Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo Critical Essays

Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo wrote only eleven dramatic pieces. His first five dramas, three of which were one-act plays, are generally regarded as belonging to his formative period as a playwright. Phaedra, written in 1910 though not staged until 1918 (in the Ateneo in Madrid), is the first of the six major plays of his maturity as a dramatist. Using Euripides’ Hippolytos (428 b.c.e.; Hippolytus, 1781) as his starting point, Unamuno developed its plot differently and set the action in contemporary Spain.


In harmony with his own ideas about the theater, expounded in various essays on the theater but especially in La regeneración del teatro español (the regeneration of the Spanish theater) and Teatro de teatro (theater of theater), Phaedra is an example of simple or “naked” theater: no staging except for a sheet in the background, a table and chairs; the six characters (called “persons,” not personages, by the author) in street clothes; no makeup or special lighting; and total unity of place in its three acts. In short, Unamuno believed in a return to simplicity with almost total reliance on dialogue. Anything seen onstage, including action, Unamuno insisted, should be avoided unless it reinforces what is heard. At the end of the play, for example, even Phaedra’s death is communicated to the audience through dialogue.

In the first act, Phaedra reveals to Hipólito (Hippolytus), her stepson by virtue of her recent marriage to Pedro, her passionate carnal love for him. Hipólito rejects her. In the second act, after an interval during which Hipólito has carefully managed to avoid the desperate Phaedra, he is again approached by her. Again he rejects her despite her threat to accuse him falsely to Pedro of making amorous advances to her. When she carries out her threat, Hipólito nobly declines to defend himself, thus creating a rift between him and his father. The act ends with Phaedra’s desperate contemplation of suicide.

In act 3, Phaedra, having attempted suicide, lies dying. Hipólito, who had left home, is summoned. He arrives in time to talk alone briefly with Phaedra before she expires. She leaves for Pedro a written confession of her false accusation of Hipólito. Thus, the play ends with the reconciliation in grief of father and son.

Through avoidance of sentimentality and of excessive intellectualization (so common in Unamuno’s work); through great naturalness of dialogue and the creation of a lifelike situation; through the avoidance of explicit moralizing; and through sensible utilization of the mythological theme, Phaedra becomes convincingly realistic in its impact. A staunch believer in the implicit didactic purpose of art, Unamuno insisted that art, if truly representative of reality, teaches its own moral lesson. Unamuno proposed to write not traditional theater but theater directed at the inner consciousness, the inner reality of the spectator (or reader). Phaedra and the five full-length dramas that followed belong to what Iris M. Zavala (Unamuno y su teatro de conciencia, 1963) calls “theater of consciousness”—that is, a theater of “inner reality.” Following the author’s custom of not allowing publication of his plays until after they had been staged, Phaedra was not published until 1921.


After 1910, Unamuno, apparently disheartened by the poor reception accorded his plays by both the critics and the theatergoing public, temporarily abandoned the theater, turning instead to lyric poetry. Eleven years elapsed before he wrote his next play, Soledad (solitude), like Phaedra a three-act drama set in contemporary Spain. Although written in 1921, it was not staged until 1953, long after the author’s death; it was published in 1954.

In act 1, Agustín, an idealistic dramatist who strongly resembles Unamuno, discusses the “world” of the theater in contrast to that of politics. Pressured by his wife, Soledad, who is jealous of Gloria, the actress who plays the leading feminine roles in her husband’s plays, and by Pablo, a local politician, Agustín decides at the end of the act to enter politics. The setting for this act is Agustín’s home: A picture of the couple’s dead infant son is prominently placed on a desk, while the son’s playhorse occupies a corner of the room. Childless since her son’s death, Soledad is obviously obsessed with the desire to be a mother.

The setting for act 2 is the same as for act 1. An indefinite period of time has passed between acts, enough for Agustín to have failed totally in politics. He is now regarded as a political criminal and is in hiding in his own home. Obsessed with the problem of reality, Agustín rants and raves about the world of politics being a farce, less “real” than the life of the theater he forsook for it. Fact and fiction become utterly confused in his mind, and he regresses to a kind of childhood in which he desires only Soledad (“solitude”). To him, she represents reality. Meanwhile, Sofía, his mother, who has suffered a severe stroke between acts, sits throughout act 2 speaking...

(The entire section is 2148 words.)