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Theatrical Landscape of Spain

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Theatrical Landscape of Spain
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Highly sensitive and violent at the same time

by Wilfried Floeck

Franco and the consequences
The Spanish theatre was run privately under Franco's government. It was seen as a place of more or less sophisticated entertainment of the middle-class. Additionally, a censorship of critical representation separated the countries' political and social reality from the theatre. After the censorship had been abolished in 1978, the government began to construct a public theatre system: The Centro Dramático Nacional dedicated itself to the performance of international classics as well as Spanish classics of the modern age. The Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico set up a repertoire with Spanish classics of the 16th to 19th century. An independent experimental forum was offered to young authors by the Centro Nacional de Nuevas Tendencias Escéncias (until it was incorporated in the CDN in 1994). The disadvantage of the rise of the public theatre system was a severe loss of importance for the private theatres. In order to secure their survival, they have been relying on musicals and the commitments of TV and film stars.

After the theatre centres had been constructed, all fields of theatre were made professional and the theatre expanded to the province. In the historical autonomous regions, Catalonian, Galician and Basque theatre have developed, whereby Catalonia has taken over an excellent role. The founding of several theatre festivals has also lead to diversification.

Alternative theatre as a third option
As in the rest of Europe, one could also say that in Spain the production theatre has lost its significance, whereas text- and author theatre has boomed, although it is having considerable problems finding a suitable niche. However, a third option has developed within the outlined system, which may at least offer a chance of survival: the alternative theatre. A few small theatre groups, who claim to be the new socially critical and experimental contemporary theatre, have come across the gap between the private and public theatre. It provides the young authors a marginal, yet nevertheless important forum. As a matter of fact, the aesthetically advanced theatre gave performances at the turn of the 20th century on small experimental stages in mainly Madrid and Barcelona.

Unlike the German local and state theatres, Spanish theatres are as a rule not production sites. The three divisional German style theatre with a permanently employed ensemble and a wide-ranged repertoire are unknown to the Spanish theatre system. Private and public theatres have one or two places to perform, as well as administration and staff for management and technology. The private theatres are entirely unfamiliar with self-productions; they work with production societies instead. Even the alternative theatres do not usually produce themselves, but put their stages at the disposal of freelance theatre groups in exchange for sharing the profit.

The author generation
In spite of the considerable loss of the importance of playwrights, a highly developed and complex text theatre exists in Spain. The first generation of authors in democratic Spain created a theatre that was developed in the context of American and European theatre and owes important aspirations to authors like Samuel Beckett, Heiner Müller, Harold Pinter, David Mamet and Bernard-Marie Koltès. The authors of the 80ies such as José Sanchis Sinisterra (*1940), Josep Maria Benet I Jornet (*1940), José Luis Alonso de Santos (*1942), Fermín Cabal (*1948) or Ignacio Amestoy shaped the Spanish contemporary theatre by offering theatre workshops, which the majority of the following generation passed through. With few exceptions, the works of these authors are regularly performed, at least at the alternative theatres. Only some of the authors, for example Sergi Belbel and Juan Mayorga, have managed to bring their plays to the big stages.

Postmodern impressions
The thematic variety of Spanish contemporary theatre cannot hide the fact that its authors have experienced similar socialisation and share mutual cultural experiences. Above all, it displays the features of the post-modern era, like the loss of trust in political Utopias, the coherent creation of meaning and the ability of language to represent reality objectively. This cultural socialisation has an effect on the thematic orientation of theatre productions. Topics such as private relationship problems, isolation and problems of communication in a city, the questioning of gender-specific behaviour or forbidden sexual subjects are reproduced over and over again.

The protagonists of the play, who are often nameless and impersonal, are usually vulnerable and aggressive, highly sensitive and violent at the same time. The characters have no sense of moral values and are afflicted by post-modern relativism and social selfishness. Next to the presentation of problems of every life, social topics like violence, drug abuse and racism are the focus of interest. Existential loneliness with the inability to communicate and that of being an outsider are subjects that are dependent of each other. Violence, in all forms and in all parts of life, is one of the most important subjects of the Spanish contemporary theatre.  

The formal and linguistic presentation of the plays is just as diverse as the topics. However, there appears to be tendencies here as well. The turn-of-the-century theatre is defined by simultaneously fragmented and deconstructed action sequences that are open-ended. The tone is not set by formal, literary language, but by conventionalised colloquial language. The neo-realist aesthetics include and deal with the experiences of the new media, changed awareness and metropolitan lifestyle. This becomes clear in the tendency towards deconstruction, the break-up of time and place structures, use of cinematic installations, the marked preference of the unknown and irrational, dissolution of coherent personalities or in the constant meta-theatrical reflecting.

A new type of author-theatre
Even if authors and their texts haven't been able to regain their former position, their importance is still unquestionable. The dichotomy of text and performance and of author and stage director respectively, which was stressed for a long time, seems to have been overcome. Now the theatrical potential of dramatic texts in Spain remains beyond doubt, and the playwright of today has usually descended from a theatrical environment, bringing useful experiences as a stage artist or producer. Often the author directs the production of his plays personally, or the texts are created during the rehearsals. The forming of a new type of theatre-creator is an international phenomenon, yet it is very distinct in Spain.

Although text and performance have moved closer together, two different tendencies are evident in the Spanish contemporary theatre. The innovators of neo-realist texts and the author theatre of the 80ies in past century – from Sanchis Sinisterra to Juan Mayorga – have also very much shaped the young generation's theatre, in which words are the essential means of expression. Equal to this is the picture-body-sound theatre of separate groups, from La Fura dels Baus to Els Joglars, as well as a small group of authors, from which Rodrigo García and Angélica Liddell especially stand out. While the author and text theatre can leave the circle of alternative theatre and appeals to an extensive audience, the experimental theatre remains restricted to the alternative scene or performances at international theatre festivals.

Spanish not spoken
Spanish theatre is not well received in Germany. With the great exception of García Lorca, hardly any author of the 20th century is performed on German stages. Occasionally plays by José Sanchis Sinisterra, Josep Maria Benet i Jornet, Javier Tomeo or Jordi Galcerán can be seen. Unlike the novel, the Spanish theatre could not establish itself in Germany. For a long time, critics related this to Spain's political and cultural isolation in Europe. Yet meanwhile it seems to be connected with the precarious position of young authors and text theatre in Spain, where the theatre's general loss of importance is more distinct than in other European countries.

More important concerning the lack of acceptance of Spanish theatre on the German stage, it seems to me regarding foreign theatre in Germany in the last century that the stage here is characterised by an Anglo-Saxon tradition. Of course this situation has to do with the language barrier. Spanish is generally not spoken in the German theatrical landscape. The same goes for the theatre agencies that act as central negotiators between authors and theatres, as well as for the employers responsible for German translations.

This situation is unsatisfactory, especially within a European Union that is taking up the cause to break down the political, cultural and linguistic barriers. There is still a lot to do for the culture negotiators on both sides. It should be the task of theatre agencies, publishers, translators, Hispanics, as well as the artistic directors and dramaturges to overcome these obstacles and make the voice of Spanish contemporary theatre heard on German stages. There are plenty of good authors and texts available.

This report is a greatly condensed version of Wilfried Floeck's "Das spanische Theater am Übergang vom 20. zum 21. Jahrhundert" in Walther L. Bernecker (Hrsg.), Spanien heute. Politik-Wirtschaft-Kultur, Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert, 2008, S. 434-464.

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