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Alfonso Sastre Salvador

Personal information
Surname: Sastre Salvador
First name: Alfonso
Commonly known as: Alfonso Sastre
Born: 20 February 1926, Madrid, Spain

Alfonso Sastre (1926) was born and raised in Madrid. As a child, he lived through the terror and poverty brought about by the bombing raids on his home city during the Spanish Civil War. The son of a professional actor, Sastre was a founding member of the Arte Nuevo (New Art) theatre group that was established in 1945 and made up of writers and actors interested in existential and avant-garde forms of theatre. He notes the importance of the following year for his playwriting career (Sastre 2008), in which his first dramas, Uranio 235 (Uranium-235) and Ha sonado la muerte (Death Has Called), were staged – this latter written in collaboration with his good friend, the writer Medardo Fraile (1925), who was another member of the Arte Nuevogroup. By the 1950s Sastre had established himself as an outspoken social commentator using his theatre to interrogate the injustices of Spanish society and politics under General Franco. In 1953 his play Escaudra hacia muerte (Death Squad) premiered but was censored after its third production because of its anti-war sentiments. In 1955 Sastre married the political activist and writer Eva Forest (1928-2007). Forest was an outspoken supporter of Basque independence and a fierce critic of Franco’s Spain. Sastre, too, by the middle of the 1950s, was a well-known political activist: in 1956 he faced his first trial in front of the Public Order Tribunal because of his involvement in student movements. In the same year, Sastre and Forest left Spain to live in Paris for six months. Here, Sastre first encountered the Spanish Communist Party that he eventually became a member of until 1974.

In 1966, having returned to Spain from France, Sastre was briefly imprisoned for the first time in Carabanchel Prison in Madrid for participating in the ‘National Day against Repression’. He was again imprisoned for a longer spell between October 1974 and June 1975, during which time he wrote the Balada de Carabanchel (Ballad of Carabanchel). Eva Forest also spent time in jail during the 1970s because of her alleged involvement in a fatal bombing that year in Madrid carried out by the Basque separatist group, ETA. With his wife still in prison and with the threat of further state oppression hanging over him, Sastre moved to Bordeaux after being released from Carabanchel, only to be expelled from France in 1977. After his wife’s release from prison in the same year, Sastre and his family moved to the Basque town of Hondarribia where he has lived ever since.

As Spain underwent the transition from dictatorship to democracy after the death of Franco in 1975, Sastre’s reputation as a playwright and as a political commentator continued to grow – both nationally and internationally. He spent two semesters at California’s San Diego State University between 1987 and 1988 and travelled extensively with his wife to participate in political rallies and conferences. Despite claiming in 1991 that his play ¿Dónde estás, Ulalume, dónde estás? (Where are you, Ulalume? Where are you?) would be his last, Sastre’s playwriting has continued. He has won numerous awards, including Spain’s National Literature Prize in 1993 and the Max Honour Prize in 2006 for his considerable contribution to Spanish theatre. Since Eva Forest’s death in 2007, Sastre has carried on fighting for the political concerns he shared with his wife – in 2009 he headed a campaign to elect members of his left-wing Spanish coalition party, the Internationalist Initiative – Solidarity Between Peoples (II-SP) – to the European Parliament. He also continues to write new plays and to provide monthly opinion articles for the Basque cultural magazine, Artez.

Further information

More information on Alfonso Sastre can be found by clicking on his personal website.


Sastre’s work is often considered as being primarily concerned with interrogating contemporary politics, not least because many of his plays were written during Franco’s dictatorship. However, Sastre rejects the generalisation that his work is solely focused on political issues. Instead, he calls attention to the elements of ‘fantastic terror’ that run through his work, such as the mysterious and comical aspects (Sastre 2008). Put briefly, Sastre uses his theatre to explore what it means to be human. He places his characters in impossible situations and dramatises their mainly unsuccessful, yet no less admirable, attempts to resolve their problems. Because of this tendency Sastre defines his work as being often, but not exclusively, tragic (Sastre 2008). Some of Sastre’s plays are set in different periods in history, but these historical dramas are more than representations of past events. Using them, Sastre implies connections between past injustices and issues that continue to concern contemporary Spanish society.


Sastre has experimented with a range of styles throughout his career. Many of his earlier plays are expressionistic or surrealistic. Others are more realistic in character, focusing on social issues and clearly tragic situations. Sastre makes a distinction between his earlier ‘pure tragedies’ and the ‘complex tragedies’ that follow (Sastre 2008). These later plays are at times both tragic and humorous, as he employs comic or incongruous language in tragic situations to prevent spectators overempathising with characters and their plights. The central characters in his complex tragedies are themselves complex, defined by Sastre as ‘human and unstable, badly spoken and laughable’ (Sastre 2008). The action in these complex tragedies often progresses in a non-realistic manner, marked by elements – such as, for example, anachronisms – that undermine the notion that drama should simply be a representational copy of life outside the theatre (Thompson 2007: 20). Sastre wrote much of his work during Franco’s dictatorship and had to consider the reaction of censors to his drama. Consequently, he often used symbolism and situated his plays in distant historical periods so as to criticise Franco’s repressive regime obliquely rather than explicitly.

  • Sastre, Alfonso. 2008. ‘Notas para una sonata en mi (menor)’. Alicante, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/FichaObra.html?Ref=29991&portal=275 [accessed 10 December 2009] (Online Publication) (in Spanish)

  • Thompson, Michael. 2007. Performing Spanishness: History, Cultural Identity and Censorship in the Theatre of José María Rodríguez Méndez. Bristol and Chicago, Intellect

Plays in the database
Useful reading and websites

Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 5 October 2010.

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