Monday, June 08, 2015

Benito Pérez Galdós: Electra (1901)

Sara Casanovas as Electra in a 2010 production at the Teatro Español

I listened to Electra in the impressive Librivox presentation - the most professional-quality Librivox play-reading that I've heard, and highly recommended! (The excellent translation was by Charles Alfred Turrell.)

Possibly because I'd found Balzac's plays such a let-down in comparison to his novels, I didn't have very high expectations of a play by Galdós. But I was wrong: Electra is terrific. And it has an importance in Galdós' career that Balzac's plays never did. Its premiere, on January 30, 1901, was scandalous. It was a great success, but its powerfully anti-clerical message led to public demonstrations. 

The traditional comparison of Galdós in Madrid with Balzac in Paris or Dickens in London is misleading in several respects. Both the earlier authors can be reasonably claimed to have had truly national audiences. Balzac was an idiosyncratic kind-of-conservative; but so large a presence rose above political divisions. And the great radical Dickens was read by all of English society. There might be mutterings from some quarters about the "sullen socialism" of The Chimes and Hard Times, but even conservative readers had been unable to resist Pickwick and Little Nell. By the time of Dicken's greatest novels, he was as much of an established institution as Christmas. 

Galdós wrote in a more fiercely polarized society. His audience in his own lifetime was far more restricted. For the conservative and pious majority, his work was considered off limits. And Electra set the seal on that.

It isn't a masterpiece, don't start thinking of Ibsen, but it is charming, funny, intelligent and intermittently powerful. Over the first four acts the 18-year-old Electra is pulled in different directions - between the liberal scientist Maximo, whom she adores, and the scary fanatic Pantoja, who wants her to spend her life in a convent to atone for his own youthful sins (with her mother). The briefer fifth act, with its climactic appearance of the ghost of her mother, seems perhaps rather a stretch after the prevalent realistic comedy of the rest of the play. 

But up to this point, at least, the drama compels by its conviction and by Galdós' skill with ensemble scenes. Evarista, Don Urbano, Cuesta, the Marquis, and the three principals are splendid realizations. In particular, there's a wonderfully pointed contrast between the talk of angels, demons and serpents among the more religious elders, and the headstrong yet lovable heroine that we come to know and whose personality makes such a bonfire of those outworn categories. 


I've managed to track down a digitisation of Turrell's translation of Electra, in his Contemporary Spanish Dramatists (1919). 

Here's a section from near the end of Act II. I've done what I can to correct the OCR errors, and interleaved it with the Spanish original. As this extract begins, the elders have just discovered some letters in Electra's pockets. 

Evarista. My daughter, you are a real letter-box.
Evarista. Hija, tu cuerpo es un buzón.

Cuesta (Reading).  "Heartless Electra: With what words shall I express my despair, my madness, my frenzy...
Cuesta (leyendo). «Despiadada Electra, ¿con qué palabras expresaré mi desesperación, mi locura, mi frenesí...?»

Evarista. Enough . This is certainly not innocent. (Troubled, examining the letters.) I will wager there are more.
Evarista. Basta... Eso ya no es inocente. (Incomodada, registrándole los bolsillos.) Apostaría que hay más.

Cuesta. Evarista, indulgence.
Cuesta. Evarista, indulgencia.

Electra. Aunt, don't be angry.
Electra. Tía, no se enfade usted...

Evarista. Not be angry! I will settle it with you. Now go and dress.
Evarista. ¡Que no me enfade! Ya te arreglaré, ya. Corre a vestirte.

Don Urbano (Looking at his watch).  It is almost time.
Don Urbano (mirando su reloj). Casi es la hora.

Electra. I shall be here in a minute .
Electra. En un instante estoy...

Evarista. Go along, go along.
Evarista. Anda, anda. 

(Glad to see herself free, Electra runs to her room.)
(Gozosa de verse libre, corre Electra a su habitación.)

Scene 12 / Escena XII: Cuesta; Don Urbano; Evarista; Pantoja

Evarista (With sadness and dismay). Now you see, Don Leonardo...
Evarista (con tristeza y desaliento). Ya ve usted, Leonardo...

Cuesta. The tranquility with which she allowed her secrets to be exposed shows that there is in all this little or no evil intent.
Cuesta. La tranquilidad con que se ha dejado sorprender sus secretos revela que hay en todo ello poca o ninguna malicia.

Evarista. Alas! I do not think the same way, no, no...
Evarista. ¡Ay! no opino lo mismo, no, no...

Pantoja (At the back, somewhat out of breath).  Here they are... and Cuesta too, just so one cannot talk freely...
Pantoja (por el foro algo sofocado). Aquí están... y también Cuesta, para que no pueda uno hablar con libertad...

Evarista (Pleased to see him). At last you come.
Evarista (gozosa de verle). Al fin parece usted...

(They form two groups: at the left Cuesta seated, Don Urbano standing; at the right, Pantoja and Evarista, seated.)
(Se forman dos grupos: a la izquierda, Cuesta sentado, Don Urbano en pie; a la derecha, Pantoja y Evarista sentados.)

Pantoja. I have come to tell you of very serious things.
Pantoja. Vengo a contar a usted cosas de la mayor gravedad.

Evarista (Frightened). Oh, dear! God's will be done!
Evarista (asustada). ¡Ay de mí! Sea lo que Dios quiera.

Pantoja (Repeating the phrase with reservations). God's will be done! ... yes.. But let our will be the same as God's and let us use our will to bring about good, cost what it may.
Pantoja (repitiendo la frase con reservas). Sea lo que Dios quiera... sí... Pero queramos lo que quiere Dios, y apliquemos nuestra voluntad a producir el bien, cueste lo que cueste.

Evarista. Your strength fortifies my soul . Well, and what?
Evarista. La energía de usted fortifica mi ánimo... Bueno...¿y qué...?

Pantoja. Today at the Requesens' they talked about the girl in the most shameful terms. They said that, pursued most indecorously by a whole crowd of lovers, she delights in receiving and sending letters at all hours of the day.
Pantoja. Hoy en casa de Requesens, han hablado de la chiquilla en los términos más desvergonzados. Contaban que acosada indecorosamente del enjambre de novios, se deleita recibiendo y mandando cartitas a todas horas del día.

Evarista. Unfortunately, Salvador, the frivolities of the girl are such that although I love her so much I cannot come to her defense.
Evarista. Desgraciadamente, Salvador, las frivolidades de la niña son tales, que aun queriéndola tanto, no puedo salir a su defensa.

Pantoja {Anxiously) Well, listen further and you will see that human malice has no limits. Last night the Marquis of Ronda, in a company at his house, before Virginia, his saintly wife, and other persons of great respectability, did not cease to praise the charms of Electra in a very worldly and repugnant manner.
Pantoja (angustiado). Pues oiga usted más, y entérese de que la malicia humana no tiene límites. Anoche el Marqués de Ronda, en la tertulia de su casa, delante de Virginia, su santa esposa, y de otras personas de grandísimo respeto, no cesaba de encomiar las gracias de Electra en términos harto mundanos, repugnantes.

Evarista. Let us have patience, my friend .
Evarista. Tengamos paciencia, amigo mío...

Pantoja. Patience.. yes, patience, a virtue which is worth very little if it is not inspired by resolution. Let us determine, my dear friend, to put Electra where she will not see examples of levity, not hear any word spoken with malicious accent.
Pantoja. Paciencia... sí, paciencia; virtud que vale muy poco si no se avalora con la resolución. Determinémonos, amiga del alma, a poner a Electra donde no vea ejemplos de liviandad, ni oiga ninguna palabra con dejos maliciosos...

Evarista. Where she will breathe an atmosphere of austere virtue .
Evarista. Donde respire el ambiente de la virtud austera...

Pantoja. Where the buzz of the poisonous and immodest suitors will not disturb her ...
Pantoja. Donde no la trastorne el zumbido de los venenosos pretendientes sin pudor... 

Galdós at 51, portrait by Joaquín Sorolla

(Image source: Wikipedia)

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