Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2571
Gregorio Martínez Sierra’s prolific output transcends any brief attempt at analysis. One can, however, analyze the various styles, techniques, and dramatic themes that make his drama unique. Concerning his style, there is a definite movement away from the abstract and poetic language of the modernist mode to a more concrete and realistic portrayal of life. Although his style acquired an ever greater simplicity, his themes remained relatively constant. For example, there is a profound faith in nature’s healing qualities, as well as a strong moralistic overtone in almost all of his plays. It was not until 1910, however, that Martínez Sierra developed the dramatic formula that would become synonymous with his name. With the premiere of El ama de la casa, Martínez Sierra combined a simple and direct style with the recurring theme of maternal love. Given the substantial contributions of María Martínez Sierra, it is not surprising that the women in Martínez Sierra’s plays are more believable than the men. In Spanish society, which frequently stereotyped its women as either pure and innocent maidens to be cared for by their husbands, or dangerous and alluring temptresses to be encountered as prostitutes or mistresses, the plays of the Martínez Sierras reminded audiences that women transcend any stereotype and are more than capable of contributing equally with men to society’s well-being.
Martínez Sierra’s theatrical career as dramatist and director spanned almost the entire first half of the twentieth century. Beginning in 1907, with his first dramatic production, Vida y dulzura, his presence on the Spanish stage continued to grow in stature. For example, four years later, in 1911, with the performance of The Cradle Song, he was given one of the Spanish Royal Academy’s highest recognitions when his play was chosen as that year’s outstanding drama. The three decades that were to follow saw the production of more than forty original plays, as well as the direction of many other Spanish and foreign dramas. During the years 1916 through 1924, he managed his own drama company, producing highly acclaimed plays from Madrid’s Eslava Theater and introducing many innovative techniques in the art of directing. Although the last decade of his life was lived mostly outside Spain, first in the United States and later in Argentina, his influence both within and without his mother country continued unabated until his death in 1947. Because of the large number of plays credited to Martínez Sierra, the analysis of individual dramas will focus on those plays that are considered most representative.
Martínez Sierra’s early drama reflected a modernist heritage characterized by a rather languid style, melancholy in tone and moralistic in content. Nevertheless, there is a definite progression away from the ethereal and toward the concrete. Through the influence of Santiago Rusiñol, the renowned Catalonian dramatist, Martínez Sierra began to cultivate a simple and more direct style that focused on the everyday domestic occurrences that would be more likely to please the Spanish public.
Teatro de ensueño
Martínez Sierra’s initial attempt at theater, Teatro de ensueño (dream theater), consisted of a collection of modernist pieces that, for the most part, lacked the necessary dramatic tension to be produced onstage. Nevertheless, it included a work entitled Saltimbanquis (the tumblers), which was later set to music. Teatro de ensueño’s first dramatic sketch, “Por el sendero florido” (along the flowery path), tells of the grief experienced by a young man whose wife literally works herself to death for love of her husband. A source of joy to her husband when alive, she becomes an even greater blessing to him when he associates his wife’s love with the life-giving warmth of the sun.
The second piece, “Pastoral,” depicts, in allegorical terms, humankind’s often misguided quest for happiness. The protagonist, Alcino, represents Everyman, as he searches for his idyllic Sun Queen. Unable to recognize the pure and innocent love of his companion Rosa María, who represents opportunity, Alcino loses his chance for true love. Nevertheless, he has learned the important lesson that happiness often is very close at hand if one but opens one’s eyes.
Teatro de ensueño’s third sketch is entitled “Cuento de labios en flor” (story of lips in flower). Of the three sketches, this is the most poetic. Two sisters, Blanca and Rosalina, fall in love with a young artist. Their love for each other, however, moves each one to sacrifice her own happiness for that of the other. Each sister throws herself into a stream so that the other might experience the artist’s love. All ends well when they are reunited through nature as two water lilies.
Although these poetic sketches, with their clear moral teachings, resemble stylized parables rather than complex human dramas, they do possess, in embryonic form, the seeds of dramatic conflict that would come to full fruition by 1911. For example, from the protagonist of “Pastoral” would develop the more believable yet equally weak-willed and dependent male characters of Martínez Sierra’s later plays. Similarly, the self-sacrificing wife of “Por el sendero florido” and the sisters of “Cuento de labios en flor” foreshadow the strong-willed, self-sacrificing, and intelligent female characters that have come to be associated with his better-known dramas.
Vida y dulzura
Martínez Sierra’s first play performed for a Madrid audience, Vida y dulzura, was written in collaboration with Santiago Rusiñol. The dramatic action revolves around a young woman’s quest to choose her own destiny. Reared in a highly intellectual atmosphere, Marcela has acquired a true love of learning and scientific investigation. Nevertheless, she sees in her parents’ fondness for intellectual pursuits a certain lack of openness and spontaneity. Although her parents hope that she will marry the learned but dull Dr. Dalmau, she finds herself attracted to Enrique, a pleasant young man whose simple manner fails to impress Marcela’s parents. By her shrewdness, Marcela eventually convinces both the doctor and her parents that she must follow the dictates of her heart and not the well-meaning but sterile wishes of others. Vida y dulzura is an uncomplicated play with a simple message: Life, if it is to have meaning, must be experienced fully. One must follow one’s heart as well as one’s head.
Juventud, divino tesoro
In Juventud, divino tesoro (youth, that divine treasure), an aging Don Juan named Emilio finds himself deeply attracted to his innocent and beautiful niece, Clara. The young girl easily deceives herself into thinking that her uncle’s love is all she would ever want in life until she encounters Pedro, a handsome cousin, who convinces her that she is meant to love someone her own age. The uncle, who at first refuses to accept the loss of Clara, is urged to forget his own hurt by devoting himself to the needs of others. Although this play met with only modest success, it is worthy of comment for several reasons: First, it was Martínez Sierra’s first performed play that was credited to his name alone. Second, the play’s very simple plot reappeared ten years later, but more developed this time, in the very popular drama Rosina es frágil (Rosina is fragile). Last, this play introduced the theme of loving service to others as an efficacious way of overcoming one’s loneliness. This motif would reappear many times in subsequent plays, especially in his religious dramas, which focus on convent life.
La sombra del padre
La sombra del padre is of special interest in that its central figure, unlike the majority of Martínez Sierra’s protagonists, is a male character. Don José is a successful man who has come home to his family after seventeen years in Argentina, where he has worked diligently in order to provide a secure and comfortable life for his wife and seven children. The father’s disillusionment over his children’s lack of respect for work is heightened by his belief that his wife has not sacrificed herself enough for her children, as a loving mother should. Don José decides to return to Argentina with their youngest son so that at least one child might learn the proper value of work. Although she is a weak and submissive wife, Feliciana demonstrates more insight than her husband when she begs him to stay with the family because the children need both a father’s authoritative voice and a mother’s loving support. In the end, Don José accedes to the wishes of his wife, and the play ends on an optimistic note that together they might provide both a spiritually and materially secure home for their children. In many of Martínez Sierra’s plays, the female protagonist is the dominant figure, while her male counterpart lacks strength of character and is unable to confront the ordinary responsibilities associated with adulthood.
El ama de la casa
El ama de la casa (mistress of the house) was pivotal in Martínez Sierra’s artistic development, for it marked the moment when he as a dramatist found the dramatic formula that he would employ repeatedly during the next two decades with unparalleled success. (It should be recalled here that when using the name Martínez Sierra or the pronouns “he” and “his,” one is referring either to the collaborative work of María and Gregorio Martínez Sierra or to María’s work alone.) Beginning with this play, his style would be simple and direct, and his female protagonist would be an intelligent, self-sacrificing, and capable woman, sometimes a loving wife, other times a virgin, but always a woman filled with the desire to lose herself in the service of others. His recurring theme would be the idea of maternal love, a love characterized by a willingness to renounce one’s own desires in order to serve the needs of those under one’s charge.
In El ama de la casa, the protagonist is Carlota, a childless widow who marries a widower who has three nearly grown children. The play focuses on Carlota’s ability to bring order, peace, and prosperity to a household that has sorely missed the loving but strong hand of a dedicated mother. Carlota not only fulfills her wifely and motherly responsibilities with a fervor that is truly admirable but also takes over her husband’s failing business affairs and manages to rescue him from financial disaster. In a sense, Carlota mothers both her husband and his children. In an important scene, in which Carlota defends her motherly concern for and active involvement in the affairs of her husband and children, she defines the essence of woman as being nothing more and nothing less than that of being a mother.
The Cradle Song
In The Cradle Song, his best-known play, Martínez Sierra breaks with traditional dramatic structure, wherein human conflict is developed to its eventual climax and subsequent cathartic effects. Instead, he chooses to focus on two significant moments within the lives of a group of cloistered nuns. In act 1 of The Cradle Song, an abandoned baby is discovered by one of the sisters. This providential event causes myriad reactions on the part of the nuns, awakening in them their dormant urge to nurture new life. When the town doctor offers to adopt the child, the sisters agree to rear it within the loving atmosphere of their community. When the second act begins, eighteen years have passed. It is the day that the grown child, Teresa, is to be married and, therefore, leave her convent family behind. As in the first act, the audience witnesses the profound effects such a momentous event produces in the lives of these virgin mothers. The innovative structure of The Cradle Song allows Martínez Sierra to explore in depth the maternal instinct present within the feminine psyche. It should be recalled that for Martínez Sierra, women were meant, above all, to be mothers. If their maternal instinct were to be smothered or interfered with in any way, a noticeable change either in their personality or in their health most assuredly would occur.
Act 1 focuses on the sisters’ way of sublimating their maternal inclinations. One sister suffers from imaginary illnesses, while another regularly dreams of escape. One young nun has no appetite and cries repeatedly for seemingly no reason. With the arrival of Teresa, the nuns are given the opportunity to express their motherly instincts in a normal, healthy manner. One nun, in particular, is given the responsibility of caring for the child. In her assigned role as principal mother, Sister Juana blossoms into a tender and loving woman. In contrast, the community’s vicaress refuses to allow herself to express her maternal feelings toward Teresa and is portrayed as a cold and bitter woman whose feminine interior remains hidden behind a hardened and cold exterior. In order to underline the drama’s principal message, Martínez Sierra presents a lyric interlude extolling woman’s intrinsic need to express her motherly feelings. Because of its idyllic setting, The Cradle Song is frequently viewed as a sentimental portrayal of idealized maternal love. When one reflects, however, on the sisters’ natural inclination to love selflessly the innocent child given to their charge, and their profound frustration on being forced to renounce this love, there is an implied criticism of woman’s lot in society.
In general, as noted previously, the female protagonist in Martínez Sierra’s plays far outshines the lead male character. Whereas she is usually intelligent, sensitive, and strong-willed, he is narrow-minded, impetuous, and insecure. Nevertheless, in Seamos felices (let’s be happy), the male protagonist, although ultimately the one who is brought to a new awareness through the wise counsel of his wife, is not so much her inferior as her partner and friend. Moreover, the focus in this play changes from that of a woman’s struggle to achieve happiness in a male-dominated society to that of a husband’s and wife’s quest to experience the joy that springs from a mutual willingness to share each other’s talents.
Fernanda and Emilio are a happily married couple. When financial problems arise, Fernanda, who is an excellent pianist, tells her husband that she has been asked to make a concert tour that will contribute greatly to their financial situation. At first, Emilio refuses to allow his wife to share in accepting the family’s economic responsibilities, for to allow Fernanda to help support the two of them would imply that he has failed in one of his basic manly duties. Fernanda’s commonsensical approach to her husband’s refusal, however, convinces Emilio that his wife’s sincere offer to share responsibly, as an equal, is the best way to ensure true conjugal bliss. When one recalls the titles of such earlier dramas as Cada uno y su vida (to each his own) and Mujer (woman), which seem to pit female against male in an ageless struggle of the sexes, the “us” of Seamos felices indicates a certain maturity and depth of understanding on the part of Martínez Sierra concerning the male-female relationship. Indeed, Seamos felices’s fundamental message that true equality between the sexes will exist when each person is open to the other’s talents and potential make this play a timeless representation of the human condition.
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