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Conclusion of the Spanish Drama. State of Letters during the reign of the house of Bourbon. Conclusion of the History of Spanish Literature.
EUROPE has wholly forgotten the admiration with which, for so long a period, she regarded the Spanish stage, and the transport with which she received so many new dramatic pieces; pieces teeming with romantic incidents, intrigues, disguises, duels, personages unknown to themselves or to others, pomp of language, brilliancy of description, and fascinating poetry, mingled with the scenes of active life. In the seventeenth century the Spaniards were regarded as the dictators of the drama, and men of the first genius in other countries borrowed from them without scruple. They endeavoured, it is true, to adapt Castilian subjects to the taste of France and Italy, and to render them conformable to rules which were despised by the Spaniards; but this they did more in deference to the authority of the ancients than to indulge the taste of the people, which, indeed, throughout all Europe was the same as in Spain. At the present day this state of things is reversed, and the Spanish drama is entirely un
known in France and Italy. In those countries it is designated only by the epithet of barbarous; it is no longer studied in England; and the recent celebrity which has been attached to it in Germany, is not yet become a national feeling.
The Spaniards have only themselves to accuse for so rapid a decline and so entire an oblivion. Instead of perfecting themselves, and advancing in that career of glory on which they had entered, they have only copied themselves, and retraced a thousand times their own footsteps, without adding any thing to an art, of which they might have been the creators, and without introducing into it any variety. They had witnessed two men of genius, who composed their plays in the course of a few days, or rather hours. They thought themselves obliged to imitate this rapidity, and they abstained from all care and correction, not less scrupulously than a dramatic author in France would have insisted on them. They considered it essential to their fame to compose their pieces without study; if, indeed, we may speak of fame when they aspired to nothing further than the transitory applause of an idle populace, and the pleasure of novelty, to which a pecuniary profit was attached; while the greater number did not even attempt to attract to their pieces the attention of their well-informed contemporaries, or the judgment of posterity, by committing them to the press.
We have elsewhere spoken of the Commedie dell' Arte of the Italians, those extemporaneous masqued pieces, with given characters, often repeated jests, and incidents which we have met with twenty times before, but adapted, well or ill, to a new piece. The Spanish school which was contemporary with Calderon, and which succeeded him, may with propriety be compared to these Commedie dell' Arte. The extemporaneous part was produced with a little more deliberation; since, instead of catching the moment of inspiration on the stage, the author sought it by some hours' labour in his closet. These pieces were composed in verse, but in the running and easy form of the Redondilhas, which naturally flowed from the pen. In other respects, the writer did not give himself more trouble to observe probability, historical facts, or national manners, than an author of the Italian harlequin pieces; nor did he attempt in any greater degree novelty in the characters, the incidents, or the jests, or pay any greater respect to morality. He produced his plays as a manufacture or article of trade; he found it more easy and more lucrative to write a second than to correct the first; and it was with this negligence and precipitation that, under the reign of Philip IV, the stage was deluged with an unheard-of number of pieces.
The titles, the authors, and the history of this innumerable quantity of plays, have escaped not
only the foreigner, who can bestow merely a rapid glance on the literature of other nations, but even those Spanish writers who have exerted themselves most to preserve every production which could contribute to the fame of their country. Each troop of comedians had their own repository, or collection, and endeavoured to retain the sole proprietorship of them; whilst the booksellers, from time to time, printed on speculation pieces which were obtained from the manager oftener than from the author. In this manner were formed those collections of Comedias varias, which we find in libraries, and which were almost always printed without correction, criticism, or judgment. The works of individuals were scarcely ever collected or published separately; and chance more than the taste of the public has saved some from amongst the crowd which have perished. Chance, too, has led me to peruse many which bave not been perused by Boutterwek, Schlegel, Dieze, and other critics. Thus every opinion on the personal merit of each author becomes necessarily vague and uncertain. We should have more reason to regret this confusion, if the character of the poets were to be found in their writings; if it were possible to assign to each his rank, and to distinguish his style or principles; but the resemblance is so great, that we could readily believe all these pieces to have been written by the same hand; and if any one of them has an advantage.
over the others, it seems more attributable to the happy choice of the subject, or to some historical trait, romance, or intrigue, which the author has had the good fortune to select, than to the talent with which they are treated.
Among the various collections of Spanish plays, the pieces which have most excited my curiosity are anonymous. I refer more particularly to those which were published as the work of a poet of the court; de un Ingenio de esta Corte. It is known that Philip IV. wrote several pieces for the stage under this name, and we may readily imagine that those which were supposed to come from his pen would be more eagerly sought after than others by the public. It is not impossible for a very good king to write very bad plays; and Philip IV, who was any thing rather than a good king, or a distinguished man, had still less chance of succeeding as a poet. It is, nevertheless, curious to observe a monarch's view of private life, and what notion a person entertains of society, who is, by his rank, elevated above all participation in it. Those plays, too, which, though not the work of the king, were yet written by some of his courtiers, his officers of state, or his friends, might, on that account, attract our notice; but nothing can be more vague than the title of these pieces, as an unknown individual may easily arrogate to himself a rank which we have no means of as