Jacinto Benavente y Martínez was the youngest of three sons born to Venancia Martínez, a native of Villarejo de Salvanés, and Dr. Mariano Benavente, a native of Murcia who had struggled to achieve success as a pediatrician. Among his patients were the children of prominent literary and political figures and some of their parents as well; he was director of the Hospital of the Child Jesus, a member of the Royal Academy of Medicine, and a recognized author of professional articles in whose honor a statue was erected in the Retiro Park. Hence, his family was assured a secure place in the upper-middle class of the time. He supervised the education of his children, who had in their home library a wide range of books. He was clearly the stronger figure of the two parents. Biographers of his son agree that the mother remained in the background, attending to the children’s religious and social education, and that she often took her youngest son with her on afternoon visits to her friends. It was during these visits, no doubt, that Benavente was first exposed to the dialogue of middle-class ladies and the bourgeois problems that he was to portray in his plays.
As a child Benavente was quiet and studious. He was an avid reader, fascinated by the theater, who took pleasure in creating skits in which he would appear with his friends. He often dressed as a clergyman, delivering his sermons to playmates and his mother’s guests. He attended the nearby Colegio San José and the Instituto San Isidro without distinction. He read William Shakespeare, Alfred de Musset, and Molière in addition to the Spanish classics. He allegedly learned English, French, and Italian during his adolescent years, and eventually he was able to translate works from those languages into Spanish. After his father’s death in 1885, he gave up his law studies at the University of Madrid, traveled extensively in Europe, and for a brief period acted in the company of the prominent actress María Tubau.
Benavente was accustomed to intellectuals by virtue of his background, and he became active in the tertulias (gatherings) of the literati in the cafés of Madrid. In these cafés, he became friendly with the young writers who would later be dubbed by Azorín (José Martínez Ruiz) the Generation of ’98. One prominent habitué of the tertulia that Benavente attended most frequently, held in the Café Madrid, was Ramon María del Valle-Inclán; when Benavente’s conservatism clashed with Valle-Inclán’s radicalism, they went their separate ways to establish tertulias with their own followers.
Although Benavente is traditionally considered part of the Generation of 1898 , this association should be made only because of his interest in social and artistic reform. He lacked the philosophical convictions and creative genius that characterized the Generation of 1898. He initiated his literary career by publishing a volume of plays in 1892, Teatro fantástico, and, in 1893, one of poems, Versos, and another of essays, Cartas de mujeres. His first performed play, Another’s Nest, was produced with little notice, but Gente conocida, produced shortly afterward, was widely acclaimed. At around this time he succeeded Leopoldo Alas (Clarín) as editor of La vida literaria, and he sporadically contributed to Madrid cómico and other magazines.
Benavente soon became a controversial dramatist. At one point he was so offended by adverse criticism that he swore to write no more plays. He left Spain on a tour of the United States as director of the company of the actress Lola Membrives, the most widely acclaimed interpreter of his plays. During that tour he occasionally acted and often lectured to audiences. He spent the Spanish Civil War years (1936-1939) in Valencia, where the Republican government had established its headquarters; during that period he wrote no plays. In 1949, he resumed residence in Madrid, where he continued to write and lead an active public life until his death. Although he...
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