José Echegaray y Eizaguirre Essay - Critical Essays

José Echegaray yEizaguirre


José Echegaray y Eizaguirre’s literary reputation has steadily declined in the last seventy-five years. Surely he was not the dramatist of genius that many of his contemporaries sought to make him out to be, and no modern critic would insist that Echegaray was “the greatest dramatist that Spain has produced for two hundred years,” as Elizabeth R. Hunt stated in her 1914 introduction to Hannah Lynch’s translation of The Great Galeoto. Yet Folly or Saintliness, The Great Galeoto, and The Son of Don Juan, by virtue of technique and scope, bear comparison with anything written in Europe during the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century. They secure for Echegaray a rightful place in a critical survey of world drama.

Echegaray’s success derived from his sensitivity to audiences’ tastes and his ability to create a theater that satisfied their expectations. Generally considered a belated romantic, he resurrected the melodramatic plots and the florid language popular in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. Aware of the public’s receptivity to highly emotional plays, he set as his goal a theater based on “weeping, grief, and death.” Although the tone of his dramas can be considered anachronistic, he achieved a degree of modernity and originality in his works through the introduction of contemporary settings and social problems and by gradually discarding legendary settings and the use of verse.

Echegaray’s dramas present the paradox of rigid theatrical logic applied to situations loaded with melodrama. In the execution, development, and conclusion there is an infallible, mathematical clarity. Yet deep down the situation impresses one as being false and often strained; all the characters, it seems, are saints, demons, or freaks, harassed by some passion, idée fixe, or fate that drives them mad or kills them and also brings death and madness to other characters. It is evident that in such theater the flesh-and-bone human being, with all his complexities, rarely appears. Echegaray’s dramas are the dramas of exceptional people in conflict with exceptional circumstances in which fate plays an important role. In the preface to his first social drama, Cómo empieza y cómo acaba (the beginning and the end), produced in 1876, Echegaray explains that his play is determined by the “logic of fatality” that “dominates when moral liberty surrenders to passion its place in the human soul.” A close look at his scores of plays, however, shows clearly that fate as Echegaray conceives it is purely a social phenomenon, the familiar and inevitable opposition of society to the desires of the individual. Echegaray’s plots generally revolve around two central points: honor and a strict sense of duty (imperativo de conciencia). He places his characters in agonizing situations in which they are torn apart by conflict between two duties or a conflict between duty and passion. His concept of honor, the traditional Spanish punto de honor, which involves men’s passionate defense of women’s chastity, is borrowed from Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Romanticism. Echegaray’s concern with conflicts of conscience seems to be inspired by Ibsen or by some ill-defined Christian ethics, but the writer was also a man of his time and very often (particularly after 1880) mixed his basic themes with social and philosophical motifs such as the effects of heredity and environment, and psychological abnormalities, taken from the positivist and naturalistic schools of thought of the late nineteenth century.

Like other dramatists of his generation, Echegaray began by writing traditional romantic dramas such as La esposo del vengador (the avenger’s wife) and En el puño de la espada (at the hilt of the sword); Echegaray, however, soon began to intersperse his historical dramas with others of contemporary setting. As early as 1875, he attempted modern realistic drama with La última noche (the last night), portraying the repentance of a libertine at the end of his life, but it was not until he composed his play Folly or Saintliness that Echegaray was able to produce a piece of work of high dramatic quality.

Folly or Saintliness

In Folly or Saintliness, a prose drama in three acts, Echegaray portrays a man with high ideals and an exaggerated sense of duty that run counter to every worldly consideration, creating a conflict that finally determines his fate. The drama begins when Don Lorenzo de Avendaño, the protagonist, discovers that his old nurse, Juana, is really his mother and that his alleged mother had claimed him as her child in order to secure an inheritance. Lorenzo decides to relinquish his name and fortune because they are not his own. Tension arises when his ideas and his concept of himself conflict with the materialistic interests of his wife, Angela, and his daughter Inéz, who is planning to marry Eduardo, the son of the Duchess of Almonte. Unable to understand Lorenzo’s honesty and self-denial, they truly believe that he is insane and begin to plot his confinement to a mental institution. Even the dying nurse, his real mother, arriving at the same conclusion, burns the letter, the only evidence of the truth regarding his parentage. The crisis occurs when Lorenzo opens the envelope and finds a blank sheet of paper that Juana has substituted for the original. Profoundly disturbed, harassed by being continuously watched, unable to distinguish right from wrong anymore, Lorenzo acts as a madman and turns violently on his wife and daughter, whom he considers responsible for his misfortune. Lorenzo’s behavior, along with his continued refusal to compromise, confirms the suspicions of the family and friends that he is mentally ill. The drama concludes when Lorenzo is taken to a mental institution, where he will spend the rest of his life.

Folly or Saintliness is a powerful drama. The tension that it generates between the worldly materialism of society on the one hand, and the high ideals and strict sense of duty of the protagonist on the other, has great dramatic value, which Echegaray skillfully exploits, creating suspense by moving the action in a wavelike motion—it advances, and then coils back on itself—as Lorenzo struggles many times with himself and fights against the claim of his family and friends. As the action progresses, suspense mounts as the spectator or reader anxiously awaits an answer to the following questions: What course will Lorenzo take? Will Lorenzo yield to a reasonable appeal? Will he yield to threats? Echegaray’s portrait of Don Lorenzo is unforgettable. The passion of the honor-loving Lorenzo and his obsession with the idea of living according to principles of absolute truth and justice regardless of the consequences are admirably set forth by the dramatist. His dilemma, however quixotic, is painfully perplexing. Don Lorenzo is an honorable man who scorns doing anything less than his utmost to realize his ideal. His family may be threatened with poverty, his daughter with an unhappy life, but he will not compromise. As with the character Brand in Ibsen’s drama Brand (1866; English translation, 1891), “all or nothing” is Lorenzo’s infallible test. Although this is...

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