Buero and Sastre: The Revival of Tragedy in Modern Spain



Enrique Gallud Jardiel

Hispanic Horizon, núm. 8, Universidad Jawaharlal Nehru, 1990


The Romantic principles of art gave letters such a freedom that, after their popularization in Spain around 1835, the Spanish literature afterwards had at its disposal a rich range of creative possibilities, both in theme and in aesthetics, making it difficult to talk of neatly classified streams or trends in a given genre. Spanish literature of this century went through a large number of phases and does not permit easy classification. We find in it a large number of authors of high literary quality rather than trends, schools or theatrical mannerisms. Nevertheless, after the fifties, amidst several other aspects, we can underline a phenomenon very common in the present European theatre and even in the North American one, but something almost new for the literature of Spain: the revival of tragedy. The scenic art of Europe being derived from the classical one of Greece and Rome and tragedy being (along with comedy) the principal genre, it may seem unusual that the appearance of tragedy in Spanish literature of the present century was considered something unexpected. If we analyse the theatre of other European nations we will find everywhere a wide use and even misuse of the tragic genre. This is a very logical aesthetic conclusion, after the actual tragic experience which the World War II brought to the continent. Brecht, Camus, Anouilh... the list of European tragedians can be as long as desired. In all of them it is easy to find, along with the actual motivation, a national literary tradition which would support the genre itself. That the same does not occur in Spain constitutes something paradoxical, if we consider that Spanish literature has always distinguished itself by theatre, rather than by other literary forms—in quantity as well as in quality— so that the theatrical sense has even permeated other genres. The study of this revival of tragedy in the Spanish theatre of the last forty years needs a short historical preamble to be rightly under-stood.
What is the real reason for this lack of tragedies in the rich heritage of Spanish theatre? It has been said that this genre does not adapt itself to the Castilian ethos. This is true, but it is not the whole truth. It should be known, moreover, that Spain is, literarily speaking, an anti-classical country. The duration of the classical movements in the Spanish peninsula has been always very short. Critics agree with the statement that the most lauded Spanish Renaissance works were those which conserved more medieval elements. The Baroque movement — in its efforts to eliminate the Aristotelian rule for Arts — generated in Spain literary masterpieces, although in the subsequent movement — Neoclassicism — we cannot find many Spanish writers rising above mediocrity. Romanticism took Spanish literature to new heights. Modernism, an-other return to classicism, lacks importance in Spain and almost all the modernistic masterpieces in Spanish language were written in Latin America. This anti-classicism inherent in the Spanish spirit produces, as a consequence, the absence of real tragedies in Spain. Such tragedies were not written. If written, they were not accepted by the professional groups and, if at all performed, frequently the audience violently rejected them. This was due, in part, to the fact that the aesthetic expression of feelings and human passions in the slow tempo characteristic of tragedy does not harmonise with the mobility that the Spanish public demands from the scenic art, and does not include the satirical and humoristic elements, rooted in the medieval tradition and which have become an essential feature in Spanish theatre right from the beginning.
Let us now analyse the position of Spanish theatre in the middle of the present century and the conditions which made possible the creation of a "modern Spanish tragedy" and its complete acceptance by a public not accustomed to this genre. In the middle of the forties the so-called "social realism" triumphed. This social realism was an outcome of Civil War and constituted the Spanish literary equivalent to the Neo-realism in Italian cinema after World War II. The pessimistic views found in this realism were a foreign influence coming from authors like Brecht, Miller, O’Neill, Marcel, Sartre, etc. It is necessary to remember that the miserable social situation in Spain after the Civil War did not arouse pessimism or hopelessness in the first instance. Spain had "won the war", its war, and it did not share the discouraging world view of Italy or Germany. Thus, from 1939 to 1945, Spanish literature, and specially theatre, followed its regular path. In the beginning, this period of social realism focussed its attention on the problems surrounding man and not on those within man in himself. It was a time of relative social concern in literature, with basic themes as sequels of war, hunger, poverty, etc. The attention was focussed on the environment in which man lived.
Slowly, nevertheless, the same process of change which overtook tragedy at the time of its origin, took place in Spain while analysing the problems of contemporary man. In Greece, the starting point of tragedy and its main postulate was that man, in his pathetical anxiousness of being free, is defeated by a hostile, terrible and mysterious force which was called ananke (the Fate). The misfortunes which troubled these characters were considered to be caused by this relentless Fate which pushed all men towards their fall and ruin. But later, in the works of Euripides, the antagonistic forces (the sense of duty and the wicked passions) began to show inside man. It is in the theatre of the middle of the twentieth century, when this change took place in the psychological understanding of the playwrights and, subsequently, of their characters, the structure of modern Spanish tragedy began to take form.
         Hence, in the reinterpretation of the genre, it is not Fate which moves the action, but responsibility. Although the factor may be external, it is the responsibility of the individual in a fatalistic situation, which gives a new character to this literary restoration. It is interesting to know what Antonio Buero Vallejo —perhaps the most outstanding contemporary dramatist in Spain— tells us about the responsibility of today's, man in the tragedy which the present situation of the world constitutes, leaving no room for doubt. The play is Caimán (Alligator), staged first in 1981:

NESTOR.—It is foolish to think that the last World War has exactly been the last World War. Another will come and it will be the end. They have put the wealth of the world at the service of arms; a pretty work which costs a million dollars per minute. Can you imagine what could be done with this sum? Total employment in the entire world, education, enough leisure, creativity, well-being for all. And we do not want that. Ours is a species without any future.

 Euripides affirms that the failure of man is due to his own fault and negligence, for not having correctly utilized reason in the proper way. In view of the situation in which man has pulled himself in today's world, only two possibilities exist. One of them is the evasion from reality. The same author defines it and its consequences in the play already mentioned:

NESTOR.—This is the jungle and in these very streets: muggers, drug addicts, three rapes in the last few months... It is their way of amusing themselves.

But this closure of eyes from reality does not lead anywhere. That was already done artistically after World War I when literature fragmented itself in evasive "isms" which did not wish to face the reality of the epoch. The other option consists of trying to under-stand ourselves, to understand the human being and his actions and see that the catastrophes are not only catastrophes, but include the catharsis, so that our efforts may serve as purifying elements for our defects. In the light of this postulate, a revival of tragedy takes place in Spain. The hero is, by definition, one who wants to be himself and the root of heroism lies in the real act of will. Ortega y Gasset said that in a time in which the will does not exist, in a Darwinistic and deterministic epoch, tragedy cannot interest anyone. The increasing popularity which tragedy acquires in Spanish theatre after the fifties proves that the battle has not yet been lost. And the type of tragedy to be developed will be linked to a "dialectics of hope" which is going to make it different from the sense of tragedy of other European literatures.
         While dealing with this revival, two dramatists must be considered, perhaps the most important ones in the second half of the century: Antonio Buero Vallejo and Alfonso Sastre. Both have been jointly studied by critics who found that both concide in what can be defined as "the humanistic perspective of man in his problematical reality". In almost all their works pathetical contents, tension, cathartic impact and the greatness which forms the emotional core of tragedy can be found. Let us analyse their particularities.
Antonio Buero Vallejo appears in the Spanish theatre in 1949. By this time he is already a mature man who has endured the war, who has been sentenced lo death in the nationalistic prisons due to political reasons and has been exempted afterwards. A man who has dedicated himself to painting and who has a concrete vision of the world and of the position that the human being has in it. Since the beginning of his dramatic work, he stands for the return to tragedy as the purest and most vigorous theatrical expression, in spite of its unpopularity. Buero inserts his own inner problems in his plays. "I am a man of an obscure time", he said, "bounded to serious but hopeful questions." His answer to these questions surpasses all thematic and ideological limitations and his plays, full of universality, transcend the social and human conflicts. 'Tragedy is found everywhere", he affirms. This is true, since bloodshed or the death of the hero is not necessary to produce the tragic feeling, because other misfortunes and evils as terrible as death itself do exist and these put on trial the moral energy of the characters. According to him, tragedy is the most adequate form of approaching truth, and not only the absolute truth, but also that of daily life.
 His first play Historia de una escalera (History of a Staircase) is an ideal example of what we have just said. The writer describes a building and some families surrounded by .poverty, trying to overcome it or, at least, create conditions for their children so that they can succeed in future. After three generations of insignificant people climbing the stairs, dreaming and escaping in vain, we know the end of this kind of situations. In this play the social world seems to function as the fate of the characters, bound by circumstances that cannot be avoided. By a skilful treatment, the manneristic theme is raised to transcendental category. The staircase is a symbol of social and personal immobility, but the pathetic story has something that unites its parts: hope, which impels the neighbours to continue living, to continue struggling against a difficult existence. A main characteristic in the plays of Buero Vallejo is going to be the presence of some obstacle which forbids the protagonist and the deuteragonist lo escape from their own personal pressures. The barrier is an inner limitation, like that of Euripides; it is not his poverty but his lack of vitality which does not allow the protagonist to overcome that barrier. Although the characters cannot defeat their destiny, they are heroes because they accept a given situation and continue fighting, even knowing that they can never win. This tendency to overcome the barrier, this inclination towards perfection, inevitably produces the final hopelessness, the cliché called "tragic end".
For Buero, the theme of blindness is of special interest, as it is a symbolic barrier which allows the creation of various scenic structures. Those works in which the protagonist struggles against the limitations imposed by his blindness have a clear existentialist root. Blindness, which makes impossible the hero's success, has been considered as a symbol of obscurity, of uncertainty and of the limitations inherent in the human being. It represents the mental and spiritual blindness of today's man. In the play En la ardiente obscuridad (In the Burning Darkness) the protagonist, a young man recently admitted to a hospital for the blind, impels the inmates, who have accepted their fate and are almost happy in their condition, to continuously feel their personal tragedy. The hero himself dies in an accident while trying to overcome his own physical barriers. In the work El concierto de San Ovidio (Saint Ovid's Concert), on the contrary, the blind kills the person who is exploiting him, showing an effective superiority over a sighted person. Afterwards, to fulfil his tragic destiny, he is executed.
These obstacles appear in all the plays, specially in his historical ones, in which Buero takes a historicist attitude, following the model of Dilthey. He recreates history from within its historical time and eliminates the romantic content given by tradition. Un soñador para un pueblo (A Dreamer of the People) shows us progressivism, personified in a Minister who fights against the spiritual dullness of the traditions of a country. Las meninas (The Ladies-in-waiting) reflects the position of intellectuals in a superficial and hedonistic court. El sueño de la razón (Reason's Dream) presents the painter Francisco de Goya in desperation, due to his artistic impotence and political oppression of the time. All these barriers, nevertheless, are not presented as fortuitous or coincidental elements. Man is nothing but a victim of the law of cause and effect. He is victim of his own acts and even of those of his country; he has a collective responsibility. An immanent justice is shown and the mistakes of man are the origin of the punishment that the human being gives himself. In the play Caimán, previously mentioned, this aspect is noted:

NESTOR.—We are fighting for a new society. DIONISIO.—And being defeated.
NESTOR.—We should win. Anything but collective suicide.
DIONISIO.—But we have already committed suicide.
Nevertheless, the strong pessimistic characteristics of the production of foreign authors cannot always be found in the plays of Buero. It may sometimes seem so, because in some cases the instructive and purifying aim, the catharsis, does not occur in the play, but it is planned to happen in a near future not included in the temporal limits of the work, although clearly announced. The mentioned hope is the central theme of one of his best plays: Hoy es fiesta (Today is a Holiday). In it, the inhabitants of a building wait hopefully for the results of a lottery, because the prize can be the solution to their problems. The number they have bought gets the highest prize, but they come to know that the lottery tickets were fake. Unexpectedly, they do not react as violently against the cheaters as one would expect. They show a reasonable under-standing which impels us to think that they did not really want the prize so badly. The hope of getting it was enough for them. Hope is not merely a medium, but the very aim of life. This hope is, for Buero, the way of redemption for man, because due to this hope man continues living, suffering and acquiring greatness.
This conception of Antonio Buero Vallejo has influenced other contemporary Spanish playwrights, like Ana Diosdado, Antonio Gala and José Martín Recuerda. But now we come across a different interpretation, that of Alfonso Sastre, who considers that the traditional catharsis should only be used as an element of social renovation or change. Sastre represents the typical case of an author silenced due to his political views: forced to stage his plays outside the country, fight with the censorships and be partially unknown. He considers theatre a social art, and he published a manifesto in La Hora, announcing that his production was to be directed to bring an ideological revolution in all spheres of society. For this purpose he founded in 1950 a group named T.A.S. (Theatre for Social Agitation), clearly an anti-bourgeois one. His works known in Spain were represented till the late seventies in small theatrical clubs. He was critically studied under the abstract definition of "vanguardist" and was considered a mere propagandist of Marxism. Since then, the leftist intellectuals praised blindly his works and the rightist ones blindly criticised them; both sides failed to understand or appreciate the innovations and achievements that he brought to theatre. Even today, in a recent interview, Sastre claims to have not been properly understood even at a time when his plays are not only widely staged, but even sponsored by the Government. Moreover, a strict analysis of his theatre takes us to conclude that in his plots and characters there are more existentialist elements than Marxist ones; although the influence of Marx on Sastre is very certain, so also, and perhaps in a more extensive form, is that of Heidegger, Sartre and even Kierkegaard.
About tragedy Sastre says that it is the revelation and symbol of the tragic existence of man. Tragedy is a rapproachement to the reality of man, to his truth. This does not imply fatalism. Society and the men who form it have the tendency to escape from their problems by defining as pessimist and destructive all men who dare to present such cases in the arts. This is precisely what happened with Alfonso Sastre. But in his essay Anatomía del realismo (Anatomy of Realism) he says that tragedy means, in its most perfect expression, a dialectical overcoming of pessimism, which comes from the existentialist view of life. According to this, human existence is characterized by a closed situation in which some persons are sentenced to death. They have an anxiousness, a will, almost a physical need of attaining happiness. This happiness is denied to them. They think about their faults and the reasons for their punishment. The dramatists have to depict the life of man in its revealing dimension, so that the spectator would be able to feel the horror of the catastrophe and pity for the insignificance of the human being. The real anguish is provoked as the spectator sees in that defeat an anticipation of his own personal defeat, to which he is foreordained by the mere fact of his existence.
Social action is Sastre's answer to this fatalism and he relates reality with tragedy in theatre in a most peculiar form: if all revolutions are tragic facts, all unjust social orders are an unacceptable tragedy. The spectator faces the dilemma of having to choose between both the tragedies. The tragedy of the unjust social order can only be finished with the revolutionary tragedy. The hope lies in the possible happy ending of the latter one. This affirmation has been repeatedly used in his plots and it is his personal approach to the "dialectics of hope". According to him, the social consciousness is superior to art. His reasoning says that he would prefer to live in a just world without works of art, rather than to have plenty of these artistic expressions in an unjust society. Precisely, the main function of art in an unjust world is, for Sastre, to transform it. Art for art's sake, without an effort to radically change society, is only a dehumanizing element. In his tragic works, the catharsis is not only an act of aesthetic purification; it should also be an active process of social change.

Let us see this approach in the light of some examples taken from his tragedies, which have been defined as a combination of the Greek tragedy as per the classical concept and the Brechtian epic theatre. The most famous among them, Escuadra hacia la muerte (The Condemned Squad), written in 1953, shows a deep existentialist sense of anguish similar to that of Sartre, as well as the concept of "nothingness", which seems to surround the human being. The play refers to the story of some soldiers on a suicide mission. They are stuck in an imprecise place from where retreat is impossible. If they go forward, the enemy will kill them. Because of their previous crimes, if they retreat, the justice of their country will sentence them to death. They are trapped in this situation as man is trapped in the world. "To live", he says, "is to serve a short or a long sentence." The inner problems of the various characters lead them to crime and suicide before the bullets of the enemy could reach them. This play is a "closed tragedy": for them there is no salvation, not even an answer to the query if they did deserve death or not. Sastre says: "My play Escuadra hacia la muerte is also the introspection of a generation of leaders who, in the middle of the cold war, seemed ready to take us all to the slaughterhouse."
Violence is more present in the plays of Sastre than in those of Buero Vallejo and, for this very reason, he differs less from the classical model. Moreover, while the other author preferably uses dialogues to depict the psyche of his characters, Sastre more frequently utilizes the monologue and gives us the impression that his characters are not living a collective tragedy, but a succession of individual tragedies, each one of them thinking about his own personal and non-transferable destiny. Thus, the hero of Sastre is alone and cannot expect understanding nor help from out-side; he fights in an individualized manner. This can be clearly seen in El pan de todos (Everyman's Bread). The protagonist, a revolutionary leader, applies strictly the law of his party and, in his fanaticism, condemns his mother lo death, because she has dared to break the said law. After a long time in which his anguish accumulates and even in spite of achieving success and the moral support of his correligionists, the hero commits suicide. Society's approval proves to be of no use to the individual man.