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|José Echegaray y Eizaguirre (1832-1916)|
Spanish politician, writer, and mathematician, the leading dramatist of the last quarter of the 19th century. Along with poet Frédéric Mistral, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904. Echegaray began to write plays at the age of forty-two. His style changed little during his career. Echegaray's works are noted for their high degree of technical skill and their ability to keep audiences engaged despite relatively simple and melodramatic plots.
"My dear fellow, I don't exactly know what you mean by a dramatic spring. All I can tell you is that I have not the slightest interest in plays where love does not preponderate – above all unfortunate love, for I have enough of happy love at home." (Don Julian in The Great Galeoto, 1881)
José Echegaray y Eizaguirre was born in Madrid to parents of
Basque descent. The family moved to Murcia, where his father held a
professorship in Greek at the Institute of Murcia. At the age of
fourteen Echegaray returned to Madrid. In 1853 he graduated from the
Escuela de Caminos and became in 1858 a professor of mathematics of the
same institute. In 1857 he married Ana Perfecta Estrada; they had one
After a short period as a practicing engineer, Echegaray taught mathematics until 1868. Echegaray's papers and treatments appeared in El Imparcial, the Revista contemporánea, Ilustración española y americana, the Diario de la marina de la Habana, El liberal, and other newspapers and magazines. Between the years 1859 and 1860 he published several articles on free trade. He observed the solar eclipse of 1860 in northern Spain, and went to the Alps to study the construction of the Mont Cenis tunnel.
Echegaray's scientific works, such as Problemas de Geometría Analítica (1865, Problems in Analytical Geometry) and Teorías modernas de la Física. Unidad de las fuerzas materiales (1867, Modern Theories of Physics), gained him fame as the foremost Spanish mathematician of his time. "Time was when every cultured person knew Latin," he once said. "Time will come – and it is not very far off – when every cultured person will have to know mathematics!" ('La Escuela Especial de Ingenieros de Caminos, Canales y Puertos y las Ciencias Matemáticas,' Revista de Obras Públicas 44, 1897)
Echegaray served in various official posts. He was named minister of commerce in the 1860s and elected to the Cortes, the Spanish parliament in 1869. He also played a major role in developing the Banco de España. In 1866 he entered the Academy of Exact Sciences of Madrid with a lecture on the history of pure mathematics in Spain (Historia de las Matemáticas puras en nuestra España).
From his youth, Echegaray was enthusiastic about drama. Alexandre Dumas's Ricardo Darlington (1831), which Echegaray saw in Madrid in 1853, had a deep impact on him. The play was based on Sir Walter Scott's novel The Surgeon's Daughter. In 1865 he wrote a play entitled La hija natural, which was followed by El libro talonario, produced in 1874 at the theatro Espanol under the pseudonym Jorge Hayaseca y Eizaguirre. In spite of the pseudonym, which he formed by selecting only the letters that occur in his given name, it was soon discovered that the dramatist was Echegaray, then Spain's Minister of Finance. El libro talonario was not successful. It was born in temporary exile in Paris during the period of the First Republic (1873-74). Echegary wrote it to show to his brother, a noted playright, how easily it could be done, as playing a game of chess or solving a mathematical problem. Following General Manuel Pavia's coup d'état, which ended Emilio Castelar's short-lived republic, he returned to Spain and was appointed minister of the Treasury.
After a prominent political career, Echegaray devoted himself over the next decades to writing, producing average of two plays a year. Although he was open to progressive social ideas, his work appealed to the upper middle classes rather than to the masses. In defining his artistic aims, Echegaray wrote in a poem that his theatre is not one of half tones: "I pick a passion, take an idea, a problem, a characteristic, and I bury it, just like dynamite, in the depths of a charcter that my mind creates. The plot surrounds that character with some puppets who are either trampled into the filthy mud or who shine in the sun's bright light. I light the fuse. The fire spreads, the shell explodes without fail and the main star is the one who pays for it." (The Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Spain by David Thatcher Gies, 1994, p. 301)
Many of his early dramatic works Echegaray crafted for his favorite actors, Rafael Calvo and Antonio Vico. After Calvo's death in 1888 he collaborated over a decade with María Guerrero (1868-1928), a celebrated actress, who formed a touring company that premiered about 150 plays throughout Europe, the United States, and Spanish America.
Until Echegeray's most notable plays, the Spanish theatre had not attracted international interest for a long time. About half of his sixty dramas were composed in verse, many of them had a melodramatic title: La esposa del vengador (1874, The Avenger's Wife), En puño de la espada (1875, At the Hilt of the Sword), En el Seno de la muerte (1879, In the Bosom of Death), La muerte en los labios (1880, The Taste of Death), etc. O locura ó santidad (1877, Madman or Saint), which was translated into English in 1895, brought him international recognition. In the story Lorenzo Avendaño inherits a fortune, but after discovering that he is not the real heir of the wealth, he tries to give it back. However, his greedy relatives have other plans, and Lorenzo is placed in an asylum.
Open to new currents and influenced by
the work of the great Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen,
Echegaray began to explore social issues. El hijo de Don Juan
(1892, The Son of Don Juan), written in prose, was inspired especially
by Ibsen's The Ghosts, both dealing
with hereditary venereal disease. Basically Echegaray's play is
Romantic, written with sombre passion, except for a short humorous
dialogue between Don Juan and his son Lázaro, who thinks that Zola is a
great writer and asks his father, does he like Kant. Don Juan replies:
"Kant? Do you say Kant? The very thing. He was always my favorite
author. When I was young I fell asleep every night over Kant. [Aside.]
Who the deuce is he?" Piensa mal y ¿acertarás? (1884)
contains a symbol of a wounded bird, that recalls the wild duck in
Ibsen's drama of that name.
El gran Galeoto (1881, The Great Galeoto), Echegaray's best-known work, depicted consequences of gossips with frenzy and moral mission. Rumor spreads that a play by a young writer, Ernesto, depicts his relationship to Don Julián's young wife Teodora. One of the characters says: "It was wrong for people to conclude the worst because they saw you walking with him, and saw him so often at the theater with you. But, Teodora, in reason and justice I think that, if the world was bent on seeing evil, you furnished the occasion. Permit me to point out to you that the fault which society most fiercely chaztises, pursues most relentlessly and cruelly, and in every varied imaginable way, both in man and woman . . . is temerity." Don Julián defends his wife in a duel with a Viscount, and dies – believing that the gossip was true. Ernesto kills the Viscount and leaves with Teodora. The title of the play refers to Galahad, the knight who brought Lancelot and Queen Guinevere together. The Great Galeoto was received with international appreciation and was produced in Athens (1895), Paris (1896), and Boston (1900).
"Although the public consistently received Echegaray's plays with enthusiasm, the young intellectuals and writers of the day criticized extreme sentiment and exaggerated style of his dramas as artificial and outmoded. Critics attributed his "originality" to eclectic influences from the general European theatre, notably French naturalism and Ibsen . . . While the neoromantic elements of Echegaray's plays have historical significance in that they reflect the popular taste of his day, they have little appeal for present-day audiences." (Andrés Franco in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, Vol. 2, edited by Stanley Hochman, 1984)
From the 1870s to the early 1900s, Echegaray was the leading Spanish dramatist. He was elected to the Royal Spanish Academy in 1894 and in 1904 he served briefly as head of the Treasury. In 1912 he received the Order of the Golden Fleece by King Alfonso XII. The literary generation that followed Echegaray, the so-called Generation of 1898, saw that his dramas represented the old school – virtue is rewarded and vice punished. However, often Echegaray's innocent characters were also vulnerable to unforeseen consequences of fate and they were punished as well as the wicked.
Echegaray was genuinely surprised and delighted but his enemies were shocked when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The radical dramatist Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, a member of the Generation ´98, who had a great distaste for the work of Echegaray, called him a "el viejo idiota" (the old idiot). Many critics believed that the honour should have gone to the novelist Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920). Echegaray died in Madrid on September 14, 1916. His work opened the way for the later playwrights, such as Jacinto Benavente, to revolutionize Spanish drama. Noteworthy, Benavente never joined Echegaray's most loud critics, who scorned his concept of theatre.
For further reading: Echegaray: Su tiempo y su teatro by F. Henán (1880); Los grandes españoles: Echegaray by Antón del Olmet García A. Caraffa (1912); Un théâtre d'idées en Espagne: le théâtre de José Echegaray by H. de Curzon (1912); Echegaray: Su obra dramática by A. Gallego y Burín (1917); Modern Continental Playwrights by F.W. Chandler (1931); José Echegaray by A. Martinez de Olmedilla (1947); Ibsen’s Influence on the Spanish Dramatist Jose Echegaray by Isabel Alvarez (1968); Echegaray by J. Mathías (1970); Lenguaje dramático y lenguaje retórico by M.I. Martín Fernandez (1981); McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, Vol. 2, ed. by Stanley Hochman (1984); 'José Echegaray y Eizaguirre' by Gastón Fernández, in Critical Survey of Drama II, ed. by Frank N. Magill (1986); Nobel Prize Winners, ed. by Tyler Wasson (1987); The Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Spain by David Thatcher Gies (1994); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'José Echegaray: entre la ciencia, el teatro y la política' by Manuel Sánchez Ron, in Arbor, Vol 179, No 707/708 (2004)