Why do we love the flimflam man? And what is so intriguing about a confidence artist, a mole, or a double agent? Juan de Grimaldi was none of these things, and yet he shares a secret with all of them: the secret of identity. Fabricated, fluid identities, they are the modern conundrum: full of confidence about nothing at all, the stripped and peeled onion falling away into thin air. What is extraordinary about these personalities is their understanding and use of power. To be able to change identity at will is to exercise a form of power, to project magic over oneself and others. This capacity to create an illusionistic screen of personality as power transformed a grade-school dropout into the 14-year-old Head of the Commissariat in the Napoleonic army, a future supporter of French king Louis XVIII’s absolutist policies, a theater impresario, stage manager, and director in Madrid, a successful businessman, politician, diplomat, writer, and Spanish government agent in France.
A Frenchman of humble Corsican origins, Grimaldi turned himself into a Spaniard at the age of 27. He had been less than six weeks in Madrid and suddenly, it appears, fixed on the Spanish stage as his “mark.” As Gies puts it, “the decision was surprising for its intrepidity. He possessed no formal education, no experience in the theatre, no knowledge of the theatrical structure in Madrid. He did not even possess the language yet. . . .” When Grimaldi arrived in 1823, the Spanish theater was in a shambles. Heavily in debt and incurring enormous losses, the Madrid stage was badly managed, continually embattled with government authorities, and shot through with bickering and unprofessionalism. The theaters were decrepit and dirty, the actors, poorly trained and motivated. Who on earth would have wanted such a mess? But Grimaldi saw a golden opportunity and persevered. Somehow, he got the backing—financial and governmental—to take over the theaters, this despite the fact that the political climate was frighteningly repressive under the capricious tyranny of Fernando VII. In his first season, Grimaldi threw everything into revitalizing the theater. As Gies notes, “his companies staged 102 different one- to five-act plays (not including saínetes or dramatic panegyrics [loas]) in 163 days. No play received more than nine performances that year, and only eight received more than six performances.” Translations and adaptations from the French, modern versions of Golden Age drama, and operas played well. But censorship and stale material prevailed.
Grimaldi’s reputation as impresario extraordinaire rests, ironically, on that single, non-championship season, 1823—24, when officially he had control of the Madrid theaters. His true and lasting influence on Spanish theater was to come later, behind the scenes, as he worked tirelessly to improve theater conditions, the acting skills of the companies, and the quality of productions, from 1824 to 1836, when he left Spain and resettled permanently in France. There was, for example, no school for actors, so Grimaldi created his own repertory companies and worked with the actors himself. He knew personally just how much Spanish actors needed training, since he had married one of Spain’s leading actresses, Concepción Rodríguez, in 1825. She had enormous raw talent but no polish. And she practiced the exaggerated and manneristic acting style popular with Spanish audiences at the time. Both the public and the actors often behaved abominably in theaters. Spectators jumped up and down in their seats, shouted and cavorted with friends, and threw things at the actors during performances. Actors played openly to audiences, currying their favor and falling out of character at a moment’s notice.
But to restore Spain’s former theatrical glory Grimaldi’s enthusiastic reform-mindedness needed to reach beyond the actors and into the very hearts and minds of theater audiences through the verbal medium itself. First, he enlivened the repertory by commissioning new plays and translations and by hiring fresh, young playwrights, some straight out of the provinces. In the process, he prepared audiences for the new wave of Spanish Romanticism. At the same time, his boundless energies went into doing his own translating, adapting, and writing of plays. As a dramatist, Grimaldi would sink quickly into obscurity long before the turn of the century. But he struck gold with one play, an 1829 adaptation of César Ribié and A.L.D. Martainville’s Le pied de mouton, a three-act French comedy from 1806. Grimaldi’s version was called Todo lo vence amor o la pata de cabra and, according to Gies’s calculations, “became the most popular play in Spain in the first half of the nineteenth century.” La pata de cabra (recently edited by Gies as well) is an engaging, lightweight mix of farce, melodrama, and fantasy. An example of the subgenre called the comedia de magia, or magic play, it appealed hugely to Spanish audiences, who reveled in the spectacular scenes of magic (35 of them), the silliness of the slapstick character Don Simplicio, and the charm of a love interest tempered with melodramatic suspense. This play had everything. As one contemporary playwright put it, “this is a play for everyone; it is a grabbag of odds and ends; a dramatic encyclopedia, where anyone who puts his coins down at the box office gets his money’s worth.” Between 1829 and 1850, Gies says, “more than 220,000 people saw La pata de cabra in Madrid,” a city of only 250,000. And box office receipts showed dramatically what happened when other plays were substituted: no pata, no audience.
The success of La pata de cabra marks a high point in Grimaldi’s career and a fascinating case study of popular theater. With the profits from his play, Grimaldi branched into all sorts of business enterprises, invested, and worked his way into political favor as well. La pata de cabra really was magical, to judge from the Midas touch it bestowed upon the author. Within a few short years, however, Grimaldi was to leave Spain forever and embark upon a political career in France, one more astonishing transformation in the series of transformations that continually defined his life. While he never forgot Spain and, indeed, consistently promoted Spain’s interests in France, he also promoted himself, for Grimaldi was above all a superb opportunist. An opportunist with a patriotic streak. In both the dramatic and the political arenas, he took passionate advantage of circumstances, made a fortune for himself and, in the process, transformed the Spanish stage. Like the Marqués de Salamanca, who created the prosperous barrio of Madrid named after him, Grimaldi was a self-made man. It is no accident, in my view, that he was also a product of the Napoleonic temperament, a mass of ambitions no doubt every bit as complex as the mind of Stendhal.
Grimaldi’s life as a theatrical impresario and director and his subsequent career as a successful businessman and political-social figure in Paris may seem totally unrelated. But, as Gies observes, “the two segments intersect not in any point in time but rather in a posture—an attitude—for Grimaldi’s divergent talents nearly always shared one thing in common: his love for Spain.” Grimaldi, I suspect, would have seen no contradiction in terms between his patriotism and his opportunism. Like other self-made men, he possessed such infinite confidence in himself that everything he did became self-justificatory and self-propelling. What he did for himself had to be good for Spain, too. Magic, after all, is contagious.
Gies makes a very good case for understanding his subject precisely this way, on his own terms. In reconstructing Juan de Grimaldi’s life he goes far beyond one man’s biography and makes us see how Grimaldi himself saw the times. Something of this chameleonic figure’s capacity to remake himself according to circumstances is curiously reflected as if through the law of recapitulation, when the historical and cultural configurations in Gies’s book begin to assume the Grimaldian shape—such is the force of the self-made personality. If as readers we sometimes miss the larger psycho-cultural and comparative context within which to place Grimaldi, we are compensated by Gies’s extraordinarily thorough and painstaking archival research as a model of scholarly presentation. Clearly and vigorously written, Theatre and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Spain, in setting such high standards, also fills in a significant gap in our understanding of both a much neglected period and that enticing, strangely modern figure from the past, Juan de Grimaldi.