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Jacinto Benavente, centenary of the Nobel Prize for Spanish theatre

He was in Argentina, on tour with the actress Lola Membrives and her theatre company, when on 9 November 1922 the Swedish Academy decided to award him the Nobel Prize for Literature. According to a local chronicle, the first to hear about it was the actress, who was thrilled and bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate. We assume that the playwright toasted the good news, but the second Spaniard to receive such an illustrious award after José Echegaray, took it in his stride and decided to continue with his tourée.

When the Nobel Banquet was held at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm on 10 December, it was the Count of Torata, Spain’s ambassador to the country, who gave the thank-you speech. He also received the prize money, the 23-carat gold medal and the diploma from the King of Sweden, which he presented to the laureates. All the distinctions, including the cheque issued by Stockholms Enskilda Bank for 122,482.56 kroner (about 12,000 euros today), which Benavente never cashed, are now preserved in the National Historical Archive.

On the diploma is the reason why he was awarded the Nobel Prize: “For having continued the glorious traditions of Spanish theatre”. By the time all this happened, his plays had already been published and premiered in both Europe and America. In fact, La Malquerida had run for more than 300 performances at the Belmont Theatre in New York, after a tour of more than a thousand performances throughout the United States.

Jacinto Benavente was born on 12 August 1866 in Madrid. He studied law, although he abandoned his studies after his father’s death to devote himself, thanks to the inheritance he received, to his two great passions: travelling, which he did all over Europe, including Russia, and the theatre. This dramatic enthusiasm had been with him since childhood, when, together with his brothers, he built a small theatre where they performed plays from the Spanish classical repertoire. “For me, writing comedies has always been the same game I played as a child. But is there anything that children take more seriously than games?” he wrote in 1928 in the newspaper ABC, where he was a columnist.

When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he was 56 years old and had 28 years of experience as a playwright. The first play he premiered in 1894, El nido ajeno (The Other Man’s Nest), met with little public or critical success. Nobody seemed to be convinced, except for Azorín, who from the beginning saw his clear vocation as a renovator of the genre.   

Recognition came to him in the 20th century. It began with La noche del sábado (1903) and Rosas de otoño (1905) and culminated with the premiere of Los intereses creados on 9 December 1907 at the Lara theatre in Madrid. Although audiences were still accustomed to the bombastic and stultified theatre of the time, they welcomed his audacious modernity with enthusiasm. That night, like the bullfighters, he was carried on his shoulders from the theatre to his home in Calle Atocha.

“My best work was proclaimed with a standing ovation. I don’t want to antagonise the public. Today I would write it differently: more in the tone of a farce. It is no longer a sin to write farces; but as I am an enemy of correcting my works, even if I had the certainty of improving them, it will last… as long as the public wants it to last”, he told ABC on the occasion of the 23rd anniversary of the premiere of a play of which he only hoped for a moderate success, “that it would be a play for the public and, therefore, for money”. Another of his great contributions was to consider theatre as a business that should be profitable.

But it was not only the public who appreciated the greatness of his creations. Miguel de Unamuno said of the writer in 1910: “I am one of those who believe that our Benavente today has no one to surpass him as a playwright; that his work is worth at least as much as that of Sudermann or Hauptmann, and yet Benavente does not enjoy in Europe the credit enjoyed by Hauptmann or Sudermann, nor is he as widely translated as they are. And this is due above all to the fact that Spain cannot put behind Benavente’s Los intereses creados the cannons and battleships that Germany puts behind Hauptmann’s La campana sumergida“.

Another of his most famous works from this period is La malquerida (1913), in which he perpetuates his desire for formal and aesthetic renewal. This is a prolific author who wrote more than 170 plays, as well as poetry (Versos, 1983), short stories, journalism and other genres such as Cartas de mujer (1893) and Pensamientos (1931).

The most important playwright of our literature after the Golden Age was a man in perpetual ideological ambiguity. During the First World War he declared himself a Germanophile. In 1918 he was elected to the Cortes for Madrid with Antonio Maura’s Conservative party, although he did not last long in office, as only a year later the Cortes were dissolved. In 1933 he co-founded the Association of Friends of the Soviet Union, whose aim was to publicise the achievements and problems of USSR socialism. During the Civil War, he remained in Madrid and later moved to Valencia, which had become the second capital of the Republic. At the end of the war, he went up to the presidential tribune from where the national troops were welcomed.

In 1912, at the proposal of José Echegaray, Jacinto Octavio Picón and José Rodríguez Carracido, Benavente was chosen to occupy chair “l” of the Royal Spanish Academy. He did not write a speech for the occasion either and continued not to do so until he was appointed honorary academician at his own request in 1946, leaving the chair vacant.

Pedro Álvarez de Miranda, in his speech of admission to the RAE in 2011, said that Jacinto Benavente circulated the rumour that “a superstitious fear gripped him, by virtue of which not only did he not believe that these seats guaranteed immortality, but that, just the opposite, the reading of the preceptive speech could rather hasten the call of the Grim Reaper”. The grim reaper did not knock on the door of the great renovator of Spanish comedy until 14 July 1954. He was 87 years old and as Carl August Hegberg, member of the Swedish Academy, said at the banquet he did not attend to collect his Nobel Prize for Literature: “There are many opinions about his stage work, but no one has been able to deny his fantastic talent”

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