Out of the Wings

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Divinas palabras (1918-1920), Ramón María del Valle-Inclán

English title: Divine Words
Date written: from 1918 to 1920
First publication date: 1920
First production date: 1933
Keywords: family > duty, family > marriage, morality > honour, ideology > religion and faith, love > lust, violence > cruelty, women
Genre and type: tragicomedy

Sex, death, cruelty, greed. Escape to the country, and revel in the madness and fun as you travel the rural highways and byways of Divinas palabras (Divine Words).


Set in rural Galicia, Divinas palabras (Divine Words) paints a colourful portrait of the lust, greed and vitality of its characters. The complex storyline shifts the dramatic perspective from one character to another, but much of the action focuses on Mari-Gaila, the beautiful but wayward wife of Pedro Gailo, sexton of the church of San Clemente. As she tours country fairs exploiting her husband’s deformed nephew for money, Mari-Gaila’s lustful behaviour gradually whips up her rural community into a frenzy of hypocritical anger, forcing her husband to restore order through the ‘divine words’ of the title.

On Day One the event takes place that will enable Mari-Gaila to leave her family and go off into the countryside, drinking and socialising with whomever she pleases. A beggar woman falls down dead at the side of a road. She was Pedro’s sister, Juana la Reina. Her death leaves her son Laureano, an imbecilic dwarf cursed with a huge head, orphaned. Laureano’s appearance had been exploited by his mother to beg from passers-by. When she learns that her sister-in-law has died, Mari-Gaila is eager that she and Pedro take responsibility for Laureano – and, of course, any money he might bring them. But Pedro has another sister, Marica del Reino, who is equally keen to adopt Laureano. And so, even while Juana la Reina’s body still lies at the roadside, Mari-Gaila and Marica del Reino argue over who has the better claim over Laureano and the car he rides around in. Their argument continues during Juana la Reina’s wake at San Clemente. Here, as the man of the family, Pedro tries to resolve the situation. But it soon becomes clear that Pedro has little authority over his wife and that he is incapable of making a satisfactory decision. Eventually, the local mayor suggests that the two families share custody of Laureano. This satisfies all parties, and they drink to the deal, including the poor large-headed child, who shouts out nonsensically as his fate is sealed.

In Day Two we learn of Marica del Reino’s heartfelt dislike for her sister-in-law. She condemns Mari-Gaila’s love of drinking and shamelessly flaunting herself with no regard for Pedro’s reputation. Marica’s opinion of Mari-Gaila deteriorates further as Marica waits, in vain, for Laureano to be delivered to her, since it is her turn to have the boy. Instead, as the action jumps back to Mari-Gaila, it is clear she has no intention of keeping the custody arrangement. She has joined a group of itinerants and beggars who have arrived on the outskirts of the village of Viana for the annual fair. Her voluptuous beauty and sparkling wit impress her fellow fairgoers, as does her ability to make money from Laureano’s deformities – not least from his overly-large genitals. But she is not the only one who has been roaming the countryside in search of financial gain. Among the group sits Miguelín, a mischief-making homosexual who has also profited from Juana la Reina’s death. After she died he happened upon her body, along with his companion, Séptimo Miau, and the two men stole the begging money they found in Laureano’s cart. Séptimo himself had appeared earlier in the play, in the guise of a stranger called Lucero who was violently abusive towards his lover, Poca Pena, who has now (ominously) disappeared. Séptimo Miau’s reputation as an enigmatic – and possibly dangerous – itinerant captures Mari-Gaila’s imagination. When they finally meet at Viana’s bustling fair, Séptimo is attracted to her beauty, and she is no less fascinated by him. Meanwhile, Marica del Reino visits Pedro to complain about his wife’s behaviour. Pedro initially defends Mari-Gaila, but is soon convinced that she is indeed destroying his reputation. He should leave her, Marica suggests. But poor Pedro sees only one way to get his pride back. He must kill Mari-Gaila, even if it means he ends up hanging from the gallows.

Away from the judgemental eyes of her husband and sister-in-law, Mari-Gaila has done little to resist Séptimo Miau’s charms. They meet secretly together to make love for the first time. The story then turns back to focus on Pedro, as he comes to terms with his newly-acknowledged hatred of his wife. Like Mari-Gaila, he is also feeling amorous. Drunkenly, he tries to seduce his large and unattractive daughter, Simoniña. She resists him and is horrified at his murderous rage against her mother. However, death comes sooner to the family than they expect. Wanting to be alone with Mari-Gaila, Séptimo Miau pays Rosa la Tatula to take care of Laureano. This old beggar woman brings the boy to Ludovina’s tavern, where Séptimo’s companion Miguelín mischievously plies him with drink. Ultimately, the alcohol proves fatal, and Laureano dies a horrible death. Those present agree to say nothing about how he died, so that when Mari-Gaila returns from her tryst, she is swiftly sent on her way to take the corpse back to San Clemente.

On her way home Mari-Gaila is accosted by a strange figure – half goblin, half goat. He teases her and inveigles her to dance. Despite her best efforts, she cannot escape him, and suddenly finds herself sitting on the goat goblin, holding onto his horns, while he flies through the air. The goat goblin magically transports Mari-Gaila and the cart carrying Laureano’s body back to San Clemente. It is the dead of night. Still feeling the effects of the drink, Pedro showers his wife with verbal insults. However, any thoughts he has about murdering her are soon put to one side as the family comes to terms with the implications of Laureano’s death. All agree that it is highly inconvenient: no more money to be earned by showing him off at fairs. To add insult to injury, this oncelucrative asset will now require a funeral. And so, in order to avoid the burial costs, Mari-Gailainstructs her daughter to take Laureano’s corpse in his cart and leave it outside Marica del Reino’s house. In this way, everyone will assume that the child died under her care and she will have to pay for the funeral.

At the end of Day Two and on into Day Three the action continues to revolve around Laureano’s rotting corpse. Grotesque in life, he becomes an appetising feast in death. And so, the next morning Marica discovers that pigs have devoured her nephew’s face. Initially, she and a horrified crowd of onlookers assume that Laureano must have been eaten alive during the night. But Marica insists she would have heard the child’s cries of pain, and is soon convinced that her nephew was already dead before he was left at her house. Accompanied by an angry crowd of villagers, Marica del Reino drives Laureano’s cart back to San Clemente to confront her brother and sister-in-law. Pedro relents and takes responsibility for the burial. Ultimately, however, poor Laureano will pay for his own funeral, as his putrid and bloated corpse is left outside for days with a begging bowl. But by now Mari-Gaila has more interesting things on her mind than burial costs. She has agreed to another secret meeting with Séptimo Miau.The audience do not see their encounter, but local farmhands do – directed by Miguelín (as mischievous as ever) to the field where she and Séptimo are making love. While Séptimo escapes – never to be seen again – all are outraged at Mari-Gaila’s behaviour. She tries to flee from the mob, but is cornered and has no option but to dance naked for the lascivious crowd. She does this defiantly – proud of her own body. The men lift her up, still naked, onto a cart to deliver her back to her husband. The baying crowd approach San Clemente, taunting Pedro for being a cuckold. His reputation is destroyed. Humiliated, he tries to take his own life by jumping from the church roof, but is amazingly unhurt in the fall. Something has changed inside him, however, and as the play reaches its climax he becomes the focus of the dramatic action. Calmly, he pronounces to the crowd, ‘He that is without sin among you, cast the first stone’. The mob take him literally, and begin to stone Mari-Gaila. Pedro utters the phrase again. But this time he says it in Latin. Instantly, the crowd disperses, placated by the divine power of the words. Pedro leads his wife into the church. This gesture of forgiveness is accompanied by the reappearance of Laureano’s huge head. To Mari-Gaila, it now looks like the head of an angel.


The ‘divine words’

At the end of the play Pedro Gailo states ‘He that is without sin among you, cast the first stone’. These words, taken from the Gospel of John 8:7, were spoken by Jesus to defend an adulteress from stoning. Pedro then repeats the sentiment, this time in Latin, ‘Qui sine peccato est vestrum. Primus in illam lapidem mittat’.

The Haywain: Hieronymus Bosch

David Ling points out that the scene in which Mari-Gaila is lifted up onto a cart to be brought back to her husband is, ‘undoubtedly’ inspired by the Haywain triptych by Hieronymus Bosch (1972: 336). In the central panel of this painting, two couples representing lust and pleasure, sit on top of a hay cart. However, as Ling notes, ‘lust and sensuality lead to Hell’ in Bosch’s art, but ‘there is no indication that Valle-Inclán assumes a critical attitude toward Mari-Gaila’ (1972: 336).

  • Ling, David. 1972. ‘Greed, Lust and Death in Valle-Inclán’s Divinas Palabras’, The Modern Language Review, 67.2, 328-39

Critical response


Divinas palabras (Divine Words) was first published in book form in 1920. This published version received favourable reviews from critics (Valle-Inclán 1991: 50). However, it was largely ignored by the public, and the play was not performed in Spain until 1933. Even then, as Maria Delgado points out, ‘it was met with mixed responses, shocking the more conservative audiences who felt that such moral filth should never have been staged’ (Valle-Inclán 1997: xxxi). The nudity in the play, as well as its depiction of the greed and cruelty of its diverse cast of characters, continues to shock. Writing in 2007 for The New York Times, for example, Wilborn Hampton notes the play’s ‘relentlessly bleak view of the world and the people in it’, advising that it is ‘not for the squeamish’ (2007). After its 1933 national premiere at Madrid’s Teatro Español, which starred the hugely popular actress Margarita Xirguas Mari-Gaila, Divinas palabras (Divine Words) was not performed again in Spain until 1961. However, in the intervening decades the play was staged in a number of other countries, including Sweden in 1950, where a production was directed by the famous Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. Maria Delgado points out the fact that the play was often better received internationally than it was in Spain, and Catalunya in particular (2003: 153). For example, the 1975-6 production directed by Víctor García was staged in a strikingly vivid manner. It received rather lukewarm reviews because of the way it used visual and aural staging elements in its interpretations of the text (see Production history for staging details). Of this production, Delgado suggests:

If Divinas palabras failed to convince, it may have been precisely because its reinvention and revision within the larger context of the country's uneasy transition from dictatorship to democracy defied established bounds of traditional practice, dispensing with such wooly concepts of 'fidelity', 'authorial intentions' and 'authenticity' in favour of a re-imagining of the text in ways that the press corps clearly found unsettling. (2003: 153-4)


Divinas palabras (Divine Words) is considered to be one of Valle-Inclán’s most vibrant and complex pieces of theatre, in which elements of his esperpento style are present, but are not taken to the same grotesque extremes as they are in later works. David Ling, for example, argues that the characters behave in a vibrant and instinctive way which allows them to appeal to the audience, despite their avaricious and cruel behaviour. He notes:

In Divinas palabras, Valle-Inclán shows that greed is a vital part of the peasant’s make-up. […] Although they may be opportunistic and at times callous and grotesque, they are always guided by their natural good sense, by their ‘life-force’. (1972: 331)

Critics have commented on the depiction of Mari-Gaila’s character. Her sensuality and ‘crude lust for life’ are presented as natural, in contrast to the hypocritical outrage of the villagers and farmhands (Valle-Inclán 1972: 31). Maria Delgado, for example, notes that Mari-Gaila’s ‘otherness’ – in terms of both her unconstrained behaviour and her beauty – ‘sets her apart from her neighbours, whose malicious jealousy and unrelieved sexual frustrations rather than any sense of moral indignation motivate their brutish behaviour’ (Valle-Inclán 1997: xxx). The way in which the ‘divine words’ placate the mob at the end of the play has interested critics. Anthony Zaharea and Sumner Greenfield, for example, call attention to the ‘ironic incongruities implicit in the relationship between the title of the work and its content’ (Valle-Inclán 1972: 34). Even though the crowd does not understand the Latin words, they are imbued with an authority that they cannot help but obey. Robin Warner notes that this circumstance invites audiences to question ‘the relationship between language and matters such as the legitimacy of authority and the function of institutionalized beliefs’ (1993: 345).

  • Delgado, Maria M. 2003. ‘Other’ Spanish Theatres: Erasure and Inscription on the Twentieth-Century Spanish Stage. New York; Manchester, Palgrave; Manchester University Press

  • Hampton, Wilborn. 2007. ‘Unrelenting Bleakness and Outrage, with no Mitigating Circumstances’. Review of Divinas palabras at the Rose Theater, New York, The New York Times, 28 July, http://theater.nytimes.com/2007/07/28/theater/reviews/28divi.html [accessed June 2010] (Online Publication)

  • Ling, David. 1972. ‘Greed, Lust and Death in Valle-Inclán’s Divinas Palabras’, The Modern Language Review, 67.2, 328-39

  • 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. 1991. Divinas palabras: tragicomedia de aldea, ed. Luis Iglesias Feijoo. Madrid, Espasa-Calpe (in Spanish)

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

  • Warner, Robin. 1993. ‘Words of Power: Dialogue and Dominance in Valle-Inclán’s Divinas palabras’, The Modern Language Review, 88.2, 343-53

Further information

In 1987 the play was made into a film directed by José Luis García Sánchez. It was also made into an opera, in 1997, with Plácido Domingo in the role of Séptimo Miau/Lucero. A radio version, translated into English and adapted by David Johnston, was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1998.

  • Valle-Inclán, Ramón María del. 1920. Divinas palabras. ‘Opera Omnia’ series, vol. xviii. Madrid. No further publishing details

  • Valle-Inclán, Ramón María del. 1969. ‘Divinas palabras’. In Teatro selecto, ed. Anthony Zahareas, pp. 433-541. Madrid, Escelicer

  • 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. 1991. Divinas palabras: tragicomedia de aldea, ed. Luis Iglesias Feijoo. Madrid, Espasa-Calpe

  • Valle-Inclán, Ramón María del. 2006. Divinas palabras: tragicomedia de aldea, ed. Gonzalo Sobejano. Madrid, Espasa-Calpe

Useful readings and websites
  • Feijoo, Luis Iglesias. 1993. ‘La recepción crítica de Divinas palabras’, Anales de la literatura española contemporánea, 18.3, 639-91 (in Spanish)

  • Ling, David. 1972. ‘Greed, Lust and Death in Valle-Inclán’s Divinas Palabras’, The Modern Language Review, 67.2, 328-39

  • Warner, Robin. 1993. ‘Words of Power: Dialogue and Dominance in Valle-Inclán’s Divinas palabras’, The Modern Language Review, 88.2, 343-53

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

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