Comedia - Early Modern / Golden Age Spanish Theatre

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

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As Melveena McKendrick notes, “[u]nder the auspices of Lope de Vega, Spain’s commercial theatre became probably the most successful theatre ever in terms of the number of plays written and the number of people, proportionate to population of course, who flocked to see them” (1989: 72). This raises a number of complex questions. How and why did this cultural phenomenon emerge? Were the twin demands of art and commerce complementary and/or contradictory? If Early Modern Spanish dramatists were so successful at the time, why is it that they no longer figure as prominently in the collective consciousness as their French and English counterparts? Was the quantity of the drama matched in terms of quality? For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681), Lope (1562-1635), and Tirso de Molina (1579-1648), widely accepted as the best examples of their kind; the reader ought, nevertheless, to be aware that these are just the most obvious entry points, and that there were many other playwrights of merit writing in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Spain, including a number of women.

One of the first challenges facing the non-specialist is the counter-intuitive use of descriptive terminology. Firstly, the comedia is both a collective noun referring to Early Modern Spanish theatre in general and, somewhat confusingly, to both dramatic plays in general, and comedy as a specific genre. The autor, sometimes translated incorrectly as author, was not the playwright, but rather the theatre impresario who would buy the rights to stage a play. Thirdly, the culture from which these figures and plays emerge – the Siglo de Oro – is generally rendered in English as the Golden Age, but the literal translation is the Golden Century. This semantic shift is, however, justified by the fact that the phrase lacks precision in Spanish; whilst there is no absolute consensus on the exact dates, it encompasses a period of nearly two hundred years somewhere between 1492, when Christopher Columbus first set sail from Seville, and 1681, the year of Calderón’s death.

The roots of the Golden Age are to be found in the marriage of the rulers of Aragón and Castile, Ferdinand and Isabel – commonly referred to as the Catholic Monarchs – in 1469. This dynastic union created for the first time an entity approximating what we now know as Spain, a psychical and physical formation also brought into being by the Reconquest of Muslim territories in the Peninsula, an ongoing venture completed in 1492. The Catholic Monarchs also instigated a paradigm shift away from the feudal system of the Middle Ages to the emergence of a modern centralised state, which would culminate in Madrid becoming the first permanent capital of Spain in 1561 during the reign of Philip II.

The power and influence of this state was greatly expanded by Christopher Columbus’ adventures in the “New World”. Colonial and cultural dominance were seen to be inextricably linked and it is no coincidence that the Genovese adventurer first set sail under the Spanish flag in the same year that the first systematic grammar of any European language, Antonio de Nebrija’s Gramática de la lengua castellana was made available. For much of the sixteenth-century, the emergent nation’s cultural and imperial power became increasingly hegemonic on the international stage but, by the early seventeenth-century, the term Golden Age was more befitting the nation’s prodigious artistic production than its increasingly desperate struggles to retain its status as the leading world power.

Although no single individual can lay claim to creating the comedia, it is doubtful that it would have become so creative and pervasive a cultural phenomenon if it had not been for the prodigious talents of Lope de Vega. Drawing on various pre-existing theatrical traditions from both Spain and abroad – itinerant troupes such as the one run by Lope de Rueda who set up makeshift stages; the commedia dell’arte popularised by Italian companies who toured in Spain from the mid-sixteenth-century onwards; liturgical drama based around allegory, in particular the autos sacramentales [Corpus Christi plays] – his works enabled the creation of a cultural industry based in Madrid, with a captive audience ranging right across the social spectrum of the nascent capital’s growing population.

Lope’s celebrity and the professionalization of the stage went hand in hand, and it is disputable if either could have occurred without the other. His ability to write the standard three-act comedias on demand, and with remarkable speed and consistency, may have led critics to doubt his quality control, but it both created and sustained the demand for a popular drama which ensured that the new permanent outdoor theatres known as corrales – the Cruz (opened in 1579) and the Príncipe (1582) – were generally filled beyond capacity, thereby establishing a business model which would continue to successfully operate throughout the remainder of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries. The autores ran hierarchically structured companies with different members specialising in specific roles – the old man, leading man, gracioso (fool) etc. –, which allowed for the quick turnover of plays, and the refinement of acting skills, whilst also accounting for the somewhat formulaic nature of at least some comedias. In addition to the entertainment it provided, the professional stage performed an important social role in that some of the profits were used to fund local hospitals, a charitable function used to defend the theatre on multiple occasions against its many detractors.

In terms of stage layout and audience distribution, the Spanish corral did not differ substantially from the Elizabethan stage. The presence of women on the former was, however, a fundamental difference. Actresses such as Jerónima de Burgos (1580?-1641), one of Lope’s many lovers, achieved celebrity status in their own right, and, according to at least some contemporary accounts, were often more skilled and popular than their male counterparts. As in many societies, however, charges of licentiousness were also levelled against individual female performers; a facet occasionally exploited on stage with, for example, an actress famed for her off-stage sexual shenanigans being “humorously” cast as the Virgin Mary for the audience’s amusement. Not surprisingly, perhaps, women on the stage were the frequent scourge of censors who objected in particular to the exposure of flesh in scenes of female-to-male transvestism, a stock device shamelessly exploited for its erotic possibilities.

In 1609, Lope delivered the Arte nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo [The New Art of Writing Plays in This Age], a dramatic treatise in verse, to the learned Academy in Madrid. He argues, with a curious combination of false modesty, self-conscious erudition and pre-emptive defensiveness that audiences pay and that their tastes, however base, ought therefore to be catered for. This basic tenet is wielded to argue that new socio-cultural circumstances demand new methods, and to justify the move away from the classical precepts dispensing, for example, with the Aristotelian unities of time and place. He proffers a largely tongue-in-cheek summary of the lessons learnt from a successful career on the professional boards, in what constitutes both a defence of his working methods and a primer for budding playwrights. From the twenty-first-century perspective, the Arte nuevo constitutes an interesting precursor to reader-response theory, whilst also supplying a succinct and often witty summation of the comedia’s defining characteristics.

Real life, according to Lope, is a mixture of comedy and tragedy; he argues, therefore, that this ought to be reflected on-stage and that the traditional demarcation between the two modes ought to be broken down. In one sense, this was indicative of a certain break with decorum and hierarchy; the classical precepts dictated that tragedies were to be populated with aristocrats and comedies with plebeians. Lope did not, however, advocate a complete break with the social hierarchy and this is clearly reflected, for example, in his guide to polyvalent verse forms. Although he did not always adhere to his own rules in practice, a set of conventions nevertheless allowed verse to function as a dense semiotic system – enabled by the metrics of the Castilian language, and far more rigid than Shakespeare’s predilection for blank verse – whereby certain forms, amongst other functions, were deemed appropriate for specific social groups.

In purely dramatic terms, Lope advocated keeping the audience in suspense until as close to the end of the third act as possible, and to employ the motif of honour as a sentiment to which all members of the comedia’s heterogeneous audience could relate. In his own plays, conflicting and often contradictory conceptions of honour were often brought into collision for dramatic effect. Hence, for example, the so-called peasant honour plays such as Peribáñez y el Comendador de Ocaña [Peribáñez and the Commander of Ocaña] (1609-12), Fuente Ovejuna [The Sheep Well] (1612-14), and El mejor alcalde, el rey [The Best Mayor, the King] (1620-23) contain lascivious noble overlords who seek to abuse their social position by sexually exploiting their female vassals. Characters of humble origin are, however, shown to have a claim to honour which the nobles fail to take sufficiently into account due to their belief that honour is the unique preserve of the aristocracy. The peasant characters, nevertheless, appeal to the higher authority of a monarch thereby ensuing a complex dialectic by which the social hierarchy is ostensibly preserved whilst the human rights and dignity of lower-class characters is brought to the fore.

Lope was the great instigator of the national drama and its most prodigious talent – certainly in terms of quantity, and arguably in quality –, but many followed in his wake. Tirso is, in stylistic and narrative terms, his most overt and high-profile disciple. He is best known for El burlador de Sevilla [The Trickster of Seville] (1612-16?) which introduces the figure of Don Juan, but there is no definite proof that he penned the comedia. In any case, his capa y espada (cloak and dagger) plays – situation comedies featuring an emergent urban middle and upper class –, with their plucky and resourceful young women often able to outsmart their fathers and prospective beaus, are far more representative of his dramatic output and reveal Lope’s influence more clearly.

The relationship between master and disciple was initially one of mutual respect but, in his middle- and old- age, Lope would suffer the fate of many an ageing radical: he often ascribed to younger talents the same faults with which he had once been charged. Hence, for example, his contempt for the undisciplined structure and convoluted narrative of Tirso’s Don Gil de las calzas verdes [Don Gil of the Green Breeches] (1615) finds echoes in the earlier complaints levelled by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) – a master of prose-writing for whom success on the stage was nevertheless elusive –, against the anarchic disrespect shown for decorum or tradition by Lope, to whom he referred with a mixture of wonder and contempt as a “monster of nature”.

Whilst Lope was instrumental in creating the comedia, Calderón is often credited with perfecting it as a theatrical form. Although both playwrights were writing for the professional stage in Madrid during the last fifteen years of Lope’s life, as Jonathan Thacker notes “it is certainly apt to denominate Calderón and his ‘school’ a second wave or generation of Golden Age dramatists” (2007: 92). Prolific in absolute terms – an estimated one-hundred and twenty single authored plays (Cruickshank, 2009: 123) – his productivity is, nevertheless, put into context when one takes into account the existence of around eight hundred plays regularly attributed to Lope. Calderón learnt his craft largely through the emphasis on drama in his Jesuit education, and the younger playwright imbued his comedias with a hitherto unprecedented degree of formal and thematic precision largely as a result of the time he spent crafting many of his dramatic creations; the negative correlative is what has been construed as a loss in visceral dynamism ascribed to an increasingly cerebral approach.

There is a kernel of truth in assessments of this kind, but they are also indicative of a reductive tendency to place the two dramatists in opposition with each other to the point of caricature. The assumption that Calderón is more sombre and reactionary in terms of content and exposition is forged largely on the basis of his dramatic and philosophical plays such as El médico de su honra [The Physician of His Honour] (1628-1629) and La vida es sueño [Life is a Dream] (1627-31). This is indicative of the fact that far less critical attention has been paid to his comedies. In the 1620s, he wrote numerous highly successful capa y espada plays, and would subsequently become the favoured dramatist for writing ostensibly more refined and meta-theatrical plays for the court theatre in the 1630s and 1640s. These plays, much to Lope’s chagrin, were both the product and cause of a move away from the simplicity of the relatively bare early corral stage and were increasingly dependent on stage machinery.

This recourse to spectacle was inextricably linked with the cultural policy of the Count-Duke Olivares, Philip IV’s royal favourite and minister, who sought to disguise Spain’s material decline with ostentatious cultural display. Whilst Calderón benefitted in one respect from court patronage, he was also the victim of its policies in that he fought as a soldier in a number of disastrous imperial wars waged in a doomed attempt to defend Spain’s interests both at home and abroad. In 1651, he took holy orders and his focus moved to religious plays. By this time, the comedia was largely exhausted as a dramatic form; an increasingly self-conscious meta-theatrical approach was indicative of the dearth of new ideas or fresh inspiration. The nation’s imperial Golden Age had been firmly vanquished some time prior to 1681; Calderón’s death has taken on a symbolic role as the end of an era in which for the first – and arguably last – time, Spain played a leading role at the forefront of both literature and the visual arts.

Neo-classicism’s veneration of the classical unities and carefully policed generic boundaries was largely responsible for bringing the comedia’s standing into disrepute but, in subsequent ages, it has had its advocates. Lope’s Fuente Ovejuna took on a new prominence when it was staged as a call to arms on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Alongside Don Quixote, Don Juan is the most iconic figure from the Golden Age and, indeed, from the history of Spanish letters. Goethe believed that if the entire poetic tradition were to be destroyed, then it could be reconstructed solely on the basis of Calderón’s El príncipe constante [The Constant Prince] (c. 1629), a play which would subsequently be staged during the 1960s in Poland in a mythical production directed by Jerzy Grotowski. This championing has, however, been the exception rather than the rule and, in terms of the literary canon, the three major proponents of Golden Age drama are now relatively minor players – certainly in comparison to Shakespeare – largely unknown outside of the Iberian Peninsula beyond specialist circles.

This marginalisation is particularly unfortunate given the literary and theatrical qualities of much, although by no means all, of this remarkably popular and prolific national drama. In The Genius of Shakespeare (1997), Jonathan Bate considers whether it is a matter of chance or destiny that the Bard is considered the world genius of literature. He concludes that it is somewhere in between as there are only two serious candidates for the title – Lope and Shakespeare – but that, in an alternative universe, the Spanish dramatist could be universally known and admired, whilst his English counterpart could be a lesser known curiosity. The explanations for why the merits of Lope and his contemporaries have often been minimised and/or ignored are complex and multifaceted. They include but are not limited to the relative (mis)fortunes of the British and Spanish empires; the sheer number of works produced; and the appropriation of the nation’s imperial past by conservative factions of contemporary Spanish society.

Works Cited

Bate, Jonathan (1997). The Genius of Shakespeare. London: Picador.
Cruickshank, Don W. (2009). Don Pedro Calderón. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
McKendrick, Melveena (1989). Theatre in Spain 1490–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Thacker, Jonathan (2007). A Companion to Golden Age Theatre. Woodbridge: Tamesis.

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Citation: Wheeler, Duncan . "Comedia - Early Modern / Golden Age Spanish Theatre". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 23 August 2011 [, accessed 07 February 2023.]

17652 Comedia - Early Modern / Golden Age Spanish Theatre 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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