José Echegaray yEizaguirre Biography

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

José Echegaray y Eizaguirre was born in Madrid, Spain, on April 19, 1832, to a middle-class family of Basque ancestry. When he was an infant, his father moved the family to Murcia, where Echegaray lived the first fourteen years of his life. The boy received a superior education in Murcia, excelling in mathematics and the sciences. In 1846, he returned to Madrid to enter the School of Engineering, where he was graduated first in his class with a degree in civil engineering. Immediately after graduation, he was hired by the Department of Public Works as an engineer in the building of roads in Almería and Granada. Not satisfied with practical work of this kind, Echegaray returned to Madrid in 1858 to become a professor of calculus at his alma mater, a position he held until the Revolution of 1868. Meanwhile, he perfected his knowledge of mathematics and physics and became the most eminent man in Spain in those disciplines. In 1866, at the young age of thirty-four, he was elected to the Academy of Exact Sciences of Madrid.

His second career as a politician and statesman began in 1868 when political conspiracy ended the rule of Isabel II. Echegaray, who had written a few articles criticizing Isabel’s economic policies, was appointed director of public works and secretary of commerce in 1868. A year later, he was elected deputy to parliament, and, at various times, he held the important posts of secretary of the interior and of the treasury. Echegaray’s political activities, however, virtually ended in 1874 with the change in government and the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty.

It was not until Echegaray was forty-two that he produced his first play, El libro talonario, staged in Madrid in 1874. Previously, Echegaray had shown no indication of being interested in the theater or in any other literary activity. As he wrote in his memoirs, the motivating factor in his decision to become a dramatist was a desire to emulate the successful career of his younger brother, Miguel, who was at that time the author of several comedies and zarzuelas (light musical plays). For the next thirty years, Echegaray devoted himself to the theater with his customary vigor, becoming the favorite of public and critics alike. After the 1900’s, when he saw the popularity of his plays wane, Echegaray retired from public life, returning to the spotlight only on one occasion, when he was honored by his countrymen for having received the Nobel Prize. Echegaray died in Madrid on September 15, 1916.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In an autobiographical sonnet about his method of writing, José Echegaray y Eizaguirre (ay-chay-gah-RI ee ay-zah-GEER-ray) once declared: “I choose a passion, an idea indite,/ A problem, situation, or a trait,/ And deep within someone whom I create/ I plant it like a charge of dynamite.”{$S[A]Eizaguirre, José Echegaray y;Echegaray y Eizaguirre, José}{$S[A]Hayaseca, Jorge;Echegaray y Eizaguirre, José}

The explosion engineered by this master of melodrama—an explosion in which the hero reveals his many changes—brought new life to the dull Spanish stage that preceded him. Until the arrival of Jacinto Benavente y Martínez, this dramatist with a Basque name—an engineer, physicist, economist, and academician of the natural sciences—was monarch of the Spanish theater. Though he once declared that his earliest memory as a child of three was of sitting on his mother’s lap in a theater, he had no further connection with the stage until after he was forty. Then, during a quarter century of dramatic activity, he composed a total of sixty-four plays of all types, half in prose and half in verse, combining romanticism with the positivist spirit of his times.

Those who see in the profession of the architect Thomas Hardy the explanation of his well-built novels will also give credit to one of Spain’s greatest mathematicians for his well-figured plots. Echegaray’s times were responsible for the excessive passion of his characters, but only the dramatist can be criticized for the forced conflicts and the abuse of contrived theatrical effects. Yet the powerful and impressive scenes and the intense emotions of the characters gave his audiences no opportunity for cool reflection. Two of his tragedies are considered masterpieces.

Echegaray’s first plays are romantic in tone. El libro talonario (the checkbook), showing that crime is always punished, was written under the pseudonym Jorge Hayaseca in 1874, since its author was minister of the treasury at the time. His La esposo del vengador (the avenger’s wife), later that year, was a success when performed under his own name. Like other plays of this period, it is a morality play in verse blending romanticism with the classicism of the Golden Age. The honor code of Renaissance playwright and poet Pedro Calderón de la Barca, for example, is the basis of Echegaray’s first outstanding play, Folly or Saintliness (also sometimes called “Madman or Saint”), whose theme is that humankind’s chief end is moral perfection. Lorenzo, the protagonist, is impelled by a quixotic sense of honor to put right his false social position even though it brings misfortune to everyone. The play is written in prose.

After a number of lesser successes, Echegaray went back to verse for his second masterpiece, the one preferred by most critics, The Great Galeoto, which attacks the vice of slander. Its universality has been proved by performances in many countries and in seven languages. It was the play chosen to honor the dramatist in 1904 when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

As Echegaray became acquainted with the European theater of his time, playwrights Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Hermann Sudermann increasingly directed his attention to character analysis and realism. In 1885 he abandoned verse in Vida alegre y muerte triste (gay life and sad death), which brought complaints from the public about his morbidity and surrender to naturalism. There were also protests after the performance of The Son of Don Juan, the tragedy of a man who inherits disease from his dissolute father. But crowds still thronged the theater for his last triumph, The Madman Divine, written when he was almost seventy.

Echegaray should be given credit for having guided the Spanish theater to the modern thesis play. If his plays are rarely staged today, the reason is that his pupils have surpassed their teacher. He died in Madrid, the city of his birth, on September 15, 1916.