El libro talonario, pr., pb. 1874
La esposo del vengador, pr., pb. 1874
En el puño de la espada, pr., pb. 1875
La última noche, pr., pb. 1875
Cómo empieza y cómo acaba, pr., pb. 1876
Olocura o santidad, pr., pb. 1877 (Folly or Saintliness, 1895)
El gran Galeoto, pr., pb. 1881 (verse drama; The Great Galeoto, 1895)
Vida alegre y muerte triste, pr. 1885
El hijo de Don Juan, pr., pb. 1892 (The Son of Don Juan, 1895)
Mariana, pr., pb. 1892 (English translation, 1895)
El loco Dios, pr. 1902 (The Madman Divine, 1908)
Algunas reflexiones generales sobre la crítica y el arte literario, 1894
Recuerdos, 1917 (3 volumes)
In an autobiographical sonnet about his method of writing, José Echegaray y Eizaguirre (ay-chay-gah-RI ee ay-zah-GEER-ray) once declared: “I choose a passion, an idea indite,/ A problem, situation, or a trait,/ And deep within someone whom I create/ I plant it like a charge of dynamite.”
José Echegaray y Eizaguirre
The explosion engineered by this master of melodrama–an explosion in which the hero reveals his many changes–brought new life to the dull Spanish stage that preceded him. Until the arrival of Jacinto Benavente y Martínez, this dramatist with a Basque name–an engineer, physicist, economist, and academician of the natural sciences–was monarch of the Spanish theater. Though he once declared that his earliest memory as a child of three was of sitting on his mother’s lap in a theater, he had no further connection with the stage until after he was forty. Then, during a quarter century of dramatic activity, he composed a total of sixty-four plays of all types, half in prose and half in verse, combining romanticism with the positivist spirit of his times.
Those who see in the profession of the architect Thomas Hardy the explanation of his well-built novels will also give credit to one of Spain’s greatest mathematicians for his well-figured plots. Echegaray’s times were responsible for the excessive passion of his characters, but only the dramatist can be criticized for the forced conflicts and the abuse of contrived theatrical effects. Yet the powerful and impressive scenes and the intense emotions of the characters gave his audiences no opportunity for cool reflection. Two of his tragedies are considered masterpieces.
Echegaray’s first plays are romantic in tone. El libro talonario (the checkbook), showing that crime is always punished, was written under the pseudonym Jorge Hayaseca in 1874, since its author was minister of the treasury at the time. His La esposo del vengador (the avenger’s wife), later that year, was a success when performed under his own name. Like other plays of this period, it is a morality play in verse blending romanticism with the classicism of the Golden Age. The honor code of Renaissance playwright and poet Pedro Calderón de la Barca, for example, is the basis of Echegaray’s first outstanding play, Folly or Saintliness (also sometimes called “Madman or Saint”), whose theme is that humankind’s chief end is moral perfection. Lorenzo, the protagonist, is impelled by a quixotic sense of honor to put right his false social position even though it brings misfortune to everyone. The play is written in prose.
After a number of lesser successes, Echegaray went back to verse for his second masterpiece, the one preferred by most critics, The Great Galeoto, which attacks the vice of slander. Its universality has been proved by performances in many countries and in seven languages. It was the play chosen to honor the dramatist in 1904 when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
As Echegaray became acquainted with the European theater of his time, playwrights Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Hermann Sudermann increasingly directed his attention to character analysis and realism. In 1885 he abandoned verse in Vida alegre y muerte triste (gay life and sad death), which brought complaints from the public about his morbidity and surrender to naturalism. There were also protests after the performance of The Son of Don Juan, the tragedy of a man who inherits disease from his dissolute father. But crowds still thronged the theater for his last triumph, The Madman Divine, written when he was almost seventy.
Echegaray should be given credit for having guided the Spanish theater to the modern thesis play. If his plays are rarely staged today, the reason is that his pupils have surpassed their teacher. He died in Madrid, the city of his birth, on September 15, 1916.