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The Tearful Reunion of Divided Femininity in María Rosa Gálvez’s Neoclassic Theater

Elizabeth Franklin Lewis

University of Tennessee at Knoxville

Neoclassic drama in Spain, as in other European countries, was intended to teach. While the politicians sought reform of society through legal means, the dramatists (who often were one and the same) sought to encourage Enlightenment values in their audience. In the words of Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos:

El gobierno no debe considerar el teatro solamente como una diversión pública, sino como un espectáculo capaz de instruir o extraviar el espíritu, y de perfeccionar o corromper el corazón de los ciudadanos [...] Se deduce, finalmente, que aquélla será la más santa y sabia policía de un gobierno que sepa reunir en un teatro estos dos grandes objetivos: la instrucción y la diversión pública.


One issue that troubled the reformers was the place of women in their renovation of Spanish society. The «Ilustracion» clearly needed the participation of women in their reforms, since the proper education and rearing of Spanish children was at the top of their concerns, but at the same time it feared the upheaval of the societal order that so depended on female subjugation. Kathleen Kish, studying the socio-political implications of Neoclassic drama in Spain, has concluded that eighteenth-century theater was in effect a «school for wives», teaching women their strictly defined roles as spouses and mothers in the «betterment» of Spanish society. Kish calls the tactics that Moratín and others used to subjugate female characters a «carrot and stick approach», through which rebellious and free-thinking women were ridiculed while their self-effacing and subordinate sisters were held as a model of femininity for Spanish women.

Yet there was at least one Neoclassic playwright who attempted to reform both the stage and society without dismissing women’s active role in societal change -María Rosa Gálvez. Through the study of her female characters in two plays- the comedy La familia a la moda (1805) and the tragedy La delirante (1804) -we will find that Gálvez was able to combat male stereotypes by uniting the antithetical images of women found by Kish, thus forming a new and positive heroine. Her version of the enlightened female provided a different model of femininity for Spanish women that was neither physically nor intellectually submissive to men.

María Rosa Gálvez, the adopted daughter of Coronel Antonio Gálvez, was born in 1768 in Malaga. She married Captain José Cabrera, but the marriage did not last and the couple separated shortly after moving to Madrid in 1790. Some attribute this breakup to Cabrera’s jealousy over his wife’s relationship with court favorite Manuel Godoy. Although her associations with Godoy is a subject of debate, it is certain that her friendship with this politically connected man was extremely important to the financially restricted Gálvez, facilitating the performance and publication of her work, especially her three volume Obras poéticas in 1804 by the Imprenta Real. She died in 18061.

It seems to me appropriate to begin our analysis of the creation of a new female subject in Spain by looking to what scholars of other literatures and cultures have said about the production of feminine subjectivity. I take as my primary reference Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s important study, Madwoman in the Attic. I do this despite recent criticisms by scholars like Toril Moi, who see Gilbert and Gubar’s work (along with that of many other «Anglo-American» feminists) as flawed2. However, I find much of what Gilbert and Gubar established almost two decades ago to be quite valuable in the analysis of a woman-created feminine subject. They begin their study of nineteenth-century British women’s writing by first looking at the antithetical portrayals of women in patriarchal tradition, in which they are seen as either «monster» or «angel». This divided representation of femininity has had a great effect on women’s images of themselves, an effect Gilbert and Gubar believe expresses itself in the prevalent figure of the madwoman.

Although criticized by those scholars more swayed by French theorists, Gilbert and Gubar’s notion of a feminine subject divided by patriarchy is not that distant from psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s notion of a «fragmented subject». This fragmentation occurs, says Lacan, when a child enters into language, or the «symbolic» realm of the father, which is characterized by antithetical relationships (me/you, man/woman)3. Thus for Lacan and for French «feminists»4, language is patriarchal. Their écriture féminine is located at least in part outside this «symbolic» order, but is not necessarily restricted to women writers. Hélène Cixous notes in her «Laugh of the Medusa» (her manifesto for an écriture feminine that «writes the body») that a few male writers have ventured out of the phallocentric tradition of reason into the «dark continent» of femininity, and the few that have are mostly poets: «Because poetry involves gaining strength through the unconscious[...]» (879). Thus écriture féminine is a mode of writing that rejects the Cartesian rationality and «logocentrism» of patriarchy (a concept also obviously influenced by Derridean deconstruction). Of course Gálvez is far from composing this modern kind of writing, but we can see in her dramatic works the effects of a feminine subject divided by patriarchy. While in typical Enlightenment fashion Gálvez believes she can overcome this negative situation through reason, her attempt at reuniting these «fragments» of femininity at the very least struggles with the language of patriarchy and its emphasis on opposites.

The comedy La familia a la moda was first performed in April of 1805, but was never published during Gálvez’s lifetime. In it doña Guiomar, a rich widow from the mountains, comes to town to reform her lazy brother and his frivolous family before promising them her estate in her will. It is significant that Guiomar is a widow, for she is neither subject to a husband nor a father. Perhaps more importantly, because she is also rich, she is the one who mandates the actions of the others. It is particularly interesting that, aside from the issue of the father don Canuto’s gambling debts and his son Faustino’s inheritance, male concerns are peripheral in this play. Instead the central conflict is between doña Guiomar, her vain sister-in-law Madama de Pimpleas, and the Madama’s daughter, doña Inés, who has been shut away in a convent. Guiomar first learns of the mistreatment of her niece from the servant, Teresa:

Madama está convidada
en los bayles entre tanto.
¿La acompaña mi sobrina?
Ésa ni por privilegio
sale jamás del colegio
por que á monja la destina.5


Although betrothed to the hardworking Carlos, Inés is being forced by her mother to become either a nun or to marry the arrogant Marqués de Altopunto. Don Canuto is not blind to his wife’s real motives:

Obra, hermana, con cordura,
por que harás una diablura
si traes aquí á la muchacha,
Ya verás que es muy hermosa,
joven, llena de candor,
y así no la hace favor
su compañía á mi esposa.


Thus daughter and mother are adversaries in this play, recalling traditional witch-and-angel images of woman in fairy tales. Gilbert and Gubar trace these same images in the story

«Snow White, in which the opposition of the selfless and angelic Snow White to the individualistic yet evil Queen constitutes the tale’s central conflict:

The Queen’s husband and Snow White’s father [...] never actually appears in this story at all, a fact that emphasizes the almost stifling intensity with which the tale concentrates on the conflict in the mirror between mother and daughter, woman and woman, self and self.»


The contrast between these two opposite yet connected selves -the angel versus the witch- is one that Gálvez explores in La familia a la moda, as well as in her tragedy La delirante. However, in La familia a third woman is added, one who is strong and self-minded like the wicked Queen but who is also good and loyal to her family, looking out for the weaker innocent girl. That third woman is doña Guiomar.

Guiomar stands strong, despite being opposed by almost everyone she meets at her brother’s house. She endures insults about her «backwards» dress and behavior, as well as threats from her rival, Madama de Pimpleas. While the good-hearted Inés wants to believe her mother, the astute Guiomar is not fooled:

Carlos, llamad á mi padre
Ya voy.
También a Faustino.
Válgame Dios, ¡qué desgracia!
¿No ves tía, lo que os dixe?
¿Ese istérico te aflige?
Vaya, pues si es una gracia.


Doña Guiomar and Madama de Pimpleas come into conflict over control of the young Inés throughout the entire play, but Guiomar finally defeats her rival, paying off the family’s exorbitant debt in exchange for Inés’ freedom. In the end, Inés and Carlos are to be married, Faustino will get the proper education of a young gentleman and don Canuto will become the head of his household again. Guiomar’s closing words express the moral intent of the play:

Yo, a pagar lo que tú debas,
hermano, y tú a gobernar
tu casa sin malgastar,
que ya un escarmiento llevas:
puesto que á nadie acomoda
invitar en sus sandeces
todas las ridiculeces
de una familia á la moda.


However, there is an underlying message for women in La familia a la moda that is far more important to the play than its stated purpose of correcting societal vanity. As we have seen, most of the play’s action centers around the relationships between the three female characters. Madama de Pimpleas is the typical enlightenment anti-heroine: she is selfish, vain, and a poor mother. Opposite her is Inés who, although being a good daughter, is too weak and innocent to triumph over ignorance and tyranny. Balancing these two opposites stands Guiomar. She represents enlightenment morality, yet as a stubborn and bossy old woman, Guiomar departs from the conventional representation of angelic female virtue. Gálvez’s model-of femininity is not necessarily a likeable one, but Guiomar’s prudent rationality, her intelligence and her loyalty to her family (qualities normally reserved for men) present a positive and strong figure for women to emulate.

The story of a young woman, raised in a convent and forced by her unsympathetic mother to marry an older man against her will, despite her love for a younger, more worthy suitor, sounds very familiar. But Juan Luis Alborg and John Cook cannot accuse Gálvez of imitating Moratín this time, as they have done with her other comedies, since El Sí de las niñas came out a year later -first appearing on stage in 1806- than La familia a la moda6. Although both plays deal with unjust arranged marriages and restrictive convent educations that render young girls incapable of speaking up for themselves, and in both a wise older relative facilitates the resolution of the conflicts, there are also great differences, especially in the figure of Guiomar. Instead of the typically comic love triangle we find in Moratín’s play, La familia has an unusual female conflict triangle. The two older women fight for control of the younger girl, much as rival male suitors would over the object of their desire. When Guiomar finally «gets the girl», she symbolically wins the struggle to lead the next generation of women. Her model of femininity wins.

Although Gálvez tried to create strong female characters and reform the Spanish theater and society through her comedies, it was really in the tragedy that she concentrated her artistic efforts.7La delirante centers around the conflict between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots’ fictional daughter, Leonor. Isabel (I will refer to her by her character name in the play instead of by her English name), is insanely jealous of her dead rival’s daughter, since the handsome Conde de Essex loves Leonor and not Isabel. Isabel betroths Leonor to the evil Lord Arlington, who plots against the crown in an attempt to gain the throne for himself. When his plan is discovered by the Queen, he frames Leonor for the conspiracy. Lady and Lord Pembroke, friends of the Scottish princess as well as loyal subjects to Isabel, fake Leonor’s death and hide her in their home so that she might avoid Isabel’s wrath. Thus the play begins after several years have passed and Leonor, Essex, Arlington, the Pembrokes and Isabel find themselves together again in the Queen of England’s palace.

The subject of the rivalry between Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I was not a new one in Spanish literature. While in Protestant countries it was Elizabeth who was portrayed as the heroine and Mary as the tyrant queen, Spain:

the «centro de catolicismo», [...] consistently venerated Mary almost, indeed, as a «saint» throughout the Golden Age and on into the eighteenth century while Elizabeth was generally reviled as a lascivious and sacrilegious tyrant.

(MacKenzie, 202)                

Whitaker, in his introduction to La voz malagueña, highlights the female issues raised in María Rosa Gálvez’s version of this story, La delirante. He makes a comparison with Gilbert and Gubar’s analysis of female-authored books like Jane Eyre, in which the figure of the madwoman is a key element to their fiction. Isabel embodies for Whitaker male authority, while Leonor represents lo femenino: «el papel de la madre, la importancia de la familia, la voz en contra de la muerte de víctimas inocentes» (16). In a 1993 article Whitaker expands his conception of the character Leonor:

[...] La delirante has a «deep structure» or, employing the terminology of Marianne Hirsch, a «submerged» mother-daughter plot in which Leonor rights for and eventually achieves her own selfhood and an identity independent from that of her famous mother.

(«Absent Mother, Mad Daughter» 169)                

This internal battle with her deceased mother is expressed outwardly through Leonor’s apparent madness. She regains her mental health, says Whitaker, because of her love for Essex. He refers to Julia Kristeva’s idea that love, in the words of Toril Moi, «allows the patient tentatively to erect some kind of subjectivity, to become a subject-in-process in the symbolic-order» («Introduction», Kristeva Reader 15) . Building upon this development of the independent female self that Whitaker has traced in the character of Leonor, I hope to show that the «deep structure» of La delirante not only involves Mary Queen of Scots’ young daughter’s search for self, but also the creation of a new feminine subject by combining the best «masculine» characteristics of Queen Isabel with the positive «feminine» traits of Leonor. I think that after an analysis of La delirante, we will recognize its similarity with Gálvez’s comedy La familia a la moda, as it too sets up a new model for femininity that breaks the traditional Snow White-versus-Wicked Queen construct Gilbert and Gubar have found.

Leonor, who has been hidden from public view for three years prior to the action of La delirante and who is hidden, confined and even imprisoned throughout the action of the play, appears for the first time in act two. The description of her character is typical of the image of the madwoman popularized in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Dressed in black with her hair left down, Leonor is another romanticized image of the beautiful young maniac whose origins can be traced back to Shakespeare’s Ophelia (Showalter, The Female Malady 10). In fact, in many ways Leonor is an eighteenth-century reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s delirious young lady from Hamlet. From her very first appearance the similarity is apparent. Leonor, like her Shakespearian predecessor, is desperately searching for imaginary flowers:


 (A Leonor) 

¿Qué buscas?
¿Pues qué es esto?
No te han dicho...
Buscaba aquellas flores
que en el campo formaban otro tiempo
mis placeres.


¿Qué escucho?
Ven conmigo.
Ven, yo te las daré.


Ya se perdieron.
¡Ay! Las secó el poder, pero las flores

 (Señalando al pie del trono) 

del sepulcro aquí nacen. Yo las veo
crecer al pie del trono. ¿Y qué? ¿Marchitas
las regará mi llanto?


Spatially and mentally confined by physical imprisonment and by her lunacy, Leonor is another «madwoman in the attic». She is enslaved by a restrictive patriarchy, ironically represented by a queen’s (and not a king’s) tyrannical monarchy.

By scene three of act three, it is the Queen who is tormented by ghastly hallucinations. Like Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth, Isabel is unable to get thoughts of her bloody transgressions out of her mind:

Pero ¡ay triste!... ¿Qué quieres, Estuarda?...
Leonor... ¿Por qué presentas de tu madre
la cabeza a mis ojos?... Quita... aparta
ese horroroso objeto... ¿Tú me arrojas
su sangre en mis vestidos? Esta mancha
jamás se borrará... Jamás... Perdona...

 (Se arrodilla) 

But with the news from Lord Arlington of Leonor’s faked death, Isabel returns to her old ways, threatening her rival with the same fate as her famous mother.

The conflict between these two characters is resolved in the last act when Leonor, having regained her sanity, risks her life to defend the Queen from a group of rebellious soldiers. Isabel is moved to tears, symbolizing the end of her «delirious» anger and the beginning of her reasonable and virtuous behavior:

¡Oh heroismo! ¡Oh virtud!... Leonor, recibe
mi llanto por tributo... (Llora) Él manifiesta
toda mi admiración y ternura.


However, this tearful reconciliation is abruptly and tragically ended when Lord Arlington stabs his wife in a fatal embrace. Having learned the lesson of this tragic situation, Isabel re-establishes order by pronouncing the last words of the play:

He aquí de la venganza
el execrable fruto que nos resta.
Anhelamos por ella, y conseguida
nos cubre de ignominia, y se detesta.


This melodramatic ending is probably the reason Ivy McClelland said that Gálvez’s «later tragedies, which [...] improve in poetic style, at the same time grow more melodramatic.» Yet is melodrama necessarily a fault? As one of the «lower» forms of writing, melodrama is generally associated with popular literature and culture, but it was an important part of eighteenth-century literature, especially of the comedia lacrimosa, and often served moralistic purposes. Melodrama also was, and still is, a form frequently used by female authors, and male criticism’s devaluation of it has been questioned by feminists like Nina Baym («Melodramas of Beset Manhood» 65).

Susan Kirkpatrick also notes the frequent use of melodrama (again for moralistic purposes) in the female literature that followed Gálvez’s generation, most notably found in Fernán Caballero’s important novel La gaviota. As in Caballero’s novel, Gálvez’s sen-timentalism and melodrama serve a very definite didactic purpose in La delirante. Although the characters may be excessively good or evil, this contrast is necessary to bring about Gálvez’s symbolic intent -Isabel and Leonor as opposite sides of femininity. Queen Isabel is a strong leader, independent, even «masculine», as Whitaker has described her, but she is also extremely jealous and ruthlessly vengeful. Leonor, on the other hand, is sensitive, self-sacrificing and pure. Together they represent the wicked-witch and Snow-White selves of woman outlined by Gilbert and Gubar (38-43). Whitaker believes that Leonor’s dementia represents woman oppressed by male authority. Although I agree in part, the reconciliation of these two archetypal women signifies more than protest against male domination. In Susan Kirkpatrick’s discussion of female subjectivity, she finds that the women writers of the mid-nineteenth century developed a divided self: «a victim of the contradictions between the Romantic concept of the sovereign individual subject and the nineteenth-century ideology of gender» (Las románticas 24) . The female author was torn by the effort to reconcile her professional aspirations as an artist and the expectations placed on her by patriarchal society. Isabel of La delirante represents in many ways the kind of strong and independent woman María Rosa Gálvez the artist was. Yet Gálvez must have had to struggle with the image of the helpless Leonor, driven to madness by her dependence on others. La delirante represents, on one level, a process of healing for these two sides of divided femininity which culminates in the final tearful reunion of the two halves -each expressing her respect for the good qualities of the other. Good does not triumph over evil, but rather they combine to become a stronger, saner woman.

More recently Julia Kristeva has also recognized the need for reconciliation of a divided womanhood:

[...] we have been able to serve or overthrow the socio-historic order by playing at being supermen. A few enjoy it: the most active, the most effective, the «homosexual»8 women (whether they know it or not). Others, more bound to the mother, and more tuned in to their unconscious drives, refuse this role and sullenly hold back, neither speaking nor writing, in a permanent state of expectation, occasionally punctuated by some kind of outburst: a cry, a refusal, «hysterical symptoms».

(«About Chinese Women» 155)                

Kristeva’s answer to this «madness» is a delicate combination of the two positions, her attempt to avoid the pitfalls of both. María Rosa Gálvez makes a similar move through her female characters. Her repressed, hysterical girls who are almost completely silent (Inés and Leonor) are contrasted to and combined with her strong «homosexual» women (Guiomar and Isabel) to create a model of femininity that advocates both virtue and strength. Gálvez, however, achieves her new model of femininity through a most common male enlightenment rhetorical device -the construct of thesis-antithesis-synthesis.

In the debate between Anglo-American and French theorists -a divided feminism- this Hispanist (and Hispanists have been notably absent from much feminist discussion) also yearns for a «tearful» reunion that would combine the best of both worlds. Thus I have found myself appropriating Gálvez’s enlightenment rhetoric, attempting my own synthesis of antithetical positions. However, María Rosa Gálvez also teaches us that the journey to wholeness is difficult, if not impossible. Certainly, her idealistic vision had little effect on patriarchy’s representation of woman, and Romanticism continued with the same polarized images of the witch/enchantress and the selfless angel. But it is again Kristeva who renews my hope:

An impossible dialectic of two terms, a permanent alternation: never one without the other. It is not certain that anyone here and now is capable of this. An analyst conscious of history and politics? A politician tuned into the unconscious? Or, perhaps, a woman...

(«About Chinese Women» 156)                

Works Cited

  • Alborg, Juan Luis. Historia de la literatura española. III. Siglo XVIII. Madrid: Gredos, 1972.
  • Baym, Nina. «Melodramas of Beset Manhood». The New Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 63-80.
  • Cixous, Hélène. «The Laugh of the Medusa». Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs 1.4 (Summer 1976): 875-893.
  • Cook, John A. Neo-Classic Drama in Spain. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1959.
  • Gálvez de Cabrera, María Rosa. La delirante. Obras poéticas. Vol. III, Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1804.
  • ——. La familia a la moda. MS. 1804, (Biblioteca Municipal de Madrid).
  • Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Image. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.
  • Jovellanos, Gaspar Melchor de. Espectáculos y diversiones públicas. Ed. José Lage. 5th ed. Madrid: Cátedra, 1986.
  • Kahiluoto Rudat, Eva M. «María Rosa Gálvez de Cabrera (1768-1806) y la defensa del teatro neoclásico». Dieciocho 9(1986): 238-248.
  • Kirkpatnck, Susan. Las románticas. Women Writers and Subjectivity in Spain 1835-1850. Berkeley: U California P, 1989.
  • ——. «On the Threshold of the Realist Novel: Gender and Genre in La gaviota». PMLA 98.3(1983): 323-340.
  • Kish, Kathleen. «A School for Wives: Women in Bigbteenth-Centaty Spanish Theater». Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols. Ed. Beth Miller. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.
  • Kristeva, Julia. «About Chinese Women». The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 138-159.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Tavistock Publications, 1977.
  • ——. The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1968.
  • Mackenzie, Ann L. «The ‘Deadly Relationship’ of Elizabetfe I and Mary Queen of Scots Dramatized for the Spanish Stage: Diamante’s ‘La Reina Estuarda and Canizares’ (?) ‘Lo que va de cetro a cetro, y crueldad de Inglaterra’.» Dieciocho 9(1986): 201-15.
  • Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, London: Methuen, 1985.
  • ——. Ed. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.
  • Serrano y Sanz, Manuel, «María Rosa Gálvez de Cabrera». Apuntes para una biblioteca de escritoras españolas desde el año 1401-1833, Vol. I. Biblioteca de Autores Españoles. 269. Madrid: Rivadeneyra, 1903. 443-456.
  • Whitaker, Daniel. «Absent Mother, Mad Daughter and the Therapy of Love in La delirante of María Rosa De Gálvez». Dieciocho 16.1-2(1993): 167-176.
  • ——. «Los figurones literarios of María Rosa Gálvez as an Enlightened Response to Moratín’s Comedia nueva». Dieciocho, 11.1(1988): 3-14.
  • ——. La voz malagueña en el teatro de la Ilustración española. MS. 1990.