Out of the Wings

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La detonación (1975-1977), Antonio Buero Vallejo

English title: The Shot
Date written: from 1975 to 1977
First production date: September 1977
Keywords: art > censorship, family, history, history > change/revolution, ideology, ideology > politics, power > use and abuse, power > media, society, violence > suicide
Genre and type: tragedy, historical drama

One shot in the darkness sounds the end of a man’s hopes and dreams. Tired of the hypocritical masks of people around him, he makes his final protest against an apathetic and unjust society.


A young man cradles a pistol, ready to take his own life. One fatal shot and all his troubles will be over. The man is Mariano José de Larra and, at just 27 years old, he is tired. Throughout his adult life he has struggled against a society more interested in furthering the careers of the powerful than in protecting the powerless. He is a writer, continuously upsetting censors with his diatribes against politicians and fellow authors. Larra has tried to use his writing to strip away the masks people hide behind. In the end, the task has defeated him. And so, on the night of 13 February 1837, he is prepared to end it all. But before he does so, Larra journeys into his past, remembering events leading to his current situation. He is accompanied by a servant, Pedro. Pedro is a guide, but he also represents the disenfranchised underbelly of society, almost invisible to the politicians and intellectuals – including Larra – who control and comment upon its fate.

Scenes from Larra’s life materialise on stage. We see him arguing with his father, desperate to move to Madrid to forge out a career as a writer. Once settled in the capital, Larra frequents the ‘El Parnasillo’tertulia where he meets many prestigious writers and journalists. In Larra’s mind, many of them are frauds, hiding faces behind masks – which they wear on stage –to appease the censors. Indeed, censorship casts a shadow over everyone. Spain is going through a time of political unrest. Successive prime ministers are ushered in, promising liberal reforms they never actually deliver. Larra does his best to carve out a reputation as a critical voice. More often than not, however, his work remains unpublished. Older and wiser colleagues advise him to make a living writing uncontroversial plays, while his wife is exasperated by his morose public stance. In short, Larra feels like a lone critical voice.

Gradually, however, Larra’s articles – even censored – gain popularity. The esteemed journalist Carnerero gives him a lucrative job as a theatre critic. Larra’s success is not wholly congratulated by his friends in ‘El Parnasillo’, however. One writer, Clemente Díaz, accuses Larra of pandering to the censors, claiming it is better to say nothing than to write half-criticisms. Larra disagrees, arguing that some publishable criticism is better than none at all to enable  the wider public to gain some awareness of the issues of the day. Indeed, Larra’s work has gained at least one staunch admirer among the general public – beautiful young Dolores. She wholeheartedly agrees with his desire to reveal the hypocrisy of society. Despite both being married, Dolores and Larra embark on an affair. It is soon cut short, however, when Dolores’s husband finds out and takes her away from Madrid.

Devastated by the loss of Dolores, Larra’s troubles escalate when his wife leaves him. This domestic strife reflects turbulent times in Spain, as an outbreak of plague leads to rioting in the streets. Larra avoids the civil unrest by temporarily leaving the country. When he returns, he is increasingly frustrated with the way in which the political elite discriminate against the poor and he becomes more actively involved in politics. He is about to join yet another new government when more civil unrest breaks out and the military seize power. Many more lives are lost as different factions battle for control, while Larra and his friends spend their days debating politics in ‘El Parnasillo’. Few of them actually go off to fight for their country. This situation is not lost on Pedro. Late one night Larra returns home to find Pedro drunk. Pedro tells Larra how he was forced into fighting to support his family. His young son was sadistically murdered by soldiers. Pedro attacks Larra and his intellectual colleagues for commenting upon society rather than doing anything practical to help the plight of the common man. Pedro’s words cut Larra deeply, not least because his rival Clemente Díaz has become the new censor. Larra now has no hope of publishing any articles that might help ordinary people.

In despair at being unable to get his voice heard, and with Pedro’s criticism still ringing in his ears, Larra withdraws further from society. There is one final glimmer of hope because Dolores has returned to Madrid. They meet, and Larra tries to convince her to leave her husband. When Dolores refuses, Larra accuses her of being as false and hypocritical as everyone else. Dolores retorts that she is happier wearing a mask in society than Larra will ever be, isolated from everyone around him.

The action returns to the critical moment at the start of the play with Larra contemplating suicide. He puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger. Many years later Larra’s servant Pedro reflects on his master’s death. He believes that Larra died from impatience because he could not change society as quickly as he would have liked. Pedro has heard countless gunshots in his life. Yet the only one that still resounds in his head – decades later – is the fatal shot fired by Larra. Perhaps, then, Larra’s suicide has had some effect, since Pedro ends the play demanding that we listen to the sound of the gunshot and wake up to its warning against social injustice and apathy.


Mariano José de Larra (1809-37)

The play takes as its historical reference point the life of the nineteenth-century essayist Mariano José de Larra. Larra wrote many satirical and critical commentaries about his contemporary society. His work was frequently censored. Larra shot himself in 1837, when he was just 27 years old. In the play, Larra socialises with a number of writers and intellectuals at the ‘El Parnasillo’ tertulia in the Café del Príncipe, Madrid. This location was a meeting point for many writers of the Spanish Romantic period, a number of whom feature in the play, such as Larra’s friend José de Espronceda (1808-42) and the influential journalist José María Carnerero (1784-1866). The events in the play take place in the nineteenth century during the end of the reign of Fernando VII (1784-1833) and the subsequent regency of his wife María Cristina (1806-78). This was a period of fluctuating press freedom, with censorship overseen by successive prime ministers, many of whom appear in the play.

‘La Nochebuena de 1836’ (Christmas Eve, 1836)

In act 2, Larra comes home to find his servant Pedro drunk. Pedro talks about his experience of war, including the tragic death of his young son. He accuses Larra and his peers of knowing little about the real world, preferring to speculate from the safety of the ‘El Parnasillo’ tertulia. This is a significant incident in the play which takes its inspiration from Larra’s essay ‘La Nochebuena de 1836’. This essay is an account of a gentleman who returns home on Christmas Eve to discover his servant drunk. Inebriated, the speaker’s servant insists that he is more content with life than his master is, since he does not seek fame and recognition through writing or through love affairs.

Critical response

La detonación (The Shot) initially ran for over 200 performances. Critics were divided over the manner in which Buero compared his stance as a writer under Franco to that of Larra as a writer during the transition from Fernando VII to the putatively more liberal government under María Cristina in the 1830s. In the play, Larra argues that it is better to get some of his writing – albeit with the criticism tempered – published than not to write anything at all. This is a reflection of Buero’s ‘posibilista’ approach to writing under Franco. Depending on the opinion of differing critics, Buero either compromised in what he wrote, or worked around the censors, in order for it to be possible for his theatre to be produced. As Catherine O’Leary writes, ‘Buero’s appropriation and mythification of the nineteenth-century writer was denounced by some critics’ (2005: 226). Nonetheless, O’Leary maintains that La detonación (The Shot) is one of Buero’s most important plays because of what it reveals about his political and artistic stance under Franco:

La detonación is among the most significant of Buero’s plays, for it contains a deliberate and skilful attempt by the author to vindicate his position as a writer under Franco. (2005: 226)

The play’s use of masks has been commented upon by critics as an effective way to convey the thematic idea of how ‘a mask of liberalism can hide the same face that had ruled before’ (O’Leary 2005: 222).

At the end of the play Larra commits suicide and his servant Pedro talks about how the sound of the fatal gunshot remains with him decades later. In his introduction to the 1987 edition of the play, Luciano García Lorenzo argues that the play therefore ends on a note of ‘hopeful tragedy’, in that for Pedro the gunshot is an unforgettable rallying sound, urging society to wake up to and confront its injustices (Buero Vallejo 1987: 27-8).

  • Buero Vallejo, Antonio. 1987. La detonación. Las palabras en la arena. Madrid, Espasa Calpe (in Spanish)

  • O’Leary, Catherine. 2005. The Theatre of Antonio Buero Vallejo: Ideology, Politics and Censorship. Woodbridge, Tamesis

  • Buero Vallejo, Antonio. 1987. La detonación. Las palabras en la arena. Madrid, Espasa Calpe

  • Buero Vallejo, Antonio. 2009. La detonación, ed. Virtudes Serrano. Madrid, Cátedra

Useful readings and websites
  • Hasley, Martha. 1978. ‘Larra: The Tragic Protagonist of La detonación’, Estreno 4.1, 14-5

  • Ilie, Paul. 1974-5. ‘Larra’s Nightmare’, Revista Hispánica Moderna, 38.1-2, 153-66

  • O’Leary, Catherine. 2005. The Theatre of Antonio Buero Vallejo: Ideology, Politics and Censorship. Woodbridge, Tamesis

Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 6 May 2012.

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