David Thatcher Gies
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994, 392 pp.
[From Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 71, no. 1, 1995.
Published under the title “The Beauty and Business of Theatre.”]
In future centuries, what will critics say about our era as reflected in such diverse theatrical works as Our Town, West Side Story, Angels in America, or Forbidden Broadway? Will they look for an explanation of the American psyche as well as assess the skills of playwrights and impresarios through a close reading of the 20th-century stage? We at this point can only guess what future pundits might stress in the current theatrical fare, but perhaps there will be at least one distant critic who will be able to synthesize the contrasting aspects of a commercial enterprise and literary genre. In 1995, we may point to one perceptive analyst who has accomplished this complicated and formidable task for another country and another age, Spain in the 19th century: David Thatcher Gies, Commonwealth Professor of Spanish and chairman of the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Virginia.
Gies’s The Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Spain is the most comprehensive study to date of the Spanish 19th-century stage and offers the reader a rewarding glimpse into a significant art form of a major Western European country. Within the pages of this seminal text, Gies integrates the numerous and often contradictory social and artistic currents of a prolific century that produced more than 10,000 dramatic works in Spain. Ironically, it is also a period characterized by critics who relentlessly (and incorrectly) warned their readers of the decadence and decline of all playhouse fare.
In seven concise chapters, employing a non-deconstructive approach and a chronological presentation, Gies traces the fortunes of the Spanish stage during a turbulent time of Spain’s past. He chronicles the ebb and flow of the theatre through the political history of the century (the Napoleonic invasion and occupation, the dictatorship of Fernando VII, the return of democracy, socialism) as well as the cultural landscape of the epoch (Romanticism, Realism, the rise of women writers, parody, and the neo-Romantic influences at the end of the period). Gies’s reading of the 19th-century Spanish stage is amplified by his thoughtful analysis of not only hundreds of plays but also by a meticulous reading of other texts, including contemporary theatrical reviews, 19th- and 20th-century literary criticism, biographies of actors and stage directors, and other relevant historical documents.
Gies continues in The Theatre in Nineteenth- Century Spain the successful approach of his previous text, Theatre and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Spain: Juan de Grimaldi as Impresario and Government Agent (Cambridge, 1988). Reviewing that text, Donald C. Buck wrote that Gies successfully intermingled the two key elements of any consideration of theatre history (and two traits that are often at odds)—the stage as a literary genre and as a commercial, performance medium. Buck reasoned that what Gies “masterfully weaves into his narrative is precisely this sense of duality that exists in live theatre.”
Keeping in mind both the aesthetic and capitalistic aspects of the theatre, Gies in The Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Spain intertwines the basic building blocks of the period’s stage, including the dramatists and their scripts, public reaction to performances, the often tense relationship between the government and the theatre (including censorship), the economic problems faced by the theatres, and the social themes of the day as reflected in specific plays. Gies summarizes that “theatre was clearly viewed as much as a political and social activity as it was a literary one, a view which will be maintained throughout the nineteenth century.”
The Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Spain breaks much new ground. First and foremost, Gies shows that the plays of the period usually discussed in the classroom by teachers and students —the official “canon” of 19th-century theatre— do not accurately portray the major trends nor in many cases even the principal playwrights of the century’s dramatic repertoire. In fact, one of the goals of the book as stressed by Gies is to reevaluate the traditional “masterworks” of the age’s theatre, those well-thumbed scripts that “do not necessarily reflect what really happened in the theatre in nineteenth-century Spain nor do they reveal much about what changes took place in the mind-set of the public going to see them.”
In this regard, a major innovation of The Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Spain is the recovery of forgotten playwrights, their works, and their role in the development of Spain’s stage. Tomás Rodríguez Rubí (1817- 1890), for example, was ignored by later critics, yet this major writer “was very much in the center of action during the transitional period from Romanticism to the alta comedia” (upper middle class drawing-room dramas of the second half of the century). Likewise, Narciso Serra (1830-1877) was one of the most respected dramatists of his period but is little discussed today. Yet his influence was great among 19th-century contemporaries. Gies characterizes Narciso Serra as a “humorous, womanizing, and brave soldier- writer whose facility with poetic meter provoked envy and awe among his friends and acquaintances.” Enrique Zumel (1822- 1897) was the author of at least 122 plays, “but his work is emblematic of much of the theatre of nineteenth-century Spain: popular, topical, frequently interesting, well-received, and now completely out of fashion.” Gies correctly underscores the fact that no national theatre of any period can be understood solely through a few selected works by a small number of its most famous sons and daughters.
The 19th century in Spain is also the first century of the nation’s cultural history in which women begin writing in large numbers. Gies highlights the import of the growing number of female playwrights in the Spanish stage (“a generation of women writers, unknown and unmentioned in most literary histories”) and devotes an entire chapter to the subject. Beginning with Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (“clearly the best-known woman dramatist of the Spanish nineteenth century”), Gies further mines the lost names and unremembered works of other significant women dramatists, such as Rosario de Acuña, Adelaida Muñiz y Más, and Enriqueta Lozano de Vílchez. Gies notes the rich dramatic subject matter and focus of the many women dramatists of the century, suggesting that “these women did not speak in a unified ‘feminine’ voice, but rather in a multiplicity of voices tuned to their personal and social situations.”
In addition to the reinstatement of unremembered dramatists and their contributions, The Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Spain reevaluates the stage of those playwrights who have enjoyed continued reading and comment by critics and teachers today, from Luciano Francisco Cornelia at the beginning of the century through Benito Pérez Galdós at the period’s close. Gies should be especially commended for an objective analysis of José Echegaray, a playwright who earned the Nobel Prize (1904) and whose innovative but often overwrought plays were panned by later 20th-century critics. Gies’s examination of the work of Echegaray reveals a writer who hypnotized Madrid’s audiences for more than two decades through a combination of “the old tropes of Romanticism with the new morality of the alta comedia and of theatrical realism.” Gies notes Echegaray overwhelmed his public with an “unquestionable” dramatic power, and that the most successful playwright of the second half of the 19th century was an author whose “genius was to capture the new social spirit (the same one captured in other parts of Europe by Ibsen, Strindberg, and, later, Pirandello) with a language which his audiences recognized.”
Another major contribution of the book is Gies’s extensive investigation into the roots of Spanish Romanticism, especially during the years between the Spanish War of Independence (1808-1814) and the death of Fernando VII (1833). Few of the enormous number of plays during this period receive a rereading or even a mention today. Topping the extensive list of these neglected works are the comedias de magia (plays with magic and fantasy). Gies affirms that these latter texts —extremely popular in their day— influenced the composition and enhanced the public reception of such well-known Romantic hits as Jose Zorrilla’s Don Juan Tenorio and the Duque de Rivas’ Don Álvaro o la fueza del sino. Gies affirms that Spanish Romantic drama “did not emerge from a void, nor was it imported from France or England, but rather it grew out of the rich brew of disparate elements which made up the theatre in the first thirty years of the century.” He continues that “full comprehension of Spanish Romantic theatre is impossible without a solid knowledge of the type of plays which informed the new playwrights and which prepared the audiences to understand what they were seeing.”
The Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Spain is written in a jargon-free, direct style, and is very accessible to the non-specialist. Indeed, Gies employs present-day cultural events to clarify and explain aspects of Spain’s 19th century. For example, he notes that the corrupt community depicted in many of Adelardo López de Ayala’s plays “was a society swept up in money-making and go-go chic (similar to the 1980s in the United States, perhaps).” Gies also translates all quotations from Spanish to English, including hundreds of dramatic titles and parts of scenes cited in the book. At its conclusion is an extensive bibliography of both the key dramas and critics of 19th-century Spanish theatre. The book will undoubtedly become a seminal work in any undergraduate or graduate university course on Spanish drama (as Gies states, “I hope the present study will help to break that closed circle and open up new paths of study for students of nineteenth- century Spanish literature”).
Theatre has had a special place in the hearts of Spaniards since the great 16th and 17th-century Golden Age (Siglo de Oro), the period in which the prolific Lope de Vega wrote more than 500 plays and even Cervantes yearned for fame on the boards. The Theatre in Nineteenth-Century Spain demonstrates that the stage remains central to the Spaniard’s self-image through the endless debates about the quality and direction of the national theatre. DavidGies’s perceptive study of Spain’s 19thcentury theatre brings alive once again the magic of opening nights, unforgettable performances, prominent playwrights, and even the resounding cheers of bravo, which we may also render to this book.
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