According to Parsons (2003), "Coincident with the growing avant-garde fascination with silent film, cinema was becoming the ultimate embodiment of modern mass culture" (90).
The "modern mass culture" that was emerging in Europe at this time was a reactionary one that became known as a bohemian lifestyle that was personified by Valle-Inclan. In this regard, his biographer emphasizes that, "His behavior at the time showed contempt for the rational world of the bourgeoisie. He changed his appearance substantially, letting his beard and hair grow. He wore large tortoiseshell- rimmed glasses and very loose clothing, like a frock coat. People would stare and sometimes make fun of him. Occasionally he lost his temper, but never his arrogant attitude" (Bohemian Lights 2). Moreover, Valle-Inclan experienced his fair share of misfortune and tragedy during these formative years that would have life-changing implications. For instance, his biographer adds that, "With his high-pitched voice and a lisp, he monopolized attention, making up stories about himself or others and reacting violently to interruptions. Yet he impressed those who knew him well as a kind, shy man. A dispute with a journalist in 1899 led to his left wrist being injured; gangrene set in, and his arm had to be amputated" (Bohemian Lights 3).
This physical and emotional setback, though, did not stop him from writing and he went on to publish a number of works in the succeeding years. In this regard, originally published as a weekly serial in Espana from July 31 to October 23, 1920 and in a revised version in Opera Ominia 19 in Madrid in 1924, "Luces de bohemia" or "Bohemian lights" was not actually produced until 1963; at that time, the Theatre National Populaire in Paris presented it in French for the International Theatre Festival (Parker 466).
The Spanish premiere of the play took place in Madrid's Teatro Bellas Artes, under the direction of Jose Tamayo in 1972 (Parker 466). The play is described as "an accurate documentary" of Bohemian Madrid following the end of the First World War in which "Valle-Inclan strove to include the smallest details of happenings, meetings, newspaper headlines, popular topics, political debates, common phrases, cliches, current slang, and, above all, of the physical aspects of the city" (Zahareas x). In fact, the play was Valle-Inclan's first play that was depicted in a contemporary setting (Parker 466). Most of the action of Luces de Bohemia takes place in dingy settings, marked by poverty (Zatlin 11). By contrast, the Cafe Colon is superficially beautiful. Three characters are dressed in impeccable white clothing and the scene is bathed in pink and yellow lighting. Yet the unforgettable result is grotesque. The woman seated downstage right makes jerky movements, like a marionette. The man seated upstage left is a lifeless doll who only becomes animated to provide missing lines of verse for the poet Ruben Dario, who can no longer recall his own work. And the famous poet dominates the modernist cafe from his perch on a moving swing. Valle-Inclan loosely based his tragicomedy of Max Estrella on the life and death of Alejandro Sawa. He retains the real name of the great modernist poet Ruben Dario but treats the figure anachronistically; Dario died several years before the play's action in the 1920s (Zatlin 12). Max's death (as based on that of the real Sawa) in the original play is the culminating point of the grotesque. Max's corpse is represented by a doll; the coffin is propped on an angle so that the body is almost vertical, facing the audience. A tall, deranged Russian poet arrives at the wake and loudly proclaims that Max is not really dead; to disprove his point, the impatient hearse driver puts lighted matches between the corpse's fingers. As the anguished widow and daughter weep for the deceased and wonder how they can survive economically without him, his modernist friends and the deceitful Don Latino, who has stolen the dying man's wallet containing a winning lottery ticket, leave the wake laughing. In a final scene, while Don Latino celebrates his new wealth, the patrons of the seedy bar learn that the two desperate women have committed suicide (Zatlin 13).
Just three years before his death, Kunitz, Haycraft and Hadden (1936) reported that, "Valle Inclan has been writing since the beginning of this century and he has been acknowledged as one of the masters of Spanish prose. In fact [Valle Inclan] is "the foremost stylist, the only one who knows how to manipulate contemporary Castilian with all beauty and propriety. He possesses the poetic quality, the fertile imagination, of his native province, Galicia. He is fond of the bizarre, the supernatural and the archaic" (661). Likewise, Brockett (1968) places Valle-Inclan with Spain's most popular playwrights during the period between 1915 and 1945, and attributes the delay in producing Bohemian Lights to his works' "perhaps to their similarity to Absurdist drama" which accounts for their "only recently coming to the fore" (609). According to this theatrical historian, besides Bohemian Lights, "Valle-Incan, noted primarily as a novelist, wrote several verse plays, satirical dramas, and farces of which the best is probably the 'Farce of the True Spanish Queen' (1920), a biting satire on the reign of Isabelle II" (Brockett 609).
In his works that followed the "Farce of the True Spanish Queen" in the early 1920s, Valle-Incan would create a new dramaturgical aesthetic he termed "esperento." In this regard, in her text, Modern Spanish Dramatists: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Parker (2002) reports that, "Among a number of plays published in magazines and collected in books in the early 1920s were Divinas palabras (1920), Luces de bohemia (1920), Los cuernos de don Friolera (1921), and Cara de Plata (1922). With Luces de bohemia, Valle-Inclan invented a new dramaturgical aesthetic that he called esperpento" (462). The esperento aesthetic is characterized by a "distortion of some aspects of reality, throwing events and characters into grotesque proportions, along with a mingling of elements of farce, horror, satire, mystery, violence, and parody" (Parker 462). In addition, Valle-Inclan also used this term with respect to the three plays collected under the title Martes de carnaval (1930): Las galas del difunto, Los cuernos de don Friolera, and La hija del capitan (Parker 462). In April 1933 Valle-Inclan traveled to Rome to assume the position of director of the Spanish Academy of Fine Arts; at the time, though, he was already seriously ill and resigned from this post in 1935 and died in a hospital in Santiago de Compostela just a year later on January 5, 1936 (Parker 462).
Although written before he coined the term esperpento, Valle-Inclan's rural drama Divinas palabras. Tragicomedia de aldea [Divine Words] contains elements of esperpentismo. The concept is explained in the dialogue of the play that is usually signaled as his masterpiece, Luces de bohemia [Bohemian Lights]. In Scene 12 of that play, the poet Max Estrella says: "Esperpentismo was invented by Goya….Classical heroes reflected in concave mirrors, that's what the Esperpento is. The tragic sense of Spanish life can be known only through a systematically deformed aesthetic…in a concave mirror, even the most beautiful images are absurd…Deformation ceases to be so when it is subjected to a perfect mathematical law. My current aesthetic is to transform classical norms through the mathematics of a concave mirror." "As manifested in the late plays, esperpentismo might be seen as a realism in which grotesque aspects of life are magnified, in which the horrible and the humorous are superimposed" (Ugarte 466).
According to one authority, "In Luces de Bohemia Madrid is a city of fringes. Not only the fringe between reality and fiction, but a place in which the literary and artworld merge with the squalid and hostile parts of the city. It is an inhospitable dwelling place for artists, a place in which the 'freedom of artistic expression' is a grotesque joke" (Ugarte 466). The few moments in which the audience is able to catch a glimpse of the other Madrid, the center of power and bureaucracy, it is always done from the perspective of the urban margins. Most of the characters who populate Valle's fictional Madrid are far removed from the more pristine and showy side of the city (Ugarte 466). According to Ugarte, "The 'Bohemia' of Bohemian Lights represents the adversarial environment for all those who do not fit into the mainstream -- not just artists, but beggars, prostitutes, drunkards, swindlers, and "losers" of all types. In the initial stage direction, Valle states his intention to offer his spectators a city portrait that will make us wince: 'un Madrid absurdo, brillante y hambriento' (a Madrid of absurdity, brilliance, and hunger)" (Ugarte 466).
The artistic objective of producing a play about Bohemian Madrid is apparent not only in the title but in the inclusion of the word, "brilliant," in the initial designation of the city along with "absurd," and "hungry." The manipulation of light and dark images is perhaps the most important dramatic…