José Echegaray y Eizaguirre Analysis
José Echegaray y Eizaguirre’s literary reputation has steadily declined in the last seventy-five years. Surely he was not the dramatist of genius that many of his contemporaries sought to make him out to be, and no modern critic would insist that Echegaray was “the greatest dramatist that Spain has produced for two hundred years,” as Elizabeth R. Hunt stated in her 1914 introduction to Hannah Lynch’s translation of The Great Galeoto. Yet Folly or Saintliness, The Great Galeoto, and The Son of Don Juan, by virtue of technique and scope, bear comparison with anything written in Europe during the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century. They secure for Echegaray a rightful place in a critical survey of world drama.
Echegaray’s success derived from his sensitivity to audiences’ tastes and his ability to create a theater that satisfied their expectations. Generally considered a belated romantic, he resurrected the melodramatic plots and the florid language popular in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. Aware of the public’s receptivity to highly emotional plays, he set as his goal a theater based on “weeping, grief, and death.” Although the tone of his dramas can be considered anachronistic, he achieved a degree of modernity and originality in his works through the introduction of contemporary settings and social problems and by gradually discarding legendary settings and the use of verse.
Echegaray’s dramas present the paradox of rigid theatrical logic applied to situations loaded with melodrama. In the execution, development, and conclusion there is an infallible, mathematical clarity. Yet deep down the situation impresses one as being false and often strained; all the characters, it seems, are saints, demons, or freaks, harassed by some passion, idée fixe, or fate that drives them mad or kills them and also brings death and madness to other characters. It is evident that in such theater the flesh-and-bone human being, with all his complexities, rarely appears. Echegaray’s dramas are the dramas of exceptional people in conflict with exceptional circumstances in which fate plays an important role. In the preface to his first social drama, Cómo empieza y cómo acaba (the beginning and the end), produced in 1876, Echegaray explains that his play is determined by the “logic of fatality” that “dominates when moral liberty surrenders to passion its place in the human soul.” A close look at his scores of plays, however, shows clearly that fate as Echegaray conceives it is purely a social phenomenon, the familiar and inevitable opposition of society to the desires of the individual. Echegaray’s plots generally revolve around two central points: honor and a strict sense of duty (imperativo de conciencia). He places his characters in agonizing situations in which they are torn apart by conflict between two duties or a conflict between duty and passion. His concept of honor, the traditional Spanish punto de honor, which involves men’s passionate defense of women’s chastity, is borrowed from Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Romanticism. Echegaray’s concern with conflicts of conscience seems to be inspired by Ibsen or by some ill-defined Christian ethics, but the writer was also a man of his time and very often (particularly after 1880) mixed his basic themes with social and philosophical motifs such as the effects of heredity and environment, and psychological abnormalities, taken from the positivist and naturalistic schools of thought of the late nineteenth century.
Like other dramatists of his generation, Echegaray began by writing traditional romantic dramas such as La esposo del vengador (the avenger’s wife) and En el puño de la espada (at the hilt of the sword); Echegaray, however, soon began to intersperse his historical dramas with others of contemporary setting. As early as 1875, he attempted modern realistic drama with La última noche (the last night), portraying the repentance of a libertine...
(The entire section is 2,989 words.)