Out of the Wings

You are here:

Las palabras en la arena (c.1949), Antonio Buero Vallejo

English title: Words in the Sand
Date written: c. 1949
First production date: 19 December 1949
Keywords: family > marriage, morality > honour, morality > punishment, family > patriarchy, ideology > religion and faith, women, society, violence > social
Genre and type: tragedy

It is dangerous transgressing the law in ancient Jerusalem. In public, an adulterous woman is almost stoned to death; she is saved only when Jesus writes words in the sand which reveal the secret sins of the religious leaders condemning her. In private, another woman sins against her husband. Her fate is much more tragic, as her husband’s anger drowns out her pleas for forgiveness.


Asaf is head of the Sanhedrin Guard. He lives in Jerusalem with his beautiful wife Noemí. Asaf and his family follow the strict Law of Moses which demands the harshest punishment for anyone who transgresses it. A woman from the community has committed adultery and is condemned to death by stoning at the hands of an angry crowd. But Jesus intervenes. He invites anyone who is without sin to cast the first stone at the woman. After this, Jesus writes a series of words in the sand – mysterious messages for many of those gathered, including Asaf. Chastened and unnerved, the angry crowd disperses, and the adulterous woman is set free.

Noemí and her maidservant La Fenicia watch this incident from afar. Noemí pretends to be unconcerned about the fate of the adulterous woman, but both she and La Fenicia know this is not the case. Rather, Noemí is in the process of arranging an extra-marital tryst of her own. Asaf will be out of town for a few days. Noemí has asked La Fenicia to mention this fact to Marcio, a handsome Roman soldier. Both Noemí and La Fenicia know that, were Asaf to find out, the consequences would be devastating.

While La Fenicia runs off to deliver Noemí’s message to Marcio, angry Pharisees and Sadducees complain about Jesus’ behaviour. Yet their anger against him is tinged with wariness. The messages Jesus wrote down on the sand have had an unsettling effect on many of those present. Next to the High Priest, Joazar, for example, Jesus wrote down the word ‘Atheist’. To Eliú, a scribe, he wrote ‘Thief’. The men claim that there is no truth in Jesus’ words, but they are all nonetheless troubled. As for the message Jesus wrote down for Asaf, this remains a mystery. Asaf tells no one, claiming that the statement was too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

Before setting out on his travels, Asaf returns home to spend some time with his wife. He tells Noemí about the reaction of religious leaders to Jesus’ words in the sand, but he still refuses to reveal what Jesus wrote for him. As a religious man, Asaf is angry that the adulterous woman was not stoned to death. He becomes even more irate when Noemí shows sympathy for the woman. For Asaf, there is no room in the law for compassion and forgiveness.

While Asaf is still at home, La Fenicia returns from delivering Noemí’s message to Marcio. The young maidservant is in jubilant mood because Marcio gave her a bag of Roman coins. Unfortunately, Asaf recognises Marcio’s moneybag and wrongly concludes that La Fenicia is bringing shame on his household by sleeping with the Roman soldier. Very quickly, however, the truth comes out. Asaf realises that his beautiful wife is planning to betray him. After the incident with the adulterous woman, Asaf is in no mood to forgive. Instead, he kills Noemí in vengeance and anger. Only then do we learn what Jesus wrote down in the sand for Asaf. It was, tellingly, ‘Murderer’.


The play is a dramatisation of the biblical story found in John 8: 1-11. In Jerusalem a woman is caught committing adultery and brought to the temple grounds to be stoned to death. Jesus prevents the stoning by writing words in the sand and uttering the phrase ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’. The crowd’s conscience is pricked, and they disperse.

Critical response

The play has been translated into several languages, including French and Italian. It is an unusual play in Buero Vallejo’s body of work because of the biblical subject matter and because of its short length. A number of commentators note similarities between Buero Vallejo’s use of the story of the adulterous woman in this play and the ending of Divinas Palabras by Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, in which Pedro Gailo saves his wife from an angry crowd by inviting anyone without sin to cast the first stone. Las palabras en la arena (Words in the Sand) may end with a murder, but it is not meant to be an ending without hope. A number of editions of the play are followed by a ‘Comentario’ by the playwright, in which Buero urges readers to be as forgiving as Jesus and not to ‘cast the first stone’ by condemning Asaf or the other characters for their behaviour (Pennington 2010: 59).

  • Pennington, Eric Wayne. 2010. Approaching the Theatre of Antonio Buero Vallejo: Contemporary Literary Analyses from Structuralism to Postmodernism. New York, Peter Lang

  • Buero Vallejo, Antonio. 1952. Historia de una escalera. Las palabras en la arena. Madrid, Alfil

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

Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 25 May 2012.

Tag this play

You must be logged in to add tags. Please log in or sign up for a free account.

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment. Please log in or sign up for a free account.

  • King's College London Logo
  • Queen's University Belfast Logo
  • University of Oxford Logo
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council Logo