Credit: Stan Weinstein

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Located in the Atlantic Ocean a thousand kilometers from the Iberian peninsula, the Canary Islands have historically been Spain’s Siberia, a place of domestic exile so far away it might as well be another country. Various Spanish governments have sent various troublemakers to the islands to keep them from causing problems, often in vain. In 1936, the Spanish Republican government ordered to the Canaries a young military officer who would later overthrow it, one Francisco Franco.

Canarian playwright Irma Correa’s new play, debuting at GALA Hispanic Theatre, focuses on another temporary denizen of the islands, the Basque author Miguel de Unamuno. Sent there by an earlier Spanish dictator a decade before Franco’s banishment, Unamuno had upset then-caudillo Miguel Primo de Rivera with his critiques of the monarchy and championing of the Basque language. 

El viejo, el joven y el mar (The old man, the youth and the sea) is a well crafted, well acted, talky play that fleshes out its subjects without quite demonstrating why we should care to see them fleshed out. The implicit reason for focusing on this obscure (for non-Spanish audiences) period of history is to foreshadow another, slightly less obscure period, the Franco dictatorship. Unamuno, a Generation of  ’98 author whose not particularly radical writings got him a not particularly unpleasant stay on a tropical beach, might not be the most sympathetic dissident, except as a stand-in for a later generation of intellectuals who suffered far rougher treatment under a far more brutal regime.

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Standing in for the Spanish people in the play is Cisco, an illiterate fisherman employed to clean the bungalow where Unamuno is under house arrest who gradually becomes an object of the writer’s attention not so much out of friendship but boredom. Played with salt-of-the-earth earnestness by Víctor de la Fuente, Cisco voices and acts out his dreams of being a whale hunter and seeing the world beyond his isolated home. Far from being Unamuno’s foil, Cisco takes the starring role. Pacing with nervous energy around furniture in the spare, plywood set, de la Fuente conjures a man whose ambitions are frustrated by the social structures under which he was born, understands this, and yet is too paralyzed by his deference to those structures to do anything about it.

The whole play would be one long conversation between the two characters were it not for interruptions by two others. An army general shows up to periodically threaten Unamuno; his bragging about seeing combat in Morocco, which would later serve as the launch pad for Franco’s revolt, makes clear his role in the play’s central metaphor. And a subplot involving an Argentine love interest with an escape plan evaporates as soon as it’s introduced due to Unamuno’s lack of interest in both. The fact that both characters are so underutilized is a shame, given the talent of the actors playing them, GALA regulars Delbis Cardona and Luz Nicolás

Argentine actor Horacio Peña plays Unamuno with a bemused detachment that belies his fixation on Cisco, which develops in a series of increasingly heated interrogations about the younger man’s beliefs, dreams, and personal shortcomings. The banter is meant to represent Unamuno’s concept of intrahistoria, the historical importance he attributed to everyday life. What it demonstrates instead is Unamuno’s comfortable position in the stratified system he only tepidly critiques, both in the play and real life. 

Unamuno’s virtue, we are told, is in his moderation. A liberal who came of age in the period of Spanish imperial decline, he came to be a critic of militarism late in life. He was also, famously, a fencewalker, who also criticized the Republic for its radical excesses and initially welcomed Franco’s coup, only to die under detention in its aftermath.

Director José Luis Arellano treats Unamuno as a straightforward, if slightly jerky, hero and premature anti-fascist. But a different interpretation could just as easily have him personify the moral failings of Spain’s intellectuals leading up to the dictatorship. Unamuno’s patronizing attitude toward Cisco reflects the attitude of a whole class of elites who felt entitled to lead the unwashed masses they saw as lacking agency of their own: a “sack of potatoes,” as Marx called the peasants. If those would-be leaders failed to recognize the danger of fascism before it was too late, they only had themselves to blame.

3333 14th St. NW. $30–$48. (202) 234-7174. en.galatheatre.org.