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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1721

First produced: 1911

First published: 1917

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragi-comedy

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Locale: Spain

Principal Characters:

Sister Joanna of the Cross, eighteen years of age

Teresa, aged eighteen

The Prioress, aged forty

The Vicaress, aged forty

The Mistress...

(The entire section contains 1721 words.)

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First produced: 1911

First published: 1917

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragi-comedy

Time of work: Early twentieth century

Locale: Spain

Principal Characters:

Sister Joanna of the Cross, eighteen years of age

Teresa, aged eighteen

The Prioress, aged forty

The Vicaress, aged forty

The Mistress of Novices, aged thirty-six

Sister Marcella, aged nineteen

Sister Maria Jesus, aged nineteen

Sister Sagrario, aged eighteen

Sister Inez, aged fifty

Sister Tornera, aged thirty

The Doctor, aged sixty

Antonio, aged twenty-five

Critique:

G. Martínez Sierra served an apprenticeship in the theater as an actor under Jacinto Benavente, a prominent Spanish playwright, ten years before he wrote any plays of his own. Though not his first written play, THE CRADLE SONG, CANCION DE CUNA in the original, was his first definite success in Madrid in 1911, in New York in 1921, in London in 1926, and again in New York in 1927, when Eva Le Gallienne brought it to her Civic Repertory Theater. Since that time it has been considered a success wherever it has been presented. Martínez Sierra's wife, usually his collaborator, had more than her usual interest in this play because it was reminiscent of her home town, where her father was the convent doctor and where his sister, Sister Joanna of the Cross in the play, became a nun. The two acts of the play are divided by a poem covering a lapse of eighteen years. This is a play of laughter and tears, in which the stifling of the mother instinct is the theme before which the characters pale.

The Story:

When the Prioress, the Mistress of Novices, the Vicaress and the other nuns begged her, Sister Joanna of the Cross consented to read the poem she had composed in celebration of the birthday of the Prioress. The Vicaress was sure that praise for the poem would lead to pride, a sin, but Sister Joanna of the Cross disclaimed all but a small part of the birthday present. She had composed the lines, it was true, but Sister Maria Jesus had copied the verses, Sister Sagrario painted the border, Sister Marcella tied the ribbons, and the Mistress of Novices made the gift possible by giving them the parchment and the ribbon.

The mayor's wife sent the Prioress a canary in a cage. The bird so delighted the novices that they begged permission to talk among themselves until time for prayers. The doctor interrupted them on his daily round. He looked at a felon Sister Sagrario had on her finger, and turned to prescribe for Sister Maria Jesus, who was melancholy. He asked her age and, when she said eighteen, he asked to see her face. It was a pretty one and he commented that the Lord had not bad taste. But, for a prescription? One of two things for a girl of that age: the Prioress could write the child's mother to take her home and provide a good husband, or Sister Maria Jesus would have to take cold baths every morning and say five Pater Nosters with each.

While the doctor and the Prioress went to see a bedridden sister, the novices stayed to guard the front grille. As they were talking, a bell rang by the grille, and a basket was placed on the revolving box by which gifts were brought into the cloister. The novices could not resist looking in the basket. Sister Marcella's cry when she saw a baby lying there brought all the other nuns back to determine the trouble. The Prioress read a letter, which had come in the basket, asking that the nuns bring up the baby because her mother could not keep her properly. The Vicaress was horrified that the sisters would even consider keeping the little girl. The doctor, remarking that legally the nuns had no right to maternity, proposed that he adopt the baby and leave her to be brought up in the convent. There were still other problems to be faced—the matters of feeding and clothing and tending the child—but Sister Joanna of the Cross had an answer for each. The gardener's wife, who had a baby of her own at the time, could help on all counts. The Prioress, thinking that the baby was the best of all birthday presents, appointed Sister Joanna of the Cross the child's guardian.

In the eighteen years that passed, the nuns spent all their pent-up love on the girl Teresa. She was a gay child, loving the gardens of the cloister and the adoring sisters; but it was easy to see that she would not spend her life as a hermit, though she was utterly devout. In time she met a man, Antonio, whom she promised to marry.

The nuns made for her an elaborate trousseau, hand-embroidered and trimmed with lace and blue ribbons. While they worked on fancy chemises, petticoats, and dressing jackets, one of their number would read aloud meditations of various sorts. As they tried to meditate, they were interrupted continually by Teresa's happy singing in the garden where she was picking flowers for the altar.

Sister Marcella had temptations to melancholy which the Prioress offered to alleviate by sending her out in the garden for a little sunshine, but Sister Marcella said that the flowers, the blue sky, and the sun tempted her to deeper melancholy. The other nuns sighed in accord. The Vicaress, on a round of inspection, had found a mirror hidden under Sister Marcella's mattress. Mirrors being definitely forbidden to the nuns, Sister Marcella was under deep suspicion of the sins of pride and vainglory. In confusion, she explained that when her melancholy became too deep, she used the mirror to catch a sunbeam and make it dance among the leaves, while pretending it was a bird or a butterfly that could go wherever it pleased. When Teresa came in to tell how she had had to climb the acacia trees to get enough white flowers for the altar, Sister Marcella's eyes grew wide with envy.

Teresa was bubbling over when she came to gather up her things before leaving the cloister for good. The nuns counseled a more subdued manner for the occasion. But Teresa could not be restrained, though she was grateful for all the love and care they had given her who would otherwise have been an outcast and a beggar. The nuns wanted no thanks; the convent had been her home as well as theirs, even if she could not feel the desire to join them by entering their order.

While they gathered together the pieces of the trousseau to put into Teresa's trunk, the Vicaress grumbled about the Devil's hand on the fashion sheets the sisters had used as patterns; but even she relented enough to tell Teresa that she deserved all the nuns had done for her because she had always worked for them inside the convent and out. Then the Vicaress gave Teresa an itemized account of the money the doctor, as foster father, had given for the materials in her trousseau.

When the packing was finished, Teresa and Sister Joanna of the Cross were left together to await the coming of Antonio, the groom-to-be, and the doctor, who was to drive Teresa to the train. Teresa admitted that she had always considered Sister Joanna of the Cross her own mother, and asked her blessing. Sister Joanna of the Cross admitted that Teresa had been her whole happiness all the years they had been together, that Teresa's coming into the cloister had dissipated the melancholy which had followed her own separation from the family she loved.

When Antonio came to the curtained grille, he assured Sister Joanna of the Cross that he would take care of Teresa because he loved her dearly, but that he knew she would never forget the peace and calm of the convent. As the sister went for the others to meet Antonio, he told Teresa that he had found honor, self-respect, and sympathy for his fellowman in loving her.

Hating to see Teresa go, the nuns tried to give Antonio instructions in her care. The Vicaress asked for and received his pledge that he would always respect the fear of God that Teresa would carry out of the cloister with her.

Antonio told them that he was taking Teresa to America. He begged the favor of being allowed to see the sisters before he left, and the Prioress allowed the curtains to be drawn.

Then the doctor came for Teresa and hurried her through her leave-taking. She begged him never to forsake the sisters and, with a final passionate embrace of Sister Joanna of the Cross, left the cloister with him.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

Martínez Sierra's CRADLE SONG has been one of the most successful plays of the twentieth century Spanish theater; its production has continued both in Spain and abroad for more than sixty years with renewed critical and popular acclaim. Though only thirty when he produced the play, Martínez Sierra showed an insight into the human character which touched audiences of wide cultural and age differences. The combination of characterization, theme and humor with a solid plot made it a success. It has been one of the few modern dramas which successfully took a sentimental story and made it powerful rather than maudlin.

One particular aspect of the play which is significant for more recent critics is its characterizations of women. Martínez Sierra wrote CRADLE SONG with his wife, the noted poetess Maria de la O Lajarraga. Her influence is felt quite significantly in the play in the insight which the audience obtains into the feelings of the main female characters. For a play of the early twentieth century this is highly unusual and it is a topic about which much has been written in the past few years. The analysis of the universal instinct of motherhood and the female consciousness bring an unusual depth to the play.

The setting of CRADLE SONG and the humor of the action also add to the enjoyment which audiences have had from the play for decades and will continue to have for many years to come. As a work to read, rather than see performed, CRADLE SONG has sufficiently good dialogue to be appreciated without benefit of stage and live actors.

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