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Theatre in Madrid and Barcelona, 1892-1936: Rivals or Collaborators?

Theatre in Madrid and Barcelona, 1892-1936: Rivals or Collaborators? By DAVID GEORGE. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. 2002. xiv+235 pp. 50 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-7083-1737-2.

This elegant volume begins, quite logically, with a historical introduction to the politics, economics, and urban development of Madrid and Barcelona. David George highlights Catalan radicalism, such as the activities of the Anarchists, which included the bombing of the Liceu opera house in 1893. He is particularly sensitive to the social background of cultural movements: he reminds us that modernisme, for example, was essentially middle class. Features like this become important when Catalan nationalism is viewed from a cultural angle. Specific styles and social attitudes would underlie the considerable growth of amateur theatre in Barcelona.

Chapter 2 covers what George calls 'mutual awareness and joint ventures' (p. 27). It is an ambitious aim to describe all the theatrical connections between the two cities, but George gives valuable details on a topic that has received little serious attention. We learn about the Catalan theatre impresario Salvador Canals, who was based in Madrid, and the extent of reporting in important daily newspapers. (Only in the 1920s did the Madrid press contain regular coverage of theatre in Barcelona.) George is careful to cite different opinions arguing for both the cosmopolitanism and the frivolity of theatre in Barcelona compared with that of Madrid. A joint, if imperialist, vision arose in the perception of Guimera as representing Spain, rather than Catalonia. The chapter also has information on some of the collaborations between individuals whose productions come under scrutiny later in the book.

The remaining sections are more focused. Chapter 3 concentrates on the Catalan actors Enric Borras and Magarita Xirgu, who both found fame by performing in Spanish. Although their two companies merged in 1919, they had very different careers and different attitudes to their origins. While Borras claimed to be an ambassador for Catalan theatre and was often associated with a Catalan repertoire, Xirgu had trouble mastering Spanish, provoked hostility in Barcelona and Madrid because of her regional infidelity, but then became so involved in Spanish (above all experimental) plays that she confessed to a Catalan interviewer in 1935 that it would be difficult for her to abandon Castilian theatre.

In Chapter 4 there are some fascinating reception sketches of those non-Spanish plays which were produced in translation during the period. Several famous names are here: Ibsen, Georg Kaiser, and Wilde. George does not repeat the mantra of Catalan precocity and Castilian backwardness. New European playwrights of the late nineteenth century were generally performed earlier in Barcelona, but in the 1920s and 1930s, he concludes, 'this seems no longer to be the case' (p. 107). Reactions are not predictable either: according to newspaper reviews, Xirgu's performance of Wilde's Salome seems to have caused less scandal in Madrid than it had done in Barcelona.

These sorts of comparison culminate in the following sections. The reception of Catalan theatre in Madrid and Barcelonais illustrated by representative case studies in Chapter 5: Guimera's Terra baixa, Rusinol's El mistic, Iglesies's Els vells, and Gual's El geni de la comedia. The issues are often complex: it is not simply a question of the premiere of a Spanish translation after the Catalan premiere. Sometimes the Madrid production preceded the presentation in Barcelona. This was the case with Terra baixa, which was subsequently performed in Catalan, then Spanish, in Barcelona (all during the years 1896-97). George argues that the high point of Madrid's interest in Catalan playwrights was the first decade of the twentieth century.

Chapter 6 outlines the other side of the coin, the reception of Spanish theatre in Madrid and Barcelona. In this instance, most of the examples are better known: Dicenta's Juan Jose, Benavente's Los intereses creados, Galdos's Marianela (adapted by the Alvarez Quintero brothers), and Lorca's Yerma. By the eve of the Civil War, George concludes, 'it was Spanish theatre which was making a deep impression in Barcelona, although this was channelled through Catalonia's biggest international figure: Margarita Xirgu' (p. 173).

This is a wide-ranging study aimed at theatre specialists as well as Hispanists. The extensive quotations from press reviews are cited in the original Catalan and Spanish, then given an English translation. George has plenty of illuminating asides on stage design and the development of acting and directing in Spain, but, having contextualized the reviewers' personal tastes and the political slant of newspapers, he usually lets the contemporary theatre criticism speak for itself. In that sense, this is a book that stimulates many more questions than it answers. As the first comparative study of its kind, admirable in its attempt at objectivity, it should give rise to debate as well as future research projects.


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Author:London, John
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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