Juan Ruiz de Alarcón was a keen observer and critic of the customs, foibles, and eccentricities of his time. He used this surrounding reality in various ways to further his dramatic art. Instances of a somewhat utopian vision occur in the series of proposed legislative and social reforms outlined in El dueño de las estrellas and La crueldad por el honor. A far more frequent posture is the more dystopian, even dyspeptic, view evident in his use of social satire. His barbs are often directed toward the injustices suffered by the poor and toward the privileges and favors commanded by the mere possession of wealth. Such are his allusions to men who seek office through bribery rather than on their merits, such as the sheriff’s admission in El tejedor de Segovia of the corruption of his office and his remark that only the poor are guilty and of the pessimistic laments that have the ring of personal disillusionment. His use of social satire indicates a dissatisfaction with things as they are and an implicit desire to improve manners and mores; thus it can be said, in the final analysis, that his utopian and dystopian visions are complementary.
Ruiz de Alarcón’s is an eminently practical outlook concerned with helping people as social animals to live more meaningfully—authentically, one might say—and to profit more fully from this temporal existence. Ruiz de Alarcón looked nostalgically to a golden age remote in the mists of time (El dueño de las estrellas; Los favores del mundo; Los pechos privilegiados) while also presenting negative examples from a sadly diminished present (The Truth Suspected), implying all the while that some semblance of utopia may yet be salvaged from the mire of dystopia. Despite the ubiquitous pessimism, otherworldliness, and religious and racial hysteria of Counter-Reformation Spain, Ruiz de Alarcón projects the image of an eternal optimist.
Several laudable efforts have been made to classify Juan Ruiz de Alarcón’s modest production of some two dozen titles, but none has been entirely successful. One relatively sound approach is through the major themes that find expression in his theater. The theme of honor was one of the standard recourses of the drama of this time and place, along with love and faith. Ruiz de Alarcón made use of this hackneyed motif in virtually all of his plays, to one degree or another, but two plays in particular serve to suggest a new and vigorous reinterpretation of the topic. These are The Truth Suspected and The Walls Have Ears; his best-known works, both acknowledged masterpieces and, indeed, companion pieces.
The Truth Suspected
The Truth Suspected presents the misadventures of a young man who elevates falsehood to a fine art. Don García’s creative imagination and verbal dexterity deceive and amaze all with whom he comes in contact. His objective, he discloses, is to become famous by whatever means, and because his forte is fabrication, that will serve his purpose. It is left for the audience to decide whether Don García is a compulsive liar who thus rationalizes his defect or whether he is in fact consciously pursuing a perverted notion of fame by attempting to excel at what he does best. It is clear, in any event, that his actions are counterproductive, as his father and his manservant frequently remind him. In the end, he is obliged to marry Lucrecia when he is in fact in love with Jacinta, partly as a result of mistaken identity earlier in the play, but mainly because he has persisted in spinning a tissue of lies. Although Don García might be said to be punished in this manner, by frustration, the resolution is patently unfair to Lucrecia, and Corneille, realizing this, changed the ending to make it more palatable to the audience of Le Menteur. The ending Ruiz de Alarcón provides need not be taken to illustrate poetic justice but may be seen merely as the continuation of a venerable tradition of comedy, that of the arbitrary pairing off at the end.
The Walls Have Ears
The Walls Have Ears presents a contrasting pair of suitors of a young and comely widow, Doña Ana. There is a third suitor, but he functions only as a foil. The two who concern the audience are Don Juan de Mendoza, whose name and uninviting physical appearance immediately suggest the author himself, and his more physically appealing but ignoble competitor, Don Mendo. Like Don García of The Truth Suspected, Don Mendo is pathological in his devotion to antisocial behavior, in this case slander. He speaks ill of one and all, and he is eventually overheard by Doña Ana as he disparages her to another, thus carrying through the motif of the title, The Walls Have Ears, and causing her to reject him in favor of the less prepossessing but more substantial Don Juan de Mendoza. Like Don García, Don Mendo persists in his counterproductive pattern, displaying thereby a singular lack of self-discipline—a failure to curb his tongue—which results in the negative consequences that await him. Both Don Mendo and Don García lack self-mastery, as is illustrated in their repetitive behavior, and therefore both lack honor as an intrinsic quality. The works are companion pieces in that they present analogous cases of excess, one of lying, the other of slander. A curious added dimension of the latter is the self-conscious projection of the author in the person of the noble-minded Don Juan de Mendoza and his vicarious victory, his winning the object of his affections in the face of formidable competition. Of greater significance, however, is the patterning of the two works, their commonalities and complementarity, which serve to point up the fact that the author is not condemning these two common vices so much as he is intent on demonstrating that excess in either, besides being counterproductive, has its source in a deplorable lack of Stoic-Christian self-mastery. Ruiz de Alarcón is no petty-minded moralist of the sort who would condemn an occasional prevarication or an aspersion on someone’s good name. He looks beyond surface features in an attempt to get at root causes.
The theme most frequently found in his drama is that of love. It is a theme that lends itself to many variations, among which is the trite notion that love is blind. To say that love is blind is only to say that Cupid is blind or, rather, blindfolded. Love is also blinding, however, and consequently may detract from one’s freedom of choice or free will and may cause one to act differently than is usual or expected. If one is not acting under one’s own volition while under the spell of love, one cannot be held responsible for infractions of whatever sort. All must be forgiven. Likewise, all is fair in love and war. The spirited young men and women of Golden Age plays seem invariably to fall in love at first sight. Perhaps for personal reasons, Ruiz de Alarcón is clearly against the sort of love based on superficial outward impressions of beauty. As a result, he has his more enlightened heroines, such as Doña Ana of The Walls Have Ears, learn to look beyond the façade and into the soul, wherein lie true beauty and nobility. Because his theater is predominantly secular in nature, containing only two plays in which religious considerations figure prominently, there is only one passage that gives any indication of a conflict between human and divine love, and it occurs in one of these two plays, La manganilla de Melilla, when Alima, the leading female character, who has just converted from Muhammadanism to Christianity, turns her back on Azén, her former Moorish lover, saying that she now aspires only to the love of God and to being baptized.
Although the theme of love is the one that appears and reappears with most frequency, it is noteworthy that male characters invariably subordinate love to friendship. This masculine bond is inviolate. A true friend should be like a brother. Friendship must never be feigned. According to Aristotle, friendship is a necessary virtue for humans. No normal person would want to live without friends. Friendship is the bond that holds together families and nations. People may love inanimate objects, but they cannot feel friendships for them. Friendship consists of wishing for the welfare of the person befriended, and this cannot apply to objects. Love may be directed unilaterally toward any object, animate or inanimate, but friendship centers on interpersonal relationships and must be mutual. Of the three types of friendship (for utility, for pleasure, and that of goodness), the friendship of goodness is to be preferred. Ganar amigos is a prime example of a play that illustrates the friendship of goodness, that...
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