The Critic

GREGORIO CORROCHANO was working on the foreign news desk of the Madrid newspaper A.B.C. when one day some forty-six years ago he was asked to pinchhit for the bullfight reporter. He did so well that, except for his service as a war correspondent, he has been the A.B.C.bullfighting critic ever since.


THE art of bullfighting can be explained as the geometric movement of two lines — a vertical line, the torero, and a horizontal line, the bull. To the extent that the vertical line can revolve around itself without changing its position on the ground, the horizontal must move, making a run to approach and another to return. The bullfighter’s possibilities of defense rest on his ability to exploit the time it takes the bull to charge and return, which, notwithstanding its apparent speed, is a more slowly effected movement than the turn of the torero.

Bullfighting is possible because the bull is a beast which does not attack in order to eat; it attacks out of irritation. This is a defensive instinct, an instinct which varies not only from one bull to another but even in the same bull during the different moments of the fight. If a bull were not killed after having fought and were allowed to return to the arena for another corrida, it would be impossible to fight it, for it would remember what had been done to it — bulls have good memories— and instead of going for the cape, it would go for the bullfighter and gore him.

Far from taming or training a bull, the bull breeder does the opposite. He preserves its strength and strives to increase it. In the breeding of bulls for the ring, the intervention of man produces the antithesis of domestication.

In Spain today the art of bullfighting is in a state of decadence. The decline set in after the Civil War of 1936 to 1939. Some of the stock farms had been decimated, others had disappeared altogether, so that at the end of the war we were faced with a dilemma: either to give up bullfights for a while, since there were no bulls capable of satisfying the traditional requirements of age and weight, or to substitute the young bull, or novillo, for the full-grown bull, or toro. We were unable to wait. We were hungry for fiestas after the sorrows of the war. And so the novillo was agreed to and given provisional acceptance by the rules, by the public, and by the critics.

The novillo differs from the toro in that it is younger, less heavy, less developed, and thus less dangerous. In the past the novillo was traditionally reserved for the novillero, for the apprentice who was not yet a full-fledged torero.

The necessity born of the shortage of bulls became a habit. The stock breeders grew accustomed to sending to the corridas bulls that were not yet bulls, thereby tarnishing the reputation for scrupulous standards which had long been the hallmark of the raisers of brave bulls. No doubt they found it convenient and economical to speed up their output of young bulls, thus immediately raising their income and minimizing the financial risks involved in the raising of livestock. The torero, with the title of matador, got used to killing novillos. The decline in the hierarchical prestige which the torero had always so carefully respected was offset in the process by the diminished risk and a rise in earnings, inasmuch as he could now turn himself into a novillero while earning the prize money of a matador. The press took to reviewing as bullfights what it knew perfectly well were not bullfights, since there were no bulls.

As it is easier to fight a novillo than a bull, there are now many toreros who fight well, and this has given rise to the publicity which proclaims that today the bullfighters are fighting better than ever. The truth is that they fight very well but still do not know how to fight. When, as occasionally happens, a genuine bull turns up among the novillos, or when a novillo appears which has to be fought with real mastery, most of today’s toreros do not know what they must do with it. Nor does the public, for the decadence of the bullfight is intimately linked with the fact that the people know less and less about bulls. Those who are satisfied with surface truths impute this to the large number of tourists who now throng to our bull rings. It is no less true that most of the Spanish public today, when it comes to bullfights, seem to have become tourists.

All this has created a climate of facility in the bull ring and a compromising conformity in the public which are new in the tradition of bullfighting. The torero has carved out a comfortable nook for himself; he has avoided the rivalry, the competition between bullfighters which, though harsh, was a considerable attraction.

The last great competition in the history of bullfighting was that between Gallito and Belmonte. This was the most glorious epoch of bullfighting in this century. The contest between Gallito and Belmonte lasted throughout Gallito’s lifetime. Together they fought through a total of two hundred and fifty-seven afternoons, eighty of them in Madrid. What other competition can boast anything comparable? The day the gate closed on Gallito in 1920 at Talavera de la Reina in Toledo, the great contests ceased and the age of facility opened.

Competition in bullfighting is very unnerving and dangerous, but it makes the torero great and transfigures the bullfight. The rivalry itself is a stimulus. The bullfighter knows that among the spectators he has supporters whom he cannot disregard or defraud. I say “disregard,” for when one torero was in bad form, his aficionados would become a target for sarcastic sallies from the partisans of the other torero. Oftentimes they would actually come to blows.

There is, in this respect, a magnificent anecdote about Belmonte. Belmonte had been doing badly during the season in Madrid, one poor bullfight alter another. His supporters, who, like all real partisans, were very demanding, told him that this could not go on, that they were ashamed of him. Whereupon Belmonte, to quiet them and as a pledge, signed a letter in which he promised to fight well in the next corrida. This act, a characteristic example of Belmonte’s humor, took on the value of a public commitment. In the corrida which followed this solemn pledge he fought very well, and a few days later, in the famous corrida of Montepío de Toreros, Belmonte was so extraordinary that those of us who saw him fight will never forget it.

In this period of decadence, good bullfighters are going to seed on a diet of safety and greed. The sense of the bullfight has been lost. Today’s torero accepts — and, what is worse, at times demands — the mutilated bull, the beast with the filed-down horns which is more gently described by the euphemism of the “shaved” bull. The present-day bullfighters refuse competition and form little groups, hermetic clubs, because it is safer and less risky to fight with protectors than with competitors. The bullfight has consequently lost its personality, and it has robbed the torero of the quality which once most distinguished him — his manliness, his uncompromising manly conduct, which could not tolerate anything demeaning his bullfighter’s office.

I think I can confirm my thesis with one more example. When Gallito came to Madrid for the first time as a novillero, he went down to the arena on the eve of the corrida to see the novillos reserved for him, and they seemed small. He told the impresario that he would not fight them, because he did not want to make his first appearance in Madrid opposite small bulls. The impresario tried to convince him that the novillos were not small, but of the normal size, and perhaps even a shade larger than the normal. Gallito stuck to his guns, and, walking through the corrals of the bull ring, he saw a batch of bulls from Olea. “Throw those bulls at me,” he said. The impresario replied that this was a batch of bulls prepared for the matadors of bulls and not for a novillero. Gallito insisted: “Either you let me have that batch of bulls, or I don’t begin in Madrid.”

Though he was only a novillero, he opened in Madrid with these bulls from Olea and had a fabulous success. The spectators came away from the arena saying, “Lagartijo is reborn.” The oldest among them could remember nothing equal to it. Today this episode can no longer be understood; it sounds like a fairy tale. Gallito’s youth, his manliness, his sense of responsibility, his exceptional knowledge of bullfighting led him to challenge those masters of the bull ring, Bombita and Machaquito, who, though covered with glory and gore scars, could not resist the impetus of Gallito and had to award him the tail.

When Gallito was left as the sole master of the bullfight, Belmonte appeared and said, “Here I am!” “Well, go to it!” Gallito replied. I repeat, and shall never tire of repeating, that when Gallito died, he had fought eighty corridas in Madrid and two hundred and fifty-seven with Belmonte. That was a real contest. Is a contest of this kind possible in the present state of bullfighting? No. Because, even if a Gallito and a Belmonte were to appear, they would not meet in the bull ring, they would not compete with each other. The bullfight is, unfortunately, headed in another direction.