Out of the Wings

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Luces de Bohemia (c.1920), Ramón María del Valle-Inclán

English title: Bohemian Lights
Notable variations on Spanish title: Lights of Bohemia
Date written: c. 1920
First publication date: 1924
First production date: 1971
Keywords: violence > social, violence > cruelty, identity > class/social standing, ideology > politics, love > friendship
Genre and type: esperpento

The Bohemian lights are fading fast in 1920s Madrid. Join the blind poet Max Estrella on the last night of his life, as he wanders through a city mired in corruption and political unrest. Watch as his bright star gradually dies, obliterated by drink, poverty and a society indifferent to literary genius.


Set sometime between 1917 and 1920, Luces de Bohemia (Bohemian Lights) chronicles the last night of Max Estrella’s life as he roams the streets of Madrid. It is a time of corruption, and of political and social unrest in the city. At the start of the play, Max, a blind poet, finds himself out of work. No one appreciates his poetry, and the local paper has decided there is no work for him. While he and his wife discuss their impoverished situation, Don Latino, Max’s elderly friend and drinking companion, pays them a visit. He owes Max money from the sale of old books, but unfortunately he sold them on to a bookseller for a pittance. And so, Max and Don Latino step out into the night to negotiate more money from Zarathustra, the bookseller.

This is the beginning of Max Estrella’s final journey around the taverns and streets of Madrid. After a fruitless visit to Zarathustra, he and Don Latino end up in a local tavern. Here they meet Enriqueta, a local prostitute. Max owes her money for a lottery ticket, but the blind poet has spent his last pennies on drink. He gives his coat to a young barman to take to the pawnbrokers. After a while, the barman returns, bloodied. Riots have broken out on the streets. Max, however, is more interested in the money he has received for his pawned coat. He can now buy the lottery ticket from Enriqueta. But she has vanished, and so he and Don Latino leave the safety of the tavern and set out in search of her.

Enriqueta is found outside a café. While she and Max argue over the ticket, a band of bohemians emerge from the café. These are the Modernists, a group of second-rate writers with great respect for Max’s work, despite his lack of recognition from the Spanish literary establishment. One of the Modernists recites a rousing poem, and in so doing attracts the attention of the local police. Blind – and blind drunk – Max insults the police captain and is subsequently carted off to the cells. Here, he encounters a young man from Barcelona. The young prisoner is struck by Max’s eloquence and refinement – despite the poet’s inebriation – and the two share a brief conversation about the need for revolution in Spain. Soon, however, a jailer summons the young man from the cell. His future looks ominous, and Max bids him a tearful farewell.

Meanwhile, in the offices of the Popular Paper, the editor Don Filiberto receives a visit from the agitated Modernists. They urge Don Filiberto to publish an editorial denouncing Max’s imprisonment, but their childish disrespect for the great figures of Spanish literature only serves to irritate him. Eventually, he agrees to contact a high-ranking government minister, Paco, to secure Max’s release. Once freed, Max visits Paco – who happens to be a childhood friend – to complain about his treatment at the hands of the police. Paco is both shocked and moved to see the impoverished state of his old friend. He offers to arrange a small pension for Max, which the poet accepts before going off into the night with Don Latino, once more in search of alcoholic refreshment.

In the Café Colón, Max and Don Latino encounter the acclaimed Nicaraguan poet, Rubén Darío. Rubén Darío recites a poem, and for a moment Max is transported in his memory back to Paris, where he once lived happily as a poet. Later, after an encounter with two prostitutes, he and Don Latino find themselves in yet another part of the city that has been vandalised during the rioting. A distraught woman carries a dead child, shot in the head accidentally by the police. Even though he cannot see her, Max is touched by the sound of the woman’s grief and anger, but her neighbours are keen to silence her, fearing she will provoke the police.

The dawn finds Max and Don Latino seated in a doorway. Max expounds on a new literary genre he has invented – the esperpento – which involves the depiction of the world through distortion and the grotesque. It seems that even though he is blind, Max’s nocturnal wanderings have changed his view of the world, shedding light on all that is corrupt and sordid in society. Max insists he is dying, much to Don Latino’s annoyance. Eventually tiring of Max’s histrionics, Don Latino leaves the poet slumped in the doorway. Before he departs, he takes Max’s wallet. And so, Max lies there, abandoned, until a laundrywoman and concierge happen upon him. They initially think he is drunk, but soon realise that he has, tragically, expired.

Max’s wake is a shabby affair. His body lies in a poorly-made coffin, while his wife Madame Collet and his daughter Claudinita mourn him. Some of the Modernists have come to pay their respects. Don Latino also turns up, but not before having drowned his grief in wine. He stumbles over the body, upsetting the family. After this inebriate has been led off the premises, shady Basilio Soulinake arrives. He runs his eye over Max’s body and concludes that the poet is not dead, merely comatose. Collet and Claudinita are overjoyed, but when the concierge who initially discovered Max’s lifeless body arrives, she insists that the poet is indeed dead. She can smell his rotting corpse. The argument is resolved when the hearse driver lights a match and tests it on Max’s thumb. The poet does not respond, and it is decided that he has most definitely shuffled off this mortal coil.

In a graveyard, two gravediggers talk about the cemetery’s latest inhabitant – a literary great who, sadly, died poorly. They come across Rubén Darío and a distinguished old gentleman, the Marquis of Bradomín, who were two of the very small crowd of mourners at Max’s funeral. Tragically, it seems Max is just as neglected by Spain in death as he was in life. Don Latino has gone from the burial to a tavern. The others in the bar discover that he has a large amount of money on him, won using Max’s lottery ticket. A fight breaks out over the money, but in the end the characters’ greed turns to morbid fascination. They read in the paper that a mother and daughter have committed suicide. They were, no doubt, Collet and Claudinita. The only two people who truly cared about Max have died, prompting the group to comment on just how grotesque – oresperpento – the world can be.


Luces de Bohemia is full of allusions and direct references to Spain’s history, its contemporary politics and culture, and its literary heritage. The following is simply a selection of these. For a more in-depth insight into the way in which Valle-Inclán peppers his play with references that would have resonated with contemporary audiences see, for example, the 1972 edition by Anthony Zahareas and Sumner Greenfield that contains comprehensive footnotes – in English – on the Spanish text.

Early twentieth-century Madrid

The play is set in Madrid, sometime between 1917 and 1920. Many street names, cafés and bars are based on actual geographic locations. In scene 12 Max and Don Latino talk about the hall of mirrors at Calle Álvarez Gato in Madrid. This hall of mirrors – the Callejón del Gato (Cat Alley) – featured large concave mirrors that reflected a distorted image. The distortion effect of the hall of mirrors influenced the formulation of the esperpento, in the case of both Max in the play and Valle-Inclán himself.

Politics and society

Throughout the play characters talk about Spanish politics and society. There are references to suffragettes, famous bullfighters, politicians and workers’ organisations. There are also discussions about international politics, such as in scene 6 in which Max and the young prisoner discuss the Russian Revolution.

Antonio Maura (1853-1925) is mentioned in derogatory terms in the play. Maura was Prime Minister of Spain on several occasions. The Modernist poets cry ‘Death to Maura!’, with reference to Maura’s directorship of the Spanish Academy – one of the institutions that refuses to acknowledge Max’s genius.

Selection of characters based on real people

Valle-Inclán includes characters who are based on historical figures, or on people he knew personally.

Max Estrella (literally, Max Star) bears a close resemblance to the Spanish bohemian writer and journalist Alejandro Sawa (1862-1909). Sawa was a friend of Valle-Inclán and he died, like Max, blind and in poverty. Sawa also had a French wife and a daughter.

The Nicaraguan Modernist poet Rubén Darío (1867-1916) appears twice in the play. He was also a friend of Valle-Inclán.

In scene 13, in the cemetery after Max’s death, Rubén Darío is joined by an old gentleman called the Marquis of Bradomín. The Marquis of Bradomín is the hero of Valle-Inclán’s series of four novels, the Sonatas (1902-1905), which all feature fragments of this character’s fictional memoirs. The Marqués de Bradomín Prize is now a well-established Spanish playwriting award.

Literary references

On a number of occasions the characters cite lines from other literary texts. In scene 2, for example, Max quotes from act 1 scene 1 of La vida es sueño (Life’s a Dream) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. He compares the complaint by Calderón’s character Rosaura about Poland’s inhospitality to his own poor welcome in Zarathustra’s bookshop (‘Poorly, Poland, do you greet the foreigner’ [2004: 91]).

Scene 14 is set in the cemetery. When Rubén Darío and the Marquis of Bradomín see the gravediggers, they liken the scene to the graveyard scene in Hamlet by William Shakespeare (act 5 scene 1).

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 2004. Life’s a Dream, trans. Michael Kidd. Colorado, University of Colorado Press

  • Valle-Inclán, Ramón María del. 1972. Divinas palabras. Luces de Bohemia, eds. Anthony Zahareas and Sumner Greenfield. New York, L.A. Publishing Company (in Spanish)

Critical response

Luces de Bohemia (Bohemian Lights)was Valle-Inclán’s first esperpentoplay. Set in Madrid around 1920, many critics see it as a hypercritical piece, attacking the hypocrisy and inhumanity of Spanish politics and society following the First World War.

The esperpento

Luces de Bohemia (Bohemian Lights) is the play in which the notion of the esperpentois first introduced by Valle-Inclán. It is both defined by the play and manifested within the play, in that it is the protagonist Max who describes the genre in scene 12 as a distorted way of seeing the world. As a play, Luces de Bohemia (Bohemian Lights) is itself an example of the esperpentogenre. In it Valle-Inclán distorts and confuses the boundaries between the comic and the tragic, the real and the fictitious. In their edition of the play, Anthony Zahareas and Sumner Greenfield describe the impact of the esperpentowith reference to a particular incident in the play, namely Max’s funeral. They note how the behaviour of the mourners – disrespectful, bored, drunk – is in sharp contrast to the despair of Max’s wife and daughter. As a consequence, they observe:

The familiar funeral scene grows outlandish and alien in its hilarity while Max lies there dead and his widow and orphaned daughter are in agony. It is as if the author paused deliberately, on the one hand, for meditation upon a tragic death and, on the other, for a chuckle. (Zahareas and Greenfield 1972: 37)

Max as a tragic figure / Christ-like

Max’s relationship to classic tragic heroes has also been commented upon. A number of studies call attention to the fact that, in typical esperpentostyle, Max’s status as a tragic hero is distorted. In contrast to the conventional heroic narrative, where the protagonist’s tragic death elevates them to the status of tragic hero, in this play the narrative is inverted. Max starts out as the ‘archetypal’ hero (blind like Oedipus, likened physically to Hermes) but his demise is ‘farcical’ (Orringer 1994: 188).

Max is also likened to Christ by some critics. Like Christ, he is unappreciated by his society, has a small band of disciples, is abused by the forces of the state and dies tragically (see, for example, Smith 1989).

Social criticism

Much of the play is set in penumbra. Maria Delgado sees the shadowy lighting as symbolic, explaining that the darkness ‘reflects not only Max’s despair but the dark nature of Spanish reality at the time […] Many of the characters are themselves like shadows, disappearing into and out of the night which Max illuminates with his bitter perceptive comments’ (Valle-Inclán 1997: xxxii). She also points out that the fragmented and episodic structure of the play ‘functions both as a reflection of and as a comment on the fragmentary, divisive nature of Spanish society in general’ (Valle-Inclán 1997: xxxi).

  • Orringer, Nelson R. 1994. ‘Luces de Bohemia: Inversion of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus’, Hispanic Review, 62.9, 185-204

  • Smith, Alan E. 1989. Luces de Bohemia y la figura de Cristo: Valle-Inclán, Nietzsche y los románticos alemanes’, Hispanic Review, 57.1, 57-71 (in Spanish)

  • Valle-Inclán, Ramón María del. 1972. Divinas palabras. Luces de Bohemia, eds. Anthony Zahareas and Sumner Greenfield. New York, L.A. Publishing Company (in Spanish)

  • Valle-Inclán, Ramón María del. 1997. Three Plays: Divine Words, Bohemian Lights, Silver Face, trans. Maria Delgado. London, Methuen

  • Valle-Inclán, Ramón María del. 1924. Luces de Bohemia. Madrid, Renacimiento

  • Valle-Inclán, Ramón María del. 1972. Divinas palabras. Luces de Bohemia, eds. Anthony Zahareas and Sumner Greenfield. New York, L.A. Publishing Company

  • Valle-Inclán, Ramón María del. 1973. Luces de Bohemia, A. Zamora Vincente. Madrid, Espasa Calpe

Information about the editions

The play was first published in 1920. However, the definitive version of the text came out in 1924. The 1920 publication lacked scenes 2, 6 and 11.

Useful readings and websites
  • Orringer, Nelson R. 1994. ‘Luces de Bohemia: Inversion of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus’, Hispanic Review, 62.9, 185-204

Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 10 October 2010.

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