Monday, July 6, 2015

plays as doughnuts - Lope de Vega's revolutionary Fuenteovejuna

Spanish Literature Month is here as decreed by Caravana de Recuerdos and Winstonsdad’s Blog.  I am lucky enough to have a vacation coming up, so I needed something short and punchy.  I revisited a couple of plays, Siglo de Oro masterpieces.

Now, Fuente Ovejuna (1619) by Félix Lope de Vega, author of five hundred plays, among other works.  Author, reputedly, of fifteen hundred plays – see Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer for evidence: “I could gobble up the fifteen hundred plays of Lope de Vega in one sitting.”  But that number is a myth.  A mere five hundred, just ten a year if he started young.  Not even one a month, for his entire adult life.  I have read three, I think.

I have never come across a critic who has read enough of them to deliver much of a judgment.  There must be some real duds among the five hundred, although what I really wonder is how deeply I could go before they became too repetitive or obscure.  Thirty more?  A hundred?  This passage from Fuente Ovejuna, which is otherwise not about play writing, may be instructive:

Talking of poets, have you not
Seen doughnut-bakers at their toil
Chuck chunks of dough into the oil
To fill their cauldron on the boil?
Some come out cooked, some come out charred,
Some come out soft, some come out hard.
Well, that’s how poets (I suppose)
Deal with the poems they compose.  (Act II, p. 109)

Fuente Ovejuna is one of the soft, well-cooked doughnuts, often called Lope’s greatest play, although who would really know?  The title (which is really Fuenteovejuna, the two word version being a kind of translation) is the name of a town, Sheep Fountain, which is being terrorized by a nobleman who is riding high as a war hero.  Whatever his knightly virtues, he cannot keep his hands off of the women. In the fast-paced final act, the villages rise against the knight, murdering him and – in the most shocking part of the play – maintaining their solidarity in the face of torture.

JUDGE: No scrap of writing can I bring in proof
Because, with one accord and single valour,
When to the question racked, they all reply:
“Fuente Ovejuna did it” and no more.
Three hundred of them, tortured on the rack
With terrible severity, replied
No other answer.  Little boys of ten
Were stretched yet it was useless.  (134)

There were passages that had me murmuring the date – 1619, no kidding.  The play was once a favorite of Marxist revolutionaries.  If it has not had a feminist revival, it should (the following characters are all women).

LAURENCIA.  Halt at this door.  You are no longer women
  But desperate legionnaires.
PASCUALA.                               Those poor old pansies
  We once called men, it seems, are men once more
  And letting out his blood!
JACINTA.                               Throw down his body
  And we’ll impale the carcass on our spears.

Wild.  There are some limits in the text, as one might expect, on how far a 17th century Spanish play can really go as early 20th century agitprop – I assume the Communists omitted certain parts – but still, wow, that last act.

The page number refer to Eric Bentley’s Life Is a Dream and Other Spanish Classics (1985), a great book that also includes The Trickster of Seville, Life Is a Dream, and a Cervantes play I do not think is that interesting.  The translator is the South African poet Roy Campbell.

18 comments:

  1. It's hard to explain how despised Lope was by his contemporary fellow writers. People trying to write with erudition and in a language similar to Shakespeare or Montaigne where faced with the plain (Vega) vocabulary and cockamamie 'facts' (disparates) found in Lope's plays.

    As someone once mocked: "I once saw galleys sailing through the desert/And six horses galloping on the highway/ between Palermo and the Blessed Isles/ I too learned that Famagosta is located inside/ the Basque provinces and Persia in the Alps."

    Lope's rhymes are indeed lazy and his verses mostly plain, but his new way of writing plays was extremely efficient for quickly delivering dramatic effects, and his progressive views were unprecedented, centuries ahead of his time: "El duque debe de ser/ de aquellos cuya opinión/ en tomando posesión/ quieren en casa tener/ como alhaja a la mujer, / para adorno, lustre y gala/ silla o escritorio en sala;/ y es termino que condeno,/ porque con marido bueno,/ cuando se vio mujer mala?". "The Duke must be /one of those men in whose opinion / after marrying them, like a possession /locked in their home want to keep, / just like jewels, their wives, /to become ornamental luster and trophies,/ furniture, chairs or desks for indoors,/ and I condemn these practices, / because with a good husband / when has any woman turned bad?

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  2. I spent some of the first two acts - more ordinary material - wondering if I had misremembered the play. But no. One of literature's greatest hacks.

    If I count television and movie scripts, there must be many more recent writers who have matched Lope's record, in terms of quantity.

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  3. Roy Campbell was South African.

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  4. Thanks, I made the correction. I did not realize, and Bentley never mentions it.

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  5. I've been thinking about reading de Vega for Spanish Lit Month, especially since you'd recommended him a couple years ago. This provides further and ample incentive.

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  6. The Knight of Olmedo is good - really different than Fuente Ovejuna - but after that I have trouble remembering exactly what I read. Just one or two others, but which?

    The more baroque or humanistic side of Lope is worth seeing, too, in his novel-in-dialogue La Dorotea.

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  7. laurie lee stayed with campbell for a while when he was walking through spain. they drank a whole bunch; campbell came across as rather hemingwayesque.

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  8. Campbell's own life is a wild story.

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  9. I once tried cracking a joke on the lines of "As de Vega said - there goes another play!" But the joke fell on stony ground, and, no doubt thankfully, I haven't tried cracking that one since.

    I have the Oxford World Classics edition of 3 of the 150 - including Fuente Ovejuna - translated by Gwynne Edwards, but I must confess I haven't read any of them yet. Inspired by your post, I think I'll try one of them - Fuente Ovejuna, most likely - this weekend.

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  10. Ah, the Oxford book has a Lope play I am sure I did not read, called Punishment without Revenge / El castigo sin venganza. I could track it down for next July.

    Actually for next July I should plan ahead and make time for La Regenta.

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    1. Yes, "Punishment Without Revenge" and "Knight from Olmedo" are the other two plays in this volume. And I may well join you for "La regenta".

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    2. I will try to plan far enough ahead for La Regenta. It is one long book.

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    3. I may well read La Regenta again with you. What a treat. It is a long book but one I did not want to put down - or want to end.

      I've picked up a trio of Lope de Vega's plays - the Oxford book.

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    4. All right, July 2016: La Regenta! Spanish Literature Month all planned, a year in advance.

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  11. I'm sorry I haven't read this in time to coincide with you, but what a fine and well-cooked doughnut of a post! I didn't know about or remember Henry Miller's fondness for Lope de Vega, for example, and those bits you highlighted from the final act have me looking forward to this for when I finally get around to it (prob. during your vacation alas). Buen viaje, by the way!

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  12. Unlike a real doughnut, this one will stay tasty if you set it aside.

    That Miller line about Lope is very close to the only thing I remember from that anti-novel.

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  13. Talking of poets, have you not
    Seen doughnut-bakers at their toil
    Chuck chunks of dough into the oil
    To fill their cauldron on the boil?
    Some come out cooked, some come out charred,
    Some come out soft, some come out hard.
    Well, that’s how poets (I suppose)
    Deal with the poems they compose. (Act II, p. 109)

    - Love this. Safe to say my poetry consistently comes out not like a doughnut at all, but the sad remains of what might once have been a doughnut.

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  14. It works pretty well as a self-contained poem. Yes, most attempts at poetry just disintegrate in the frier.

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