Social Criticism of Luce's De Bohemia of Valle Incln Essay

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Social Criticism of "Luces de Bohemia" or "Bohemian Lights" by Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan

A number of influential Spanish playwrights were active during the early part of the 20th century, including Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan who invented a new dramatic device that he termed "esperpento" in his play, "Luces de Bohemia" or "Bohemian Lights." Originally published in 1920, this play about the people of the City of Madrid was not actually produced until 1963, but Valle-Inclan's other major contributions to dramatic literature include Divinas palabras and the three Comedias barbaras, but most authorities agree that "Luces de Bohemia" is Valle-Inclan's masterpiece. To gain some fresh insights into the delayed production of this play and the social criticism that it generated at the time as well as the time, space and historical moment in which it was created, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature concerning Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan's play, "Bohemian Lights," followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Synopsis of Luces de Bohemia

'the cinema speaks only to our eyes', Ramon del Valle-Inclan wrote in 1922 (quoted in Parsons at 87). In 1924, Valle-Inclan would go on to describe the twilight world of an "impoverished, bohemian Madrid in a play dominated by images and metaphors of vision" in his play, Luces de Bohemia ("Bohemian Lights," 1920). The play is set in a "Madrid absurd, brilliant and hungry" [un Madrid absurdo, brillante y hambriento], and the entire play transpires over the course of a single evening, "amidst the fetid urban map of a turn-of-the-century city prior to the construction of the Gran Via. Beginning at twilight, it follows the blind and destitute poet Maximo Estrella as he journeys through a series of progressively sordid city sites, in search of money that is owed to him, before his death from alcohol and hypothermia in the early hours of the following morning" (Parsons 87).

The play's protagonist, the blind poet Maximo Estrella, is perhaps Valle-Inclan's most autobiographical character, although critics have also pointed out close, intentional resemblances between the character and writer Alejandro Sawa. Max Estrella is described as the premiere poet in Spain, though ignored by the Academy and scorned by the press. He is a compelling figure, despite what most critics see as an absence of psychological development. John P. Gabriele, however, finds a basis for psychological analysis of the character beyond his archetypal qualities (Gabriele 659 -- 60).

The opening scene introduces Max, his wife, and daughter, all starving in a garret, his writing unappreciated by publishers. His friend Don Latino was to have sold some books for him but could not get a decent price, so he asks Max to go with him. At the bookseller's shop, they discuss Spain's problems but get nothing more for the books. Max and Latino head for the tavern. Max pawns his cloak to buy drinks. The sounds of rioting workers are heard from the street. Later that night Max and Latino stagger drunkenly under the broken street lamps seeking the streetwalker who appropriated Max's lottery ticket (Parker 468).

A police patrol takes Max for an anarchist and they arrest him. Latino and the habitues of the Modernist Cafe accompany him to police headquarters where Max's irreverent jibes antagonize the officer. He is placed in a cell with a Catalan political prisoner, and the two commiserate about social conditions until the prisoner is taken out, presumably to be killed. Scene 7 is set in the office of a populist newspaper; Latino has come to stir up a protest against Max's arrest, but the scene is largely an excuse for satiric commentary on the press and the government as well as artistic and proletarian movements. Having been set free, Max goes to the Minister of Internal Affairs, an old friend, to call attention to the injustice of his unprovoked arrest. The Minister offers him a pension, which the starving Max realizes he must accept. There is a grotesque quality to the embrace of the ragged and blind but dignified poet by the overweight, foppish Minister who presses money into his hand (Parker 468).

Latino leads Max to an expensive cafe, where Max treats him and poet Ruben Dario to dinner; their drinking yields them a shared vision of Paris. Later, in a moonlit park Max and Latino encounter two streetwalkers. In the next scene they reach a street where broken glass, bullet marks, and a mother carrying a dead child give evidence of a recent riot. Overcome by the senselessness and futility of such conditions, Max asks Latino to lead him home. They arrive at Max's doorstep at daybreak, and here it is that Max describes Spain as an esperpento. Max dies, and Latino relieves him of his wallet (Parker 468).

Latino shows up soddenly drunk for the funeral gathering in the garret where Max's wife and daughter live. Other grotesque figures arrive until finally all are convinced -- in a sequence that is both farcical and poignant -- that Max Estrella is truly dead. A scene at the cemetery provides opportunity for a discussion by the gravediggers of conditions in Spain, but Ruben Dario and the Marques de Bradomin become ego-involved in talking of their own writing. At the tavern Don Latino spends extravagantly, having won a great deal of money with the lottery ticket that was in Max's wallet. News arrives that Max's wife and daughter have committed suicide (Parker 468). According to this authority, "The tavernkeeper notes that Don Latino with his lottery ticket could have saved them from starvation. Boasting of his great-heartedness, Latino asserts that of course he would have helped them. But alas, the world is skewed. it's all an esperpento" (Parker 468). Not surprisingly, Bohemia Lights garnered its fair share of social criticism in response, and these issues are discussed further below.

Social Criticism of Luces de Bohemia

According to one authority, "The social criticism of Valle-Inclan's Luces de Bohemia has been evident to all its readers, and the mocking of the modernists and the exaggerated aesthetics of frivolity has been amply commented upon. But the esperpento can also be read as a perfect fusion of those two critical themes. The work is a demonstration of the impossibility of art in an age of anonymous, impersonal, bureaucratic violence" (Weber 575). Likewise, citing Valle-Inclan's emphasis on incorporating elements of a "stylized, mythic past as a means of evoking an essence or ideal," Lyon considers Bohemian Lights as "a descent into hell for the self-consciously aristocratic author. It is a criticism of the anti-heroic, life-reducing aspects of modern existence which trivialize even what is noble and generous" (108). Moreover, Foster (1999) maintains that "Bohemian Lights" also contains some homophobic remarks that were characteristic of the times, including "the conservative members of the youth of Accion Ciudadana are called "faggots" several times, suffragettes are called marimachos (butch), and secret policemen have moles -- a typical mark of homosexuality in other Valle texts" (172).

By contrast, other authorities weigh in on the social criticism contained in "Bohemian Lights" by pointing to the manner in which Valle-Inclan depicted the downward spiral of the story's protagonist as being most salient. For example, Ugarte suggests that, "Luces de bohemia is the first work of Spanish literature in which the traditional hero journeys toward self-effacement (or so one might interpret Max Estrella's Dante-esque pilgrimage toward death) in order to give way to a collective as central character" (466). In this regard, Parker (2002) concurs with this assessment but adds, "Other critics have explored the play's topical, literary, historical, and site-specific references. Among these are Allen W. Phillips's study of the literary context, Zamora Vicente's tracking of personalities on which the characters are based (La realidad esperpentica 30 -- 56) and his comments on the mirrors of Cat Alley that figure in Max's formulation of esperpentismo (Zamora 310 -- 313). A number of studies have identified the literary influences of writers such as Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Maeterlink. Fernando Ponce offers specific examples of social protest in the play" (468). In reality, there was plenty to protest about during the first part of the 20th century in Europe in general and in Spain in particular, and these issues are discussed further below.

His Environment: Time, Space and Historical Moment

The fin de siecle in Europe was a turbulent period in history, with radical changes being introduced in social thinking that would have profound implications for the continent's political leadership, as well as the theatrical offerings that would emerge in response. It was in this environment that Valle-Inclan found himself during his formative years. According to one biographer, "In 1892, before finishing his studies in law, Valle-Inclan moved to Mexico. When he returned to Spain a year later, he lived a bohemian life in Madrid. He resided in old guest houses and practically never left the cafes, going out at night and sleeping during the day" (Bohemian Lights 2). During this period in history, there was… [END OF PREVIEW]

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