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LOPE de Vega (1562-1635) molded the Spanish drama to suit his own gifts; he stamped it forever with the impress of his own personality; and even if we must admit that Calderón, who came after, also rose higher, and that the younger poet surpassed the elder in the lyrical elevation of several of his plays, none the less we must remember always that the greatest dramas of Calderón are examples of a class of which Lope had set the first model. If we acknowledge, as we may, that even Calderón trod only where Lope had first broken the path, we must record that all the other dramatists of Spain were also followers in his footsteps. From out the numerous mass of Lope de Vega's works, it would be possible to select a satisfactory specimen of every species of the drama that has existed in Spain. What Lope was, so was the Spanish drama. He came first, and he was the most original of all, the most fertile, the most indefatigable, the most various, the most multifarious.

His influence on the stage of Spain was far more potent than that of Sophocles on the theater of Greece or of Shakespeare on the drama of England. It was Lope who earliest discovered how to hold the interest of a modern audience by the easy intricacy of his story and by the surprising variety of the successive situations, each artfully prepared for by its predecessor. If Schlegel found an ingenious felicity of plot-making to be so characteristic of the Spanish drama that he was led to suspect a Spanish origin for any play in which he observed this quality, it was to the practice of Lope de Vega that his fellow-dramatists owed their possession of this merit.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600-1681) accepted the several dramatic species which Lope de Vega had devised for his own use -- just as Shakespeare took over Marlowe's formula in his youth and in his maturity borrowed Fletcher's also. But Calderón modified scarcely at all the framework his predecessor had prepared. In general his craftmanship is more careful than Lope's -- although his expositions are inferior, being often huddled into a long speech or two, as artificial almost as the prologues of Euripides or Plautus, whereas Lope's opening scenes are marvels of clever presentation, taking the spectators immediately into the center of the action.

After the plot is once set in motion Calderón has a more vigorous grasp of his situations than Lope, and a stronger determination to get out of them all they contain of effect. Not only is his technique more conscious and more artful, but also his nature is richer, whereby he is enabled to pierce deeper into his subject; he is more of a poet than Lope. Inferior in comedy, he is superior in tragedy, in his vigorous handling of themes of terror and horror, of supernatural fantasy and of ghastly gloom. Incomparable in his invention of somber situations, he is ever what Lowell called him, an "Arab soul in Spanish feathers." His plots are unfailingly romantic, even though there are realistic touches here and there in his drawing of character -- as, for example, in that fine, bold drama of the Alcalde of Zalamea, in which the peasant-judge has a grim humor of his own.

Calderón's acceptance of the tenets of his church was quite as unhesitating as Lope's, and his religion was even more ardent. But his faith was medieval in its narrowness; and this sadly lessens the final value of the plays in which he sought to embody spiritual themes. Although he reveled in the supernatural, his views of the other world seem now as childish as Marlowe's; and the mind of the Spanish playwright was incapable of any such philosophic speculation as we find more than once in the English poet's Doctor Faustus. Even in his ecclesiastical dramas intended to be performed in the streets on Corpus Christi day, the so-called sacramental-acts -- which were religious masques, descended from the medieval miracles and moralities -- Calderón inclines to make the allegory unspeakably obvious, to bring the mysteries of religion down to plain matter-of-fact, and in short to produce the concrete out of the abstract.

Yet his spectral muse inspired him in the composition of more than one very striking play, on subjects charged with spiritual suggestion. One of these is the Devotion of the Cross; and another, quite as direct in its disclosure of the medievalism of the Spanish, is the Wonder-working Magician. In this latter we are made acquainted with Cyprian, a young student of Antioch, who burns with unholy passion for a Christian maid, Justina. To possess her he sells his soul to the Devil, writing the dire compact with his own blood. The Devil gives the student a year's instruction in necromancy; and he also sets the powers of darkness at work to seduce the girl. But when at length the Evil Spirit tries to carry off the maid, she proclaims her faith and he has to release her. Baffled by her resistance, the Devil seeks to deceive the student by a phantom. A cloaked figure enters and bids Cyprian follow; but when, supposing he has Justina in his arms at last, he joyfully takes off the cloak, he discovers, to his horror, that he is clasping a fleshless skeleton -- who tells him that "such are the glories of the world!" The student insists on an explanation; and the Evil One has to admit that he cannot keep his bargain since Justina is under the protection of a superior power. It is to this power, therefore, that Cyprian appeals when the Devil tries to bear him away. So the student also becomes a Christian; and he and Justina are united in death, both being burnt as martyrs to their faith.

In these plays Calderón shows himself a true Spaniard of his time, as Lope was also, of a temperament not reflective but essentially sensuous, satisfied to deal with the externals of the mystery of life and not craving an internal solution. What interested him in plot was what the personages did rather than what they were; and here we see that the difference between Calderón and Lope de Vega is not in kind but in degree. Both of them deal with situation rather than with character. The fiery young adventurers who woo and seek revenge in Calderón's plays, as in Lope's, are all closely akin; they are first cousins to one another, with a strong family likeness; they are, as Goethe called them, "all bullets cast in one mold," with the same unreflecting bravery and the same sense of honor as something outside of themselves and wholly unrelated to conduct -- "a matter of form rather than of feeling," as Lewes said.

Calderón is a great playwright, no doubt, and so is Lope also; but it may be doubted whether either of them is truly to be considered a great dramatist. Striking as are their best plays, loftily lyrical as the language may be on occasion, startlingly effective as the successive situations are, we do not fine in them an exquisite harmony and a beautiful proportion of the parts to the whole; we do not thrill with an irresistible appeal to our common humanity; we cannot but be conscious that now and again the story has been twisted arbitrarily for the sake of the incidents; and we fail to feel ourselves swept forward by an inexorable movement toward an inevitable end.

Lope de Vega was the earliest of the host of classic Spanish playwrights, and Calderón was almost the latest, outliving most of the other dramatic poets who had also revealed surpassing fertility of invention -- Guillen de Castro, to whom Corneille owed the Cid, Alarcon, from whom he borrowed the Liar, and Tirso de Molina, to whom Molière was indebted for the imperishable figure of Don Juan. There had been only two playhouses in Madrid when Lope de Vega began to write for the theater; and before Calderón closed his career there were twoscore. The simple platform which had served at first as a stage had got itself in time some sort of scenery; and it was capable at last of some sort of mechanical effects. In the Wonder-working Magician, for example, the Devil flees finally on the back of a fiery serpent -- just as Medea at the end of the drama of Euripides is borne off by a dragon; and probably the device whereby this spectacular marvel was accomplished was as elementary and as obvious in Madrid as it had been in Athens.

Lope de Vega was a contemporary of Shakespeare; and Calderón survived Molière, who may be called the real molder of the modern drama. Before Calderón's death, Racine had elaborated a tragedy as severe as that of the Greek; but there is no trace of any immediate influence of the French stage upon the Spanish. Even the dramatists of England under Elizabeth responded to the Renaissance and profited by it far more than the playwrights of Spain, who refused absolutely to avail themselves of the marvelous model which the drama of the Greeks provided, just as they had rejected also the intellectual liberty which was the precious gift that accompanied the revival of learning. In this refusal and in this rejection we see the reasons why the classic playwrights of Spain, with all their lyric affluence and all their luxuriance of invention, have left us plays which are almost as medieval in their handling of the larger problems of life as they are in their form.

This article was originally published in The Development of the Drama. Brander Matthews. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912. pp. 163-5, 180-5.


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