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Pedro Calderon de la Barca

B. 1600; d. 1681; a. Spanish dramatist

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Calderon de la Barca, Pedro, b. 1600; d. 1681; a. Spanish dramatist whose activity marks the second half of the golden age of Spanish literature. His time was one of social and political decay under the rule of Philip III and Philip IV, when all things indicated the irretrievable loss of the mighty foreign empire which Spain had acquired during previous reigns; yet, even in this melancholy period Spain produced a poet of lasting national significance in the person of Calderon. Undoubtedly the value of Calderon has been overrated, in so far as the modern world has allowed him to outshine Lope de Vega, for it should be remembered that Calderon inherited the scenic traditions of the sixteenth century, to which Lope had given a magnificent development. Yet Calderon must be credited with giving to those traditions an interpretation which clearly captivated his contemporaries as it did the more recent race of the Romantics in Germany. By giving full expression in his theatre to purely national qualities he endeared himself to his own people in a way that will always safeguard his repute wherever Spanish is spoken and the past glory of Spain is revered. Like Lope de Vega, he came of a northern (Asturian) stock, although he was born in Madrid. After a preliminary training in the capital, he went to the University of Salamanca at a time when that institution was at the acme of its glory, and there he spent six years. The few facts ascertainable for the years ensuing upon his residence at Salamanca show him figuring in the Spanish campaigns in Italy and in the Netherlands, and then returning to Madrid to undertake the management of the theatre of the Buen Retiro. The reigning monarch, Philip IV, was exceedingly attached to him and showed him favor in various ways, as by bestowing a pension on him, by urging him to constant dramatic composition, and by providing funds for the expenses involved in splendid and costly performances of his plays. In 1637 he was appointed to membership in the Order of Santiago, and three years later he served with his order in the campaign against the rebellious Catalans. Like Lope, he turned to Holy orders when his prime was passing, for in 1651 he was ordained to the priesthood; but, quite unlike Lope, he was an exemplary member of the ministry. Honors came to him in his new vocation; thus, in 1663 he was appointed an honorary chaplain to the sovereign, and in 1666 he was made superior of the Congregation of St. Peter. His dramatic labors were carried on unabated after his ordination and continued down to the year of his death. Of less varied genius than his predecessor, Lope de Vega, Calderon gave expression to himself in his dramas only; for his non-dramatic prose works are of very minor value—a treatise on painting is perhaps the most notable—and his lyrics, although many in number, are to be sought in his plays and not in any considerable separate collections. It is to be observed, none the less, that he is a great lyric poet, and that his lyrism saturates his dramatic compositions from first to last. With the collected editions of his plays published during his lifetime, Calderon was not concerned at all, except that he superintended the preparation of the edition of his autos (sacred allegorical dramas) which appeared in 1676. On the basis of a list of his pieces which he prepared in 1681, his biographer, Vera Tasis, published after his death a nine-volume edition of them. This was made up somewhat ad libitum, as the critic Menendez y Pelayo has pointed out; yet, in default of a better edition, it still remains authoritative, in spite of the fact that it was put forth by one of the most culteranistic disciples of the poet. We should be glad to believe, as some scholars are inclined to do, that the offensive Gongorism of many passages in Calderon’s best pieces, their obscurity and extravagant bombast, should be charged to the account of a meddlesome collector and editor, that is, to Vera Tasis, and not to Calderon. The extant works of Calderon embrace some 120 comedias, including individual works and those written in collaboration with others, and, furthermore, some 70 or 80 autos sacramentales (sacred allegorical dramas on the Eucharist). In so far as regards the comedias, the modern editions reproduce the text of Vera Tasis; he did not print the autos in his collection. The fullest modern edition of all Calderon’s plays is that of J. G. Kell (4 vols., Leipzig, 1827-30); the most accessible is, as yet, that in the “Biblioteca de autores espanoles”, vols. VII, IX, XII and XIV, which also has some of the autos in vol. LVIII. The best edition of the autos continues to be that of J. Fernandez de Apontes (1759-60). Vera Tasis stated in his “Fama postuma de Calderon” that the poet had written a great number of entremeses and sainetes (interludes and short farces); as a matter of fact, not more than a score of such briefer pieces, interludes and the like, can now be found. Were one to contrast Shakspeare with Lope de Vega, he would discover that, while Shakspeare belongs to all men and all time, Lope is the particular property of Spain, and is bounded by national limitations. The character of Calderon is even more limited still; he is not only Spanish rather than universal, but, as a Spaniard, he typifies the sentiments and ideals of a narrowly restricted period, the seventeenth century. It may be added that in his theatre and in his daily life he was a model of the truly Christian and knightly poet of his period. The ideas most distinctive of his age which we see, reflected in Calderon’s dramatic works are: (I) intense devotion to the Catholic Faith; (2) absolute and unquestioning loyalty to the Spanish sovereign; and (3) a highly developed, even much exaggerated, feeling of honor (the pun-donor). His religious fervor is exemplified in his comedias devotas (sacred dramas not allegorical) as, for instance, in his “Principe constante” and his “Purgatorio de San Patricio”, the latter being one of the most famous of the literary treatments of the legend of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and especially in his autos sacramentales. These little pieces (see Autos Sacramentales) deal only with the Eucharistic Mystery, which is set forth through the medium of allegorical characters. In the production of them Calderon has never been surpassed. For while “his set pieces”, in the opinion of Fitzmaurice-Kelly, who is a competent judge, “are disfigured by want of humor and by over-refinement”, these faults “turn to virtues in the autos, where abstractions are wedded to the noblest poetry, where the Beyond is brought down to earth, and where doctrinal subtleties are embellished.” Typical autos are “Los encantos de la culpa”, which D. F. MacCarthy translated so skillfully under the title of “The Sorceries of Sin“, “La viva del Senor”, “La siernbra del Senor”, and “La semilla y la cizana”.

In his strictly secular pieces Calderon has succeeded rather by virtue of his lyrism, which is undoubtedly of transcendent quality, than because of any considerable dramatic ingenuity of his own. In fact, fertility of conception as to plot and incident was strikingly lacking in him, he was not in the least loath to borrow ideas from his predecessors and contemporaries, and sometimes he went so far as to appropriate whole sections of their dramas. In the creation and development of character he achieved any high degree of success only occasionally. There is, on the whole, so much of a sameness about his personages and their behavior as to justify the charge of monotony brought against him. To the national principle of blind and unreasoning fealty to the monarch he gives expression in a number of his most read plays, among which are the “El Principe constante”, “La banda y la flora”, and “Guardate de agua manna”. The point of honor, often carried to morbid extremes, provides the motif in such characteristic pieces as the “Alcalde de Zalamea”, the “Pintor de su deshonra”, the “Medico de su honra”, and “A secreto agravio secreta venganza.” The actuating principle in these works can hardly appeal to us; we can feel little sympathy with a personage who methodically and in cold blood slays the one by whom his honor has been affronted. For us such an action is a perversion of the ideals of chivalry. That Calderon could, when he chose to exert himself, attain to some depth of philosophic thought is proved by “La vida es sueflo”, in which there is a wealth of fancy that charms us even despite the occasional bombast and obscurity of the style. A noteworthy piece because of its relation to a philosophic question agitated by Goethe and Marlowe is the “Magico prodigioso”, wherein we have a Spanish treatment of the Faust legend. In conclusion, there may be set down the final judgment upon Calderon by Fitzmaurice-Kelly, a critic not at all too favorable and yet disposed to do justice to his subject. He says that “Calderon takes rank among the greatest authors of the Spanish theatre in that he is the greatest Spanish poet who has had recourse to the dramatic form. His race, his faith, his temperament, his especial environment prevented him from becoming a universal poet; his majesty, his devout lyrism, his decorative fancy suffice to put him in the first rank of national poets.”


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