Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2094
Benito Pérez Galdós sought to develop his own dramatic technique and thus deliberately divorced himself from prevailing conventions. He recognized that his tendencies toward psychological analysis, slow exposition, long scenes, and occasional use of obscure symbolism ran against current tastes but argued for an open-minded approach to theater. Pérez Galdós...
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Benito Pérez Galdós sought to develop his own dramatic technique and thus deliberately divorced himself from prevailing conventions. He recognized that his tendencies toward psychological analysis, slow exposition, long scenes, and occasional use of obscure symbolism ran against current tastes but argued for an open-minded approach to theater. Pérez Galdós believed that dramatic art was in a constant state of evolution and should never be fixed by canons.
Like his novels, Pérez Galdós’s plays depict Spanish reality in great detail, although toward the end of his career his theater tended to become less local and more universal. In many works, he analyzed the national state of mind and those aspects of Hispanic society that he viewed as stifling or degenerating—among these, political and moral corruption, the obsession with family honor and lineage, decadent aristocracy, social climbing, and the adherence to a social hierarchy that made the use of connections and interpersonal protection inevitable.
Pérez Galdós was fascinated with the complexities of human behavior, and much of his drama reveals considerable psychological understanding. Although his characters usually represent a particular idea and in this sense are philosophical abstractions, they are often vivid and convincing. The array of characters Pérez Galdós created for the theater is nearly as wide as that which he created for his novels. His gallery of creations is a cross section of nineteenth century Spain. It includes people from all walks of life: sophisticated, cosmopolitan types, provincial figures, rural folks. Aristocrats, professionals, government workers, petty officials, clerks, peasants, Gypsies, servants, beggars, and bums all appear in this microcosm of Spanish society. There are religious men and women and degenerates, idealists and opportunists, dreamers and visionaries, fanatics and moderates. There are Spaniards and foreigners. Pérez Galdós’s characters are of every occupation, every background, every age, and a variety of origins.
One type that appears frequently in both Pérez Galdós’s novels and his plays is the impoverished aristocrat who retains a keen sense of social superiority. In The Grandfather, one of Pérez Galdós’s most successful dramas from both the commercial and the literary standpoint, the aging Count of Albrit, Don Rodrigo de Arista-Potestad, returns from an unsuccessful venture in Peru to his family lands in the north of Spain. Now penniless, the count must accept hospitality from Venancio and his wife, Gregoria, former tenant-farmers on the Albrit estate who are currently the owners of the manor, known as La Pardina. Don Rodrigo’s son has died, and his daughter-in-law, Lucrecia, Countess of Laín, is a foreigner and a libertine who has engaged in several affairs. Her daughters, Dolly and Nell, live at La Pardina with Venancio and Gregoria.
The play’s plot and philosophical message revolve around the paternity of Don Rodrigo’s two grandchildren, Dolly and Nell. When the count learns that one of the girls is not the daughter of his deceased son and therefore not a legitimate Albrit, he is torn with anguish. Proud, arrogant, and obsessed with his bygone glory, he seeks desperately to verify which granddaughter is genuine and which is fraudulent, but Don Rodrigo is nearly blind and cannot distinguish between them. In any event, the physical evidence is inconclusive, and both girls seem to love the count equally. Furthermore, both are independent and rebellious. There seems to be no unmistakable sign of the superiority of either one. Don Rodrigo’s sightlessness symbolizes his doubt or inability to “see” the truth.
The only clue is that Dolly (the illegitimate granddaughter) is a talented painter; her mother’s lover was an artist. Don Rodrigo, however, sees Dolly’s gift only as an indication of her greater sensitivity. Throughout most of the play, he grapples with evidence—all of it circumstantial—and finally reaches the conclusion that Dolly is his legitimate heir, for he sees in her the pride, loyalty, and hauteur he associates with the aristocracy.
Like Pérez Galdós’s finest novelistic creations, the Count of Albrit is a complex character who is both pathetic and irritating, lovable and abominable. An irascible old man who insists on having his own way, he demands submissiveness from all who surround him. Given his circumstances, his pretentiousness is as offensive as it is absurd. Although Pérez Galdós is known as a realist, his characters are often distortions in which one or two features are exaggerated. Indignant when he is not served the finest coffee and infuriated that his servant is taken away, Don Rodrigo borders on the caricaturesque. The shabby old man does elicit sympathy, however, for he has been deeply afflicted by the death of his son and suffers greatly from his present disgrace. Furthermore, the anguish that his uncertainty causes him is genuine. The count truly loves Dolly and Nell, and the knowledge that one of them is not of his blood torments him. The image of Don Rodrigo, known as the Lion of Albrit, struggling to hold on to his dignity amid the vestiges of his shattered world, is deeply moving.
In his prologue to Los condenados, Pérez Galdós wrote: “The goal of every dramatic work is to interest and move the audience, snaring its attention, exciting an interest in the issue and creating an attachment to the characters, so that a perfect fusion is achieved between real life, contained in the public’s mind, and the imaginary world that the actors create on the stage.” Typically, each of Pérez Galdós’s plays revolves around one central issue—philosophical, social, political, or moral—that was of concern to his audience and which he elucidated through the creation of interesting, psychologically complex characters. This fusion of the abstract and the tangible is beautifully achieved in all the author’s best works.
In The Grandfather, the central problem is lineage. Which of the girls, Nell or Dolly, has inherited her grandfather’s nobility? The count becomes convinced that Dolly is an authentic descendant of the Arista-Potestad line when she flies into fury at the suggestion that her grandfather be forced to leave the family estate. In his eyes, Dolly displays the fierceness and sense of honor that define her as a true aristocrat, while Nell, who is willing to let her grandfather be taken away, lacks these qualities. After reassessing Nell’s behavior, he concludes that she is somewhat frivolous and vulgar. When it turns out that Dolly is the spurious granddaughter, Don Rodrigo is forced to admit that love, not the superficial bonds of name and lineage, is the essence of a relationship; it is Dolly, not Nell, who not only defends him but sacrifices everything to stay with him. The work ends somewhat melodramatically, as the grandfather rejects those values to which he had always adhered: “I see now that the thoughts, calculations, and resolutions of human beings are worth nothing. All of that is rust that crumbles and falls. . . . What is inside is what remains. . . . The soul does not oxidize. . . . My child . . . love . . . the eternal truth.” Once he has rejected the old order and accepted a new, healthier outlook, the count achieves a sense of liberation. The naturalists of the late nineteenth century—Emilia Pardo Bazán and Leopoldo Alas, for example—had stressed the role of heredity in the development of the individual. Pérez Galdós does not deny the role of heredity (Dolly has inherited her father’s artistic talent), but he does stress that emotional ties are far more meaningful than blood ties.
Pérez Galdós produced an impressive number of strong female characters. In addition to Dolly, Isidora of Voluntad and Victoria of La loca de la casa are admirable for their determination and energy. Yet not all the women who populate Pérez Galdós’s plays are positive characters. Perfecta (Doña Perfecta), Augusta (Realidad), and Bárbara (Bárbara) are examples of women whose egotism and mistaken values cause heartbreak or disaster.
As in Pérez Galdós’s novels, the name of a character is often the key to his or her personality. For example, in The Grandfather, Arista (Don Rodrigo’s paternal surname) means “bristle,” and Potestad (his maternal surname) means “power.” Thus, he is a bristling, irritatingly rigid aristocrat. Lucrecia’s name is an ironic reference to the Roman heroine who prided herself on her virtue. Don Pío Coronado (pious, tonsured cleric), the sisters’ tutor, is virtuous to the point of foolishness, for he allows everyone to abuse him; the name of Don Salvador Ángulo (savior, angel), who is a doctor, is an allusion to the saving power of science; the name of the mayor, Don José Monedero (counterfeiter), suggests the corruption of politicians. Similarly, in Celia en los infiernos, Don Infinito’s name suggests the fantasy world in which he lives; in La loca de la casa, Victoria’s name suggests her “victory”; in Doña Perfecta, Perfecta’s name is an ironic allusion to her self-righteousness—she believes herself to be perfect but is actually a domineering, destructive woman.
The strength of Pérez Galdós’s drama lies not only in his creation of memorable characters but also in his depiction of social tensions. In The Grandfather, the characters of inferior lineage take pains to show the count courtesy—at least, at first—but their adherence to etiquette becomes increasingly transparent. Venancio, Gregoria, and Senén (a former servant of Lucrecia) smolder with resentment at the count’s pretentiousness. A sense of repressed hostility charges the atmosphere. When, at last, the animosity surfaces and explodes, the count is forced to come to terms with his circumstances.
Pérez Galdós’s characters are never mere mouthpieces for the author’s own convictions. Although Pérez Galdós was sympathetic to the lower classes and critical of the aristocracy, he created small-minded, antagonistic peasants such as Venancio and Gregoria, and opportunistic, social-climbing servants such as Senén. None of his aristocrats is truly hateful, and some are actually attractive. In spite of his own anticlerical leanings, Pérez Galdós presents a progressive priest in Mariucha.
Pérez Galdós was far too subtle an artist to produce characters or situations that are clear-cut. He understood the fundamental ambiguity of all human reality. He conveys a degree of sympathy for almost all of his characters, even those who embrace mistaken ideals. The conventional villain is nearly absent from his theater. Pérez Galdós shows that every reality is multifaceted, and it is precisely this perspectivism that prevents his works from becoming mere thesis plays.
A Meticulous Talent
Pérez Galdós was meticulous in his attention to detail. He took great pains to be accurate in his depiction of characters and their surroundings in both his contemporary and his historical dramas. He investigated his subjects thoroughly, often traveling to different parts of Spain and even to other countries in order to create accurate settings. He went to Paris in order to research the staging of the pastorela in Alma y vida. In La fiera, Alma y vida, Bárbara, Alceste, and Santa Juana de Castilla, Pérez Galdós displayed the same care for historical authenticity as he did in the Episodios nacionales.
Pérez Galdós was equally careful in his re-creation of language. His characters speak a lively, conversational Spanish imbued with the savor of their class and surroundings. In like manner, his historical plays reproduce language that is appropriate to the period he depicts.
Benevolence as a Theme
Pérez Galdós worked with a wide variety of themes, although the need for benevolence and humanitarianism is a constant in a large part of his work. In several of his plays, he examines different aspects of tyranny. In La fiera, for example, he explores the kind that is practiced in the name of an ideal. In El tacaño Salomón, he deals with the problems of avarice and charity. In Electra and Doña Perfecta, he condemns religious fanatics and empty, ritualistic Catholicism. Several dramas treat moral deviations or sexual infractions. In most cases, Pérez Galdós displays tolerance, even indulgence toward characters who stray from the accepted code of behavior, especially when their repentance is sincere. In the case of characters who are deliberately cruel, however, he is less flexible. Although there is playfulness and irony in many of Pérez Galdós’s plays, Pedro Minio is his only real comedy.