Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1228

Because the literary Gregorio Martínez Sierra (mahr-tee-nays syehr-rah) is actually two people, Gregorio and his wife, María (née de la O Lejárraga García), a focus on both individuals is essential to illuminate the circumstances surrounding the artistic development of one of Spain’s most popular dramatists. Both Gregorio and María were born to middle-class Castilian families, Gregorio in 1881 and María in 1874.

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Whereas Gregorio was reared in a staunch Catholic setting, María was taught from her earliest years to question traditional beliefs. As a young boy, Gregorio manifested general attraction to literature and a specific love for the theater. It was in 1897 that Gregorio and María met for the first time. Gregorio was a shy individual but found himself deeply attracted to María, who was seven years his senior. Their mutual love of literature seemed to fuse their lives inexorably together. Years later, as their marriage began to deteriorate, the literary union that initially had brought them together seemed to intensify.

After their marriage in 1900, María supported the two of them by teaching, allowing Gregorio free rein to pursue his literary interests. In 1901, he founded the first of three periodicals, Vida moderna, which survived for only four issues. Undaunted by this failure and encouraged by the support of such established writers as Juan Ramón Jiménez, Ramón Pérez de Ayala, and Pedro González Blanco, he cofounded the respected but ephemeral periodical Helios.

In 1904, his novel La humilde verdad (the humble truth) won third prize in a literary contest. This success led to a commission to write another novel. María took the opportunity to suggest that Gregorio and she take a short vacation from Spain. Gregorio’s health had been weakening, and she was afraid that if they remained in Madrid he might fall prey to tuberculosis. In 1905, they left for Paris, where in the succeeding weeks they had the good fortune to meet several influential artists who, in later years, would collaborate with Gregorio. While María worked on the novel Ana Mariá, Gregorio returned with the well-known Catalonian dramatist Santiago Rusiñol to Madrid, where they worked on a Castilian version of Rusiñol’s play Buena gente (1906; good people).

When Gregorio returned to Paris, María and he decided to tour Europe together. Once Gregorio’s health seemed substantially restored, they returned to Madrid, where, in 1907, two fateful events awaited them: the performance of their first play, Vida y dulzura (life and sweetness), which was written in collaboration with their good friend Rusiñol, and Gregorio’s initial encounter with the actress Catalina Bárcena. Catalina was to become Gregorio’s mistress, and together they would dominate the Spanish theater, he as Spain’s leading director and she as his leading actress. María would be the invisible force behind her husband’s rising fame, writing many of the plays that would be credited to Gregorio.

With the successful performance of La sombra del padre (the father’s shadow) in 1909, Gregorio found himself in the position of being courted by the theater establishment. By now he was amorously involved with Catalina. He suggested that María and he take a vacation in Italy but that she should go on ahead of him while he completed business in Madrid. It was during this critical time in their marital relationship when the inspiration for their most renowned play was born. While in Nice and Florence, María visited many Catholic churches, where she was attracted to the beautiful portrayals of the Virgin holding her child. The idea of a virgin mother prompted María to focus on the concept of maternity. She discussed this idea with Gregorio, and two years later, The Cradle Song was to captivate the imagination of the entire Spanish people, winning the Royal Academy’s prize for best work of 1911.

Except for a sudden bout with typhoid fever in 1911, the remainder of Gregorio’s life was filled with innumerable successes. While he enjoyed the public’s adulation, María remained quietly in the background, writing the plays that would bear Gregorio’s name.

In 1915 and 1916, Gregorio collaborated with Spain’s most prominent composer, Manuel de Falla, to produce two very successful musicals, El amor brujo (love’s sorcery) and El sombrero de tres picos (the three-cornered hat). After a year of touring the provinces with Catalina, Gregorio decided to found his own theater company with Catalina as his leading actress. For eight years, from 1916 to 1924, the Eslava Theater in Madrid would present some of the most avant-garde dramas in Spain.

Gregorio, because of the highly successful writing of his wife, is known as one of Spain’s finest dramatists. It should be recalled, however, that his personal strength lay in directing. Considered by his contemporaries to be Spain’s premier director, he introduced many innovative techniques to the art of directing. For example, he is credited with separating the art of directing from that of staging and set design.

While Gregorio was running his theater, María found herself attracted to the international feminist movement. During these years, she wrote several volumes of essays on the modern woman’s role in society. In 1922, Catalina gave birth to a girl, precipitating Gregorio’s formal separation from María. From 1924 until 1930, Gregorio and Catalina toured with their theater group throughout Europe and the Americas, returning to Madrid in 1929 to open two new plays, La hora del diablo (the Devil’s hour) and Take Two from One. María, in the meantime, divided her time between Madrid and Nice. Besides continuing to work on new plays, she involved herself quite seriously in the Socialist and feminist movements. The physical separation between María and Gregorio caused economic complications for María. Because all the royalties went to Gregorio, he decided, in 1930, that María should receive the royalties of all their works produced outside Spain.

In 1931, Gregorio and Catalina went to Hollywood, where, for four years, Gregorio worked in the film industry. María, back in Spain, became more and more politically committed. She successfully ran as a Socialist candidate for a seat in the Republic’s Cortes (legislative body), which she held until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936. Following the outbreak of war, María went to Switzerland, and then on to Nice, where she settled. Gregorio and Catalina fled to Argentina, where they continued their theatrical and filming activities.

Gregorio’s health began to deteriorate. Suffering from a severe abdominal illness, he returned to Spain in 1947, where he died of cancer on October 1, two weeks after his arrival home. María resided in Nice until 1950, when she left for the United States in the hope of selling some of her stories to the Walt Disney Studios. Unsuccessful in this attempt, María left, in 1953, for Mexico, where she published her autobiographical account titled Gregorio y yo (Gregorio and I).

From 1953 to 1974, María lived in Buenos Aires, where she remained active, writing articles for various periodicals until her death on June 28, 1974. Gregorio and María Martínez Sierra, together, dominated the Spanish stage for most of the first half of the twentieth century. The unique literary partnership that they shared gave to the world some of the most tender and loving scenes the Spanish theater has ever produced.

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