The Spanish Civil War is burned into Spains collective memory perhaps their greatest scar, and it has created a permanent effect on their languages, art, literature, and theater. The theater in Spain at the time was used as a vehicle for change, and the contemporary theater that depicts it shows that just as it was used for change then, it is used to encourage change and healing today.
In the 1930s, Spain was a country in turmoil. Unrest between the divided elite and working classes and the devastation that the Great Depression wreaked on Spains existing economic problems meant that the people were desperate for change. In 1936, Spains socialist party won a narrow victory against the nationalist party, and they immediately put their plans for reform into effect. They sought to secularize the government, create labor unions, and enact other reforms that threatened the wealthy elite that had been in power for so long. The widespread violence that resulted from the nationalists attempt to seize power back from the republicans is now known as the Spanish Civil War.
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Much of the war was fought not with weapons, but with propaganda. Both the republicans, also known as the Popular Front, and the nationalists used education and the arts in their cultural crusades in order to justify their respective ideologies. A key weapon in this fight to win over the populace was theater. Seeing its importance and efficacy in conveying messages to the people, both sides went as far as to establish official organizations to create and circulate their brand of cultural instruction (Parker 215). On the left, the Alianza de Intelectuales Antifacistas (alliance of antifascist intellectuals) created several groups: Nueva Escena, Teatro de
Arte, y Propaganda, and Guerrillas Teatrales. On the right, the nationalists had the Junta Nacional de Teatros y Conciertos (national committee of theatres and concerts). Both sides wrote essays explaining the roles of the theater in their respective ideologies, and while the right thought restoring Spanish theater to the days of autos sacramentales and mystery plays would best serve their mission, the left wanted to purge the bourgeois plays thathad dominated Spanish stages, and instead return the stage to the masses with avant garde political plays (Parker 215).
Reaching into the theatrical roots of Spain has propagandistic power, and both the left and right sought to claim cultural images to prove their dominance as the true essence of Spain (Parker 216). Nationalist playwright Gimenez Caballero likened the goals of theatre to a bullfight:a series of symbols that inherently lead the spectator to the absolute truth of the divine (Parker 219). Incredibly, the companies of both sides performed several of the same Golden Age plays in order to convey their discordant messages. Lope de Vegas Fuenteovejuna and Calderons La Vida es Sueo, were performed by both the republicans and nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Both plays were deemed to be accessible constants in Spanish culture that could be bent to serve their respective ideological agendas. Lope de Vega became an especially strong symbol for the cultural legitimacy of the nationalist party. Strangely enough, however, both sides also found use in the old religious autos sacramentales and performed them often. The right used them to combine their ideologies with the universal truth of Catholicism in an attempt to make the two inextricable in the minds of the audience, while the left favored them for their didactic potential (Parker). However, the republicans were still able to extort the religious imagery that did not fit in with their ideology. Delgado writes,
the deity becomes, rather than the Christian God, an amalgam of various totemic conepts which teatro de urgencia represents in solemn, semi-mystical terms: People, Land, Spain, the Workers Republic, and, as might be expected in a country which practices Mariolatry, Mother.
The military training of the republicans largely relied on improvised propagandist plays. The propagandist theater they used to teach and rally support for their cause was called teatro de urgencia (theater of urgency), and the fervor that went behind its creation is evident in the name. Teatro de urgencia was performed on the front lines and nearby towns, and was created with three goals in mind: to instill confidence in the people of the republic, to reinvigorate the faith of the soldiers, and to teach recruits appropriate behavior. In every play of teatro de urgencia, the audience is meant to relate to the central character of each: the soldier, or milicano (Delgado 51). Delgado writes,
In his doubts and fears, strength and hope, a collective Everyman figure emerges from the corpus of the texts, and, just as his medieval counterpart [in autos sacramentales] undertook a journey towards the heaven of unification with God, so too can the miliciano be seen in teatro de urgencia at various stages of a journey toward an afterlife which is victory (51).
The journey Delgado refers to is framed by the republican ideology, and is meant to symbolize the devotion to their cause that they want the audience to strive for. The tactic was specific, pointed, and effective. One example is Max Aubs Pedro Lopez Garcia. In the play, the titular character is convinced that he can remain neutral in the war, and that it wont affect his life. This changes when he is forcibly enlisted in the nationalist army. In the trenches, he is visited by Death, who shows him visions of a nationalist soldier killing his mother and their animals, and destroying their land. He is too frightened to desert, but when La Tierra appears to him with his mother in its skirts, he gathers the courage to return to your brothers trench (McCarthy 55). Pedro Lopez Garcia both demonizes the enemy and glorifies the journey back to the side of the republic. McCarthy writes, for the republican propagandists, therefore, it is as if, having won Pedro Lopez Garcia from the loyalist trenches, their subsequent mission is to translate his faith into deeds, when, reappearing as milicanos in subsequent teatro de urgencia, he continues on a journey in which spiritual conviction is emphasized more than spiritual comfort (55).
Pedro Lopez Garcia, and many other plays of teatro de urgencia resemble a sheep being herded back to God, and the symbolism is no coincidence. Religious symbolism and references are abundant in teatro de urgencia in order to convince the audience that the path of the republicans is a righteous one.
Despite the years since its end, the scars of the Spanish Civil War are still felt in Spain today. Carlota Leret, whose father was executed during the conflict, says, This is not a historical event that is buried in the past, but something that is very fresh in the memory of Spaniards (New York Times). The truth in this is evident. Playwrights still write about the impact of the Spanish Civil War on their people, and on the world, .
One example is – Ay Carmela! written by Joso Sanchis Sinisterra in 1986 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the war. The set is sparse, and the play takes place in an unspecified region of Spain. This ambiguity is intended to help let all memories of the war come forth to exist and be addressed in the space. The play follows performers Carmela (who is dead in the beginning of
the play) and Paulino who accidentally cross from republican territory into nationalist territory. They are apprehended and are forced to perform for the nationalist forces despite witnessing an execution and other horrors at their hands. Of the play, researcher Helena Buffery writes,
Radically open in structure, through its mimicry of the cyclic, repetitive patterns of trauma and melancholia, the play closes with a short epilogue in which the culture of forgetting accepted by Paulino in order to survive under Francoism is set against the culture of remembering the past, championed by Carmela, in a world of the dead which, though increasingly distant from the world of the living, seems to become the only place where resistance is possible (865).
The cyclical pattern of – Ay Carmela! echoes the futility and trauma of the Spanish Civil War and how the fallout has lasted, even though the first shots of the conflict had been fired fifty years prior.
In more recent history, Laila Ripolls plays have shed light on the effects of the war on those that were not directly involved. In her 2005 play, Los Nigos Perdidos, Laila Ripoll exposes the atrocities and abuses that the children of Republican families underwent in religious orphanages and social assistance hostels after the end of the war. The protagonist is Tuso, a grown man with special needs, who remembers his childhood after experiencing a hallucination. He then relives these memories as a child in a religious orphanage, where one child was thrown from a window by a nun, and others were starved or beaten to death. Raquel Garcia-Pascual writes, These events are remembered by means of ghostly evocations, which in the play communicate their fear faced with the apparition of death symbolically and physically knocking at their door, personified in the figure of the Sister, in several prolepses of the ending (449).
The play is shown through the lens of a child, and features puppets, masks, and childrens language. The play also depicts the transport of children on livestock trains without food or water. Those who did not die were repatriated without permission to homes around Europe and South America. A new surname gave these children an identity, but most were silenced and forgotten (Garcia-Pascual). Los Nigos Perdidos finally gives these forgotten children a voice. It lays bare the abuses and confinement they experienced, and leaves them in the audiences memory. At the end of the play, Tuso says, Decidieron no dar parte para no montar un escendalo. Total, ya erais nigos perdidos. Al fin y al cabo, los nigos de aque no existen. Son como fantasmas y nadie va a reclamar por ellos. They decided not to give you a part to avoid a scandal. You are forgotten children. In the end, the children of this place dont exist. They are like ghosts, and no one is going to claim them (Ripoll 310). Ripoll uses their story to condemn the history and suffering that is silenced, and to resurrect their memory.
The Spanish Civil War was a bloody, turbulent time in Spains history, and the repercussion still echo throughout the country. It is written into the memory of its people through art, literature, and especially theater. The propagandistic theater of the Spanish Civil War was used as a vehicle for political change in the 1930s, but the contemporary theater that sheds light on the war and its devastating effects on its people is used to enlighten audiences today, and help them work through the past.
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