Ángel de Saavedra Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ángel de Saavedra’s theatrical production consists mainly of tragedies and dramas, and even those works written late in his career and called comedias were written in the vein of the Spanish drama of the Golden Age, mixing serious themes with some comical incidents. His only two true comedies were written, as he declared, to distract him from the preoccupations of everyday life and affairs of state. This attitude reveals the thrust of Saavedra’s theater—a theater based on the intellectual concerns of the author. Thus, his early neoclassical and Romantic works focus on political freedom, the individual, and liberalism, and his later works, written when he had become more conservative, center on traditional Spanish themes and preoccupations.


Among Saavedra’s early plays, the tragedy Aliatar is noteworthy. It is neoclassical in form, divided into five acts, respecting the unities of time, place, and action. It also confines itself to one verse form, the assonant hendecasyllable, has lofty characters as protagonists, and comes to a tragic end. Despite this neoclassical format, however, Aliatar has definite pre-Romantic characteristics. It is the dramatization of the love of the Moorish chief Aliatar for his Christian captive, Elvira. The themes of power, passion, and impossible love are present, and the tone of the tragedy is Romantic, as it emphasizes the characters’ despair in the face of the principles that rule the world. The tragedy ends with the suicide of Aliatar, who is unable to master the passion that consumes him.

El duque de Aquitania

The tragedy El duque de Aquitania also follows the neoclassical precepts outlined above. Based on the play Oreste (pr. 1781, pb. 1784; Orestes, 1815) by the Italian Vittorio Alfieri, it tells the story of the power struggle between Reynal, the rightful duke, and Eudon, the usurper of the duchy of Acquitaine, and underlines the themes of freedom and independence. This tragedy enjoyed great popularity when it was presented because it reflected the conditions under which the Spanish people were living during the Napoleonic invasion.


Another tragedy that gained popularity was Malek-Adhél. This work was based on the well-known novel Mathilde (1805) by Madame Cottin, and it deals with the love story between Mathilde, sister of Richard the Lion-Hearted, and Malek-Adhél, brother of the Sultan Saladin. Here again is the theme of interracial, interreligious love that was presented in Aliatar, with the difference that in this instance the love is mutual. Again, in format, this is a neoclassical tragedy, but in spirit it is quite Romantic. The protagonist, Malek-Adhél, is overcome by desperation in his realization of the impossibility of his love for Mathilde. The tone and atmosphere of the play are somber, and the political conflict forms an appropriately turbulent background for the story of doomed love. An additional noticeably pre-Romantic characteristic of Malek-Adhél is the gloomy setting of the fifth act: midnight at the sepulchral chapel of the crusader Montmorency.


Lanuza, a neoclassical tragedy set in Renaissance Aragon, is a “liberal-oriented” tragedy. The plot delves into the story of Lanuza, the chief justice of Aragon, who revolted against the absolute power of Phillip II. Lanuza was successful at the beginning but was abandoned by his followers, captured by the royal troops, and decapitated. The tragedy ends with an impassioned speech by Lanuza before his death, calling the people to unite and fight absolutism. This thinly disguised call to arms to the Spaniards living under French power was received fervently by theatergoers.

Arias Gonzalo

Saavedra’s most important neoclassical tragedy is Arias Gonzalo. The setting and plot come from the siege of the city of Zamora by King Sancho of Castile in medieval Spain. This incident, recorded in the Primera crónica general by King Alfonso X of Castile, was also the theme for many traditional ballads and plays. The plot is as follows: King Sancho is killed in battle during the siege by the Zamoran warrior Bellido Dolfos. A Castilian knight, Diego Ordóñez de Lara, challenges the city of Zamora to a duel to decide the outcome of the siege. The city belongs to Doña Urraca, who is underage, and her tutor, Arias Gonzalo, accepts the challenge. His three sons take up the challenge, and the oldest two are killed by Ordóñez. The youngest, Gonzalo Arias, succeeds in defeating Ordóñez but is fatally wounded in combat. The subplot of the tragedy is the love between Urraca and Gonzalo Arias. This tragedy, considered by the critic Francisco Ruiz Ramón as one of the best of its time, brings to life the conflict it portrays through the use of forceful versification, colorful imagery, and well-described action. Divided into five acts and following all the neoclassical precepts, the tragedy nevertheless reflects a marked Romantic influence. The love between Urraca and Gonzalo, doomed to fail because of interference from the outside world, the melancholy displayed by the lovers, and the final lines spoken by Gonzalo’s father—“Zamora is free/ But alas, how much this costs Arias Gonzalo”—all speak of the approaching new sensibility and conception of life. There is more emphasis on the individual and less on the duties that bind each person; indeed, a glimpse of the fully developed Romantic hero and heroine are already evident in Arias Gonzalo.

Tanto vales cuanto tienes

A comedy written by Saavedra in the same period reveals the degree to which the neoclassical movement shaped his early work. Entitled Tanto vales cuanto tienes, it is a full-fledged comedy of manners. In the vein of Leandro Fernández de Moratín’s El sí de las niñas (wr. 1801, pr., pb. 1806; When a Girl Says Yes, 1929), Tanto vales cuanto tienes is a didactic work that stereotypes its characters to make the moral message of the comedy evident. The...

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