Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Antonio Buero Vallejo's En la ardiente oscuridad (In the Burning Darkness)

The Perkins School for the Blind quotes Helen Keller on one of its web pages, which you can read by clicking here: “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope or confidence.” What would happen if pessimism confronts that optimism?

Antonio Buero Vallejo tries to answer this question. The playwright symbolically uses physical blindness to show how a group of people cannot skirt around a reality that surrounds them. En la ardiente oscuridad (In the Burning Darkness) relates in three acts the events of a school for the blind in which the pessimism of one almost destroys the morale of everyone involved. The edition I have comes from a company in Buenos Aires called Stockcero that includes a prologue by Carlos Gorostiza written in 2004. The play actually comes from Spain and the author debuts the play in 1951 during the Franco years, a time when fascism is the norm.

In the play, the blind students enjoy their time at the school and with each other because the directors have created a sanctuary in which they can move around without the need of canes. The directors have also created an environment in which the students intuitively relate and communicate with each other, simulating what normal people do in the outside world. They also encourage euphemisms to maintain the school’s program, e.g. vidente and invidente, “seer” and “non-seer” respectively. Everything goes well until a contumacious student that never goes along with the program and never gives up his cane enrolls at the school.

The period of the play spans a few months. Ignacio, the contumacious student, gains a following using his “unbalanced messianic” philosophy (85). Students become slovenly under his influence. Couples almost lose their significant others to his attitude of victimization. Ignacio opines that the school’s pedagogy is based upon a “lie” (65). Some students try to confront and convince Ignacio to do away with his poisonous influence, but Ignacio’s perseverance, stubbornness, and logic beat any attempts to change his attitude or to drop out of school. Secret agendas reveal themselves until finally the play ends tragically.

This play provokes a lot of inquiry into what constitutes reality for blind people as well as for seeing people. Miguel makes a joke that if blind people cannot conceive light, and that if light is inconceivable, then seers do not see as well (53). However, Ignacio thinks it ridiculous for blind people to ignore the fact that they are blind. He envies the power seers have and wishes vehemently to gain that power. Ignacio seems to blame seers for his suffering, even though he admits that seers are not at fault and take their sense of sight for granted.

Other subtexts, like religion and politics, cast possible literary interpretations because of the symbolic nature of the play. Interesting questions come up when one considers each issue. Although religion is not the center of the debate, it seems strange that the regular students speak like atheists, while Ignacio, a false prophet or suffering devil that wants others to suffer as he, believes in the light or the possibility of some miraculous healing. On another issue, the school uses politically correct euphemisms to create an ideology that blind people and seeing people are the same, but the school separates the blind students from seeing people in order to do it. Ignacio always points out the distinction, but in so doing he meshes the light and the darkness together. Using literary terminology, the school claims to be non-dualistic, but is dualistic in practice; Ignacio preaches dualism, but acts non-dualistically. These ironies can come off quite confusing, and without further research, I can only speculate that Antonio Buero Vallejo means to criticize the fascist government of Spain after gaining power from winning the country’s civil war.

Critically, this play is worth seeing or reading if you can find an English translation. It encourages the reader to think about what realities we ignore when we should take most notice of them. Readers also think about circumstances in which it is appropriate to fight against the system and when to follow the program for the wellbeing of others. One particular scene that fascinated me, and that I would love to see in a live performance, is one where the stage lights and the house lights go completely out. The complete darkness envelops the audience while Ignacio explains his logic about contemplating light even when one is blind.

I almost cannot imagine what blind people have to face, but I also believe that each one of us struggles with a particular burden. If we have the power to bear burdens, then we also have the power to live happily even with our burdens. Blind people, with Helen Keller’s optimism, faith, hope, and confidence, have access to this happiness even when surrounded by visual darkness. This principle applies to everyone and not just blind people. This encourages me, and I try to be optimistic even when my figurative blindness keeps me in the dark.



  1. It is a good book to get you thinking. I read it in Spanish


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


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