Story posted March 14, 2006
The theater of propaganda is widely considered to be the worst of the worst. Written in haste to brainwash the masses during time of war - or political upheaval - propaganda plays tend to be simplistic in theme, short on character development, and staged in highly stylized mediums that can border on the histrionic.
Which is precisely what makes them so fascinating, says Assistant Professor of Romance Languages Elena Cueto Asín. She is researching the political theater of the Spanish Civil War, much of it written by the country's greatest writers, including the poet Rafael Alberti and novelist/playwright Max Aub. "Most of it is not quality theater," she says, "but you can find all the contradictions of the ideologies of the 1930s reflected in these plays.
"I look at them and say, they were done quickly, yes," she says, "but because they were spontaneous you could see the playwright struggling with ideological ambiguities. Some of the best texts were written by intellectuals who already were thinking the war was a mistake."
Cueto Asín has been combing through propaganda plays written roughly between 1935-1939 that were staged by the pro-Marxist República to win the allegiance of the working classes to their cause. The plays were written for the proletariat, an audience largely ignorant of the theater, both serious and popular.
These agitprop works combined elements of classical theater with new, avant-garde fare - a far cry from the melodramas and farces that were the mainstay of the largely bourgeois audiences of the day.
The Spanish Civil War had a tremendous impact on intellectuals and artists around the world, such as Ernest Hemingway, Andre Malraux, Jean Miro and Julio Ganzález. The above detail from Picasso's "The Dream and Lie of Franco," which is part of the collection of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, is emblematic of the artist's outrage at the war. "The agonized woman represents the many innocent victims of the war," notes Curator Alison Ferris. "It is related to the lines of Picasso's Surrealist-inspired poem that accompanied this print: ...cries of children cries of women cries of birds cries of flowers cries of timbers and of stones ...." This print is one of 12 works by Picasso in the Museum's collection.
"Since they were Marxists," observes Cueto Asín, "they thought the working classes should have access to some quality of theater. But how do you find a balance between vulgarity and poetry? They realized they had to give people something they could swallow."
Many playwrights turned to an allegorical model, creating plays in which common citizens, soldiers and factory workers were faced with situations that would incite their enlistment in the Republican army or defend their allegiance to the República.
In Aub's short play, "Pedro Lopez Garcia," for instance, the lead character is a poor country boy who is recruited by Franco's Nationalistas to serve in their army. While on the battlefield he is visited by an allegorical figure of sorts - a voice that is Mother Earth. "She tells him he is fighting on the wrong side and should fight for democracy," says Cueto Asín. "So he crosses battlefield lines."
Ironically, she says, it's a theatrical style that harkens directly to the mystery play - a didactic Medieval theatrical form developed by the Catholic Church - in which an individual must choose between good or evil, the devil or an angel.
"They were fighting for a republic that wanted to be a secular government and to undermine the Catholic Church," she says, "and yet he was doing a play that reflects the religious tradition of theater. That's one way in which he was doing something interesting, reconciling religious theater with politics that were in denial of the religious.
"In the process of writing, I believe they realized you could not get rid of the religious tradition of Spanish culture, which is very rich," adds Cueto Asín.
Other Spanish propaganda plays pushed into new forms of the avant-garde. Aub's populist "What Have You Done Today to Win the War?" turned the actor-audience relationship on its ear by placing some of the actors in the audience, where they assumed the role of common citizens who are apathetic about the war effort.
"There is a woman onstage who shouts, 'We have to win the war!'" paraphrases Cueto Asín. "Then someone in the audience stands and says, 'We are not soldiers, we are people in the cities. What can we do?'"
One-by-one actors rise from the audience as factory workers, laborers, farmers, and describe their efforts to aid the republic. "The play becomes a political meeting," she says, "with the audience speaking out. I see it as a will to unite people with different approaches to the fact of the war, and to reconcile internal antagonisms and attitudes within the República side itself. For its time, it was very, very experimental."
It was a short-lived experiment. With Franco's victory, most of these writers went into exile, and their work with them. After Franco's death in 1975, however, many of the complete works of the writers of the Spanish Civil War-era are being published, including their political plays.
"Many scholars said that this theater is not worth studying, it wasn't very effective as propaganda," notes Cueto Asín. "I find the aesthetics quite interesting. These people were doing avant-garde theater in a moment where theater in Spain was very decadent. While they were in exile there was no rush and these writers did elaborate works of art. But it's another thing to produce something quickly in a war situation."
Cueto Asín's research interest also is personal. A native of Spain, she came of age in a post-Franco Spain in the infancy of its democracy, a time when she says, "there was a big silence about the Civil War. "
"Nobody wanted to touch it," she adds. "To do a democratic process you need to keep political contingents participating together, so there was a general social amnesia about what had happened. But there is a new generation that feels that some piece of history has not been discussed properly. It's the idea that the past always comes to knock at your door.
"History, and the way history is portrayed in collective memory, is something that is being revised. It is a big debate today. Scholars often are those who deal with these kinds of reconciliations, as we have seen in other parts of the world that have suffered civil conficts more recently, like Chile, Israel, Ireland, South Africa," notes Cueto Asín.
"I feel very privileged to go to my country and do this research. The Civil War was something that was lived by my parents and grandparents. When you are older and go out of the country, you see from another perspective. It's something I can only see now as a foreign scholar."