Xavier Villaurrutia Essay - Critical Essays

Villaurrutia, Xavier


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.)

Principal Works

Reflejos [Reflections] (poetry) 1926

Dama de corazones [Queen of Hearts] (novel) 1928

Nocturnos [Nocturnes] (poetry) 1933

Parece mentira [It Seems Untrue] (drama) 1934

¿En qué piensas¿ [What Are You Thinking About?] (drama) 1938

Nostalgia de la muerte [Nostalgia of Death] (poetry) 1938

La mulata de Córdoba [The Mulatto Woman from Cordoba] [with Agustín Lazo] (drama) 1939

Textos y pretextos [Texts and Pretexts] (essays) 1940

Décima muerte y otros poemas no coleccionados [Death in Tenths and Other Uncollected Poems] (poetry) 1941

Autos profanos [Popular Allegories] (drama) 1943 Invitación a la muerte [Invitation to Death] (drama) 1943

La mujer legítima [The Legitimate Wife] (drama) 1943 Canto a la primavera y otros poemas [Song to Spring and Other Poems] (poetry) 1948


Ruth S. Lamb (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Xavier Villaurrutia and The Modern Mexican Theatre," in Modern Language Forum, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2, December, 1954, pp. 108-14.

[In the following essay, Lamb offers a brief overview of Villaurrutia's career, with emphasis on his dramatic work.]

Xavier Villaurrutia appears in Mexican letters among the young men who formed the group known as "Contemporáneos," which soon became by its own efforts a literary generation.1 A poet above all, Xavier Villaurrutia has not failed to utilize the other disciplines of letters, and he has demonstrated his ability and his technical strength in the theatre and in critical writing.2

According to Villaurrutia himself the most important mission of the "Contemporáneos" group was to put Mexico in touch with the universal. "We tried to make known the contemporary manifestations of art, to open the way for a knowledge of foreign literatures .. . It can be said that the most important group of modern painters was formed with us. On the other hand, we are the only ones who have occupied ourselves seriously with the most authentic modern theatre and with its diffusion and expression in Mexico."3 He goes on to say, "Some time ago we made attempts to make it known in the theatrical groups of Ulysses and Orientation, and we have also been occupied with the study of theatricaltechnique in the centers where it is best understood."4

Without realizing the potential dramatist within him, Villaurrutia had an irresistible affection for the theatre, in which he found one of his most intimate intellectual pleasures. He is the first Mexican translator of Luigi Pirandello, André Gide, Jean Giraudoux, writers more atune to his character among the modern playwrights, whom he has followed with avid curiosity.5 Writing in 1933, Villaurrutia considered Elmer L. Rice and Eugene O'Neill the best North American dramatists.

They are not the only ones, but they are already dedicated (to the theatre). Their plays are given in Europe and they are included with the best among the moderns. They are masters of a style because they have obtained, each in his own way, the exact and imperceptible accommodation of his own inner vision to the scenes, pictures and acts, in which lucidly and conscientiously, their poetical intentions, their intuition, and their ideas are objectified.6

Speaking of the theatre in Mexico, Villaurrutia says, "No literary form should be accepted in Mexico with greater attention than the drama. The theatre is not our strong point, and never has been." But he continues,

To write plays in a country such as ours, whose theatre and whose public only occasionally support works of good quality—is like constructing a building for the public, in one's bedroom. A classic spirit cannot accept this. If he has no public, he must work to form it. And what else were the experimental theatres of Ulysses and Orientation, but efforts to create a public, a new curiosity?7

According to Villaurrutia the bad habits and outmoded customs of the Spanish theatrical tradition of the nineteenth century weigh upon the companies who habitually perform in the Mexican theatres. "Old age seems to be its necessary atmosphere, improvisation, its only method, lack of culture, its content. Old age, improvisation, and lack of culture work together to enclose the theatre in a dark and stuffy corner, in order to free it from the temptation that might return it to the health it has lost."8

Villaurrutia decries the lack of adequate theatre buildings and the lack of competent actors. "Too big or too uncomfortable, the legitimate theatres do not fit any of the needs of the show nor of the modern public."9 As for the actors, "Where are the actors, masters of a new or classical criterion toward their art that permits them to give more than superficial versions of the personage which they are playing?"10 He goes on to say that if it has any, the remedy for the theatre in Mexico is in creating a new atmosphere for it, in making it breathe a pure air, "untying it from a false tradition, renewing its human material, its useful materials, and creating young, living friendships to form its new public."11

Xavier Villaurrutia believes it would be wrong to take into account the state of the theatre in Mexico, and not extend it a hand that would perhaps help save it. He cites as an example the Ulysses experiment:

Take for instance that theatre of Ulysses, formed exclusively by artists or apprentices in which we were everything, actors, translators, directors, scenographers. The modern critics of the Mexican theatre speak of this as an exotic attempt. Discounting the irony which they wish to give to their definition they are right. The Ulysses experiment was exotic, because its triumphs came from outside: new works, a new sense of interpretation, and attempts at new staging, could not come from where they did not exist. A curious fear this, of foreign influence. Fear of losing a personality it did not have.12

When Villaurrutia and José Gorostiza were in the Department of Fine Arts of the Ministry of Education they organized an informal experiment called the "Theatre of Orientation." Based on the same ideas of universality and modernity as the Ulysses group, the plans were outlined, the repertoire decided upon and activities begun in 1932. Celestino Gorostiza undertook the directing of the players. "With great care he trained new actors, introduced new techniques. Hedirected ten plays in one year, always obtaining correct versions, and at times, definite successes.13

The repertoire of the "Theatre of Orientation" in 1932, chosen from the best classical and modern works, ranged from the Antigone of Sophocles, modernized by Jean Cocteau, to the recent play, Intimacy, of Jean Victor Pellerin. A short play of Cervantes, The Jealous Old Man, and a comedy of Shakespeare were among the classical works; Chekhov, Romains, O'Neill, Shaw, Synge, among the modern writers. Except for the work of Shakespeare, adapted by Jacinto Benavente, the rest were translated especially for these presentations by Xavier...

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Frank Dauster (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "A Commentary on Villaurrutia's "Décima Muerte '," in Kentucky Foreign Language Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 4, 1955, pp. 160-5.

[In the following essay, Dauster closely examines the ten verses that make up "Décima muerte."]

Although the poetic production of Xavier Villaurrutia is comparatively restricted, consisting of three brief volumes—Reflejos (1926), Nostalgia de la Muerte (second and definitive edition, 1946), and Canto a la Primavera y Otros Poemas (1948)—it represents one of the major achievements of contemporary Latin American poetry. His phantasmagoric world of specters and dream-fantasy, expressed in a taut, opaque style...

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Robert Nugent (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Villaurrutia and Baudelaire," in Hispania, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, May, 1960, pp. 205-8.

[In the following essay, Nugent draws parallels between the poetry of Villaurrutia and that of Charles Baudelaire, and points out areas of divergence as well. ]

The influence of various French authors on Villaurrutia has already been noted: Alí Chumacera in his introduction to the complete works of Villaurrutia1 has pointed out (p. xxii) the importance of Proust, Cocteau, Supervielle, Giraudoux, the surrealists, the intellectual example of Gide, for the Mexican poet. Behind them all, however, stands the figure of Baudelaire, whose work forms the beginning of modern...

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Antonio Moreno (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Xavier Villaurrutia: The Development of His Theater," in Hispania, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, December, 1960, pp. 508-14.

[In the following essay, Moreno chronicles Villaurrutia's career as a playwright, and examines some of his principal themes.]

Rafael Solana, an outstanding contemporary Mexican dramatist and critic, remarked shortly after Villaurrutia's death that the Sociedad de Autores and whoever else loved the man should do something to perpetuate his name. As one who admired him, I wish to contribute this appraisal of his dramatic works to that end.

According to the surviving members of his family, Villaurrutia was a precocious child,...

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Anthony W. Moreno (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "The Contemporary Cultural Revolution in Latin America as Reflected in the Theater of Xavier Villaurrutia," in Topic, Vol. II, No. 4, Fall, 1962, pp. 30-38.

[In the following essay, Moreno posits the coming of a social and cultural revolution in Latin America, and notes evidence of this shift in Villaurrutia's work.]

The political and economic development of the Latin American republics from their independence to the twentieth century had been so gradual as to be scarcely discernible. The masses had been contained in a strait jacket of paternalism and had not been permitted to plan or direct their own lives, to participate in the affairs of their villages, or...

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Sandra M. Cypess (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Influence of the French Theatre in the Plays of Xavier Villaurrutia," in Latin American Theatre Review, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall, 1969, pp. 9-15.

[In the following essay, Cypess closely examines the influence of French playwrights, particularly Henri-René Lenormand, on Villaurrutia's dramatic work.]

Before Xavier Villaurrutia became involved with the Mexican theatre, he had already gained fame as a poet and was associated with the avant-garde literary group Los Contemporáneos. Before he produced his first play in 1933, he had been intimately connected with a new trend in the Mexican theatre, the experimental movement. For Villaurrutia the experimental...

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Frank Dauster (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Poetry," in Xavier Villaurrutia, Twayne Publishers, 1971, pp. 31-68.

[In the following excerpt, Dauster chronicles the development of Villaurrutia's poetic style from Reflections and his earliest work to Song to Spring and the later poems.]

Xavier Villaurrutia's poetic production was quantitatively slight: the "early poems" included in the collected works, Reflections (1926), the definitive edition of Nostalgia of Death (1946), and Song to Spring (1948). This restricted production was due to the fact that Villaurrutia was not, in spite of the verbal facility which characterizes much of his work, a facile poet. Writing...

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Sandra M. Cypess (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "The Function of Myth in the Plays of Xavier Villaurrutia," in Hispania, Vol. 55, No. 2, May, 1972, pp. 256-63.

[In the following essay, Cypess explores the classical roots of the imagery employed by Villaurrutia in his dramatic works.]

As a dramatist, Xavier Villaurrutia has been classified universalista and afrancesado but rarely mexicano, despite the fact that his efforts were directed toward the creation of a Mexican theatrical tradition.1 It is true that in the plays of his first period—one-acters all given as part of the experimental theater movements of the thirties—he made no attempt to represent scenes from...

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Merlin H. Foster (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Themes," in Fire and Ice: The Poetry of Xavier Villaurrutia, U.N.C. Dept. of Romance Languages, 1976, pp. 105-54.

[In the following excerpt, Foster provides an overview of major and minor themesincluding solitude, love, death, and othersin Villaurrutia's poetry.]


Villaurrutia's poetry turns on three obsessions which find expression as the three principal themes: 1) human beings live separated one from another in inevitable and anguished solitude; 2) love, when it exists, is incomplete, secret, impossible, and at times illicit; 3) death is a constant presence in an empty and solitary existence. In the first...

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Gwen Kirkpatrick (review date 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Nostalgia for Death and Hieroglyphs of Desire, by Xavier Villaurrutia and Octavio Paz, in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 22, No. 44, July-December, 1994, pp. 90-92.

[In the following review of Nostalgia for Death and Hieroglyphs of Desire, Kirkpatrick offers an assessment of Villaurrutia's work nearly fifty years after his death.]

The publication of Xavier Villaurrutia's Nostalgia for Death is an important contribution to the English-speaking world's knowledge of Mexican literature and of poetry in Spanish. It is, in a sense, a curiously belated translation, both of Villaurrutia's poetry, here beautifully translated by...

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Further Reading


Bedoya, Roberta. "To Speak of Desire." Hungry Mind Review, No. 27 (Fall 1993): 28-29.

Review of Villaurrutia's and Octavio Paz's Nostalgia for Death/Hieroglyphs of Desire: A Critical Study of Villaurrutia which treats Villaurrutia's work as a positive embodiment of a gay social agenda.

Merrill, Christopher. "Streets That Flow Sweetly through the L.A. Night." Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 13, 1993): 10.

Positive review of Nostalgia for Death/Hieroglyphs of Desire as part of a long tradition of night or sleep literature.

Mojica, Rafael H. Review of Nostalgia for Death/...

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