After the opening night performance of Cada cual con su razón (1839), José Zorrilla y Moral told the applauding audience that he was not sure whether his play was good or bad—but that he knew that it was Spanish. He went on to say that he loved his country and he did not want to borrow anything from the literary traditions of France. The statement is important as it indicates clearly the direction his dramatic activity would take on all but a few occasions. Spanish history and traditions from the Visigothic period to the seventeenth century were the most important sources of his inspiration, as the playwright approached historical figures and events looking for ideal character models—personifications of positive qualities that the author endeavored to explore and develop to the fullest in his art. In Zorrilla y Moral’s plays, the positive and noble triumphs over the negative and destructive, though his idealized characters are never presented in the abstract, but rather in the historical context in which they lived. Exercising poetic license, Zorrilla y Moral added some details of character and omitted others to bring out positive traits that he felt would be instructive to audiences. Like the best Spanish dramatists of the seventeenth century, Zorrilla y Moral saw certain historical figures as heroic, a view still relevant today.
Zorrilla y Moral is unquestionably the best Spanish dramatist of the Romantic period, although changing tastes and the author’s own criticisms of some of his works have unjustly emphasized the least positive aspects of his plays. More reflective and balanced critics have called attention to the enduring merits of Zorrilla y Moral’s theater. Though it is true that his easy facility with Spanish verse and his preference for imagery of sound and color can at times detract from character development and dramatic effect, there is no dearth of positive values in his plays, and in his best works a perfect balance of lyrical richness and dramatic moments creates truly memorable theater. The subject matter of most of his works is Spanish and Catholic, a fact that may limit their appeal to Spanish-speaking audiences. Nevertheless, the virtues, vices, and ideals that are beautifully, forcefully, and convincingly presented in Zorrilla y Moral’s plays are of universal significance and deserving of a wider audience.
El zapatero y el rey, part 1
After a few faltering, initial steps, Zorrilla y Moral achieved his first play based on a historical subject, with almost complete artistic success: El zapatero y el rey, part 1. The piece deals with certain events in the life of King Pedro I of Castile, mainly as they relate to a legend in which the cleric Colmenares either kills the father of the shoemaker Blas Pérez or kidnaps his wife, depending on the version of the story. The cleric bribes the judges trying his case, who merely condemn the cleric not to attend choir for six months (though he will continue to receive his salary). Blas Pérez takes justice into his own hands and fatally stabs Colmenares during a religious procession presided over by the king himself. King Pedro then administers justice for the murder of Colmenares, condemning Blas Pérez not to make any shoes for a year and giving him a purse of gold coins.
The character of the king is beautifully presented in scenes of great dramatic effect. He cares for his humble subjects, walks among them, talks to them, and dispenses justice evenhandedly. As in many of Zorrilla y Moral’s later plays, the protagonist clearly dominates the work, enhanced and illuminated by the subordinate characters. Colmenares acts as the king’s extraordinary double, a device frequently used in Zorrilla y Moral’s plays with excellent results, for it serves well to give added prominence to the main character. In contrast to Colmenares, who represents the clergy, King Pedro I appears as a more complete, human person: Though he is certainly a king, and a heroic one at that, he acts as a father-figure to his subjects. El zapatero y el rey, part 1, was well written, very well received, and clearly showed its author to be a genuine and powerful new dramatic voice.
For Zorrilla y Moral, as perhaps for every artist, aesthetic verisimilitude is far more important than historical fact. In El zapatero y el rey, as well as in others of his plays, he shows little concern for depicting an accurate biography or chronology. Although he includes many details that have a semblance of historical truth, he departs from the historical sources. Zorrilla y Moral’s King Pedro I, presented as an embodiment of justice, appears to be quite different from the fourteenth century tyrant who first bore that character’s name. Thus the playwright seems to challenge the conventional truth of history, or rather, of historians, preferring the perspective of popular legends and traditions.
El zapatero y el rey, part 2
In 1842, the second part of El zapatero y el rey was produced with even greater success than the first. It is in actuality a new play, a dramatization of King Pedro I’s final years, particularly of his death at the hands of his half-brother, the future King Enrique. The work has terrifying and somber moments. Two of the better wrought scenes are, in act 2, the description of the conspiracy to assassinate the king, and, in act 3, King Pedro’s monologue. The dialogue is especially well written, and the verses, always fluid and robust, have a musical quality that captivates the audience. Some critics argue that this El zapatero y el rey is even better than the first.
Sancho García, which bore the subtitle “Tragedy in Three Acts and in a Variety of Verses,” dramatizes another famous legend from the early days of the country of Castile: A countess is having an affair with a...
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