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JOSE ECHEGARAY (1832-1916)

This article was originally published in Masterpieces of Modern Spanish Drama. Ed. Barrett H. Clark. New York: Duffield & Co., 1917.

JOSÉ ECHEGARAY was born at Madrid in 1832. Always an apt pupil, at an early age he showed marked propensities for mathematics and the exact sciences, but although he never lost his interest in these pursuits, he became interested in literature and the theater, and in later years made an extensive study of the drama of modern Europe. He was graduated in 1853 from the Escuela de Caminos, with high honors, and became a tutor in mathematics. Not long afterward, he was apprenticed to a professorship in that subject in the same school from which he graduated. From that time on, his interests widened; he studied political economy, philosophy, geology, and politics. He was likewise engaged in engineering and chemical work, and became a recognized authority. At the age of thirty-two he wrote a play, but laid it aside, deeming it unworthy; but his interest in the theater was rapidly increasing. He was appointed Minister for the Colonies under the government following the Revolution of 1868, and his political duties prevented further development of his dramatic talent. Five years later he was proscribed, forced to leave the country and go to France, where he wrote his first play to be produced, "El Libro Talonario." On his return to Spain in 1874, it was presented, but did not attract widespread attention. His first success was "En el Puño de la Espada" (1875), which was followed by a long series of tragedies, comedies, and thesis plays. Echegaray died in the summer of 1916.

The following article is reprinted from The Drama: A Quarterly Review of Dramatic Literature. Ed. Theodore Ballou Hinckley. February, 1914.

In the midst of the artistic penury in which the Spanish stage languished, arose José Echegaray, during the theatrical season of 1874-75, with the determination to revolutionize the Spanish theatre and win back a public which for too long had strayed along strange paths. Echegaray had already, as it were, spied out the land during the first few months of 1874 by the production of a comedy in one act, signed pseudonymously, a precaution which is easy of explanation when we remember that at the time the author was Minister of Finance. After all, although the case must be considered rare of a Finance Minister figuring among the rising authors who lay siege to the actor and to the manager's office, Echegaray strayed very little from the scope of his official capacity, if we take into account the circumstance that his first comedy was christened El Libro Talonario (The Check-Book). The work pleased, and nothing more. That for the moment was Echegaray's only ambition. That production was little more than training exercise, as a sportsman would say. Within a few months he resolutely waged war upon public indifference, which all had now accustomed themselves to consider invincible, a trouble without a remedy. He produced at the Teatro Español a drama entitled La Esposa del Vangador (The Revenger's Wife), in which all recognized a work of exceptional vigor and impulse. The author was repeatedly called for and the public filled the theatre during many weeks. Echegaray had accomplished the miracle of winning back the public and filling the Teatro Español. But to his friends he is reported to have said at that time, with his characteristic smile, "This is hardly sufficient; something better must be aimed at. Something stronger must be employed, and where powder is useless, the aid of dynamite must be called in." In the phrase which appears italicized, Echegaray himself confessed the nature of the procedure which he afterwards employed for winning everybody back to the theatre at any cost, and when the word "everybody" is employed, it must be remembered that Echegaray's public was drawn from all classes of society. High and low, rich and poor, men and women, all flocked to the theatre to applaud him. His success in Spain was, if we may use the term, universal. After the production of La Esposa del Vengador, came En el Puño de la Espada, presented by a great actor, Antonio Vico--amidst incessant applause at the Apolo Theatre--followed with other works, each one stronger than the preceding--works which, besides causing enthusiasm amongst an ever-increasing public, excited lively discussion amongst the critics. Echegaray's triumph acquired enormous, colossal proportions, and the discussion between critics reached a great height and almost degenerated into a personal question--since some condemned the procedure by which the author produced his effects, whilst others applauded his having endowed the Spanish stage with a new long lease of life. This coincided with the production at the Teatro Español of O Locura ó Santidad, a tragic drama of the taste, style, and spirit of Shakespeare. This, then, was what Echegaray wanted, and what he referred to when he had emphasized the necessity of employing dynamite. After a veritable apotheosis with which an enthusiastic public rewarded his efforts, the successful author was accompanied through the streets of Madrid by a huge procession of admirers, carrying lighted torches, the demonstration only terminating at an advanced hour of the morning in front of the author's house. The productions of Como Empieza y Como Acaba, La Muerte en los Labios, and El Gran Galeoto were characterized by spontaneous demonstration of a similar character.

In El Gran Galeoto, Echegaray achieved the crowning triumph of a long and glorious career of dramatic authorship. The representation of the piece was a continual round of ovation. It is undoubtedly his greatest work. At the time of writing it, and now during many years in the enjoyment of a success so thorough that the public literally stormed the theatres where his works were produced, Echegaray was no longer preoccupied with the question of attracting people to the theatre, and thus his El Gran Galeoto was written with one idea only--that of artistic beauty; one of the most successful and beautiful works of Spanish theatrical literature was the result.

In 1904 he was awarded the Nobel Prize (jointly with Mistral), and on the eighteenth of March of the same year a solemn official homage was paid him in the Spanish Senate, where King Alfonso, who presided, read a discourse full of praise, other orations being pronounced by the Prime Minister and the Swedish Minister Plenipotentiary. The following day, the feast of San José (Echegaray's name day), a popular manifestation was held in his honor with a gala festival in the Teatro Real, where El Gran Galeoto was represented.

Echegaray's plays include:

  • The Check Book (1874)
  • The Wife of the Avenger (1874)
  • The Great Galeotto (1874)
  • The Last Night (1875)
  • At the Hilt of the Sword (1875)
  • The Beginning and the End (1876)
  • Madman or Saint (1877)
  • What Cannot Be Told (1877)
  • Before the Pillar and the Cross (1878)
  • In Pursuit of an Ideal (1878)
  • Sometimes Below (1878)
  • In the Bosom of Death (1879)
  • Shoreless Sea (1879)
  • Deah on the Lips (1880)
  • Harold the Norman (1881)
  • The Two Curiosity Mongers (1882)
  • Conflict Between Two Duties (1882)
  • A Miracle in Egypt (1883)
  • In Supposing Evil; Will You Guess? (1884)
  • The Pest of Otranto (1884)
  • Happy Life, Sad Death (1885)
  • Lysander the Bandit (1886)
  • Evil Race (1886)
  • Two Fanaticisms (1887)
  • Reality and Delirium (1887)
  • The Son of Steel and the Son of Flesh (1888)
  • The Sublime in the Commonplace (1888)
  • Everlasting Source of Troubles (1889)
  • The Extremists (1889)
  • Ever Ridiculous (1890)
  • The Embryo Critic (1891)
  • Comedy Without Dénouement (1891)
  • The Son of Don Juan (1892)
  • Sic vos, non vobis, or The Last Alms (1892)
  • Mariana (1892)
  • The Power of Impotence (1893)
  • At the Sea-Shore (1893)
  • The Enraged Lady (1894)
  • Try Who Washes (1895)
  • The Stigmata (1895)
  • Wild Love (1896)
  • Calumny as a Chastisement (1897)
  • The Doubt (1898)
  • The Man in Black (1898)
  • The Silence of Death (1898)
  • The Madman Divine (1900)
  • Accursed Heritages (1902)
  • The Steps of a Throne (1903)
  • The Unstable One (1903)
  • Letting Oneself be Dragged Along (1905)