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- Lectures on Dramatic Art - 90/97 -


objectionable.

The first advances of Dramatic Art in Spain were made in the last half of the sixteenth century; and with the end of the seventeenth it ceased to flourish. In the eighteenth, after the War of the Succession, (which seems to have had a very prejudicial influence on the Spanish literature in general,) very little can be mentioned which does not display extravagance, decay, the retention of old observances without meaning, or a tame imitation of foreign productions. The Spanish literari of the last generation frequently boast of their old national poets, the people entertain a strong attachment to them, and in Mexico, as well as Madrid, their pieces are always represented with impassioned applause.

The various epochs in the formation of the Spanish theatre may be designated by the names of three of its most famous authors, Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Calderon.

The earliest and most valuable information and opinions on this subject are to be found in the writings of Cervantes; chiefly in _Don Quixote_ (in the dialogue with the Canon), in the Preface to his later plays, and in the _Journey to Parnassus_. He has also in various other places thrown out occasional remarks on the subject. He had witnessed in his youth the commencement of the dramatic art in Spain; the poetical poverty of which, as well as the meagreness of the theatrical decorations, are very humorously described by him. He was justified in looking upon himself as one of the founders of this art; for before he gained immortal fame by his _Don Quixote_ he had diligently laboured for the stage, and from twenty to thirty pieces (so negligently does he speak of them) from his pen had been acted with applause. On this account, however, he made no very high claims, nor after they had fulfilled their momentary destination did he allow any of them to be printed; and it was only lately that two of these earlier labours were for the first time published. One of these plays, probably Cervantes' first, _The Way of Living in Algiers_ (_El Trato de Argel_), still bears traces of the infancy of the art in the preponderance of narrative, in the general meagreness, and in the want of prominency in the figures and situations. The other, however, _The Destruction of Numantia_, has altogether the elevation of the tragical cothurnus; and, from its unconscious and unlaboured approximation to antique grandeur and purity, forms a remarkable phenomenon in the history of modern poetry. The idea of destiny prevails in it throughout; the allegorical figures which enter between the acts supply nearly, though in a different way, the place of the chorus in the Greek tragedies; they guide the reflection and propitiate the feeling. A great deed of heroism is accomplished; the extremity of suffering is endured with constancy; but it is the deed and the suffering of a whole nation whose individual members, it may almost be said, appear but as examples of the general fortitude and magnanimity, while the Roman heroes seem merely the instruments of fate. There is, if I may so speak, a sort of Spartan pathos in this piece: every single and personal consideration is swallowed up in the feeling of patriotism; and by allusions to the warlike fame of his nation in modern times, the poet has contrived to connect the ancient history with the interests of his own day.

Lope de Vega appeared, and soon became the sole monarch of the stage; Cervantes was unable to compete with him; yet he was unwilling altogether to abandon a claim founded on earlier success; and shortly before his death, in the year 1615, he printed eight plays and an equal number of smaller interludes, as he had failed in his attempts to get them brought on the stage. They have generally been considered greatly inferior to his other prose and poetical works; their modern editor is even of opinion that they were meant as parodies and satires on the vitiated taste of the time: but to find this hypothesis ridiculous, we have only to read them without any such prepossession. Had Cervantes entertained such a design, he would certainly have accomplished it in a very different way in one piece, and also in a manner both highly amusing and not liable to misconception. No, they were intended as pieces in the manner of Lope: contrary to his own convictions, Cervantes has here endeavoured, by a display of greater variety, of wonderful plots, and theatrical effect to comply with the taste of his contemporaries. It would appear from them that he considered a superficial composition as the main requisite for applause; his own, at least, is for the most part, extremely loose and ill-connected, and we have no examples in his prose works of a similar degree of negligence. Hence, as he partly renounced his peculiar excellences, we need not be astonished that he did not succeed in surpassing Lope in his own walk. Two, however, of these pieces, _The Christian Slaves in Algiers (Los Baños de Argel_), an alteration of the piece before-mentioned, and _The Labyrinth of Love_, are, in their whole plot, deserving of great praise, while all of them contain so many beautiful and ingenious traits, that when we consider them by themselves, and without comparing them with the _Destruction of Numantia_, we feel disposed to look on the opinion entertained pretty generally by the Spanish critics as a mere prejudice. But on the other hand, when we compare them with Lope's pieces, or bear in mind the higher excellences to which Calderon had accustomed the public, this opinion will appear to admit of conditional justification. We may, on the whole, allow that the mind of this poet was most inclined to the epic, (taking the word in its more extensive signification, for the narrative form of composition); and that the light and gentle manner in which he delights to move the mind is not well suited to the making the most of every moment, and to the rapid compression which are required on the theatre. But when we, on the other hand, view the energetical pathos in _The Destruction of Numantia_, we are constrained almost to consider it as merely accidental that Cervantes did not devote himself wholly to this species of writing, and find room in it for the complete development of his inventive mind.

The sentence pronounced by Cervantes on the dramas of his later contemporaries is one of the neglected voices which, from time to time, in Spain have been raised, insisting on the imitation of the ancient classics, while the national taste had decidedly declared in favour of the romantic drama in its boldest form. On this subject Cervantes, from causes which we may easily comprehend, was not altogether impartial. Lope de Vega had followed him as a dramatic writer, and by his greater fertility and the effective brilliancy of his pieces, had driven him from the stage; a circumstance which ought certainly to be taken into account in explaining the discontent of Cervantes in his advanced age with the direction of the public taste and the constitution of the theatre. It would appear, too, that in his poetical mind there was a certain prosaical corner in which there still lurked a disposition to reject the wonderful, and the bold play of fancy, as contrary to probability and nature. On the authority of the ancients he recommended a stricter separation of the several kinds of the drama; whereas the romantic art endeavours, in its productions, as he himself had done in his romances and novels, to blend all the elements of poetry; and he censured with great severity, as real offences against propriety, the rapid changes of time and place. It is remarkable that Lope himself was unacquainted with his own rights, and confessed that he wrote his pieces, contrary to the rules with which he was well acquainted, merely for the sake of pleasing the multitude. That this object entered prominently into his consideration is certainly true; still he remains one of the most extraordinary of all the popular and favourite theatrical writers that ever lived, and well deserves to be called in all seriousness by his rival and adversary, Cervantes, a wonder of nature.

The pieces of Lope de Vega, numerous beyond all belief, have partly never been printed; while of those that have, a complete collection is seldom to be found, except in Spain. Many pieces are probably falsely ascribed to him; an abuse of which Calderon also complains. I know not whether Lope himself ever gave a list of the pieces actually composed by him; indeed he could hardly at last have remembered the whole of them. However, by reading a few, we shall advance pretty far towards an acquaintance with this poet; nor need we be much afraid lest we should have failed to peruse the most excellent, as in his separate productions he does not surprise us by any elevated flight nor by laying open the whole unfathomable depths of his mind. This prolific writer, at one time too much idolized, at another too much depreciated, appears here undoubtedly in the most advantageous light, as the theatre was the best school for the correction of his three great errors, want of connexion, diffuseness, and an unnecessary parade of learning. In some of his pieces, especially the historical ones, founded on old romances or traditional tales, for instance, _King Wamba_, _The Youthful Tricks of Bernardo del Carpio_, _The Battlements of Toro,_ &c., there prevails a certain rudeness of painting, which, however, is not altogether without character, and seems to have been purposely chosen to suit the subjects: in others, which portray the manners of his own time, as for instance, _The Lively Fair One of Tolédo_, _The Fair deformed,_ we may observe a highly cultivated social tone. All of them contain, besides truly interesting situations, a number of inimitable jokes; and there are, perhaps, very few of them which would not, if skilfully treated and adapted to our stages, produce a great effect in the present day. Their chief defects are, a profusion of injudicious invention, and negligence in the execution. They resemble the groups which an ingenious sketcher scrawls on paper without any preparation, and without even taking the necessary time; in which, notwithstanding this hasty negligence every line is full of life and significance. Besides the want of careful finish, the works of Lope are deficient in depth, and also in those more delicate allusions which constitute the peculiar mysteries of the art.

If the Spanish theatre had not advanced farther, if it had possessed only the works of Lope and the more eminent of his contemporaries, as Guillen de Castro, Montalban, Molina, Matos-Fragoso, &c., we should have to praise it, rather for grandeur of design and for promising subjects than for matured perfection. But Don Pedro Calderon de la Barca now made his appearance, a writer as prolific and diligent as Lope, and a poet of a very different kind,--a poet if ever any man deserved that name. The "wonder of nature," the enthusiastic popularity, and the sovereignty of the stage were renewed in a much higher degree. The years of Calderon [Footnote: Born in 1601.] keep nearly equal pace with those of the seventeeth century; he was consequently sixteen when Cervantes, and thirty-five when Lope died, whom he survived nearly half a century. According to his biographer's account, Calderon wrote more than a hundred and twenty plays, more than a hundred spiritual allegorical acts (_Autos_), a hundred merry interludes or _Saynetes_ [Footnote: This account is perhaps somewhat rhetorical. The most complete, and in every respect the best edition of the plays, that of Apontes, contains only a hundred and eight pieces. At the request of a great Lord, Calderon, shortly before his death, gave a list of his genuine works. He names a hundred and eleven plays; but among them there are considerably more than three which are not to be found in the collection of Apontes. Some of them may, indeed, be concealed under other titles, as, for instance, the piece, which Calderon himself calls, _El Tuzani de la Alpujarra_, is named in the collection, _Amar despues de la Muerte_. Others are unquestionably omitted, for instance, a _Don Quixote_, which I should be particularly desirous of seeing. We may infer from many circumstances that Calderon had a great respect for Cervantes. The collection of the _Autos sacramentales_ contains only seventy-two, and of these several are not mentioned by Calderon. And yet he lays the greatest stress on these; wholly devoted to religion, he had become in his age more indifferent towards the temporal plays of his muse, although he did not reject them, and still continued to add to the number. It might well be with him as with an excessively wealthy man, who, in a general computation, is apt to forget many of the items of his capital. I have never yet been able to see any of the _Saynetes_ of Calderon; I cannot even find an account whether or not they have been ever collected and printed.] besides a number of poems which were not dramatical. As from his fourteenth to his eighty-first year, that in which he died, he continued to produce dramatic works, they spread over a great space, and we may therefore suppose that he did not write with the same haste as Lope; he had sufficient leisure to consider his plans maturely, which, without doubt, he has done. In the execution, he could not fail from his extensive practice to acquire great readiness.

In this almost incalculable exuberance of production, we find nothing thrown out at random; all is finished in masterly perfection, agreeably to


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