José Echegaray y Eizaguirre

Marco Montagnin

He was the first Spaniard after the Spanish Golden Age to have his works performed outside Iberian-peninsula


“In recognition of the numerous and brilliant compositions which, in an individual and original manner, have revived the great traditions of the Spanish drama”.

     José Echegaray y Eizaguirre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904.

This was the only year in which two writers were awarded the prize.[1]

Echegaray, who was born in Madrid in 1832, had a late revelation as a playwright, at the age of forty-two under the anagrammatic pseudonym of Jorge Hayaseca: the author, who was already a public figure at the time, did not want his name to influence the vision of his work.

     Echegaray, who was the son of a doctor, devoted his teenage years to mathematics, gaining early admission to the Faculty of Civil Engineering. He passed the entrance exam with flying colours and won first place, graduating with honours at the age of twenty in the most difficult course of study at the time: ‘Ingeniero de Caminos, canales y puertos’.

     After his brilliant university career, he joined the state administration but decided to give up public office and turned down any private job to become a university professor; he refused much more lucrative salaries in order to continue doing what he liked. Echegaray is considered the most important Spanish mathematician of the 19th century.  The first stage of his life, which was mainly dedicated to mathematics, ends here. However, he never fully abandoned this subject, which was intertwined with other experiences that all merged into the writing of his plays.

Echegaray found a burgeoning passion in political economy; a staunch liberal, he took part in the fight – first as an intellectual and then as a minister – of The Carlist Wars.After the repeal of the Salica law, the succession to the Spanish throne passed from the king’s brother (Charles Mary Isidore of Bourbon-Spain) to the king’s daughter (Isabella II of Bourbon); on the death of Ferdinand VII the so-called ‘ Carlist Wars’ began, promoted by Don Carlos’s supporters: anti-liberals, legitimist monarchists and Catholic traditionalists who destabilised the country on several occasions during the 19th century.

His new passion for political economy led Echegaray to first found El Economista, and later to join the government cabinet – first as Minister of Public Works and then as Minister of Finance for several terms. In addition, in 1874 he founded the Banco de España to restore public finances and it was in this same year that his first play was staged.

This opened a new chapter for the playwright, one dedicated to literature.

His success was instantaneous: acclaimed by the public, and initially by the critics, he was the first Spaniard after the Spanish Golden Age to have his works performed outside Iberian-peninsula.

One could say that Echegaray, like a sudden snowstorm, aroused astonishment, admiration and left both the audience and the critics speechless.  After a few years, spectators continued to believe blindly in the supernatural wonder of that apotheosis of thunder and lightning. Yet the critics, having gotten over their shock, began to believe that there was a lot of theatrical machinery in that snowstorm: thunder produced by stones shaken in a tin can, lightning obtained with Bengal and magnesium. And as it happens to those who come out of a state of violent commotion, they began to demolish without regret what they themselves, like the audience, had raised as a glorious pedestal of the famous playwright.  They regarded him as a natural phenomenon, like a comet with a shining tail, which fascinated everyone, critics and ignorant alike….[2]

Echegaray’s work is part of the European neo-romantic tradition, contrasting with the Spanish romantic tradition (which was strongly based on the Middle Ages and the legendary). Influenced by his fellow countrymen and French authors, he then moved on to Nordic theatre, including Bjørnstjerne Martinus Bjørnson[3] and particularly Henrik Johan Ibsen. Echegaray’s romanticism was distinguished by two aspects: his taste for historical events and his use of moral issues from the Nordic tradition. His themes are divided into neo-romantic dramas, theatrical dramas, symbolist dramas and costume dramas. He produced sixty-five plays over a period of thirty years and his masterpieces punctuate his entire artistic period. In fact, he developed the plot as if it were an engineering problem, which is why the text is always structured according to a scheme of mathematical rationality. It is for this reason that he was even described as ‘an engineer of drama’.

I choose a passion, I take an idea, a problem, a character. And I place it, like a charge of dynamite, into the character’s essence that my mind creates. The plot places a few puppets around the character that, in the world, either swirl in the mud or thrive in the sunlight. Then I light the fuse. The fire spreads, the shell explodes without hesitation. And yet, sometimes, in this siege that I make of art and that flatters instinct, right in the middle of the action, I am seized by the explosion[4]

Echegaray eliminated the verses from the Spanish theatre and was accused of writing the work by adapting the characters to certain chosen actors; above all, he was accused of starting from the ending, which was meant to strike the audience by creating an outcome full of twists and turns. Furthermore, he was guilty of subordinating all the drama’s elements to effect, leaving the psychology of the characters who had no “types” (Miles gloriosus, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, etc.) in the background.

Echegaray is the Spanish playwright who made theatre out of life, and not the other way around, which is the great miracle of Lope and Tirso and Calderón…   In fact, if these great playwrights struggled to make theatre Life – or pieces of Life – and did so successfully that in their day, “theatre” was outside the scene, and absolute truth was on the scene; Echegaray succeeded in theatricalising theatre i.e., Life – or pieces of lives – were removed from the stage; and theatre was merely a representation of an imitation of Life.  For Echegaray, theatre was just that: theatre.[5]

In his drama La muerte en los labios, every character, every event and even the historical-geographical background are designed to arouse as much pathos as possible in anticipation of the finale, which does not consider the genre or the audience’s expectations. What it does do, however, is shatter their expectations and annihilate them in an ending full of pain in which the antagonist becomes the protagonist. Therefore, by following a path of logical strains that compel the silent and incredulous spectator to an unexpected and unintended ending, which if seen from a particular angle (be it mental, not physical) can only appear ingenious.

The drama, set in Calvinist Switzerland (during Calvin’s lifetime), features the story of various characters who are confronted with the religious fanaticism of the stake.

WALTER Deceptions or witchcraft. If they are deceptions, as I presume, your master is a great charlatan; if they are truths, as you suppose, how does he know them? And who told him? And how could he discover what Aristotle did not know? He must have made a pact with some power of darkness, and this evidence, even in the absence of others, will suffice to prove that he practices magic, witchcraft and abominable arts.

JACOPO That may be so, but I would give half my life to be able to read those two pages.

WALTER And if you would read that book of Servet’s, I would take care of the other half of your life.

JACOPO Thank you, Walter; but I do not aim at Peter Gruet’s glory, nor am I attracted by what you have made for poor Joan.[6]

Despite having critics and emerging authors against him, the Nobel Prize winner valued the importance of his theatre, which was no longer Spanish but truly international.


[2] Translated from Echegaray – Mistral, collana Scrittori del mondo : i Nobel, UTET, Torino 1970, p.405


[4] Translated from Echegaray – Mistral, collana Scrittori del mondo : i Nobel, UTET, Torino 1970, p.411

[5] Ibidem, p. 410

[6] Ibidem, p. 554

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