Out of the Wings

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El lector por horas (1996), José Sanchis Sinisterra

English title: Reader by the Hour
Date written: 1996
First publication date: 1999
First production date: 21 January 1999
Keywords: family, family > patriarchy, power > inter-personal/game play, identity, ideology, power > use and abuse

Stories invade our lives. They create new worlds, evoke memories and elicit within us feelings we never knew we had. Reading is powerful. But it is also dangerous. El lector por horas (Reader by the Hour) celebrates the joy of reading, but also shows how it can betray us. The warnings are clear: be careful what you read; be careful whom you read to; be careful what stories you hear.


El lector por horas (Reader by the Hour) is a three-character play set in the study of an affluent home. Here, Celso lives with his blind and psychologically disturbed daughter Lorena. Celso takes pride in his large study, with tall bookshelves stacked with what he deems to be the best stories ever written – from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Into this small family unit comes Ismael, a man blessed with a neutral reading voice that appears to give nothing of his own personality away. Celso hires Ismael as Lorena’s ‘reader by the hour’. Celso claims that Lorena will choose the literature to be read to her. In fact, unknown to Ismael, Celso himself will be choosing the stories to be read to his daughter …

Although Ismael is hired because of his impersonal reading style, his effect on this small family is far from neutral. Gradually, he becomes more than simply a hired voice. He is led into discussions about the themes in the books he reads to Lorena. He becomes a reluctant confidant with whom Celso discusses his failed relationship with Lorena’s mother and to whom Lorena, in turn, reveals that her father beat his wife. Ismael is also drawn into arguments about the value and perils of literature. Do stories enhance our lives, or do they leave us dissatisfied with reality?

As Lorena’s reader, therefore, Ismael also gets to read the story of this troubled family. His own life story, however, does not escape scrutiny. Lorena may be blind, but her ability to detect the slightest nuance in the human voice enables her to see deeper than any of those around her. And so, in the course of several months as Lorena’s reader by the hour, Ismael unwittingly betrays himself with every word he reads. His voice, Lorena claims, reveals his sordid past. She accuses him of being a disgraced teacher whose inappropriate relationships with young students eventually led to the suicide of one poor girl. Although Ismael does not protest, we never know whether her claims are true, and her reasons for accusing him are unclear. What is clear is that, from this point onwards in the play, reading and listening become a confrontational battleground as the dynamics between all three of the characters become even more complex.

Despite the accusations levelled against him by Lorena, Ishmael confesses that he is not in a position to resign: he needs the money. The next book he reads from for Lorena is Dream Story, an erotic tale of sex and death. Upset, and not aware that Celso is solely in charge of the book choices, Lorena accuses Ismael of colluding with her father and selecting a deliberately disturbing tale that reminds her painfully of her mother. Later, Lorena confronts her father about the choice of reading material, accusing him of wanting to keep her in a state of mental anguish. Later still, it is Celso’s turn to confront Ismael. Once again the reader’s past comes back to haunt him. Celso reveals that he has discovered that Ismael is himself a writer who has plagiarised the works of William Faulkner in his novels – novels which have, to make matters worse, failed to sell. On learning of Ismael’s literary aspirations, Lorena forces him to read aloud from one of his books, entitled Forgive Me The Future. Haltingly and reluctantly, Ismael reads excerpts from this strange tale in which a narrator describes his feelings from the moment a gun is fired at him by a mysterious assassin. The narrator of the story launches a tirade against his future murderer’s mother, imagining how things could have been different if she had murdered her child at birth.

The vehement and enigmatic excerpts from Ismael’s own novel are the last to be heard in the play. After this, in the penultimate scene, the dynamic between Ismael and his employers changes markedly. At the beginning of the scene Lorena stands with her father and awaits Ismael’s arrival. She is anxious, knowing that her father is about to sack her reader by the hour. Yet when Celso does so, Ismael is unperturbed. Left alone with Lorena, and much to her consternation, Ismael laughs as he recounts his day. Dressed in a dark blue suit, he has just returned from his mother’s funeral. He speaks mysteriously about the ceremony, about the rain … about how experience and literature are interconnected. There is a sense of freedom in his words. He states confidently that he no longer needs the job as Lorena’s reader by the hour; that every ending is a beginning. Lorena, unsettled by her former employee’s confidence, wants to know if she will ever regain her sight. Symbolically, it seems that Lorena is asking Ismael if she, too, will one day be free to start a new chapter in her life. The final scene of the play takes place in silence. Ismael stands at the study window. Celso is in his armchair. Lorena stands above them both on a ladder among the books on the shelves.  Could it be that she is choosing her own literature, making her own way in the world? The telephone rings. Nobody answers it.



The play is preceded by two epigraphs. The first epigraph is made up of fragments from the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament. In this book, the prophet Jonah is ordered by God to go to the city of Nineveh and condemn its inhabitants for their wicked behaviour. Jonah refuses to go and flees on a boat but is thrown overboard in a storm sent by God in punishment. Jonah is then swallowed by a whale in whose belly he remains for three days and three nights, during which time he repents of his disobedience. The epigraph in El lector por horas (Reader by the Hour) is taken from the prayer Jonah speaks from inside the whale’s belly:

But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights, […] The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. […] And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land. (Jonah 1: 17 to 2: 1-10)

The second epigraph is in French and is taken from the poem Psaume S (Psalm S) by the poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945). It is left untranslated in both the Spanish and the English versions of the play and reads:

Au commencement fut la Surprise,

et ensuite vint le Contraste;

après lui, parut l’Oscillation;

avec elle, la Distribution,

et ensuite la Pureté

qui est la Fin.

(Paul Valéry, Psaume S [bibliographical source unknown])

Reader’s Name: Ismael/Ishmael

The reader character’s name calls to mind the famous first line – ‘Call me Ishmael’ – of the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, in which the narrator introduces himself to the reader. It is also the name of the son Abraham had with Hagar, his wife Sarah’s servant. Unable to conceive, Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham. When Hagar became pregnant, Sarah was jealous and mistreated Hagar, forcing her to flee into the desert where Ishmael was born (Genesis 16). Critics note the correlation between the marginalised nature of this biblical character and the Ismael in the play, who has become a social outcast because of his inappropriate relationships with students (Garnelo Merayo 2005: 307).


In the course of the play excerpts from a number of novels are read aloud. Many of these excerpts deal with sexual desire. Sanchis Sinisterra states that he chose these excerpts randomly (2000: 71) although this has been questioned by some who doubt this can be the case, given the content of the excerpts (Garnelo Merayo 2005: 312, n. 13).

Justine: Laurence Durrell

In scene 1 Ismael reads to Celso from Justine, which is the first novel from Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960) set in Alexandria in Egypt before and during the Second World War. The narrator of Justine is a schoolmaster and struggling writer who becomes obsessed with the wealthy Justine.

The Leopard: Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

In scenes 2 and 3 Ismael reads aloud from the epic novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) published posthumously in 1958 about Sicilian life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The novel focused particularly on the life and gradual decline of the wealthy and powerful Prince Don Fabrizio Corbera.

Heart of Darkness: Joseph Conrad

Excerpts from this 1902 novel are read aloud and discussed by Ismael and Lorena in scenes 4, 5, 6 and 7.

Madame Bovary: Gustave Flaubert

Excerpts of Madame Bovary are read aloud in scenes 8 and 9. Subsequently, this 1857 French novel becomes the starting point for a debate in scene 10 between Celso and his daughter regarding the benefits and dangers of literature. Celso believes that Emma Bovary, the eponymous tragic heroine who tries to escape her mundane life through a series of affairs, has been given falsely high expectations of real life because of the literature she has read.

Dream Story or Rhapsody (Traumnovelle): Arthur Schnitzler

In scene 11 Ismael reads Lorena excerpts from this 1926 novella. Lorena is disturbed by the choice of this psychological and erotic story that traces the sexual experiences of Doctor Fridolin over the course of several days. One excerpt in particular, that describes in detail the naked and lifeless corpse of a woman, disturbs Lorena because it reminds her of her mother. This book was adapted in 1999 into the film Eyes Wide Shut directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Pedro Páramo: Juan Rulfo

In scene 12 Ismael and Lorena recite lines together from this short book published in 1955 by the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. This novel is set in a Mexican ghost town and blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, reality and illusion, in a manner reminiscent of the play itself.

Absalom, Absalom!: William Faulkner

In scene 14 Celso reads aloud an excerpt from the 1936 Gothic novel Absalom, Absalom! Celso has discovered that Ismael has plagiarised this novel and others in his own published – but unsuccessful – books.

Perdóname el futuro (Forgive Me The Future): José Sanchis Sinisterra

In scene 15 Ismael reads one of his own novels aloud. This is an unedited and unpublished book written by Sanchis Sinisterra himself.

Other literary references

In the course of the play references to other works of fiction are brought into the conversation as the characters discuss the various merits and dangers of literature. These novels are:

Don Quijote: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

In scene 10 Celso mentions Don Quijote as another example, along with Emma Bovary, of a character who demonstrates the dangerous capacity of fiction to appeal to such an extent that it engenders a sense of dissatisfaction with real life.

Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In scene 11 Ismael likens himself to Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov commits a savage murder and becomes obsessed with the guilt and moral anguish of this act. Eventually he confesses and is imprisoned but it ultimately forgiven by his true love, Sonya. Ismael is – sarcastically it seems – likening this journey from secret shame to absolution to his own situation in which Lorena has intuited his murky past and insists on alluding to it.

The Bridge: Franz Kafka

In scene 13 Lorena mentions this short story in relation to her own situation. She accuses her father of wanting her to remain shut in the house in a state of psychological stasis. She quotes Kafka’s story that relates the feeling of being stretched like a bridge unable to do anything but touch two points, not able to move anywhere.

Les lauriers sont coupés: Édouard Dujardin

In scene 14, attempting to defend himself from Celso’s accusation of plagiarism, Ismael mentions this short novel from 1888 that has been said to have influenced James Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness writing in his own work.

As I Lay Dying / The Wild Palms: William Faulkner

In addition to Absalom, Absalom! Celso states that these other two novels by Faulkner have been plagiarised by Ismael.

  • Garnelo Merayo, Saúl. 2005. ‘La estética de la recepción según Sanchis Sinisterra: El lector por horas’, Estudios humanísticos. Filología, 27, 303-16 (in Spanish)

  • Sanchis Sinisterra, José. 2000. ¡Ay carmela! El lector por horas. Madrid, Espasa Calpe (in Spanish)

Critical response

El lector por horas (Reader by the Hour) is an enigmatic play. Sanchis Sinisterra leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions about the meaning behind the ending and about the relationships between the characters. He states that this play is his way of renouncing authorial omniscience (Ríos Carratalá 2005).

Paul Rankin, who has translated the text into English, also refers to the open-endedness of the play, recalling his initial reaction to it:

I was immediately struck by the ambiguities in the writing, by the potentialities it sculpted, the openness it carved around the question of reading. Of course, it raises many further questions about the nature of our engagement with each other and with the ‘texts’ that surround us, and also about the nature of interpretation and what we can rely on. (Rankin 2006: iii)

Saúl Garnelo Merayo says that the play’s merit lies in the fact that it impels us to ask questions such as: Why do we recognise ourselves in what we read? Why do we feel that what we read has become part of our lives? How does what we read influence our actions? (2005: 316). Garnelo Merayo also points out that the production directed by José Luis García Sánchez had a set design reminiscent of Gaudí and that the performance felt like it was taking place in the inside of a whale, in accordance with the quotation from Jonah in the epigraph (2005: 309).

  • Sanchis Sinisterra, José. 1999. El lector por horas. Barcelona, Proa/Teatro Nacional de Catalunya

  • Sanchis Sinisterra, José. 2000. ¡Ay carmela! El lector por horas. Madrid, Espasa Calpe

  • Sanchis Sinisterra, José. 2001. El lector por horas. E-book. Madrid, Caos Editorial, http://www.caoseditorial.com/libros/ficha.asp?lg=en&id=15 [accessed January 2010] (Online Publication)

Information about the editions

Originally, the final scene of the play - in which there is no dialogue - featured Ismael on the steps at the bookcase and Lorena standing smoking (Garnelo Merayo 2005: 311). This character arrangement was subsequently changed around.

  • Garnelo Merayo, Saúl. 2005. ‘La estética de la recepción según Sanchis Sinisterra: El lector por horas’, Estudios humanísticos. Filología, 27, 303-16 (in Spanish)

Useful readings and websites
  • Garnelo Merayo, Saúl. 2005. ‘La estética de la recepción según Sanchis Sinisterra: El lector por horas’, Estudios humanísticos. Filología, 27, 303-16 (in Spanish)

Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 6 October 2010.

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