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Born into an Alicante family of modest means on 11th October 1866, Arniches became the most prestigious writer of one-act sainetes and género chico zarzuelas in the early decades of the 20th Century. Although he was undisputed successor to the great saineteros such as Ramon de la Cruz and Ricardo de la Vega, his background was far removed from the Madrid literary coffee houses and tertulias that bred so many of the capital's celebrated stage writers.
He left home aged 14 for a post in a Barcelona bank, later working in a sewing machine factory. A benevolent maiden aunt covered the costs of a mutual move to Madrid in 1885, though she soon retired to Valencia and left him to his own financial devices. Penury forced him to move back to Barcelona, but one clever idea - a Rhyming Alphabet based on incidents from the life of Alfonso XII, dedicated to his young son and heir Alfonso XIII - won the heart of the Queen, who ordered its use in all Spanish schools. Arniches returned to Madrid, this time for good.
His first short play Casa editorial was written with Gonzalo Cantó, and performed at the Teatro Eslava in 1888. Altogether he wrote over 200 stage pieces, many with other writers. Many of these earlier works are sainetes in one or two acts, with or without music, full of costumbrismo (popular life and customs) and written in the fresh, colourful and buoyant style which was his trademark. Later on he developed a new dramatic form, the tragi-comic tragedia grotesca, often farcical in action but trenchant in social commentary: the full-length plays La señorita de Trevélez (1916) and Es mi hombre (1921) are amongst the most potent of these. His spoken dialogue (other writers often wrote the sung lyrics) is fluent but far from vapid, sparkling with keen wit. His texts have a moral framework which allays any suspicion of frivolity.
Arniches' scripts were in great demand with virtually all the leading composers and writers of the day. A mere handful may be singled out, though many more will be found in the Zarzuela Index. For Chapí he penned three notable works with Cantó which cemented his reputation - Ortografía (1888); La leyenda del monje (1890); and Las campanadas (1892) - two with Celso Lucio, El reclamo (1893) and Vía libre (1893) - one with Asensio Mas, El puñao de rosas (1902) - and unaided La cara de Dios (1899) and El maldito dinero (1906).
For Caballero he wrote Los aparecidos (1892), and the evergreen El cabo primero (1895, with Lucio); for Chueca, Los descamisados (1893) and El coche correo (1896), both with José López Silva. Of his many sainetes for Torregrosa El santo de La Isidra and La fiesta de San Antón (both 1898) retain their popularity; as does El pobre Valbuena (1904) with music by Torregrosa and Quinito Valverde, and lyrics by Enrique García Alvarez.
Arniches and García Alvarez also enjoyed great success writing sainetes for the young Serrano such as El pollo Tejada (1906); the brilliant Alma de Dios (1907); and El trust de los tenorios (1910). La alegría del batallón (1909) was written for the same composer with Félix Quintana. Alone, he wrote El amigo Melquiades (1914, music by Serrano and Quinito Valverde).
A collaboration with Antonio Estremera, Don Quintín el amargao (1924), a sainete in two acts with a substantial music score by Jacinto Guerrero, proved one of his biggest music theatre successes. No less than three films were made of the play, two of them directed by no less than Luis Buñuel (1935 and 1951), who amplified Arniches hints of surrealism in his treatment of the "embittered" anti-hero and his gangster sidekicks.
Perhaps his heyday was the brilliant period between 1916 and 1926, when he was a nationally known and loved figure. His work rate later declined considerably - until the onset of the Civil War, when he moved to Argentina and resuscitated his career in theatre, radio and cinema. Unhappy away from his beloved Madrid, he and his wife returned home in the early 1940's, only to find the capital changed beyond recognition. Loved and respected for his personal virtues as well as his sainetes, Arniches died in Madrid on 16th April 1943, from heart failure brought on by news of the sudden death of his daughter Rosario.
**See also El pudín negro de Stornoway (December 28th 1904), "by Torregrosa and Quinito Valverde, to a libretto by Carlos Arniches"**
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