Modern Languages

The Granny and the Heist!

The Granny and the Heist / La estanquera de Vallecas first ran soon after the death of Francisco Franco and the end of theatre censorship. Following his translation of the play, we caught up with Stuart Green and Lucy Meyer to discuss the messages implicit in the play and how the teaching resources included in this book assist language learning.

The Granny and the Heist / La estanquera de Vallecas

The play by José Luis Alonso de Santos first ran around the time of the death of Francisco Franco and the end of theatre censorship. Could you explain a bit more about the censorship of the arts and the effect had this had on Spanish literature?

The Granny and the Heist was indeed written and premiered at the beginning of the 1980s, some four years after the censorship structures in operation under Franco were definitively dismantled. In many ways such structures were incomplete: artists and even censors were confused by the lack of clear rules as regards what could and what could not be said, and the archives now held just outside Madrid contain numerous examples of creations of those close to the regime brutalised by cuts and amendments, and others by dissenters which sailed through the approval process. Yet the control of artistic expression was simultaneously absolute in that all artists had to obtain prior approval to present their work in public, and even after approval, diffusion could be hampered by censors’ restrictions to print-runs, performance venues, age limits and so on. By deeming the political significance of art to be so important as to require control by such means, the dictatorship ensured that the relationship between artist and powers-that-be has cast a long shadow over evaluations of cultural production not only from that period but also in contemporary Spain and during earlier periods of authoritarian rule. As a result, certain figures and works are perhaps unduly celebrated for dissidence per se, while others of considerable merit when viewed from alternative perspectives are unjustly dismissed or ignored. Perhaps this is the greatest effect censorship had on Spanish literature and its study nowadays. We, therefore, need to rethink those widely-held understandings of Spanish culture that contrast the valiant opposition fighter with a repressive or dumb state apparatus. One issue at the core of such a reconsideration is the question of popular and/or commercial success. In Spain, this is often interpreted as complicity with the establishment, whether authoritarian or (neo)liberal. The dramatic output of José Luis Alonso de Santos is of interest in this respect since he is unashamedly populist yet also subtly sophisticated in his examination of certain injustices suffered by everyday people.

Political and social messages are present throughout the play. What is the context behind them? Are these messages reflective of the literature of the time?

As I recount in the Introduction to the play, many artists struggled hugely following the death of Franco in 1975. On the one hand, those associated with the regime (sometimes for little more than their popularity with audiences at the time) were spurned. Those who had actively opposed the dictatorship, on the other hand, suddenly found themselves searching desperately for something to say; as one writer is said to have commented at the time, life for artists was better when they had a leader to fight against. The Granny and the Heist is one of the first plays from the period to say something about the incipient democracy and to find a way to do so. By rooting the play in a neighbourhood of Madrid with a specific set of connotations for Spaniards at the time (and still now), Alonso de Santos is able to broach a number of issues that affected Spain more generally. Vallecas was a particularly salient example of the country’s ills at the turn of the 1980s: mass unemployment (especially among the younger generation), drug abuse, high crime rates, and a feeling of powerlessness, all of which contributed to a disenchantment with the new democratic regime that had failed to fulfil the hopes of many following the end of the dictatorship. Alonso de Santos does not come to any conclusions in response to the questions raised, preferring instead to allow us to reflect on what we can make out between the lines of Tocho’s hot temper, Leandro’s quiet resignation, and Gran’s steadfastness when faced by the prospect of a robbery and the moral corruption of her granddaughter. The playwright’s flair for comedy is a major factor in avoiding any didacticism, and it is as an entertaining, suspenseful play that I approached the task of translating it.

What was the effect of plays such as The Granny and the Heist On the development of Spanish theatre post-censorship?

Alone, the play struggled to have an immediate impact due to the reluctance of star actresses to perform the role of Gran. Conditioned by the Catholic values of Francoism with which they had grown up, the women approached baulked at the choice phrases Gran has to say in response to her predicament at certain moments of the play. For this reason, it was eventually premiered by a small theatre company on the outskirts of Madrid, in the very neighbourhood where the play is set and where the typical theatregoer was unlikely to venture (not merely on account of distance but also because of Vallecas’s notoriety). Revived in the centre of the capital a few years later, at the same time as the premiere of Alonso de Santos’s greatest success, Going Down to Morocco, and the production of an earlier play, The Granny and the Heist soon grew to become one of the playwright’s best-known works. With this play, Alonso de Santos arguably heralded a new generation of dramatists who eschewed the physicality and group-work of the independent theatre that had inspired young Spaniards during the late-1960s and 1970s and returned to the spoken word as a crucial medium of communication with an audience. While less formally and thematically radical than the work of such playwrights who emerged in the second half of the 1980s, The Granny and the Heist was nevertheless an important step in the development of Spanish theatre post-Franco. And in many ways, its deft combination of genres, its characters and the sympathy shown for their plight has survived the test of time better than many of those plays which followed.

The book features an extensive collection of teaching resources, how will these assist students and teachers in terms of language learning?

The play in and of itself is a great authentic resource, prompting students to engage with a range of cultural and historical issues, whilst widening their vocabulary and grammar. However, in order to maximise its impact, the resources we’ve designed lead to further depth of study and ease the teacher’s workload. As a secondary school practitioner myself, I know too well the pressures upon teachers these days: these resources save time and are designed to maximise student learning.

Whilst the resources can be adapted, they can also be used as is, with the thinking already done for teachers: how the play and other authentic resources included can be used to best effect; how to scaffold and structure each activity to promote higher order thinking and deep learning; how to organise activities and lessons into a cohesive unit of work. The introduction and supplementary resources also provide teachers with sufficient cultural and literary context to ensure that teachers’ subject knowledge is sufficient and they need not look anywhere else to supplement it.

There are several resources and activities for each of the four skills of language learning, in addition to ones dedicated to grammar, translation and vocabulary (specifically slang and idiomatic expressions). There are also research projects and cultural activities; all of which ensures that students gather holistic knowledge and consolidate their learning in a variety of ways. The resources are ready made, with links to supplementing songs and documents, and all answers are provided.

The whole book has been designed so that a teacher can pick it up and teach a motivating unit of work, or just a few extracts, with ease and confidence. It’s what I would have wanted when teaching literature for the first time; it’s what I would want teaching literature even now, after many years of doing so. It really is a one-stop shop for exploiting a literary text from beginning to end!


Stuart Green is Senior Lecturer in Spanish at the University of Leeds, where he teaches and researches on the performing arts in modern Spain. He has published on a range of topics, including the ethics of racial humour and blackface performance, dialogues between cinema and theatre, and Afro-Spanish rap artists. He is interested in practical theatre and translation and has attended a variety of courses in British and Spanish theatres to this end.
Lucy Meyer is Head of Modern Foreign Languages at Bexley Grammar School, a language specialist school whose department offers 7 languages from KS3 to KS5, and where the study of two languages is compulsory to GCSE. An IB and AQA examiner, Lucy is also the Spanish Stream Designer for the Prince’s Teaching Institute, and in school has previously held positions as Lead Teacher of KS3 and KS4. Her main pedagogical interests lie in pupil use of Target Language, culture in the classroom, and the development of initiatives that raise the profile of languages.

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