Xavier Villaurrutia Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Villaurrutia, Xavier 1903-1950

Mexican poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, and novelist.

Xavier Villaurrutia was among the most significant figures in Mexican literature during the first half of the twentieth century. As co-founder and editor of the journals Ulises and Los Contemporáneos, and as a leading figure of the literary groups associated with each, he was a powerful force in Mexican letters during the 1920s and 1930s. Villaurrutia's published only three collections and a fourth volume of previously uncollected poetry; nonetheless his verse, particularly that found in Nostalgia de la muerte (1938; Nostalgia of Death), is highly acclaimed. Villaurrutia's output as a playwright was larger, and of his plays Invitación a la muerte (1943; Invitation to Death) is the most notable. As is evident from the titles of both works, death was a subject of interest to Villaurrutia, and much of his poetry likewise revolves around imagery of nighttime and darkness; however, his later work shows increasing attention to themes of love and rebirth.

Biographical Information

Villaurrutia was born in Mexico City in 1903, the son of a commissions agent and the nephew of Jésus Valenzuela, a figure of minor stature in the Modernist movement within Mexican literature. Villaurrutia attended the French High School of Mexico, and later the Escuela Preparatoria Nacional, where he met other future literary notables such as Salvador Novo, Jaime Torres Bodet, and Jorge Cuesta. Following a short stint in law school, he left his studies to write full-time. Villaurrutia's first poems appeared in 1919, and at this point his work showed the influence of French Symbolists including Francis Jammes, as well as Mexican Modernists including González Martinez and Juan Ramón Jiménez. With Bodet and Bernardo Ortiz de Montellano, he founded the journal La Falange in 1922. During the next years, he published his poems in several literary magazines, and after La Falange ceased operation in 1923, he and Novo founded another magazine, Ulises, in 1927. Short-lived but highly influential, Ulises was followed by yet another publication, Contemporáneos. These journals, through the circles of writers that they spawned, set the tone of the Mexican avant-garde for decades to come, though their universalism would invoke the ire of nationalists such as the left-wing painter Diego Rivera, who created a mural depicting the "Contemporáneos" (as Villaurrutia's circle was called) as traitors to their people. Villaurrutia had meanwhile published his first volume of poetry, Reflejos (1926; Reflections), and through his association with the Contemporáneos, became involved in drama.

The latter put on plays in the home of a wealthy patron, presenting works by Eugene O'Neill, Lord Edward Dunsany, Jean Cocteau, and others. This, too, was an affront to the prevailing mood in Mexican letters, which favored imitations of Spanish plays. During this period of the early 1930s, Villaurrutia began to write plays in earnest, and he further expanded his knowledge of drama when, in 1935 and 1936, he attended Yale University on a Rockefeller scholarship. Returning to his homeland, he accepted a teaching position at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and became involved in productions by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (INBA). As such he continued to present plays by foreign writers, helping to bring about a revolution in the Mexican theatre. At some point Villaurrutia, a homosexual, became involved with the painter Agustín Lazo. The two would later collaborate in the writing of La mulata de Córdoba (1939; The Mulatto Woman from Cordoba). The late 1930s and 1940s saw the production of numerous plays by Villaurrutia, including Invitation to Death and the critically acclaimed Autos profanos (1943; Popular Allegories). In 1943, he formed another magazine, El Hijo Pródigo, with Octavio Barreda, and during the 1940s wrote a string of successful plays. Villaurrutia died in 1950, and after his death a Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for literary excellence was established.

Major Works

Villaurrutia's first significant publication was Reflections in 1926, a book of poems in which he first developed his signature themes of solitude, quiet, and loneliness—conveyed in part through the physical imagery of night and darkness. The book was also marked by a strong use of metaphor, perhaps a product of his past interest in the Symbolists. His next volume of poetry came twelve years later, in 1938, with Nostalgia of Death. In this, considered by many critics to be his finest work, Villaurrutia pursues the death theme with even greater intensity than he had in Reflections, and explores the idea of an inner reality that is more firmly rooted in his persona's consciousness than is the external world. With Canto a la primavera (1948; Song to Spring), his third and last major poetic work, he made a sharp departure from earlier thematic preoccupations: the principal concerns of Spring are sensuality and beauty. In the area of drama, Villaurrutia's Popular Allegories are notable for their experimental quality. Far removed from reality, these five short plays present a negatively idealized world in which human beings are mere automatons or puppets. Invitation to Death attempted a Mexican interpretation of Hamlet, with a troubled character whose existence is rooted in contemporary Mexico. Villaurrutia, who began his career as a playwright with one-act dramas intended only for a very small audience, later wrote a string of popular threeact plays in which he developed his ideas about theatre within a highly accessible format. He also wrote, early in his career, a single novel, Dama de corazones (1928; Queen of Hearts.)