Spanish Drama Since the 1600's Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Spanish theater of the Renaissance begins with startling suddenness given the fact that there is an inexplicable absence of dramatic texts before the sixteenth century. Castilian literature, unlike Catalan literature, where the presence of mystery plays is well documented, offers only a few examples of dramatic works in the Middle Ages. The earliest extant work, Auto de los Reyes Magos (the play of the Magi), is a twelfth century fragment dealing with the search for Jesus by the Three Wise Men. More than three hundred years elapse before one finds another mystery play, Gómez Manrique’s Representación del nacimiento de Nuestro Señor (wr. 1467-1481; Nativity play). Curiously, the earlier play is considered to be much more advanced dramatically than the latter work.

Research into the absence of medieval plays has not resolved the issue, although it is accepted that Catholic liturgy and festivals had a considerable impact on the nature of all early plays. Of these liturgical performances, only those that celebrated the Eucharist prospered sufficiently to continue to be performed. These representations, which came to be called autos sacramentales or sacramental plays, and which were performed at the feast of Corpus Christi, did not reach full maturity until the last part of the sixteenth century. They were originally presented on carts; later, they took place in the streets of the city and retained their popular religious flavor. The...

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Sixteenth Century Periods

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Sixteenth century drama can be divided into three uneven periods. The first, roughly from the beginning of the century to the middle, includes the primitive dramatic writers whose efforts laid the groundwork for later developments. The second period includes playwrights who were influenced by humanist writings and by the Aristotelian commentaries that dominated critical discourse from the middle of the sixteenth century onward. Some of these writers wrote for universities or small circles of friends, while others had a wider audience. Neither of these groups had a great impact on the development of drama, but their works represent a serious, if failed, attempt to introduce high tragedy into Spanish theater. The last two decades of the century are characterized by the arrival of the Valencian School of dramatists and of Lope de Vega Carpio, thus setting the stage for the entrance of the new comedy, a dramatic form that extended over the entire seventeenth century.

Early Spanish drama is dominated by three figures—Juan del Encina, Bartolomé de Torres Naharro, and Lope de Rueda—but includes other playwrights whose works made telling contributions to the development of an indigenous tradition.

Juan del Encina as long been considered the initiator of Spanish drama because it was his Nativity play in the last years of the fifteenth century that began the uninterrupted development of the genre. He wrote fourteen eclogues, a term that he introduced to define his production. His plays show a certain progression from purely liturgically influenced material to a secular view of the world. This tendency is best represented by his Egloga de Plácida y Vitoriana (XIV; pr. 1513), in which a suicide caused by love is contemplated, and is perhaps a consequence of his being exposed during his voyage to Italy to Italian literary tastes, in particular the pastoral mode, which reigned supreme among all other literary forms. Encina’s works are characterized by the presence of rustics who speak a dialect called sayagués, a convention that was to be widely imitated by subsequent writers, and by the use of the plot summary, with which the spectators were aided in the comprehension of the play.

Several important dramatists belong to this period and either...

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Serious Dramatic Expression

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Straddling the first half of the century and the arrival of the new comedy were the efforts of men of letters who, under the influence of the great controversy over the interpretation of Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), sought to promote a more serious dramatic expression. University-based writers tried to introduce classical tragedy into Spain. The audience for this kind of theater was not yet developed, however, and these plays remained a theater for a select minority of closet dramas that had relatively little influence on future playwrights.

The most important of these dramatists are Fernán Pérez de Oliva, who adapted prose tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides to Spanish; Micael de Carvajal, best known for the religious tragedy Tragedia Josefina (pb. 1535; The Josephine Tragedy, 1998); Jerónimo Bermúdez, who left two works, Nise lastimosa (pb. 1577; Nise the pitiful) and Nise laureada (pb. 1577; Nise crowned), closely related to a play by António Ferreira dealing with the topic of the tragic Portuguese figure of Inés de Castro; Andrés Rey de Artieda, whose best work is Los amantes (pb. 1581; the lovers), a story of two lovers whose destiny leads to tragedy; Cristóbal de Virués, who produced five plays and moved slowly away from imitation of Greek tragedies, including the observance of the unities, and toward a more popular genre closely related to the romantic comedy that Lope de Vega was later to develop; and Juan de la Cueva,who is perhaps the most notable dramatist of this group. He tried to direct tragedy away from...

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Rise of Permanent Theaters

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The next development of the Spanish theater was largely the result of a much-needed reform. Performances had taken place in city squares and in palaces but always on a movable stage with no possibility of making technical improvements. The opportunity to do so came with the establishment of fixed places of performance in Madrid, Valencia, and Seville. The theater of the Golden Age owes its existence to a confluence of seemingly contradictory forces. Religious confraternities in need of money for their charitable works decided that the popularity of theatrical performances afforded them the best source of revenue. They leased corrales, courtyards surrounded by houses, and had an administrator take care of the arrangements. At first, these organizations received a part of the daily income, but eventually, after the city governments took control of the theaters, they received an annual subsidy. This unlikely connection is important because it explains the capacity of the theater to withstand a barrage of criticism against its alleged immorality. Because the institutions needed the funds for worthwhile works, the theater was not only tolerated but also protected. In fact, performances that were initially permitted only on Sunday came to be more and more frequent, until nearly all restrictions were removed.

The courtyards, the most important in Madrid being the Corral de la Cruz (1579) and the Corral del Príncipe (1582), were bordered on either side...

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Valencia Versus Madrid

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The development of Spanish drama in the seventeenth century took its impetus from the titanic output of Lope de Vega Carpio Modern research, however, has advanced the idea that the honor of first having a fixed theater belongs to Valencia rather than to Madrid. It was believed that the Valencian dramatists owed their development to the presence of Lope de Vega, who went there in 1588 after being banished from Madrid for having libeled an actress. It is quite possible, however, that it was Lope de Vega who profited from his stay in Valencia by learning from the older and more experienced playwrights of the previous period. Among them were Francisco Augustin Tarregá, author of El prado de Valencia (pr. 1600; the meadow of Valencia) and La duquesa constante (pr. 1608; the constant duchess), two works that include many elements that became the characteristics of the Golden Age, such as local atmosphere, love complications, conceptual language, and multiple metric forms, among others; Rey de Artieda, the author of Los amantes, which depicted the legend of the star-crossed lovers that was also used by later playwrights; and Gaspar de Aguilar, known particularly for his El mercader amante (pr. c. 1600; The Merchant Lover, 1849), a play in which the character of two women in love is tested.

The most significant member of this group was Guillén de Castro y Bellvís,whose plays El amor constante (pr. 1596-1599; the constant love) and Los mal casados de Valencia (pr. 1595-1604; the unhappy marrieds of Valencia) show strong local flavor. He took the themes of his plays from Cervantes, using mythology as well as medieval ballads. It was precisely from this source that he took the inspiration for his best-known play, La mocedades del Cid (1618; The Youthful Adventures of the Cid, 1939), in two parts. This play, which contributed substantially to Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid (pr. 1637; The Cid, 1637), vibrates with passion and energy and is a fitting representation of the national hero of Spain as a young man.

The main historical problem here is whether it was Lope de Vega who during his exile introduced his vision of the new comedy or whether, on the contrary, the young Lope de Vega, then aged twenty-six, was influenced by these writers and then built on this experience to develop the drama of the Golden Age.

Golden Age Comedia

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

This drama, which is known collectively as the comedia without distinction among comedies, tragedies, and dramas, is a vast body of plays that at one time numbered in the thousands—a plenitude attributable not only to the astonishing prolificacy of the writers but also to the fact that, given the smallness of the total audience, plays had to be replaced after one or two performances; playwrights often refer to the Spaniards’ impatience and desire for novelty. Lope de Vega alone, according to best estimates, wrote nearly five hundred plays, more than three hundred of which are still in existence. This huge number of works has not been completely analyzed or classified. As a consequence, an authoritative, all-encompassing view is...

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Golden Age Playwrights

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Lope de Vega, the recognized father of the new drama, is admired for his great facility as a poet and for his unerring dramatic sense. He is more lyric than philosophical or moralistic, adjectives that can be used for the other two great dramatists of the period, Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Tirso de Molina . There are many plays by Lope de Vega that fail in their dramatic intent because of hurried construction or thinness of material, but his great and even good plays are developed with remarkable assurance. Especially notable is the liveliness of dialogue, the handling of tempo, and the swift change from dramatic to lyric situations. Only a few of his best plays can be mentioned here: El caballero de Olmedo (pb. 1641;...

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End of the Golden Age

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla and Agustín Moreto y Cabaña re the last of the major dramatists of the period. They are considered to be thematically derivative writers, but each has a particular approach to his task. Rojas Zorrilla, who wrote serious as well as comic plays, displays a more understanding attitude toward women and the question of honor, as evidenced in the humane endings of his plays. His Del rey abajo, ninguno (pb. 1650; None Beneath the King, 1924) rejects the immolation of women in the defense of honor, although it does not renounce man’s right to take revenge on the offending man. Moreto y Cabaña, on the other hand, is described by critics as a man of measure and order. His two best-known...

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Eighteenth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

With the death of Charles II in 1700, the Habsburg line came to an end in Spain and was replaced by the French Bourbons. Philip V, a grandson of Louis XIV, and his Italian wife began a long line of rulers who sought to bring the country in line with the predominant French culture of the eighteenth century. Among the reforms that were effected were the suppression of the autos sacramentales, the banning of the Jesuit order, and the modernization of the theaters. The overall results were not entirely satisfactory, because Spain finished the century only partially incorporated into European society.

As far as the theater is concerned, the battleground was the introduction of the neoclassical tragedy, a genre whose...

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Nineteenth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Spain underwent great turmoil with the beginning of the new century. The Napoleonic invasion, the rebellion of the Spaniards against the French, the various events connected with the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and the liberals’ efforts to establish a constitutional monarchy impeded the normal development of cultural life. Indeed, the dominant cultural events of this period were the flight of those Spaniards who had supported French rule in the hope of bringing about a reform in Spanish society and, later, the exile of the liberals who had sought in vain to obtain constitutional guarantees from Ferdinand VII when he was restored to the throne. Romanticism came late to Spain when these liberals returned at the death of...

(The entire section is 1549 words.)

Drama of Social Commitment

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Echegaray dominated Spanish theater for the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. The only antidote to his drama was supplied by two socially committed writers who made their appearance toward the end of the century, novelist and dramatist Joaquín Dicenta y Benedicto and the novelist Benito Pérez Galdós Dicenta’s early work was very conventional and was influenced by the dominant post-Romantic mode of the period. In 1895, however, his Juan José was performed to unexpected success. Spanish theater was not accustomed to treating the lower classes as individuals whose problems deserved to be taken seriously. Dicenta adapted the old theme of honor and jealousy to a proletarian setting; while there are references...

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The Twentieth Century

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The earnest but essentially nondramatic efforts of Pérez Galdós were replaced by the bourgeois theater of Jacinto Benavente y Martínez The considerable production of this Nobel Prize winner includes a variety of plays, ranging from rural dramas to plays for children. In spite of this, his theater is easily identifiable by its characteristic preoccupations and dramatic techniques. Interestingly, although Benavente y Martínez was reputed to know every detail of dramatic construction, his theater depends heavily on narration to develop the action, while dialogue is relegated to a secondary role. He was reluctant to deal seriously with the central issues of his society, preferring to maintain an aloof, skeptical attitude. In spite...

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Spanish Civil War

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The Spanish Civil War not only cut off an important new direction of Spanish theater but also brought about the emigration of many intellectuals and writers. The best Spanish theater was produced by three dramatists in exile, Rafael Alberti, Alejandro Casona, and Max Aub Alberti is the most political of the group. Influenced by expressionism and by his political convictions, he has sought systematically to reform Spanish theater. A painter and a poet before a dramatist, Alberti constructed a dramaturgy characterized by a sense of movement and form. El adefesio (pb. 1944; the absurdity) unites both his social and his artistic concerns in his denunciation of his narrow, superstitious society. The play uses a schematic plot...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

The Franco Years

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The civil war distorted the development of Spanish drama. During and after the conflict, plays were staged for their propaganda value. After his victory, Francisco Franco imposed strict censorship, which was relaxed slowly over the thirty-five years of his dictatorship but which was still in effect at his death in 1975. Most of the theater of the 1950’s and 1960’s was self-absorbed and withdrawn, both theatrically and thematically. Although before the war the conservative taste of the middle class and the financial interests of the impresario determined the fate of plays, after the war, political considerations became equally important. The postwar theater concentrated on entertainment, some inoffensive social criticism, and...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

The Post-Franco Period

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The death of Franco and the reestablishment of democracy and political freedoms provoked an explosion in the theater. Plays that could not be performed before were staged, and performances ranged from the traditional to the determinedly avant-garde. The plays of many dramatists who were born in the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s were staged only after Franco’s death. Two playwrights, José Ruibal and Francisco Nieva, distinguished themselves by portraying the irrationality of modern life, which led them to develop a correspondingly hallucinatory dramatic art. Finally, mention should be made of Fernando Arrabal,whose debut in Spain in 1958 was discouragingly received by the Spanish public and whose temporary emigration to France...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Brown, J., ed. Women Writers of Contemporary Spain: Exiles in the Homeland. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1991. Contains brief entries on major women dramatists of the twentieth century, with good overviews of their lives and creative output.

Bryan, T. Avril. Censorship and Social Conflict in the Spanish Theater. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982. Detailed description of the conflict between the posibilistas and imposibilistas and their divergent attitude toward state censorship during the Franco regime. While focused primarily on Alfonso Sastre, the book is valuable for its...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

Socialist Theater Sponsorship

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The election victory of the Socialist Party in 1982 translated into the foundation of government sponsorship for Spanish theater. Dramatists found themselves competing for government grants, and many felt that a new era of intense personal rivalry had begun. Paloma Pedrero,a former actress turned successful playwright, stunned audiences with her angry play La llamada de Lauren (pr. 1985; the call of Laura), which challenged traditional gender roles in Spanish society. The topic is central to her other masterpieces, such as El color de agosto (pr. 1988; The Color of August, 1994). Yet in 1995, Pedrero caused great controversy when she turned against the system of state sponsorship. She accused fellow...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Early Twenty-first Century Issues

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Curiously, one response to the perceived crisis in Spanish drama has been a turn to experimental theater. This trend enjoys considerable success and is acclaimed by its urbane audience. Sergi Belbelbest exemplifies this trend. His first play, Minimmal Show (with Miquel Górriz, pb. 1992; minimal show), set the direction for these minimalist, experimental plays, usually staged at small, out of the way, but critically influential art house theaters. Consisting of very little verbal dialogue, with almost no discernible sets or decorations and only occasional stage action, his plays focus on the postmodern topics of failure of communication and the inherent artificiality of all existence. Talem (pr. 1990;...

(The entire section is 595 words.)