Plays: One, by Ramón del Valle-Inclán

During Spanish Literature Month (it is still Spanish Literature Month, isn’t it?) it’s traditional for me to read something by Ramón del Valle-Inclán: the past few times it’s been his seasonal sonatas, a series of novellas about the Marqués de Bradomín, a Don Juan sort of character and fervent Carlist, which I remember as fairly traditional; – this time I read Plays: One – and I have to say, the contrast is vast. In fact, the contrast between the three individual plays in this edition is pretty vast; and it’s unusual to come across such discrepancies in the body of an author’s work, even if that work is spread of a wide period of time (here, from 1902-5, the sonatas, to 1919-22, the plays).

Plays: One contains three plays: Divine Words (1919), Bohemian Lights (1920), Silver Face (1922). Divine Words is pretty extreme: a bit perhaps like Beckett transposed into a Spanish picaresque setting. The plot is basically this: a boy who is born with severe physical disabilities is used by his mother to beg off strangers; when his mother dies, there is a dispute between over who will look after – and thus exploit – this child; and then there’s a large cast of other picaresque characters – thieves, charlatans, mountebanks, whores – who proceed across the stage. We are very much dealing then here with the lowest rung of society, where everything is to be exploited in the fight for survival and there is an absence of any worthwhile human qualities. (It’s more extreme than anything you’d find for instance in Zola, or probably Faulkner).

Bohemian Lights is set in entirely different world, although one which again suffers from an acute shortage of money: the world of artists. What is this like? It’s like the Nighttown episode from Ulysses (or, I was more inclined to say, since I’d read it so recently, it’s like the central section of Luis Martin-Santos’ Time of Silence). Two artists, Max Estella and Don Latino, wander through the artistic demimonde of Madrid (?), meeting other artistic folk, becoming involved in a revolutionary protest, being arrested and jailed, visiting a brothel (they always visit brothels in these things). And that’s it, pretty much: a vision of the talented and rejected – a self-portrait; – oh, and Rubén Darío (who was a friend of Valle-Inclán) makes an appearance, along with the Marqués de Bradomín.

Silver Face is a bit more of a return to the world of the Marqués de Bradomín, and is largely concerned with the demonic Don Juan Manuel Montenegro (Bradomín’s uncle), who is the archetypal feudal lord and an even more notorious womaniser than his nephew, and who decides one day to ban anyone from crossing his land – mostly peasants on the way to the market, but also later some churchman doing the Lord’s work. Anyway, things escalate and once again any concept of morality is generally far from the thoughts of any of the characters (particularly the clergy).

All good fun. None of the plays has a traditional theatrical plot: they are more like visions which gradually start running out of control – the introduction compares them to Brecht, and since I happen to be reading some Brecht at the moment (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; The Life of Galileo) I found myself having the same thought. Nor do Valle-Inclán’s plays seem to get put on much, not just because he continues to be as overlooked as he was when he was writing, but because they don’t seem much written with the theatre in mind; – the commentary here suggests they are cinematic; but I feel they are probably just whatever visions Valle-Inclán found running about his head.

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