Leandro Fernández de Moratín Critical Essays


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The foundation of Leandro Fernández de Moratín’s theory of comedy was neoclassical; therefore, he wrote his comedies following Aristotelian and Horatian tenets, with modifications based on the innovations of some of his contemporaries, such as Denis Diderot. Moratín defined comedy as an imitation in dialogue of an action occurring in one place and within a few hours, among people of the middle class. He also believed that comedy should have a moral aim; it should ridicule the vices and errors of society and recommend truth and virtue. To understand Moratín’s theater fully, it is necessary to recognize his desire to achieve verisimilitude. He was able to attain naturalness in language, the characters, exits and entrances, and other details of the structure because he had a profound understanding of the customs and psychology of his countrymen. While admiring the universal values of neoclassicism, he firmly believed that a Spanish play had to be “clothed in a mantilla and a basquine skirt”; that is, it had to adapt cosmopolitan theories and traditions to contemporary Spanish society.

El viejo y la niña

Moratín’s first produced play, El viejo y la niña, contains ideas that concerned him throughout his career: the education and general upbringing of women. Moratín, a lifelong bachelor, defended the right of women to be free of domineering relatives and to seek a satisfying emotional life. El viejo y la niña presents the unfortunate situation of a girl of nineteen married to a seventy-year-old widower. Isabel, an orphan, marries after believing that the young man whom she loved was obliged to marry another woman. Later, the young people learn that they had been duped. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, the young man prepares to leave for America. Meanwhile, the jealous husband plots to spy on his wife, a decision that brings about his ruin, for Isabel discovers his plan and decides to enter a convent.

This seemingly innocent play caused Moratín considerable problems. The censors apparently could not condone Moratín’s treatment of marriage, for they mutilated the play by cutting lines so that the dialogue became meaningless. Finally, in 1790, a license to perform the play was granted, probably through the influence of Manuel Godoy, who was later to be a favorite of the king and queen and a minister of the government.

El viejo y la niña is a well-constructed play that follows the unities of time, place, and action. The exposition of the conflict is rapid and amusing. The scene in which Don Roque forces his servant to hide under the sofa in order to spy on the young couple is excellent farce. The sad denouement carries the message by demonstrating both the lamentable results of an unequal marriage based on a deception and the fate of those who allow themselves to marry someone other than the one they love.

La comedia nueva

After the great achievements of Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and other dramatists of the seventeenth century, the Spanish theater lost momentum. In the eighteenth century, dramatists continued the patterns of the previous epoch or imitated neoclassical dramatists of other nations. In this period of limited experimentation, Spanish theatergoers were enthralled with plays that emphasized elaborate stage machinery. The heroic comedia became increasingly popular, and the parodic play within La comedia nueva gives one an idea of the overblown language and unrealistic action typical of that genre.

La comedia nueva, first performed in February, 1792, is a satire on dramatic criticism. It is a play about the foibles of an aspiring playwright, his family, and his friends, who are taught a lesson in accordance with the tradition of the neoclassical comedy. Encouraged by his wife and a pedantic friend, who presumes to be a literary critic, the young protagonist of La comedia nueva, Eleuterio, writes a drama in the popular style of the day. This play, El gran cerco de Viena, opens with the grandiose entrance of the Emperor of Poland, other notables, ladies, and horsemen. The Emperor describes the siege of Vienna by the Turks and how his people have been reduced to eating rats, toads, and filthy insects. The remainder of the play is a series of melodramatic scenes: a lady dying of hunger after refusing to be the Vizier’s concubine, a storm, a prayer by the Vizier to his idols, a dance, a funeral, and so on. Finally, on the entrance of a hungry mother and crying child, the public refuses to tolerate any more and creates such a turmoil that the curtain is lowered permanently on El gran cerco de Viena.

In contrast to Eleuterio’s play, the action of La comedia nueva is extremely simple. The aspiring playwright, his family, and friends have lunch shortly before the performance of El gran cerco de Viena. They arrive only in time to observe the disastrous ending of the play because the watch of the playwright’s pedantic friend had stopped. The audience’s reaction to his play, as well as the...

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