This is the 18th in a series of articles that celebrate the lives of the Nobel Prize laureates whose names grace the 130+ streets of Laureate Park. These laureates are extraordinary individuals who through their lifetime achievements have made our daily lives immeasurably richer, often in ways not readily evident. The author’s young cousin, Ciaran Stordy, a genuine madrileño, contributed to this article.
When the current pandemic washes away, you might be tempted, as one of your first acts, to fly directly to Madrid to steep yourself into the energetic nightlife of that lively metropolis. Where better to let off steam and celebrate the return of normality after a lonely year in lockdown? Since the journey across the Atlantic may leave you peckish, you might, upon your arrival, wish to slip out for an early dinner. Experienced travelers know, though, that making dinner reservations at 7 or 8 p.m. in any eatery in Madrid is a futile undertaking. In fact, if you arrive at a restaurant, say, at 9 p.m., you and your date will invariably find yourselves sitting alone in a silent, empty room. But at about 10 p.m., the natives will start filtering in, and approaching midnight, the place will be humming with the noisy chatter of enthusiastic diners. That is the hour when Madrid’s nightlife truly kicks in, tracing a diurnal pattern, perplexing to those of us lacking in Iberian DNA. Six hours later, on certain streets of the city, travelers awoken early to catch morning planes sift past dozens of local revelers tottering homeward. When do madrileños sleep, you wonder?
I have no credible answer to that question. All I can say is that it is not hard to admire a people so intent on enjoying life with their nightly patronage of the countless bars, restaurants, and clubs that blanket their city. (The scenes described above are, of course, pre-pandemic, but one can’t but think that the nightlife of post-pandemic Madrid will be restored quickly to its natural nocturnal frenzy.) Perhaps, playwright Jacinto Benavente, a lifelong madrileño, often took part in this nightly saturnalia, if only to glean material for his prodigious theatrical output. Through the more than 170 plays he produced over his lifetime, Benavente brought to the Spanish stage the laughs, loves, flaws, and trials of his compatriots in a stunning variety of dramatic forms, including tragedy, comedy, farce, satire, and a peculiar twist on fairy tales. In choosing him for the 1922 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy honored Benavente for the manner in which he had “continued the illustrious traditions of the Spanish drama.”
Benavente was drawn to the theatre at a young age. The son of a successful pediatrician, he read drama voluminously in several languages, and not just the Spanish playwrights of the Golden Age – Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, and Tirso de Molina – but also Molière, Shakespeare, and leading European dramatists of the day. Dr. Benavente, however, disapproved of his son’s attraction to the stage and prodded him to study law. Fate intervened in 1885 when the 19-year-old Benavente lost his father to a sudden illness. Dropping the study of law, Benavente took advantage of his copious inheritance to travel abroad widely, mainly to England, France, and Russia. Returning to Madrid years later, he launched his literary career in earnest with a comic play, El nido ajeno [Another’s Nest], which unhappily garnered little success. But Benavente persevered, and by the turn of the century, he had started to attract respect and, eventually, fame as a genuinely innovative playwright.
The first two decades of the 20th century were arguably Benavente’s most fruitful. Among the many plays he produced in that period, two of his dramas, La malquerida [The Misbeloved] and Los intereses creados [The Bonds of Interest], have gained lasting admiration and popularity. La malquerida is a wrenching tale of jealousy, incest, and murder, a play packed with overwhelmingly raw emotion. The drama unfolds in a rural Spanish town where, early in the action, the middle-aged Esteban takes the life of his stepdaughter’s fiancé and points the culprit as another young suitor, Norberto, who happens to be Esteban’s nephew. Norberto’s alibi, however, is watertight, and the townspeople’s suspicions slowly shift toward Esteban. As the police close in on the family homestead, Esteban and his stepdaughter, Acacia, publicly proclaim their love for one another – news that horrifies Raimunda, mother of Acacia and wife to Esteban. As the final curtain falls, Raimunda is felled by Esteban’s shotgun. This is powerful stuff.
A happier tone infuses Los intereses creados, in which Benavente offers a hilarious yet complex farce echoing the comedies of Shakespeare, from whom he drew much inspiration. As the play opens, two penniless pícaros, Leandro and Crispín, enter a town, seeking board and lodging with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Through clever dupery, they find both, and the days that follow manage to convince the entire town that Leandro is a prosperous señor (though he pays none of his bills) and Crispín his manservant. Crispín is gifted with an astoundingly nimble tongue that allows him to duck, dodge, but ultimately dominate the trickiest of situations. So much so that, by the end of the comedy, Crispín has not only managed to arrange Leandro’s marriage to Silvia, the town’s wealthiest debutante, but also forced Silvia’s disconsolate father to pay off the considerable debts the two con men have accumulated during their short stay in town. With a touch of genius, Benavente has layered into this play his many influences, such as the Spanish picaresque tradition or – through use of typecast characters clearly marked as “harlequin” or “punch” – the popular Italian theatrical genre known as commedia dell’arte. And with Crispín, Benavente has created a rogue for the ages, a rascal so beloved in Spain that his statue stands today in a square in central Madrid.
It would be nothing short of presumptuous to imagine that Lake Nona’s nightlife could ever rival Madrid’s. But maybe just as well, since the folks hereabouts would probably prefer a stretch of sleep between midnight and dawn – even if, as the internet tells us, nearly a third of Lake Nona’s residents have genealogical roots that lead back to Spain. As we await the construction of an expanded Lake Nona Town Center, or the nation’s first sky taxi vertiport, or still more wellness facilities, might we also dream of someday enjoying a bit of higher-brow culture in our town? Perhaps an art museum or – dare I say it – a professional theatre staging the timeless dramas of playwrights of the stature of a Jacinto Benavente? (For a start, though, we would just be happy with a local library so that we could at least borrow a few of those volumes of those plays to read ourselves …)
Next month: George Smoot, the Measure of a Cosmologist