Ramón Gómez de la Serna Essay - Critical Essays

Gómez de la Serna, Ramón

Gómez de la Serna, Ramón 1888–1963

Gómez de la Serna was a Spanish poet, dramatist, essayist, and novelist who is best known as the inventor of a new genre, the greguería, a kind of serendipitous parable.

El teatro en soledad, written in 1911 by Ramón Gómez de la Serna, and Pirandello's Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore, written about ten years later, are strikingly similar in many significant ways. Coincidence cannot be the explanation, and it is extremely unlikely that Pirandello knew about Ramón's play, which was published in an obscure Spanish journal. The key to the explanation of this phenomenon may be found by turning to Paris during the "Banquet Years" and especially to the cubist school of painting. (p. 59)

El teatro en soledad is a very important document in the history of pre-Pirandellism in Spain. The first twenty of the eighty pages are devoted to the "Depuración preliminar" in which Ramón describes his state of mind … and his purpose in writing the play…. He also speculates about literature in general, rejects almost all manifestations of the Generation of '98, meditates about artistic creation, and gives his opinions about the future of literature…. In short, this part of the manuscript is a type of literary manifesto. (p. 60)

Like Sei personaggi, El teatro en soledad is a play which serves to dissect the theater and the techniques employed destroy theatrical illusion by showing people and elements which should remain behind the scenes. There are several levels of reality; in fact, in the list of characters the participants are separated into two groups in both plays: characters and actors. In addition, the author and the spectators, who were to become so important in Pirandello's theater-within-the-theater trilogy, are discussed. The characters are even more important in Ramón's play than in Pirandello's, since the stage belongs to them completely during most of the play. The actors and characters do not occupy the stage simultaneously as they do in Pirandello's play, and the actors are unaware that the characters exist; however, the characters have a critical attitude toward the actors very similar to that shown in Sei personaggi.

The actors in Ramón's play are presented as a rather sorry lot: poorly dressed, unattractive, and disagreeable. They converse about several problems associated with the mixture of levels of reality, such as when they criticize Enrique, an actor, for playing only himself instead of his role. After the director has left, the actors complain about his control of them …, a complaint rather similar to that found in Questa sera si recita a soggetto. (p. 62)

The characters who arrive after the actors and stagehands have left for the night constitute the core of the play. They are autonomous characters, just as Pirandello's Sei personaggi are, and they are also searching, because they are characters without a drama. But unlike Pirandello's characters, they do not even have a story; indeed, they are self-sufficient and do not want an author. They appear to be searching for an absolute expression of true drama.

In both plays the stage itself, stripped of illusion, occupies an important position. Although many details are reversed, the first stage directions of the two plays give similar impressions. (p. 63)

In Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore the main desire of the characters is to represent their drama on the stage. They suffer when the actors try to play a scene from their life because it lacks authenticity…. The characters of El teatro en soledad, even though they are also actors, have a similar problem…. Later they further discuss the difficulty of representing true emotions on the stage….

The theater-within-the-theater techniques used by Pirandello, which even include such extreme devices as participation by spectator-actors, interruptions, and scenes in the lobby, have led to the decrease or destruction of aesthetic distance. That is, the observer is no longer separated from the art form he is contemplating—he becomes a part of it and is thus unable to view it with the necessary detachment. It is interesting to note that Ramón, who foreshadows Pirandello in so many ways, also touches on this problem. For example, the director tells the actors that their untidy appearance upsets the audience. After he has left, one of the actors observes that when their collars become detached during a performance, it distracts some spectators who involuntarily look at their own collars to make sure that they are in place. Similarly, a young actress remarks that she was afraid the director would mention that during the performance she was smiling at her novio who was in the audience. In both cases the audience has overidentified with the actors and thus cannot contemplate the work of art as such. However, there is also a reverse side to this phenomenon—a strong audience-actor rapport which enhances the actors' performance. (p. 64)

In addition to the technical innovations in these two plays, the moods in them are extremely similar…. In El teatro en soledad the intellectual dialogue almost always has an undercurrent of passion, which yields a tone remarkably similar to that of Pirandello's plays.

Since most of the innovations found in Ramón's play can be explained by applying cubist aesthetic theories, it will be necessary to show his close involvement with the artistic environment of the time. Ramón made his first trip to Paris in 1906, the year in which Pablo Picasso began "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."… Much more important, however, was Ramón's residence in Paris from 1910 through 1911, the most significant period for the development of analytical cubism. He frequented the Bateau-Lavoir, the birth-place of cubism, and became acquainted with many of the leading artists of the day. Ramón himself enjoyed drawing and illustrated many of his writings. He was greatly interested in the artistic innovations of the epoch, and his 1931 book Ismos bears witness to this.

In the prologue of Ismos, Ramón [indicates that] he reacted to the August 1910 Exposition des Indépendants as one would to sighting the coast of a new continent…. He enthusiastically reveals that this was a turning point in his interest in art…. (p. 65)

In Ismos Ramón gives evidence of his commitment to the new attitudes. Of course twenty years had passed since he wrote El teatro en soledad, however, certain evidence in the play itself indicates that when he was writing it he was experiencing the same emotions that he more maturely described in Ismos which is a very personal study of the epoch then ending. (pp. 65-6)

Ramón states that he has always been a "vanguardista" and that he is especially a "porvenirista." In a discussion reminiscent of Lessing's Laocoön he ponders the relationship between literature and art. He believes that literature is even more capable than art of capturing the new aesthetics …, and goes on to explain the limitations of painting as compared to the wide possibilities of verbal expression.

He tells how painters' techniques can also be applied to literature…. He believes that it is necessary to devour innovations, use them, and continue on to new things, for repetition is monstrous in art. (p. 66)

In the Historia de las literaturas de vanguardia Guillermo de Torre points out that the term cubism is always used hesitatingly by literary critics…. However, the present analysis of El teatro en soledad shows that with almost mathematical certainty, cubist aesthetic theory applied to the theater would produce techniques such as those found in Ramón's play and later in Pirandello's. For example, the cubists' abolition of the single viewpoint, their showing the object from a multiplicity of angles, would correspond to the different angles from which the stage is viewed. At one moment we are in the rafters with the stagehands, looking toward the stage, at another we contemplate the empty auditorium with the electrician; we see the author from the actors' point of view and then the actors from the characters' viewpoint, and so on. Also, the cubists broke up volumes. A cubist playwright dissects theater, almost destroying the very medium he is using to convey his art. The collage, which involves the attachment to paintings of "real" items such as newspapers or cigarette packs, would, of course, correspond chiefly to the "life" brought into cubist-oriented drama in the form of spectators, ushers, or stagehands. The superimposed planes so important in cubist paintings become the many planes of reality manifested in the theater by various forms of theater-within-the-theater technique. In essence, both cubism and Pirandellism are intellectual arts, both strive for maximum possibilities of expression and a new confrontation with the materials at their disposal, and both participate in the "art-about-art" trend.

El teatro en soledad, besides being a cubist play in technique, contains imagery of cubist origin, and there are many interesting details in the play which prove that Ramón actually had pictorial representation very much in mind when he was writing it. In the "Depuración preliminar" there are numerous references to painting. These pages, although obviously a literary manifesto, are unintelligible in parts if one does not consider the artistic background of the time. (pp. 67-8)

Ramón speaks about perspective in a manner which suggests painting rather than literature….

He realizes that he is adapting artistic theory to literature, and finally he actually formulates a literary theory based on these concepts…. (p. 68)

In the play itself there are also numerous details which suggest cubism. The names of the characters sound like the titles of cubist paintings: "La vieja amarilla," "El de la nariz vinosa," "El de chistera," "La de la frente lunar," "La de los aretes," "La de la boca violeta," and "El recio de pómulos." (some of Picasso's titles are "Mujer en verde," "Señora del sombrero negro," "Mjuer con abanico," "La señora del manguito," "La mujer del moño.")

Some of Ramón's character descriptions are verbal sketches of cubist paintings. (p. 69)

Several critics have suggested that Pirandello transposed cubist inspiration into theatrical terms. MacClintock comments on Pirandello's changed point of view and compares it to contemporary painting and poetic techniques. He explains that art does not necessarily resemble reality as most know it. Picasso "takes the elements of a form as he sees it and jumbles them into a pattern which has nothing to do with what we see." He believes that Pirandello's philosophy of drama is the same:

So to Pirandello the drama is also a self-contained medium of expression with conventions of its own and its own justification; the action need not be based upon facts (which are illusory), it need not contain a thesis or teach a lesson, it need not even be probable if only it is psychologically and philosophically true.

                                         (pp. 70-1)

The fact that Ramón's play, which was directly inspired by the cubist school of painting, contains many of the same elements which later appear in Sei personaggi certainly supports [the critics'] contention that Pirandello was also influenced by the new philosophy of art. Pirandello was strongly inspired by the parallel philosophical and psychological currents of the epoch, while Ramón shows more concrete influence of cubist painters. Ramón wrote his rather tentative practice piece at the beginning of an epoch during one of the most exciting years of discovery and development of cubism. Luigi Pirandello wrote his masterpiece several years later at the end of the cubist epoch; although art would never be the same, the official denotation of cubism would no longer be applied to subsequent paintings. Ramón was young and greatly inspired by the new movement when he wrote El teatro en soledad, while Pirandello was a mature and experienced writer when he wrote his play. Ramón's drama has been forgotten except by a few scholars, while Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore is recognized as one of the most significant plays of the twentieth century. Both plays, however, directly reflect the spirit of their age as it appeared in the plastic and literary arts. (p. 72)

Wilma Newberry, "Ramón Gómez de la Serna," in her The Pirandellian Mode in Spanish Literature from Cervantes to Sastre (© 1973 State University of New York), State University of New York Press, 1973, pp. 59-72.

Ramón Gómez de la Serna, or simply "Ramón," as some critics refer to him and as he preferred to be called, is fast becoming recognized in North America not only as an outstanding innovator in literary creation who was one of the most representative Spanish authors of the period between 1914 and 1936 but also the one who illustrated perhaps better than any other the universal Spanish intellectual (and humorist) of the twentieth century. Julián Marîas went even further a few years ago when he maintained that in Ramón's generation only three men reached the status of genius: Ortega in philosophy, Picasso in art, and Ramón in literature.

The "great Ramón Gómez de la Serna," as Octavio Paz has called him, has among his many publications a work on the major "isms" that came into being between the two world wars, and his own ideas, style, and name have been associated with many of them: Ultraism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, even Futurism. Some critics accept him as a precursor of many of these "isms" as well as an influential figure who had a major impact on the forms and direction his Spanish literary contemporaries and followers were to take. (pp. 237-38)

Indeed, during the greater part of this century, Ramón, a prose writer, largely through his use of metaphor, imagery, and other figurative devices more consistently than any poet in Spain lived up to Aristotles' dictum, namely, that the poets' mission is to discover similarities between things, a "mark of genius" Ramón flaunted to the fullest in the greguería, a new literary genre he named in 1909 and of which he became the first conscious cultivator. Poets have always been aware of the infinite possibilities of analogy, and Ramón Gómez de la Serna like them has ventured to take daring steps that join clashing and contrasting extremes thereby enlarging the scope of analogy. The power to startle consistently with surprising analogies is one of the major artistic achievements of the greguería. The expression of this surprise, shock, and astonishment is one of the main objectives of this literary "invention" which, together with his reputation as a humorist, will perhaps be Ramón's greatest and most lasting claim to fame. For, although his total literary output is massive, it is the greguería … that made him famous back in the Twenties and Thirties, long before his total literary production was known. And the greguería, often inédita, continues to appear even after his death…. (p. 238)

Ramón, in breaking with the set forms of literature, has had lasting success with the greguería as it survives, and its form together with his vision of the world which evolves from a personal and humanistic attitude based in part on the personification, animation, and humanization of things is partly responsible for this survival. (p. 242)

Richard L. Jackson, "The Status of the 'Greguería' of Ramón Gómez de la Serna," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1976, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Summer, 1976, pp. 237-42.