María y Gregorio Martínez Sierra

This page is © Mario Lerena 2016 & Christopher Webber

Last updated February 22nd 2016

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MarĂ­a de la O Lejárraga (1874-1974)Gregorio Martínez Sierra (1881-1947)

The wife and husband team of María and Gregorio Martínez Sierra is one of the most singular and enigmatic partnerships in Spanish literature. Their collaboration was key, not only to the spread of literary Modernism in the early 20th century, but also to the development of lyric theatre in Spain. Not surprisingly, they worked with some of the most prestigious composers of their time including Giménez (La suerte de Isabelita and Lirio entre espinas, both 1912), Lleó (La República del Amor, 1908 and La Tirana, 1913), Vives (Bergamino el lampo, 1922), Usandizaga, Turina, Falla and del Campo, achieving considerable fame at home and abroad.

María de la O Lejárraga was born in the ancient village of San Millán de la Cogolla on December 28, 1874. The daughter of a country doctor, she received all her schooling from her highly-cultured mother, Natividad García. While she was still a girl the family moved to Madrid: María studied Commerce and Teaching there, obtaining in 1897 – against opposition – a place as a municipal schools teacher in the capital. From that time she shared a friendship and literary interests with Gregorio Martínez Sierra (6 May 1881 – 1 October 1947) a student of philosophy and literature six years her junior, who came from a family of industrialists. Before marrying the couple had worked together to publish five volumes under Gregorio’s name, but only one under María’s: Cuentos breves (short stories) in 1899.

After the marriage in 1900, all their works appeared under Gregorio’s name alone. Nonetheless, María is credited with taking the leading role in the writing of most of them, including many translations and dramatic adaptations (for example of Shakespeare, Shaw, Maeterlinck, Ibsen and Ionesco), a fact well known in artistic circles of the time. Meanwhile Gregorio contributed to the partnership his skills in production management and public relations. This facility was evident early on, in the remarkable literary magazine Helios (1903–4), which brought together the most eminent writers of the day, including Rubén Darío, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Unamuno and Jacinto Benavente. Thanks to a research grant obtained by María, the couple toured Europe during 1905 and 1906. Upon their return, Lejárraga left teaching to focus on writing. The couple then founded the select journal Renacimiento, and the name of Martínez Sierra began to gain a theatrical reputation, consolidated by the success of the play Canción de Cuna (1911, staged and filmed in America as The Cradle Song).

They scored a sensational zarzuela success in 1914 with Usandizaga’s Las Golondrinas (1914), a collaboration continued in the opera La llama (1915). María forged a specially cordial working relationship with Turina, in the operas Margot (1914) and Jardín de Oriente (1922); and with Falla, who stayed with the couple during the writing of El amor brujo (1915) and the pantomime El corregidor y la molinera (1917), later recast for Diaghilev as the ballet El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat, London 1919). As a stage director, Gregorio’s great achievement was the creation of an ‘Arts Theatre’ in Madrid’s popular Teatro Eslava, between 1916 and 1926. With its innovative care for the visual and aural aspects of its productions, the company served as a catalyst for artistic talents of various kinds – such as the young Federico García Lorca, who in 1920 premiered his early pantomime El maleficio de la mariposa there. They also presented the pioneering revue ‘In French Style’ El jardín encantado de París (1925) at the Eslava, jointly conceived with José Juan Cadenas.

The special collaboration between María and her husband continued smoothly, even when Gregorio entered into a stable relationship with Catalina Bárcena, the company’s leading lady. However, the distance between the Martínez Sierras increased, especially after the birth of Gregorio and Catalina’s daughter in 1922. In 1926, the impresario travelled to America and settled in Hollywood, where he worked as an advisor to MGM and Fox during the thirties. He died in Madrid in 1947, just one year after having attended the funeral of Falla in Buenos Aires.

María meanwhile turned to political and feminist activism. A leading figure in Madrid’s ‘Lyceum Club Femenino’ since its founding in 1926, she created her own Women's Association of Civic Education in 1931, and in 1933 was elected Socialist Deputy for the province of Granada. Exiled in Nice after the Spanish Civil War, she later moved to London, Paris, New York, Mexico and Buenos Aires. There she continued her tireless literary work (as María Martínez Sierra) until she died, forgotten and alone, on June 28 1974.

Although sometimes accused of bourgeois sentimentality, the Martínez Sierra prose style at its best contributed an intimacy and humanity to the sophisticated aesthetic of Hispanic Modernism, which had been much influenced by the principles of fin-de-siècle Symbolism and Decadence. Their refined brand of theatre managed to be cautiously progressive and commercial at the same time. Special mention should be made of their penetrating characterization of female characters, which to a great extent reflect the existential anxieties of the author herself.

© Mario Lerena (writer) & Christopher Webber (translator), 2016

[En español]

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