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.