Performing Spanishness: History and Culture of Jose Maria Rodriguez Mendez

Performing Spanishness: History and Culture of Jose Maria Rodriguez Mendez

by Michael Thompson


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José María Rodríguez Méndez is a noted playwright, an acerbic cultural critic, and a political dissident under Franco. In Performing Spanishness, the first English-language examination of Méndez’s life and work, Michael Thompson sets the playwright’s lifelong struggle against censorship in the context of Spain’s shifting national identity. Méndez’s work presents “Spanishness” not as a static trait, but as an ongoing performance; Performing Spanishness is an indispensable resource to those interested in theater, Spain, and the relationship between art and activism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841501345
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 03/01/2007
Series: Intellect Books - European Communication Research and Education Association Ser.
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 6.75(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael Thompson is a lecturer in Spanish at the University of Durham, United Kingdom.

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Performing Spanishness

History, Cultural Identity and Censorship in the Theatre of José María Rodríguez Méndez

By Michael Thompson, Manuel Martínez Muñoz

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2007 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-134-5


Dramatizing Spanishness

José María Rodríguez Méndez first achieved national recognition in Spain with the success of his play Los inocentes de la Moncloa in Barcelona in 1961 and Madrid in 1964. He was one of the authors identified by José Monleón as forming a new, dissident Generación Realista (Realist Generation): a group of playwrights aiming to represent the social reality of Spain in ways that were unprecedentedly direct and hard-hitting (Monleón 1962). Rodríguez Méndez, José Martín Recuerda, Lauro Olmo and Carlos Muñiz (all born in the mid-1920s) had begun their writing careers in a theatrical world that was 'extremadamente pobre, chato y provinciano' (Rodríguez Méndez 1987: 5). The theatrical mainstream of the 1940s and 1950s was socially conformist and aesthetically conventional. Its characteristic products were the continuing success of Jacinto Benavente, who before the civil war of 1936 to 1939, had dominated the bourgeois market for sophisticated comedy and dramas about moral dilemmas; the Benaventine inheritance maintained by Pemán, Luca de Tena and Calvo Sotelo; the trivial comedies of Torrado, López Rubio and Ruiz Iriarte; the endlessly successful but formulaic comedies of Alfonso Paso. Above all, the everyday experiences of ordinary Spaniards and their memories of the terrible events of the preceding decades were not being represented on stage, partly as a result of draconian censorship but also because these writers and the companies that staged their work had little ambition to do so.

There were signs of change, though, such as the illogical, mildly subversive comedies of Miguel Mihura and Enrique Jardiel Poncela; the early existentialist allegories of Alfonso Sastre and the political dramas that followed in the 1950s; the unsettling absurdism of Fernando Arrabal; and, most influentially, the social tragedies of Antonio Buero Vallejo. The premiere of Buero's Historia de una escalera in 1949 has often been hailed as a mould-breaking moment, the beginning of a new era of serious realist theatre. However, Rodríguez Méndez does not accept accounts that present Buero as the precursor or leader of the Realist Generation (1987: 5). He points out that Martín Recuerda's earliest works predate Historia de una escalera and stresses the importance of the example of the 'Angry Young Men' of British theatre (1987: 3–4), whose texts were becoming known in Spain by 1960.5 John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was first staged at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1956, and in 1959 a version in Spanish was performed in Madrid and Barcelona. Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, first performed by the Theatre Workshop in 1958, was published in Spanish in the journal Primer Acto (no. 20) in 1960. Moreover, Rodríguez Méndez asserts that the Realist Generation's main sources of inspiration go much further back, to the classics of Spain's Golden Age (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries): 'Eso, más que el realismo – aunque éste venga a ser un importante ingrediente – era lo que a mí me impulsaba cuando empecé mi aventura literaria y creo que a algunos de mis compañeros: hacernos dignos de la gran tradición teatral española' (1987: 5).

For these writers, 'realism' is as much to do with subject-matter and the social function of theatre as with dramatic technique. The works that originally defined the Realist Generation around 1960 are much more diverse in style than the label suggests, and each author developed his own brand of dramatic realism in highly distinctive and imaginative ways in the decades that followed. Ruiz Ramón, while identifying the group's shared commitment to bearing witness truthfully and directly as its defining preoccupation, nevertheless stresses their formal diversity and experimentation:

Su técnica realista de proyectar esa realidad en el escenario no es, por otra parte, ni simple ni pobre, sino compleja y rica en recursos y abierta siempre a la poesía en las situaciones y a la belleza en la expresión, como al humor, a la sátira y a lo grotesco, a la vez trágico y cómico, que trasciende siempre en doble plano de significante y significado el escueto documento (1989: 489).

The authors of the Realist Generation had experienced the civil war as children, young enough to bear no responsibility for events but old enough to retain clear memories of bombardment, rationing, murder and the constant din of propaganda during and after the war. They completed their education and began to work towards establishing themselves as writers during the 1940s. These were hard, violent times in which the majority of the population suffered hunger, deprivation and fear while General Franco's regime exulted in its victory, carried out ruthless retribution against all those who had opposed it, and built an authoritarian state based on a rigid, traditionalist ideology of 'National-Catholicism' tinged with the revolutionary fervour of the Falange. The inherent narrow-mindedness of the dictatorship was exacerbated by the diplomatic and economic isolation imposed on Spain between the end of the World War and the mid-1950s as a result of Franco's alliance with the Axis powers. Rodríguez Méndez evokes this period in which he and his fellow writers were beginning their careers in terms of intellectual frustration and cultural disorientation: at odds with the reactionary, triumphalist nationalism of the regime but resentful of the demonization of Spain by the liberal democracies, they sought ways of expressing 'nuestra derrota de españoles' ('our defeat as Spaniards') which could acknowledge the pain without renouncing a positive sense of national identity.

Soñábamos con incorporarnos a la dura y difícil tarea de levantar en los escenarios la presencia de España, de una España abofeteada y malherida. [...] Los 'redaños' de Iberia estaban sepultados y era vergonzoso sacarlos a la luz. Vergonzoso para aquellos que, de una manera directa o indirecta, los habían emponzoñado, y tratarán siempre de ocultarlos, mediante la exhibición de retablos más 'decorosos' y, por supuesto, confortables para ellos (Rodríguez Méndez 1969: 37–38).

This summing-up of the representation of Spanishness as redaños (bravery, spiritedness, guts) is echoed by Martín Recuerda's definition of the project of the Realist Generation with the term iberismo (Iberianism): 'El iberismo, porque la mayor parte de nuestro teatro es violento, desgarrado, cruel, satírico, encerrado muy en sí mismo, orgulloso, vociferante. Piel de toro al rojo vivo, surgido de la tierra en que hemos nacido' (1969: 32). The term iberismo is useful as a relatively neutral term connoting a broad pre-national ethnic identity associated with the geographical space of Iberia, as distinct from other similar terms with more specific right-wing connotations. It was used in the early twentieth century by Catalan proponents of a Spanish national identity strengthened by the diversity of the regions, although Martín Recuerda does not explicitly connect his use of the word to that tradition. Españolismo (Spanishness) suggests more of an association with the nation as a centralized political entity, while casticismo (related to casta, breeding) implies ethnic purity or exclusivity and has tended to be applied to Castilla as the supposed core of Spanishness, as articulated in Unamuno's En torno al casticismo: 'Lo castellano es, en fin de cuenta, lo castizo' (1943: 47).

Both dramatists continue throughout their careers to emphasize their commitment to writing from within a particular culture, particular historical circumstances and a particular literary and dramatic tradition: 'Mi teatro se refiere siempre a la sociedad española. A la sociedad actual fundamentalmente, pero que a la vez es heredera directa de la sociedad del siglo pasado' (Rodríguez Méndez 1974a: 15). They aim to create theatre that is not only about contemporary Spanish society and its historical roots – exposing truths suppressed by those in power – but also expresses a Spanish cultural identity through its tone, its language and its dramatic forms: 'Yo indago siempre en la piel ibérica, en la España nuestra, para sacar de ahí nuestra verdadera personalidad' (Martín Recuerda interviewed in Isasi Ángulo 1974: 253). For both men, this concept of Spanishness is located primarily in the masses rather than in elite social groups or individuals, and is expressed most authentically in traditional popular culture in opposition to 'high' culture or modern mass-mediated culture. Above all, they see it as a liberating and empowering force, giving individuals a rooted sense of identity in a world becoming increasingly homogenized. A key term – roughly synonymous with iberismo – used by Rodríguez Méndez to sum up Spanish identity as embodied in popular culture is machismo español, a notion central to the view of the historical relationship between popular and elite cultures in Spain which he sets out in a series of essays. These essays and their theoretical implications will be discussed in detail in the next chapter.

Declarations such as these run a serious risk of oversimplifying complex historical and cultural processes. The problem is lucidly discussed in theoretical works by the playwright Alfonso Sastre, who argues from a Marxist standpoint for a dialectical 'realismo profundo' ('deep realism') capable of penetrating beneath the detailed texture of everyday life in order to represent 'la estructura de la sociedad y de la historia como totalidad' (1974: 145). Since Sastre seeks ways of representing reality in terms of its underlying political and ideological structures, he advocates the avoidance of an unselfconscious naturalism that aims to reproduce the surface appearance of things and actions. Similarly, he advises caution in the use of realist representational strategies that are designed to reproduce cultural environments but amount to little more than artificial 'populismo' and are liable to act as unhelpful 'mixtificaciones del realismo' (1974: 95), including specifically Spanish settings, character types reminiscent of traditional popular comedies, and conspicuously colloquial language imitating particular dialects. He argues that for as long as literature (and theatre in print and on stage) remains a relatively expensive commodity consumed almost exclusively by the middle classes, the sacrifice of literary style and intellectual substance involved in the imitation of proletarian or peasant speech patterns (usually by writers from middle-class backgrounds) is pointless: 'populist' literature offers its bourgeois readers 'una imagen de la realidad obrera, campesina y sub-proletaria, que [...] resulta pueril, falsamente patética o simplemente costumbrista (1974: 99).

Sastre's wariness about the feasibility of representing the everyday life, cultural practices and idioms of the pueblo authentically and keeping them in critical perspective is shared by other critics. Monleón, for example, suggests that the dialogue in Rodríguez Méndez's plays is often 'amanerado' and that there is 'cierta retórica populista' in Los quinquis de Madriz (1968a: 53). Rodríguez Méndez is convinced, however, that he remains in touch with real popular culture. He and Martín Recuerda never renounce the importance of historical, cultural and linguistic specificity and are not afraid to use references to cultural forms that may be regarded as tainted by costumbrismo or by association with the manipulation of folklore by right-wing nationalsim. Rodríguez Méndez rejects suggestions that there is anything artificial about the colloquial language in his plays and insists that its authenticity is validated by his first-hand experience of the speech communities he portrays: 'Estas frases de las Bodas, de Flor de Otoño, son escuchadas en la calle. [...] Lo que pasa es que los críticos no callejean tanto como yo' (interview of April 1984, in Thompson 1989: 425–26). He avoids the comic exaggeration with which some sainetes and zarzuelas ridicule their characters, especially the use of pretentious malapropisms and over-correction of grammatical anomalies. As we shall see in our discussion of the plays in subsequent chapters, the main factors protecting his realism from populist 'mixtificación' are a very unsentimental sense of irony and the attention he pays to the political and cultural contexts in which he sets his characters and situations.

The Spanishness that the Realist Generation place at the heart of their aesthetic has been criticized from a different angle by the playwrights of the Nuevo Teatro Español (New Spanish Theatre), the symbolist avant-garde that became influential in the late 1960s (though it had been been anticipated by Fernando Arrabal and – in Catalan – by Salvador Espriu, Joan Brossa and Manuel de Pedrolo). Working alongside the performance groups that made up what came to be known as the Teatro Independiente movement and drawing on various influences from outside Spain, Francisco Nieva, José Ruibal, Luis Riaza, Alberto Miralles, Jerónimo López Mozo, Manuel Martínez Mediero and other playwrights experimented in various ways with symbolism, ritual, metatheatre, political allegory, the fragmentation of character and plot, and various non-naturalistic techniques inspired by Brecht, Artaud, Valle-Inclán, the Theatre of the Absurd, the Living Theatre, Grotowski and a cosmopolitan counterculture of pacifism, anti-Francoism, rock music and 'happenings'. Most of the writers of the New Theatre explicitly define their work as anti-realist, rejecting geographical, cultural and historical specificity as a limiting factor that ties 'testimonial' theatre to the circumstances in which it is conceived. Ruibal, the most articulate proponent of theatre conceived as a 'totalidad poética' ('poetic totality') which creates its own verisimilitude, aims for a 'teatro sin Pirineos' ('theatre without Pyrenees') as a way of achieving enduring significance: his aim is to deal with general concepts rather than particular circumstances, and to 'trazar una síntesis poética, global por tanto, que atraviese el túnel o si se quiere la frontera del tiempo' (1984: 20).

Ruibal also makes a political case against the cultivation of Spanishness, suggesting that it amounts to complicity with the reactionary chauvinism of Francoism and arguing that however critical iberismo may be of existing political and social structures, by using a discourse that has been manipulated to such an extent by the regime it risks falling into a 'trampa nacionalista' ('nationalist trap') (1977: 113). In this analysis, theatre that offers its audiences familiar images of their world can only promote passivity, while theatre that radically disrupts and defamiliarizes their perception of social reality is capable of stimulating greater awareness and prompting change.

Increasingly feeling that realism was being displaced by the methods of the vanguardia, Rodríguez Méndez published a series of virulent attacks on the New Theatre during the late 1960s and early 1970s, in Ensayo sobre la 'inteligencia' española, Comentarios impertinentes sobre el teatro español and La incultura teatral en España. He responds to the charge of reactionary localism by accusing the new dramatists of simply copying foreign trends. Alberto Miralles, one of the fiercest critics of the realists, has recently acknowledged that there was a tendency amongst the self-proclaimed avant-garde to 'adorar e imitar, con papanatismo deleitoso, todo lo que fuera extranjero, sin pensar en una creación propia' (2001: 186). One of the results of this colonización (cultural colonialism) in Rodríguez Méndez's view is that the authors of the New Theatre 'siguen tan fielmente los modelos que hasta destrozan el lenguaje castellano [...] para que pierda toda jugosidad verbal y pueda identificarse con cualquier otro texto traducido y encontrado en otros países de tercera' (1972b: 100).

The ideal of a 'lenguaje planetario' ('planetary language') formulated by Ruibal strikes Rodríguez Méndez as artificial and baroque. He contends that the most serious problem of language in the modern world is not so much the calculated manipulation of it to rationalize the essentially irrational as a general impoverishment: that the colourless, standardized vocabulary of technology, business and the leisure industry, efficiently disseminated by television, suppresses cultural individuality and invades literature. He concludes that the New Theatre, by incorporating the language of the mass media into an already artificial theatrical idiom, contributes to the dehumanization of language rather than combating it and, by sacrificing the representation of social reality to formal experimentation, ends up supporting the status quo and discouraging critical awareness. In this context, grounding dramatic language in the authentic popular speech of particular communities becomes all the more important as an antidote to cultural homogeneity; dramatizing some form of concrete identity – national, regional or local – is a way of holding onto cultural distinctiveness.


Excerpted from Performing Spanishness by Michael Thompson, Manuel Martínez Muñoz. Copyright © 2007 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents

List of illustrations


1. Dramatizing Spanishness 

2. Rodríguez Méndez’s essays: realism, machismo español, inteligencia española and historical theatre
Inteligencia española
Machismo español
Historical theatre
Summing up: the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power 

3. History from below (1): enclosed spaces
Vagones de madera
En las esquinas, banderas
La Mano Negra
El vano ayer 

4. History from below (2): open spaces
El círculo de tiza de Cartagena
Bodas que fueron famosas del Pingajo y la Fandanga
Historia de unos cuantos
La Chispa

5. Leading roles in history
Flor de Otoño
El pájaro solitario
Literatura española
Teresa de ávila
Isabelita tiene ángel
Soy madrileño

6. Fading echoes of the past in contemporary Spain
Última batalla en El Pardo
Contemporary Spain: the decline of machismo español
Disillusionment and disorientation after Franco 



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