Alejandro Casona combined, in his best work, an enlightened didacticism with the grace of a born playwright. As a professional man of the theater, he experimented with various kinds of drama. Nuestra Natacha, for example, has its source in Casona’s experience as a teacher and as director of Teatro del Pueblo. It conveys an overt and idealistic message and marks the only occasion on which Casona absolutely subordinated form to an idea. Las tres perfectas casadas (the three perfect wives), by contrast, is an uncharacteristically negative melodrama of betrayal and suicide, complete with an onstage shooting. In Casona’s best work, however, he explored the problem of human unhappiness and examined some of the means commonly adopted to combat that problem.

The three plays to be considered all unfold according to this general pattern: An individual, usually a young man, attempts to find happiness by espousing an artificial system—by creating an institution of sorts—that is designed to shut out the pain and ugliness of life. A young woman, rescued from suicide, enters the picture; she brings about change, ultimately for the better. The system fails as unpleasant reality breaches its walls, but the young man and woman embark on a new, more promising quest for happiness: They acknowledge the potential ugliness of life but transcend it through love. Though Casona repeatedly employed these themes, devices, and characters, he imbued them with a striking freshness in each new version, so that he never seemed to be merely rehashing a formula.

The permutations of a single theme in these three plays should give some idea of Casona’s command of his medium. Obliged by his values as an educator and a thinker to wrestle with the question of human happiness over and over again, he remained consistent without lapsing into monotony. His growth as a playwright kept pace with the increasing subtlety of his perceptions. In one sense, then, Casona’s distinction as a dramatist is related to his integrity. He had the courage to write on any theme (the Fascist regime in Spain banned his writings for years) but the artistic sense not to degenerate into preachment. Perhaps as closely as any playwright of his time, he approached the ideal of dulce et utile: His plays teach ethical lessons, but that ethic includes an abiding love for the beautiful. His protagonists reject falsehood and ugliness in favor of truth and beauty—not as abstractions, but as active principles of life. Casona followed his own teachings; he stood up for truth and sweetened it with some of the most finely crafted plays of the twentieth century.

La sirena varada

La sirena varada, the first of Casona’s plays to be staged, establishes the pattern. Ricardo, the protagonist, falls into a well-intentioned error: He tries to attain happiness by fiat, by founding a republic of “orphans of common sense.” Haunted by memories of an unhappy childhood, he strives for an irresponsible innocence, a life based on fantasy, into which no cold reason can intrude. A sign over the door—which somehow he never finds the time to put up—would read: “Let no one who knows geometry enter here.” He has chosen his companions carefully; besides a tolerant servant and a painter who insists on going about blindfolded, Ricardo has rented a ghost with the house. He has also summoned a circus clown to act as president, and life seems to be going along very well.

For all its charm, Ricardo’s grand scheme is unsound, even diseased. Even discounting the objections of the reasonable outsider, Don Florín, one cannot truly admire this republic: It is, simply, a despotism. Ricardo imposes his fantasy on the others with all the cruelty of youth. What seems at first to be romantic turns out to be merely decadent. Ricardo breakfasts in the middle of the night, as a puerile gesture of rebellion. They have run out of milk, so they subsist on coffee and rum. Rather than give up his rented ghost, the young despot convinces the timorous impostor that he is quite dead—the ghost of Napoleon Bonaparte—and obliges him to observe traditional haunting hours. He shows imagination, but no love.

The advent of Sirena, the putative mermaid, makes matters worse—though her presence will eventually help Ricardo to find a better answer. She delights his fancy with her faithful impersonation of a mermaid, but implicit in that identity is the image of death by drowning. As her role demands, she attempts to lure Ricardo into the depths. According to his own rules, he really ought to join her in her undersea palace. Indeed, to remain constant to his beliefs, he virtually must utter that other retort to unhappiness: suicide.

Fortunately, two factors impede this fatal misstep: the presence of Don Florín and Ricardo’s core of health, intelligence, and goodness. Don Florín, like so many later characters in Casona’s work, suffers the frustration of having found a way to live well without being able to impart it to the young people whom he loves. Despite Ricardo’s gibes, the reader never questions the soundness of Don Florín. Unfortunately, he can only offer advice—much of it unheeded—and watch, as Ricardo blunders toward his own solution. With such help as he accepts, though, Ricardo does make progress: He never shows much enthusiasm for suicide, even under pressure from Sirena, and his subsequent decisions are always based on his love for her rather than allegiance to his system.

As always, when characters in a Casona play lock the front door against reality, it slips in through a side entrance. The circus clown, Papá Samy, finally arrives; he turns out to be Sirena’s father and the bearer of a sorry truth: “Sirena” is quite insane. Ricardo once saved her from drowning—suicide—and she has been obsessed with him ever since. Even without such a tale to tell, Papá Samy would add little merriment to the place: He spends his time alternately getting drunk and reading the Bible.

This grim incursion comes almost as a relief to Ricardo. His love for the mysterious waif had already begun to change his values. Indeed, he had questioned her closely about her background, confessing that “this arbitrary life we’ve made for ourselves is starting to make me sick.” The clown’s revelations provide a pretext for abolishing most of the absurdities—and the cruelties—of the republic: The ghost becomes a gardener, the inhabitants adopt more regular habits, and Ricardo summons Don Florín back to restore Sirena—María—to her right mind.

Casona, however, does not permit Ricardo a facile turnaround. As Don Florín points out, the young dreamer has much to answer for, and merely behaving better does not excuse his earlier excesses. Nor has the falsehood of the establishment been completely exposed: Papá Samy has not told the whole truth, and Daniel, the so-called painter, continues to wear his blindfold. The third act of the play serves to reduce the remainder of Ricardo’s little castle in the air to rubble and to force him to live in the world, not outside it.

Thus far, the truth has been unfortunate but still touching; reality has been saddening, but wanly beautiful. In the third act, there is a drastic turn for the worse. Daniel’s blindfold, torn off at last by Ricardo, has covered eyes that were savaged by an explosion. Papá Samy, in his weakness, has bartered his daughter for beer. Ugliness on two legs enters, in the person of Pipo, circus owner and strongman. He has come to offer to sell Sirena to Ricardo, having had his fill of beating and raping her but reluctant to miss any chance of gouging some money.

This reeking embodiment of all that is sordid serves as a dragon to be routed. Improbably but inevitably, Ricardo puts the strongman to flight with a steely...

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