Spain Literature – The Theater of the 17th Century Part 2

The profound reason for these reasons is always the ideal of an immanent justice in which all particular and individual sentiments, love and honor, glory and power are illuminated. Lope projects the contemporary ideal of Caesarean authority into Spanish medieval history. He romanticizes the old chronicles with a balanced reconciliation of barbarian realism and chivalrous heroism (El mejor alcalde, el Re y Peribáñez and el Comendador de Ocañia, Fuente Ovejuna ; El alcalde de Zalamea). The chivalrous sentiment of moral uprightness, in its individual and subjective aspect, colors every expression of love and adventure. Tender without ever sentimental softness, it is the principle of generosity and kindness (El halcón de Federico ; El castigo sin venganza ; Porfiar hasta morir ; El caballero Olmedo). Lope pours out this humanly affectionate and trusting sentiment also in the sacred drama. It trembles with resentful tenderness in the most naive realism, because the poet dominates it intellectually, with sure knowledge of dogma and with profound reverence before the mysteries of faith. Lope creates the characteristic passionate atmosphere of the Spanish theater. Inside, Francisco Tárrega, Gaspar Aguilar and even Guillén de Castro pass like shadows. He kept himself on the popular tone and with imaginative style, deriving from the Romancero, he sought rather the extreme passionate notations and intrigue (Las mocedades del Cid ; El conde Alarcos). The figure of Tirso de Molina (1583-1648) is clearly determined. He too was a prodigious composer like Lope, but, more than Lope, he was a creator of characters with deep sentimental resonances. He too romanticizes history by illuminating it with the ideals of the present (La prudencia en la mujer ; Don Alvaro de Luna y Ruy López Dávalos); but in the drama of human justice he inserts the other drama of divine misericorde justice. The freedom of the will, by which man with the help of God creates his own glorious destiny, constitutes the underlying doctrinal of what is concrete artistic realization in the two comedies: El condenado por desconfiado and El burlador de Sevilla. Poetically, both are valid as clear, positive and coherent artistic determination of two characters that yield to the spontaneity of their nature, either sluggish (the hermit Paolo) or selfish (don Juan). Critics of abstract sources have gotten lost in search of the literary origins of these two admirable theological dramas, in which Tirso, with a personal feeling of life and of the world, takes his place in the controversies that had been debated between Dominicans and Jesuits around the problem of human freedom. Tirso gives us a fine example of that “exemplary” art which, according to the aesthetics of the sixteenth century, had to solve every doctrinal element in an intelligible image and present only an action. In other compositions Tirso pursued the oddities with a good-natured smile,El celoso prudente ; Don Gil de las calzas verdes, etc.), and created a delightful kind of human comedy that sways between Shakespeare’s fantasies and Marivaux’s mischievous pleasantness. Out of the art of Lope and Tirso, the grandiose and tragic subjects, within an atmosphere of history and legend, are impoverished on the stage. The didactic intention predominates in view of a common type of human dignity, simple, elementary and good. It is the theater that Juan Ruiz de Alarcón (1581-1639) came into being, and which, although restricted to a limited number of themes, possesses ingenious craftsmanship and composure of style, ironic finesse and discreet sensitivity. The poet’s ideal, which fails in dramatic tone, is enlightened and serene honesty. This is realized, outside its abstract formulation,La verdad suspechosa ; Las paredes oyen ; Mudarse por mejorarse ; No hay mal que por bien no come). It is a type of theater that does not give norms, but represents, that does not criticize, but indulges, that does not rise to elevated conceptions of thought, but only characterizes. Its best representatives are Antonio Mira de Amescua and Luis Vélez de Guevara. The picaresque novel, El diablo cojuelo(1641), which he wrote, is a smiling satire of the contemporary world within a popularly fantastic narrative. It also sets the tone for his art. The Spanish drama, whose production during fifty years has been exceptional, gradually clings to the themes put into vogue with vigorous originality by Lope. With aristocratic stature it elaborates human characters and objects them with more acute study of the concrete detail. However he descends to mediocrity with Alonso Jerónimo de Salas Barbadillo, Alonso de Castillo y Solórzano, Diego Jiménez del Enciso, Luis Belmonte Bermúdez. In the pictures of popular life, burlesque and festive, with the elementary nature of a fragmentary technique, Luis Quiñones de Benavente (died in 1652) transforms the psychological realism of the great classics into picturesque realism, including Cervantes.Los cuatro galanes ; El Borracho ; El guardainfante, etc.). He is the last artist of the entremeses tradition.

The passage from Lope to Calderón, in the sense of a greater or lesser accentuation of ideal motifs and conceptual stylistic forms widespread in the atmosphere of the seventeenth century, can be seen in Juan Pérez de Montalban (1602-1638) and in Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla ( 1607-48). In the first, the cheerful situation comedian tends to become an intellectual motif, while the amorous passion turns towards melodrama and takes on tragic attitudes (Los amantes de Teruel ; La puerta Macarena). In the second, the comedian acquires his own autonomy and becomes grotesque (Donde hay agravios no hay celos ; Entre bobos anda el juego). The rigidly legal conception of absolutism is opposed to the legal ideology of the more enlightened tradition (Del rey abajo, ninguno). We thus have a stylization of motifs which, on a background that has become conventional, remain the presuppositions of the tragic action. This stiffens, gaining inwardness what it loses most moved and lively human sympathy. In this new atmosphere the theater of Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) blossoms. Triumphing after the death of Lope de Vega, it reigned supreme on the scene until the neoclassicism of the following century. Calderón’s poetic world gravitates on a metaphysical interpretation of life and the world. Reality is considered in its becoming (El gran teatro del mundo ; El gran mercado del mundo) and human facts, beyond their contingent appearances, are constantly brought back to the power of God, which transpires in them and is their beginning and end. His Autos sacramentales, in the intellectual forms of allegory and in the numerous symbolic personifications that dramatize an abstract content, are nothing but the progressive history of humanity, at the center of which is the redemption wrought by Christ (El veneno y la triaca ; La devoción de la Misa ; La vida es sueño, and the autos de la Virgen). Beyond the apparently disordered events that follow one another, the poet discovers souls with the ontological mystery that is stirred in them; and inside the souls, he discovers the will of God as goodness and infinite justice. Calderón raises the medieval self, in which Valdivielso, Lope, Tirso and Mira de Amescua had distinguished themselves, to a religious art form that demands, as in the mysteries of the liturgy, contemplative spiritual initiation. Having passed the moment of otherness, the critic realizes that what seemed lyrical outpouring is instead movement, action and drama: the drama of the human will, of the individual or of society, within the providential logic of history. Calderón was romanticized, when his art, on isolated phrases, became a historical document of the Spanish mystical soul, without seeing how much active and concrete there is in the spirit that informs it. Calderón everywhere feels, under tragic aspects, the urgency of action. He considers small human passions to be frenetic dreams, which forget the rapid rush of time and stop only before the “cold night of death” (La vida es sueño ; La devoción de la Cruz ; El mágico prodigious ; El príncipe constant). In Calderón the theme of honor is resolved in the energetic affirmation of justice, which is not an individual sentiment closed in on itself, but a natural participation of the soul in an attribute of God. The same theme of Lope, El alcalde de Zalamea, streamlined and accentuated in the contrasts, it internalizes. The avenger of his own name is the executioner to whom the king’s own authority bows (Amar después de la muerte ; El médico de su honra). It was convenient for an empirical critic, unable to relive the spiritual content of a religious art, to affirm that Calderón does not know how to outline characters, as if the strength of an autonomous will were not character, which becomes aware of the end to which it is naturally addressed and his freedom is conquered in the awareness of the need to be of his own being. Such are in fact some of its most famous characters: Prince Sigismondo, Justina, Don Pedro Crespo, etc. Calderón aimed in art more at the end of man, than at the formal beauty of the work of art; more to the ideal transparencies, than to the concrete realization of the feeling. It was the lyric of the inner action, of the great soliloquies of the soul, of all the great aspirations that are felt and that are expressed in torment, and which often result in a particulate fragmentary nature of concepts. His conceptism is inherent in his lyricism. He knows how to find accents of profound humanity, where the struggle is the condition of the moral life, and the restlessness of all instincts is the opposition to the natural selfishness and natural desire of the eternal. Calderón did not write comedies of pure instinctive passion. He was repulsed by the vulgar and the prosaic; and he never indulged in murky passionate realism. In swashbuckling comedies (The lady duende ; No siempre lo peor es cierto), in the chivalrous and mythological ones, was an academic, who accepted fantastic modules and gave the public nothing more than literature. This is somewhat the case of Augustin Moreto (1618-1669). He is of little value when he takes up arguments from Lope (El valiente justiciero y ricohombre de Alcalá ; Los jueces de Castilla), but he is an artist who knows how to unfold his originality and the composure of his ironic inspiration, when he deals with characters and wisely engraves comic situations (El desdén with el desdén ; Trampa adelante). The ranks of playwrights are now thinning out with the weary reworking of the old themes (Matos Fragoso, Juan Bautista Diamante, Juan de la Hoz y Mota, etc.) and with the late mannered imitators of Calderón.

Spain Literature - The Theater of the 17th Century 2