The Ekphrasis Effect:  An Analysis of Goya’s

Black Paintings within Antonio Buero Vallejo’s play the Sleep of Reason



Kendra Jones

Washington State University



In the most minimalist terms, ekphrasis is the literal representation of visual art. From time immemorial, artists have been creating all kinds of visual art and writers, the contemporaries to these visual artists and also those looking back to the artistic expressions of the past, have been speculating about these works, including their ekphrastic descriptions within literature in the form of prose, poetry, narrative, and theater. In his classic and indispensable elucidation on the history and functions of ekphrasis, James A. W. Heffernan, cites specific famous ekphrastic texts, such as the description of Achilles’ shield in Homer’s Iliad and Keats’s ekphrastic poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (297). He uses these examples to demonstrate that the tendency to “translate graphic art into narrative persists in ekphrastic literature of every period” (302). Despite the vast historical presence of ekphrasis in literature, the rich value it brings to both the literature it exists within and the art it describes, has yet to be fully examined. In addition to this, the continued utilization of ekphrasis is far from satisfactory, especially when viewed in relation to the depth of meaning it has the ability to produce and the astounding potential it has to expound upon any message contemporary authors or visual artists wish to convey.

Since “ekphrasis” as a cohesive literary term and theory is reasonably modern, researchers on this subject are yet to agree on a comprehensive definition and its consequent functions. For this study, I have decided on the ekphrastic model set down by James A. W. Heffernan in his article “Ekphrasis and Representation”. In his study, Heffernan distinguishes ekphrastic literature from other types of literary methods. He describes beautifully the function typical of ekphrastic literature to deliver “from the pregnant moment of graphic art its embryonically narrative impulse, and thus make explicit the story that graphic art tells only by implication” (301). In other words, the visual art, and for this study, the physical painting, is merely the beginning, the jumping off point. It is the initial event that begs to have its story told and telling stories is precisely what literature is all about.

The standard feature of ekphrasis, to write about art, in itself lends to a complex and edifying discussion. The intriguing nature of this literary mode encourages further thought on the subject.  It introduces a fundamental question regarding the extent of the functions of ekphrasis beyond what Heffernan outlines in his synopsis of ekphrastic principles. One basic question, which provides the backbone to this study and will appear repeatedly asks: Is ekphrasis only limited to a direct description of an art object or are there more levels, especially subtle ones that this literary mode is capable of? 

This study proposes that there must exist an even more profound usage of ekphrasis, an ekphrasis that all at once not only provides a link between the literal and visual realms, but also exists within the sphere of historical, political, social, emotional, psychological and even literal thought. This “extreme” ekphrasis, as I have coined it, is exemplified in one work of theatrical prose which includes ekphrastic descriptions of Francisco Goya’s visual creations. Antonio Buero Vallejo in his play The Sleep of Reason (1970) uses ekphrasis, the literary tool normally employed to simply describe art within a work of literature, as a strategy to covertly communicate to his audience messages about his contemporary society, the society of Spain under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

In addition to this distinctive use of the literary representation of visual art, the author uses another interesting literary technique identified as “pictorialism” by Heffernan, in which an author, in this case Buero Vallejo, manipulates his writing style to mimic the painting style of an artist, in this case Goya; thus creating a work of literature inextricably linked to the works of art it references through style as well as through obvious content. Pictorialism and ekphrasis are very closely related and the inclusion of pictorial writing within an ekphrastic piece undoubtedly amplifies the art-literature connection. However, it must be clarified that while an author can create a pictorial piece of literature without drawing attention to the physical art object itself, an ekphrastic work is completely dependent on the art of which it employs. Keeping this in mind, one can certainly notice the contingency The Sleep of Reason has on the art work it describes.

Within this literary masterpiece created by Buero Vallejo, we find an ekphrasis that is utilized above and beyond the usual “call of duty” for this particular literary technique. One not only interested in a simple verbal representation of a visual representation, but a verbal representation of a visual art that results in a piece of literature bound so tightly to painting, where it is almost impossible to dissect the text away from the visual art. In order to arrive at an understanding of the implications of ekphrasis used in this way and the enormous future possibilities for literature and visual art that it holds, this study deems it necessary to view the reasons behind Buero Vallejo’s choice to include ekphrasis in relation to Goya’s paintings within his play The Sleep of Reason, which techniques he used to bring about this special art-literature integration, and what benefits this ekphrastic inclusion brings to the literature. 

It has been established that it would not be accurate to state that Francisco Goya was the first to publicly express his dissatisfaction with his contemporary government. There does exist, however, evidence as to his origination of a specific artistic style. There are many who believe Goya was the harbinger of a new kind of painting: that being modern painting, which later extended throughout all of Europe. Fred Licht, in his tremendous book Goya, the Origins of the Modern Temper in Art describes how, at the end of the Eighteenth Century, due to the rigorous questioning and subsequent Revolutions (American, French, and Industrial), the political and cultural balance of the European society broke down. Out of this collapse, the role of the artist changed from being completely funded by the higher authorities, the Church and State, to fundamentally being on their own. Licht identifies that “the first great artists to be faced by the revolutionary conditions of modern man” were French painter, Jacques-Louis David and Spanish painter, Francisco Goya (16). While the former substituted a new authority (Roman ideals) for the prior authority of the Church, the latter is described as “the only artist to absorb the very principle of revolution and anarchy into his art (18). Thus, there are those who believe Goya was one of, if not the father of modern art, an art infused with rebellion. John Dowling, a Goya scholar, considers Goya’s Black Paintings, as one of “the greatest series … in modern art” (449). While Goya was completing political painting in Spain, he was one of the first, if not the first, to break free from tradition and explicitly criticize and even condemn the actions of his government and society as a whole through his work. As will be further elaborated upon, the persona of Goya, due to his extraordinary life and artwork, has evolved into a synthesis of revolutionary fervor, political satire, personal persecution all conveyed through grotesque imagery with a particularly Spanish bias.

Francisco Goya, born in Fuendetodos, Spain in 1746 (Gudiol 9), has a long colorful history in the field of painting. Most likely influenced into the arts by his father a craftsman, Goya progressed from a painting apprenticeship, to religious commissions, to tapestry cartoons, to etchings, to becoming the First Painter to the King Charles VI in 1789 (Glendinning 25). In 1793, Goya contracted a serious illness which left him deaf. It was during this time that the artist began to produce works of art increasingly variant from his portfolio of mostly elite portraits of the past. He created drawing after drawing of some real and some imaginary subjects that led to his etchings entitled Caprichos in 1799, of which one, entitled The Sleep of Reason, carries particular importance to this study. Goya was particularly opposed to “religious fanaticism and superstition” and “critical of the Inquisition and some of the monastic orders” (27). 

In 1814, Fernando VII returned to power, at first welcomed by the Spanish public with his claims to withhold the newly made constitution. It is well known that King Ferdinand VII ruled with an iron fist. His tyrannical despotism waged war on anyone opposed to his rule. Creating his own sense of terror, Ferdinand VII required the sadistic persecution of Liberals, “of whom 120 were executed in eighteen days” (31). Goya, was summoned to the Secret Chamber of the Inquisition in Madrid, in March of 1815, to explain his Naked Maja (Glendinning 27), a large painting of a naked woman. He painted official portraits for the king, yet his etchings titled the Disasters of War attest to his disillusion with the violence incurred by the current ruling powers. In 1819, Goya moved to the Quinta del Sordo, a small cottage on the outskirts of Madrid on the shores of the Manzanares River, where his final set of paintings, those pertinent to this study, the Black Paintings were created (Licht 354). 

One look at this group of paintings and anyone trained in the arts or not, could tell they are a creation of a person living in fear. The dark colors, thick, hasty brushstrokes, looks of terror and repelling images convey a horror that had to have existed physically or at least inside the mind of Goya.

Buero Vallejo (1916-2000), a writer who during his life came to be known as “Spain’s foremost living dramatist” (Halsey 7) was not without his personal, political, and professional obstacles. Many aspects of his life in fact, closely compare to the prominent painter who later became the subject of the work under discussion within this discourse. 

In 1936, the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, Buero Vallejo, being opposed to the war, enlisted as a medic for the Republican (or Loyalist) forces in their struggle against the Nationalist forces of Francisco Franco. At the end of the war, and the defeat of the Republican forces, as punishment for his participation in the fight against the Republicans, Buero Vallejo was sentenced to death (15). Although the artist was not killed, he was sentenced to an indefinite prison term, which was later reduced to six years and he was released in 1945.

Upon his release Buero Vallejo turned to theater and completed numerous plays, all with the over-arching theme of tragedy as “an expression of our struggle to free ourselves from the bonds – external and internal, social and individual – that enslave us” as Halsey quotes the author himself as testifying to that end (104). As the years passed, the so-called “bonds” of Spanish society evolved under the dictatorial rule of Francisco Franco, thus shaping the message behind the works of the socially and politically conscious dramatist. The Sleep of Reason, Buero Vallejo’s work chosen for this analysis, was published in 1970. Within Franco’s totalitarian state, censorship and repression were extremely widespread. The Falange (Franco’s political party), the military, and the Catholic Church all played a pivotal role in the areas of censorship, propaganda, and education. 

A juxtaposition of the political climate during Goya’s life and the life of the author being discussed here lends a clear picture of their similarities. It is well known through Goya’s previous works, such as his series of etchings entitled Disasters of War and his indictments of the conditions in the mental institutions through works such as The Madhouse, that during his time, the figure of Goya himself represented a non-conformist attitude toward the Spanish governments’ mistreatment of its citizens. Perhaps his earlier works were too time-specific with regards to the topics they portray. Either way, Buero Vallejo’s choice to entitle his play based on one of Goya’s famous Caprichos and also to center the entire work around the Black Paintings had to be for a particular reason. Every other aspect of this work of literature did not fall together by chance, as most great literature does not. There was something that the Black Paintings exhibited that even Goya’s earlier work failed to encapsulate. The Black Paintings, the capstone of Goya’s artistic career, convey disillusionment with the urgency, darkness, needed to convey the seriousness of the terror he felt towards the end of his life.

Antonio Buero Vallejo’s play, The Sleep of Reason, is an exploration into the life and profound mind of the sensational Spanish painter, Francisco Goya. Since no one can know the exact meanings behind Goya’s controversial Black Paintings, his last significant series of paintings, all discussion about them, including Buero Vallejo’s, are purely hypothetical answers.  But even still, whatever message the audience receives from viewing or reading The Sleep of Reason is a valid and true meaning, whether it was the intended vision of the creator of the piece or not. Even if Buero Vallejo’s sole purpose in writing this play was to speculate on the life of one of the greatest painters that Spain ever produced, this would be exceptional work. But there is more, much more. Buero Vallejo uses his liberty as an author to interpret and recreate parts of the past, inserting ekphrastic descriptions in the form of dialogue, in order to create a beautiful and cunning metaphor to express his own battle with a repressive government. His work is without a doubt “an expression of political, emotional, and artistic exile” (1) as Buero Vallejo scholar, Donald Gene Pace, puts it, witnessed in both eighteenth and twentieth century Spain. While his study provides some interesting insights into Buero Vallejo’s work, it neglects the great significance of the artwork within the painting.

The play The Sleep of Reason, set in the year 1823, portrays a few days in the life of Francisco Goya, who at this time resides in his country home, called La Quinta del Sordo, located in Spain directly across the river from the king’s palace. The play is sectioned into two acts, each beginning with a brief scene that shows King Ferdinand VII and his assistant conspiring against the Liberals. All of the remaining scenes depict Goya and those who interact with him within his house.

A connection between text and “life” at the diegetic level - the level of reality established in a literary piece - can be seen all throughout Buero Vallejo’s play, The Sleep of Reason; the first obvious evidence being that the entire piece is based on a few days within the last few years of the artist’s life. Although historical information provides the basic structure for the piece, Buero Vallejo, as an artist himself, takes liberties with the work to express concrete statements about parts of history that are for the most part unverifiable. Not only is this play an expression of Buero’s interpretation of Goya’s Black Paintings, his life, and relationships, but furthermore it stands as a complex work of connected imagery and ideas, some with hidden meanings, that express a desire for artistic freedom. It is precisely the ekphrastic element of the theatrical prose that allows for the communication of all of these distinct and complex ideas. José Manuel Hidalgo agrees that the use of actual projections of Goya’s paintings increase the audiences understanding of the fear that exists within the artwork (77). The images within the play, the physical ekphrastic elements, also operate to expose political and social injustices that exist in all time periods. As will be evident in the images of the paintings themselves, the horror these visual objects convey transcends time and space through their connection with basic human emotions. For Buero Vallejo, these paintings serve his agenda, functioning as criticism of the Franco dictatorship concealed within the guise of the historical and artistic value of Goya and his powerful Capricho and macabre Black Paintings. 

Here, in Buero Vallejo’s work, the use of ekphrasis is manifold, chosen so precisely by the author and used so explicitly that the literature and the physical works of art actually melt into one. After this immersion of the two, the literature cannot be as fully understood without the paintings. Ever since the publication of Buero Vallejo’s piece, the moment in which he gave it over to the interpretation of the public, and consequently added his play to the repertoire of interpretations of Goya’s work, the paintings and the play have become inextricably linked. An additional aspect which ties The Sleep of Reason to the artwork it describes exists within the actual syntax and form of the prose. David K. Herzberger declares that a “painterly metaphor” underlies the structure and also thematic elements of Buero Vallejo’s The Sleep of Reason (93). As the paintings exhibit hasty brushstrokes and muddied colors, the dialogue of the play mirrors these characteristics with choppy dialogue, dark scenes, and confusing sounds. These details are excellent examples of the previously described literary device of “pictorialism”. Furthermore, the extensive stage notes contain also any change of light, sound, or feeling that Buero Vallejo includes within the actual theatrical dialogue allow the reader of the play, or the audience, to develop a complete understanding of the situations taking place on stage. Carmen Chávez succinctly observes that “in this play, Buero ‘paints’ a scene with words and sounds” (62). Consequently, the inclusion of Goya’s paintings does not end with increasing the audiences’ perception of hidden messages about history, politics, and society. Goya’s art, his influence, extends itself through the very structure of the prose.      

For even someone who has only read the play, and not witnessed it in its full theatrical splendor, it is clear that The Sleep of Reason would be greatly lacking without the inclusion of the actual Black Paintings of Goya. Throughout the entire play, the paintings themselves play a central role. In fact, one could go so far as to say the Black Paintings themselves are the main character and all else serves to explain, interpret, and further their meaning. The action takes place in front of the paintings that are projected in larger-than-life size on the walls of the set. In several scenes, Goya adds to the paintings, touches them up in front of the audience. Without the paintings available for viewing by the audience, the meaning of the play would be lost. 

The quantity of comprehensive studies that have been completed on this specific work by Buero Vallejo and its connection to and interpretation of Goya’s Black Paintings is significantly lacking. However, the few that have been published specify very clearly how the paintings on the wall move the play along and give extra meaning, and even clarify, the dialog that takes place on the set. It is also necessary to mention that anyone viewing Buero Vallejo’s The Sleep of Reason during the time of the dictatorship of Franco could easily connect the struggle Goya encounters under King Ferdinand VII with the struggle Buero Vallejo endured under the censorship imposed by the Franco regime. 

This study, being concerned with the role that the ekphrastic inclusion of Goya’s art plays within the prose, will only go in depth into the paintings that most explicitly refer to the political struggle that both Goya and Buero Vallejo experienced. While all of the paintings depict a sense of fear, darkness, decay, solitude, and so on, there are a select few that exemplify the point of Buero Vallejo’s work. The three paintings that exude the greatest political metaphors, and also appear more than once within Buero Vallejo’s work have been titled by critics as “Saturn”, “The Holy Office”, and the “Witches’ Sabbath”. The comprehensive examination of these three works allows for a clear perception of the precise union of art and literature. The first painting of this discussion, “The Holy Office” makes its premier appearance in the play when Goya’s friend and doctor, Eugenio Arrieta, comes to visit and check on the old painter’s condition. Goya returns from his walk and announces that a platoon of Royal Volunteers have been installed on the bridge, probably to monitor the actions of the civilians.  Goya moans:

How do I know how long they’re going to stay! I can’t stand their criminal faces and stupid laughter […] This is my house, this is my country! I haven’t gone back to the palace, and old flat nose doesn’t like my paintings […] I in my house, unremembered, and painting what I feel like painting. But tell me what’s happening in Madrid. No, don’t say anything. Accusations, persecutions…Spain.  It’s not easy to paint. But I shall. Have you noticed the walls? Afraid? No. Sad, perhaps. No, not afraid (12).

The painting appears while this monologue from Goya is taking place. 

This large landscape style work depicts a long line of people descending down a path on a tree-covered mountain underneath an ominous, overcast sky. The diagonal line of what seems to be a procession, leads the viewer’s eye to three larger figures located in the bottom right corner. These figures appear to be the focus of this piece. Like all of the Black Paintings, the colors are muted and the brush strokes visible. However, the brushstrokes within this painting are not uniform in style which could depict a change of feeling within the artist. The brushstrokes of the background and landscape are much smoother and more refined than the extremely choppy strokes of the central figures’ clothing and features.

The initial feeling Buero Vallejo links to this painting is frustration. Goya exudes aggravation with the governing powers as he complains about the Royal Volunteers on the bridge, the fact that King Ferdinand VII does not approve of his paintings, and in general the state of affairs around the country. These statements by the artist, in conjunction with the painting, its three prominent figures staring down at Goya, reveal the anxiety he feels about being watched, being pent up within his own country. Previous scenes depict the king actually attempting to spy on Goya from his palace across the river. Surely the constant supervision of an authoritarian governing power would cause anyone to feel a sense of uneasiness, not only from the loss of personal privacy, but from the fear for their safety if the governing authority happens to see something that they do not like. 

Buero Vallejo makes his interpretation of this painting extremely clear through the comment by the character of Goya that follows within his continuing conversation with Doctor Arrieta. The artist views his own work and declares:

Don’t they resemble animals? They’re looking at us, not realizing how ugly they are. They’re looking at me…Exactly as they did when they denounced me to the Holy Inquisition. They looked at me like insects with their insect eyes because I’d painted a nude woman. They’re insects that believe themselves human. Ants around a fat queen…who is the big-bellied friar. They think it’s a beautiful day, but I can see the dark clouds. Yes. The sun is shining in the background. And there is the mountain, but they don’t see it. It’s a mountain I know is there.(13)


This statement made by Goya, follows traditional ekphrastic narrative to the degree that it describes the appearance of what is taking place within the boundaries of the painting, and also adds to it a story that extends beyond the purely visual. What strays from a normal ekphrastic narrative are the overtly political and historical assumptions that Buero Vallejo links to this piece of art and the overtly esperpentic depiction. Not only does Buero Vallejo assume, as most other examiners of Goya’s life do, that Goya was deeply affected by his encounters with the Spanish Inquisition, but also, underneath this statement he expresses his own frustrations with working under the ever-watchful eyes of a censoring government. Jesús Rubio Jiménez quotes Buero Vallejo, who in a 1985 interview confessed that The Sleep of Reason was “born out of his rebellion against a repressive situation” (613, my translation). Clearly sympathizing with Goya, Buero Vallejo voices his discontent by retelling the story of a tortured Spanish citizen of the past, unearthing images that may not have elicited a definite narrative in the mind of the public. For this reason, Buero Vallejo directs the viewer to the conclusion he desires, by putting words behind the dark mountain scene, by giving life, be it an oppressive, cowardly, destructive life, to the figures within Goya’s painting.

The main feeling experienced when viewing this painting is the ominous presence of those three figures, which, by their dress, seem to be in positions of higher authority. Priscilla E. Muller in her study on Goya’s Black Paintings describes it as a scene of the Inquisition itself (115). When this painting is projected onto the wall, no one, the audience included, is exempt from its critical eye. Buero Vallejo describes the grotesque features of the three prominent figures, as no longer human but bug-like. Their obese abdomens, oversized intensely forward-focused eyes set in darkened sockets, and blurry repulsive features exhibit the qualities inherent in esperpento. Buero emphasizes his point that these leaders can no longer possibly be normal humans, because if they were, they could not possibly bear to witness such repressive measures against their own people. He therefore conveys them as sub-humans, as he now considers them in light of their tyrannical actions against their own kind. Perhaps to Goya, and certainly to Buero Vallejo, the personality and objectives of the governing authorities were best described in terms of an infestation of insects, following the fat, ravenous leader in front who in Buero Vallejo’s terms is Francisco Franco. In his painting the people, monks or not, are displayed in a very dark, negative light, in the play they elaborate that these are no longer people with their ugly expressions but have morphed into bugs. Some critics have speculated, as Muller expresses, that these people were devil worshippers who typically convened in caves within the mountainous terrain of the Basque country of Spain (118). However, it appears that like Buero Vallejo, the majority of the interpretations agree that the three central figures are ecclesiastical in nature, expressing the author’s disgust of the Franco regime’s involvement with the Catholic Church. 

“The Holy Office” returns at the beginning of the third scene, along with two other of the Black Paintings. At first it is a bit unclear as to why this painting is included in the scene. Then the other two paintings disappear, and directly before Father Duaso, the king’s priest and head of the censorship of publications (28), appears, “The Holy Office” increases in size, quickly encouraging the audience to anticipate some event with inquisitorial undertones. Alongside the visit with the priest, “The Holy Office” grows in size, and the connection between the priestly orders and Goya’s work continue to become clearer, especially in conjunction with the dialogue presented and with the knowledge already expounded about the Inquisition in the earlier scenes.  Therefore, despite the fact that Duaso presents himself as a friend of the family, he undoubtedly, due to the negative light the religious authorities are painted in, has other interests in mind with his visit to Goya. The negative impression given of ecclesiastical leadership furthermore entices speculation into the authority of the Catholic Church itself and the purity of its motives. After Franco came to power in 1939, “Pope Pius XII sent his blessings to Franco, commending his ‘Catholic victory’” obviously forgetting that “half a million people had been slaughtered, many of them Basque Catholics” (Hodges 155) as a consequence of the violence of 1936. These conflicting facts undoubtedly increased Buero Vallejo’s mistrust and repugnance towards the Franco-Catholic Church alliance which he sought to communicate through the connection with the ecclesiastical images in Goya’s paintings.

The presence of the line of followers trailing behind the three central figures in the painting is elucidated upon by an event that takes place within this scene. Vandals come and paint a cross with the word “heretic” on Goya’s door. To this he responds, “Blessed country, heaven’s favorite. Even the criminals work for the Inquisition” (30). We find out shortly after that King Ferdinand VII has actually sent Father Duaso there to demand that the painter humble himself before the king and ask for forgiveness. Goya exclaims, “Divine right, you say, paisano?  Submission to the royal authority even when it’s unjust? Church doctrine?” (31). It is highly probable, that statements such as this one are outcries of Buero Vallejo against the tenants of Franco’s rule, which was decisively religious in doctrine. The painting “The Holy Office” serves as a mechanism by which Buero Vallejo explains his own feelings through Goya’s own reflections on his own painting. The inclusion of the painting begs an interpretation out of the audience, so that after formulating some ideas, the viewer then has a framework to connect the art with the action of the play. Buero Vallejo utilizes this necessity for an explanation as a conduit for his own motives. This painting bespeaks the religious tyranny, the social repression in place during Franco’s rule. The society of Spain, forced to obey a dictator, who not unlike an absolute monarch, declared his right to rule was given from God himself, witnessed many injustices without reprieve. 

Some people may have thought there was no way to combat an oppressive authority, but both Goya, as shown through the perspective of Buero Vallejo, and Buero Vallejo himself, were not of that mindset. Buero Vallejo projects onto this painting an indictment of the everyday Spanish citizen’s complacency. Neither one of these men could allow themselves to follow a leader who committed atrocities against his own people, who forced his authority upon them at all costs. The crowd dawdling behind the three principal figures represent those who merely follow authority without questioning, even in the face of severe injustice.

As Goya, once again argues with Leocadia he exclaims:


The king is a monster, and his advisors-jackals he urges on not just to rob but to kill. Protected by the law and the blessings of our prelates! Strip a liberal of his property? He’d better not complain or he’ll get the gallows. We’re not Spaniards but demons, and they’re the angels who are fighting against Hell. I get even. I paint them with the faces of witches and devil worshippers in their rites that they call the Celebration of the Kingdom. (25)


In this same vein, the painting entitled, “Saturn”,  ( emanates with pathos of what could be called “political cannibalism”. When a governing authority does not look out for his/her own people, the effect is quite similar to a species consuming its fellow being. The actual image depicts an enormous monster-like being with long shaggy hair and bulging eyes gnawing on the bloody arm of an already decapitated human body. The brush strokes are again very choppy and rough, connoting haste and lending to the fear inherent in the subject. The piece itself references a tale in which the god Saturn devours his own child. Expanding on this idea, Buero Vallejo places this ancient tale within the context of King Ferdinand’s oppressive monarchy, and additionally places his entire piece, The Sleep of Reason within the context of the Franco dictatorship. This painting is the second to appear on stage, its only predecessor being the “Witches’ Sabbath”. The painting emerges when Doctor Arrieta asks Goya’s maid and probable lover, Leocadia, “What’s wrong with Don Francisco?” (8). While these two characters continue to discuss Goya’s physical ailments, the presence of the paintings, both the “Witches’ Sabbath” in conjunction with “Saturn”, entice the audience into further speculation about the actual cause of the painter’s deteriorating condition. Neither painting seems to be about physical illness, but more to do with power and corruption. 

“Saturn” reappears during this same act when Goya takes his spyglass and looks toward the palace. After his maid, Leocadia communicates to him that the Royal Volunteers are rounding up the liberals, Goya responds, “Liberal, yes. But they’re not going to hang all the liberals!” (19). The presence of this painting contradicts Goya’s statement. The painting asserts that it is quite possible for the larger, stronger power to consume all those underneath it. Although the character of Goya seems slightly optimistic with his statement, most likely he is actually just suffering from denial. His words also serve as a plea to the man with the power across the river to end this continuing torment. Buero Vallejo, having seen the disasters within his country during the dictatorship of Franco, understands that it is quite possible to be consumed by a repressive power. Another element that emerges during the discussion of this painting within the play is Goya’s predisposition toward denying the enormous reality of the situation. Not only with this piece, but as an underlying current throughout the play, horrible images such as this aggressively confront Goya within his own house to such a degree that he is forced to discard his denial and view the atrocities in Spain as they really are. Obviously this realization is meant for more than just Goya, a figure of the past. Through the message of the play as a whole, Buero Vallejo endeavors to communicate to the Spanish public the need for them to shed all their blinding thoughts of denial before their situation, like Goya’s, becomes all too severe. 

Prior to the emergence of the murderous image of “Saturn”, Goya actually laments that there are fears he may be killed, in his own country (18). Yet even at this point in the play, Goya refuses to admit the extremity of the atrocities that are being committed in Spain. During this same scene, Goya argues with Leocadia, defiantly proclaiming that their child is not afraid (20).  As Leocadia argues the opposite, the painting “Saturn” increases in size. While the surface argument seems to be about whether the child is afraid of Goya’s images, the continued growth of the painting suggests more than just the fear of a child. The image connotes a sense of growing fear within Goya and arguably over the whole country. This theme of death at the hands of one’s own political leader relates considerably with Buero Vallejo’s own past, as he was extremely close to being executed at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Through Goya’s own fears, Buero Vallejo reminds the viewer that these kinds of atrocities do occur, and have occurred within their own society of Spain. Typical to the esperpentic tradition, Buero Vallejo utilizes an extremely exaggerated image of a monstrous form chewing on seemingly more human form to convey his point. 

At the end of the scene, all that remains on stage for Goya to contemplate is the giant head of Saturn devouring his own child. The frightful appearance of the painting would make anyone uncomfortable in its presence, which is seemingly Buero Vallejo’s desire. Not a single one of the Black Paintings would allow a viewer to be at peace. Buero Vallejo takes advantage of this inherent quality of this set of paintings in order to make his audience uncomfortable and hopefully startle them into opening their eyes wider to view the world, their closed off world of Spain, with a critical eye.

“Saturn” appears for the final time, following a loud banging noise that awakes Goya up from a terrible nightmare. The noise turns out to be a brigade of five royal volunteers who beat Goya into submission, dress him up in a “sambenito” (the penitent’s gown of the Inquisition), bind his hands with a cross between them, rape Leocadia, and pillage his house. The juxtaposition of the painting with the text articulates the many ways in which an authority can devour those of lesser power. As the royal volunteers leave, they actually view the painting “Saturn” and one of them ridicules it with a face of mock terror emphasizing their connection with the authoritarian powers. The painting the “Witches’ Sabbath” appears at the same time as the “Saturn”. However, when “Saturn” and the other painting fade away, the “Witches’ Sabbath” remains and grows. (

The “Witches’ Sabbath” seen by this study, and the majority of studies on Goya’s Black Paintings, as the most prominent painting of the group, was also given special attention by Buero Vallejo within his play. Although it is not the most projected painting, Buero uses its presence judiciously to make a point. In his in depth study of the Black Painting’s presence in The Sleep of Reason, John Dowling observes that although Buero does not offer direct interpretation of this painting through the dialogue of the characters, he does decide to begin and end the action in the villa with it. Directly following the initial scene depicting the tyrannical King Ferdinand VII, the
“Witches’ Sabbath” appears on the wall, the painting automatically connecting with the political scene prior as it bridges the world of the monarch with the world of Goya. Also, the dialogue that does take place in front of the painting clearly reveals that Buero Vallejo sees this painting as the Spanish society of 1823, “a world of darkness and terror that is at the opposite extreme form the optimism of the Enlightenment” (453). 

The first painting to be seen by the audience of the play is the “Witches’ Sabbath” (6).  This painting is characterized by a large, grotesque crowd of people, surrounding the central figure a large black goat. While its premiere presence on stage is brief, it sets the tone for the rest of the paintings and also the dialogue and actions that are to take place. Doctor Arrieta says, “The devil, the witches … He doesn’t believe in witches, señora. These paintings may be frightening to you, but they’re the work of a satirist, not a madman” (9). Through his statement, the doctor is alluding to the idea that the images in the paintings are real. They are not merely imagined in the painter’s mind. Goya is drawing from real life to create his art, which is ironically, also what Buero Vallejo is doing as he writes his play both on the real life of Goya and also metaphorically on the real condition of Spain under Franco. This painting does not appear again until the second act. Once again it serves the purpose of setting the stage, this time being the first, along with two other paintings, to be depicted and set the mood for the beginning of the action within Goya’s house. While the other two paintings are spoken of more obviously, this painting remains, endures almost simply as a ghastly reminder of the present state of Spain.  During another visit with the Doctor Arrieta, Goya, once again influenced by his own paintings laments:


Pity us all! Why do we go on living? To paint like that? These walls are oozing fear. Yes, fear! Art cannot be good if it is born from fear. Against fear? And who triumphs in those paintings-courage or fear? I delighted in painting beautiful forms, and these are filled with maggots. I drank in all the colors of the world, and on these walls darkness is draining away the color. I loved reason and I paint witches…and the devil-worshipper laughing between them. Well, someone is laughing. It’s all too horrible for no one to have a good laugh. I’m the puppet one of them is holding. They’ll cut the thread, and the devil’s priest will laugh at the rag of flesh whose name was Goya” (45). 


The “Witches’ Sabbath” is not present when this monologue is said but the viewer, having been accosted by this image already, will by now conjure it up on their own at hearing what Goya has said. This painting appears during the aforementioned scene with the brigade of royal volunteers. After all of the other paintings have faded away, the “Witches’ Sabbath” grows in size and remains throughout the entire final scene. All of the characters disappear, as they take Goya away during his forced exit from his house out of the fear that he may be killed the next time the brigade returns. Buero Vallejo’s repeated use of the word fear highlight his negative opinion of its use as a form of control. In fact, this whole monologue of Goya could easily be interpreted as ideas closely related to those of the author himself. Due to the oppression of the Franco regime, Buero Vallejo was hindered and forced to focus on ways to subvert the authority, instead of being able to devote all of his time to the creation of beautiful literary art (although, as one can see, he excelled in this latter endeavor despite the obstacles put forth by the government).

As the stage light fades and the curtain is about to fall, the “Witches’ Sabbath” continues to “shine through the deafening din” (64), imprinting its ominous presence and ghastly scene into the minds of the viewers as they leave the theater. Through its permanence, Buero Vallejo uses this final piece as a stark reminder of the reality that will endure until the Spanish society takes notice of it.

Just as the paintings incorporated into the drama serve as ekphrastic examples, there remains one final ekphrastic as well as completely esperpentic example that if neglected within this study would be cause for lament. One of Goya’s famous Caprichos entitled The Sleep of Reason, aforementioned as the turning point in the thematic element of Goya’s art, was chosen by Buero Vallejo to be the title of his piece. The reference to this crucial piece does not end with a mere link to the name of the play. Without a doubt, the most esperpentic and arguably the most ekphrastic representation within the entire play exists within one scene in which Goya, napping on the stage, is visited by various forms in his dream. The complete visual element presented by Buero Vallejo within this scene exactly mimics the visual created by Goya in his etching, the precise body position of Goya as he sits, head on the desk, the look and size of the animals.  However, with the tool of ekphrasis in his power, Buero Vallejo gives life to the image, inserting sounds, dialogue, color, and light to the black and white image. He brings what was once a static image of the past, into the forefront of reality.

The addition of the ekphrastic element to the long standing tradition of esperpento, undoubtedly creates an effect of profound significance. Buero Vallejo does not merely reference the history of Goya or the works he created. He does not only situate a painting on the wall within the scene of his play in hopes that someone may notice it and draw a connection. Buero Vallejo directly seizes Goya, his legendary life and art work, and reinserts it directly into the present through an ekphrastic literary theatrical representation. He integrates his own interpretations of the life and work of Goya into precise historical events, in order to draw out a parallel between this past he has created and the present of which the audience exists within. In other words, Buero Vallejo uses the connotations already connected with the figure of Goya as a strategy to increase the significance of his ekphrastic production. Without this defining element, the specificities of Francisco Goya fused within a contemporary piece of literature, the words would have a noticeably lesser impact. In fact, without this emphasis, the political, historical, social, and even literal value would be diminished. 

From the very first syllable of his piece and with each that follows, Buero Vallejo sought to paint with words that which Goya had already painted with his brush. He aligned his mind and message with Francisco Goya, a man who lived more than a hundred years prior, continuing in the esperpentic tradition in order to depict the same horror and disillusionment that he felt, the same disdain for his repressive contemporary, yet still Spanish, society.

At the very end of The Sleep of Reason, as the painter is being forced to leave his home, he takes one last moment to pause and give his paintings a farewell look. As the stage directions specify, “Contemplating them, a strange smile calms his face” (63). This smile and calm is perplexing within the context of the violence and chaos witnessed within all of the prior scenes. Buero Vallejo inserts this detail as a suggestion of hope for the audience. Although Goya will no longer be able to resist the repression of King Ferdinand VII’s government, his paintings will remain as a testament to the horrors of the Spanish society. For this reason, he turns and looks at his paintings with fondness for they will tell the story that he may no longer be able to tell. In this same vein, Buero Vallejo’s inclusion of hope at the end of his work serves as a reminder that although the situation under Franco may seem bleak, the fact that society is becoming aware of the ugliness of the present state of Spain, through art such as the play The Sleep of Reason, there is potential for change. This one glance by Goya at the very end, the place where a vision of hope can be seen, also brings the focus back to the paintings themselves. In this precise moment, the close relationship between the text (the theatrical performance) and the visual art can be felt tremendously. Without the actual presence of the paintings, this glance would not be possible, and the allusion of hope would not be achieved.

Where then, within these works is the line between the literary and the visual? Buero Vallejo has effectively blurred that line. Through this blurring of the definitive boundaries between one form of art and message making, a more powerful piece is born. Elaborating on the original metaphor of painting as the pregnant moment; it can be defined that the painting is the pregnant moment, the literature is the action of birth, and both of these elements together bring into the world a new creation, one that has more power than either form of art making in isolation. The concept described here deserves even further in-depth study so that its ability to communicate ideas and convey meaning can continue to be developed until a new field of art emerges into the limelight, the literal and visual phenomenon that is ekphrasis.





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