1902 Encyclopedia > Drama > Spanish and Portuguese Drama

(Part 11)

Spanish and Portuguese Drama

Italy produced many brilliant growths, from which the dramatic literatures of other nations largely borrowed; but SPAIN is the only country of modern Europe which shares with England the honour of having achieved, at a relatively early date, the creation of a genuinely national form of the regular drama. So proper to Spain was the form of the drama which she produced and perfected, that to it the term romantic has been specifically applied, though so restricted a use of the epithet is clearly unjustifiable. The influences which from the Romance peoples—in whom Christian and Germanic elements mingled with the legacy of Roman law, learning, and culture—spread to the Germanic nations were represented with the most signal force and fulness in the institutions of chivalry,—to which, in the words of Scott, "it was peculiar to blend military valour with the strongest passions which actuate the human mind, the feelings of devotion and those of love." These feelings, in their combined operation upon the national character, and in their reflection in the national literature, were not peculiar to Spain; but nowhere did they so long or so late continue to animate the moral life of a nation. Outward causes contributed to this result. For centuries after the crusades had become a mere memory, Spain was a battle ground between the cross and the crescent. And it was precisely at the time when the Renaissance was establishing new starting-points for the literary progress of Europe, that Christian Spain rose to the height of Catholic as well as national self-consciousness by the expulsion of the Moors and the conquest of the New World. From their rulers or rivals of so many centuries the Spaniards had derived that rich glow of colour which became permanently distinctive of their national life, and more especially of its literary and artistic expressions ; they had also perhaps derived from the same source an equally characteristic refinement in their treatment of the passion of love. The ideas of Spanish chivalry—more especially religious devotion and a punctilious sense of personal honour—asserted themselves (according to a process often observable in the history of civilization) with peculiar distinctness in literature and art, after the great achievements to which they had contributed in other fields had already been wrought. The ripest glories of the Spanish drama belong to an age of national decay—mindful, it is true, of the ideas of a greater past. The chivalrous enthusiasm pervading so many of the master-pieces of its literature is indeed a characteristic of the Spanish nation in all, even in the least hopeful, periods of its later history ; and the religious ardour breathed by these works, though associating itself with what is called the Catholic Reaction, is in truth only a manifestation of the spirit which informed the noblest part of the Reformation movement itself. The Spanish drama neither sought nor could seek to emancipate itself from views and forms of religious life more than ever sacred to the Spanish people since the glorious days of Ferdinand and Isabella ; and it is not in the beginnings but in the great age of Spanish dramatic literature that there is often most difficulty in distinguishing between what is to be termed a religious and what a secular play. After Spain had thus, the first after England among modern European countries, fully unfolded that incomparably richest expression of national life and sentiment in an artistic form—a truly national dramatic literature,—the terrible decay of her greatness and prosperity gradually impaired the strength of a brilliant but, of its nature, dependent growth. In the absence of high original genius the Spanish dramatists began to turn to foreign models, though little supported in such attempts by popular sympathy; and it is only in more recent times that the Spanish drama has sought to reproduce the ancient forms from whose master-pieces the nation had never become estranged, while accommodating them to tastes and tendencies shared by later Spanish literature with that of Europe at large.

The earlier dramatic efforts of Spanish literature may without inconvenience be briefly dismissed. The reputed author of the Couplets of Mingo Revulgo (R. Cota the elder) likewise composed the first act of a story of intrigue and character, purely dramatic but not intended for representation. This tragic comedy of Calisto and Melibaea, which was completed (in 21 acts) by 1499, afterwards became famous under the name of Celestina ; it was frequently imitated and translated, and was adapted for the Spanish stage by R. de Zepeda in 1582. But the father of the Spanish drama was J. de la Enzina (b. c. 1468), whose representaciones under the name of "eclogues" were dramatic dialogues of a religious or pastoral character. His attempts were imitated more especially by Gil Vicente (fl. 1502-1536), a Portuguese who wrote both in Spanish and in his native tongue—the dramatic literature of which is stated to have produced nothing of equal merit afterwards. (The Portuguese literary drama is held to have begun with the prose comedies of Vicente’s contemporary, F. de Sa de Miranda.) A further impulse came, as was natural, from Spaniards resident in Italy, and especially from B. de T. Naharro, who in 1517 published, as the chief among the "firstlings of his genius" (Propaladia), a series of eight commedias—a term generally applied in Spanish literature to any kind of drama. He claimed some knowledge of the theory of the ancient drama, divided his plays into iornadas 1 (to correspond to acts), and opened them with an introyto (prologue). Very various in their subjects, and occasionally odd in form,2 they were gross as well as audacious in tone, and were soon prohibited by the Inquisition. The church remained unwilling to renounce her control over such dramatic exhibitions as she permitted, and sought to suppress the few plays on not strictly religious subjects which appeared in the early part of the reign of Charles I. The few translations published from the classical drama exercised no effect.

Thus the foundation of the Spanish national theatre was reserved for a man of the people. Cervantes has vividly sketched the humble resources which were at the command of Lope de Rueda (fl. 1544-1567), a mechanic of Seville, who with his friend the bookseller Timoneda, and two brother authors and actors in his strolling company, succeeded in bringing dramatic entertainments out of the churches and palaces into the public places of the towns, where they were produced on temporary scaffolds. The manager carried about his properties in a corn sack ; and the "comedies" were still only "dialogues, and a species of eclogues between two or three shepherds and a shepherdess," enlivened at times by intermezzos of favourite comic figures, such as the negress or the Biscayan, "played with inconceivable talent and truthfulness by Lope." One of his plays at least, 3 and one of Timoneda’s, 4 seem to have been taken from an Italian source, others mingled modern themes with classical apparitions; 5 one of Timoneda’s was (perhaps again through the Italian) from Plautus. 6 Others of a slighter description were called pasos,—a species afterwards termed entremeses and resembling the modern French proverbes. With these popular efforts of Lope de Rueda and his friends a considerable dramatic activity began in the years 1560-1590 in several Spanish cities, and before the close of this period permanent theatres began to be fitted up at Madrid. Yet Spanish dramatic literature might still have been led to follow Italian in turning to an imitation of classical models. Two plays by G. Bermudez (1577), called by their learned author "the first Spanish tragedies," treating the national subject of Inez de Castro, but divided into five acts, composed in various metres, and introducing a chorus ; a Dido (c. 1580) by C. de Virues (who claimed to have first divided dramas into three jornadas); and the tragedies of L. L. de Argensola (acted 1585, and praised in Don Quixote) alike pointed in this direction.

Such were the alternatives which had opened for the Spanish drama, when at last, about the same time as that of the English, its future was determined by writers of original genius. The first of these was the immortal Cervantes, who, however, failed to anticipate by his earlier plays (1584-1588) the great (though to him unproductive) success of his famous romance. In his endeavour to give a poetic character to the drama he fell upon the expedient of introducing personified abstractions speaking a "divine" or elevated language—a device which was for a time favourably received. But these plays exhibit a neglect or ignorance of the laws of dramatic construction ; their action is episodical ; and it is from the realism of these episodes (especially in the Numancia, which is crowded with both figures and incidents), and from the power and flow of the declamation, that their effect must have been derived. When in his later years (1615) Cervantes returned to dramatic composition, the style and form of the national drama had been definitively settled by a large number of writers, the brilliant success of whose acknowledged chief may previously have diverted Cervantes from his labours for the theatre. His influence upon the general progress of dramatic literature is, however, to be sought, not only in his plays, but also in those novelas exemplares to which more than one drama is indebted for its plot, and for much of its dialogue to boot.

Lope de Vega (1562-1635), one of the most astonishing geniuses the world has known, permanently established the national forms of the Spanish drama. Some of these were in their beginnings taken over by him from ruder predecessors ; some were cultivated with equal or even superior success by subsequent authors; but in variety, as in fertility of dramatic production, he has no rivals. His fertility, which was such that he wrote about 1500 plays, besides 300 dramatic works classed as autos sacramentales and entremeses, and a vast series of other literary compositions, has indisputably prejudiced his reputation with those to whom he is but a name and a number. Yet as a dramatist Lope more fully exemplifies the capabilities of the Spanish theatre than any of his successors, though as a poet Calderon may deserve the palm. Nor would it be possible to imagine a truer representative of the Spain of his age than a poet who, after suffering the hardships of poverty and exile, and the pangs of passion, sailed against the foes of the faith in the Invincible Armada, subsequently became a member of the Holy Inquisition and of the Order of St Francis, and after having been decorated by the Pope with the cross of Malta and a theological doctorate, honoured by the nobility, and idolized by the nation, ended with the names of Jesus and Mary on his lips. From the plays of such a writer we may best learn the manners and the sentiments, the ideas of religion and honour, of the Spain of the Philippine age, the age when she was most prominent in the eyes of Europe and most glorious in her own. For, with all its inventiveness and vigour, the genius of Lope primarily set itself the task of pleasing his public,—the very spirit of whose inner as well as outer life is accordingly mirrored in his dramatic works. In them we have, in the words of Lope’s French translator Baret, "the movement, the clamour, the conflict of unforeseen intrigues suitable to unreflecting spectators; perpetual flatteries addressed to an unextinguishable national pride; the painting of passions dear to a people never tired of admiring itself; the absolute sway of the point of honour; the deification of revenge; the adoration of symbols; buffoonery and burlesque, everywhere beloved of the multitude, but here never defiled by obscenities, for this people has a sense of delicacy, and the foundation of its character is nobility ; lastly, the flow of proverbs which at times escape from the gracioso" (the comic servant domesticated in the Spanish drama by Lope)—"the commonplace literature of those who possess no other."

The plays of Lope, and those of the national Spanish drama in general, are divided into classes which it is naturally not always easy, and which there is no reason suppose him always to have intended, to keep distinct from one mother. After in his early youth composing eclogues pastoral plays, and allegorical moralities in the old style, he began his theatrical activity at Madrid about 1590, and the plays which he thenceforth produced have been distributed under the following heads. The comedias, all of which are in verse, include (1) the so-called c. de capa y espada—not comedies proper, but dramas the principal personages in winch are taken from the class of society which wears cloak and sword. Gallantry is their main theme, an interesting and complicated, but well-constructed and perspicuous intrigue their chief feature; and this is usually accompanied by an underplot in which the gracioso plays his part. Their titles are frequently taken from the old proverbs or proverbial phrases of the people 1 upon the theme suggested by which the plays often (as Mr Lewes admirably expresses it) constitute a kind of gloss (glosa) in action. This is the favourite species of the national Spanish theatre; and to the plots of the plays belonging to it the drama of other nations owes a debt almost incalculable in extent. (2) The c. heróicas are distinguished by some of their personages being of royal or very high rank, and by their themes being often historical and largely 2 (though not invariably 3) taken from the national annals, or founded on contemporary or recent events. 4 Hence they exhibit a greater gravity of tone ; but in other respects there is no difference between them and the cloak and sword comedies with which they share the element of comic underplots. Occasionally Lope condescended in the opposite direction, to (3) plays of which the scene is laid in common life, but for which no special name appears to have existed. 5 Meanwhile, both he and his successors were too devoted sons of the church not to acknowledge in some sort her claim to influence the national drama. This claim she had never relinquished, even when she could no longer retain an absolute control over the stage. For a time, indeed, she was able to reassert even this; for the exhibition of all secular plays was in 1598 prohibited by the dying Philip II., and remained so for two years; and Lope with his usual facility proceeded to supply religious plays of various kinds. After a few dramas on scriptural subjects he turned to the legends of the saints ; and the comedias de santos, of which he wrote a great number, became an accepted later Spanish variety of the miracle-play. True, however, to the popular instincts of his genius, he threw himself with special zeal and success into the composition of another kind of religious plays—a development of the Corpus Christi pageants, in honour of which all the theatres had to close their doors for a month. These were the famous autos sacramentales (i.e., solemn "acts" or proceedings in honour of the Sacrament), which were performed in the open air by actors who had filled the cars of the sacred procession. Of these Lope wrote about 400. These entertainments were arranged on a fixed scheme, comprising a prologue in dialogue between two or more actor in character (loa), a farce (entremes), and the auto proper, an allegorical scene of religious purport, as an example of which Ticknor cites the Bridge of the World, in which the Prince of Darkness in vain seeks to defend the bridge against the Knight of the Cross, who finally leads the Soul of Man in triumph across it. Not all the entremeses of Lope and others were, however, composed for insertion in these autos. This long-lived popular species, together with the old kind of dramatic dialogue called eclogues, completes the list of the varieties of his dramatic works.

The example of Lope was followed by a large number of writers, and Spain thus rapidly became possessed of a dramatic literature almost unparalleled in quantity—for in fertility also Lope was but the first among many. Among the writers of Lope’s school, his friend G. de Castro (1569-1631) must not be passed by, for his Cid 6 was the basis of Corneille’s; nor J. P. de Montalvan (1602 1638), "the first-born of Lope’s genius," the extravagance of whose imagination, like that of Lee, culminated in madness. Soon after him died (1639) Ruiz de Alarcon, in whose plays, as contrasted with those of Lope, has been recognized the distinctive element of a moral purpose. To G. Tellez, called Tirso de Molina (d. 1648), no similar praise seems due, but the frivolous gaiety of the inventor of the complete character of Don Juan was accompanied by ingenuity in the construction of his excellent 7 though at times "sensational" 8 plots. F. de Roxas y Zorilla (b. 1607), who was largely plundered by the French dramatists of the latter half of the century, survived Molina for about a generation. In vain scholars of strictly classical tastes protested in essays in prose and verse against the ascendency of the popular drama ; the prohibition of Philip II. had been recalled two years after his death and was never renewed ; and the activity of the theatre spread through the towns and villages of the land, everywhere under the controlling influence of the school of writers who had established so complete a harmony between the drama and the tastes and tendencies of the people.

The glories of Spanish dramatic literature reached their height in P. Calderon de la Barca (1600-1681), though in the history of the Spanish theatre he holds only the second place. He elaborated some of the forms of the national drama, but brought about no changes of moment in any of them. Even the brilliancy of his style, glittering with a constant reproduction of the same family of tropes, and the variety of his melodious versification, are mere intensifications of the poetic qualities of Lope, while in their moral and religious sentiments, and their general views of history and society, there is no difference between the two. Like Lope, Calderon was a soldier in his youth and an ecclesiastic in his later years ; like him he suited himself to the tastes of both court and people, and applied his genius with equal facility to the treatment of religious and of secular themes. In fertility he was inferior to Lope (for he wrote not many more than 100 plays) ; but he surpasses the elder poet in richness of style, and more especially in fire of imagination. In his autos (of which he is said to have left not less than 73), Calderon probably attained to his most distinctive excellence; some of these appear to take a wide range of allegorical invention, 1 while they uniformly possess great beauty of poetical detail. Other of his most famous or interesting pieces are comedias de santos. 2 In his secular plays Calderon treats as wide a variety of subjects as Lope, but it is not a dissimilar variety; nor would it be easy to decide whether a poet so uniformly admirable within his limits has achieved greater success in romantic historical tragedy,3 in the comedy of amorous intrigue, 4 or in a dramatic work combining fancy and artificiality in such a degree that it has been diversely described as a romantic caprice and as a philosophical poem. 5

During the life of the second great master of the Spanish drama there was little apparent abatement in the productivity of its literature ; while the autos continued to flourish in Madrid and elsewhere, till in 1765 (shortly before the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain) their public representation was prohibited by royal decree. In the world of fashion, the opera had reached Spain already during Calderon’s lifetime, together with other French influences, and the great dramatist had himself written one or two of his plays for performance with music. But the regular national drama continued to command popular favour; and with A. Moreto (1618-1669) may be said to have even taken a fresh step. While he wrote in all the froms established by Lope and cultivated by Calderon, his manner seems most nearly to approach the master-pieces of French and later English comedy of character; he was the earliest writer of the comedias de figuron, in which the most prominent personage is (in Congreve’s phrase) "a character of affectation," in other words, the Spanish fop of real life. 6 His master-piece, a favourite of many stages, is one of the most graceful and pleasing of modern comedies—simple but interesting in plot, and true to nature, with something like Shakespearean truth. 7 Other writers trod more closely in the footsteps of the masters without effecting any noticeable changes in the form of the Spanish drama; even the saynete (tit-bit), which owes its name to Benavente (fl. 1645), was only a kind of entremes. The Spanish drama in all its forms retained its command over the nation, because they were alike popular in origin and character; nor is there any other example of so complete an adaptation of a national art to the national taste and sentiment in its ethics and aesthetics, in the nature of the plots of the plays (whatever their origin), in the motives of their actions, in the conduct and tone and in the very costume of their characters.

National as it was, and because of this very quality, the Spanish drama was fated to share the lot of the people it so fully represented. At the end of the 17th century, when the Spanish throne at last became the declared apple of discord among the Governments of Europe, the Spanish people lay, in the words of a historian of its later day, "like a corpse, incapable of feeling its own impotence." That national art to which it had so faithfully clung had fallen into decline and decay with the spirit of Spain itself. By the time of the close of the great war, the theatre had sunk into a mere amusement of the populace, which during the greater part of the 18th century, while allowing the old masters the measure of favour which accords with traditional esteem, continued to uphold the representatives of the old drama in its degeneracy—authors on the level of their audiences. But the Spanish court was now French, and France in the drama, even more than in any other form of art, was the arbiter of taste in Europe. With the restoration of peace accordingly began isolated attempts to impose the French canons of dramatic theory, and to follow the example of French dramatic practice; and in the middle of the century these endeavours assumed more definite form. Montiano’s bloodless tragedy of Virginia (1750), which was never acted, was accompanied by a discourse endeavouring to reconcile the doctrines of the author with the practice of the old Spanish dramatists ; the play itself was in blank verse (a metre never used by Calderon, though occasionally by Lope), instead of the old national ballad-measures (the romance- measure with assurance and the rhymed redondilla quatrain) preferred by the old masters among the variety of metres employed by them. The earliest Spanish comedy in the French form (a translation only, though written in the national metre) 8 (1751), and the first original Spanish comedy on the same model, Moratin’s Petimetra (Petite-Maîtresse), printed in 1726 with a critical dissertation, likewise remained unacted. In 1770, however, the, same author’s Hormesinda, an historic drama on a national theme and in national metre, but adhering to the French rules, appeared on the stage; and similar attempts followed in tragedy by the same writer and others (including Ayala, who ventured in 1775 to compete with Cervantes on the theme of Numantia), and in comedy by Yriarte and Jovellanos (afterwards minister under Godoy), who produced a sentimental comedy in Diderot’s manner." But these endeavours failed to effect any change in the popular theatre, which was with more success raised from its deepest degradation by R. de la Cruz (b. 1731), a fertile author of light pieces of genuine humour, especially sayvetes, depicting the manners of the middle and lower classes. In literary circles La Huerta’s voluminous collection of the old plays (1785) gave a new impulse to dramatic productivity, and the conflict continued between representatives of the old school, such as Cornelia (fl. 1780) and of the new, such as the younger Moratin (1760-1828), whose comedies—of which the last and most successful 1 was in prose—raised him to the foremost position among the dramatists of his age. In tragedy N. de Cienfuegos (d. 1809) likewise showed some originality. After, however, the troubles of the French domination and the war had come to an end, the precepts and examples of the new school failed to reassert themselves. The Spanish dramatists of the present century, after passing, as in the instances of F. Martinez de la Rosa and Breton de los Horreros, from the system of French comedy to the manner of the national drama, appear either to have stood under the influence of the French romantic school, or to have returned once more to the old national models. Among the former class A. Gil y Zarate, among the latter J. Zonlla, are mentioned as specially prominent. Meanwhile the old popular religious performances are not wholly extinct in Spain, and their relics may long continue to survive there. Whatever may be the future history of one of the most remarkable of dramatic literatures, it may confidently be predicted that so long as Spain is Spain, her theatre will not be permanently denationalized, and that the revolutions it may be destined to undergo are unlikely to extinguish, in whatever degree they may repress, its conservative elements.


FOOTNOTES (page 419)

(1) Momolo Cortesan (Jerome the Accomplished Man), La Bottega del Caffé, &c.

(2) La Vedova Scaltra (The Owning Widow}; La Putta Onorata (The Respectable Girl; La Buona Figlia; La B. Sposa; La B. Famiglia; La B. Madre (the last of which was unsuccessful; "goodness," says Goldoni, "never displeases, but the public weary of everything"), &c.; and Il Burbero Benefico called in its original French version Le Bourru Bienfaisant.

(3) Molière; Terenzio; Tasso.

(4) Pamela; Pamela Maritata ; Il Filosofo Inglese (Mr Spectator).

(5) L’'Amore delle tre Melarance (The Three Lemons); Il Corvo.

(6) Turandot; Zobeide.

(7) L’Amore delle tre M. (against Goldoni); L’Angellino Belverde (The Small Green Bird), (against Helvetius, Rousseau, and Voltaire).

(8) Aspasia; Polyxena.

(9) Ephemeridophobos.

(10) Timoleon; Konstantinos Palaeologos; Rhigas of Pherae.

(11) The Three Hundred, or The Character of the Ancient Hellene (Leonidas); The Death of the Orator (Demosthenes); A Scion of Timoleon, &c.

FOOTNOTES (page 420)

(1) The term is the same as that used in the old French collective mysteries (journées).

(2) In some of his plays (Comedia Serafina; C. Timelaria) there is a mixture of languages even stranger than that of dialects in the Italian masked comedy.

(3) Los Engaños (Gli Ingannati).

(4) Cornelia (Il Negromante).

(5) Lope, Armelina (Medea, and Neptune as deus ex machina—si modo machina adfuisset).

(6) Menennos.

FOOTNOTES (page 421)

(1) El Azero de Madrid (The Steel Water of Madrid); Dineros son Calidad (=The Dog in the Manger), &c.

(2) La, Estrella de Sevilla (The Star of Seville, i.e., Sancho the Brave) ; El Nuevo Mundo (Columbus), &c.

(3) Roma Abrasada (R. in Ashes—Nero).

(4) Arauco Domado (The Conquest of Arauco, 1560).

(5) La Moza de Cantaro (The Water-maid).

(6) Las Mocedades (The Youthful Adventures) del Cid.

(7) Don Gil de las Colzas Verdes (D. G. in the Green Breeches).

(8) El Burlador de Sevilla y Convivado de Piedra (The Deceiver of Seville, i.e., Don Juan, and the Stone Guest).

FOOTNOTES (page 422)

(1) El Divino Orfeo, &c.
(2) El Magico Prodigiosi; El Purgatorio de Sam Patricio; La Devocion de la Cruz.

(3) El Principe Constante (Don Ferdinand of Portugal).

(4) La Dama Duende (The Fairy Lady).

(5) Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream).

(6) El Lindo Don Diego (Pretty Don Diego).

(7) Desden con el Desden (Disdain against Disdain).

(8) Luzan, La Razon contra la Mode (Lachaussée, Le Préjugé á la Mode).

(9) Il Delinquente Honrado (The Honoured Culprit).

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