Monday, July 7, 2014

The Trickster of Seville by Tirso de Molina - The sumptuous Tagus swirls its train - in which I emphasize the wrong parts of the play

Caravana de Recuerdos invited people to read the great 1630 play The Trickster of Seville and His Guest of Stone by Tirso de Molina, so I thought I would revisit it.  I am glad I did.  Tirso de Molina is hardly an artist at the level of his contemporary Pedro Calderón de la Barca, but he managed something rare.  He was the first person, apparently, to write down the story of the womanizer Don Juan, one of those unusual fictional characters who has had a long metaphorical life outside of any particular text.

Simpler Pastimes, who read the play in Spanish, writes that the play is “not perhaps the best known” version of the story, which is “likely” the Mozart and da Ponte opera Don Giovanni (1787).  Very droll!  The Trickster of Seville is no better than fourth, discounting film versions, also trailing Molière’s brilliant 1665 version and Byron’s glorious, enormous reconfiguration of the character (1819+).  Well, maybe not so many people read Byron anymore.

Tomorrow I will write a bit about a Selma Lagerlöf booj which, to my surprise, turned out to be another Don Juan retelling.

This first version, more than that of Molière or da Ponte, is not just a seducer but a sociopath, not just chaotic but evil.  Maybe not a lot more.  He is irresistible to some women, but delights as much in tricking them into sex – impersonating their lovers, for example.  He not only has no interest in the consequences of his sexual affairs, but seems to actively enjoy the damage.  He is for a time protected from the consequences by his powerful patrons, until, as was inevitable, he is burned to death by a vengeful statue.

Readers of English plays contemporary with Tirso de Molina will likely be amazed, as I am, by the looseness and rapidity of the play, even compared to Marlowe or Shakespeare.  They may also be surprised by the intrusions of early modern erudition.  I did not remember this stuff at all.

DON GONZALO:  Why, Lisbon is the world’s eighth wonder!
Cleaving the heart if her asunder
To travel half the breadth of Spain,
The sumptuous Tagus swirls its train
And through the ranges rolls its thunder
To enter deep in to the main
Along the sacred wharves of Lisbon
Of which it laves the southern side. (Act I, p. 156)

None of the play’s scenes are set in Lisbon, yet this speech about the city goes on for four pages, covering Lisbon’s ships, fortifications, religious institutions, and royal court.  When I last read this play I must have been baffled, but now I at least know that this is a city encomium, a genre popular, if that is the right word, with early modern humanists, but that has not survived so well.

A bit earlier, a shipwrecked Don Juan washes ashore and into the arms of a fisher girl who talks like this:

THISBE:  Here where the slumbrous suns tread, light
And lazy, on the blue waves’ trance,
And wake the sapphires with delight
To scare the shadows as they glance;
Here by white sands, so finely spun
They seem like seeded pearls to shine,
Or else like atoms of the sun
Gilded in heaven;  [etc. etc. etc.]  (Act I, pp. 148-9)

In other words, the play suddenly turns into a pastoral poem – other characters do not talk like this – or more specifically into a parody of Luis de Góngora’s baroque reworking of pastoral poetry in Los Soledades.  Now I wonder which other passages are actually borrowings from Horace or whoever.

Honestly, if I were performing the play I would cut all of this learnedness.  I am emphasizing the aspects of the play least likely to attract readers.  Well, there is too much reading as it is; I have always thought that. And come on, it’s the story of Don Juan – seductions, murder, madness, a funny servant, a terrifying supernatural statue along with occasional detours into obscure early modern modes.  It’s a great story.  Subsequent writers have made that clear enough.

I read Roy Campbell’s translation, found in Eric Bentley’s Life Is a Dream and Other Spanish Classics, which contains at least two plays better than The Trickster of Seville.


  1. Horace huh? The verses just before Catilinon first speaks with Thisbe, are inspired by Horace's ode 1.3:

    Mal haya aquél que primero
    pinos en el mar sembró
    y el que sus rumbos midió
    con quebradizo madero
    ¡Maldito sea el vil sastre
    que cosió el mar que dibuja
    con astronómica aguja,
    causando tanto desastre!
    ¡Maldito sea Jasón,
    y Tifis maldito sea!
    Muerto está. No hay quien lo crea.

    Triple bronze and oak
    encircled the breast of the man
    who first entrusted his fragile bark
    to the cruel sea; he feared neither
    the fierce south-westerlies fighting
    with the North winds, nor the grim Hyades,
    nor the rage of the South wind;
    Illi robur et aes triplex
    circa pectus erat, qui fragilem truci
    commisit pelago ratem
    primus, nec timuit praecipitem Africum
    decertantem Aquilonibus
    nec tristis Hyadas nec rabiem Noti,

  2. I knew it!

    Not that I guessed that passage in particular, although I should have.


  3. Tirso de Molina is halfway between poets who write plays (e.g. Shakespeare, Racine) where a lot of their verses can be read as great poetry, and prodigiously productive playwrights (Lope de Vega, Goldoni) where the text of their plays is either prose or the verses are mostly very plain and facile.

    On the other hand, Goldoni is still hilarious:

    Master Leonardo: This is unbearable! My sister Victoria needs two servants working full time for a month to get ready for a little vacation trip!
    Servant Paolo. You'll have to excuse me sir, but you're wrong. Your sister has hired three more servants to help with her trip preparations because the initial two were not enough.
    Leonardo: Five servants! What are they doing? Sewing her up a new wardrobe?
    Paolo: Don't be silly sir. Of course she hired some seamstresses and a tailor to do that. Bear in mind that she had to have made some new jackets, some new coats, some new hats for the daytime, some new hats for the nighttime, some lace undergarments, some new ribbons, some new flowery dresses and many more pieces of clothing. After all, all of this is sorely needed for a trip to the beach, because you need to dress up more by the seaside than in the city.

    Back to the topic, Carlo Goldoni also wrote a play about Don Juan: 'Don Giovanni Tenorio o sia il dissoluto'. In order to make it a comedy, Goldoni had to remove the tragic ending with the stone guest and Don Juan's comeuppance.

  4. Goldoni is wonderful. I did not know he wrote a Don Juan comedy.

  5. I guess agreeing with you that Tirso isn't Calderón isn't the most original critical position ever, but I was just ever so slightly disappointed with this play given its centuries of hype. That being said, the work did have its moments--which I hope to touch on elsewhere before too long--including the unexpected encomium to Lisbon that you mention (my introduction to the work notes that bits like this were sometimes added to the performance copies of the scripts to curry favor with an intended city's audience). Anyway, thanks for rereading this along with first-timers Amanda and me--you've contributed a valuable perspective as always. Cheers!

  6. My guess is that without Don Juan, the play would have dissolved back into the literary slush pile.

    But now: "One scholar lists 1,720 published variants on the theme since Tirso de Molina printed The Trickster of Seville in 1630".