René Marqués Introduction - Essay

Introduction

René Marqués 1919–1979

Puerto Rican playwright, short story writer, novelist, essayist, and poet.

The following entry provides critical discussion of Marques's work through 1992.

Widely recognized as the dominant Puerto Rican literary figure of the 1950s and 1960s, Marqués was a prolific, charismatic advocate of Puerto Rican national sovereignty. He wrote numerous award-winning short stories, essays and two novels, but he is best known for his innovative dramas, exemplified by La carreta (1953; The Oxcart), Los soles truncos (1958; The Fanlights), and Un niño azul para esa sombra (1960; A Blue Boy for That Shadow)—considered by many critics his finest. Associated with the group of nationalistic Latin-American intellectuals known as the "Generation of the Forties," Marqués expressed forceful resistance to Western cultural and political influence, especially as exerted by the United States. His prophetic plays confront the pernicious effects of colonialism, industrialization, and the rapid erosion of traditional, rural island life. Through skillful adaptation of contemporary Western literature and his own experiments with theatrical device, Marqués introduced new standards of excellence to his own national literature and achieved an international reputation.

Biographical Information

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Marqués received a rural upbringing on his grandparents' haciendas, where he learned the conservative values and agrarian life idealized in his writings. He earned a degree in agronomy at the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in 1942, and two years later resigned a position with the Department of Agriculture to publish Peregrinación (1944), his first and only book of poetry. In 1946 he departed for Spain to study literature at the University of Madrid, where he wrote his first drama, El hombre y sus sueños (1973; The Man and His Dreams). The next year he returned to Puerto Rico, founded a small theater group in Arecibo, and contributed regular literary reviews to several newspapers and journals in San Juan. With the aid of a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship, Marqués left for the United States in 1949 to study drama at Columbia University, where he wrote Palm Sunday (1953) in a workshop, his only English-language play. That year he also won the first of many Ateneo awards with his short story "El miedo" ("Fear"), included in the collection Otro dia nuestro (1955; Another Day of Ours). After a brief tour of experimental American theaters, Marqués returned to Puerto Rico in 1950 to begin his most significant creative period. He established the Experimental Theater of the Atheneum in 1951, then achieved critical acclaim with consecutive performances of The Oxcart in New York, San Juan, and Madrid. In 1957 he moved to the United States, this time with a Guggenheim Fellowship, to begin writing his semi-autobiographical first novel, La víspera del hombre (1959; The Eve of Man). Marqués eventually returned to his native land, where he continued to produce well-received works of fiction, plays, and essays, including his literary manifesto, Pesimismo literario y optimiso politico: Su coexistencia en el Puerto Rico actual (1959; Literary Pessimism and Political Optimism: Their Coexistence in Contemporary Puerto Rico). He served as editorial director with the Department of Public Instruction from 1953 to 1969, and as a professor of literature at the University of Puerto Rico from 1969 until his retirement in 1976.

Major Works

Marqués's dramas consistently scrutinize the dissipation of Puerto Rican national identity, cultural heritage, and traditional values. Dominated by themes of guilt, betrayal and sacrificial redemption, his socio-political commentary is typically accentuated by complex symbolism and evocative dramatic technique. Such elements are evident in his earliest plays, from the allegorical characters and expressionistic setting of The Man and His Dreams, to the patriotic realism of Palm Sunday and his initial experiments with temporal juxtaposition in El sol y los MacDonald (1950; The Sun and the MacDonalds). The Oxcart represents his first popular success and marks the beginning of Marqués's artistic maturity. To a large extent this work embodies the salient characteristics of his most effective subsequent productions, especially the integration of lighting, sound effects, and the prominent recurring motif of cultural disorientation. The play traces the fortunes of a Puerto Rican peasant family lured from ancestral lands to seek economic prosperity in the city. Their circular route, suggested by the ominous offstage sound of cart wheels, leads them through the slums of San Juan, New York City, and finally back to their native land to recover from dejection and loss. The Fanlights similarly demonstrates the lethal effect of modern progress on an unprepared, agricultural society. Unlike the adventurous family of The Oxcart, this work features three reclusive sisters whose voluntary isolation comes to an abrupt end when one of them dies. Impoverished and faced with selling the family mansion, the two surviving sisters set fire to the house and perish inside rather than endure forced exposure to the detested outside world. More overtly political, La muerte no entrará en palacio (1959; Death Shall Not Enter the Palace) is a satire with tragic pretensions. The work, which is viewed as a denunciation of the American extension of Commonwealth status to Puerto Rico in 1952, features a main character who bears strong resemblance to real-life Puerto Rican governor Muñoz Marín. In this historical reinterpretation, a failed assassination attempt drives the national leader and his family into a fortified palace, where he becomes tyrannical and resorts to brutish self-preservation. His daughter ultimately ends the hopeless situation by murdering him as he is signing away his country's independence. Generally regarded as his consummate work, A Blue Boy for That Shadow explores the irreconcilable perception of illusion and reality in the mind of the child protagonist, Michelín. When his father abandons the family to pursue a political cause, the idealistic boy is left to his materialistic mother who comfortably subsists on a family fortune while enjoying effete entertainments. Her poisoning of a tree becomes the complex metaphor for lost security, the death of heroic ideals, and the betrayal of Puerto Rican freedom. As in The Fanlights, the convergence of past, present, and future is achieved through flashbacks and daydreams, creating multiple levels of reality and a temporal circularity reminiscent of The Oxcart. In the end, disparaged and unable to establish his own identity amid his parents' contradictory values, Michelín commits suicide and becomes a symbol of Puerto Rican sacrifice and self-destruction.

Critical Reception

Consistently praised for his stylistic accomplishment and tireless innovation, Marqués was among the most gifted Hispanic writers of his generation. Though he emerged from the relative obscurity of his own country to achieve international recognition during the 1960s, his influence on younger writers had noticeably waned by the end of the decade. The nostalgic, conservative values and tenacious patriotism that once sustained his literary agenda was judged repetitious and anachronistic by some. Even at the height of his influence, Marqués was faulted for his melodramatic theatrics and overly complex symbolism. Despite his opposition to Western cultural hegemony, Marqués was not averse to assimilating the current literary forms of North America and Europe for his own purposes. Many of his dramas and prose works contain studied allusions to Greek mythology and feature existentialist underpinnings. Marqués remains an outstanding figure in Puerto Rican literature for his technical contributions to the theater of that land, his commitment to the writing profession, and his persistent efforts to draw attention to issues concerning Puerto Rican society and independence.