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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Federico de Onís (1885–1966)

By José Echegaray (1832–1916)

ECHEGARAY was born in Madrid in 1832 and died there in 1916. His was a long life devoted in most brilliant fashion to a great variety of activities touching the scientific, political, and literary life of Spain. It was in literature, however, that his personality revealed itself in most original forms. His active interest in mathematics and engineering absorbed his attention almost exclusively in the earlier half of his life. He was first a student and then professor in the national technical school (Escuela Oficial de Ingenieros de caminos canales y puertos), up to the time when the political upheaval produced by the successful revolution of 1868 dragged him into politics. He became a deputy to the Constituent Assembly (Cortes Constituyentes) and served as Director of Public Works and as Minister of Agriculture, Industry, and Commerce (Ministro de Fomento) in the revolutionary government. He had previously published studies in economics which now gave him considerable authority on questions of economic policy: he was one of the leading exponents of free-trade.

These early interests never entirely left him. He published a great many popular articles on scientific, political, and economic problems, in which his distinguished literary talent is as much in evidence as in his purely literary production. But in addition to this work for the general public, he produced other studies of a technical character. In the field of mathematics he is considered to have attained the highest level yet reached in Spain. He never gave up his university career. At the time of his death he was still professor in the University of Madrid. He never wholly deserted politics, though after 1874 he lived normally apart from public life. However in 1880 he helped to found, with other men of the Revolution, the Progressive Republican party. In 1888 he delivered a notable oration on the regeneration of Spain before the Atheneum of Madrid. After 1904 he occupied several political offices (Minister of Finance, Senator for life, President of the Council for Education, and others still). The year 1874, the date of the Bourbon Restoration, nevertheless marks a radical change in his career. Henceforth, literature, which had previously figured rather as a diversion in his life, was to become his principal occupation, the final channel for his best mental effort.

In 1874 he began his dramatic work with a play called ‘El libro talonario’ (The Stub Book), followed in the same year by ‘La esposa del vengador’ (The Bride of the Avenger). This latter work enjoyed a great success, due doubtless to the rather close reflection of the struggle between love and duty as it appears in certain productions of the classic Spanish stage. Still greater fortune attended the melodramatic ‘En el puño de la espada’ (At the Sword’s Point) (1875), which made Echegaray the most popular dramatist in Spain. His constant activity, during the next thirty years, literally usurps the Spanish stage. He may be considered as the genuine and almost exclusive representative of the Spanish theatre during this well-defined period of the Restoration which stretches from 1874 till the end of the century. Zorrilla, Ayala, Tamayo, the most important figures of the Spanish stage during the nineteenth century, either had died or ceased writing for the theatre at the time when Echegaray, a man of their own generation, began late in life to devote his attention to this kind of work.

Of this vast activity a number of plays have obtained a permanent hold upon the play-going and reading public. They are the ones in which his peculiar talent manifests itself most intensely. The evolution of Echegaray’s genius may be followed in ‘En el puño de la espada’ (1875); ‘O locura o santidad’ (Madman or Saint?) (1877); ‘En el seno de la muerte’ (In the Bosom of Death) (1879); ‘El gran Galeoto’ (The Great Go-between) (1881), ‘Mariana’ (1892); ‘Mancha que limpia’ (The Cleansing Blotch) (1895); ‘El loco dios’ (The Mad God) (1900). These works are also incidentally his best; though a complete understanding of Echegaray requires some attention to a few of his comedies, for example to ‘Un critico incipiente’ (An Amateur Critic); and especially to the best of his short stories and of his articles and speeches. His dramas however contain the soundest and most original expressions of his art.

Between the works cited above there are some apparent distinctions which would permit us to divide them into two groups. One would embrace the romantic plays which have the character of historical legends; the other those which deal with contemporary moral and social questions. In this latter group Echegaray’s best work is to be found. The distinction however is almost wholly in appearances. There is no real difference between the corresponding personages of the one group and the other, whether we consider their characters as people or their manner of expressing themselves. On the contrary there is a notorious kinship of sentiment and ideology between them all: the essence of the dramatic conflict is in all of Echegaray’s things the same.

The nature of Echegaray’s dramatic situation—except in some of his latest works such as ‘El loco Dios’ or ‘El hijo de Don Juan’ where he tried to give new life to his theatre through a belated echoing of Ibsen—is that of the typical romantic drama and not that of the subsequent comedy and drama represented in Spain by Tamayo and Ayala. Echegaray is a direct product of romanticism, both French and Spanish. He continues the Duke de Rivas, García Gutierrez, Zorrilla, Victor Hugo, and Dumas; though his origins really go still farther back to the classic theatre of Spain (notably to Calderón), and in a certain sense to Shakespeare. But among all these sources, the most important, if not as regards actual derivation certainly as regards apparent results, is Calderón. It may well be said that Echegaray is the Calderón of Spanish romanticism.

Calderón was the elegant affected “mannerist” of a declining theatre in the Spanish Golden Age. Echegaray likewise is a straggler of the romantic movement, appearing on the scene when romanticism itself had entirely passed away under the powerful reaction led against it by Tamayo and Ayala. Echegaray is, in other words, a decadent romantic arriving out of season, and finding his inspiration in the decadent art of the Spanish stage of the seventeenth century.

In this fact we have the source both of the virtues and the defects of Echegaray’s work. It explains, first of all, the great popularity and the noisy success attained by his dramas, which are in essence nothing but the revival of the commonplaces and methods of the romantic theatre, deeply rooted in the affections and consciousness of the Spanish people by Romanticism itself and by the uninterrupted vitality of the theatre of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The majority of Echegaray’s plays reduce to sharp violent conflicts between passion and duty, where people are the playthings of events more powerful than their will to resist. It is a question of electric shocks, almost physical in character, coolly calculated in their effects by the dramatist. The subjects, the conceptions of emotions and duties, are very much like those which prevail in the classic Spanish theatre. Whether they wear an ancient or a modern makeup, Echegaray’s characters go on living and dying under the inexorable pressure of an identical sense of honor, based almost exclusively on conjugal fidelity and on a sense of immaculate, unimpeachable chivalry, the slightest reflection upon which makes life difficult if not impossible. In ‘O locura o santidad’ and in ‘El gran Galeoto,’ the former a drama on conscientious scruples pushed to mad extremes, the latter a drama on public opinion, there is, to be sure, a spirit of rebellion, of horror, even of redemption, as regards these dominant sentiments. Nevertheless, even in these two plays, we find the essence of the same dramatic ideal in its most false and exaggerated forms. They are however the plays of Echegaray which have lasted longest in popular favor and they doubtless are, in fact, the happiest, most perfect moments in his artistic life.

The literary generation which immediately followed Echegaray has laid special stress on the accusation always brought against him that his theatre has no characters, properly speaking, at all. It is certain that the only one of them which has survived, which imposes itself upon the imagination, is a collective personage, the great Go-between, Everybody. His characters are only lifeless parts of a schematic mechanism of conflicting passions: they have no living, individual existence as creatures of flesh and bone. In this respect Echegaray is much more like Calderón than like Shakespeare, whom he affects to imitate. Another defect pointed out in his work is the rhetorical, gesticulatory character of his personages, whose inner life reduces itself to a simple affirmation of a piercing, violent passion, or to a simple arena for the wrestling of two elemental emotions. The conclusion of these criticisms would be that the theatre of Echegaray is something essentially theatrical and melodramatic.

This is the judgment passed on Echegaray by the realistic school which followed him. But it is not by the criteria of the realists that Echegaray can best be understood and justified. The defects we have just indicated, with others on which we shall not dwell, are those which naturally accompany any baroque or romantic art, the merit of which resides in quite different things. The value of Echegaray’s theatre consists precisely in his skillful exploitation of the non-realistic manner, which depends upon the abstract artifice made up of elements at once simplified and exaggerated but combining in the intense dramatic effect. There is a deliberate avoidance of reality in this latter manner. Its personages are types or at best human individuals in general. Its passions are abstractions or principles of logic. Its speeches are rhetoric unmixed. But in the world thus created, a world in which reality is broken down and emptied of content, a world of artifice and mannerism, there may be a perfect harmony and balance of constituent elements. There may be an architectural, musical beauty resulting from the combination of these very elements themselves, of these simple and clearly delimited forms. This is the world of Echegaray, as it is also the world of Calderón, who, in a theatre entirely deficient in human qualities, brought to the highest possible development this kind of colorless, schematic, musical, idealistic beauty. We keep returning to this parallelism between Echegaray and Calderón. That is necessary if we wish correctly to estimate the genuinely Spanish and at the same time the genuinely universal value of Echegaray; and if we wish to see some justice in his having been regarded as one of the great dramatists of the nineteenth century in Spain and even in the world.

His popularity in Spain has been as great as it is possibly conceivable that a dramatist’s could be. For thirty years he was the favorite author of the public including every social class in the nation. This fact alone would give Echegaray an historical importance, even if he had no other, as representing the spirit of a whole epoch of a people. In recent years, to be sure, from 1900 on, though he became the recipient of the highest national honors and of international recognition in the Nobel prize, he had to witness the disappearance of his work from the stage; as he had to sustain the attacks of the more modern literary generation now dominant in Spain. But this change is to be interpreted not as proof of a lack of value in his work, but as evidence of a profound modification in the ideals of contemporary Spanish life, and as another of the instances, so frequent in history, of the reaction of following generations to the positive work of those immediately preceding.

The diffusion and acceptance of Echegaray’s work outside of Spain is attested, in addition to the Nobel award, by the fact that his works have been produced in the various countries of Europe and America. We may refer only to the translations of his dramas into English: ‘The Great Galeoto,’ translated by Hannah Lynch in 1895; by Jacob S. Fasset in 1914; adapted by Virdlinger in 1908 under title of ‘The World and His Wife’; ‘Mariana,’ translated by James Graham in 1895 and by F. Sarda and C. D. S. Wuppermann in 1909; ‘Madman or Saint’ translated by Ruth Lansing, 1912; ‘Always Ridiculous,’ by F. W. Gilkynson, 1916; ‘The Madman Divine,’ by S. E. Howard West, 1908; ‘The Son of Don Juan,’ by James Graham, 1895. There are also translations into French, Portuguese, Italian, German, Dutch, Russian, and Greek. The principal studies on Echegaray are those by Anton de Olcet, Blanco García, Alas, Palacio Valdés, Manuel Bueno, Herrán, Valentí Camp, Revilla, Yxart, Grotthuss, Henri Curzon.

This essay by Professor Onís has been translated by Professor Arthur Livingston.