Out of the Wings

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Soledad (1921), Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo

English title: Solitude
Date written: 1921
First publication date: 1954
First production date: 1953
Keywords: art, art > theatre, family, family > marriage, identity, ideology > politics, love > relationships, power, power > use and abuse
Genre and type: tragedy
Title information

In Spanish ‘Soledad’ is a female name that means ‘Solitude’ in English.


Agustin is a playwright. But others want him to become a politician, to perform on the public stage. Soon, Agustin discovers that life in politics is even more false than life in the theatre. Disillusioned, he withdraws into his own world, taking his only solace in his wife, Soledad.


Soledad (Solitude) dramatises the disastrous experience of a playwright, Agustin, who enters into politics only to be driven mad by insomnia and disillusionment. It is a play that focuses mainly on the Agustin’s deteriorating grasp on reality, as well as the psychological state of his wife Soledad. Agustin lives with Soledad and his mother Sofia. He and Soledad had a little boy who is now dead. We never know how or when he died, but Soledad’s grief at the loss is palpable. A small photograph of the child and his toy horse serve as painful reminders of his absence. In his own way, Agustin also grieves. No longer having a physical heir, he buries himself in his work, hoping to achieve some sort of immortality through his fictional characters. Soledad wants her husband to stop writing altogether so they can mourn as a couple. She is also troubled by his new play. It is to be about Hagar, the Biblical character who bore Abraham’s first son because his wife Sarah could not do so. Soledad suspects that Gloria, Agustin’s lead actress, is in love with her husband. Will Gloria now bear Agustin’s literary children to replace their own dead child?

However, Agustin is soon distracted from his new play. His friend Pablo wants him to enter politics, to abandon theatre for public stage. As his lead actress, Gloria does not want Agustin to stop writing. She enlists the help of the theatre critic Enrique to see if he can turn his friend against the idea. Soledad, in contrast, thinks that politics would be a much better career for her husband. In turn, Agustin feels his wife’s sense of solitude – grieving alone for their son while he concentrates on his writing – and resolves to become a politician to please her. This is not his only motive, however. He is also convinced by Pablo and Soledad that the drama of politics might be just as rewarding as the theatre, perhaps even more so. In politics, he reasons, he will be able to be to create and embody his own public persona, to be the author and actor in his own political play.

Things do not go as Agustin hopes, however, as act 2 begins with the disastrous aftermath of his career move. As the police search for him, Agustin hides in his home. Although we do not know exactly what has happened, it is clear that Agustin has been disillusioned by politics and feels betrayed by his colleagues. He is angry at his wife and friends for pushing him to leave the theatre, condemning politics for its empty theatricality, unlike the plays he used to write. Soledad now regrets pushing her husband into politics and resolves to protect him, determined to keep her husband after losing her son. Agustin’s friends Pablo and Enrique try to convince their friend to flee. But he refuses to do so, preferring to take refuge in Soledad’s arms as if he were now her child. Half-mad, he shelters in his wife’s lap as the police finally discover his hiding place.

Some time elapses between acts 2 and 3, so that when we see Agustin again he has been released from prison. Back home, his mother Sofia now dead, he takes refuge once again in Soledad. He has not slept for months and struggles to distinguish between the real and unreal. Is life a dream, he wonders? Is he in someone else’s dream, or are they in his dream? The only person who Agustin is convinced is real is his wife. Pablo and Enrique suggest that Agustin’s retreat into his own madness might be cured through re-entering public life. But he has no wish for an encore on the political stage, populated by the very puppets and liars who hastened his descent into madness. Agustin’s last visitor is Gloria. He never managed to achieve glory in the theatre, and his former lead actress weeps for the now-delirious writer. He won no glory in politics either, and all he can do at the end of the play is listen to the soothing words of Soledad. Gradually, she sings him to sleep.


Agustin refers to a number of literary and artistic sources when trying to explain his frustrated and distressed states of mind.

The Invisible Serpents

Agustin likens his struggle to write, to a man struggling with invisible serpents. He explains that this image comes from a story related by the English poet Robert Browning about a statue in Rome of the mythological figure Laocoön struggling with serpents. On this particular occasion, Browning recalls that the serpents were covered up, so that it looked like Laocoön was yawning, not struggling. Similarly, Agustin worries that his lack of literary output may just look like laziness, since the public cannot see his inner struggle. In his 1921 essay ‘The Invisible Serpents’, Unamuno reflected upon the fact that the noble struggles of characters in plays and tragedies are often misinterpreted by the public as being nothing more than angst-ridden yawns of tiredness or boredom.

Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605; 1615) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

At a number of points during the play Agustin refers to aspects of this famous Spanish novel. He likens Soledad to Dulcinea, the object of Don Quijote’s affection. He also angrily compares his experience in politics to being in Maese Pedro’s farcical puppet show. Don Quijote watches such a puppet show in the course of his adventures. Unamuno himself wrote a book on Don Quijote de la Mancha.

The story of Hagar

At the start of the play Agustin is interested in writing a play about the biblical figure Hagar. Hagar was a servant of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Unable to conceive, Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham. When Hagar became pregnant, Sarah was jealous and mistreated Hagar (Genesis 16). Similarly, Soledad is jealous of Gloria, the actress who will ‘give birth’ to her husband’s characters.

La vida es sueño by Pedro Calderón de la Barca

As Agustin becomes more and more distressed he becomes confused about what is real and what is a dream. He likens his confusion to that of the protagonist Segismundo in La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream).

Critical response

Soledad (Solitude) is one of Unamuno’s least-known plays. Nevertheless it has been considered by a number of critics from the point of view of how it fits in with Unamuno’s philosophical thought. For example, Agustin’s quest for immortality – whether through theatre or politics – reflects Unamuno’s own preoccupation with leaving some sort of legacy, as well as his contention that public activity and politics are, essentially, theatrical pursuits (Lyndon Shanley 1977: 263). Agustin’s confusion about what is real and what a dream is reminiscent of the central conceit of La vida es sueño (Life’s a Dream) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. However, unlike Calderón, Unamuno does not view positively the idea of the world as a stage or a dream. Instead, as Lyndon Shanley points out, if the world is a stage, then:

[N]othingness sits on the other side of the footlights, and men play their drama, uncomprehendingly, to an audience which does not exist. Their lives are a play and nothing more; the self is elusive, and man cannot find it; it is forever inaccessible. (265)

Soledad herself, as others point out, is a character who embodies Unamuno’s preoccupation with idealised motherhood and the mother as refuge (see Sedwick 1960).

  • Lyndon Shanley, Mary. 1977. ‘Miguel de Unamuno: Death and Politics in the Work of a Twentieth-Century Philosopher’, Polity, 9.3, 257-78

  • Sedwick, Frank. 1960. ‘Unamuno and Womanhood: His Theater’, Hispania, 43.3, 309-13

Further information

In Spanish ‘Soledad’ is a female name that means ‘Solitude’ in English.

  • Unamuno, Miguel de. 1962. Soledad. Madrid, Espasa Calpe

  • Unamuno, Miguel de. 1964. Teatro: Fedra, Soledad, El Otro. Buenos Aires, Editorial Losada

  • Unamuno, Miguel de. 1998. Sombras de sueño; Soledad. Madrid, Biblioteca Nueva, Fundación Argentaria

Useful readings and websites
  • Lyndon Shanley, Mary. 1977. ‘Miguel de Unamuno: Death and Politics in the Work of a Twentieth-Century Philosopher’, Polity, 9.3, 257-78

  • Sedwick, Frank. 1960. ‘Unamuno and Womanhood: His Theater’, Hispania, 43.3, 309-13

  • Shaw, D. L. 1979. ‘Imagery and Symbolism in the Theatre of Unamuno: La esfinge and Soledad’, Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century, 7.1, 87-104

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Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 13 November 2010.

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