The dramatists, in that lively age, were as numerous as the poets. Heretofore, as in contemporary England, the stage had been an impromptu contraption; strolling players peddled their art impecuniously in the towns; and the Inquisition, struggling to control the coarseness of their comedies, placed an interdict upon all plays (1520). When Madrid became the royal residence (1561), two troupes of actors asked the King’s permission to establish themselves permanently there. Permission was given, the ecclesiastical ban was lifted (1572), and two theaters were built, the Teatro de la Cruz and the Teatro del Príncipe—the two names expressing the main loyalties and powers of Spain. By 1602 there were theaters also in Valencia, Seville, Barcelona, Granada, Toledo, and Valladolid; by 1632 there were a thousand actors in Madrid and seventy-six dramatists in Castile; tailors, tradesmen, and shepherds were writing dramas; by 1800 Spain had heard thirty thousand different plays. No other country in history—not even Elizabethan England—had such a theatrical ecstasy.
The form of the theater evolved from the courtyards—surrounded by houses and temporary stands—in which the earlier plays were performed; so the permanent theaters were designed as tiers of seats and boxes surrounding a corral. Costumes were Spanish, whatever the place or period of the piece. The audiences were of all classes. Women came, but sat in a special section and wore heavy veils. The actors lived in a demoralizing insecurity between famines and feasts, consoling their poverty and rootlessness with promiscuity and hopes. A few male “stars” rose to wealth and head-turning fame; they paraded the main avenues of Madrid, adjusting their swords and mustaches; and some prima donnas slept with kings.
The monarch of the Spanish stage was Lope Félix de Vega Carpio. In 1647 the Inquisition had to suppress a published credo which began: “I believe in Lope de Vega the Almighty, the poet of heaven and earth.”40 Probably no other writer in history ever enjoyed such contemporary fame; only the difficulty of translating rhymed poetry has confined that fame mostly to Spain; even so, during his lifetime his plays were performed in Spanish in Naples, Rome, and Milan; and in France and Italy his name was prefixed to plays not his, in order to lure an audience.
He was born in Madrid, two years before Shakespeare, of a poor but (we are assured) a noble family. At fourteen he ran away from home and college, enlisted in the army, and saw some bloody action in the Azores. He fell in love, but extricated himself with some minor wounds; he penned mean epigrams on the lady, was arrested for libel, was banished from Madrid. Re-entering the city secretly, he eloped with Isabel de Urbina, married her, was pursued, and, to escape the law, joined the Armada; he shared in its defeat, and his brother, killed in the battle, died in Lope’s arms. The death of his wife released him for other entanglements. He begot two children by the actress Micaela de Lujan,41 married again, became an official of the Inquisition (1609), lost his second wife, was ordained a priest (1614?), and fell into new amours.42
Spain forgave him his mistresses for his plays. He wrote some eighteen hundred, in addition to four hundred short autos sagramentales (“sacramental acts”) for performance in religious festivals. He was reputed to have composed ten plays in one week, and one before breakfast. Cervantes gave up before this avalanche, and called his rival a “monster of nature.” Lope was a commedia dell’ arte in himself, composing as he improvised. Breeding with such careless fertility, he made no pretense to art or philosophy. In hisNew Art of Making Plays he confessed amiably that he wrote to butter his bread, and so catered to public taste.43 He might not have printed his plays except for piratical publishers who sent to his performances men of miraculous memory; after three hearings these men could recite a play by heart and provide a garbled text to printers, who paid the author nothing. Once Lope’s cast refused to go on with the play until one such mnemonic marvel had been thrown out44—publication might lessen attendance. But Lope published with loving care his poetic romances —Arcadia, San Isidro, Jerusalén conquistada, La hermosura de Angélica, La Dorotea—all melodious and mediocre.
The plot in his plays is everything. The characters are seldom studied intimately, and one might say of these dramas what Thoreau said of newspapers—that if you merely change the names and dates, the contents are always the same. Nearly always the story turns on two hinges: the point of honor and the question who shall sleep with the lady. The public never tired of variations on the latter theme, not being allowed any of its own. Meanwhile it enjoyed the incidental humor, the lively dialogue, the lyric verses that fell trippingly from the tongues of fair women and brave men. The spirit of the romances, never extinct, took new life on the Spanish stage.
The most famous of Lope’s plays is The Star of Seville (La estrella de Sevilla). Sancho the Bold, King of Castile, comes to Seville, praises the splendor of its streets, but asks his councilor Arias to tell him more particularly about its women.
KING: And its ladies, divinely fair, why do you not mention them? … Tell me, are you not aflame in the light of such glories?
ARIAS: Doña Leonor de Rebera seemed heaven itself, for in her countenance shone the light of the springtime sun.
KING: She is too pale…. I want a burning sun, not freezing.
ARIAS: The one who threw roses to you is Doña Mencia Coronèl.
KING: A handsome dame, but I saw others lovelier…. One I saw there full of grace, whom you have left unmentioned…. Who is she who on her balcony drew my attention, and to whom I doffed my hat? Who is she whose two eyes flashed lightning like Jove’s thunderbolts and sent their deadly rays into my heart? …
ARIAS: Her name is Doña Stella Tabera, and Seville in homage calls her its star.
KING: And it might call her its sun…. My guiding star brought me to Seville…. What means, Don Arias, will you find for me to see her and speak with her? … O vision that inflames my inmost soul!45
Stella, however, is in love with Don Sancho Ortiz, and she indignantly repels Arias’ proposal to let the King enjoy the droit du seigneur. Arias bribes the maid to admit the King to her mistress’ room; Stella’s devoted brother Bustos enters on the very point of honor, stops the King, and is about to kill him; but, awed by royalty, he lets him pass, scorned but intact. An hour later the King sees hanging on his palace wall the corpse of the maid who had accepted the bribe. He sends for Ortiz, asks if his loyalty to his king knows no bounds, receives a proud and satisfactory answer, and bids him kill Bustos. Ortiz meets Bustos, receives from him Stella’s message that she returns his love and accepts his suit; he thanks him, kills him, and almost goes insane. Fearing public revolt, the King hides the fact that the assassination was by his command. Ortiz is arrested and is about to be executed when Stella finds means to free him. But there is no happy ending; the lovers agree that the murder has poisoned their love forever.
After producing a thousand such plays, Lope became the idol of Madrid. Nobles and commoners showered him with admiration; the Pope sent him the Cross of Malta and the degree of Doctor of Theology. When he appeared on the streets he was surrounded by eager crowds; women and children kissed his hands and begged his blessing. His name was given to any object supreme in its kind: there were Lope horses, Lope melons, Lope cigars.46 A critic who had found fault with him lived in daily fear of death from the poet’s devotees.
Even so, Lope was not happy. He had been paid reasonably well for his plays, but he had spent or given away his earnings as fast as they had come; after so many successes he was poor and had to appeal for aid to Philip IV—who, out of his bankruptcy, sent him a generous dowry. But bereavements cut more deeply than poverty. His daughter Marcela entered a convent; his son Lope joined the navy and was drowned; his daughter Antonia eloped with Cristóbal Tonorio, taking with her a considerable quantity of paternal valuables; Lope disowned her, Cristóbal deserted her. Thinking these tribulations to be divine punishments for his sins, Lope locked himself in a room and macerated his flesh till the walls were stained with his blood. On August 23, 1635, he composed his last poem, “El siglo de oro.” He died four days later, aged seventy-three. Half of Madrid joined the funeral procession, which turned aside to pass the convent where his daughter could bid him farewell from the window of her cell. His apotheosis was enacted on a public stage.
We cannot, like Voltaire, place him beside Shakespeare; but we may say of him that by his abounding genius, his effervescent verse, his lovable character shining through a thousand plays, he rose to the literary pinnacle of that Golden Age, where only Cervantes and Calderón could reach him.