Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1228
To understand a religious play such as The Devotion of the Cross, one must keep in mind that Spain was a deeply religious nation, and that Pedro Calderón de la Barca truly expressed its feelings and ideas in the seventeenth century. The most popular of Spanish playwrights after the death of Lope de Vega in 1635, Calderón wrote secular and religious dramas until he took holy orders in 1651. From that time until his death he wrote only religious plays. The Devotion of the Cross is one of his early works. Since the characters and the setting are Italian, some critics assign it to the period when he was a soldier in Italy. The plot is less complicated than is usual in Calderón’s work.
The Devotion of the Cross was one of the most controversial of the Baroque dramatist’s works. First there was the problem of authorship; only in the latter part of the twentieth century was the play universally accepted as Calderón’s. Then there were the critics whose analyses, at times oriented more toward the political and the religious than toward the literary, had more to do with Catholic Spain and Protestant England than the subject matter of the text itself.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century critics were outraged at the extravagance of the plot and the fetishism of what they claimed was the play’s underlying philosophy, namely that salvation was possible through the obsessive veneration of an inanimate object. Even some of Calderón’s admirers admitted that the mature Calderón himself probably was scandalized by this early work. Most chronologies give the date of composition as 1633, one that would place it close to that of Calderón’s masterpiece Life Is a Dream (1635).
Criticism of The Devotion of the Cross, however, has now come full circle. Far from the derision of Protestant critics, or a mere mention in a footnote by Hispanic scholars, the play is now praised for its allegorical nature and is viewed as representative of Calderón’s thematic and dramatic craftsmanship.
Curcio is the character in whom the Caldernian imprint is most evident. A tyrannical father, one of a long line of the dramatist’s dysfunctional male parents, he is also afflicted by the fatal Calderonian disease, a blind self-aggrandizement that is outwardly manifested in violent spasms of honor. One such outbreak leads him to commit the deed, the murder of his wife, that has poisoned his life and that eventually causes the destruction of his entire family. Rosmira dies but not before giving birth to twins. Julia, one of the twins, is saved, however, the other twin, Eusebio, is lost. Even though Curcio secretly believes in his wife’s innocence, and no one else has even doubted her, his pride forces him to kill her. Exterior appearances, even admitted self-delusions, are what matter to him. They are his identity. This concept of self has robbed his son of his identity, a confusion that is given dramatic irony in the scene in which Eusebio and Julia, unknown brother and sister, but also lovers, confront each other over the dead body of their brother Lisardo, who is killed because he ridicules Eusebio’s lack of family and position. (Some students of seventeenth century staging have asserted that in the performance, Lisardo would have been lying crosswise between Eusebio and Julia with the corpse’s hands also placed in a position similar to a cross.)
Far from being just an effective stage device or a dramatic motif, the symbol of the cross represents true identity. On an individual level, it is Eusebio’s only link with his past. Found at the foot of a cross and possessed of a mysterious birthmark in the shape of a cross, Eusebio’s life history has been marked by this sign. Nevertheless, his veneration of the cross is not a blind devotion to the object, the superstitious fetishism seen by early critics, but, instead, it is an authentic perception, although dimly glimpsed at times, of what the symbol can reveal to him about his life. It is a hope that Eusebio does not lose, even after he descends into a life of violence and crime. In fact, fetishism is explicitly derided in the scene in which the comic figure Gil cynically covers himself with imitation crosses and is captured anyway.
The cross is not just the personal symbol of identity for Eusebio, but in the larger Christian worldview of this drama, it is the symbol of truth for all humanity. Some readings of The Devotion of the Cross have focused on the heavy allegorical content of the work. Eusebio, therefore, is marked with the sign of the cross, as are all Christians. Eusebio’s fall from grace is representative of Adam’s fall from paradise, and his salvation, even after death, symbolizes the powerful redemptive gift of Christ’s mercy. Eusebio’s life, also like that of all Christians, is colored by the original sin of the father—in a religious context again, that of Adam’s fall, but in Eusebio’s life, first by the decision of his father to murder his mother and, second, by his father’s vengeance after Lisardo’s death; his father’s vengeance deprives him of his lands and possessions and forces him into a life of flight and crime.
Curcio, therefore, has twice stripped his son of his identity, and Curcio’s vindictive pursuit leads to Eusebio’s death. Curcio is, after all, the one who committed murder at the foot of a cross, and every evil consequence in the play can be traced to the consequences of his actions. He is the puppet master pulling the strings, and this sense of a malevolent presence controlling their lives makes the protagonists desperate. They seem driven to lash out at anyone or anything. They lack self-control, and their lives seem predestined.
This repudiation of free will on one hand and the emphasis on an uncritical, all-forgiving grace—no matter what the crimes of the sinner—on the other hand have bothered some students of Calderonian drama and have possibly contributed to the initial hesitation in attributing the play to Calderón, who has been seen as the foremost champion of free will and has repeatedly been cited as one of the precursors of Existentialism. Calderón did write several works with strong fatalistic undertones, most of which were set in pre-Christian—therefore, unredeemed—times. The mood of these works is similar to that of The Devotion of the Cross. In The Great Cenobia (1625), for example, characters such as Cenobia either accept their fate with stoic fortitude, or they rage against it. In either case, there is no thought of changing destiny. In The Devotion of the Cross, Eusebio and Julia are portrayed as innocent victims of their father’s crime and pride, and they are branded by his follies, just as surely as by their cross birthmark. A miracle is necessary to save them, and only Christ’s grace triumphs over blindness and egotism and the oppression of society’s rigid codes. Interpreted in this light, the dual theme of the play is Calderónian, a search for self-identity filtered through a protest at a tyrannical honor code and a vindication of free will, with the difference that here the free will belongs to God.
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