Spanish society through literature and film

By Shane Cassidy

It is important when considering the works of the following 3 artists that they are placed in socio-cultural context. 20th Century Spain witnessed a massive turn in its fortunes, beginning with the development in the early 1930’s of the left-leaning, progressive Republican government who wished to engage the people with the arts through their missiones pedagógicas[1]. The Spanish civil war of 1936-39 marked a break in the development of the arts and during the Franco regime, Spain practised a massive, sweeping censorship which inevitably limited artistic expression. Luis García Berlanga, Federico García Lorca and Ana María Matute all lived through tumultuous periods in Spains history where they came under the scrutiny of censorship under General Franco’s regime which would challenge their attempts at accurate, honest portrayals of the societies they lived in. What is prevalent not only in García Lorca’s play but the films of Berlanga and the short stories of Matute is that they all carry strong critiques of their society and have contributed massively to Spanish 20th century arts.

“Berlanga no es un comunista; es mucho peor, es un mal español”[2]

– General Franco

Of all the 3 works, cinema was the most heavily censored at the time and the above quote represents the regimes attitudes towards any art which was critical of Spanish society, or to put it more accurately, whatever art which most depicted a real picture of Spanish society. Satire is heavily dominant in both in the 1952 film ‘Bienvenido Mr. Marshall’ and ‘El Verdugo’ which was made in 1963. In ‘Bienvenido Mr. Marshall’, the scenes of Don Manolo and the Mayor making this grand speech of promises of prosperity are highly effective in satirising General Franco. The film is littered with allusions to the loss of political power, most noticeably in the same scene where the Mayor and Don Manolo are on the balcony, they constantly struggle with each other for the right to speak and as Justin Crumbaugh says they are “conflicted over the way in which to direct the very image of popular sameness”[3]. It is interesting to note that it is Manolo, a man who can be interpreted as the one representing commercial interests and life succeeds over the Mayor who represents political life and office.

What is prevalent in Berlangas work is his commentary of Spain as it experienced changes in its society. The struggle between modernism and traditionalism, the intrusion of a modern world into Franco’s carefully orchestrated one. During the making of ‘Bienvenido Mr Marshall’, the Spanish government was softening its stance on isolationism[4]. This can be seen in his portrayal of a society open to welcoming the Americans in return for financial assistance. Eleven years later in ‘El Verdugo’, a satirical film about a young man, José Luis, who takes the job as a State executioner with the hope that he will never have to actually perform an execution, once again comments on the changes in Spains position is evident with the inclusion of the tourists and the visit to the tourist area of Spain. This film was made at a time when Spain was experiencing what is known as “el miraglo Espanola” with the tourist boom[5]. His intentions were to paint a picture of a backward society which needed to evolve and progress.

Berlanga depicts, if not a sexually repressed society, then it is most certainly a sexually adverse one. In ‘El Verdugo’, the scene where José Luis and Carmen are dancing after their picnic illustrates perfectly the closed-minded view Spanish society took of public displays of affection when an older couple who are sitting on the grass beside them get up, turn off their radio which is playing the music and leave. As they pass the young couple they say “si querían bailar, que se traigan la música”. This scene is employed to show the backwardness of Spanish society and a clash between the old-fashioned views and the new is depicted. Similarly this can be seen in Lorcas play, ‘La casa de Bernarda Alba’, especially with the exchanges between Poncía and Adela and the attitudes towards men. Poncía retains the old-fashioned view that men need to satisfy sexual urges whereas women have none of their own. She says “los hombres necesitan estas cosas” to which Adela, always challenging conventions, replies “Se les perdona todo”[6].

Federico García Lorca was a member of the surrealists ‘Generation of 1927’ in which defiance and rebellion through the arts was the norm and progressive thought and frank observation of Spanish society was encouraged[7]. This can be seen through his work ‘La casa de Bernarda Alba’. A play centred on the house of a woman who is autocratic in her behaviour, Bernarda Alba, and her 5 unmarried daughters who are not permitted to leave the house. The play begins under a cloud of death, with the family in mourning for Bernardas previous husband. What’s most notable about the play is the total lack of male presence throughout it. She runs the house with a vice-like grip and is utterly dominating in a role which Lorca has unconventionally transformed her into. As Alfred Rodriguez describes it, Lorca has turned an “anomalous mother-figure into a solidly fixed masculine role”[8]. An atmospheric and claustrophobic setting is created by the fact that the set never changes, nobody can leave the house and therefore we feel exactly how the daughters feel. The impression is created that within this autocratic, dictatorship of a household it is not possible to live freely and the outside of the house represents freedom and liberty from such provisions. The strength of Bernardas rule is witnessed in Act 2 when, significantly Poncia asks “Puedo hablar?”[9]. The fact that a simple action like speaking requires permission represents the fear that Bernarda generated and the control she wielded. It is also ironic that such an untraditional character maintain and clings to traditions throughout the play; from observing the mourning period to wishing to maintain ‘honour’ and ‘decency’ in the wake of Adelas suicide by insisting “Ella, la hija menor de Bernarda Alba, ha muerto virgen.”[10]

Lorcas intentions were to examine the cultural clash between modern and traditional and this is most acute in the fact that the youngest daughter Adela is the most progressive and resistant to Bernarda and her rule. This can be witnessed towards the hugely dramatic end to Act 2 when la hija de la Librada is to be punished for sexual transgression and on one hand Adela says “No, no, para matarla no!” but on the contrary Bernarda attests “Y que pague la que pisotea su decencia”[11]. The idea that la hija de la Librada had a child out of wedlock doesn’t shock Adela and she doesn’t believe any ‘honour’ has been lost but for Bernarda it is the ultimate act of dishonour due to her distorted honour code. The attitude of modern versus tradition also prevails in Berlangas work where his comment on a backward Spanish society is evident in his films. ‘Bienvenido Mr. Marshall’ allows the audience to see this in the Mayors dream sequence where his idea of the United States is a comic, archaic and stereotypical view of a typical Western film not at all in-tune with how the USA of the 1950’s would have been.

Throughout Ana María Matute works, in her collection of short stories Historias de la Artamila, a very common theme of the loss of innocence re-appears over and over again. At the breakout of the Civil War in 1936, Matute was sent to live in the countryside and this heavily impacted upon her works. Matute utilised the disarming technique of writing from a childs perspective and therefore censors would have been less suspicious of the messages Matutes stories carried. Nevertheless her collection of works served to remind readers of that very loss of purity, of innocence which not only Matute lost as a child herself at the outbreak of the Civil War but also Spain lost . As a country, Spain lost that aspiration and hope it had developed during the Republican government from 1931-36. Throughout her works, she highlights the hypocrisy of society and their adverse reactions to ‘outsiders’.

All three artists wanted to hold a mirror up to Spanish society in order to highlight the hypocrisy which was clearly present. The ostracisation and stigmatisation of individuals or groups of people by society and their ignorance and fear of the unknown were themes which all three directly addressed. In Matutes ‘El Perro Perdido’, the dog which enters the village is immediately viewed with suspicion and disdain. The villagers immediately stigmatise the dog without reason and he is taken to be killed only for the cries of young Damián to be listened to. Anotonia María, the healer in the village declares “ese perro es un espíritu malo”[12]. The fear of the unknown stretches to societys treatment of the outsider as Antonia María also says of the dog “Eche al perro de casa…esta embrujado”[13]. It requires a large struggle from Damián to save the dog and even then it is begrudgingly allowed to live.

Equally so, in Berlangas ‘El Verdugo’, the position of the executioner is one which carries a lot of stigma and not only do Amadeo and José Luis experience it but Amadeos daughter Carmen also suffers it purely through association. In the scene where they go for a picnic, she expresses to José Luis her desire to runaway to “Francía” to start afresh. The position of state executioner is not a position which is highly coveted and the one performing it is always given a wide berth. Berlanga cleverly depicts this at the beginning of the film when the undertakers bring in a coffin and the guard on duty simply raises his hat to pay his respects and returns to eating his soup undeterred. However a moment later Amadeo, the executioner, asks the guard about a lift and the guard quickly becomes agitated and uncomfortable and when Amadeo leaves the guard pushes away the bowl of soup clearly indicating he has lost his appetite. In the same scene, Jose Luis is talking about the executioner to the other undertaker and he describes him in the following manner “La verdad es que parece una persona normal”. It is clear that society has a distorted idea of how an executioner should appear and through what José Luis says it is evident that the executioner is not a position with a great deal of respect or understanding.

Loss is a theme which permeates right throughout the artists works. La casa de Bernarda Alba opens with the loss of Bernardas husband and it serves as a metaphor for the rest of the film. Loss hangs over the family; it forbids them from leaving the house as they are in a period of mourning. The characters of Pepe Romano, although never seen, and Poncia add to the frustration of the women as they provide a hint of the liberty that outside brings them. The daughters, loss of freedom has also come at a cost of losing their sister Adela at the end of the play and Angustias has lost her fiancé.

In Berlangas ‘Bienvenido Mr. Marshall’, the villagers’ dreams of the Americans coming and making them all rich is ultimately not realised. Berlanga cleverly uses the characters of the Don Manolo, Don Cosme and the Mayor to highlight the impending fate of the townspeople as they all have dream sequences which all end fatally for them. Matute also uses the characters in her stories to highlight the sense of loss and unfairness. In her story ‘Pecado de Omision’, a recently orphaned boy called Lope goes to live with his rich uncle Emeterio in another village. Although family was very important at the time, Lope is treated badly and not welcomed. He is sent to the mountains to be a shepherd and his uncle says “hay que ganarse el carrusco”[14]. The character of Don Lorenzo is effectively used in the story to show the loss of potential when he attempts to explain to Emeterio that he is clever and that he could achieve something, “es que el chico vale…es listo. Muy listo.”[15]. The contrast between Lope and Manuel Enriquéz also harshly contrasts the fortunes of both boys. Lopes hands are rough and barely capable of holding a cigarette but Manuel Enriquéz has fine, slender hands which highlights the socio-economic gulf between the two boys. It is a tale of two hands and two worlds, what might have been for Lope but he was never given the opportunity.

Similarly, in Berlangas ‘El Verdugo’, the inclusion of the Germans in the story appears to play several functions. One is to highlight the development of Spain’s tourism industry, which was a double edged sword in itself as it helped to revive a floundering economy but also allowed liberal, left wing progressive attitudes to enter through tourism and therefore this was a lot harder for the Franco regime to control[16]. However the other purpose which these Germans play, it can be argued, is to serve as a constant reminder of the life Jose Luis could have had. In the picnic scene early in the film, Carmen expresses her wish to go to France, to which Jose Luis responds with “y porque no Allemana, así podríamos marchamos juntos”.  Later in the film he meets three blonde German girls who represent progressive, liberal Western women with their modern technology and uncovered hair. At the music show which Jose Luis and Carmen attend, it is his wife, symbolically, who again obstructs his passage to sit with or near the Germans. Finally, at the end of the film when Jose Luis comes aboard the boat and it is evident that he is a broken man, the party boat in the distance plays lively music and the German girls are getting on it to go for a party. It’s the tale of two boats but it could easily be the tale of two hands.

The intention of Berlanga is that José Luis is condemned by society as he is complicit in the government’s actions. Berlangas observation is of a man who allows himself to be led by others to ultimately dire consequences. José Luis first arrives in Mallorca to perform the execution he is met by members of La Guardia Civil and he is resistant and ultimately has to be coerced into going and the scene of him sitting on the back of the jeep gives the impression of a condemned man. Later when he is with his wife at the music show and again La Guardia Civil arrive in search of him, the impression as he gets into the boat and Caremen, his wife, shouts to him “ tranquilo, no te preocupes”, as if it will be their final meeting and once again he is led off. The most powerful scene aesthetically comes towards the end of the film when he is in the prison and he has to physically dragged through a long white room into the execution room to perform his duties while the man who is to be executed is far more composed. The white-washed walls of  the room in the prison are contrasted against the black clothes of the characters and the looming black door at the end of the room is reminiscent of both Lorca’s description of the room in his play; white walls contrasted against the black of the characters clothes. It is interesting to note that both José Luis and Adela wear white and green respectively and thus are made to stand out. They are both different.  Hugely symbolic is José Luis’ hat which he drops, thus signifying both his submission finally to the act and also when the guard returns to pick the hat up the hat itself and bring into the execution room. Clearly signifying that absolutely no part of Don Jose will be left behind, he is 100% complicit in the States actions and he is a condemned man.

All 3 artists sought to comment on Spanish society through their works and even with the obstacle of censorship their goal was to make the audience aware of the societies they lived and highlight the unfairness and inequality which was occurring. That it was done in such poetic, beautiful art only adds to its poignancy and the impact of their work on Spanish culture and the arts in general cannot be overstated. By using ‘small’ domestic issues to raise awareness of the larger scheme of things and the greater problems in society, all 3 were able to effectively portray their message without fear of losing their audience through their clever use of metaphor, satire and analogies.



[3] CRUMBAUGH, Justin, Destination Dictatorship: the spectacle of Spain’s tourist boom and the reinvention of difference, SUNY Press, 2009 (p. 9)

[4] MAXWELL, K, Spiegel, S, The New Spain: From Isolation to influence, Council on Foreign Relations Press, New York, 1994, (p. 83)

[6]RAMSDEN, H, La casa de Bernarda Alba, Federico García Lorca, Manchester University Press, 1983 (p.47)

[7] Romance Notes 21(1980-81) : Bernarda Alba, Creation as Defiance, Alfred Rodriguez, (p. 279)

[8] Romance Notes 21(1980-81) : Bernarda Alba, Creation as Defiance, Alfred Rodriguez, (p.280)

[9] RAMSEN, H, La casa de Bernarda Alba, Ferica García Lorca, Manchester University Press, 1983 (p.56)

[10] RAMSEN, H, La casa de Bernarda Alba, Ferica García Lorca, Manchester University Press, 1983(p.91)

[11] RAMSEN, H, La casa de Bernarda Alba, Ferica García Lorca, Manchester University Press, 1983 (p.65)





CRUMBAUGH, Justin, Destination Dictatorship: the spectacle of Spain’s tourist boom and the reinvention of difference, SUNY Press, 2009

GARCÍA LORCA, Federico, La casa de Bernarda Alba, ed by H. Ramsden (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).

MAXWELL, K, SPIEGEL, S, The New Spain: From Isolation to influence, Council on Foreign Relations Press, New York, 1994,

Kinder, Marsha, Blood Cinema: The Reconstruction of National Identity in Spain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)

El Verdugo. Dir. BERLANGA, José Luis García, Interlagar Films, 1962


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