Tirso de Molina 1580?-1648
(Born Gabriel Téllez) Spanish playwright.
Tirso de Molina is regarded as one of the greatest dramatists of the Spanish Golden Age and is best remembered for his play El burlador de Sevilla (c. 1626; The Trickster of Seville), which introduced his best-known character, the seducer Don Juan, to European audiences. Influenced greatly by the most famous and prolific of Spain's Golden Age playwrights, Lope de Vega, Tirso excelled in writing comedias, dramas combining tragedy with burlesque humor and often questioning many of the time-honored social and moral traditions of the age. Tirso wrote what many consider to be Spain's greatest religious play, El condenado por desconfiado (c. 1624; The Man Condemned for Lack of Faith). Although critics continue to debate the authorship of some of the 400 plays Tirso is reputed to have written, several of his eighty surviving plays are praised as equaling the greatest work of Shakespeare, especially in regards to plot and character development. Outside his native Spain, Tirso's legacy rests almost completely with his character Don Juan, whose sexual escapades have been reinterpreted famously in Moliere's play Dom Juan, ou Le Festin de Pierre, Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, and numerous films.
Few facts in Tirso de Molina's early life are certain. Born Gabriel Téllez in Madrid around 1580, Tirso may have been the illegitimate son of a duke, a social stigma which might account for Tirso's rebellious nature and scorn for nobility, hierarchy, and social convention. He studied at the universities of Alcalá and Guadalajara, and in 1601 he joined the Mercedarian Order, where he gained high rank as a theologian and as the order's official historian. In 1613 he moved to Toledo, became a friar, and wrote a number of plays, mostly religious and philosophical in nature. In 1621 Tirso returned to Madrid, where he wrote a great number of his comedias. In 1622 he submitted poetry for a literary celebration presided over by Lope de Vega but did not win any awards. In 1625 Tirso was banished to a remote friary in Trujillo for alleged obscenities, and he was ordered to desist from writing further plays or poetry. He appears to have mostly followed this edict, yet in 1630 his most famous work, El burlador de Sevilla, was published. During the 1630s Tirso lived in Barcelona, Madrid, and Toledo. Toward the end of his life Tirso again ran afoul of his religious order and was banished to a friary in Soria, where he served as prior from 1645 to 1647. In 1648 Tirso died in Almazán.
Much of Tirso's early drama is indebted to his renowned contemporary, Lope de Vega, father of the Spanish dramatic form known as the comedia. One of Tirso's earliest plays, Los lagos de San Vicente (c. 1607; The Miraculous Lakes of Saint Vincent) clearly imitates Lope's Santa Casilda. As Tirso continued to experiment with a variety of dramatic genres, including comedies, tragedies, and historical plays, however, he began to develop a voice uniquely his own. Believing that the most successful way to write plays was to compose according to public taste, Tirso developed three-dimensional characters who despite their moral scruples could make an audience laugh. Even though Tirso's drama usually contained a great deal of the moralizing undercurrents common to plays written and produced during the Counter-Reformation, he added a new secular element, most commonly a critique of decadent nobility and social mores. Often Tirso's plots revolve around manipulative lovers intent on dominating or deceiving their victims. In El burlador de Sevilla Don Juan takes great satisfaction in seducing women, not only for sexual gratification, but also for the simple enjoyment of competitive deceit. As great as Don Juan's moral transgressions are, his most egregious crime may be disgracing his status as a nobleman. Tirso's greatest religious drama, El condenado por desconfiado, concerns itself with questions of free will versus divine determinism by contrasting an evil man who gains faith and is granted salvation with a pious hermit who is damned when his faith wavers. Among Tirso's best-known historical dramas, his Las hazañas de los Pizarros (1631; The Pizarro Trilogy) is remembered for its attempt to rehabilitate the family name of the disgraced Pizarro family, conquerors of Peru, and for its depiction of Native Americans in Spanish drama.
The overwhelming majority of critical attention given to Tirso's dramatic work is reserved for his masterpiece, El burlador de Sevilla. The psychological complexity of its main character, Don Juan, has elicited great praise, both as one of the earliest examples of a villainous hero and for the dramatic tension at the conclusion of the play, in which the great seducer is finally confronted by the ghost of the man he has murdered. A great deal of scholarly debate has emerged centering on whether or not Don Juan was actually able to seduce his final victim, Doña Ana, resulting in competing arguments of how to interpret the play's ultimate message. El condenado por desconfiado is usually considered the greatest of the religious plays of the Spanish Golden Age, its religious and philosophical underpinnings propelled by an engaging and realistic story line. Although several critics have complained that Tirso's drama contains a misogynistic streak, more commonly his work is praised for its bold and strong female characters, many of whom prove to be more clever or daring than their male competitors. In the end, most critics agree that Tirso's originality lies in his thematic concerns, challenging the established social, religious, and political institutions of his age.