This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 159-66.
"In Spain the dramatic revival declared itself earlier than in any other country, with the possible exception of Italy; and it declared itself unequivocally in the form of romance . . . In no people had chivalry taken so firm a root; the point of honor was the very life blood of the Spaniard; his very instincts had taken the ply of fantasy and romance."
-- C.E. VAUGHN, Types of Tragic Drama.
BY the year 1500 Spain had come to the end of the long contest with the Moors, which had lasted for more than seven centuries. The enemy, leaving the country, bequeathed to the Spanish a wealth of learning and culture. Though there was no comedy, tragedy, pastoral play or farce among their literary relics, yet there were many tales of magic, of passionate love, and of oriental splendor. From the north came ideals of chivalry and knighthood to mix with these oriental influences. Troubadours from Provence crossed the Pyrenees, bringing with them stories of tournaments, or of allegiance to some difficult trust, and of a holy Cup which was the quest of many a knight. In her own right Spain was also rich in ballads, which seem to flourish wherever drama is found. Good ballads have concentration, directness of action, sharp characterization, and often a terse and pithy dialogue--all of which offer a good basis for a play. Out of this blend of oriental fancy, chivalric ideals, and gift of balladry came the remarkable period of the romantic Spanish drama.

Classicism in Spain. Naturally the Italian influence towards classicism was felt. A few pastoral and satiric plays in the Italian style made their appearance; and one tragedy, Celestine, or the Tragedy of Callisto and Melibœa, had a brilliant success as a piece of literature in the later fifteenth century. It could scarcely have been enacted on any stage. It dealt with witches, love potions, and the like--elements which later were to become the stock in trade of the romanticists. Spain's greatest genius, Cervantes, was for a time on the side of the classicists. Following the example of Trissino in Italy, he produced in 1583 a drama called Numancia, in classical dress; and this play was succeeded by nearly a score of others in the same manner.

The classic ideal, however, was not destined to dominate the Spanish stage. About the middle of the sixteenth century, a gold-beater of Seville, named Lope de Rueda, became chief actor, playwright and manager of a small band of strolling players. He seems to have been much the same type of man as Hans Sachs of Nuremberg, full of homely sense, humor, gaiety, and possessed of a natural, easy style. In his plays he pictured the people he knew, hitting them off with good-natured shrewdness. Cervantes regarded Rueda as the real founder of the national drama in Spain.

Lope de Vega. 1562-1635. When Cervantes produced his psuedo-classical tragedy, Numancia, Lope de Vega was twenty-three years old. He was born two years before Shakespeare, in the family of a poverty-stricken nobleman, and lived to be seventy-three years old, devoting most of his mature life to the writing of poetry and drama. Both as a writer and as a citizen, he received extraordinary honors. His plays brought him wealth and renown; admiring crowds followed him whenever he left his house. He was called the Spanish Phoenix, and Prodigy of Nature. Good days and good women were called Lope days and Lope women. When he died, only the memory of his pomp and generosity towards the poor was left; there was no vestige of his large fortune. His funeral was observed like that of a king, with three bishops to officiate, and a three-day period of mourning for the city.

The phenomenon of Lope's dramatic output remains one of the wonders of literary history. He wrote twenty-two hundred plays, besides a sufficient number of poems to fill twenty-one volumes quarto. It is said that he could write a play, full of captivating incident, fresh versification and humor, in a day, and that no amanuensis could keep up with his diction. So eager were the managers, that he was allowed no time for correction or revision. His plays are of many sorts: love stories, plays of adventures, farces, scenes from society, moralizing pieces, tragedies, and sacred plays (autos sacramentales). He was not, of course, uniformly good in all these species of writing; two of his plays are notorious as being the worst tragedies ever written.

Lope's plays. For convenience, four classes of plays may be indicated. First, there are the "dramas of the cloak and sword," dealing with a high-spirited gallant who goes through many adventures in order to win the lady of his love. This type of play usually contains an underplot carried on by servants and other minor characters. A second class, similar to the first, is occupied with historical or semi-historical figures of a more heroic cast than those of the first group. These plays too are full of intrigues and adventures, with underplots which parody the principal one. Whatever the main theme, there is sure to be much ado about the "point of honor," with jealous quarrels, misunderstandings, and tempers on the trigger. A few dramas of social life constitute a third class. They portray rather intimately the manners, customs and thoughts of the time, but are not concerned exclusively with polite society, as are the contemporaneous Italian works.

These three groups would probably have included all of Lope's dramatic writings had not Philip II, on his death-bed, forbidden the representation of all secular plays for an indefinite time within his kingdom. The order remained in force two or three years. During that time Lope turned his attention to the autos, investing them with the same glamour as that which had surrounded his secular plays. The pious deeds performed by one of his saints became as interesting as the adventures of one of his buccaneers or swashbucklers. His sacred plays were a mixture of the grotesque, of fine poetic fervor, lively images, entertaining incidents, sincere Catholic piety, and a good knowledge of character. They were played on the street on Corpus Christi day, being preceded by a farce. They became famous throughout the country, and were performed by actors before taking the sacrament.

Characteristics of Lope's work. Of all European countries, Spain was least influenced by the Renaissance and most deeply averse to any reforms in religion; and Lope was, in a peculiar sense, representative of his country. His was nearest the medieval mind, farthest from that of reawakening Europe. At the same time, his plays give us the first important examples of what is known as romantic drama. He was either unconscious of, or ignored, the classic tradition; he had no interest in the three unities, no use for the Messenger, for long soliloquies, for the exalted personages so dear to the classic dramatist, or for the carefully designed plot. He built his plays out of Spanish material, using folk lore, ballads, history or legend, always with native characters. His genius was many-sided; with immense fertility he unfolded scenes of lively action, invented countless entertaining and thoroughly dramatic situations; he was master of brisk dialogue, pleasant versification, humor and vivacity. He adopted outlaws as heroes, mixed together the sacred and the farcical, and cared little for probabilities or for historical accuracy; but his energy and contagious vitality carried all before him.

It was Lope de Vega who, above all others, gave the shape and stamp to modern European drama. His tendency was to emphasize the individual, to exhibit strange phases of passion, ambition, or hatred. If we do not today read or see Lope's plays in their original dress, we nevertheless have seen their descendants; for the European world has for four centuries enjoyed many an entertainment based upon situations that came from his brain. The Italians of the seventeenth century, the French writers preceding and including Voltaire, the early Elizabethans, and that great pair, Shakespeare and Marlowe--all borrowed and learned from him. Professor Matthews says: "... the dramatists of every modern language are greatly indebted to the models set by Lope de Vega--and none the less because most of these later writers are unconscious of their obligation. Nowhere has modern dramatic craftmanship been carried to a higher pitch of perfection than in France; and it must never be forgotten that The Cid, the first of French tragedies, and The Liar, the first of French comedies, were both of them borrowed by Corneille from Spanish plays written by contemporary disciples of Lope de Vega.

Influence of Lope de Vega outside of Spain. It would be difficult to enumerate all of the instances in which dramatists of other countries drew either upon Lope de Vega or upon one of his followers, but some of the most important borrowers include Molière, Corneille, Voltaire, and Rotrou. The enumeration of the indebtedness of these non-Spanish writers to Lope and his school is in no sense a depracation of the borrowers; all dramatists everywhere have used old material; it is meant only as an indication of the extraordinary fertility of the genius of Lope de Vega. When he began to write, the drama was an insignificant and vulgar art, with but two poor playhouses in the city of Madrid; when he died, the theater had become an important institution. Less than fifty years after his death there were forty playhouses in the capital, and the conduct of the drama was a subject not only of royal but of national consideration. At least thirty talented Spanish playwrights flourished during his time or immediately after. The love of the theater spread rapidly until almost every little town had its playhouse. The skill of professional actors increased, buildings improved, scenery appeared on the stage, and mechanical devices for working wonders were invented or rediscovered.

Calderón de la Barca. 1600-1681. We have now come to the beginning of a period when the dramatist did not hesitate to attempt both comedy and tragedy. Calderón, the second of the two outstanding figures of Spanish drama, was a writer of both species, but was far greater in tragedy than in comedy. Like Lope, he wrought with native literary material and for the most part discarded the classic models. He did not create new forms, or make any striking departure from the style and standards set by Lope. He was hazy in regard to history and geography. In his youth he was counted a prodigy of talent; and upon the death of Lope, which occurred when Calderón was thirty-five years of age, he was officially appointed the writer of dramas for the royal theaters and for the Church. He became formally attached to the court, somewhat in the position of a poet laureate. After some years he withdrew from the court and entered a religious brotherhood; but he continued throughout his life to write for the theater.

The plays of Calderón. Of the many pieces which were at one time or another attributed to Calderón, one hundred and eight dramas and seventy-three autos sacramentales are authentic. The dramas are of many varieties, though always romantic. He threw his sword-and-cloak heroes into one difficulty after another, handled supernatural and ghostly themes in a masterly fashion, and was also able to write scenes of a grim humor. His plots are unfailingly interesting, even though, to the modern mind, some of them are absurd. He was thoroughly medieval and devoutly Catholic in his point of view.

The Devotion to the Cross, written when the author was nineteen, portrays the instantaneous redemption of a revolting criminal through his death-bed appeal to the Cross. His plots are often highly theatrical, affording thrilling moments, scenes of tenderness and beauty, and surprising climaxes. After his appointment as court poet he produced a spectacle called Circe near the lake at Buen Retiro. During its course there were represented mountains, forests, with trees fashioned in human form, waterfalls with concealed lights, and an immense car plated with silver and drawn by two fishes, out of whose mouths flowed sparkling fountains. The man of genius had turned showman; and no doubt Calderón himself was deeply conscious of the emptiness of such spectacles, in comparison to the thoughtfulness and poetic beauty of such a play, for example, as Life is a dream (La Vida Es Sueno), which is indeed not one of his best plots, yet is one of his most appealing tragedies.

There is in Calderón something splendid, ethical, intense. Like all writers, he was limited by the peculiarities of his age and country. He must have understood and felt something of the spirit of the Renaissance and of the stirrings within the Church; but he gives no sign. He never emerged into the world of modern thought. His greatness reveals itself in a certain depth and richness of nature, a poetic quality, and an attitude of large tolerance and sympathy for the vagaries of the human heart. He made an extraordinary appeal to his contemporaries, sometimes as a mystic, sometimes as a lover, and always as the seeker after truth. With him a new tone came into the drama--a tone of questioning, of ironical patience mingled with bitterness.

Excellences and weaknesses of Spanish drama. With the complete establishment of the romantic type, certain weaknesses inevitably showed themselves. Only such geniuses as Lope and Calderón could triumphantly overcome the frequent excess of passion, extravagances of plot, and childishness of intellect. Moreover, the writers were bound by the restrictions both of the court and of the Church, which limited all kinds of art. Nevertheless the Spanish drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centures stands with the Greeks and Elizabethans as one of the supreme monuments of national genius. There was in it an abundance of invention, poetry, revelation of human nature, and that undercurrent of philosophy which indicates the struggle of the mind with the problems of existence.

When Calderón passed from the stage, the influence of the Italians and French became more pronounced, and the neo-classic style came into fashion. The supposed rules of the antique stage little by little smothered the native spontaneity; and for more than a century there were indeed many plays, but little of dramatic worth. Not until near the close of the eighteenth century did Lope and Calderón come into their own, through a revival of interest in the romantic type of play.

Source: National Drama: Spain to 1700