Often considered the voice of Romanian literature and his native country's best playwright, Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912) reflected the language, people, and concerns of Romania in his work. Caragiale was best known for his eight plays—most of which were social comedies—though he also had an extensive body of fiction, dramatic criticism, other works of nonfiction, and one novella to his name.
Caragiale was born on January 30, 1852, in Haimanalele, in what was to become Romania. He was the son of Luca and Ecaterina (nee Karaba) Caragiale. His father was the eldest of three sons, who all had careers in the theater as actors, directors, and playwrights, and were of Greek origin. Luca Caragiale began as an actor, but later became a judge, lawyer, and administrator of an estate. Caragiale also had a sister.
As a child, Caragiale received his education in Ploesti, beginning in 1857. It was not a complete or particularly even education at a local grammar school, then the Ploesti Gymnasium for three years, from 1864 to 1867. In many ways, Caragiale was largely self-taught and cultivated his own study of literature.
Studied Acting in Bucharest
When Caragiale was 16, he went to Bucharest to enter the family business. He entered the acting school run by one of his uncles, Iorgiu "Costache" Caragiale. The uncle ran the Bucharest Drama Conservatory. While a student there, he studied acting, mime, and dramatic recitation. While Caragiale wanted a career in the theater, his studies were cut short because of the death of his father when he was 18 years old. He then became the sole supporter of his mother and sister.
To financially provide for his mother and sister, Caragiale worked a number of jobs, while also building a career in the theater and in publishing. He was employed in a tobacco factory, a beer garden, as a copyist for the Prahova County Court House, private tutor, and translator of French literature. In 1870, he worked as a prompter for the National Theatre in Bucharest. Caragiale was also the proofreader of two newspapers and a freelance journalist.
Published First Works
In the early 1870s, Caragiale began publishing sketches and poetry. In 1873 and 1875, he had sketches published in the satirical review Ghimpele. In 1874, Caragiale published his first poem in a review published in Bucharest. He then moved on to working as a freelance journalist, often writing theater criticism for a number of publications including Romania libera and Convorbiri literare. Caragiale also held several positions in running publications. In 1877, he was the publisher of Clapomul, a humor periodical. Caragiale both wrote for and was a member of the editorial board of Timpul from 1878 to 1881.
Thus, before Caragiale ever established himself as a playwright, he was somewhat known, at least in Bucharest, for his literary works. In his writing for Convorbiri literare, Caragiale was a recognized member of the literary circle, Junimea (which means youth). The journal was their publication. He eventually became a leader in the group, though he was forced out after ten years in the early 1880s because of his critical attitude.
Began Writing Plays
By the late 1870s, Caragiale began writing the plays that would cement his reputation as an important playwright in Romania. In both his plays and the prose he wrote for much of his life, he displayed an ear for the language, customs, and manner of Romanians, especially the common person, and successfully used them in comic and satirical ways. Caragiale was very observant of the human condition and our tendency towards mistakes and used what he saw and heard in his stories, which often focused on social conflicts and political corruptions. The plays, especially, were full of action and fast-paced, employing stock characters who spoke witty dialogue but often failed to succeed in their goal.
Caragiale's first foray into writing plays was two translations of French works into verse done in 1878, Roma Invinsa and Lucretia Borgia. His first original work of important was O noapte furtunoasa sau numarul (A Stormy Night, or Number 9; 1879 or 1880). The story was centered around a love triangle between a man, Dumitrache, and wife, Veta, and the assistant of the husband/wife's lover, Chririac. Dumitrache is a jealous and mean man who is employed as the head of the civil guard. Because of his worries about his wife, he has his assistant, Chririac, guard his home, though his assistant is already his wife's lover. When Rica, his wife's sister's lover, comes to the home in error, the intricacies of the relationship are nearly revealed. Though the play was later considered important, it was originally banned from performance and labeled immortal and unpatriotic.
A second significant play from the same time period was also a satire, but more of a political comedy with similar elements of social commentary. Conul Leonida fata cu reaciunea (Mr. Leonida and the Reactionries; 1880) also featured a couple at its center. The provincial man, Mr. Leonida, relates the story of the Romanian republic that existed for a brief three weeks, to his wife Efimita. A republican, he also tells her his idea for a utopian society. Later that night, shots ring out. At first, Leonida believes that the revolution is taking place, and later, that they reactionaries are after him because of his ideas. Both assumptions are wrong, and he learns that the shots are coming from a Shrove Tuesday celebration.
Though Conul Leonida did not have the same controversial opening as A Stormy Night, when Caragiale originally wrote it, the play featured two aristocratic characters at its center. Theater officials would not allow the play to be performed until he changed them to two provincials. This allowed the characters to be viewed as more farcical and satirical by the audience. While Caragiale was gaining much notoriety as a playwright, he was also still holding other jobs to support his family. From 1881 to 1884, he served as an inspector of schools.
Wrote A Lost Letter
In 1884, Caragiale wrote what many consider his masterpiece as a playwright, O scrisoare pierduta (A Lost Letter; 1884). This was a comic satire about political corruption, which explores the victory of a blackmailer in a provincial government election. Like Caragiale's other important plays, A Lost Letter features a love triangle. The letter referred to in the title is from the wife of a candidate to an election official and is romantic in nature. The letter is lost and found by others who want to win the election and/or bring down the candidate. Caragiale's depiction of the events surrounding this election is very cynical, with most of the characters not even being likable. Despite this, the play had a long life and was performed for many years.
Another significant play of this time period was D'ale carnavalului (Carnival Adventures or Carnival Scenes; 1885). This complex farcical comedy was set in Bucharest during carnival time. The story focuses on romantic intrigues among the lower class characters. Several couples deceive each other and their lovers. Originally, Carnival Adventures was only performed twice because it was considered violent and crude.
As Caragiale became established as a significant playwright in Romania, he briefly held a post of importance there. For a few months at the end of 1888 and the beginning of 1889, he was the director general of the National Theatre in Bucharest. As a playwright, Caragiale was also maturing. In 1889 or 1890, he wrote Napasta (also known as False Accusations, Injustice, and False Witness), which was a tragedy-comedy but more serious than his other works. It was often compared to Fydor Dostoyevsky's novel Crime and Punishment and Leo Tolstoy's The Power of Darkness. The central character is a woman named Anca. She is a widow who has remarried to the man, Dragomir, who killed her husband. He was not convicted of the crime, but his friend Ion was. The play focuses on Anca's revenge on Dragomir. Like his other plays, Napasta was controversial in its time period.
Stopped Writing Plays
After Napasta, Caragiale did not write plays for the most part because he did not make much money at it and he needed to take care of his own family. In 1889, he married Alexandrina Burelly, with whom he had one son, Luca Ion—who also grew up to be a writer—and daughter Ecaterina. The couple also had another daughter who died in infancy. (Caragiale also had an illegitimate son, Mateiu Caragiale, who also became a writer.) Caragiale again returned to non-theater-related jobs, but continued to write short stories, fiction, and non-fiction in periodicals.
In 1892, Caragiale published two collections of short stories. Many of these stories retained his comic bite and reflected Romanian life. They often showed the life of lower class people like peasants and clerks. One famous short story published that year was "O faclie de Paste" ("The Easter Torch"), a condemnation of anti-Semitism. He published another collection of fictional pieces in 1901.
In the 1890s, Caragiale again returned to publishing work in a multi-faceted way. In 1893, he was the founder and editor of Mortful roman, a humor magazine. It was revived in 1901. In 1894, he was the producer, with George Cosbuc and Ioan Slavici, of the magazine Vatra, a family publication. He was also a contributor to Vointa nationala in 1895 and Universul between 1899 and 1901. Though Caragiale worked in publishing, he also continued non-related occupations as well. He was a civil servant at the Romanian Department of State Monopolies between 1899 and 1901.
Lived in Voluntary Exile
In 1901, Caragiale was sued by a theater critic for plagiarism. This caused much psychological stress for him, though he eventually proved his innocence. Such incidents led to his decision to move his family to Berlin, Germany, in 1904. That year, he received a long-awaited and previously disputed inheritance from an aunt. Caragiale had never really been happy in Romania, in part because he felt unappreciated as a writer in his native country. He also continued to have problems supporting his wife and children there.
While in exile, Caragiale continued to write, often contributing sketches and stories to periodicals published in Romania. In 1907, he published Din primavara pana in toamna (From Spring to Fall), a sociological piece of commentary that was originally published in Die Zeit, a German magazine. Two years later, he published a novella, Kir Ianulea (Lord Ianulea). This was his version of Niccolo Machiavelli's stage play The Marriage of Belphagor. In this fantasy, an imp from hell is sent to investigate human women on earth by the devil. The title refers to the name and form the imp takes when he lives in Bucharest as a Greek merchant. In this form, he marries a shrew and is bankrupted by her. Negoita, a man, saves him. The imp gives his rescuer wealth. The imp goes back to hell, while his wife and Negoita to heaven.
Caragiale died in Berlin, Germany, on July 9, 1912, of arteriosclerosis. He was buried there, but later he was reburied in Romania. Though Caragiale had a following and name recognition in Romania during his lifetime, he was also criticized and unappreciated there. After his death, he became more recognized for his importance to Romanian drama. Fifty years after his death, he was given a week-long tribute in which his plays were performed. Caragiale's plays seemed especially relevant when the Communists were in control and were oppressive. In the 1980s, his plays were banned until the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was taken out of power in 1989.
Though Caragiale only wrote eight plays, he was arguably the best playwright produced in Romania. He was the first playwright to reflect the realities, speech, and manner of Romanian people and life and influenced other playwrights including the Romanian-born Eugene Ionesco. As Eric D. Tappe wrote in his book Ion Luca Caragiale, "He prided himself on his knowledge of Romanian and would say: 'Not many are masters of it as I am.' "
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