Pedro Calderon de la Barca

Pedro Calderon de la Barca

(1600 – 1681)

Pedro CalderonPedro Calderon de la Barca grew up in a strict household, an experience that left its mark on his later plays, many of which treat characters who disobey their dictatorial fathers. He was trained to take up a life in the church, but by his early twenties he was writing dramas for the court and serving in a noble household. Soon he became part of the small inner circle of confidantes to King Philip IV (r.1621–1665), and he was eventually to be knighted in1636. In these years his plays were performed, not only at court, but in the public theaters that were then popular in Madrid, Spain’s capital. With the death of Felix Lope de Vega in 1635, Calderón came to be recognized as the greatest living Spanish dramatist.

In 1640, Pedro Calderon took up a military career when rebellion broke out among King Philip’s Catalanese subjects, but when he was injured in the conflict, he retired from military service. In the years that followed he sired an illegitimate child, but a few years later decided to enter the priesthood. In 1651, he announced that he would write no longer for the stage. Although he largely held to this vow, refusing to write for the public theaters in Madrid, he did author plays for private performance in Spain’s royal court. For the remaining thirty years of his life he also authored each year autos sacramentales, or religious plays, for Madrid’s celebrations of the Feast of Corpus Christi. In these years he also served as the priest to the king.

Pedro Calderon’s career coincided with massive changes in Spain’s political andcultural life. At the time of his birth Spain had recently suffered setbacks as a result of its conflicts with England and its prolonged involvements in the Dutch revolts. At the same time, the country possessed strong reserves of wealth and of intellectual life that continued to make it one of the most cultivated centers of learning in Europe. The Spanish public theater, which had begun to grow in Madrid and other cities throughout Iberia, had developed the form of the comedia in the first three decades of the seventeenth century into a high art form. At first, there was little difference between the dramas that were performed in the many corrales in towns like Madrid or Seville and those that entertained Spain’s cultivated aristocrats, and the troupes that had performed in these theaters had often staged their productions before the king and court. 

The source of Spain’s political and economic weaknesses were becoming increasingly evident in these years, however, as the monarchy failed to hold on to Holland and the other northern Dutch provinces and as it faced increasing resistance in Iberia itself. In 1640, Spain’s theaters were closed when revolts in Catalonia and Portugal threatened public order. Even as Spain’s domestic life grew more disordered and its economy more sluggish, Philip IV and his successors sponsored the development of an elite courtly theater for their own amusement. The corrales that had flourished in Madrid and other centers had been little more than ad hoc affairs remodeled out of existing courtyards that surrounded Spain’s major monasteries. The country’s religious confraternities had used public theaters as fund-raising opportunities to support their charitable endeavors. In 1533, though, Philip IV’s new Madrid palace, the Buen Retiro, was completed, and among the new amenities it featured was a theater that made use of recent Italian innovations.The Buen Retiro provided for changes in scenery and other staging elements that raised the quality of court productions to the level of Baroque art. Pedro Calderon’s decision to pursue a religious career, and his refusal to write for the public stage, then, must be evaluated against his subsequent activities at court. For in the years that followed his taking of priestly vows, the dramatist continued to write dramatic works for the court, and to contribute to the experimentation that was occurring at the Buen Retiro in the development of a Spanish form of opera.

Pedro Calderon Life is a DreamIn 1648, he wrote the first of his zarzuelas, a native Spanish art form that mixed spoken dialogue with songs in a two-act format. He followed up these experiments with the zarzuela format with other experimental works, and a few years later collaborated in the staging of the first Spanish opera. Like the drama that was being written at roughly the same time by Corneille and Racine in the French court, the works that Pedro Calderon prepared for the court were not realistic, but highly artificial. His dramatic productions, for instance, were not intended to be a naturalistic mirror of the world, but presented a highly formalized artistic vision of reality that might cause audiences to pause and ponder their underlying meanings.

Much of the theater of seventeenth century Spain had revolved around the question of honor, and in inane and silly comedies play wrightshad often developed a formula in which the Spanish honor code was questioned, but yet emerged triumphant. In contrast to this trend, Pedro Calderon’s art was subtler, and his reputation even at the time was considerably greater than the many craftsman like dramatists that Spain produced. His most important works rise to the level of high art. In plays like Life is a Dream, Calderón explored perennial questions about the nature of free will and predestination, and he made major statements as profound as those of William Shakespeare about the nature of reality and the human psyche. In other works, like The Painter of His Own Dishonor and The Surgeon of His Honor, he relied on traditional formats like the comedy of intrigues, a venerable format in which various plots and subplots are hatched leading to a final climactic sequence of humorous events. At the same time he deployed the genre to reveal the inanity of certain Spanish customs, including practices like the isolation of young women. At other times, Pedro Calderon laid bare some of the underlying problems with the country’s rigid code of honor. In sum, his works present testimony to an incredibly fertile mind that was fueled by a profound understanding of human capabilities and shortcomings.

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