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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Calderon’s Dramas

By George Ticknor (1791–1871)

[From History of Spanish Literature. 1849.—Revised Edition. 1871.]

CALDERON has added to the stage no new form of dramatic composition. Nor has he much modified those forms which had been already arranged and settled by Lope de Vega. But he has shown more technical exactness in combining his incidents, and adjusted everything more skilfully for stage effect. He has given to the whole a new coloring, and, in some respects, a new physiognomy. His drama is more poetical in its tone and tendencies, and has less the air of truth and reality, than that of his great predecessor. In its more successful portions,—which are rarely objectionable from their moral tone,—it seems almost as if we were transported to another and more gorgeous world, where the scenery is lighted up with unknown and preternatural splendor, and where the motives and passions of the personages that pass before us are so highly wrought, that we must have our own feelings not a little stirred and excited before we can take an earnest interest in what we witness, or sympathize in its results. But even in this he is successful. The buoyancy of life and spirit that he has infused into the gayer divisions of his drama, and the moving tenderness that pervades its graver and more tragical portions, lift us unconsciously to the height where alone his brilliant exhibitions can prevail with our imaginations,—where alone we can be interested and deluded, when we find ourselves in the midst, not only of such a confusion of the different forms of the drama, but of such a confusion of the proper limits of dramatic and lyrical poetry.

To this elevated tone, and to the constant effort necessary in order to sustain it, we owe much of what distinguishes Calderon from his predecessors, and nearly all that is most individual and characteristic in his separate merits and effects. It makes him less easy, graceful, and natural than Lope. It imparts to his style a mannerism, which, notwithstanding the marvellous richness and fluency of his versification, sometimes wearies and sometimes offends us. It leads him to repeat from himself till many of his personages become standing characters, and his heroes and their servants, his ladies and their confidants, his old men and his buffoons, seem to be produced, like the masked figures of the ancient theatre, to represent, with the same attributes and in the same costume, the different intrigues of his various plots. It leads him, in short, to regard the whole of the Spanish drama as a mere form, within whose limits his imagination may be indulged without restraint; and in which Greeks and Romans, heathen divinities, and the supernatural fictions of Christian tradition, may be all brought out in Spanish fashions and Spanish feelings, and led, through a succession of ingenious and interesting adventures, to the catastrophes their stories happen to require.

In carrying out this theory of the Spanish drama, Calderon, as we have seen, often succeeds, and often fails. But when he succeeds, his success is of no common character. He then sets before us only models of ideal beauty, perfection, and splendor;—a world, he would have it, into which nothing should enter but the highest elements of the national genius. There, the fervid, yet grave, enthusiasm of the old Castilian heroism; the chivalrous adventures of modern, courtly honor; the generous self-devotion of individual loyalty; and that reserved, but passionate love, which, in a state of society where it was so rigorously withdrawn from notice, became a kind of unacknowledged religion of the heart;—all seem to find their appropriate home. And when he has once brought us into this land of enchantment, whose glowing impossibilities his own genius has created, and has called around him forms of such grace and loveliness as those of Clara and Doña Angela, or heroic forms like those of Tuzani, Mariamne, and Don Ferdinand, then he has reached the highest point he ever attained, or ever proposed to himself;—he has set before us the grand show of an idealized drama, resting on the purest and noblest elements of the Spanish national character, and one which, with all its unquestionable defects, is to be placed among the extraordinary phenomena of modern poetry.