During the forty-year-long regime of Francisco Franco following the Spanish Civil War, the history of the losing side, including the horrors committed against Republicans, their family members, and their supporters, was suppressed at the institutional level. Unsurprisingly, the regime’s sustained distortion of history had an impact on collective memory among the Spanish public. This phenomenon was exacerbated after Franco’s death in 1975 by the pacto del olvido of the Transition, leading to what is often referred to as a national “amnesia” about the civil war and dictatorship that spanned generations (Resina 227). Since the turn of the century, however, there has been a renewed interest in uncovering Spain’s hidden history at the national level. In 2000, the “Asociación para la Recuperación de Memoria Histórica” (ARMH) was formed with the belief that there is no possibility of moving beyond the conflict without the intentional retrieval of memory surrounding the countless untold tragedies of this time period. Reflecting this viewpoint, Spain’s government passed the “Ley de Memoria Histórica” in 2007.[1] Alongside these efforts, many Spaniards have begun exhuming the mass graves littered across Spain, which contain the remains of an estimated 125,000 people (Brito and Wilson) lost to the conflict.

The proliferation of exhumations has given the Civil War new prominence in nearly all aspects of Spanish public life. Samuel Amago and Carlos Jérez-Farrán claim that “[t]he current interest in exhuming a national past, physically, symbolically, and psychologically, [is] the way modern Spaniards have found to refill a ‘depleted fund of collective memory’ and to arrive at truths deeper than those offered by an epoch devoid of history” (5). As the headlines in newspapers have forced the Spanish public to consider fresh accounts of bodies discovered almost daily, numerous works of visual and performing art, literature, and film seeking to contribute to the national conversation about the Civil War have emerged.[2] Bringing the collective traumatic memory of the war to the public, all that is written, created, and performed in response to the ongoing exhumations have the capacity to reshape Spanish identity: “Memory in contemporary Spain is a major social, political, and moral issue that is leading to more than simply redefining the past. It is at the heart of contemporary redefinitions of nationhood, civil society, citizenship, and democracy” (Fernández de Mata 280).

The aim of this study is therefore to explore the role that the performing arts play in the recuperation of historical memory. We will consider how three contemporary examples, two songs and one play, respond to the discoveries of mass graves and thus contribute to society’s understanding of—and healing from—its past. We explore the similarities in approach to recuperating historical memory in NN12 (2012) by Granadian playwright Gracia Morales and two songs from the album 45 cerebros y 1 corazón (2018) produced by Catalan singer-songwriter María Arnal and guitarist Marcel Bagés: the title track and “Desmemoria.” Morales’ play traces the process of identification of the anonymous remains (nomen nescio or ‘NN’) unearthed in a mass grave. The album 45 cerebros y 1 corazón explores a variety of social issues through songs written in both Spanish and Catalan. While all songs on this album are comprometidas,[3] “45 cerebros y 1 corazón” and “Desmemoria” explicitly deal with the themes of historical memory, amnesia, myth, and trauma connected to the Spanish Civil War. In choosing a song that responds to exhumations of mass graves as the title track for their album, Arnal and Bagés distinguish this as the overriding social issue in Spanish society today. As we shall see, all three works analyzed in the following pages respond to the exhumations in Spain by condemning the amnesia of the twentieth century.

Jorge Avilés Diz identifies two predominant postures towards the Civil War that have dominated thinking about historical memory in Spain since Franco’s death. The first suggests that Spain’s Transition government willfully chose amnesia and silence as the best option for preventing another outbreak of violence during the politically delicate time period of the transition to democracy (73). This approach ultimately led to “lo que algunos críticos han dado en llamar un ‘proceso de mitologización’ de la guerra civil” (Avilés Diz, “Fosas” 74), in which its memory belongs to a distant past, wholly disconnected from the present. Joan Resina describes this approach as, “the Transition’s strategy to historicize the Civil War and its aftermath. By ‘historicize’ I mean here to degrade memories into events that no longer claim the attention, much less arouse the passions, of anyone with the exception of professional historians—events that one is done with” (223). Yet the only way to “mythologize” the war so that it ceases to evoke an emotional response requires the suppression of those historical events that, owing to their horrific nature, are inherently filled with pathos. Cristina Moreiras uses the term desmemoria to refer to the consequences of this selective “historicizing” of the war, which she argues amounts to “la borradura de un pasado que se empeña en perderse en una lógica de la desmemoria y que, desde la oficialidad institucional, se instala en el colectivo nacional bajo la premisa de una imperativa necesidad de abrirse a una nueva realidad que nada tiene que ver con la anterior” (75).

Considering the arguments of contemporary scholars such as Moreiras and Resina, Avilés Diz identifies the second posture towards the Civil War and Franco dictatorship as one that views this history, “no como hacia un pasado lejano que es necesario olvidar, sino como una herida abierta cuyas consecuencias perviven, aún de forma inconsciente como trauma en la sociedad” (Avilés Diz, “Fosas” 74). Carmen Moreno-Nuño describes these two postures towards Spanish historical memory as an opposition between forgetting and remembering, “olvido y recuerdo,” which she argues formed “el eje central sobre el que gira la literatura sobre la guerra de los años ochenta y noventa, siendo ambas ideas […] una dialéctica entre dos modos de […] representación de la Guerra Civil: el mito y el trauma” (14). The artists of the twenty-first century studied in this article, however, treat these opposing modes of representation as interdependent insofar as they posit that we must first remember before we can mythologize, and that the process of authentic mythologizing—that is to say, telling the whole story of our painful past—is precisely how we heal trauma. As Claudia Welz argues, “Speech and silence, remembrance and oblivion may alternate – and yet the latter cannot occur without the former. One may wish to remember and bear witness in order to be able to move on and forget” (125).

Reflecting the nature of suppressed traumatic memories, Moreiras argues that “[l]os residuos que no se quieren pensar, […] emergen entonces, siempre desde el margen de la historia, como zonas de tensión que producen quiebras en la producción cultural de los 80 y comienzos de los 90” (105). Moreiras draws attention here to an important fact about the pacto del olvido: these memories were never truly forgotten because, as Resina reminds us, “individuals cannot forget on command” (227). It is more accurate therefore to note that these memories survived, but they emerged in isolated and underground spaces, never penetrating the mainstream Spanish culture. Since the end of the war, there have been numerous and continual efforts to preserve memory and demand justice in cultural and artistic productions, they have just remained at the margin of history as Moreiras describes it (105) until very recently. Avilés Diz tells us that:

En ese sentido sería justo reconocer que 75 años después de su finalización, el conflicto armado español nunca ha dejado de ser una constante fuente de inspiración para los artistas y narradores que se han aproximado a él tratando de reflexionar en las causas que lo provocaron y en la pervivencia de sus consecuencias. (Avilés Diz, “Trilogía” 339–40)

Germán Labrador Méndez's 2016 study of countercultural movements in Spain from 1968 to 1986, Culpables por la literatura, challenges the idea that Spanish society participated in a uniform, national forgetting during the Transition, suggesting that these marginalized artistic endeavors to preserve memory represent the fruits of true democracy: “En los silencios y elipsis del mito de la transición, habitan los sueños de la ciudadanía democrática” (Intro). Speaking from the field of historiography, Helen Graham similarly insists that it is incorrect to claim that the history of the Civil War and dictatorship was forgotten during the Transition. On the contrary, it was during this time period that historians were finally able to access documents previously unavailable to them, leading to “an explosion of detailed empirical works of history that have minutely reconstructed the repression on a province-by-province basis” during the 80s (Graham 323). Indeed, it is the discoveries of such historians that inspire many contemporary artistic productions dealing with trauma and memory.

Born in the 70s and 80s, Morales, Arnal and Bagés belong to what is generally referred to as the “generation of the grandchildren” of the Spanish Civil War. Avilés Diz notes that it is principally this younger generation that is dedicated to recuperating memory of the war, “Partiendo de la idea de que una nación que no recuerda su pasado está condenada a repetirlo” (Avilés Diz, “Fosas” 74). Critics of the historical memory movement often point out that, as grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the generation that lived through the war and early decades of the dictatorship, these artists did not experience the trauma of the Civil War directly. The logic contends that they therefore could not possibly suffer any psychological repercussions that need resolving. Yet numerous studies have shown the generational legacy of trauma (DeAngelis). Furthermore, the fact that the grandchildren of Spain’s Civil War have no direct participation in the conflict and its consequences, including the brainwashing of the Franco regime, might actually leave this generation better equipped to address the worst of Spain’s recent history. In her foundational study in trauma theory, Unclaimed Experience, Cathy Caruth reminds us that, “Sometimes a traumatic address comes from our past. Sometimes it comes from pasts we do not know. […] And sometimes our language must find its way through the language of others we will never understand” (139).

In “45 cerebros y 1 corazón,” Arnal describes the nameless bodies in mass graves as, “Aquí sin mito ni rito / Abandonados al tiempo” (Arnal and Bagés, “Lyrics to “45 cerebros y 1 corazón”). Recognizing the unprocessed state of these bodies, the phrase “sin mito ni rito” condemns the society that ignores them, revealing the detrimental effects of unresolved traumatic memory on history itself. The Transition may have attempted to mythologize the war generally, but the anonymous victims of the mass graves have no such myth to tell their history. Without a story to make sense of the past and a ritual to process the pain associated with it, traumatic history remains dysfunctional. In telling the stories of the anonymous bodies, however, these artists restore a sense of myth and ritual to the deceased. In so doing, society as a whole is invited to participate in the public mourning of its forgotten victims. We contend that this process not only helps to recuperate historical memory, but that it offers Spanish society an opportunity for healing that it was so long denied.

The reason that these three particular works were chosen for comparative analysis is twofold. First, compared to much of the cultural productions portraying Francoist oppression, which largely takes a realist approach to portraying memory of this time period, these three works portray the non-linear, ruptured, and fragmentary nature of traumatic memory. Second, they explicitly respond to news accounts of exhumations of mass graves and thus offer insight into how the grandchildren of the war are processing these numerous and shocking discoveries. In an interview in 2018 with El País, Arnal describes her reaction to news of the discovery of forty-five brains and one heart (“Entrevista” 00:26-2:07), which had been extraordinarily well preserved through the process of saponification by the unique conditions of the soil where they were buried in La Pedraja, Burgos (“Un corazón y 45 cerebros rojos”). Struck by the taboo that continues to surround the topic of Francoist mass graves, Arnal chose to bring public attention to this remarkable and symbolic discovery through the title of her album (“Entrevista” 01:15-1:43). Similarly, Morales developed the idea for NN12 after reading “La voz de los huesos,” an article written by Leila Guerriero in El País Semanal about unearthing the disappeared in mass graves from Argentina’s Dirty War. Struck by the similarities with ongoing exhumations in Spain, Morales explains that “una imagen se apoderó de mí: una de esas personas muertas asistía al proceso de descubrimiento de su identidad a través de sus restos óseos” (Ortega Dolz).

Trauma and the fragmentation of subjective experience

Fernández de Mata, who has worked to collect testimonies of the Civil War, is often confronted with “the difficulty experienced by the victims to use words in their narration” (282), which makes it impossible for them to develop a coherent understanding of their own past. The cognitive disruption of trauma can be physically observed in the brain.[4] Amy Green explains that, when experiencing a traumatic event, “Broca’s area, the part of the brain that controls language, shuts down, causing the trauma to be stored as sensations and images in the right cerebral hemisphere, and not readily communicated through language” (15). As a result, initial memories of trauma are often limited to physical sensations and emotions. Reflecting this phenomenon, the ghost of NN12 struggles to give her own testimony, describing her execution in this sensory manner: “Las pisadas sonaban a hojas secas. El tacto del sol que se colaba a veces. El olor a tierra mojada” (Scene 12).

Given the difficulty the brain faces in attaching words to memory while undergoing a traumatic event, one of the key impacts of trauma is that it “fragments experience and prevents any totalization into a whole” (Levine 17). It is a human need to understand the past as a meaningful and coherent narrative, but the extremely disruptive nature of trauma makes it very difficult to assign meaning to one’s traumatic experiences. “In suffering, the sense of the world disappears; we can no longer take its meaning for granted, as we did before” (Levine 44). Given that the subjective experience of trauma is one of chaos and fragmentation, Stephen Levine argues that “what we need to find then are the forms that can hold fragmentation” (127). For this purpose, it is important to recognize the performative nature of trauma, which makes music and drama particularly effective artistic forms to portray the subjective experience of traumatic memory. In Trauma-Tragedy, Patrick Duggan argues that “trauma requires ‘acting out’ in order to ‘work through’” (5). Levine's approach to expressive arts therapy described in Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy argues the same.

Through their performative works, Morales, Arnal, and Bagés represent the fragmentation of Spain’s traumatic historical memory, mirroring the subjective experience of trauma survivors and giving their suffering an artistic form. This, in turn, helps the audience identify with the victims of the war and dictatorship, enabling them to better process the similarly fragmented discoveries of Spain’s untold history found in the mass graves, which continually make the front pages of Spanish newspapers. This representation of trauma’s fragmentation of experience distinguishes these artists from the majority of works dealing with trauma from the Spanish Civil War. For example, many theatrical works taking on this subject have done so with a primarily realist mode of representation. The perspective is as if through a camera lens, or from an objective, emotionally unaffected observer. We see a realist approach in José Martín Recuerda's La llanura (1947), Fernando Fernán Gómez's Las bicicletas son para el verano (1977), and arguably Buero Vallejo's entire body of work written between 1947-1998. While Buero’s most iconic Civil War tragedy, El tragaluz (1967), is experimental in that it moves back and forth between the past and the future, the presence of Él and Ella quite explicitly functions to encourage an objective, impartial, camera-lens-style observation of events of a distant past from the perspective of the future. Since the turn of the century, however, there has been greater experimentation with approaches to traumatic memory of the Civil War.[5] Most notably, Laila Ripoll’s collection of three memory plays, La trilogía de la memoria (2013) portrays the disjointed fragmentation of the subjective experience of trauma. Nevertheless, the use of realism continues to thrive as a relevant mode of addressing traumatic memory in contemporary Spanish theater as seen in the example of Alberto Conejero's La piedra oscura (2013).

While realism as a literary style is less relevant to the analysis of music, a parallel trend of breaking away from more traditional modes of expression can be seen in the songs of Arnal and Bagés. Their approach to the discovery of forty-five hearts and one brain breaks with the singer-songwriter tradition born towards the end of the dictatorship. During those years, the musical interpretation of the Spanish Civil War and dictatorship set the poetry of traditional authors such as Miguel Hernández, Gabriel Celaya, Blas de Otero, and Antonio Machado, among others, to music (Gómez Sobrino 106–07). Arnal and Bagés present a new approach to the consequences of the war and their personal experience with the emotions provoked by the discovery, eighty years later, of human remains by highlighting the traumatic fragmentation of this experience. In “45 cerebros y 1 corazón,” the disjointed movements of the song create an effect of being transported into the stream of consciousness of the forty-five brains discovered.

The portrayal of the subjective experience of posttraumatic stress is of particular use to this younger generation of artists who wish to de-mythologize the Civil War, restoring its here-and-now relevance to the descendants of those who fought in it. Caruth argues that posttraumatic stress “reflects the direct imposition on the mind of the unavoidable reality of horrific events, the taking over of the mind, psychologically and neurobiologically, by an event that it cannot control,” (59), which suggests that a realist portrayal of trauma is, in actuality, quite unrealistic, serving only to create greater emotional distance between the people and their history. In NN12, Morales also portrays the subjective experience of traumatic memory through its characteristic fragmentation of experience. For example, time jumps forward in an irregular manner. The Forense begins each recording of her observations with the date. Yet at various moments in the play, the dates do not match the spectator’s experience of time. At the beginning of Scene 6, for example, the Forense records a date of May 20. Yet later in the same scene, even as there has been no interruption in the action of the play, the Forense records a date of May 25. This causes the spectator to experience the disorientation and self-doubt characteristic of posttraumatic stress.

Most notably, NN12’s speech is fragmented. Morales tells us through her stage directions that “es como si el habla estuviera rota y tuviera que ir recomponiéndose” (Scene 3). Her speech is most fragmented when she attempts to narrate her most traumatic experiences. When she describes giving birth to her son, for example, her sentence is broken up with abrupt pauses: “tu bebé / sale / está fuera ya” (Scene 12). When she explains what it is like for the dead underground, her words come out in a stutter: “La tierra vive. Llena de / de / de historias” (Scene 3). NN12 describes the other dead bodies in the mass grave as: “Voces. Voces rotas entre la tierra” (Scene 3). Their history is also presented in a fragmented and incongruent fashion. NN12 describes a man whose hand was cut off, another who remembers his pregnant wife, and a young girl concerned for her dad who will be looking for her. NN12’s description of these anonymous dead reflects the incoherent nature of traumatic experience, which initially defies any attempt to make sense of it: “Palabras ahí, ahí abajo. Con desesperación a veces. Con / con / miedo. Con rabia también” (Scene 3).

Arnal and Bagés work through several highly contrasted movements over the course of “45 cerebros y 1 corazón.” More than once, it seems to have ended, only to begin again, which imitates the repeated resurfacing of difficult memories in trauma survivors. The song begins with the melodic rhythms of modern rock on the guitar accompanied by singing reminiscent of flamenco. The guitar then stops and we are left with Arnal’s drawn out acapella voice, which manifests the silence repeatedly referenced in the lyrics. The song then returns to the original flamenco-infused rock, followed by a segment featuring a more traditional waltz rhythm. The natural flow of this movement, however, is abruptly interrupted again by a segment featuring Arnal’s solo voice. She speaks for death personified in a near whisper alongside fragmented and atonal notes plucked on the guitar. This segment finally works itself out in the return of the melodic flow and rhythm of the song’s beginning, ending on Arnal’s voice as she extends the final “silencio.” The overall effect of these fragmented movements evokes a chaotic blend of traditional folkloric rhythms, modern rock, and the suspended dissonance of postmodernity. In this way, the song’s form mirrors the disjointed nature of traumatic memory itself as it attempts to establish a coherent understanding of the forty-five lives lost, their shared experience symbolized in the one heart discovered.

Through the lyrics of “45 cerebros y 1 corazón,” we are invited to participate in the olvido and desmemoria of these brains and heart whose bodies have long since decayed. They transport us as listeners directly into the painful experience of finding human remains, “cual cuerpos de faraón,” killed during the war and thrown into the mass graves “sin mito ni rito” (Arnal and Bagés, “Lyrics to “45 cerebros y 1 corazón”). Arnál and Bagés’ fragmented song represents an approach to traumatic history unlike other musical representations of the Spanish Civil War’s lost memory, walking us through the abrupt repetitions of pain until we lose our voice. Arnal’s voice breaks when she sings “¡Silencio! Siguen ahí en silencio/ Suspendidos sus anhelos / sucia suerte / sus sueños susurran /sucio silencio, si / siguen ahí” (Arnal and Bagés, “Lyrics to “45 cerebros y 1 corazón”) while imitating the sound of shushing with the onomatopoeic use of the continuous “s” throughout the refrain.

Arnal and Bagés represent the fragmentation of traumatic experience again in “Desmemoria” through both the lyrics and the music. Arnal’s voice becomes especially haunting in this song. The music, comprised of discordant voices and noises, is fully postmodern, lacking any of the traditional and comforting chords played on the guitar in “45 cerebros y 1 corazón.” Like the lines spoken by the ghost of Patricia in NN12, the lyrics of this song are choppy and convey the speaker’s difficulty in completing a thought. The song ends abruptly, denying the listener any sense of closure: “he perdido el hilo de / el hilo de esta historia / he perido el hilo / el hilo de” (Arnal and Bagés, “Lyrics to Desmemoria”). In contrast with “45 cerebros y 1 corazón,” however, the traumatic event considered in “Desmemoria” is not the mass murder and anonymous burial of the mass graves per se, but the compulsory desmemoria surrounding this history. Arnal thus highlights the exacerbation of posttraumatic stress caused in society when it refuses to confront the experience of its individual members. She plays with the ambiguity of the word historia, which in Spanish can mean “history” or “story,” to show that without memory, this story—our history—is lost. Arnal argues that the greatest danger would be to lose “el hilo de esta historia” entirely, warning that if we don’t talk about the past, it dies: “callando la matas” (Arnal and Bagés, “Lyrics to Desmemoria”).

Dirty Silence

As we have seen, Arnal and Bagés use music to advocate society’s need to recover lost memory in order to deconstruct the revisionist history of Franco’s regime. In “Desmemoria,” Arnal sings:

Más vieja que la esperanza
Más común que la achicoria.
Como una denuncia falsa
La más fiel historia
No siempre es mem…oria
Rueda esta noria
Puerta giratoria
Que no hay gloria
Si queda memoria. (Arnal and Bagés, “Lyrics to Desmemoria”)

In referencing the “gloria,” Arnal refers to the narrative that the winners created based on the erasure, or “borradura,” of any events that might paint Francoists in an unfavorable light or evoke sympathy for the losing side of the war. In its persistent repetition of the rhyme scheme, “gloria,” “memoria,” “desmemoria,” “giratoria,” “noria,” this song recreates a swirling confusion between real memory and false narratives, which mimics the experience of Spanish society brainwashed by official propaganda. At the same time, the rhyme scheme accompanied by the rhythm of music also creates a structure, echoing Levine's claim that what we need are the forms to hold fragmentation (127). “Desmemoria” thus reflects the conflict created between order and trauma’s disintegration of coherence when seeking to heal traumatic memory.

“45 cerebros y 1 corazón” also draws attention to the state-imposed silence of the Transition. The song begins, “Encontraron / donde siempre supieron que estaban / 45 cerebros y un corazón” (Arnal and Bagés, “Lyrics to “45 cerebros y 1 corazón”). In referencing the bodies discovered “where everyone knew they were,” Arnal and Bagés highlight the fact that many relatives knew the whereabouts of their lost loved ones after the war, but Franco’s regime and later, the pacto del olvido prevented them from even talking about it in public, much less retrieving their remains. Throughout “45 cerebros y 1 corazón,” Arnal repeatedly returns to the concept of this state-imposed silence. “¡Silencio! / Siguen ahí en / Silencio / Suspendidos sus cuerpos / Sus anhelos sucia suerte / Sus sueños susurran / Sucio silencio” (Arnal and Bagés, “Lyrics to “45 cerebros y 1 corazón”). Arnal uses the metaphor of “dirty silence” to refer to the buried bodies “arropados por el lodo,” but also the complicity of society as a whole in this erasure of the past. Arnal declares, “El suelo los hizo suyos y nuestros / el cielo los tuvo vivos y muertos / joyas de la desmemoria moderna / ¿quién se olvida? / ¿quién se acuerda?” (Arnal and Bagés, “Lyrics to “45 cerebros y 1 corazón”). This song thus argues for the need to combat the silence that is both metaphorically and literally represented in the mass graves.

In a parallel but contrasting way, NN12 portrays the “dirty silence” of the dead by drawing our attention to their voices underground, revealing that they are only silent to those above ground who choose to ignore them: “La tierra está / la tierra / la tierra está llena de voces” (Scene 3). Morales reveals the inability of silence to bury the past by conducting many critical moments of the play in the absence of dialogue. The entirety of Scene 9 is conducted in silence. Patricia’s son Esteban contemplates a photograph of his mother who, as he touches the photograph, responds as if he were touching her. At first, she recoils. However, with time, she comes to enjoy her son’s touch as she begins to acknowledge her identity as his mother. The Hombre Mayor spends most of the play off to the side in silence as well. Through gestures, he responds to photographs and news clippings that are projected onto a screen so that the audience may see what he is looking at or remembering. Through this portrayal of his emotions in response to them, his guilt as Patricia’s rapist is made clear to the audience. Most powerfully, the final scene uses silence to acknowledge the monumental task facing Spain in its attempt to identify the thousands of anonymous dead beneath its soil with the sobriety and seriousness of tone that this issue warrants. The Forense completes her final notes on Patricia’s case and boxes up her remains. The audience’s attention is then drawn to the tall shelf full of boxes to which the Forense returns, “donde toma una caja nueva. Se dispone a abrirla. Oscuro final” (57).

The restoration of identity, myth, and ritual to the deceased

All three works studied here show what has now been well established: the original acts of violence followed by decades of state-imposed silence inflicted a loss of humanity and identity on the victims of the mass graves that, by extension, altered the identity of their society as well. We wish to focus in particular here on the impact of trauma on societal identity, and the role of cultural productions addressing the trauma on the re-establishment of this identity. Welz, in her work with Holocaust testimonies, describes losing one’s sense of self to be common among trauma survivors, even when the state is not reinforcing this negative consequence. “Self-recognition is one of the key problems to be dealt with when recovering from trauma … it is explicated as a problem of identifying and respecting oneself” (127). The damage that unprocessed trauma inflicts on an individual’s identity and self-worth is replicated on the societal level when tragedies of the past remain hidden. Greg Forter correlates collective amnesia in a social context to the ‘self-absenting’ that results from traumatic experience in the individual, when an event is so horrible that “the self responds by absenting itself from the event” (71). Spain’s 1977 Amnesty Law had the unfortunate effect of perpetuating Franco’s enforced erasure of identity for all those who supported or identified with the Republican side (Resina 228).

For this reason, Spain’s transition to democracy amounted to, not just a delay in recovery, but a denial of its own identity as a nation. The works studied here emphasize this loss of identity. The constant reference to the “silencio” of the unidentified and fragmented remains of the deceased in “45 cerebros y 1 corazón” highlights the way in which these human beings were robbed of any distinctive personhood. In fact, the only entity identified and given her own voice in this song is death, “la dama” addressed directly as “muerte, muertecita mía.” “Lady death” tells the listener where we may find her: “Vendré al amanecer / Vendré al anochecer / Vendré donde tú estés” (Arnal and Bagés, “Lyrics to “45 cerebros y 1 corazón”). In “Desmemoria,” Arnal portrays this loss again through the personification of the Transition’s institutionalized oblivion, naming “her” responsible for robbing the victims of their identity: “Ella es la desmem…oria.” In NN12, Patricia’s ghost reveals that she could only survive her rape and torture by abandoning her own identity: “yo me repetía ¡no soy yo! Esto no es mío todo esto no es estoy lejos en otro sitio no soy yo ¡no estoy!” (Scene 15). Finally, the “nomen nescio”—literally, “I don’t know the name”—of the title places the loss of identity for those buried in mass graves at the very center of our attention.

In the ways outlined thus far, Arnal, Bagés, and Morales clearly portray the devastating effects of trauma and the extent to which suppressing its memory only exacerbates the damage. However, as we have seen, these works also restore a sense of identity through the reconstruction of myth and the performance of ritual for the deceased through the public acknowledgement of their experience.[6] We use the term “myth” following the mythos of Ancient Greek, meaning simply a report, tale, or story. It refers to a coherent narrative of the victims’ history as contrasted with the fragmentary nature of traumatic memory. It does not denote a falsification or the deliberate creation of an incomplete history, as discussions of the Transition’s “mythologizing” of the Civil War imply. As we have seen, these three works gather up the chaotic fragmentation of traumatic experience into a comprehensible artistic whole. In this way, they finally tell the stories of those buried in the mass graves, establishing their identity and assigning some meaning to their existence. On a collective level, the many individual stories add up to a restored sense of history for an entire community, one that no longer ignores the experience of half its population. “Ritual” refers to the ceremonial and public acknowledgement—in this case, through the performance of drama and music—of these lost stories. Resina argues that “[t]he rituals of burial (and we should add, of mourning) are meant to ensure the smooth departure of the dead […] to sever their emotional entanglements with the living and to secure their status as images of memory” (222). Ritualizing the stories of those buried in mass graves allows the pain associated with their traumatic experience to be processed. In their performance, NN12, “Desmemoria,” and “45 cerebros y 1 corazón” become ritual acts of commemoration in themselves.

The difficult lesson learned in any society willfully choosing to ignore its past is that repressing the truth will only lead to its re-emergence in an increasingly grotesque form. Morales, Arnal and Bagés represent the unwanted recurrence of painful memories through the imagery of a ghost haunting us in the present. Within the metaphysics of trauma, which Jo Labanyi refers to as “hauntology,” she describes the recurrence of ghostly imagery in contemporary Spanish artistic production as “the current postmodern obsession with simulacra [which] may be seen as a return of the past in spectral form” (65). In “45 cerebros y 1 corazón” the dead appear “cual cuerpos de faraón,” a spectral metaphor for memory itself. In “Desmemoria,” Arnal’s voice takes on a haunting, echoey quality that evokes an image of voices rising from the grave. In particular, as she draws out the word “Desmem…oria,” the background fills with cacophonous noises and unintelligible otherworldly voices. In NN12, Spain’s desmemoria is literally made flesh on the stage in the ghost of Patricia, who witnesses the restoration of her physical remains and thus, her identity, through the discovery of documents and DNA identification with her son. In “History and Hauntology,” Labanyi asks: “what does [a society] do with the ghosts of the past?” (65). We contend that the treatment of Spain’s ghosts from the past in the works of Morales, Arnal and Bagés falls in line with what Labanyi described as the third and most psychologically sound treatment of them: “one can offer them habitation in order to acknowledge their presence, through the healing introjection that is mourning, which […] allows one to lay the ghosts of the past to rest by, precisely, acknowledging them as past” (65).

By acknowledging the existence of these ghosts, recuperating their stories or myths, and mourning their suffering through ritual, society thereby processes the pain of a history shared by all its members. Importantly, this process is also necessary to move on after a collective tragedy. “Mourning is […] a way of coming to terms with the past, of freeing ourselves from it” (Levine 186). The countless individual failures to allow grieving families the opportunity to tell their loved ones’ stories publicly and to commemorate them through the ritual of burial have added up to the predicament Spain finds itself in today. “The state undergoes a crisis when, neglecting the imperative of ritual justice, it fails to gather the grief of the entire community into its fold” (Resina 230). This is because “social suffering can be met only by a practice of communal mourning and celebration” (Levine 86). As examples of performative art, the works studied here are three examples of just such a practice.

In NN12, we see the possibility of a more psychologically healthy path forward symbolized in Patricia’s son Esteban, whom the play portrays as highly symptomatic of posttraumatic stress. This is the result of his upbringing in the orphanage, where he was told his parents had abandoned him. He was punished for wetting the bed, a common symptom of trauma in children. Esteban has suffered a double rupture of his identity. The first happened during his childhood, when the orphanage sought to erase his past by changing his last name to that of the center’s founder (Scene 4). The second rupture occurs when the Forense reveals to him the truth of his identity, including his own conception through rape and his mother’s execution shortly after his birth. While the second rupture restores his true identity, it is deeply upsetting for Esteban. Morales shows sympathy with the instinct to ignore the past owing to the pain of recuperating historical memory through Esteban’s struggle to accept the truth. Esteban calls the Forense a liar, knocks his mother’s bones to the floor, and vomits (Scene 11). Through the Forense, however, Morales reminds the audience that confronting our traumatic past is the only path forward and that we must therefore summon the courage and strength to do so. Referring to the voices of the dead underground, the Forense tells Esteban that “tenemos que ser muy fuertes si queremos escuchar lo que tienen que contarnos” (Scene 11).

Esteban’s eventual acceptance of his true identity enables him to heal and to grow. He is stronger as a result. Morales reveals Esteban’s transition from victimhood to agency in Scene 13, when he confronts his mother’s rapist and father. Ernesto gains strength as he responds to his father’s accusations and denials. Ultimately, Esteban wins the argument, warning El Teniente that “ahora la gente está empezando a juzgar lo que ocurrió. Los mayores hablan y los jóvenes escuchan” (Scene 13). Esteban challenges his father to confront the truth, asking him to take a DNA test, which he refuses in what amounts to an admission of guilt. Esteban leaves him with the documents gathered by the Forense, which verify Esteban’s admission to the orphanage as well as an eye-witness account of what happened to his mother from a fellow prisoner. At the end of the scene, Esteban leaves revitalized for having demanded the truth as the Hombre Mayor, in contrast, slumps forward, clutching his chest in response to the pain involved in maintaining a falsehood (Scene 13). Interestingly, this exchange reveals that Morales is not interested in assigning blame as much as she is in uncovering the truth. She recognizes the humanity of the offenders through the Hombre Mayor. His character is shown to struggle with traumatic memory as much as the victims, which suggests that the perpetrators also have something to gain—namely, peace of mind—in acknowledging the truth and taking responsibility for their crimes.

NN12’s transformation over the course of the play reveals the transformative power of confronting traumatic memory. As the Forense recuperates her memory, building a coherent narrative of NN12’s biography, her speech becomes more fluid and intelligible. She begins to speak with confidence. She reclaims her identity as Patricia Luján Álvares. She recognizes her own rape, torture, and murder, as well as the birth of her son—whom she was told had died at birth—as part of her life story. When she has fully recuperated her memory, she reclaims her agency. Echoing Duggan's claim that traumatic memory “can be seen to rehearse, repeat and re-present itself in performed ‘ghosts’ that haunt the sufferer” (5), Patricia faces her torturer in the fifteenth scene not as an actual phantasm, but as El Teniente Ernesto’s own conscience acting out the long-overdue retribution for his past crimes. Patricia recounts his sexual and psychological abuse in graphic detail. By the end of the reconstruction of her traumatic memories, Patricia becomes so enraged that she beats her fists against Ernesto, shouting “¡Hijo de puta!” (Scene 15). After this cathartic act, it is clear to the audience that Patricia is finally free from the prison of unprocessed trauma. She simply walks away from the Hombre Mayor, returning to the Forense and telling her, “Gracias” (Scene 15). At this point, her ghost is finally ready to be laid to rest by her son Esteban, whom the spectator now believes will find his own peace in turn.

Through the examples of NN12, “45 cerebros y 1 corazón,” and “Desmemoria,” we have sought to reveal the ways in which contemporary Spanish performing art contributes to the stated goals of ARMH: “dignificar nuestro pasado, pedir justicia a los que la merecieron y no la tuvieron, y profundizar nuestra democracia” (“¿Qué es?”). With their exploration of the exhumations taking place across the country, these works unearth the horrors of Spain’s past. They perform the same function that Avilés Diz attributes to the dramatic works of Ripoll: “nos recuerda[n] que ese conocimiento del pasado es el único punto de partida posible, tanto para su aceptación como para la asunción de responsabilidades en el presente” (Avilés Diz, “Trilogía” 353). These works reveal through dramatization, poetry, and music that the job of society is that of the Forense. One case at a time, Spain must continue uncovering buried fragments of its history in order to fully understand the past. As we have seen, the physical dramatization of pain in NN12, as well as the chaos, disunity, and moments of dissonance in “Desmemoria” and “45 cerebros y 1 corazón,” create a discomfort in the audience that communicates on a guttural level that confronting the past is painful, while revealing that it is also necessary if we are to move beyond this pain. These works succeed in bringing the chaos and fragmentation of traumatic experience together into an artistic whole, ritualizing the suffering they portray. Through their performance, NN12, “45 cerebros y 1 corazón,” and “Desmemoria” both acknowledge and begin to heal the unresolved trauma of the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s dictatorship, and the silence of the Transition, bringing members of the community together to mourn the past and guiding them towards genuine progress through the honest confrontation with its history.

  1. In October of 2022, the Spanish government expanded upon this law with the passage of the “Ley de Memoria Democrática,” which, in addition to the rights established in the original law, guarantees Spanish nationality to the descendants of those who lost it for ideological reasons during the war and the Franco dictatorship.

  2. Jérez-Farrán and Amago note that “hardly a year has gone by without the inauguration of a new museum exhibit on this historic event” (5). In the theater, authors such as Laila Ripoll, Alberto Conejero, and Gracia Morales stand out for their productions dealing with Civil War themes. Two useful articles summarizing representations of the Spanish Civil War on the stage in the twenty-first century include “Bodies of Evidence” by Helena Buffery and “De la ‘revancha’ al musical” by Prado Campos. In the world of popular music, the singer-songwriter movement of the sixties initiated a trend of setting poetry to music in order to denounce Franco’s regime. This movement later developed into a discussion of memory in song with artists such as Ismael Serrano‘s La memoria de los peces and more recently Maria Arnal and Marcel Bagés’ 45 cerebros y 1 corazón. For a better understanding of the interpretation of Spanish historical memory through music, see Gómez Sobrino's “Poesía adaptada.”

  3. For example, “Canción total” and “Bienes” take a critical approach to relevant social topics such as privatization and capitalism. As with “45 cerebros y 1 corazón” and “Desmemoria,” Arnal and Bagés use traditionally inspired melodies from the jota in “Ball del vetlatori” and flamenco chords in “Jo no canto por la veu” accompanied by an electric guitar. The entirety of this debut album reflects a similar blend of contemporary music with traditional chords and dances of the peninsula, fused to reflect the comingling of timeless messages about morality and justice with specific issues dominating current Spanish political debates.

  4. It is often found in patients with PTSD that the amygdala, our fear center, is enlarged, and the hippocampus, where memories are stored, has shrunk (Morey et al.).

  5. The most comprehensive study of the Civil War in Spanish theater from the end of the war through 2009 is found in Alison Guzmán's doctoral dissertation, which includes a consideration of Falangist propaganda theater, titled La memoria de la Guerra Civil en el teatro español: 1939–2009 and completed at the University of Salamanca in 2012.

  6. The special capacity of the performing arts to address trauma by physically bringing together a community and ritualizing its suffering through the sensory experience of performance is a vast area of study in its own right, meritorious of a more extensive analysis elsewhere. The role of communal gathering on the retrieval of memory is described in Gómez Sobrino's “Poesía adaptada,” which offers an in-depth analysis of the relationship between collective memory and how it is socially retrieved, following Maurice Halbwachs definition of collective memory, during a live performance (102).