, a set of unavoidable circumstances, this is only part of the pattern for, in Buero's words, “el destino no es ciego ni arbitrario, y … no sólo es en gran parte creación del hombre mismo, sino … a veces, éste lo domeña” (T, 69). To violate the moral order is to court suffering. In this way, Buero does not conceive freedom and fate as opposites, but as existing in a dialectical relationship. It is not a simple pattern of cause and effect, for often man's actions are ambivalent and their consequences can be similarly ambivalent. Tragedy is born in this imprecise area of the conflict and interaction of partial truths and so when he describes tragedy as “el género más moral” (T, 71), he is not advocating moralistic or didactic writing in a narrow sense, but rather seeks through drama “una aproximación positiva a la intuición del complicadísimo orden moral del mundo” (T, 71). If the protagonist is brought to this kind of awareness, it is possible to speak of a happy ending to tragedy: “El protagonista sabe, o llega a aprender por la fecunda lección del dolor, la fuerza desencadenante de la reflexión” (T, 73). In this way, Buero denies the existence of a pessimistic vision in tragedy and, as Derek Gagen shows, he has been immersed in the debate between optimism and pessimism which goes back to the early nineteenth century.13 The dramatist's view is quite simple: if the vision presented in a play is irredeemably bleak, then there is no stimulus for struggle and change; if it is too positive, it will not engage the audience. True tragedy is built upon the tension between these two poles, it is engendered by “la fe que duda” (T, 77). This dialectic is inherent in both the political sphere, and also in the realm of individual self-affirmation, and is thus doubly applicable to Jueces en la noche. One of the ways in which Buero distinguishes tragedy from pessimism is his belief that it can contribute to an improvement in the human situation rather than be a simple exposition of life's suffering: “la tragedia representa en el terreno del arte un heroico acto por el que el hombre trata de comprender el dolor y se plantea la posibilidad de superarlo sin rendirse a la idea de que el dolor y el mundo que lo partean sean hechos arbitrarios. No hay pesimismo más radical que el de dar por segura la falta de sentido del mundo” (T, 75). In fact, Buero firmly believes in an underlying moral order which can be perceived in the enactment of the dramatic work through the behaviour and interaction of individuals in moments of extreme tension and conflict. In the case of Jueces en la noche death itself is seen as a kind of triumph and a re-establishment of the moral order in that, as we shall see, it functions both as a kind of poetic justice wrought against the guilty and as a liberation offered as a kind of hope to the victim. Such an order can pertain only to the ideal world of art but it holds out to the audience the prospect of a more human set of values by which life can be organised. In this way Buero sets out to show that man's complicity with human destiny can be organised for his good and that fate is not an abstract force but is created by man's own actions. “La tragedia”, he writes, “intenta explorar de qué modo las torpezas humanas se disfrazan de destino.”14

Although she is not the prime mover of the action, Julia is perhaps the most tragic figure in the play. Her willingness to believe in the charade enacted by Juan Luis and Ginés Pardo undermines her faith in Fermín and leaves her completely disillusioned. Her dignity resides in the fact that she is prepared to face this reality without evasion: “Prefiero la tristeza a la mentira” (p. 56), and thus immediately emerges as morally superior to her husband. The irony is that her sadness is based upon a lie, and therefore her present is founded upon an unreal past. Her whole life is past-directed, as she herself recognises both in her words: “Sé que no tengo futuro porque veo sólo el pasado” (p. 91), and in her actions: she seeks out Cristina, returns to the student café, refuses to move on. Julia's belief in Fermín's betrayal led to her death to the world. Her remark “Y ahora estoy tan muerta como tú” (p. 67) is a recognition of this and also a premonition of her actual death at the end of the play. When the play opens, it is as if the intervening twenty years have not occurred and now the significance of the original events is being unravelled. Part of Cristina's function in the play is to bring Julia to a new awareness.

Julia, however, has become so identified with her error that there is no other reality for her. Despite Cristina's assurance that “atreverse a cambiar es empezar a curar” (p. 92), to change would be to destroy the role she has created for herself. From this point on the past becomes ever more present in Julia's life, though it is progressively reconstructed. The key point in her transformation is after the assassination of the general and the visit of Ginés Pardo to Juan Luis, when she does realise that her husband had deceived her. A recurrent theme is the melodramatic nature of the deceit: “una historia de tebeo”, “mi tragedia de veintiún años ha sido un folletín” (p. 152), and this recognition puts the wider tragedy in perspective. What is known as “la tragedia española” was converted, through official propaganda, into a “retórica y topiquera película de buenos y malos” and in this climate it was easy to adopt the same device “para hacer de mi pobre tragedia de señorita burguesa otro folletín” (p. 153). In this frame of mind, devoid of self-pity, Julia is brought to a recognition of her own guilt. If Juan Luis's deceit led to the destruction of all three of them, Julia herself had not enough strength or faith to resist. Her fear of Fermín's way of life and her passive acceptance of Juan Luis's version are the two main elements of her complicity: “Los dos lo matamos” (p. 154). She had fallen into guilt by doing the apparently guiltless thing. Julia reaches her moment of tragic recognition: “Ya me he iluminado”, “Lo veo todo tan claro” (p. 133), and her acceptance of her own error, her own guilt, leads to her death through suicide and to the final scene of the play where, in the poetic world of the theatre, a proper order is restored. Julia finally recovers her true identity.

Juan Luis too has a false identity. On one level this is part of his protean nature as a politician, taken to an extreme in the telling phrase: “Cuando la libertad es mayor hay que ser más hipócritas” (p. 72), and in different situations he adopts a series of personae. But the play itself opens with a false identity for Juan Luis, portraying him as a doctor, happily married with two children. In the opening dream sequence, he appears to appropriate the identity of Fermín Soria, just as he had usurped his role as Julia's partner. The theme of identity is further developed in the mystery surrounding the two musicians and in the absence of the third member of the trio. The sense of unease and strangeness which characterises the opening sequence is paralleled by the sense of order and harmony when the scene is re-enacted at the end of the play. In between, the gradual revelation of both the secret and of the relationships between the various identities provides the means of unravelling the mystery of the play. In fact, Buero gave his play the subtitle “Misterio profano”, which naturally evokes the medieval mystery tradition, although without religion in the sense of a specifically Christian dimension. Given Buero's views on the ethical nature of drama, it is difficult not to think also of the morality plays and of the notion of theatre as being in some way corrective and recuperative. Nevertheless, the underlying belief in meaning, as opposed to pure chance and contingency, is fundamental, even if this can be only dimly apprehended, and here we shade into the other more obvious meaning of mystery. The tragic writer, observes Buero, “plantea una y otra vez el enigma del mundo y de su dolor precisamente porque lo cree enigma—cifra poseedora de significado—y no amargo azar. Si sus convicciones religiosas, filosóficas o sociales son concretas y positivas, el enigma poseerá sus claves y de simple enigma pasará a ser misterio” (T, 77). One way in which Buero conveys this sense of mystery and meaning is through the use of music, the March of Beethoven's Trio Serenata, which is used to begin and end the play, though with a different effect on each occasion. The trio of musicians performs the role of a Greek chorus, but they do not stand apart from the action and simply comment on it, for they are intimately involved in the action. In Buero's thinking on tragedy, the chorus, though different from the protagonists, is part of the action: “Nada, pues, de ‘espectador ideal’, sino actor. Pero, eso sí: actor colectivo” (T, 80). The chorus provides the link between the individual and the community.

The trio of course provides the title of the play, for they are the judges who appear in the night to haunt Juan Luis, and it is only at the end of the play that the identity of the third judge is made known. One way in which Buero interconnects the various identities is by giving Don Jorge a dual role, as a father-figure to Juan Luis and, in the dream sequences, as the father of Fermín. In this guise, he appears towards the end of the first part of the play as Juan Luis, in his altered state, approaches madness and, in another dream, is made aware of his responsibility for the death of the general. This is part of the symmetry of the play's treatment of the theme of revelation and concealment: both Fermín and Juan Luis kept silent but whereas Fermín's silence was an act of heroism and solidarity, Juan Luis's was based on fear and self-centredness. Cristina explains the destructive nature of Juan Luis's passion for Julia:

CRISTINA: … No me parece que puedas enorgullecerte de tu pasión por ella.

JUAN LUIS: Es lo más noble de mi vida.

CRISTINA: Tal vez. Pero es, sobre todo, tu fracaso … La quieres … porque, muy adentro, sientes que nunca la has conseguido. En tu cariño no hay abnegación, sino vanidad contrariada

(pp. 120–21).

At this point, Juan Luis's judges reappear and it is clear that it is he who calls them, that he is in fact his own judge. In the final scene, which takes place in some unreal world, the cellist implies that Palacios's constant seeking out of these judges, his constant visits to the place of the dead, means he is seeking his own escape through death. It is death in fact which provides the solution to this private and political tragedy. Buero wrote in “La tragedia” that “El último y mayor efecto moral de la tragedia es un acto de fe. Consiste en llevarnos a creer que la catástrofe está justificada y tiene un sentido” (T, 71), and earlier in the same essay, he wrote “La tragedia no sólo es temor, sino amor. Y no sólo catástrofe, sino victoria” (T, 69). The spectacle of human suffering offered in Jueces en la noche is far from being an edifying one. The moral cowardice of Juan Luis is heightened by its being located firmly within the world of opportunist politics, but the paradoxical convergence and divergence of his “yo íntimo” and his “yo público” underscores man's uncertain struggle between freedom and destiny as well as the audience's ambivalent reaction to the competing claims of “fe” and “duda”. If tragedy is to have the element of hope, the sense of underlying purpose which Buero perceives as being essential to its very nature, then death cannot be the sole outcome. That death must be set in some context suggesting a wider purpose or transcendence. In Jueces en la noche the dream element is made to provide this kind of denouement, for the same dreams that had been the substance of Juan Luis's tortured conscience become the scenario, in theatrical or artistic terms, for a positive reversal of the disruption of the moral order. The emptiness of Julia's life, which had been symbolised in the empty box containing no anniversary present, is filled in the other world. It is filled by the present of the viola which reveals Julia to be Juan Luis's third victim and final judge. This act completes the trio, thereby restoring the disrupted order, and also reunites Julia with her rightful partner as Juan Luis is enveloped in the obscurity he had feared all his political life. The pattern of tragic inevitability adumbrated in the opening stages of the play is allowed to work itself out but, in keeping with the fundamental tenets of Buerian tragedy, the vision of human suffering is firmly contained within a humanist ethic of purpose and perfectibility. Underlying it is an almost religious view of the interconnectedness of all things, “aquella intuición, muchas veces inefable, por la que el hombre advierte su dependencia de una grandiosa Unidad sin fronteras y que determina las más diversas actitudes religadoras con el mundo o con sus semejantes” (T, 83). Seen in this light, Jueces en la noche, as so many of Buero's works, stands as a powerful warning against the dangers, in both public and private affairs, of excessive awareness of the self and against the tragic consequences of its concomitant, the denial of selfhood to others. In true tragic fashion, Buero traces patterns of death in life but, as always, a spirit of affirmation pervades his work so that even in death life is made to triumph and tragedy, like la Marcha del Trío Serenata, asserts itself as “un himno a la vida, a la esperanza en el futuro” (p. 114).


  1. All references are to Jueces en la noche, edited by Luis Iglesias Feijóo (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1981), and are incorporated in the body of the text in the form of page references.

  2. This is of course not surprising for the abolition of censorship led to increasing engagement with contemporary issues on Buero's part in successive plays, culminating in the rider, more typical of the cinema, attached to Música cercana (1989): “Los personajes y el argumento de esta obra son ficticios. Cualquier posible semejanza con personas y acontecimientos reales será casual y no debe entenderse como alusión a ellos”. Significantly, the writer's relation to censorship is the source of the dramatic conflict in La detonación (1977), Buero's first ‘democracy’ play.

  3. “De mi teatro”, in Romanistisches Jahrbuch, 30 (1979), 222.

  4. Pipirijaina, 11 (November-December, 1979), 30.

  5. Insula, 396–97 (November-December, 1979), 31.

  6. La detonación, edited by David Johnston (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1989), 238.

  7. This attitude is very reminiscent of that of Verónica in La llegada de los dioses (1978), whose words “Moriremos caminando” end the play in an exhortation not to despair but to hope in the face of apparently impossible odds.

  8. Carlos Muñiz, “Antonio Buero Vallejo, ese hombre comprometido”, in Estudios sobre Buero Vallejo, edited by Mariano de Paco, Los trabajos de la Cátedra de Teatro de Murcia, 2 (Murcia: Universidad de Murcia, 1984), p. 17.

  9. “La tragedia”, in El teatro, Enciclopedia del arte escénico, edited by Guillermo Díaz-Plaja (Barcelona: Noguer, 1958), pp. 63–87 (p. 86). All subsequent references to this work will be incorporated in the text in the form T, followed by page reference.

  10. Luis Iglesias Feijóo, La trayectoria dramática de Antonio Buero Vallejo (Santiago de Compostela: La Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, 1982), p. 505.

  11. Gregorio Torres Nebrera, “Construcción y sentido de Jueces en la noche de Antonio Buero Vallejo”, in Estudios sobre Buero Vallejo, p. 336.

  12. David Johnston, Antonio Buero Vallejo, El concierto de San Ovidio, Critical Guides to Spanish Texts, 48 (London: Grant and Cutler, 1990), p. 91.

  13. Derek Gagen, “The Germ of Tragedy: The Genesis and Structure of Buero Vallejo's El concierto de San Ovidio”, Quinquireme, 8 (1985), 37–52.

  14. “Sobre teatro”, Cuadernos de Agora, 79–82 (May-August, 1963), 14.

F. Komla Aggor (essay date Winter 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4635

SOURCE: “Derealizing the Present: Evasion and Madness in El tragaluz,” in Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Winter, 1994, pp. 141–50.

[In the following essay, Aggor uses a psychoanalytical approach to deconstruct El padre's madness in Buero Vallejo's El tragaluz.]

Un estudio riguroso de la locura en El tragaluz de Antonio Buero Vallejo abre paso a una nueva interpretación del estado psíquico del personaje enigmático, El Padre. La locura de El Padre nace, primero, porque no logra expresar abiertamente su dolor producido por la muerte de Elvirita, y segundo, porque la familia no quiere discutir aquella tragedia. Tanto el empeño de El Padre por revivir el trauma a través del tragaluz como sus actos violentos, deben entenderse como un mecanismo, si bien paradójico, que le permite defenderse contra la difícil realidad de su estado patológico. Su regresión metafísica al pasado representa un proceso catártico que evoca y cumple con el objetivo central subyacente en El tragaluz: es preciso volver incesantemente a investigar el pasado para enhebrar con el presente una realidad fundada en la verdad. El loco, al intentar redescubrir el pasado, hace resaltar factores sociológicos importantes que ayudan a explicar mejor su condición demente y a tener una visión más completa de la España de la posguerra.

Michel Foucault, in Maladie mentale et psychologie, makes an important contribution to the understanding of mental illness by illuminating some inner dynamics which were previously overlooked. According to Foucault, mental illness is much more than regression (when the patient attempts to relive the past through fantasies) because, if this were the case, madness would be an innate tendency in each of us by the very movement of our evolution.1 “Regression is not a natural falling back into the past; it is an intentional flight from the present. A recourse rather than a return” (Foucault 33). He points out that the past is invoked only as a substitute for the present situation, and that process is realized only to the extent that it involves what he calls “a derealization of the present” (33). Derealizing the present in illness means reliving the past, and that implies a need for the patient to defend himself or herself against the present (Foucault 35). It is a defense mechanism.

Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, in their studies on hysteria, show that the psychical trauma that produces hysterical phenomena is not the kind whereby the trauma “merely acts like an ‘agent provocateur’ in releasing the symptom, which thereafter leads an independent existence” (7). On the contrary, the memory of the shock acts like “a foreign body which long after its entry must continue to be regarded as an agent that is still at work” (7). Breuer and Freud indicate that the origin of the pathological condition needs to be brought into consciousness if the patient is to be cured. Thus, they propose catharsis as psychotherapy for hysteria. They claim that the abnormality usually stays because it has been denied “normal wearing-away processes” by means of vital reactions related to the precipitating cause: reactions such as tears, speaking (confession, utterances), revenge, etc. They caution that if the reaction is suppressed, the emotion remains attached to the memory and the condition persists (8).

The complex problems raised by El Padre's madness in El tragaluz (1967), Antonio Buero Vallejo's famous play, can be better understood in light of these psychoanalytic ideas. In this article, I focus on the causal relationship between the lack of an effective reaction on the part of El Padre to his trauma and the collective evasion of the facts surrounding that trauma, on the one hand, and, on the other, his madness. I will also argue that El Padre's lunatic regression is an attempt to “derealize” the present as a cathartic antidote to his disorder.2

One question that needs to be addressed is whether El Padre's madness is pathological, that is, if he is truly mad, in the modern, clinical connotation of the term. As one evaluates the lunacy of mad characters, it becomes essential to determine what kind of abnormality they suffer, since madness is often employed in literature for different purposes. El Padre is a man who cannot recognize his own sons, thinks his wife is his mother, tries to eat through his eyes instead of through his mouth and therefore has to be fed by his wife, likes to go out through the wardrobe instead of through the doorway, asks a priest if the parishioner in his company is his spouse, etc. Kenneth Brown contends that everything the father says in El tragaluz is actually reasonable and meaningful (255), but it is not far-fetched to realize that what the madman says at times is wrapped in complete absurdity. The instances of incoherence and delusions cited above are indications of an ailment bordering on severe psychosis. It is important to understand this fact because only then can we fully appreciate El Padre's persistent struggle to free himself from mental captivity.3

Mario, who best seems to identify the family's problems, explains to Encarna the incident leading to his father's lunacy, by concluding this way:

La nena murió unos días después. De hambre … Nunca más habló él de aquello. Nunca. Prefirió enloquecer.


As Newman says, the reason for El Padre's silence is that he probably wants to avoid an outburst of violence on his part against Vicente (71). The crucial point Mario makes is that El Padre's condition is directly connected with the lack of an effective means of “energetic reaction” on his part. As Foucault reminds us, even language—a verbal complaint of some sort—is a powerful tool under such circumstances in wearing away the shock (8). By internalizing the stress caused by the loss and by refusing to discuss the blow, to ventilate his pain, El Padre paves the way for his own tragedy.5

He is not alone, however, in promoting the silence. There is a collective effort that sustains his derangement by evading direct confrontation with the fact of its origin. Let us begin with Vicente. He intentionally misrepresents the facts by maintaining, without any clear foundation, that his father's delusions are a result of arteriosclerosis, an effect of old age; but the audience cannot accept his reasoning. For if Vicente truly believed that his father's problem is old age, we would consider Vicente to be foolish, yet his cleverness at outwitting others and the way he readily takes advantage of circumstances show that he is astute. When his mother asks him why he remembers the incident, he emphatically replies with a rhetorical question: “Pero ¿cómo iba yo a olvidar aquello?” (72). The answer suggests that he has been feigning ignorance of any possible link between the train incident and his father's constant reference to the train. He has simply chosen to dodge the problem and pretend that his father's aberration is entertaining, until he finally gets caught. If Vicente can be forgiven for deliberately running away with the family's provisions, he deserves no pardon for lying about it.

The mother's role in contributing to El Padre's state is even more significant. Not only does she endorse Vicente's misinformation about the death of Elvirita, she also supports his claim that El Padre's troubles are a mark of old age: “Son cosas de la vejez, Mario …” (94), she insists. And yet at the same time, she bans from the household any mention of Elvirita and of the word “tren.” When Vicente finally comes to talk about the episode with Mario, she fiercely intervenes, forbidding any reference to it:

La Madre.—¡No, hijos!
Vicente.—¿Por qué no?
La Madre.—Hay que olvidar aquello.

(99; my emphasis)

To Mario's question as to whether she thinks much of Elvirita, she whispers: “Todos los días” (52). Like the madman, she prefers silence over the whole case: “Y tú [Mario] no le hables a tu padre de ningún tren. No hay que complicar las cosas … ¡y hay que vivir!” (54), she whispers. For the mother, silence is an expedient remedy for the family's worries because it offers the only guarantee, even if temporary, against a revival of distressing memories. Silence, however, is an uncertain flight from the past, since that past continues to invade the present and to make life increasingly complicated and unbearable for everyone in the household. As Felman recalls, “Our past is not what is past. It is something that never stops coming to pass, and to pass us by; it is what never ceases to be repeated as a vanished Present” (69).

Mario is the only one who attempts to pursue the truth about the event. But even he is prepared to do so only in the absence of his father. This is why when El Padre appears during the dispute and asks, “¿Pasa algo en la sala de espera?,” he lies to him: “Nada, padre. Todos duermen tranquilos” (100). As for Encarna, all she says on hearing the story told her by Mario is: “Hay que olvidar, Mario” (45; my emphasis).

All these references to evasion and denials go directly against the commentaries of the narrators: “Durante siglos tuvimos que olvidar, para que el pasado no nos paralizase; ahora debemos recordar incesantemente, para que el pasado no nos envenene” (88). Since the entire family has chosen the path of pretext and has failed to probe the source of its discontent for years, it is able to survive, but in a hopeless and miserable way. The family must now consciously recollect its painful history in order to ensure peace. In Buero Vallejo's quest for a rediscovery of the past, what becomes imperative is a search for the truth, a turn-around from evasion and fear, no matter how bitter the reality may be: “… siempre es mejor saber, aunque sea doloroso” (87). So indispensable and so pertinent has the message been to post-war Spain that it was echoed in a statement made in 1968 by Ildefonso-Manuel Gil:

Hacer imposible que algo semejante vuelva a repetirse es la mejor justificación de nuestras vidas y eso no se logra desde el olvido, sino desde el recuerdo obsesionante. Hay que volver una y otra vez sobre el examen de aquellos hechos, detalle sobre detalle y hasta lo más hondo, porque es necesario dar a conocer aquello cuya repetición es necesario evitar.


The latent paradox in this statement—to expose the fearful—is central to Buero Vallejo's purpose in creating the dementia of El Padre. It constitutes the cathartic cure that Breuer and Freud propose as a formula for correcting mental pathology, although obviously El Padre's case is acute. El Padre's attachment to the past through the skylight is a painful return to a horrible episode; and yet it is a vital means by which he is able to “derealize” a present of psychological agony. Unfortunately, the failure of those around him to open a dialogue with him frustrates the process of regression and prompts him to enter into monologue with himself. Consequently, his apparently lunatic question, “¿Quién es ése?,” signifies a yearning for a historical bond with the past, a past full of mystery, lies and catastrophe that need to be revealed:

Él.—Hemos aprendido de niños la causa: las mentiras y catástrofes de los siglos precedentes la impusieron como una pregunta ineludible.


There are several ways in which El Padre concretely derealizes the present. The principal one is the special relationship he maintains with the tragaluz, the skylight. He is completely obsessed with it because, through it, he perceives the presence of the train, symbol of the journey back to Elvirita. As the narrators tell us, the train is a state of mind; its sound serves to evoke events of a traumatic past, to open up old wounds: “Lo utilizamos para expresar escondidas inquietudes que, a nuestro juicio, debían destacarse. Oiréis, pues, un tren; o sea un pensamiento” (15). It is clear, then, that the madman's fascination with the skylight is, in part, a burning desire to uncover hidden grievances that he was unable to communicate while sane.

The “escondidas inquietudes” may be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, they refer to the gamut of social and ontological problems being faced by a society. When Vicente at last agrees to observe the skylight with Mario, this is what they discover: a group of run-away children smoking cigarettes; a man hurrying to the pharmacy, apparently in response to an emergency situation; an old house-maid with varicose veins carrying left-overs; a dejected, common-looking lady carrying a suitcase made of cardboard boxes; and finally, Beltrán. The appearance of Beltrán in particular is of high dramatic consequence, since in the play he is presented as an absent character. He does not appear on stage, but thanks to the “tragaluz” one is reminded of the need to broadcast the injustice perpetrated against him.6 The very basement experience is created by the dramatist to disclose what Pennington calls a “self-destructive force” (1980–1981: 150) in a society unwilling to admit its existence. Thus, along with seeing the “semisótano” life (darkness) as a self-imposed evasion from the truth (external light), as Martha T. Halsey suggests (1972: 285), one can also consider it as a manifestation of the hypocrisy of a society that spurns and shuts out its problems—such as madness—and buries them from public awareness.

Secondly, by “escondidas inquietudes” the playwright points specifically to El Padre's personal problems, whose remote causes are rooted in the past. In this case, the madman's fixation on the “tragaluz” symbolizes the critical necessity to expose a concealed, yet indelible, past in order to challenge and rectify a disturbing present. In other words, El Padre's obsession represents Buero Vallejo's resolve to draw attention to a dark history that needs to be re-examined in light of the present. That resolve, according to Luis Iglesias Feijoo, restores to the theatre a tragic tone that cost Buero Vallejo “no pocas acusaciones de pesimismo y amargura” (3). But Iglesias Feijoo also shows that the tragic tone reflects Buero Vallejo's desire to distance himself from the theatre of evasion amidst “un panorama escénico como el español de posguerra, en el que se rehuía cualquier aspecto conflictivo en beneficio de una imagen sin problemas de la realidad” (3). 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.

From another angle, El Padre carries out the process of rediscovery through Encarna. Ricardo Doménech comments on El Padre's failure to distinguish between Encarna and Elvirita: “no es casualidad que El Padre la confunda con la hija muerta,” for “desde su lúcida demencia, reconoce en ella una nueva víctima inocente” (35). One can say that, besides considering Encarna as an addition to Vicente's victims, the mistaken identity is perhaps studiedly created by the playwright to establish a special connection, through the madman's eyes, between the past and the present. El Padre can by means of Encarna—a concrete reality of the present—reach out to his desires for peace and tranquillity. Like the imagined sound of the train, Encarna's presence becomes a cathartic medium (because she recalls Elvirita) by means of which El Padre is able to transcend the present in order to attain a level of sanity impossible in that present. Seeing Encarna as an offshoot of Elvirita is further grounded on the prospects a future child could bring by filling the gap left by Elvirita. La Madre seems assured when she stresses this fact before Mario: “Vendrá [Encarna] … y traerá alegría a la casa, y niños …” (54), though as Kessel Schwartz warns, “the chance for a better world creates a tragic possibility for man [because it is] based on a future hope which may not provide a solution” (818); no one can predict when El Padre's situation will be normalized.

There are also two symbolic acts by El Padre that need elucidation. The first is related to his destroying the television set brought home by Vicente; the second to his murder of Vicente. It is worth noting that El Padre destroys the television set not because he dislikes it in general, but because of the commercials that interfere with the programmes. The act is symbolic, firstly, because it signals a rejection of Vicente's world of corruption and exploitation, a world that is associated with commercialism (the audience knows well that the money used in buying the television set is, in the first place, not “clean”). Secondly, it prepares the way for the eventual violent murder. The almost instinctive manner in which the destruction is carried out is shocking. On close observation, however, El Padre's violent behaviour can be taken as an expression of self-liberation from a perturbed state. In a way, his action is therapeutic. For the first time, he is able to display the inner contradictions that rack his existence. The “private world” of his fantasies is all too familiar (paper dolls, trains, etc.); the other, the “real world” of doom and constraints in which he lives (the world of the supposedly sane), is unveiled.7

El Padre kills Vicente because in spite of the latter's confession, he remains adamant about the need to continue his exploitation of others: “Pero ¿quién puede terminar con las canalladas en un mundo canalla?” he asks. And his father surprisingly responds: “Yo” (103). To prove his determination, Vicente is resolved to leave, that is, symbolically to climb onto the train, which, in turn, means maintaining the status quo. As Vicente is eliminated, Mario is allowed to triumph, and in that way, the drama glorifies the principles of Beltrán: honesty, morality, justice.8 Still, the lunatic murder presents no assurance that the father will regain sanity. It is not clear whether he is aware of the atrocity he has committed by murdering his own son.9 In fact, by killing Vicente, he complicates the crisis of his family, for another member is dead; the sole bread-winner is gone. But even if the father does not recover, his act is momentous for two reasons: it successfully converts tragedy into hope by enforcing justice;10 but, even more importantly, it represents an “energetic reaction” on El Padre's part to displace effectively the psychical trauma suppressed for three decades.

Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, shows that madness:

reflects in the most vehement way the contemporary prestige of irrational or rude (spontaneous) behaviour (acting-out), and of that very passionateness whose repression was once imagined to cause TB, and is now thought to cause cancer.


What Sontag implies is that irrational acts of madness can be explained as evidence of liberation from repressed conditions. In a sense, El Padre's act of murder, like his crazy destruction of the television, voices his longing to free himself not only from the chains of mental upset but also from the burden of wretched existence in general. There is a common element that unites all of El Padre's specific reactions (his obsession with the skylight, his identifying Encarna with Elvirita, his destroying the television, and his killing Vicente): they all involve the experience of some form of stressful test to confront adversity. But, in Freudian terms, that paradoxical process is imperative for El Padre's recovery.

It can be affirmed that El Padre's madness stems primarily from his futile attempt to block out of his memory anxiety-provoking situations related to a traumatic event, as well as from a deliberate effort, on the part of his family, to evade any debate over that tragedy. As Breuer and Freud have pointed out, the trauma that produces the psychological problem remains effectively attached to the memory of the patient. This means that a blockade of thoughts or a lack of active reaction to the shock leads the patient to suffer an internal conflict between silence (the failure to discuss the blow) and turmoil (the reality of the pain). In effect, El Padre and his family's insincerity about the Elvirita incident shut out any meaningful avenues by which he could react in order to purge himself. As the bitter memory remains vivid, however, El Padre must necessarily regress to relive the trauma as protection against his present predicament. Thus, in Foucaultian terms, the regression by way of the “tragaluz” can be viewed as a process in which El Padre attempts to “derealize” the present of insanity to attain a room for coherence. As the precipitating sociological factors involved in his condition are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the lunatic, personal process of derealization is also a collective call to the rest of the characters to probe their past. As a result, an investigation into the origins of El Padre's madness becomes a medium for exposing a society's ills. If the sound of the train is what sparks that journey, then it is a harsh but indispensable healing mechanism for El Padre; and for the rest of the players too, because it represents an invitation to open a dialogue on history so that legitimate identity with the present can be attained.


  1. It should be noted that, strictly speaking, Foucault uses the term “regression” meaning a recourse to childhood. However, the idea is perfectly applicable to any such resort to the past to recapture the hidden origins of an illness.

  2. In 1973, John W. Kronik made a brief reference to Freud's “repetition-compulsion” theory in explaining El Padre's condition (391–92). Eric Pennington, in his excellent study of 1980, applied psychoanalysis in explaining Vicente's psyche, especially his rationalizations. However, the most extensive study on Buero Vallejo dealing with psychoanalysis is Jean Cross Newman's Conciencia, culpa y trauma en el teatro de Antonio Buero Vallejo (1992).

  3. It must be stated that there is debate surrounding the criteria used in determining what constitutes mental illness. Thomas S. Szasz, for example, argues that there is no such thing as mental illness. In The Myth of Mental illness, Szasz maintains that the term “mental illness” is a myth aimed at disguising what he calls “the problems of living” (the stresses and strains of existence). For Szasz, only a disease of the brain qualifies to be called “mental illness.” However, the American psychologist, David P. Ausubel, challenges Szasz's ideas and reaffirms the psychopathological basis of abnormal behaviour by proving that “personality disorder ‘is’ disease” (69–74). From a philosophical perspective, Shoshana Felman recalls that it is not easy to determine where “reason stops and madness begins, since both involve the pursuit of some form of reason” (39). According to Felman, what characterizes madness is “a blindness ‘blind to itself,’ to the point of necessarily entertaining an illusion of reason” (36).

  4. All references to the play are to Editorial Espasa-Calpe's 1987 edition of and are given in parentheses in the text.

  5. Newman cites other possible causes of El Padre's madness: “la traición moral implícita en la conducta de Vicente” (that is, Vicente's failure to live according to the “religión de la rectitud” so strictly upheld by his father); El Padre's “falta total de satisfacciones en la vida profesional, sufrida como consecuencia de contarse entre los vencidos de la guerra”; and El Padre's personal guilt for failing, as a parent, to save Elvirita (69–74).

  6. Eugenio Beltrán is a writer whose works used to be published by the press that Vicente works for, until the latter is asked to stop publication of the former's work. Vicente collaborates with the publishing house to sabotage Beltrán, for no plausible reason other than that Beltrán is known to stand firmly for justice and high moral standards amidst a societal proliferation of ethical degeneration.

  7. So vital is the sociological element in mental illness for Foucault that he sees schizophrenia, for example, as a product of the existential conditions under which we live:

    … when man remains alienated from what takes place in his language, when he cannot recognize any human, living signification in the productions of his activity, when economic and social determinations place constraints upon him and he is unable to feel at home in this world, he lives in a culture that makes a pathological form like schizophrenia possible; a stranger in a real world, he is thrown back upon a “private world” that can no longer be assured of objectivity; subjected, however, to the constraints of this real world, he experiences the world in which he is fleeing as his fate.


    What Foucault proposes here is simple: it is society that makes the mad. Naturally, he is led to conclude that it is wrong to call the sick person schizophrenic, because schizophrenia is the only outlet open for the victim to escape from constraints in our world. In El tragaluz, the social conditions of a brutal war already prepared a high propensity to lunacy, and in the case of El Padre, the train episode, and the resulting evasions, simply exacerbate that state of fragility.

  8. Gerard R. Weiss has amply demonstrated that Vicente epitomizes a reality where “man is caught up in his environmental struggle and becomes a victim of the system of which he is part,” whereas Mario exemplifies a reality where “man freely chooses to go on fighting honourably, even though a life of suffering and privation may be the result” (155).

  9. Kronik seems more certain when he says that the murder “is not, except in legal terms, an act of madness, but an act of justice. The transgressor is punished, a sentence is carried out” (394). Pennington rejects the view that El Padre's act is vengeance for the past (Elvirita's death), proposing instead that the murder is in direct response to Vicente's refusal to keep and take care of the doll entrusted to him by his father (1986: 117–124).

  10. One of the cornerstones of the drama of Buero Vallejo is the celebration of hope as the indispensable product of tragedy; that is, tragedy should not be viewed as an end in itself, but should serve as a catharsis for the betterment of humanity. In that respect, his theatre is anti-romantic and hardly existentialist, in the sense that it celebrates life instead of equating it with death. Kessel Schwartz discusses this point in full detail (817–24). For a comprehensive study on the theme of hope in Buero Vallejo's theatre, see Halsey (1968: 57–66).

Works Cited

Ausubel, David P. “Personality Disorder ‘is’ Disease.” American Psychologist 16, 1961: 69–74.

Breuer, Josef, and Sigmund Freud. Studies on Hysteria. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books, 1957.

Brown, Kenneth. “The Significance of Insanity in Four Plays by Antonio Buero Vallejo.” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 8.2 (1974): 247–60.

Buero Vallejo, Antonio. El tragaluz. El sueño de la razón. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1987.

Doménech, Ricardo, ed. El concierto de San Ovidio. El tragaluz. By Antonio Buero Vallejo. Tercera edición. Madrid: Castalia, 1987.

Felman, Shoshana, Writing and Madness. Trans. Martha Noel Evans and the author. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Foucault, Michel. Mental Illness and Psychology. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1976.

Gil, Ildefonso-Manuel. “Sobre la Generación de 1936.” Symposium 22.2 (1968): 107–11.

Halsey, Martha T. “Buero Vallejo and the Significance of Hope.” Hispania 51.1 (1968): 57–66.

———. “El tragaluz: A Tragedy of Contemporary Spain.” The Romanic Review 63.4 (1972): 284–92.

Iglesias Feijoo, Luis. La trayectoria dramática de Antonio Buero Vallejo. Santiago de Compostela: Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, 1982.

Kronik, John W. “Buero Vallejo's El tragaluz and Man's Existence in History.” Hispanic Review 41 (1973): 371–96.

Newman, Jean Cross. Conciencia, culpa y trauma en el teatro de Antonio Buero Vallejo. Valencia: Albatros Hispanófila Ediciones, 1992.

Pennington, Eric. “The Forgotten Muñeco of El tragaluz.Ulula (Department of Romance Languages, University of Georgia) 2 (1986): 117–24.

———. “Psychology and Symbolism in the Death of Vicente in Buero Vallejo's El tragaluz.Journal of the School of Languages (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) 7.1–2 (1980–1981): 141–56.

Schwartz, Kessel. “Buero Vallejo and the Concept of Tragedy.” Hispania 51.4 (1968): 817–24.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Szasz, Thomas S. The Myth of Mental Illness. New York: Dell, 1961.

Weiss, Gerard R. “Buero Vallejo's Theory of Tragedy in El tragaluz.Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 5 (1971): 147–60.

John P. Gabriele (essay date April 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5449

SOURCE: “Projections of the Unconscious Self in Buero's Theatre (El concierto de San Ovidio,La Fundación,Diálogo secreto),” in Neophilologus, Vol. 78, No. 2, April, 1994, pp. 251–61.

[In the following essay, Gabriele studies the protagonists from Buero Vallejo's El concierto de San Ovidio, La Fundación, and Diálogo secreto and concludes, “Exploring his protagonists from a psychological standpoint intensifies dramatic tension and gives profound meaning to the process of interiorization and catharsis that so uniquely characterizes Buerian tragedy.”]

In their symbolic journey from darkness to light, the protagonists of Antonio Buero Vallejo's theatre take part in a dynamic evolution of self that underscores their unyielding desire to rebel against and overcome limitations thrust upon them by fate. Their rebellion has very definite psychological implications. They become engaged in a deep inner struggle that leads ultimately to a reassertion of self. Over the years, we have come to appreciate Buero's frequent and varied use of symbols as an effective means for conveying dramatic tension and representing on the stage the complex interaction between his characters' inner reality and the external world. Worthy of mention are the ubiquitous stairway in Historia de una escalera (1949), the “duende” in Irene o el tesoro (1954), the omnipresent basement window in El tragaluz (1967), Rosa's marvelous garden in Caimán (1981), and Alfredo's maniacal obsession with videotaping his life for posterior viewing in Música cercana (1989). Equally important in this regard is the playwright's repeated use of light and dark, blindness, deafness, painting and music.

Buero's concern for the intuitive side of his protagonists has not gone unnoticed and is, in the opinion of many critics, most evident in his later works. Robert Nicholas, for example, in viewing the development of Buero's theatre, remarks that “individual works tend to exhibit a more or less chronological evolution in dramatic attitude from an initial view of the stage as a vehicle for portraying real life to an acceptance of theatricality as a means for exploring the total person … this involves a deepening inner view, an increasingly subjective interpretation of reality” (“Antonio Buero-Vallejo: Stages” 25–26). Jean Cross Newman also recognizes this facet of Buero's more recent work when she remarks that Buero “bucea reiteradamente cuestiones de conciencia” (18). In spite of the general agreement among critics regarding this aspect of the Spanish playwright's work, no one has persuasively explored the psychic dimension of his protagonists.

Critics who have written about El concierto de San Ovidio (1962), La Fundación (1974) and Diálogo secreto (1984) have suggested that they are well suited for revealing the psychological disposition of Buero's characters. José Ramón Cortina, for example, writes that El concierto de San Ovidio dramatizes “la lucha del hombre por encontrar un sentido a la vida a pesar de que tiene ante sí un obstáculo que parece imposible de vencer. De encontrarlo,” concludes Cortina, “el hombre ha logrado con ello la realización de su personalidad” (30). Regarding La Fundación, Martha Halsey speaks of Tomás's “inward journey of the soul” and Buero's prominent use of the techniques of “psychic participation” and “interiorization” (“Reality” 49). Similarly, for Margaret Jones, the association of visual elements and action in Diálogo secreto supports a “psychological depth” that she considers a “major concern of this drama” (34).1 If the three plays in question are indeed introspective in nature, precisely what psychological elements are portrayed, and what are the possible implications of these elements for Buero's art and a greater appreciation of his craft?

David's personal drama, in El concierto de San Ovidio, has to do with his compelling desire to overcome the physical limitations thrust upon him by his blindness. Fully aware of his handicap, he has struggled to rebel against the limitations of his blindness since childhood. He tells us that he learned to use his cane with unusual dexterity “porque se me rieron de mozo, cuando quise defenderme a palos de las burlas de unos truhanes! Me empeñé en que mi garrote llegaría a ser para mí como un ojo. Y lo he logrado” (28). The situation he faces now is altogether analogous to the one he faced as a youth. While the conviction that he and his comrades can become skilled musicians is the result of his desire to avoid the humiliation that is sure to ensue from their performance dressed as clowns at the Concert of Saint Ovide (“¡Nosotros no seremos payasos!” 72), his actions also reflect a strong determination to achieve his full potential.

David's rebellion is only minimally evident at first in lines such as “Y si no lo queréis, resignaos como mujerzuelas a esta muerte en vida que nos aplasta” (29), but becomes more obvious as the play progresses: “Los ciegos no somos hombres: ése es nuestro más triste secreto. Somos como mujeres medrosas. Sonreímos sin ganas, adulamos a quien manda, nos convertimos en payasos …” (89). Despite the obstacles before him and in spite of the efforts of others to convince him otherwise, David believes that he and the other musicians can learn to play in harmony in the short time before the concert takes place. His conviction is conveyed in the image of a sightless French noblewoman, Melania de Salignac, of whom he has heard and dreams about and who, in David's own words “sabe lenguas, ciencias, música … Lee. ¡Y escribe! ¡Ella, ella sola! No sé cómo lo hace, pero lee … ¡en libros! ¡Es ciega! (27).

Indeed, Melania represents what is possible for a blind person—the Davids of the world—to accomplish. David's growing obsession with Melania (“¡Para ella hablo y para ella toco! Y a ella es a quien busco … A esa ciega …”[92]) is an expression of his visionary outlook, as several critics have noted (Halsey, “The Dreamer” 275; Holt 120). If we view David's rebellion as a journey with a specific goal, that of overcoming the limitations of his blindness, then his perception of Melania and the action that follows take on a distinctly archetypal quality with regard to his psychological maturation. Before proceeding in light of this hypothesis, a brief exposition of the psyche's development according to C. G. Jung, M.-L. von Franz and Edward C. Whitmont, will be helpful in realizing the present analysis of Buero's work.

Jung tells us that self-awareness comes about as a result of self-realization or “individuation”, as he calls it; which is a crucial and ongoing process that allows persons to establish a meaningful balance between the different levels of their psyche. According to Jung, through individuation we are able to integrate the conscious and unconscious and become aware of qualities about ourselves that may otherwise go unnoticed. Ultimately, what one seeks through this process is selfhood, to become an individual and develop a personality that is purposeful (The Development of Personality 167–68; “The Relations Between” 103–11). The process is a contentious one. The confrontation between the conscious and the unconscious is very often conflictive and unpleasant because the encounter challenges how we perceive ourselves by revealing qualities within us that we are hesitant to acknowledge and accept (Whitmont 220). As Whitmont would put it, the meeting of the conscious and unconscious elements of the psyche is a crucial step in the process of psychological maturation (169). For an individual to accept and understand fully his or her particular reality, a confrontation with the shadow is required (220). The shadow, in the words of M.-L. von Franz, represents the “unknown or little-known attributes and qualities of the ego” (174). It is further understood that individuals may experience such encounters periodically.

Given this psychological premise, as long as David's ego resists assimilation of the shadow, he will never fully comprehend his situation nor will he be able to achieve his goals in a realistic manner. I do not mean to imply that David denies his handicap. This is clearly not the case. Yet I do wish to suggest that what we see effectuated in the development of David's character are aspects of the ongoing process of individuation or psychological maturation.

It is a commonplace that the confrontation with one's own shadow is initiated by persons other than the individual himself (Whitmont 163). In David's case, it is Adriana who initiates the abandonment of false hope and precipitates a reevaluation of the former's limitations. A crucial moment in the process comes in the third act of the play when Adriana strikes at the core of David's idealistic vision. Referring to Melania, she tells him that “Te engañas. No dudo de que exista … Pero supongo que será rica. Sólo así habrá podido aprender lo que sabe. Figúrate, una ciega … Es rica y por eso no es de los tuyos. Ella nunca habrá padecido miedo, o hambre …, como nosotros” (92). Adriana symbolizes general skepticism but also represents residual doubts that David himself has. Melania is an appropriate model for David's determination yet an unrealistic one in the present situation. It is highly unlikely that he and the others can become accomplished musicians in the short amount of time that remains before the concert. Thus David's evocation of Melania constitutes an attempt on his part to rationalize an undertaking founded in the subjective rather than objective world.

It is shortly after this encounter with Adriana, that we witness the progress David has made toward a more realistic sense of awareness regarding the situation. First, he asks Lefranc, “¿Verdad que nuestro espectáculo es indigno?”, to which the latter answers “¡Es intolerable!” (100). This is followed by an admission of his delusion that he directs to the other musicians: “Os decía que yo antes soñaba para olvidar mi miedo. Soñaba con la música, y que amaba a una mujer a quien ni siquiera conozco … Y también soñé que nadie me causaría ningún mal, ni yo a nadie … ¡Qué iluso!” (113). Ultimately, he reaffirms that “¡Estoy ciego y soy un mendigo!” (118) thereby suggesting a reconciliation with his condition from a realistic point of view.

In El concierto de San Ovidio, David moves from the subjective to the objective. His personality parallels that of individuals that Jung classifies as “introverted thinking types” for however clear to David “the inner structure of his thoughts may be, he is not in the least clear where or how they link up with the world of reality” (“Psychological Types” 243). According to Jung, these types rationalize “as a result of a psychic disposition often existing from early youth” and their judgment is rational, “only in that it is oriented more by the subjective factor.” (“Psychological Types” 250, 251). By the play's end, the real supplants the ideal as the earmark of David's vision, a shift in his perspective that is appropriately personified by Valentín Haüy whose presence points to a distant future when the Davids of the world will be able to fulfill their potential. By the same token, David's murder of Valindin—an otherwise reproachable act of violence—is not without its positive effect. It puts an end to the humiliation of the blind musicians.

Tomás, the protagonist of La Fundación, also displays a rebellious nature although his behavior might be classified more appropriately as denial. A political prisoner, unable to accept the responsibility for the capture and incarceration of his comrades, Tomás fantasizes that the prison is a research center for artists and scientists. Aside from interacting with the other prisoners, he converses with Berta, an imaginary figure. It is important to note that in performance there is physical interaction between Tomás and Berta. Only later do we learn that Tomás imagined the encounters with her. In the play, he progresses from a period of mental illness to a state of lucidity, an evolution that appropriates certain aspects of the process of individuation. A closer look at the psychological significance of the action in La Fundación provides greater insight into Tomás's attitudinal development.

The first indication that Tomás denies objective reality is his delusion that he believes himself to be confined to an elegant research center instead of a prison. While critics have not spoken of Tomás's character in terms of self-denial and individuation, they have on numerous occasions underscored the unmistakable introverted nature of his character. Robert Nicholas has done so in terms of the play's setting by declaring that “changes in the stage décor” are used to depict the protagonist's “recovery and acceptance of reality … until the Foundation can be seen for what it really is, a sordid prison cell” (“Illusions and Hallucinations” 63). More recently, Jean Cross Newman has illustrated that Berta represents Tomás's alter ego, concluding that his conversations with her are in actuality, “diálogos consigo mismo” that “dan expresión a dudas que Tomás rehusa admitir en su pensar consciente” (16).

The resistance to knowing painful aspects about ourselves is altogether common. The ego actively keeps motives and actions from consciousness in the interest of self-protection, itself a form of rebellion. As indicated earlier, “before the ego can triumph, it must master and assimilate the shadow” (Henderson 112). For Tomás, this means accepting the responsibility for the situation he and his comrades now face in prison. In La Fundación, this supposition is conveyed in the Elysian-like scenery and Berta's character, both projections of Tomás's perspective on reality. Elaborating further on Newman's insightful interpretation of the play, a closer look at Berta reveals that her character incarnates at once Tomás's detachment from the objective world of reason and the crucial link that is necessary to establish the dynamic psychic rapprochement of the conscious and unconscious. When the relationship between Tomás and Berta and the idyllic setting are viewed in conjunction, the intricate psychic orientation of their relationship is further established.

When we are first introduced to Berta, her redemptive mission and her subliminal identification with Tomás are made clear immediately. She wears a blouse bearing the same identification number as that of Tomás, A-72, and she enters carrying a little white mouse that symbolizes the protagonist. Referring to the mouse, Berta makes her wishes known: “Me gustaría rescaterle de lo que le espera” (139). The prison cell is filled with “la risueña luz de la primavera” and a “cernida e irisada claridad.” Through the window is projected a “dilatada vista de un maravilloso paisaje” (137). If the relationship between Berta, Tomás and the scenery represents, as I suggested earlier, a symbolic meeting of the external world and the protagonist's inner reality, then the evolution of the relationship of these three elements will be helpful in mapping out the latter's psychic development. To see this, one need only compare what Tomás divulges as the play progresses with the changes in the scenery and Berta's character.

As part one of the play draws to a close, both the scenery and Tomás's words indicate that a significant change has occurred. Whereas at the beginning of the play he talks of the brilliant and lush colors of the field and of “un día tan luminoso” (138), at the end of the first part, Tomás painfully acknowledges that “la escoba que teníamos se ha transformado en una escoba vieja … ni el televisor ni el altavoz funcionan …” (179). Almost simultaneously, we sense through Tomás's own admission a growing sense of awareness when he tells Max and Asel that “vosotros sabéis algo que yo ignoro” (179). When the second part of the play opens, the cell's interior reflects the change in Tomás's mental state while his words reflect an element of doubt previously absent (“No puedo creer que fueran imaginaciones” [92]). As the stage directions indicate, the illuminated scenery outside the window now stands in contrast to the transformed decor of the cell's interior: “Tomás gira la cabeza y contempla la radiante luz del paisaje. La del aposento está bajando muy lentamente” (190). Shortly after, the illusion disappears altogether as Tomás himself notes: “No puedo creerlo. Cuando han abierto la puerta … no se veía el campo” (195).

Berta's next appearance is prefaced by Tomás's heightened awareness which reveals itself further in their second encounter. In comparison to the affirmative attitude that Tomás displayed in his initial meeting with Berta, in their second encounter he comes across as doubtful and suspicious. In a scene reminiscent of one between therapist and patient, Tomás remains on his cot as Berta approaches him and sits by him as he proceeds to ask her a series of probing questions: “¿Cómo has podido entrar?”, “¿Por qué la Fundación es tan inhóspita?”, “¿Tú lo sabes?”, “¿No quieres contestarme?”, “¿Has venido a burlarte?”, “¿Por qué lloraste en el locutorio?” (213–14). After Berta exits, Tomás concludes that “Ella no ha venido” (217) and acknowledges that “Estamos en … la cárcel.” Buero writes that “durante un segundo,” Tomás “mira el paisaje, ahora oscuro y borroso” (218). Once he externalizes what was internally intolerable, reality is immediately de-idealized.

For Tomás, Berta's imagined presence serves to justify his personal fantasy. In theory, the evolution of their relationship is similar to that of David and his vision of Melania. Here the psychoanalytic evaluation comes in the words of Asel who has throughout the play functioned in the same capacity as Adriana in El concierto de San Ovidio. Having initiated Tomás's contact with his shadow, Asel offers his diagnosis: “La desaparición de Berta es la realidad que le invade a su pesar …” “Esa cita ha sido quizá la última tentativa de refugiarse en sus delirios y la crisis definitiva” (217). With the onslaught of objective reality, Berta loses her purpose. Ultimately, the admission of guilt, denunciation of the unreal and evidence of an altered psychic disposition comes in Tomás's own words: “¡Yo os denuncié!” (226) and “Ya sé que [la Fundación] no era real” (239).

Tomás's inability to accept responsibility for his actions leads to a denial of reality, which in turn causes him to restructure reality in relationship to what he feels. What he experiences is symptomatic of “introverted intuitive types,” according to Jung. For these individuals, who may be called “mystical dreamers or seers,” perception is the main problem. Moreover, Jung points out that these types “rely predominantly on their vision” and adapt themselves according to their inner reality not the objective world (“Psychological Types” 261, 263). In short, Tomás eludes objective reality by creating his own reality. On a subconscious level, he recognizes that his actions have led to the incarceration of his friends. Yet there is no conscious recognition or acknowledgement of his actions. We might say that Tomás's conscious rebels against his unconscious and resists assimilation. Thus in the play the scenery symbolizes the externalization of Tomás's inability to accept the truth. Berta in turn represents the crucial link between the conflict that arises between Tomás's internal reality and the external world. It follows then that when Tomás's conscious side ceases to resist an encounter with unconscious elements of his psyche, he progresses to a realistic appraisal of the immediate situation and Berta disappears.

Of the protagonists under consideration here, it is Fabio of Diálogo secreto who provides the most complex character from a psychoanalytic standpoint. In a fascinating confluence of past and present, self and other, real and unreal, Buero creates an exquisite vehicle of psychic tension. Essentially, Fabio's character combines David's compulsion for self-preservation and Tomás's compunction for self-justification. Criticism has already shown that Fabio's imagined conversations with his father Braulio are in essence a dialogue with himself that externalizes “Fabio's constant fear of being discredited” as an art critic and reflect “the truth that he refuses to acknowledge publicly” (Halsey, “Dictatorship to Democracy” 13). Further analysis shows that Braulio and Aurora—Aurorín when she appears in Fabio's recollection of the past—play a more pivotal role in the dramatization of Fabio's lifelong internal struggle than previously thought.

Aurora brings about one of the play's most suspenseful and tense-ridden moments when she threatens to expose her father's color blindness. Her role in Fabio's psychic evolution is no less critical. This is first evident during the second of Fabio's imagined conversations in which Braulio, Fabio and Aurorín debate the capability of persons to distinguish colors. At a certain juncture in the discussion, Aurorín turns to Braulio, closes her eyes and claims that “Si yo ahora cierro los ojos … y quiero ver tu cara verde …” Then suddenly opening her eyes she declares, “¡Te veo verde!” The action sparks an irrational display of aggression by Fabio toward his daughter. Threatening to strike her, he chastises her, calling her a “¡Mentirosa!” and “¡Embustera!” (58). His recollection ends and we are abruptly transposed to the present where we hear immediately of the suicide of Samuel Cosme, Aurora's artist boyfriend. Much in the vein of the concert performance in El concierto de San Ovidio and the state of imprisonment in La Fundación with regard to David and Tomás respectively, the event of Cosme's death triggers Fabio's need to reexamine his condition from a realistic standpoint. Consequently, subsequent imagined conversations with Braulio and Aurora do reveal a heightened anxiety on the part of Fabio to address once again the nature of his handicap. At the end of the first part of the play, for example, we find out that Braulio could not bring himself to tell his son of his color blindness. The following interchange illustrates that Fabio blames his father for concealing the truth. Yet Braulio insists that Fabio is as much to blame for not fully acknowledging the facts about his condition as he grew older.

Fabio.-¡Para darme una vida auténtica y no este simulacro asqueroso, debiste explicarme a tiempo lo que me pasaba!

Braulio.-Ya te he dicho …

Fabio.-¡El culpable eres tú!

Braulio.-Tú, por cobarde.

Fabio.-¡Tú has sido el cobarde! ¡Yo era un niño!

Braulio.-¡Pero llegaste a hombre! ¡Un hombre cobarde e hipócrita!


Shortly after this encounter, we are displaced in time once again. We witness a rapid shift between the images of a probative young Aurora and an obstinate grown woman who “reenacts” her face painting. Aurorín reappears, insisting that “los niños no inventan cuando pintan. Si cierro los ojos … quiero ver tu cara verde. ¡Te veo verde!” (94). Abruptly, the scene shifts to the present and a grown Aurora paints her face green, challenges her father to look her in the face and asks “¿Y qué ves?” “He answers “¡No hay nada más que ver!” to which Aurora responds “Tu hija se ha vuelto una ranita verde. ¡Cro, cro! Y tú no lo has visto” (100). Fabio has always fought to overcome the limitations of his handicap. Now as a result of Cosme's death, he is forced to reaffirm his struggle if he is to continue to fulfill his potential.

During the ongoing process of individuation, M.-L. von Franz reminds us that the ego can feel “hampered in its will or desire” as it progresses toward awareness and will accuse some other outside force of being responsible for the situation that it is unable to accept (169). The resentment Fabio harbors for his father may very well be explained in light of von Franz's claim. What is more, the same may be said of the contentious relationship between Fabio and his daughter. Jung's findings also corroborate this view of Fabio's behavior. It follows that Cosme's suicide serves to wound Fabio's ego, resurrecting old fears and apprehensions and setting off one of the many confrontations between the conscious and unconscious that Fabio is sure to have experienced throughout his lifetime. Here Jung might say that the unconscious has risen up in opposition to Fabio in the persons of Braulio and Aurora (The Symbols of Transformation 294).

Like David and Tomás before him, Fabio is a complex individual whose idealized vision must be defined or redefined in realistic terms. In his particular case, the past plays a crucial role. Characteristic of “introverted sensation types,” whom Jung tells us are most often alienated from present reality and oriented toward the past (“Psychological Types” 257), Fabio is trapped in a dynamic confluence of past and present. His situation is less a case of delusion or denial than one of maintaining a hopeful outlook. Fabio has been involved in a long-term struggle to keep others from finding out about his color blindness. In order to maintain the lie and continue to embrace the hope of a better future he must face and understand his handicap completely. To do so he must acknowledge anew certain aspects of his past, as Fabio himself tells his wife: “Ahora mismo estoy intentando distinguir matices en la maravilla cromática que tú ves ahí y que a mí se me ha negado … Y vuelvo a acariciar la ilusión infantil de que un día se descubran remedios que curen mis ojos … No podré renunciar a ese mundo que persigo. Tendré que mentir … o desaparecer” (131).

In her study, “Buero's Women: Structural Agents and Moral Guides,” Linda Sollish Sikka makes a valid argument for the structural importance of women characters in Buero's theatre. She illustrates convincingly that the playwright's female characters are integral, if not essential, to the development of plot, theme and action in his work. It is no less the case in the plays discussed here that the female character is essential to Buero in his exploration of his protagonists' psyche. From Melania, who is a real person but void of physical presence on the stage, to Berta, likewise imagined but present on the stage in performance, to Aurora, who is both real and imagined, appearing in different stages of her life, Buero displays a growing concern to explore the intuitive side of his protagonists.2 Each of these female characters assumes deeply subconscious roles rooted in the archetypal “collective unconscious,” which Jung describes in terms of the animus—the subconscious masculine side of the feminine nature—and the anima—the feminine personification of the man's unconscious. As noted by von Franz, the anima “embodies,” among other “psychological tendencies in a man's psyche, his relationship to his unconscious” (186). She then adds, “whenever a man's logical mind is incapable of discerning facts that are hidden in his unconscious, the anima helps him dig them out” (193).

Knowledge of self is crucial to any understanding of the objective world and how we function in it. More importantly, as exemplified by David, Tomás and Fabio, knowing oneself is neither a prescriptive nor a definitive process but one that is incidental and ongoing. Moreover, it requires that we persevere and continually reassert ourselves in our effort to become purposeful. For Buero's characters, it is their propensity toward rebellion that leads them to explore the full potential of their existence. Rebellion, according to Buero, dispels false hope and serves to authenticate personal aspirations. Given the playwright's own definition of the human condition, it is positive, constructive and, above all, indispensable for survival:

La vida humana auténtica es, a mi juicio, siempre trágica. En definitiva, el que la vida humana sea en fondo siempre trágica lo único que afirma es la realidad de nuestra limitación frente a nuestra sed de ilimitación. Eso es un hecho trágico y, por consiguiente, el último sentido de cualquier vida humana es un sentido trágico. Sin embargo, identificar al ciento por ciento ese sentido de lo trágico con el sentido fatalista y falta de salidas que tantas veces se ha aplicado al concepto de lo trágico eso es en lo que yo nunca he estado de acuerdo y que siempre he rebatido en la medida de mis posibilidades

(Gabriele 21).

For one whose theatre has displayed historically a unique interplay of action, signs, words, images, and other elements to convey a message of hope, it comes as no surprise that the personification of the unconscious serves an equally transcendental purpose in Buero's moral and social work. Throughout his career, Buero has perfected his craft while concentrating on the human elements of his art. It is altogether logical that one so concerned with human nature should occupy himself with the latent and manifest meanings of the self. Exploring his protagonists from a psychological standpoint intensifies dramatic tension and gives profound meaning to the process of interiorization and catharsis that so uniquely characterizes Buerian tragedy. Ultimately, the technique lends greater validity to the context of Buero's work by allowing his audience to connect motives to actions and purpose to aspirations.


  1. The plays chosen for discussion here occupy pivotal places in the evolution of Buero's theatre. El concierto de San Ovidio was the third in a cycle of three historical dramas, the first two being Un sonador para un pueblo (1958) and Las Meninas (1960), and was considered at the time of publication Buero's most refined attempt at total theatre. According to Iglesias Feijoo, “con el El concierto de San Ovidio Buero aprovecha y profundiza todo lo anterior para construir, probablemente su mejor obra hasta el momento” (294). La Fundación was the last of Buero's play written under the Franco Regime and one in which the themes of truth and freedom, both on a personal and national level, are of paramount importance, as Martha Halsey has indicated: “the dialectical struggle between tranquil blindness and painful awareness, that occurs on both the socio-political and metaphysical levels characterizes all of Buero's dramas. However, it is in La Fundación that this struggle is seen in all its complexity and where ideas presented in earlier dramas are presented most skillfully” (“Reality” 47). Diálogo secreto was the first of Buero's plays to be written and staged in Socialist Spain and is, according to Margaret Jones, unique among Buero's repertoire in that the play signals “a reordering of priorities.” In the critic's own words, “we find an increased emphasis on man's inner struggle … accompanied by a diminished interest in circumstantial, social, or other exterior factors of reality” (35).

  2. Those who have written about these three plays have suggested that Melania, Berta and Aurora are integral to the development of David's, Tomás's and Fabio's personal drama yet these comments constitute little more than a passing acknowledgement of the fact. Typical, for example, is Luis Iglesias Feijoo's observation that Melania is an “elemento decisivo en la evolución de David” (311). In her discussion of the relationship between Tomás and Berta, in La Fundación, Magda Ruggieri Marchetti writes that “si nota como lo scontro tra i due personaggi rappresenta la lotta tra il subconscio e la pazzia di Tomás” (3). Regarding Aurora, Margaret Jones remarks, “Fabio's outraged denial is shown to be a lie when Aurora appears with her face painted apple-green” (33).

Works Cited

Buero Vallejo, Antonio. Diálogo secreto. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1985.

———. El concierto de San Ovidio. La Fundación. 7a ed. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1986.

Cortina, José Ramón. El arte dramático de Buero Vallejo. Gredos, 1969.

Gabriele, John P. “Entrevista a Antonio Buero Vallejo.” Estreno 17.2 (1991): 20–24.

Halsey, Martha T. “The Dreamer in the Tragic Theater of Buero Vallejo.” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 2 (1968): 265–85.

———. “Dictatorship to Democracy in the Recent Theater of Buero Vallejo (La Fundación to Diálogo secreto).” Estreno 13.2 (1987): 9–15.

———. “Reality, Illusion and Alienation: Buero Vallejo's La Fundación.Hispanófila 90 (1987): 47–62.

Henderson, Joseph L. “Ancient Myths and Modern Man.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. New York: Dell, 1964. 95–156.

Holt, Marion. The Contemporary Spanish Theater (1949–1972). Boston: Twayne, 1975.

Iglesias Feijoo, Luis. La trayectoria dramática de Antonio Buero Vallejo. Santiago de Compostela: Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, 1982.

Jones, Margaret E. W. “Psychological and Visual Planes in Buero Vallejo's Diálogo secreto.Estreno 12.1 (1986): 33–35.

Jung, C. G. The Development of Personality. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1954. Vol. 17 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Eds. Herbert Read et al. 20 vols 1953–79.

———. “Psychological Types.” The Portable Jung. Ed. Joseph Campbell. New York: Viking Press, 1971, 178–269.

———. “The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious.” The Portable Jung. Ed. Joseph Campbell. New York: Viking Press, 1971. 70–138.

———. The Symbols of Transformation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1956. Vol. 5 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Eds. Herbert Read et al. 20 vols. 1953–79.

Nicholas, Robert L. “Illusions and Hallucinations (Antonio Buero Vallejo: Three Recent Plays).” Estreno 12.2 (1986): 62–63.

———. “Antonio Buero-Vallejo: Stages, Illusions and Hallucinations.” The Contemporary Spanish Theater. A Collection of Critical Essays, Eds. Martha T. Halsey and Phyllis Zatlin. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. 1988. 25–43.

Newman, Jean Cross. “Traumas de conciencia en el teatro de Buero Vallejo.” Estreno 17.2 (1991): 15–19.

Ruggieri Marchetti, Magda. “La Fundación: sintesi tematica del teatro di Buero Vallejo.” Rivista di Letterature Moderne Comparate 32 (1970): 1–28.

Sollish Sikka, Linda. “Buero's Women: Structural Agents and Moral Guides.” Estreno 16.1 (1990): 18–22; 31.

von Franz, M.-L. “The Process of Individuation.” Man and His Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. New York: Dell, 1964. 157–254.

Whitmont, Edward C. The Symbolic Quest: Basic Concepts of Analytical Psychology. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

Michael Thompson (essay date Autumn 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7079

SOURCE: “Framing on Stage and Screen: Antonio Buero Vallejo's Un soñador para un pueblo and Josefina Molina's Esquilache,” in Romance Studies, No. 26, Autumn, 1995, pp. 61–76.

[In the following essay, Thompson compares the stage production of Buero Vallejo's Un soñador para un pueblo to its film adaptation Esquilache.]

Film has always been an intertextually promiscuous medium, frequently producing offspring from liaisons (some committed and deeply-felt, some casual, some provoking accusations of rape) with narrative and theatre. After a hundred years of development, the distinctive features of cinema are well established, but the genes of the older media are still influential. Films continue to be concerned with story-telling, or playing games with narrative voices and structures, or presenting detailed portraits of complex fictional worlds; and they continue to dramatize human relationships by showing the acting-out of dialogues and conflicts, or to examine social rituals and role-playing. Each cinematic adaptation of a novel or a play constitutes an interpretation of the source text, a decoding and re-encoding that may offer valuable insights on the characteristics of both media. The critical usefulness of comparing a film with the original novel or play lies not so much in evaluating the success of the adaptation as in analysing how each of them works in its own terms. Josefina Molina's film Esquilache (1989) declares itself to be ‘libremente basado’ on Buero's play Un soñador para un pueblo (1958). Molina describes the genesis of her project in the following terms:

En 1958 vi en Córdoba representada la obra de Buero Vallejo Un soñador para un pueblo. Me impresionó. Casi treinta años más tarde, en el 86, tropecé entre mis libros con el texto impreso y entonces lo leí con detenimiento y sorpresa: la obra de Buero teía otra lectura al hilo de la experiencia política que mi país está viviendo. Terminé la última página convencida de que podía convertirse en una película útil para algo más que pasar el rato.

[ … ] Quienes hemos hecho el guión de esta película nos hemos acercado a la obra teatral con humildad, hemos intentado que el cine se beneficie del talento de Buero y hemos trabajado duro para estar a su altura, dotando a la historia de una estructura y un tiempo cinematográficos además de introducir libremente personajes y situaciones nuevas.1

The aim, then, is a respectful adaptation in which the essence of Buero's historical vision will be retained. The film-maker assumes, though, that a cinematic treatment demands a different approach to form. In this study I intend to present a detailed analysis of the film's ‘estructura y tiempo cinematográficos’ and compare these with an account of the dramatic structure of Un soñador para un pueblo.2 It will be argued that the technical and structural differences between them highlight important characteristics of the two media, and that each version makes effective and distinctive use of its own generic resources, particularly in the way in which each of them frames its action and characters.

Both Un soñador para un pueblo and Esquilache dramatize the story of the downfall of Carlos III's chief minister as a result of the popular uprising of March 1766 known as the motín de Esquilache. Buero offers a balanced, thoroughly researched dramatization of the causes and significance of a controversial episode in Spanish history, its public dimension skilfully played off against the personal crisis of the protagonist. Esquilache and King Carlos are portrayed as enlightened reformers struggling against intolerance and privilege; the common people as having genuine grievances but failing to recognize their own best interests; the uprising as the result of an aristocratic conspiracy exploiting popular discontent, the banning of long capes and wide-brimmed hats being the spark that sets off the insurrection. Into the given historical material Buero introduces three crucial elements of dramatic invention: Esquilache's relationship with his maidservant Fernandita, the way in which the political crisis is resolved by Esquilache's public and private self-sacrifice, and his final confrontation with Ensenada.3 Molina's film retains these central features, but organizes the material in a significantly different way.


The play is divided into two parts, the first set between 9 and 22 March 1766 and the second covering the evening of 23 March and the morning of 24 March. The temporal progression of the action is straightforward, with the transition from one period to the next signalled by changes in lighting and the street-cries of a blind man who sells ballads and a prophetic almanac attributed to ‘Piscator’. The stage design keeps two acting areas in view at all times. The wall at one side and the façade of a house at the other are fixed, representing (together with the downstage space between them) a street near Esquilache's house in Madrid, the House of the Seven Chimneys. This is the space inhabited by the common people, the pueblo: the ruffians muffled in their capes (embozados), the tarts, the constables, the blind ballad-seller. A circular platform in the centre upstage rotates to reveal in turn two principal interior settings (Esquilache's study and a room in the Royal Palace) and two transitional settings (the tapestried corner representing the royal residence of El Pardo and the angle between the doors representing the entrance to Esquilache's house). These are the spaces in which power is exercised and Esquilache's relationships are played out. The action of the first part of the play alternates between the interior and the exterior, and although much of the second part takes place in the room in the Palace, this setting is still seen in relation to the open, collective space around it.

Esquilache stands at the centre of a carefully constructed series of interactions that play off one social force against another at the same time as gradually giving the audience a convincing sense of being in touch with the complex personal life of the protagonist. Fernandita becomes the most important of the secondary figures, to the extent that at the end, she takes over from Esquilache the status of protagonist: his part is done, and he stands immobile in the shadows as she takes centre stage and performs a symbolic act of self-liberation. None of the other lower-class characters acquires the same measure of individuality: they tend to function as groups, and the men are sometimes indistinguishable in their capes and hats. Their function in representing the pueblo is an important one, and Bernardo in particular plays a key role, but they comprise a manipulable mass, without the individualizing awareness that will be shown by Fernandita to be possible.

The key processes at work in Un soñador para un pueblo are therefore interaction, juxtaposition and balance, exemplified by the use of space, by the relationships between individual characters and between groups of characters, and by verbal and visual symbolism. It was Robert Nicholas who first drew attention to the significance of the symmetrical arrangement of the action of Part 1. He points out the alternation between interior and exterior, and identifies three sets of three encounters between Esquilache and another character:

Each series of interior scenes is characterized by a downward progression from the highest to the lowest social class. The aristocrats, Villasanta, Ensenada and the king, precede Pastora, embodiment of the ‘nouveaux riches,’ who in turn comes before the peasant Fernandita. The good element of the lower class (Fernandita) is followed by and contrasted with the evil segment of the lower class (in the street scenes). And the cycle begins again.4

Nicholas concludes that ‘the playwright has attempted to reflect the spirit of classicism, the dominant artistic mode of the epoch, in the symmetrical ordering of the action of his play’ (p. 64). This analysis can be elaborated to demonstrate precisely how controlled the text's structure is. The following scheme of Part 1 shows the links between exterior and interior locations, and interior scenes arranged in sets of five rather than three. The main linking elements are underlined, and silent action in one place during a scene in the other is shown by square brackets.

PART 1 MAIN STAGE (street) PLATFORM (interiors)
A Blind man's pregón 9 March (morning) Lower-class characters introduced; public (opposition to Esquilache) & private (Bernardo-Fernandita) themes initiated. Pregón 9 March as Blind man exits; Roque & Crisanto comment as Ensenada passes. [Campos in Esquilache's study].
B Blind man crosses stage: pregón. [Enter Blind man; enter Bernardo, then Relaño.] (9 March, immediately after A) 1. Ensenada with Campos, then Esquilache. 2. Esquilache with Ensenada: politics. 3. Esquilache with Pastora: ethics. 4. Esquilache with Fernandita: feelings. 5. Esquilache with Campos: order for 10 March
C Blind man's pregón 10 March (next morning). The order is posted, arouses hostility. Fernandita confronts Bernardo. Fernandita picks up the crumpled notice [Mayordomo & Campos appear in study.]
D Blind man's pregón 11 March. Blind man sits on steps of platform; monologue. [Cesante looks at protest poster] Cesante reads poster to Blind man; pregón. [Constables & tailor appear.] (11 March, next morning.) 1. Campos with Mayordomo, then Esquilache (who has the notice); instruction about tailors. 2. Esquilache with Villasanta: history. 3. Esquilache with Pastora: ethics. 4. Esquilache with Fernandita: trust. 5. Esquilache with Campos: tailors.
E (11 March, immediately after D.) The tailoring operation, the authorities in control; shouts of ‘God save the King, death to Esquilache’.
F Blind man off: pregón 22 March. [Lamps are lit on stage; embozados gather furtively.] King at El Pardo (between 11 & 22 March) 1. King with Esquilache: political & personal (22 March, late afternoon). 2. Esquilache with Campos: Fernandita. 3. Esquilache with Ensenada: politics. 4. Esquilache with Fernandita: growing intimacy. (A lamp is lit outside.)
G (22 March, evening, immediately after F) Revolt is plotted; lamps are smashed Lights out suddenly; CURTAIN [5. Esquilache alone, then leaves.] Light outside the window out suddenly.

This structure is remarkably fluid, balanced and orderly. There is a clear alternation between the street (A, C, E, G) and the interiors (B, D, F). Apart from interruptions by the blind man during some of the interior scenes, the two locations are kept separate (only Fernandita moves freely between both). The transitions from one setting to the other are achieved by means of deft overlapping of business and shifts of lighting. The interior scenes form a regular pattern: each series consists of three main dialogues, framed by shorter scenes involving Campos (with a slight variation in the third series). Connections are made, ideas are clarified—the mechanism works like clockwork, like a gavotte, with neoclassical elegance. The stage design itself contributes to this effect, thanks to the ingenuity of the device of the revolving platform. Esquilache dominates his own interior space—central, slightly elevated, geometrically as well as decoratively elegant—and exercises (incomplete) control from a distance over the more open, irregular space outside. The audience too is allowed to feel in control, enjoying a privileged view of the two parallel areas of action and perceiving dramatic irony in the discrepancy between the completeness of their perspective and the incompleteness of that of the characters.

However, this sense of order begins to break down at the end of the first part. Esquilache's study and the street are brought closer together by the lighting of the lamps (first outside his window, then on the main stage immediately afterwards). Esquilache finds this reassuring, but as soon as he leaves, the destruction of the lamps (again, in both places) foreshadows an invasion of his space. At the beginning of Part 2, everything is disordered, as the following scheme shows:

PART 2 MAIN STAGE (street) PLATFORM (interiors)
A (23 March, evening.) Esquilache out of place & at risk Rebels dominate the street; they intimidate constables and Esquilache. Bernardo shouts to Relaño, who appears here immediately after leaving the study. (Same time, overlapping) Relaño occupies Esquilache's study. In the doorway, Fernandita trying to move Julián's body, interrupted by Esquilache. Relaño is woken by Bernardo's voice, picks up the portrait & leaves.
B (Later the same evening.) Esquilache in the Palace with Fernandita & Campos. King reassures Esquilache. Esquilache shows concern for Fernandita. Villasanta informs Esquilache of destruction of lamps.
C (Night 23–24 March.) María throws out slops. Shouts off; lights up slowly as Blind man crosses stage (dawn).
D (24 March, morning.) Esquilache loses control of events; clashes with Campos & Villasanta; feels abandoned or Esquilache is consoled by Fernandita; she is horrified to see Bernardo in the courtyard (noises off). King makes Esquilache decide. Esquilache & Fernandita judge Ensenada. Esquilache & Fernandita console and help each other.
E (24 March, later the same day.) Celebration of Esquilache's fall (confirmed by Blind man's pregón off); Fernandita rejects Bernardo. Same music as opening; SLOW CURTAIN. [Esquilache stands alone by the balcony.]

The inhabitants of the street occupy and disrupt the interior, while Esquilache risks the dangers of a city under mob rule. Business goes on simultaneously—almost confusingly—on the main stage and the platform, without the regular alternation of Part 1. There is then a change of rhythm as the action settles down in the Palace scenes. Esquilache finds himself in a space similar to his own study, but clearly not a vantage point from which to control events outside. He is isolated, virtually imprisoned, and prevented from seeing what is happening in the courtyard, as are the audience, who for long periods have nothing to watch on the main stage. At the end, Esquilache remains alone in the room in the Palace while our attention turns to Fernandita in the foreground.

The blind man who sells ballads, newspapers and the Piscator almanac has several crucial functions within this structure. He punctuates the action and marks the passage of days with his call. Esquilache obtains a copy of the almanac that appears to predict his fall, and is repeatedly unsettled by the blind man's call, which is barely noticed by the other characters inside the house. The rational, pragmatic minister begins to believe that the old man represents the possibility of seeing into the future and into human relationships in a way that transcends rationality: ‘Ese ciego insignificante llevaba el destino en sus manos’ (Dreamer, p. 178). The ballad-seller's blindness seems to give him a mysterious kind of inner vision and, in a magical moment in Part 2, a special relationship with light: the stage direction calls for the lights to come up slowly as day breaks, and just as slowly, the blind man crosses the stage ‘como si fuese él quien trajese el nuevo día’ (Dreamer, p. 146). This is part of an elaborate pattern of verbal and visual symbolism in which the light of the street lamps is equated with the cultural and political enlightenment offered by Esquilache, in contrast with the blindness of a people who refuse to show their faces, failing to see what is in their best interests and extinguishing the lights.5 Only at the end does Esquilache realize that his confidence in his capacity to see clearly and make others see has been mistaken. He and Fernandita learn from one another a deeper perception of themselves in relation to other people, and their personal voyages of discovery are explicitly linked with the struggle of an entire people: ‘¡El pueblo eres tú! [ … ] Tal vez nunca cambie su triste oscuridad por la luz’ (p. 180).


The story told by the film consists of three periods whose ‘real’ chronological order is as follows:

A The build-up to the uprising, beginning on about 9 March 1766 and ending with Esquilache setting off for San Fernando on the night of 22 March.

B The night of the uprising (23 March 1766) and the events inside and outside the Royal Palace on 24 March, followed by a glimpse several days later of Esquilache on a ship heading for exile in Italy.

C Years later, as an ailing Esquilache (in Venice) listens to his son reading from a letter from King Carlos. Esquilache was ambassador to Venice from 1772 until his death in 1785 (the King died three years later).

The plot of the film, however, presents the events of A, B and C in a different order. Period C constitutes a frame within which both A and B are remembered by Esquilache and seen through his eyes. However, the status of C is not made clear at first. Scene 1 (following a prefatory text and the credits) simply shows rooms in an unidentified house, finishing with a long shot of a bed without allowing the audience to see its occupant or the people around it clearly. The voice-over (C-VO in the table below) is obviously the text of a letter to Esquilache (his name has been given in the prefatory text, and the voice-over begins ‘Querido Leopoldo …’), but it remains visually unmotivated until the final scene, when the bedside setting is established. In the meantime, this voice is used seven times as extra-diegetic sound during scenes in period B. At first, it appears to be subjective sound remembered or imagined by Esquilache from within period B while he is travelling in a coach to the Royal Palace. However, it gradually becomes clear that the letter is from the King to Esquilache in Venice (period C), looking back on the events of A and B from a time in which he assumes that both of them are close to death. Scene 45 is a kind of epilogue, but has already been anticipated by scene 1 and the voice-overs.

Consequently, until the framing function of C is clarified, it is period B that works as the narrative present of the film, and is itself a frame within which fragments of A appear as flashbacks representing Esquilache's recollections of the events of the preceding days as he rides in his coach towards the Royal Palace. The first half of the film thus consists of cross-cutting between B and A. The parallelism of the montage and the status of A as the principal character's mindscreen are reinforced by repeated overlapping of sound.6 This is achieved mostly by brief sound bridges in which a noise or voice is heard before the visual cut is made: for example, applause is heard over a close shot of Esquilache in the coach (scene 6 in the table) before the cut to the dinner scene (7); the noise of smashing glass at the end of Esquilache's speech appears for an instant, disconcertingly, to be a diegetic sound within 7, until the cut back to B (8) shows Esquilache looking out of the coach window at a rioter smashing one of his street lamps. At certain points, the voice of a character speaking in A continues over a brief cut back to the coach in B (A-VO in 10, 13, 15, 19).

The scenes in period A are episodic fragments. Each one highlights a relationship between Esquilache and one of the other main characters, while at the same time adding another piece of historical evidence to the account of the build-up to the uprising. The logical (and, we assume, chronological) sequence of these flashbacks is disrupted twice. Firstly, the main action of scene 15 (Esquilache watching Fernandita and Bernardo from the stairs) is intercut with a short exchange between Esquilache and Pastora which is from, or at least is repeated in, scene 16 (‘una pobre criada llena de buenas intenciones …’). Secondly, scene 18 cuts away from Esquilache in his bath (listening to Campos reading out the order about tailors) to a series of shots of an obviously later confrontation in the street (with Campos's reading continuing as voice-over), before cutting back to the bath.

Period B presents a continuous narrative beginning with a sequence in which Esquilache enters his ransacked house, finds Fernandita, is accosted by a group of rioters, and returns to his coach. The second sequence covers the coach ride through the streets of Madrid, during which Esquilache remembers episodes from the preceding days and witnesses scenes of rioting and popular protest. The third sequence is set in rooms and corridors of the Royal Palace, with views of events taking place in the courtyard (the Plaza de la Armería). Finally, the brief scene 44 serves as a transition between period B and the ‘epilogue’ of period C.

The following table divides the action of the film into scenes and shows the relationship between the three periods (entries indicate the setting of a scene or sequence of scenes, the names of the characters involved in the main dialogue in each scene, and the main topic of conversation).

C Frame B Narrative ‘present’ A Flashbacks
Years later (1780s?) 2–28: 23 March 1766 29–43: 24 March 1766 44: after 25 March 1766 Days leading up to 22 March 1766
1 Rooms, bed. C-VO
2 Casa de Siete Chimeneas: Esquilache-Campos (motín).
3 Esquilache-Fernanda on stairs (Julián).
4 Street: Esquilache-Fernanda-rioters.
5 Esquilache, Fernanda, Campos get into coach.
6 In coach. C-VO
7 Amigos del País dinner.
8 ↓ rioter smashing lamp.
9 Casa de Siete Chimeneas: Esquilache-Ensenada (libelo).
10 A-VO (Pastora) Esquilache-Pastora (miedo)
11 Esquilache-Pastora (bando).
12 Palacio: Esquilache-Villasanta (favores); Esquilache-King (corte).
13 A-VO (Campos) Casa de Siete Chimeneas: Esquilache-Campos (bando, Francia).
14 ↓ crowd, Bernardo.
15 A-VO (Pastora) Bernardo-Fernanda (serás mía)/Pastora (Fernanda).
16 Lottery: Esquilache-Pastora (broche).
17 Casa de Siete Chimeneas: Esquilache-Fernanda (broche).
18 Bath: Esquilache-Campos (sastres)/Street: tailor, fighting.
19 A-VO (King) El Pardo: Esquilache-King (españoles son como niños).
20 Casa de Siete Chimeneas: Esquilache-Ensenada (Ordenanzas).
21 ↓ portrait burning.
22 Street: Bernardo-Ciego (enigma); inside: Esquilache-Fernanda (¿que ocurre?)
23 Coach arrives at Palace. C-VO
24 Palacio Real: Esquilache-Campos, Esquilache-Fernanda.
25 Esquilache-King (conspiradores).
26 Esquilache-Fernanda (peso del odio).
27 Esquilache-Villasanta (humillación).
28 Esquilache-Isabel Farnese (jugar a las cartas).
29 Esquilache with pistol; nursed by Fernanda. C-VO
30 Esquilache-Campos (errores)/Esquilache-Villasanta (no asomarse)/crowd in Plaza de la Armería
31 Guards & crowd (inc. Bernardo) fight.
32 Esquilache-Fernanda (Bernardo nos vencerá).
33 Crowd, Bernardo & friar.
34 Esquilache-Villasanta (estoy prisionero).
35 Guards facing crowd. C-VO
36 Esquilache-Fernanda, waiting. C-VO
37 Esquilache escorted along corridor; sees Bernardo.
38 Esquilache-King (tú decides).
39 Ensenada & Campos along corridor.
40 Esquilache-Ensenada (destierro).
41 King on balcony/Esquilache watches.
42 Esquilache-Fernanda (sacrificio, pueblo.)
43 Fernanda rejects Bernardo. C-VO
44 Esquilache on ship. C-VO
45 Esquilache in Venice. VO is his son reading King's letter


Period A corresponds to Part 1 of Un soñador para un pueblo. Scenes 2, 3 and 4 of B correspond to the beginning of Part 2 of the play, and scenes 24 to 43 correspond to the rest of Part 2. Period C and the text of the letter have no counterparts in Buero's text. Some other components of the film do not feature in the play: Esquilache going into his house on 23 March (scene 2); the coach journey itself; the after-dinner speech to the Amigos del País (7); the stone thrown through Esquilache's window (in 10); the King's dinner (12); Esquilache seeing Bernardo stirring up the mob and his portrait in flames (14 and 21); Esquilache eavesdropping on Fernanda's meeting with Bernardo (15); the lottery setting for the conversation about the brooch (16); Esquilache's bath (18); his encounter with Isabel Farnese (28); Esquilache contemplating suicide, and vomiting while nursed by Fernanda (29); Esquilache seeing Bernardo in a palace corridor (37). The violence between rioters and troops shown by the film in the Plaza de la Armería in reality took place earlier in other parts of the city, and in the play is reported in these terms rather than played out on stage. Most of these new elements have the effect of opening out the drama, in terms of both physical space and socio-political context.

On the other hand, the film dispenses with certain parts of the play. Lines of dialogue are cut from virtually every scene, some of them highly significant in the original (for instance, Campos's report of Fernandita's defence of her master in 1-F, parts of several conversations between Esquilache and Fernandita, and several important exchanges in the final scenes which help to heighten Esquilache's dilemma). This reduction in the density of the spoken text, together with the introduction of new settings for some scenes and the fragmenting effect of the flashback technique, serves to break up the sense of measured juxtaposition on which the play's structure depends.

Perhaps the most conspicuous piece of cutting carried out by Molina and her team is the omission of the street scenes featuring embozados, María and Claudia, the blind man, the cesante (redundant civil servant), constables, and Fernandita. Even the skirmishes between constables and embozados (Part 1-E in the play) are reduced to a brief encounter without any dialogue, and the occupation of Esquilache's house by rioters is not shown. Whereas in the play these scenes provide a significant contrast with the scenes centred on Esquilache, in the film only certain elements of this collective dimension appear, and then only fleetingly (and mostly viewed from a distance). Instead, the mobility of the camera is exploited in order to give the audience glimpses of the exterior action that the play refrains from showing on stage: large crowd scenes, the violent clashes between rioters and troops, the confrontation in the Palace courtyard. Although Buero's restraint may have something to do with concern for the practicalities of staging, it makes a virtue out of an apparent limitation: the control suggested by the structure of Part 1 has broken down, Esquilache has been displaced and now the audience shares his frustration at not being able to follow what is going on outside.

A consequence of the reduction of the role of the pueblo is that we also see much less of the blind ballad-seller. The film does away entirely with his function as a structuring device and generates its own distinctive rhythm. He appears only once (in scene 22), and little is made of the predictions from Piscator. His appearance outside Esquilache's house just before the uprising breaks out is an effective moment in the film, but it is just another fragment of the protagonist's recollections, rather than a central signifying element. The blind man's importance as focus of the symbolism related to light and enlightenment is also sacrificed, along with the suggestion that his mysterious influence stimulates a deepening of self-awareness in the protagonist.

The idea of light and vision in the play acquires particular importance in relation to the role of Fernandita. Esquilache takes her blind, destructive passion for Bernardo as a general metaphor for human weakness and ignorance, and in urging her to believe that ‘tú puedes abrir los ojos’ he expresses a hope that humanity might one day liberate itself from blindness (Dreamer, pp. 178–80). The ending of the play is centred on her assertion of independence from Bernardo, while Esquilache stands motionless, withdrawn and melancholy in the background: a small but significant glimmer of hope amidst the gloom of defeat. The role of Fernanda is still prominent in the film (in which she is not known as Fernandita), but is not invested with the same symbolic function. She is not seen outside amongst the common people; even her dialogue with Bernardo (15 in the film, 1-C in the play) is set in the doorway of Esquilache's house rather than out in the street. The film omits her ingenuous remarks in support of Esquilache's reforms and the report of her defence of him in the street, which results in a blurring of the subtle shifts in Esquilache's perception of her, from initial suspicion to genuine trust and affection. The film's treatment of Fernanda seems to have a more straightforward emotional (and potentially sexual) emphasis, which is particularly noticeable in scene 15: an anguished Esquilache is shown watching Fernanda arguing with and then passionately kissing Bernardo.7 Later, Molina adds a scene in the Palace in which a retching and despairing Esquilache is held and soothed by Fernanda.

The presence of Fernanda with Esquilache is still important in the final scenes of the film, but the link between their relationship and his decision to accept defeat for the good of the people is much less direct. Esquilache no longer expresses frustration at being unable to avenge the harm done to her: ‘En esta mano estaba el Poder de España y ahora está vacía … ¡Dios mío, dame el Poder de nuevo!’ (Dreamer, p. 160). The line ‘no se trata del Poder, señor’ is also omitted later on (p. 168). Consequently, the temptation to use political power for personal reasons is not explicitly shown to be part of Esquilache's dilemma, and the emotional dimension of his self-sacrifice is not so sharply defined. The ethical importance of Fernanda is further reduced by the omission of her intervention in the final encounter between Esquilache and Ensenada. In the play, Esquilache holds her up as an emblem of fundamental human rights which must not be sacrificed for the sake of reasons of State, however rational and enlightened they may be, and submits himself and Ensenada to her moral judgment. On stage, her verdict on Esquilache is clearly favourable: she shows full understanding of his momentous decision and her last words to him are ‘que el cielo le colme de bendiciones’ (p. 180). On screen, her attitude as she leaves him is more ambiguous: she appears resentful of his refusal to take her with him to Italy and remarks ‘no tiene otra cosa que darme que grandes palabras’ (scene 42). Lastly, she rejects Bernardo as in the play, but the encounter is seen in a long shot from Esquilache's viewpoint and we do not hear what they say to one another.8 Furthermore, it is no longer the final, definitive moment. The shot of Fernanda walking off through an archway is followed by the shots of Esquilache at sea and finally the epilogue in Venice, in which she exists only as a fading memory: Esquilache mumbles ‘si pudiera recordar la última vez que ella me sirvió el chocola …’ (scene 45). While the play charts a gradually shifting balance between the two characters and carefully ties it into the ethical and political issues, in the film the presence of Fernanda is absorbed into the memory of Esquilache.

All this could be taken to imply that the makers of Esquilache have failed to make the most of significant elements of the source text. If we were to consider the film purely as a reading of Buero's play, we could conclude that the adaptation leaves serious gaps. Nevertheless, none of the observations above necessarily attributes inferior aesthetic value to the film. Molina takes Buero's characters, story and historical analysis and tailors them (‘libremente’) to fit a different medium, employing an effective and distinctively cinematic way of framing the subject matter which is radically different from the play's framing concept.


Both the play and the film are based upon forms of framing which have the effect of suggesting textual self-consciousness drawing attention to structure and artifice, and making explicit an exploration of ways of seeing. At the same time, both versions to some extent offer the audience a sense of sharing the dramatic experience or the perceptions of the protagonist. There is simultaneous distancing and identification, or formalization and naturalization, maintaining a tension that is characteristic of both media. It is not that one medium is essentially more or less naturalistic than the other, but the inherent tension can be said to work in opposite directions. In the theatre, the actors are physically present in the same space and time as the audience, who witness real people acting out the fiction and (to a limited extent) experience real interaction with them. And yet it is difficult to lose sight of the artificiality of the event, the confines of the scenic space, the structuring of the action, and the conscious playing of roles. André Helbo emphasises the ‘double enunciation’ characteristic of theatrical representation: ‘referring at the same time to the discourse (I am in the theatre) and the narrative (the character describes a program that tends to accomplish itself), the spectacle finds its conditions of existence in the paradox’.9

In the cinema, on the other hand, the actors are physically absent, experienced by the audience in a blatantly artificial manner as two-dimensional images on the same plane as everything else in the diegetic space. And yet real places, people and events can be shown on the screen and blended indistinguishably with constructed sets, actors and fictional events. A highly fragmented and technologically-dependent performance process can be edited into a narrative that appears perfectly coherent and continuous, and manipulation of framing, focus and camera angle can give an impression of physical closeness to the characters or sharing of their points of view (visual or psychological). A film is a fixed record of a past performance, yet the impression given to the spectator is often one of startling immediacy. Formal devices and the awareness of role-playing can be more easily naturalized than in the theatre, tending to be absorbed into the implied coherence of the cinematic fiction: ‘the implicit tendency consists in erasing the enunciator, in favoring the narrative’ (Helbo, 1993, p. 622).

The form of a particular theatrical or cinematic text is not necessarily determined in a predictable way by these essential conditions of representation and reception: their technical and aesthetic consequences are infinitely variable.10 However, what often come to be regarded as the most interesting features of a text are the ways in which it explores, exposes or creates tension out of the uniqueness of its medium. For example, a play may be valued for metatheatrical procedures that complicate the audience's suspension of disbelief (making the ‘dual enunciation’ explicit or violating conventional boundaries between stage and audience), or for exploitation of space that turns to advantage the confines of the stage. A film may be valued for dynamic use of space, for the visual richness of its placing of characters in physical environments, or for editing and camera angles that present action in an unexpected way or introduce shifts in the point of view.

Un soñador para un pueblo is not overtly metatheatrical and does not contain striking devices that play tricks with the audience's perceptions, yet the ingenuity of the stage design has a formalizing effect. The stage directions assume a more or less conventional theatrical space in which the audience is presented with a carefully composed stage picture. Within the overall frame of the proscenium arch, the central action on the platform is framed by and contrasted with the street scenes in the foreground. The audience's attention is shifted in a measured way between the two acting areas by changes in lighting, dialogue, movements of actors, and the revolving of the platform. The spatial relationships match formal and thematic relationships. Esquilache is the central character, but by no means the sole focus of attention, since he is presented in an ordered series of interactions with other characters, which is in turn set in the context of the world of the pueblo outside. Politics, and perhaps social existence in general, are associated with role-playing and deception, an artificial structure of relationships within which Esquilache seeks authenticity through Fernandita. History is thus presented as a complex dialectical process—as an interplay of social forces and as a tension between individual and collective action. Additional framing elements—the music at the beginning and end, and the linking or punctuating function of the blind man add to this rational dialectic a mysterious hint of the possibility of entirely different, intuitive perspectives.

The splitting of the stage space, the use of simultaneous action in different places, and the dynamic transitions from one setting or time to another suggest comparisons with the fluidity of cinema.11 However, the gaze here is still essentially theatrical: the spectator looks at a single, continuous stage space with the two areas always in view; the relationship between the two areas is fixed; the changes in the function of the central part of the stage are made smoothly, but by means of an obviously mechanical device and in view of the audience. The combination of the structuring of space and plot with the symbolism of light and darkness adds up to a complex exploration of ways of seeing social, emotional and ethical issues. The play leads the audience towards a balanced, dialectical perspective, claiming to be objective but at the same time questioning its own objectivity (which appears complete and confident in Part 1, becomes incomplete and frustrated in Part 2, and suggests a more complex idea of completeness at the end), a trajectory exemplified by the learning process of the protagonist and of Fernandita.

In Molina's film the concept of framing is significant in two senses. The first is visual. The action is insistently framed so as to represent the perspective of the protagonist, both in the form of subjective mindscreen (reinforced by close-ups of his face) and as true point-of-view shots (the camera shows the view as seen by the character). The convention of understanding the perimeter of the film picture as a moving frame through which the spectator's gaze focuses on selected pieces of the diegetic world as if from within it is emphasized repeatedly by shots taken through the literal frames of windows (from the coach in scenes 8, 14, 21 and 23; from Esquilache's house in 11, 15 and 22; from the Palace in 24, 29, 30, 31, 33, 35, 36 and 43) and doors (in the house in Venice in scenes 1 and 45; in the House of the Seven Chimneys in 10, 11 and 15; the Palace archway in 43). Many of the through-the-window shots are reinforced by shots from the outside of Esquilache's face looking out, or by over-the-shoulder shots, and the point of view is further emphasized by camera angles: Esquilache looks down into the street from his house and down into the courtyard from the room in the Palace. The occasional presence of other frames echoes this insistent motif: portraits on walls (especially the one of Pastora in scene 2), the miniature held by Esquilache in 44 and 45, a mirror in 38.

The other kind of frame is the narrative structure—period C framing B framing A—which also emphasizes the point of view of the principal character. There is a complicating factor, in that it is not clear at first that B is being presented as remembered by Esquilache and that the voice-over (C-VO) is a commentary looking back on B from a different narrative present. This creates tension between the predominantly subjective framing and the initially anonymous voice-over (which has an ambiguous status as both the utterance of one of the characters and a more or less authentic historical document). Although the film is as concerned as the play with both dimensions of the drama (public and private, political and personal), it presents history primarily in terms of individual experience and memory. The protagonist's memory predominates in terms of visual images and dramatic action, but the spectator's involvement with this personal perspective is modified by the detached tone and discursive nature of the King's letter, as well as by the screening right at the beginning of the film of a piece of text that acknowledges historical distance (‘En el siglo XVIII surge un movimiento de reforma …’) and presents itself as an objective summary of events and people:

Esquilache, poco conocedor del pueblo español, se encarga de imponer unas medidas que, aunque convenientes, resultan impopulares. [ … ] Ordena cambiar la indumentaria que favorece la impunidad de los malhechores. [ … ] Esa medida colmó el vaso de la antipatía popular.

The shift in tense here from presente histórico to pretérito indefinido reflects the tension maintained in this film between the recalling or narrating of past events and the illusion of the fictional present. In the theatre, the resonance of historical drama often depends on the paradox inherent in the live re-enactment of historical material: the audience is offered the illusion that it is happening here and now (present in two senses), which gives a further twist to the process of ‘dual enunciation’.12 This creative tension is not so easy to generate in the cinema, which inevitably provides a record of something that has happened. Not only the events re-enacted but also the performance itself are in the past. Esquilache generates its own ambivalence through its structure, blending personal (fictionalized) recollection and public record, subjective and objective angles of vision.

The impact of Un soñador para un pueblo is achieved essentially by offering to the spectator's gaze an arrangement of perspectives within a static frame, in a way that is characteristic of theatrical representation. Esquilache, on the other hand, works in a characteristically cinematic way by manipulating the frame itself, through which the spectator's gaze is directed and targeted.


  1. Josefina Molina, ‘Sobre la película’ in Sabre Films, Esquilache (press notes compiled for Berlin Film Festival, 1989).

  2. The analysis of the play's structure is based on a section of my introduction to a recent edition: Antonio Buero Vallejo, A Dreamer for the People/Un soñador para un pueblo, translated and edited by Michael Thompson (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1994), pp. 23–30. Further references to this edition will be given in the text using the abbreviation Dreamer.

  3. A detailed discussion of Buero's handling of his historical sources can be found in my introduction to Dreamer, pp. 3–23.

  4. Robert L. Nicholas, The Tragic Stages of Antonio Buero Vallejo (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1972), p. 62.

  5. Several of Buero's plays feature blind or deaf characters, many of whom are endowed with some kind of mysterious ‘sixth sense’, and symbolism of blindness and vision, related to darkness and light, is a constant feature of Buero's work. See Martha Halsey, ‘“Light” and “darkness” as dramatic symbols in two tragedies of Buero Vallejo’, Hispania, 50 (1967), 63–8, and ‘More on “light” in the tragedies of Buero Vallejo’, Romance Notes, 11 (1969), 17–20.

  6. Mindscreen: ‘a visual and sometimes aural field that is encoded to appear to be generated, remembered, perceived, or related by a mind (usually that of a character)’. From Bruce F. Kawin, How Movies Work (Berkeley: University of California, 1992), p. 548.

  7. This impression is reinforced by the fact that Fernanda is played by Angela Molina—a recognizable star, older and considerably sexier than the innocent young girl envisaged by the theatrical text.

  8. Buero recalls that the film-makers planned to leave out the final encounter between Fernandita and Bernardo altogether, but he insisted that it should be retained in some form. He agreed to the other changes, very reluctantly in some cases. Nevertheless, he still considers Esquilache the best of the film adaptations of his plays (statements made in a conversation with me in April 1995).

  9. André Helbo (translated by Pane and Carjuzaa), ‘Adapting the theatre to cinema: Towards a pluridisciplinary approach of the spectacular event’, Anales de la Literatura Española Contemporánea, 18 (1993), 593–624 (pp. 619–20).

  10. I use the word ‘text’ in a broad sense that embraces both the original verbal script and the finished performance (projected as photographs or staged live).

  11. Ever since Un soñador para un pueblo, such openness and flexibility of action and design have been characteristic of Buero's theatre, in contrast to the more closed, static structures of earlier plays.

  12. There is a stimulating discussion of the temporal ambivalence of historical drama in Francisco Ruiz Ramón, ‘Pasado/presente en el drama histórico español’, Estreno, 14 (1988), 22–24.

F. Komla Aggor (review date July 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628

SOURCE: A review of A Dreamer for the People, in Modern Language Review, Vol. 91, No. 3, July, 1996, pp. 770–71.

[In the following review, Aggor praises Michael Thompson's translation of Buero Vallejo's Un soñador para un pueblo.]

Any serious project undertaken to advance accessibility to and interest in the works of Antonio Buero Vallejo beyond the category of Spanish speakers must be celebrated. Buero's drama, studded with artistic excellence and innovation, embodies a transcendental, indispensable message ever pertinent to humanity. Michael Thompson's A Dreamer for the People is of particular significance, for it is the piece that inaugurated Buero's series of history plays, a series in which the playwright persistently creates the need for a reassessment of history as protection against the repetition of past tragedies.

The first translation into English of Un soñador para un pueblo, Thompson's work is a bilingual edition, with the Spanish version on the facing pages. The original Spanish is taken from the Espasa-Calpe edition (Colección Austral) published in 1972 and reprinted in 1989. In addition to the text itself, the book contains a solid, thirty-page introduction, a short list for further reading, notes, and a number of illustrations.

The introduction is systematic, lucid, and comprehensive. Thompson focuses on the admirable sense of balance in Buero, stating that amidst a contemporary era of anti-tragic theatrical innovations (absurdist, postmodernist, and so on) Buero has distinguished himself by reaffirming the ‘meaningfulness of human existence’ by means of the complex mechanism of modern tragedy. Thompson surveys the background of the Spanish historical theatre and presents Buero as the ‘supreme exponent’ of historical drama that privileges serious revaluation of well-known historical figures or episodes. He examines methodically the principal sources of the play, which consist of the classic accounts published by Antonio Ferrer del Río, Manuel Danvila y Collado, and Conde de Fernán-Núñez. In an impressive display of familiarity with Buero's text and its historical sources, Thompson explores in detail how Buero interweaves historical data and anecdotes into the dramatic action of the play and he sporadically points out the dramatic effects produced by the playwright's artistic inventions and his elaboration of history.

While Buero tends to be critical of the ruling classes in his history plays, in Un soñador he defends the monarchy and its technocrats, a position that invites criticism of Buero as endorsing the emerging new face of Franco's dictatorship in the late 1940s, since that face resembled that of eighteenth-century absolutism. But, according to Thompson, Buero himself resists the comparison. Thompson asserts that the play's fundamental ideals are, instead, to contrast the Franco government with Esquilache, the protagonist, on the basis of human-rights principles, tolerance, and self-sacrifice for the sake of peace. Thompson also appraises the mechanisms of theatricality at work in the play by analysing characterization, symbolism, dialogue, and plot structure.

The translation is accurate in the main, reads well, and has largely succeeded in preserving the flavour of the original text. There are, however, a few instances of perhaps excessive imaginative originality on the part of the translator, resulting in awkward translation; such is the translation of the décima on page 44 (I am unable to transcribe the poem here, for lack of space). The work is almost free of misprints but there is something missing in ‘He prided himself upon his ability to see through the falseness of others, yet he has not perceived the true character of Campos or the threat people of Madrid’ (p. 24). My only significant reservation about the book has to do with the poor quality of the print, which is very small, hazy-looking and sometimes faded, thus making the reading experience less enjoyable. Notwithstanding these criticisms, Thompson's translation is basically sound and a useful piece suitable for both the classroom and the library.

Martha Halsey (essay date May 1997)

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SOURCE: “Music as Sign and Symbol: Buero's Lázaro en el laberinto and Música cercana,” in Hispanofila, Vol. 120, No. 3, May, 1997, pp. 47–55.

[In the following essay, Halsey traces Buero Vallejo's use of music in Lázaro en el laberinto and Música cercana.]

Aesthetic beauty provides hints about inner meanings that discursive reason ignores or distorts. In Buero Vallejo's theater there is both revelation and concealment as the playwright speaks through art, music, metaphor and symbol, suggesting truths that transcend any totality of rational explanation. In many of Buero's plays music is important; however, in none is its role more central than in two of his very recent plays. The notes of the lute played by Coral in Lázaro en el laberinto (1986) and the melodies from the window across Alfredo's patio in Música cercana (1989) express deep truths, spiritual principles important to his entire theater.

In Lázaro en el laberinto the labyrinth of the title is the maze of doubts and fears that prevent the protagonist from finding the inner peace and freedom for which he longs. Lázaro is tormented by uncertainty as to his conduct some twenty-two years earlier, during the Franco dictatorship, when Silvia, the student he loved, was beaten by ultras. Lázaro remembers two different versions of the incident: in one he intervened to help her and in the other he abandoned her to save himself. Since Silvia then vanished and he was told that her parents had taken her out of the country, he could never learn which version was the true one. When a friend announces that he believes he has seen her in the city once again, Lázaro supposes that she will contact him. Although Lázaro's amnesia is most probably a way of avoiding an unpleasant reality, his loss of memory is not a conscious or willful one. Lost in his labyrinth of doubts, he now awaits the call of Silvia that can reveal the truth about a past that “pesa como una losa” (Díez de Revenga XIV) and, possibly, resurrect him like his Biblical namesake. One critic calls Lázaro's labyrinth “el de la memoria intrincada, el de un inconsciente que atormenta al librero. O la cavidad ósea del oído” (Haro Tecglen 31). For Lázaro suffers an auditory illusion; on several occasions he imagines a muffled telephone ring as he awaits Silvia's call. These auditory illusions are shared by the spectators, and their significance to the latter will become clear in the final scene.1

The action is framed by music from Bach's Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in E Flat Major played on the lute by Lázaro's niece Coral, who aspires to become a musician; and fragments of the composition are heard at various moments throughout the play. This music becomes associated in Lázaro's—and the spectators' mind with a place that possesses a special significance for various characters. Lázaro, Coral, and her brother Mariano, as well as Amparo, the young woman with whom the book dealer now believes he is in love and in whom he begins to see a new Ariadne who can lead him out of the maze, often stop at a bench in the secluded corner of a nearby park first discovered by Silvia:

un banco de jardín hacia el centro del primer término sobre el cual, a menudo, espejean y danzan suavemente los visos del agua, iluminada por el sol mañana y tarde, del invisible estanque situado en un apartado rincón del parque: un minúsculo lago tranquilo, apenas rizado por la brisa, a cuya orilla se halla el banco.


The poetry and mystery of this place, with the moving reflections off the water that create a strange atmosphere of damp brilliance, form a contrast to the prosaic reality of the bookstore and Amparo's shabby apartment and provide what Buero calls “la doble cara que … tiene el mejor teatro” (Amestoy 21).

The notes of the lute played by Coral are linked by Lázaro to the reflections off the water—just as in Buero's earlier La Fundación, Rossini's Pastoral from the Overture to William Tell is associated by the prisoner Tomás with the marvelous Turner landscape that he believes he sees outside a picture window.2 In the opening scene of Lázaro, as we hear the first movement of Bach's Suite in E Flat Major for lute, the protagonist compares the musical notes that touch him with sound to the flecks of light on his body. He loves to hear the glints from the water, he states, as we see the slow dance of the lights. Lázaro explains to Coral that Silvia, who discovered the spot, “decía que, si sabemos verlas y escucharlas, las cosas nos hacen guiños. Los visos del agua eran para ella como guiños” (46). Later, when Amparo and Coral, who have stopped at the bench, are bathed in light, the former suggests in the same vein: “Si estos reflejos nos enseñasen el mañana … Si fuesen un lenguaje” (76).

In the secluded park corner Coral finds the peace and freedom that will allow her to fulfill her dream. Coral explains to Lázaro that she went to the park bench to calm her nerves before her concert and, caressed by the reflections off the water, played her best—as if she were another. Her uncle reassures her that, although fear conquered her at the recital, the miracle at the park bench is a sign that she will succeed the next time. No matter how nervous she may be, the faces and reactions of the spectators will not matter to her for she will be playing for the water on which she wishes to bestow her best music. And this music will come from the lute. As in his earlier La señal que se espera, in Lázaro “Buero llama a la puerta que da acceso al plano de lo artístico, en espera de respuestas, de signos” (Pajón Mecloy 15). Here as in the earlier play, music is a sign that points to liberation and self-fulfillment.3

Lázaro himself, however, does not attain this freedom; he remains trapped in his maze of doubts and fears. Later, when he and Amparo sit at the bench, where Lázaro has suggested the truth winks at them in flashes of light, Amparo reveals that she believes that fear prevented Lázaro from defending Silvia to the point of sacrifice and keeps him from remembering his cowardliness. He did not really love then, Amparo believes, any more than he loves now, despite the proposal of marriage he makes to her: “El que, en este mundo terrible no puede retorcerle el cuello a su miedo, ése … no puede amar” (150). Between letting Silvia be beaten and being beaten himself, Amparo believes that Lázaro chose the first and thus condemned himself to the labyrinth. When Lázaro finally learns that Silvia died shortly after the beating and when Amparo leaves him, there appears to be little hope left for him. It is too late. His doubts continue, as is evident in a final nightmare of the many he has experienced. We share this nightmare as we hear a dialogue between two masked figures who debate whether he approached them and whether they beat him or not when they attacked Silvia.

After Amparo rejects Lázaro's marriage proposal and leaves him, we once again hear the music of Bach: the gavotte from the suite for lute. In the brightness of a radiant morning Coral is seen playing, covered with glints from the water. Then, the notes of the lute grow fainter and finally die out completely even though she continues to play; and the telephone rings, plunging Lázaro into terror. The ringing then becomes louder and louder, awakening mysterious echoes in various parts of the theater as the spectators hear other telephones that ring in corners, under the seats, and from the rear and sides. Finally the lights dim, leaving visible only the glowing bench where a radiant Coral plucks her silent notes. A sudden blackout then plunges the theater into darkness and the telephones cease ringing all at once before the final curtain falls.

Lázaro has not been able to hear the notes of the lute because the telephone has rung once again; his conscience has once more summoned him to confront the truth of his guilt. Until he does so—and there is little reason to believe he ever will—, he will remain a prisoner in the labyrinth.4 For him it seems too late; he cannot experience the peace and freedom that are Coral's.

For the audience, however, there is hope. The melody of the eolian harp that sounds at the end of La señal que se espera as the signal that hope is possible is heard by the audience. This music is thus “última respuesta y apertura” (Paco, “Introducción” 32).5 However, Coral's music falls on deaf ears; for only after we answer the summons of our conscience can we exit the maze to find the freedom that she experiences. The persistent ringing that envelopes us in the final “immersion effect” calls us to re-examine our own conduct, to achieve greater insight into our past and our recollections of it, into the self-deceptions that torment us, either individually or collectively.6

Alfredo, the protagonist of Música cercana, is a ruthless financier whose fortune from sordid business deals permits him a life of luxury and privilege. Having reached middle age, however, he feels only emptiness and returns to his childhood home to live with his estranged daughter Sandra. He even dreams of going back to a past that once included the possibility of happiness with a young neighbor girl, Isolina, who sewed by her window across the courtyard from his and still plays on her phonograph the same music that her father put on for her when she was a child.

As in Lázaro, the protagonist of Música cercana is obsessed with memories of the past. Now, unrealistically, he longs to return to what could possibly have been—just as Lázaro does in a different way, as he sees in Amparo a new love, an Ariadne who can lead him out of his maze of fears. Alfredo's concern with the past is seen in his obsession with a video cassette he has made of himself, linking together photographs taken at various moments in his youth, and with the melodies that still sound across the courtyard and are associated with the window that seems to beckon to him from the past.7 Like Lázaro,Música is framed by music: the classical melodies that Alfredo heard as a child. As the curtain rises to reveal the financier showing his cassette to his daughter, we hear strains of the Adagio from Mozart's Concerto No. 1 for Flute and Orchestra in G Major that waft through the open window of his apartment. Shortly thereafter, as he explains the cassette to Sandra and René, the young South American revolutionary who she loves, the Allegro from Brahms's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B Minor sounds, transporting Alfredo once again to the past.

On two occasions the audience shares this return to the past that Alfredo has lost, to the girl whom he perhaps could have made his wife had he not let the opportunity slip away. The first “immersion effect” is preceded by, or possibly begins with, the Adagio from Brahms's Quintet. Since the other characters at times hear and mention music from the courtyard, it is not certain whether the melody actually sounds or is only recalled by Alfredo. Then, after Alfredo turns on the video and stops it when reaching his image when he was twenty, the window across the courtyard is suddenly opened by a pretty girl of seventeen dressed in inexpensive old-fashioned clothes. After looking at Alfredo's window out of the corner of her eye, she sits down by the sill to sew. As the music grows in intensity, Alfredo, who still gazes at the video screen (which faces away from the spectators), remains lost in his memories until interrupted by the housekeeper. Then, without the girl's moving, the window to Alfredo's back silently closes. After all his business successes and beautiful women, only Isolina—to whom he has never spoken a word and who may or may not have returned his love in the past—and his daughter Sandra matter to Alfredo.

Alfredo, who married without love and has had a series of affairs, reveals his secret to Sandra: “Yo sí he sentido un verdadero amor. ¡Uno solo! Y nunca … me atreví a intentar que se realizase” (99). When he first saw Isolina, she was a charming child of six or seven who played with her dolls and occasionally glanced at the young boy across the courtyard: “De vez en cuando me lanzaba una miradita que me hacía temblar. Quiero creer que no era sólo coquetería, que también me quería un poquito” (100). From his window he watched her grow into womanhood as she listened to the melodies that now transport him mentally to the past. Alfredo, and most probably Lázaro, failed to say “yes” to love, to attempt to realize their most intimate dreams. The young Isolina represents the happiness Alfredo might have known. This first love is thus “el camino abandonado … el pasado perdido” (Barea 7). However Alfredo, like Lázaro, wants a second chance, even though he acknowledges that it is ridiculous to expect that Isolina has been waiting for him all her life, calling to him with her music. He explains to Sandra: “¿No sueñas tú con algo que también crees improbable? Me gustaría creer que esa mujer …, que esa música, tan distante y sin embargo tan cercana …, será un día mía” (102). Unlike Lázaro, Alfredo will receive a definitive answer at the end of the play.

Buero describes the melodies that enter Alfredo's window as “esa música que es poesía, que es lo auténtico, que es lo íntimo y que no es sólo música real, esa música que es cercana a todo ser humano y que dejamos a un lado” (Gopegui 9). The playwright states that we often choose not to heed this music, not to dare to attempt to make our dreams reality (Torres 38). Such was the case of Alfredo as a youth. Buero speaks of “músicas cercanas y distantes al mismo tiempo, a las cuales el protagonista debió atender más” (Larrauri 20). These melodies thus correspond to the notes of Coral's lute in Lázaro that are associated with the flecks of light off the water—which, according to Silvia, speak to us and perhaps show us the future. The notes of the lute in Lázaro and the melodies that now obsess Alfredo, like the distant harmony that envelopes the characters at the end of La señal que se espera, suggest the poetry or mystery of life, the inner and spiritual dimension so important to Buero's theater.

For a second time we share Alfredo's return to his childhood. As he shows the cassette, the room becomes submerged in the strange semi-shadow of memory, and Chopin's “Fantasie Impromptu” from Opus 66 is perceived—even though the window across the courtyard, is closed. Then, we see the charming neighbor girl who sews in the past as the magical “music window”8 silently opens again in Alfredo's mind, inviting him to pursue a love that is now improbable, to experience the happiness that he has never known. Noting that Alfredo has stopped the video cassette at the picture of himself at twenty, as if searching in a mirror for something lost, René comments on Alfredo's efforts to open a window onto a forgotten enigma, to attain to a revelation. He doubts that Alfredo's mirror will provide such a revelation and such is the case. Nevertheless, René suggests that if Alfredo expects an answer, they must wait as motionless and as quiet as his image on the screen. Part I ends as the three characters sit in silence as the soft music sounds and the neighbor sews at the window outside of time. This “bello momento teatral de silencio y de serenidad” (Johnston 43) recalls the final moment of La señal. However, unlike Alfredo, the characters of the latter play receive a sign that brings to each deeper understanding and hope for the future.

The answers that Alfredo receives involve not only Isolina but Sandra, who has rejected her father's values and now plans to leave home. In two nightmares accompanied by the funeral march from Beethoven's Eroica, a composition which foreshadows the tragic conclusion of the play, we hear Alfredo beg Sandra to stay. In the second nightmare, René, also, voices his fears of losing her. The nightmares become reality when Sandra is fatally stabbed on the street by an addict. The same music underscores the announcement of her death. It is a death for which Alfredo finally realizes that he is ultimately responsible since he has funds invested in a financial group involved in laundering drug money.

Alfredo's final answer comes just before the play's end, when the real Isolina—not his mental image of her—appears for the first time in the window that opens as if beckoning to him from the past. As Mozart's Adagio sounds and the morning light floods the room, a woman with sewing in her hand opens the shutters to Isolina's window. Although it is the same woman who appeared earlier in Alfredo's memory, her appearance has changed noticeably: as she is now aged, with white hair and wrinkles. Surprised and annoyed, when she sees Alfredo observe her, she frowns. Then, as he softly whispers her name, she brusquely slams the window shut. The window to hope thus closes. Alfredo's effort to regain the past fails: “Queda tan en el aire como los temas de Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven o Chopin que Buero ha querido que estuviesen cercanas” (Amestoy 17). Neither Lázaro nor Alfredo had the courage to heed the music—so near but distant—when the opportunity presented itself at a given moment in their past, to try to realize their dreams.9 Mozart's Adagio, the same music tinged with melancholy that made Alfredo remember Isolina in the opening scene, continues to sound as the curtain falls, perhaps inviting the audience to really hear it for the first time. If Lázaro remains alone in the labyrinth without Silvia or Amparo, Alfredo is equally abandoned. The latter pinned his hopes on a route that led through a symbolic window to a past that can no longer be recovered. All escape is thus cut off; and liberation, an illusion.

Neither protagonist experiences the peace and freedom represented in Lázaro by the notes of the Bach suite played by Coral and by the reflections off the pond that touch the characters with light and speak in a special language. This secluded park corner, this magical spot, is an image that suggests the quiet center of the mind. True liberation, Buero suggests, is inner; and it is music that can help lead us to this liberation—if we can but hear it. In none of Buero's plays, however, is music more important than in the second play, where we see a protagonist who is as incapable of hearing the melodies that surround him—as are the spectators of Lázaro when Coral's notes fall on deaf ears. The compositions of Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, and Bach sounded on numerous occasions, but Alfredo failed to heed them and therefore lost his chance for happiness. The phonograph music from across the courtyard, like the melodies played on the lute, pointed to hope, to self-realization and, thus, authentic freedom. Here as in other Buero plays, music is “último signo de salvación y esperanza” (Paco, “Procedimientos formales” 50)10


  1. The telephone rings that only Lázaro and the audience hear are examples of what critics of Buero's theater refer to as “immersion effects.” The term was coined by Ricardo Doménech. The device—Buero's answer to Bertold Brecht's Verfremdungseffeck or alienation effect—has been studied extensively by Victor Dixon, who states that it occurs when the “spectator is made to share a peculiar sensory perception (or lack of it), not with all the characters of a play but (normally) with only one, with whom he therefore feels a stronger sense of empathy or identification” (31).

  2. Music is often used by Buero to introduce an “immersion effect,” to lead the audience to the awareness of a presence that is a mystery. In two other recent plays, La Fundación (1974) and Caimán (1986), music becomes associated with landscapes that, like the corner of the park in Lázaro, represent images of hope. In La Fundación Rossini's serene melody introduces, and becomes associated with, the idyllic landscape of mountains and lakes that the deluded prisoner imagines he sees from a comfortable room of a “foundation” for artists and writers.

    In Caimán, Schubert's incidental music for the romantic drama, Rosamunde, is not an “immersion effect” in the strict sense since the music exists objectively and is heard by other characters. Nevertheless, it suggests the romantic nature of the protagonist, Rosa, and the unreal world she inhabits when she contemplates a reproduction of one of Monet's large Water Lilies on her wall and hears the voice of her dead daughter invite her to join her in a fantastic water garden like the one in the painting. In both plays music “immerses” us in a mysterious presence. The Turner vista and the Monet garden are landscapes of the imagination that exist only in the delusions and hallucinations of the protagonists: the schizophrenic prisoner who cannot face the reality of his situation and the deranged mother who cannot accept the death of her daughter. Nevertheless, these landscapes are no less real when considered as ideals. The sparkling landscape that contrasts to the sordid reality of the prison, the brilliant water garden that stands in opposition to the reality of a society caught in the jaws of the monster, and the park are all images of hope. On landscapes in Buero's theater see Halsey.

  3. In Buero's early La señal que se espera (1952), music is a “sign” that brings inner peace. Luis, a musician unable to compose since his sweetheart left him, expects that an aeolian harp that he has constructed will miraculously play a melody that he has forgotten as a “sign” that his work may begin again. The miracle happens—although the harp is played by human hands.

  4. Buero considers it unlikely that Lázaro will resolve his doubts and confront his fear. See his comments in the interview with Amestoy, 23.

  5. Speaking of Buero's El Concierto de San Ovidio (1964), Pajón Mecloy comments: “Valentín Haüy en el prólogo a El Concierto de San Ovidio decía: ‘Gusto de imaginar a veces si no será … la música … la única respuesta posible para algunas preguntas. …’. Ahora, en Lázaro en el laberinto, los visos del agua nos hacen guiños” (15).

  6. In Lázaro Buero criticizes not only the protagonist (as he will also do in Música cercana) but also Spanish society for its refusal to recognize the errors of the past. The playwright states: “Lázaro con su memoria dañada responde a la memoria histórica del país. … Se trata de un doble recuerdo que está muy cerca de lo esquizofrénico sin serlo. En España, con referencia al pasado cada vez menos inmediato, hemos jugado mucho con nuestra memoria, tratando de engañarnos, incluso desde la subconsciencia, como Lázaro” (P[oblación] 37).

  7. Buero states of Alfredo: “El ha tenido ahí, su faceta poética durante años y años, y la ha sentido, la ha hecho suya íntimamente, pero no se ha atrevido a darle realidad. Al final, esa larguísima espera en la que él ha vivido prácticamente toda su vida, por no haberla sabido llevar a los términos humanamente adecuados, se convierte en una decepción” (Gopegui 8).

  8. The Music Window in the title of Holt's translation of Buero's play.

  9. Mariano de Paco explains Buero's apparent harshness with both Lázaro and Alfredo: “En Lázaro en el laberinto y en Música cercana se plantea nuevamente una pregunta fundamental, una vez que Silvia murió y también ha muerto Sandra. ¿Quién rescata la muerte de David?, se interrogaba Valentin Haüy en El Concierto de San Ovidio. ¿Quién resucitará a Fermín?, decía Julia en Jueces en la noche. La que puede parecer extrema dureza con Lázaro o con Alfredo al concluir los dramas responde a estos hechos irreparables en el tiempo” (“La verdad, el tiempo y el recuerdo,” 44–45).

  10. For studies of music in Buero's earlier theater see Borrás, García Lorenzo and Noble.

Works Cited

Amestoy, Ignacio. “‘Un verdadero hombre de teatro no es nunca un simple redactor de diálogos’: Una entrevista de Ignacio Amestoy.” Primer Acto 217 (Jan.-Feb. 1987): 16–23.

Barea, Pedro. “Música cercana: La memoria teatral de Buero Vallejo.” El Público 73 (Oct. 1989): 4–8.

Buero Vallejo, Antonio. Lázaro en el laberinto. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1987.

———. The Music Window (Música cercana). Trans. Marion Peter Holt. University Park, PA: Estreno, 1994.

———. Música cercana. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1990.

Díez de Revenga, Francisco Javier. “Lázaro en el laberinto: Renovación y continuidad de la cosmovisión tragica bueriana.” Anthropos 79 (1987): XIII–XIV.

Dixon, Victor. “The ‘Immersion-effect’ in the Plays of Antonio Buero Vallejo.” Themes in Drama II: Drama and Mimesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. 113–37.

Doménech, Ricardo. El teatro de Buero Vallejo. Madrid: Gredos, 1973.

García Lorenzo, Luciano. “Elementos paraverbales en el teatro de Antonio Buero Vallejo.” Estudios sobre Buero Vallejo. Ed. Mariano de Paco. Murcia: Universidad de Murcia, 1984. 93–112.

Gopegui, Belén. “Toda obra es una experiencia nueva.” El Público 73 (Oct. 1989): 8–10.

Halsey, Martha T. “Landscapes of the Imagination: Images of Hope in the Theater of Buero Vallejo.” Hispania 68 (1985): 252–59.

Haro Tecglen, Eduardo. “Teatro: Lázaro en el laberinto: Un drama de conciencia freudiana.” El País (20 Dec. 1986): 31.

Johnston, David. “Introducción.” Buero Vallejo, Antonio. Música cercana. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1990. 9–47.

Larrauri, Eva. “Buero Vallejo: ‘El teatro español no está muerto.’” El Pais (18 Aug. 1989): 20.

Noble, Beth W. “Sound in the Plays of Buero Vallejo.” Hispania 41 (1958): 56–59.

Paco, Mariano de. “Introducción.” Buero Vallejo, Antonio. Lázaro en el laberinto. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1987. 9–34.

———. “Procedimientos formales y simbólicos en el teatro de Buero Vallejo.” El teatro de Buero Vallejo: Texto y espectáculo. Ed. Cristóbal Cuevas García. Barcelona: Anthropos, 1990. 40–58.

———. “La verdad, el tiempo y el recuerdo: Lázaro en el laberinto y Música cercana.Estreno 17.2 (1991): 43–45.

Pajón Mecloy, Enrique. “Buero Vallejo en el laberinto.” Ínsula 483 (Feb. 1987): 15.

P[oblación], F[élix]. “Un laberinto de Buero entre pasado y presente.” El Público 40 (Jan. 1987): 36–7.

Torres, Rosana. “Buero Vallejo: ‘Escribir me aburre penosamente.’” El País (22 Sept. 1989): 38.

Alison J. Ridley (essay date Fall 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6511

SOURCE: “Judith and Leocadia: The Intertextual Heroines of Buero Vallejo's El sueño de la razõn,” in Estreno, Vol. XXII, No. 2, Fall, 1997, pp. 42–8.

[In the following essay, Ridley presents three representations of the character Leocadia in Buero Vallejo's El sueño de la razón.]

As the character who holds the key to Francisco de Goya's survival or demise in Buero Vallejo's El sueño de la razón, Leocadia Zorrilla, the painter's young mistress, has been decidedly overlooked as one of the drama's central figures. She has been studied primarily from the perspective of her role as the young, passionate woman who serves as a constant reminder to Goya of his declining virility and old age.1 Although this facet of her character provides the audience with greater insight into Goya's disturbed mind, Leocadia's role is far more complex and intriguing than that of a beautiful temptress. She is a perplexing melange of contradictions, at once adoring and vengeful, determined and fearful, cold and flirtatious. Her role is further complicated by the deaf Goya's bifurcation of her into the Voice of Leocadia and Judith-Leocadia in his imaginary world, a process which results in three representations of the Leocadia character: the “real” Leocadia and the two imaginary ideations of her that are filtered through Goya's consciousness. With these three representations, Buero creates a composite entity who has the ability to transcend the concrete, imaginary and oneiric levels of the drama. In addition to her three intratextual faces, the composite Leocadia is enriched by certain irrefutable intertextual bonds that she shares with the biblical figure of Judith. Similar in character, deed and motive, the composite Leocadia and Judith share a kinship that cannot be refuted. In fact, it is the similarities between these intertextual sisters that serve as the glue that holds the fictional composite of Leocadia together. An examination of the affinity between Buero's female protagonist and the biblical Judith will reveal how Leocadia and Goya's imaginary mutations of her ultimately affect the artist's salvation.

The connection between Judith and Leocadia is revealed early in the drama by both Goya and Leocadia. When Goya is asked by Doctor Arrieta if his painting of Leocadia is another “Judith,” the artist replies: “Otra Judith? O Judith otra Leocadia. ¿Quién sabe?” (132). On a different occasion, Leocadia's connection with the biblical heroine is suggested by way of a projection of the painting of “Judith and Holofernes” on stage as Leocadia explains her role within some of the canvases to Arrieta.2 Both of these scenes serve to introduce the reader to a relationship that will become increasingly important as the drama develops. It is clear from both Goya's interpretations of Leocadia's role in the paintings and her own opinions of her presence in his works, that she is perceived by the artist as a dangerous threat. Leocadia describes her role in the “Aquelarre” and “Asmodea” to Arrieta as follows: “[Goya] dice que soy una bruja que le seca la sangre. ¡Mire esa otra! (Arrieta se enfrenta con ‘Asmodea’.) La mujer se lleva al hombre al aquelarre y él va aterrado, con la boca taponada por una piedra maléfica … La mujer soy yo” (125). Similarly, when Goya is explaining his painting of “Leocadia” to the doctor he says: “Esa peña [donde se reclina] es una tumba. Ahí nos ha metido a su marido y a mí. [Pensé en pintarme yo mismo dentro de la roca, como si ésta fuera de vidrio.] [Pero … no me atrevi]” (131–2). While the threat that Leocadia poses to Goya is generally attributed to the artist's fear of his waning virility, there is another explanation for her role as femme fatale. Leocadia is the only person who understands that Goya's “illness” is denial. She says to the doctor: “¡La locura de Francho es justamente ésa! ¡Que se niega a un cambio de aires! Que no tiene miedo” (127). Therefore, Leocadia is dangerous, not solely because of her beauty and age, but also because of her awareness of the truth behind Goya's supposed madness. This is why she is represented in Goya's canvases as a potentially malevolent and dangerous force.

The irony of the representations of Leocadia as Asmodea and Judith is that while the paintings of these figures may communicate fear, the models themselves are perceived as agents of hope. Goya sees Asmodea as the entity who has the power to remove him from the dangerous political situation in which he finds himself with Fernando VII (134), and Judith, in her biblical role, is the savior of an entire race of people. The fact that Goya associates Leocadia with both evil and hope suggests that while his conscious mind is not yet ready to confront his demons and fears, his subconscious mind is aware of Leocadia's ability to see through him and to hold him accountable for his denial. This is specifically why she is depicted in the paintings as an agent of fear (in her ability to threaten his safe haven of denial) and as an agent of hope (in her ability to release him from the dangers of that same denial). The connection that Goya makes between his mistress and the biblical figure of Judith throughout the drama most aptly communicates his subconscious awareness of Leocadia's power and influence over him. The complex and intimate bond that Buero develops between Judith and the composite image of Leocadia is revealed gradually through Leocadia's actions and words, Goya's cerebral representations of her as the Voice of Leocadia and Judith-Leocadia, and the reader's knowledge of the biblical story of Judith.

Judith is the biblical heroine who saves the Israelites from the Assyrians by deceiving and murdering Holofernes, the general of the enemy army. She lies, deceives, seduces and kills to save her people for the glory of God. Judith's character has presented critics with much consternation due to her inconsistent and often paradoxical behavior. According to Moore, Judith serves as an exemplum of irony:

Judith's entire life was ironic. A childless widow, she gave spiritual and political life to her people. A wealthy woman after her husband's death, she lived very simply, sometimes almost to the point of starving herself. In a sexist society where the roles of men and women were sharply delineated and kept quite separate, Judith played both roles with eminent success. Unwilling to eat food that was not kosher, she did not hesitate to tell bold-faced lies. A “soft” and feminine woman, she murdered Holofernes herself, praying to God to give her the strength to do so.


Goya's tripartite image of Leocadia shares many of these same attributes. Throughout the drama, the complex character alternately assumes the roles of a helpless female, a loving and seductive woman, a deceitful and wily schemer, a verbally and physically abusive mistress and a homicidal temptress depending on Goya's ideation of her at any particular moment. The artist's confusion about Leocadia's intentions is clear from his alternating real and imagined images of her as treacherous, deceitful and dangerous.

Goya's fear of Leocadia suggests that he envisions her to have a certain power over him that he cannot completely control. In both the case of Judith and Leocadia, this power is equated with an ability to seduce. In the same way that the biblical heroine seduces Holofernes in order to get close enough to him to murder him, Goya's paranoia leads him to interpret his mistress's encounter with the young sergeant as an act of seduction. While we will never know what actually does transpire between Leocadia and the soldier on the bridge, it is most likely that she attempts to explain Goya's “illness” to the young man in order to persuade him to let her family leave the country peacefully. What stands out in both interpretations of Leocadia's actions above is not her ability to seduce, but her strength of character and her ability to act when confronted with a life-threatening situation. Surrounded by ineffectual male characters, Leocadia and Judith are forced to act alone in order to save themselves and those around them.3 Goya, for instance, refuses to heed his mistress's warnings regarding the danger he is in from Fernando VII and his ruthless entourage. Instead of taking action, he complacently and naively hopes that his mythical flying men will come and save him.4 Similarly, in the biblical story of Judith, the Bethulian magistrates wait for God to miraculously intercede for them against the impending threat of an Assyrian takeover. It is Judith who chides them for putting God to the test and it is she who sets out to defeat the enemy. Leocadia, possessing the same kind of insight as Judith, and understanding that her words will be ineffectual against Goya's denial, implements a plan of her own to save them both. When faced with the tremendous ramifications of not acting, and in the absence of male leadership, Judith and Leocadia use their strength and power to combat the impending peril.

Residing in patriarchal societies where sexism is the norm, both Judith and Leocadia have to transcend traditional gender roles in their stories in order to realize their goals.5 For instance, one of the reasons why Goya does not heed Leocadia's words of warning at the beginning of the drama is simply because she is female. The painter belittles, subverts and dismisses Leocadia's impassioned plea, “(¡Debemos irnos!)”, by responding in the following manner: “¿Piensas que no te veo el juego? ¡Sueñas con Francia … y con los franceses! ¡Pero a mí no me adornas! ¡Todavía soy hombre para obligarte a gemir de placer o de miedo!” (142). On the other hand, when presented with similar advice from the male Dr. Arrieta, the painter listens intently to the suggestion (even though he still refuses to act). He asks the doctor: “¿De veras piensa que … estoy en peligro? ¿De muerte?” (139). Leocadia, cognizant of the fact that, as a woman, her verbal efforts will be to no avail, assumes the traditional male role of initiator and activist to achieve her goal. As the drama progresses and Goya's cerebral representations of Leocadia come to the fore, the hybrid character begins to exhibit a peculiar combination of both male and female traits, not unlike Judith in the biblical story.

With regard to the biblical heroine's androgynous nature, Moore explains:

What makes Judith's androgyny so unusual and fascinating … is that her “masculinity” and her “femininity” are sequential rather than simultaneous. That is, as a widow she is asexual; in Bethulia with the elders, Judith “plays the man”; in the Assyrian camp, she acts the woman until she resumes her manly role by cutting off Holofernes' head; then back in Bethulia she continues to act the man until the defeat of the Assyrian army, after which she reverts permanently to the asexuality of her widowhood.


The composite Leocadia's androgyny also follows a sequential pattern. Although not a widow, she is forced into ever lengthening periods of celibacy as a result of the artist's waning virility. She tells Dr. Arrieta: “Meses enteros en los que me evita por las noches y ni me habla durante el día … Porque … ya no es tan vigoroso …” (127). In her role as Goya's mistress, Leocadia initially plays the pleading female, but then quickly assumes a male role by creating and implementing a plan to enlist the aid of a young sergeant in the king's army. While in the soldier's company, Leocadia ostensibly adopts the stance of a desperate and helpless female in order to gain his sympathy. Her alternating chain of masculine and feminine behavior takes on a new dimension when Goya finds out about her rendezvous with the sergeant. It is this meeting that precipitates the painter's metamorphosis of Leocadia (his mistress) into the imaginary Voice of Leocadia.

Although one of the painter's cerebral creations, the Voice is clearly an extension, albeit a distorted one, of the original Leocadia. It represents the embodiment of Goya's fears with regard to his mistress's intentions and her knowledge about the truth of his denial. Prior to her encounter with the sergeant, Leocadia had relied on words and signing in order to shake Goya from his complacency. When her words turn to actions, however, Goya's mind no longer envisions his mistress as an easily dismissed female, but as the Voice of Leocadia—a source of power and fear. Even though Leocadia is not aware of the existence of the Voice in Goya's mind, she, and her actions, nevertheless serve as the catalyst for the artist's cerebral representations of her as both the Voice and Judith-Leocadia. It is in the two imagined images of Leocadia that the reader can truly begin to understand the artist's perception of his mistress as a threat to his safe haven of denial.

The Voice of Leocadia exhibits a peculiar combination of both masculine and feminine characteristics. The air of dominance that it projects suggests masculinity, but the repeated use of feminine pronouns and articles evokes its basic femininity. The impalpable Voice displays its male and female facets in the following conversation with Goya:

¿No crees a tu Judith? ¿A tu Judas? … Acabaré contigo. Judith tomará el cuchillo mientras maůllan los gatos y el murciélago revolotea y se bebe tu sangre y Judas te besa y Judith te besa y te hunde la hoja y grita que la quisiste estrangular y que tuvo que defenderse. Teme a Judith, teme al rey, el rey es el patibulo y Judith es el infierno …


Here the Voice considers itself on a par with Judas and Fernando VII in terms of power and influence (traditionally masculine traits), while at the same time retaining an underlying facade of femaleness. The Voice manages to manipulate and then transcend traditional gender roles by threatening to kill Goya (an act of aggression that is characteristically associated with males) and then explaining to him that, after committing the murder, she plans to exonerate herself by pleading self-defense (the woman as victim) (180).

When the third and final representation of Goya's composite Leocadia appears on stage in the guise of Judith-Leocadia at the end of the painter's macabre nightmare, she again emits an aura of strength and power that is traditionally male. She is also obeyed by the other creatures in the dream, demonstrating her authority over them (198). Before she can decapitate Goya, there is a knocking at the door on the waking side of the dream that prompts her, and her oneiric companions, to retreat into the recesses of the painter's mind. The two characters left on stage after the nightmare are Goya and his mistress, Leocadia. At this point in Leocadia's sequential androgyny, all of the power that Goya imagines her to have is stripped from her by the sergeant who brutally rapes her. As a result of this egregious act, Leocadia reverts to a traditionally female stance, having been debased and abused by the soldier. When Goya threatens to kill her after the soldiers depart, the Voice of Leocadia reemerges in the painter's mind and resumes its male role of strength and bravery by speaking the “truth” about herself and Goya and then requesting death by the painter's hand. The final image of Leocadia (as mistress) is that of a fragile, meek, battered female whose sexuality has been taken from her forcibly by the Voluntario realista.

Although the androgynous nature of Leocadia and Judith serves to reveal important similarities between the two women with regard to character development, it is the end to which they use their androgynous talents that fuses them together on a thematic level. The common theme that runs through both of their stories, and which both Judith and Goya's tripartate image of Leocadia attempt to manipulate by means of their male and female attributes, is fear.6 In order to affect salvation, the ultimate goal of the two women, they must first successfully instill fear in their enemies.7 In the Apocrypha, the Bethulians are paralyzed by their fear of the Assyrian army. Judith is the character who successfully turns fear back on the enemy army by disposing of their leader, Holofernes. It is specifically the displacement of fear onto the Assyrians that will precipitate their defeat. At the end of El sueño de la razón, Goya finally understands that his mind created the Voice of Leocadia and Judith-Leocadia in order to help him confront the fear that had plunged him into a state of moral blindness8 and complacency. Whereas Judith's goal is to kill Holofernes in order to save her people, the composite Leocadia's mission is not to kill Goya, but to destroy his denial in order to save him from himself.9

As was noted earlier in this study, Leocadia recognizes fear, or the lack thereof, to be the cross that Goya bears from the onset of the play. Although ostensibly unafraid, Goya is aware of his precarious position vis-à-vis the king and yet chooses to remain impassive. Leocadia explains to Arrieta:

Francho es un liberal, un negro, y en España no va a haber piedad para ellos en muchos años … La cacería ha comenzado y a él también lo cazarán. ¡Y él lo sabe! Pues permanece impasible. Pinta, riñe a los criados, pasea … Y cuando le suplico que tome providencias, que escape como tantos de sus amigos, grita que no hay motivo para ello.


He knows he is in danger but stubbornly refuses to take action. Leocadia is convinced that the only cure for Goya's denial is for him to face his repressed fears. She begs Dr. Arrieta for help: “Infúndale ese miedo que le falta, doctor” (128). This the doctor attempts to do by reminding Goya of the mortal danger he is in and the urgent need for him to flee the country. The painter's response, however, reveals the depths of his denial: “¡Tengo que pintar aqui! ¡Aqui!” (139).

Painting and fear are intimately related in El sueño de la razón. Goya, in effect, deals with his fears of Fernando VII and waning virility by transposing them into his Pinturas negras. The paintings thus become the repository for his displaced fears. Although Goya frequently stresses his need to paint, his definition of the verb pintar is restricted to the retouching of the Black Paintings. The once prolific artist who never retouched his works, now obsessively stands guard over his macabre creations as though expecting them to leap suddenly from their frames. Goya's constant retouching can be interpreted as a desperate symbolic effort to keep the monstrous by-products of his fear at bay. With each stroke of the paintbrush he fervently, yet futilely, works to preserve the mental barrier that precariously separates him from his demons.10

In the process of transposing his fears into the paintings, Goya also attempts to disassociate himself from his once vivid imagination and active reason.11 Although both of these attributes are essential components of his being, the painter treats them as though they are entities separate and distinct from himself. He blames his imagination, not himself, for engendering the fear that is inherent in the Pinturas negras,12 and he blames his reason for abandoning him, instead of himself taking responsibility for its waning. Goya, incorrectly assuming that imagination, reason and fear are his enemies, displaces them all into the Black Paintings where he hopes they cannot threaten him.

Leocadia, aware that mere words will be of no avail in breaking through the mental wall that separates the painter from his fears, reason and imagination, takes matters into her own hands by attempting to communicate with the sergeant, ostensibly to gain his trust and to enlist his help. Goya, however, interpreting her actions as lascivious, unwittingly brings himself face-to-face with his fear of sexual impotency. Leocadia, therefore, whether knowingly or not, is the character who makes the initial crack in his wall of denial by making him confront one of his repressed fears. As a result of Leocadia's actions, Goya's mind begins to view his mistress as an increasingly powerful threat as is seen in his creation of the two imagined faces of her as the Voice of Leocadia and Judith-Leocadia.

In the process of awakening his fears of sexual inadequacy, Goya's interpretation of Leocadia's actions also reignite his almost dormant imagination. Even with his obsessive retouching of the Pinturas negras, Goya is never able to separate himself completely from his imagination. From the onset of the drama the deaf painter hears cats meowing, the flapping of wings and the voice of his absent daughter, all of which are distant but disturbing reminders to Goya of his still lurking imagination.13 At the beginning of the play, the painter simply dismisses or ignores the isolated sounds in his mind, refusing to communicate with them or to acknowledge them as “real.” Leocadia's rendezvous with the soldier, however, prompts a discourse between Goya and the creatures of his imagination. As Goya's wariness of Leocadia grows, the Voice of Mariquita begins to take an increasingly active role in his imagination, reinforcing his suspicions about Leocadia's infidelity (174–78). The painter lets himself be influenced by the Voice of Mariquita and acts upon her advice by accusing Leocadia of sexual indiscretion (178). Once Goya opens the door of his cerebral safe haven to Mariquita's voice, all of the other creatures of his imagination and his paintings begin flooding back into his conscious mind. Leocadia's actions, therefore, serve as the impetus for the forging together of Goya's concrete and imaginary worlds.

The creatures of Goya's imagination, including Judith-Leocadia, reacquaint the artist with his repressed fears in the play-within-the-play that is dreamed by Goya at the end of the drama. It is the actions of the live Voluntarios realistas following the dream, however, that serve to actualize the fears that Goya had previously only imagined. In the brutal rape of Leocadia, the artist's own beating and the sergeant's menacing promise to return, Goya is forced not only to recognize his fears, but to experience them personally. It is the fear that Goya is made to imagine and experience as a result of the nightmare and the soldiers' assault that releases him from his complacency and infuses him with a desire to act that manifests itself in an irrational rage against his mistress.14 Whereas before Goya transposed his fears into his paintings, after the soldiers' departure he attempts to displace those same fears onto Leocadia by threatening to shoot her. Just as he is about to pull the trigger, however, his still recuperating reason intervenes and fills Goya's mind with the imaginary Voice of Leocadia. It is the words that she utters that will, according to Halsey: “… evince all the insight of [Goya's] hallucinations” (Antonio 123). She admits her guilt but makes the artist consider his complicity in the tragedy of their lives. Her unanticipated request for death by his hand causes the last remnants of his denial to dissipate and the force of his reason to return.

With reason guiding him anew, Goya admits to his responsibility for his suffering and recognizes the composite Leocadia's role in his enlightenment when he responds to her ethereal voice as follows: “Nunca sabré qué has dicho. Pero quizá te he comprendido. Y a mí también me he comprendido. ¡Qué risa!. … El viejo carcamal amenaza a su joven amante porque no se atreve a disparar contra otros. … ¡Cuando ellos entraron yo no llegué a tiempo a la escopeta porque no quise! Porque no me atreví a llegar a tiempo” (208). He then says to his mistress: “¿Qué han hecho de mí, Leocadia? ¿Qué he hecho yo de mí?” (210). His catharsis from a state of moral blindness to one of moral enlightenment is precipitated by the composite Leocadia's successful efforts to bring the painter face-to-face with his fears in his daily life, in his imaginary world and in his dreams.

Both the biblical Judith and Buero's composite image of Leocadia, through their actions, manage to communicate a very important message about fear: that inactivity in the face of terror will inevitably lead to defeat, whereas fighting against fear will pave the way to victory (whether physical or psychological). Goya, for example, has to leave Spain at the end of the drama (outwardly an indication of defeat), but he does so having confronted his fears and accepted them as part of who he is (personal victory).15 Goya and the Israelites demonstrate that fear, when left unchecked, has the power to paralyze and destroy. Judith and Leocadia, on the other hand, show that all individuals have a responsibility, to themselves and to others, to be the masters of their own fears.

Having addressed some of the similarities between the stories of Judith and Leocadia with regard to character and theme, it is now necessary to examine one area in which the plots of the two works differ. Whereas Judith successfully decapitates Holofernes in the biblical story, Judith-Leocadia is prevented from completing the same task in El sueño de la razón. In order to explain how the two stories remain similar even in light of this divergence in plot, the intentions of the two heroines must be reexamined. Judith's plan from the onset is to seduce and murder Holofernes, because he is the leader of the forces that threaten the Israelites. Buero's composite of the Leocadia character, on the other hand, is not attempting to murder Goya, but to eliminate the fear that threatens to destroy him. In this sense, both Judith and Judith-Leocadia successfully commit a murder, one real and the other symbolic. When considered in this light, it is summarily important that Judith-Leocadia does not cut off Goya's head, because such an act would imply the death of reason and imagination. With the loss of these two attributes, Goya would also lose his battle against his fear and become one with the king and the other monsters trapped within the sleep of reason.

The significance of Judith-Leocadia's failed attempt at decapitation in Buero's play can be elucidated further by examining the Black Painting of “Judith and Holofernes” that is projected on stage periodically throughout the drama. In the painting, only a small portion of Holofernes's head is visible. Nordstrom explains that “… no es fácil distinguir a la víctima, a la derecha y en la parte inferior del cuadro, pues sólo se distinguen partes de la cabeza y del hombro izquierdo” (241). With this description in mind, the final frame of the metaplay, when Judith-Leocadia is about to decapitate Goya, can be interpreted as a dramatized version of the implied action of the Black Painting. Goya, like the blurred Holofernes in the painting, is both within the fictional frame and outside of it. He narrowly escapes Judith-Leocadia's blade by slipping out of the nightmare and back into his waking life. In addition, although the Judith in the painting has a hint of blood on her face, her knife appears clean suggesting that she has not yet completed her task. The ambiguity of the Pintura negra correlates well with Buero's play because it demonstrates that the symbolic threat of death is more important than the physical act of killing. The focus of the painting is not Holofernes's death but Judith's power. It is she whom Goya wishes us to see, not Holofernes. Buero portrays his composite Leocadia in similar fashion, even though her omnipresence is not as apparent as that of Judith in the painting. Her pervasiveness can only be ascertained by visualizing the three faces of Leocadia as one composite entity. She is the only character, with the exception of Goya, who has the ability to transcend each of the three levels of the play: the concrete world of the painter's home, Goya's imaginary world, and the metaplay that is a dramatization of the etching of the “Sleep of Reason.” When considered in this manner, Leocadia has the same looming effect as Judith in the painting. Goya, on the other hand (prior to his reconciliation with his reason and imagination), is much like the blurred entity at the bottom right of the canvas: nondescript, unwary and helpless.

Leocadia, and Goya's cerebral representations of her as the Voice of Leocadia and Judith-Leocadia, save the artist's reason and imagination by forcing him to confront his fears. She represents both the threat of death and the promise of life. These paradoxical traits remind us again of the biblical Judith whose many different facets help her to successfully defeat Holofernes. The composite Leocadia, like Judith, exhibits a curious mixture of traditionally masculine and feminine traits, is willing to sacrifice herself for the good of another, is a pillar of strength in the face of collective weakness, and represents the voice of reason in an otherwise irrational world. In his melding of the biblical character of Judith with that of Leocadia, Buero creates a hybrid entity that has the strength to challenge Goya's fierce denial and to force him to face his destiny. Without her help and perseverance, Goya would most likely have ended up on the wrong side of the fictional frame as one of the creatures of the sleep of reason.


  1. Most references to Leocadia are fleeting and deal primarily with Goya's perceptions of her. The following articles mention Leocadia specifically as she relates to Goya's fears of aging and sexual impotence vis-à-vis her own youthfulness and virility: Casa's “The Darkening Vision: The Latter Plays of Buero Vallejo; Halsey's “Goya in the Theater. Buero Vallejo's El sueño de la razon”; Rotert's “Monster in the Mirror”; and, Herzberger's “The Painterly Vision of Buero Vallejo's El sueño de la razón.

  2. Recognizing herself as one of the subjects of Goya's Pinturas negras Leocadia says to Arrieta: “Esas pinturas me aluden” (125).

  3. Moore describes the passivity of the Bethulian males in contrast to the assertiveness of Judith as follows: “It is the final measure of Judith's stature and of the magistrates' passivity that they immediately approved her proposal and allowed two defenseless women to go out and brave the Assyrian army. God, they assured her, would be going with her. (But none of the men of Bethulia would.) The magistrates, in their passivity and lack of faith, serve well as foils for the assertive, believing Judith” (186). In Buero's play, Goya is not the only ineffectual male. Although well intentioned, Father Duaso and Doctor Arrieta fail to intervene on Goya's behalf in a timely manner. A clear comparison can be made between Buero's Arrieta and the biblical figure of Achior. Moore refers to Achior as the “honest but ineffective advisor” (59). Arrieta similarly serves as advisor to both Goya and Leocadia. At every turn he attempts to justify and rationalize Goya's behavior even while suspecting that he may truly understand the painter's curious “madness.” He, like Achior, is an intermediary and a counselor, but he is unable (for whatever reason) to act in time.

  4. Goya, unable to face his fear, turns to his mythical flying men as a source of hope and inspiration. He explains his hopes for the flying men to Dr. Arrieta as follows: “Le confesaré mi mayor deseo: que un día … bajen. ¡A acabar con Fernando VII y con todas las crueldades del mundo! Acaso un día bajen como un ejército resplandeciente y llamen a todas las puertas. Con golpes tan atronadores … que yo mismo los oiré” (138).

  5. Referring to Judith's complex gender roles in the biblical story, Montley says: “In her marvelous androgyny, Judith embodies yet somehow transcends the male/female dichotomy. To this extent, she is a heroine who rises above the sexism of her author's culture” (40).

  6. With regard to the biblical story of Judith, Moore says that each part of the book “… has as its major chiastic feature its own repeating theme: in chaps. 1–7, the theme is fear or its denial, and men play all the leading roles; in chaps. 8–16 it is beauty, mentioned or implied, and a woman has center stage. Thus, just as fear of the Assyrians had a ‘domino effect,’ knocking down successive nations and peoples in chaps. 1–7, so Judith's beauty bowled over one male after another” (57). Buero Vallejo similarly stresses the importance of fear as a theme in his play when he says: “En El sueño de la razón, el terror lo comprende todo y a todos concieme” (Fernández-Santos 20). See also Casa's article for more on the role of fear in El sueño de la razón.

  7. Goya is Leocadia's enemy in the sense that he, without realizing it, puts his family in tremendous jeopardy as a result of his own moral blindness. The enemy against which Leocadia fights in the drama is not Goya per se, but the state of denial in which he resides.

  8. Halsey explains that moral blindness is a common trait of Buero's tragic heroes. The following explanation of the relationship between moral blindness and tragedy can clearly be applied to Goya in El sueño de la razón: “The tragedy … deals with the reason for suffering and the relationship to moral 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” (Antonio 23). Goya ultimately learns to accept responsibility for his situation with the help of Leocadia.

  9. Sikka divides Buero's dramaturgy structurally into three different categories, each of which examines the role of his female characters. Leocadia clearly fits into the first of the categories: “In the first, there is a male protagonist whose spiritual awakening is precipitated by a woman's actions, her knowledge, or by something that happens to her. Since the audience identifies with the protagonist, the woman functions as spiritual catalyst for the spectator as well as the fictional character …” (18). At this point in the analysis of Leocadia's role, it is her knowledge and her actions that serve to awaken Goya. Sikka clearly sees the role of women in Buero's plays to be pivotal. Similarly, Ruggeri Marchetti stresses the importance of the female character in the structure of Buero's plays as follows: “… como sede de consciente coraje reolucionario o de abnegación sublime, el personaje femenino ocupa muy a menudo el papel de protagonista principal en el microcosmos dramático. Y lo hace tanto en el plano de la importancia funcional dentro de la dinámica teatral, como en el del contenido psicológico e ideológico. Y es que para Buero la mujer, con sus humanos defectos y virtudes, con su problema de inserción en la estructura social, asciende a categoría primaria” (41).

  10. As the paintings represent truth in this play (Weimer 30). Goya cannot keep them silent. Other forms of conventional communication may fail in El sueño de la razón, but the Pinturas negras speak volumes about the reality of Spain.

  11. In his conversation with Fernández-Santos, Buero describes the relationship between Goya's waning reason and his Pinturas negras as follows: “Probablemente se dio cuenta de que su propensión racionalista se le quedaba corta y no llegaba a agotar la significación profunda que entreveía en el mundo. Es muy posible que de esta convicción surjan las ‘pinturas negras’ … Goya, voluntariamente, limita sus excesivas pretensiones racionales—porque su razón está a punto de soñar—y abre la puerta a lo enigmático. Abandona entonces sus pretensiones de pintorfilósoío y retoma el camino de la pintura pura” (22). In addition, Ashworth notes the independent yet precarious position of Goya's reason and imagination when he observes that: “Buero's play is a dream-like collaboration of assaulted reason and threatened imagination …” (70).

  12. Describing the power and autonomy of Goya's imagination Herzberger explains that: “Goya is aware that an undefined and even uncontrolled imagination impels the course of his painting” (98). In Goya's mind it is this uncontrolled imagination that engenders the fear in the Pinturas negras. Describing the paintings to Dr. Arrieta he says: “Estas paredes rezuman miedo” (184). In addition, Nicholas suggests that Goya's imagination may not only be distinct from the painter, but may also be able to exert control over him: “… the art object or process may have a reality independent of the artist (of life); it may, in fact, determine the artist's very existence. … the protagonist's involuntary visions and premonitions terrify him not only because he cannot control them, but because they seem to be able to control him” (30).

  13. Herzberger describes the looming presence of Goya's imagination as follows: “Buero portrays Goya's imagination as splendidly autonomous, but never remote” (98).

  14. It is Leocadia's rape, according to Sikka, that prompts Goya's awakening: “… it is the fate of the woman which causes the male protagonist to perceive the truth of his existence. When the soldiers rape Goya's mistress Leocadia in his presence and he is helpless to prevent it, he comes to realize the fact of his absolute vulnerability” (19).

  15. Halsey discusses the inner victory of many of Buero's tragic heroes when she states that “The dreamer's outward defeat thus signifies his inward victory. As is the case in all tragedy, moreover, his outward defeat implies the survival of his inner ideals and hopes” (“Dreamer” 285). Schwartz also explains the importance of this inner victory as follows: “Buero Vallejo 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” (823).

Works Cited

Ashworth, Peter. “Silence and Self-Portraits: The Artist as Young Girl, Old Man and Scapegoat in El espíritu de la colmena and El sueño de la razón.Estreno 12.2 (1986): 66–71.

Buero Vallejo, Antonio. El tragaluz. El sueño de la razón. Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1990.

Casa, Frank P. “The Darkening Vision: The Latter Plays of Buero Vallejo.” Estreno 5.1 (1979): 30–33.

Fernández-Santos, Angel. “Sobre El sueño de la razón: Una conversación con Antonio Buero Vallejo.” Primer Acto 117 (1971): 18–27.

Halsey, Martha T. Antonio Buero Vallejo. New York: Twayne, 1973.

———. “The Dreamer in the Tragic Theater of Buero Vallejo.” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 2 (1968): 265–85.

———. “Goya in the Theater: Buero Vallejo's El sueño de la razón.Kentucky Romance Quarterly 18 (1971): 207–21.

Herzberger, David. “The Painterly Vision of Buero Vallejo's El sueño de la razón.Symposium 39.2 (1985): 93–103.

Montley, Patricia. “Judith in the Fine Arts: The Appeal of the Archetypal Androgyne.” Anima 4 (1978): 37–42.

Moore, Carey A., ed. and trans. Judith. The Anchor Bible 40. New York: Doubleday, 1985.

Nicholas, Robert. “Antonio Buero Vallejo: Stages, Illusions and Hallucinations.” The Contemporary Spanish Theater: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Martha Halsey and Phyllis Zatlin. Lanham, MD: U Press of America, 1988. 25–48.

Nordstrom, Folke. Goya, Saturno y melancolía: Consideraciones sobre el arte de Goya. Trans. Carmen Santos. Madrid: Visor, 1989.

Rotert, Richard W. “Monster in the Mirror.” Estreno 17.2 (1991): 34–42.

Ruggeri Marchetti, Magda. “La mujer en el teatro de Antonio Buero Vallejo.” Anthropos 79 (1987): 37–41.

Schwartz, Kessel. “Buero Vallejo's Valleys and the Concept of Tragedy.” Hispania 51.4 (1968): 817–24.

Sikka, Linda Sollish. “Buero's Women: Structural Agents and Moral Guides.” Estreno 16.1 (1990): 18–22.

Weimer, Christopher. “Logocentrism in Crisis: Buero Vallejo's El sueño de la razón as Post-Structuralist Text.” Estreno 20.2 (1994): 28–32.

Martha T. Halsey (essay date December 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815

SOURCE: A review of La doble historia del Doctor Valmy, in Hispania, Vol. 80, No. 4, December, 1997, pp. 807–08.

[In the following essay, Halsey lauds Barry Jordan's analysis of Buero Vallejo's La doble historia del Doctor Valmy.]

Jordan's edition [of Buero Vallejo's La doble historia del Doctor Valmy] forms part of Manchester's Hispanic Texts series, which aims to select works that “contribute to a fuller understanding of the societies in which they were written.” The text continues the tradition of text-book editions of contemporary plays largely lost in the United States since the 1960s and 1970s, when companies such as Appleton-Century-Crofts and Scribners published editions of plays by Casona, Buero and Sastre that quickly became classics for intermediate reading and undergraduate literature courses. What better way to introduce the student to Spain's people and history than through the theater of such writers?

In his fifty-page introduction, Jordan begins with the play's themes: torture and the complicity of those who choose to ignore its practice. In two sections—“The author: painter, political prisoner, playwright, polemicist” and “Buero's theatre: a brief overview”—Jordan underscores Buero's role as the voice of Spain's conscience during the dictatorship. Conflict and tension, he notes, occur at “individual as well as societal levels” (100). Such is certainly the case, for individual conflict is usually related to the problem of social responsibility. More often than not, especially in recent plays, we see the characters' failure to assume this responsibility, with its tragic consequences. Closely connected to the emphasis on the individual is Buero's stress on the inner dimension of his characters. The dialectic tension between individual and society is paralleled by that between subjective being and objective reality. Jordan discusses Buero's well-known techniques of “immersion” that lead the audience to identify with a specific character, or to achieve a “psychological internalization” (15) of the characters' viewpoint. He also notes Buero's use of narrators and of action structured like narration, noting, however, that the narrators' function is not so much to distance the spectators as to involve them.

The third and much more extensive part of the introduction deals with La doble historia: problems in staging, critical reception in Spain, setting, dramatic structure, and technique, characters, and message. Written in 1964, the play premiered in Chester, England in 1968, but had to await Franco's death before finally opening in Spain in 1976. As Jordan states, it enjoyed an astonishingly long run of over 600 performances in Madrid alone.

Jordan provides a skillful analysis of the play, the story of Daniel Barnes, a National Security policeman who, after castrating a political prisoner and becoming impotent himself, consults a psychiatrist. The latter explains that since Daniel can never restore the prisoner's virility, he has destroyed his own. The play takes the form of a case history that the psychiatrist dictates and that is reenacted on stage. The drama opens as an elegantly dressed couple advise us that the story we are to see happened, if it happened at all, in some faraway country and has nothing to do with us. We later learn that this couple are patients and subjects of a prior case history that the doctor has just dictated. Their comments just after the play starts represent the beginning of Valmy's recollections.

Much of Barnes's story is presented through scenes in the psychiatrist's office in which the former narrates events taking place at police headquarters, including his torture of the prisoner Marty. Barnes's statements and those of Dr. Valmy constitute narrations within the larger narration that is the case history being dictated.

As Jordan shows, society's crass indifference is exemplified by the protests of the elegant couple at the beginning of the play. When this couple interrupt Valmy's dictation near the end of the play to protest again that the story is false, an orderly leads them away. The doctor then reveals that he told his second case history to a group of patients at the sanatorium and the couple called him a liar. Thus the theater is the sanatorium and the audience is the group of patients to whom Valmy told his story. Jordan notes that the first case history is even more important than Barnes's because in it we, the audience, are identified with these patients, and, if we do not accept the truth of Barnes's story, judged as guilty—and insane—as the elegant couple.

In addition to Jordan's excellent and scholarly introduction, which should prove most useful in literature courses, the edition contains helpful notes to the text, stimulating topics for discussion, vocabulary, and bibliography. However, the inclusion of a two-page plot summary that even reveals the play's ending, seems questionable—especially given the detailed discussion of action and characters in the introduction.

Additional coverage of Buero Vallejo's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 106; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 24, 49, 75; Hispanic Writers, Vol. 1; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.


Buero Vallejo, Antonio