Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
By Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo (1856–1912)
From ‘Calderón y su Teatro’ (pp. 374–402), por Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, Madrid, 1884, Vol. xxi., of the Colección de Escritores Castellanos: Translation of Arthur Livingston

LET us examine Calderón in his historical significance, viewing him as part of the seventeenth century where the dramatic school is led by Lope de Vega. As regards certain literary qualities of the first importance, Calderón proves to be not only our leading dramatist, but the symbol, the compendium, the crown of the Spanish stage. On the other hand as regards certain secondary but nevertheless very important artistic considerations he is far from being our leader. Comparing without preconceptions or prejudice the theatre of Calderón with that of Lope, of Tirso de Molina, of Alarcón—we may add even a number of quite inferior men—it is evident that Calderón yields to Lope in variety, in amplitude and ease of execution, in facile and spontaneous inspiration, in simplicity and fullness of expression, in naturalness and fidelity to life. He falls far short of Lope’s excellence in the interpretation of human sentiment, in the portrayal of female character, in the presentation of jealousy and love.  1
  Tirso likewise surpasses Calderón in the creation of living, energetic, animated characters, rich with all the complexities of human nature, endowed with personalities as real and vivacious as those offered to us by life itself. One looks in vain through Calderón’s work for something to approach Tirso’s ‘Don Juan’—a figure in a class by itself, not only superior to any other character of the Spanish stage, but as vital and full of energy as the personages of Shakespeare. Calderón never attained to a conception of such universality.  2
  Calderón lacks also Tirso’s grace and liveliness of fancy, his picaresque licentiousness, his depth of irony, his comic spirit, his malicious and exuberant dialogue, his happy inventiveness and picturesque audacity of idiom. In the comedy of contemporary manners, of “character,” he is second to Alarcón, who, for that matter, has no rival among our dramatists for elegance and polish of style, for unerring taste, for exquisite perfection of dialogue.  3
  But in other respects, Calderón, taken as a whole, has no reason to envy two authors generally considered as of the first class—Rojas and Moreto—nor any of those of the second order. These second-rate men have to be sure in occasional moments of inspiration produced works superior in merit to some plays of Calderón. But no one of them offers a complete theatre sufficient to give them a clearly defined and distinct dramatic physiognomy. The glory of Guillém de Castro, for example, rests on the legendary drama entitled ‘Las Modedades del Cid’—a work superior to anything of the kind on our stage. Similarly Mira de Amescua offers one play, ‘El esclavo del Demonio,’ which can rival the best work of Calderón, without however surpassing it and remaining certainly inferior to ‘El Condenado por desconfiado’ of Tirso. Rojas is distinguished by his tragic violence, a gift possessed to quite as remarkable degree by Calderón, save that Rojas attains an actual superiority in his ‘García del Castañar,’ and in a few lines of a monologue in ‘El Cain de Cataluña.’  4
  Calderón, then, in certain secondary qualities is inferior to Lope, to Tirso and Alarcón; he is superior to all the others even in these lesser qualities, or at least equals them in their most fortunate moments. In his distinctive traits, he possesses virtues however which raise him to a solitary pedestal: vastness of conception, loftiness in the initial, genetic vision of his subjects. It is, for instance, useless to look in our literature for a concept to equal that of ‘La vida es sueño,’ as, indeed, it would be useless to look for one anywhere else.  5
  Calderón is a Catholic poet pre-eminently. In bringing a sort of Christian symbolism upon the stage he is without a peer among all our writers. We may go even farther: in the history of allegory within the limits of Christian literature, his place is in the immediate vicinity of Dante. Calderón has vastness of idea, a certain comprehensive, synthetic vigor, a sense of harmony, which, especially in the ‘Autos sacramentales,’ unites the real with the ideal, the visible with the invisible, the tangible with the intangible, earth with heaven, and the ephemeral with the eternal. He reduces these contrarieties to unity, making everything contribute to the greater praise of the “Real God Pan”—the sacramental body of Christ, as he entitled one of his sacred plays. This symbolism, at times slovenly perhaps and incongruous, is always however informed with a lofty and superior sentiment, the Christian spirituality of unhesitating faith, which constitutes the true greatness of Calderón. In this regard Calderón is almost a unique phenomenon in world literature. He succeeded, if not in creating, at least in perfecting the theological drama—which, at best, is an exceptional curiosity, one may even say, an aberration of the æsthetic sense. It is a drama without human passions, devoid of characters and emotions, a dialogue between allegorical beings, abstractions, vices, and virtues. We have evidence of Calderón’s exceptional power of imagination, of his deep penetration into the profoundest notions of theology and philosophy, when we consider that he was able to clothe such things with an æsthetic dress, and actually introduce them to the theatre. The feat is a gigantic one, even if it proved not always fortunate. Considered simply as a tour de force it strikes the imagination for its audacity which was never inspired by vulgar motives. This dogmatic, resolute, Christian idealism is the soul of all the religious dramas of our poet, though these are not, on the whole, the best in our literature. We have in ‘El condenado por desconfiado’ a drama more theological and more artistic still. But leaving aside this marvelous work, the gem of the whole religious theatre of Spain, and one of the few that show a loving compenetration of feeling and form, the religious plays of Calderón merit recognition as the leaders in this genre. And of these the best is ‘El Principe Constante,’ in which the author solved another æsthetic paradox as great as that of the ‘Autos sacramentales.’ I refer to the successful exploitation on the stage of the impeccably just man, free from doubts, passions, vacillations, struggles—a character which the drama absolutely excludes, but, which, nevertheless, is here clothed with a successfully dramatic form. Aside from this play, ‘La Devocion de la Cruz’ will always be sure of appreciation from intelligent audiences as a jewel in the crown of our national literature. It is less a theological than a militant play; but it is written with all the freedom and charm which characterize the florid springtime of the poet, the period when he was still unaffected by the vicious mannerisms which later attacked his work. The ‘Devocion de la Cruz,’ along with ‘El Purgatorio de San Patricio,’ where there are traces of a Dantesque vigor, in spite of the fantastic exaggeration of the principal character; ‘El Magico Prodigioso,’ for the sublimity of its thought, rather than for the accuracy of its execution, though certainly the most beautiful part of this play is the portion derived from the popular legend, and the development is in a measure inferior to the possibilities of the primitive idea itself; and finally, the beautiful conception of ‘Los dos Amantes del Cielo,’ are sufficient to assure for Calderón a glorious position among the world’s cultivators of religious art.  6
  Calderón possesses eminent tragic qualities, which doubtless would have been more striking had he not, for perhaps unavoidable circumstances of social environment, imprisoned them in an atmosphere distinctly conventional and false. Instead of real passion, social preoccupations predominated in the society about him. Relative morality held sway over absolute morality. Instincts and passions rarely presented themselves in pure, frank, unadulterated forms; they were veiled behind formulas of honor, reputation, etc., etc., which deprive them of universal, eternal value, and in fact make them even unintelligible to other ages and other peoples. This defect, on the other hand, explains the enormous enthusiasm with which Calderón was welcomed in his own epoch. Unfortunately what one gains from submission to the dominant tastes and preoccupations of a given period, one loses later in universality and absolute worth, which are independent of time and place.  7
  To illustrate: Calderón wrote four dramas on the subject of jealousy: ‘El Medico de su Honra,’ ‘A Secreto Agravio Secreta Venganza,’ ‘El Pintor de su Deshonra,’ and ‘El Tetrarca de Jerusalén.’ Yet hardly ever in these works does he touch on the real passion of jealousy. He either subordinates that emotion to feelings of pride and amour propre, as in ‘El Medico de su Honra’ and ‘A Secreto Agravio Secreta Venganza’; or he transforms it into blind vindictiveness, as in the case of the Don Juan of ‘El Pintor de su Deshonra’; or, finally, he exaggerates and idealizes it into a delirium, as happens in ‘El Tetrarca de Jerusalén.’ In his eagerness to sublimate the jealousy of Herod, Calderón has changed the king into a sort of maniac quite removed from the conditions of reality. If, at first glance, the jealousy of Herod may seem nobler and more generous than other similar passions presented on the stage, it is actually far more irrational than that of Othello, for instance; since the Tetrarch’s jealousy springs neither from outraged honor, nor from the suspicion thereof, nor again from the fear of any danger that may befall him in this life; but purely and simply from his selfish resentment that perhaps, after his death, someone else will come to possess Marianna.  8
  Great dramatic effects can be based only on something universal, characteristic of the human heart in all ages; they cannot be obtained from the peculiar interests of a given moment in history. The sense of honor may have been good in its origin, in the general principle of personal dignity. But in the times of Calderón the sense of honor had been pushed to the most remotely conceivable extremes, to the point of justifying crime and treachery.  9
  In spite of these serious defects, Calderón’s treatment of tragic themes is almost always of superior quality. And when by chance he hits upon a passion consistently genuine, and free from the deadly atmosphere in which he lived—this is the case in ‘El Alcalde de Zalamea’—we get a masterpiece. In this connection we may mention ‘Amar despues de la muerte,’ and a few of his other efforts in the field of the tragic.  10
  In the comedy of contemporary manners, Calderón shows little variety, especially if he is compared with Lope. Lope traversed and experienced the whole of life. He excludes none of it from his comedies: picaros, panderers, Celestinas, they are all there, as witness ‘Dorotea,’ ‘El Anzuelo de Fenisa,’ ‘El Arenal de Sevilla,’ ‘El Rufian Castrucho.’ The comedy of ‘Capa y espada’ has inimitable models in Lope’s ‘La Esclava de su Galan’ and ‘El Premio del bien hablar,’ plays at once fanciful, pleasant, and facile. In a word, Lope takes in everything; whereas Calderón is not so venturesome. His circle is much more restricted. He scarcely ever oversteps the limits of the middle class—hidalgos and chevaliers. He never descends to the depths of society; rarely does he depict popular types; and even in the social stratum which interested him, he confines himself to a few figures, treated always in the same manner. Shall we attribute this to poverty of imagination, sterility, lack of resourcefulness? I think not. There is hardly greater range in the comedies of Tirso de Molina, which likewise move inside the boundaries of conventional subjects: the lady in search of reparation for her lost honor; the capricious princess inveigling the licentious adventurer.  11
  The proof that it was not wholly a question of poor inventiveness in the poet is to be found in some of the works of his early youth, ‘El Astrologo fingido,’ ‘Hombre Pobre Todo es Trazas,’ ‘El Alcalde de si mismo,’ and others still. There we discover the happiest aptitude for a comedy like that of Lope and Tirso, even for the comedy of character. The fact is that Calderón felt an instinctive repugnance toward presenting on the stage the prosaic, ugly, or less noble aspects of human nature. Not only did this deprive him of an infinitude of types, but even made such characters as he did derive from this source artificial, thin, uninteresting, easily reducible to a formula. He dispensed with all the figures of the brothel, which Lope had preserved; he never ventured even to represent a situation dear to Tirso de Molina—rivalry in love between two sisters. Furthermore, this idealistic tendency of Calderón, this willingness to present only the poetic, generous, noble side of life, gives a similar contour even to his favorite types: his lovers and ladies, his fathers, his brothers, are emptied, so to speak, out of the same mold. Character, in each of these personages, may be reduced to a simple expression. All kinds of secondary traits, all that more or less vulgar element which enters into the composition of all human nature along with the nobler and more poetic impulses, are brushed aside by Calderón. Realism is something foreign to his art; there is no room for it in his view of the world. Hence it is that all questions of social relations are something outside the jurisdiction of the poet: he never brought mothers before his public—he had too much respect for the sanctity of the home; nor would he present married ladies, save as the victims of some terrible punishment after a fall, where the husband figures at once as judge, avenger, and executioner.  12
  Hence also his slight attention to the comedy of character, and the superficial treatment accorded to such specimens of it as he produced. We may cite, in evidence, the two character sketches in ‘Guardate del Agua Mansa’—that of the female hypocrite and that of the coquette; and ‘No hay Burlas con el Amor’ as well. As a matter of fact, the character comedy does not exist for Calderón, it is the exclusive inheritance of Tirso and Alarcón,—if you wish: also of Lope, all men with tendencies toward realism much more pronounced than is the case with Calderón.  13
  Alarcón occasionally falls into the prosaic, after the manner of the French, among them even Molière; and he sometimes presents his moral lesson didactically or as a thesis. He thus went as far as was permissible in a literature so elegant and chivalric as that of Spain at the beginning of the seventeenth century.  14
  We must not forget moreover that Calderón worked in large part by commission. He wrote for palace entertainments, for particular spectacles, which in the nature of the case had to be quite as conventional and artificial as they were ideal and fantastic. Considerations of times, places, passions, characters were determined by the expectations of court or salon. Such were the circumstances in which his mythological and chivalric works were produced. At best we may hope in them for good specimens of lyric poetry, though hardly for dramatic conditions properly so called.  15
  Calderón’s idealism, thus, is not the harmonious perfect idealism of Greek tragedy or Greek sculpture, but an idealism so to speak of a second order—the idealism of a race and of a period. He is idealistic in the sense that he has excluded absolutely from his theatre all the prosaic aspects—all the wrecks—of humanity. Meanwhile he exalts, idealizes, transfigures whatever in the society of his time seemed to him great, generous, and noble. Herein lies the real grandeur of his spirit. This gives him his figure as a symbol of the Spanish race; this entitles him to the esteem he has won everywhere as our distinctively national poet; this explains why, when an author is sought to typify, to summarize all the intellectual and poetic greatness of our Golden Age, all eyes turn toward Don Pedro Calderón de la Barca. This national character of the poet has prejudiced to a certain extent his universality. Much of his worth and significance, measured on the background of his age, is lost when he is considered in the absolute and removed from the society for which he wrote. He is, accordingly, one of the most antiquated of our authors. His plays, save ‘El Alcalde,’ have little interest for us on the stage and they are very tiresome even when read. In spite of all that, the Spanish theatre presents no greater name.  16
  His glory, then, rather than the glory of a poet, is the glory of an entire nation. Calderón is ancient Spain, with all its lights and shadows, with all its grandeur and its defects, its pretentious pomp, its vanity, its slumber of decadence, its national pride unaffected by national disaster, its religious sentiment, its monarchical sentiment, its love of justice, its devotion to patriarchal privilege. Calderón reflects all this confusion of impulse that seethed in the vitals of Spanish society.  17

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.