By Christian Viveros-Faun√©
By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Tom Sellar
By Tom Sellar
By Jessica Dawson
By Tom Sellar
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
Spain's Centro Dramático Nacional, which displayed the Festival's most impressive achievement in drama, suffered slightly from a dose of internationalist fashion, but only slightly. It brought the festival a work that could reasonably represent Spain: a remarkable play by a great Spanish writer in a serious, well thought-out production by a Spanish director, Gerardo Vera. For this good deed, it was punished with a Times review shocking in its ill-informed incomprehension. Granted, the test was a tricky one for reviewers. Ramon del Valle-Inclán (18661936) will never be ranked among the world's most lovable writers. His scope is broad, his language dense, and his uncompromising view of humanity well beyond the edge of outrageousness. It took even Spain a long time to learn his merits: Divinas Palabras, the play the CDN brought over (in an abridged version by Juan Mayorga), was written in 1913, but not published till 1920, nor produced till 1933.
The emotional breadth and compassion of Divinas Palabras prevent it from being the mere Grand-Guignol shocker for which the Times mistook it. Nobody would go to the lengths Valle-Inclán does for the sake of a cheap shock effect, and nobody interested in cheap effects would put them in such a varied and complex context. Valle-Inclán, like his contemporary Frank Wedekind, has no shame; he sails unsparingly into the odious. But he does so fully aware that the odious is only a small part of the larger human story.
Valle-Inclán's vision promotes a deep discomfort with human nature, not the shock-chaser's glib delight in its ugliness. True, the borderline can be slippery. Scenes like the one in which a dead beggar woman's relatives bicker over the ownership of her one valuable possessionthe hydrocephalic dwarf child she has dragged around to evoke pityexploit a mordant humor that Wedekind might have admired. Won by a bumbling, desperately poor sexton (Fernando Sansegundo) and his sexually frustrated wife, Mari-Gaila (Elisabet Gelabert), this grotesque living inheritance proves the couple's undoing. Traveling and exhibiting the child as a freak at village fairs, Mari-Gaila makes up for years of neglect with a parade of men, including a ruthless, amoral vagabond (Jesus Noguera) who travels under the Dickensian name of Septimus Meow. Her hapless husband, left alone, turns to drink andin another of those envelope-pushing Valle-Inclán scenesmakes advances toward their feeble-minded daughter.
While Mari-Gaila, whose behavior has become notorious in the region, is off gallivanting, a tavern crowd torments the malformed child to death. Captured in flagrante, she is humiliated, stripped, and beaten by a mob; she's saved from murder only when her equally shamed husband takes her in, speaking the titular "words divine": "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone." As he leads her, naked, into the church, a vision of the dead child's misshapen head appears in the heavens, dumbfounding the angry villagersnot a sight you would customarily find in a cheap Grand-Guignol shocker.
Vera's production omitted this final vision, unwisely substituting a crude irony based on a horrific image from earlier in the work. His more sustained unwise act was to give the production an overall dark look, accompanied by crashing electronic thunderstorm effects; apparently the rain in Spain stays mainly on the contemporary stage. But these perfunctory bows to current international fashion didn't stop him from articulating Valle-Inclán's lush substance strongly or evoking rich, impassioned performances from his large cast, with Gelabert powerfully moving in the central role. Vera fielded the play's many shifts in tone skillfully: The child's death leads to a nearly Chekhovian scene of grief and recrimination; Vera gave it the austere gravity of a Velasquez. For all its flaws, this accomplished, intelligent production of this astonishing work deserved far more respect than the Times accorded it.