History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Late Spanish 18th

Leandro Fernández de Moratín

Leandro Fernández de Moratín wrote one of the best comedies of the 18th century. Portrait of the author by Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

Leandro Fernández de Moratín (1760-1828) was the main Spanish dramatist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One of his most notable works in the late 18th century is "La comedia nueva o El café" (The new comedy at the café, 1792).

"The plays which had the greatest vogue and which reached the pinnacle of popularity in the 1780s and 1790s period are those those known generically as the 'comedia heroica, comedia historial, or comedia teatro'. In brief, they were spectacles based principally on historical events. One of the characters in 'The new comedy at the café' best characterized them when she said that they were meant to be performed in a bullring...The public is treated to a series of episodes characteristic of the dramatic fare of the period: an exchange of daggers, the emperor's dream, a prayer by the vizier to his idols, a storm, a council of war, a dance and a funeral...At the beginning of the second act, a mother and child come on stage crying with hunger. The mother heaps imprecations on the lascivious Turkish vizier who starved her for six days because she refused to become his concubine...Moratin's dramatic career coincided with a change in acting style for which he was in part responsible. The movement was away from bombastic delivery and extravagant gesticulation toward naturalness and simplicity...[His play] was the best statement made on theatrical reform. Better than the many treatises and polemics, this creative work, which is theatrical criticism dramatized, summed up all the defects of the old theater and pointed the direction that drama was to take in the new century" (Dowling, 1970 pp 398-402).

"In Spain, historical circumstances contributed to give neoclassicism a privileged moment exactly as it faded elsewhere in Europe [in favor of emerging Romaticism]...The satire here is directed towards pedants who pontificate on literary matters without really knowing what and playwrights who fill the theaters with inferior plays, sometimes revealing their shoddy work, sometimes painfully unaware of their mediocrity, propelled and misguided by the adulation of pedants who do not know any better...As we get acquainted with the play through a series of descriptive references and readings of excerpts from crucial scenes, it becomes obvious that 'The great siege of Vienna' is a third-rate work, poorly written, confusedly plotted, deprived of any dramatic or literary worth, and ideally suited to create pandemonium in the audience. It also becomes clear that Eleuterio, oblivious of the monstrosity he has engendered, is a victim of toadyism on the part of Hermogenes and Serapio, who hope to benefit from their association" (de Aquino, 2003 pp 138-139).

"The new comedy at the café"

Eluterio seeks his friends' approval of his play. Paris edition of "The new comedy", 1825

Time: 1790s. Place: Madrid, Spain.

Text at ?

Eluterio reads aloud his first comedy entitled "The great siege of Vienna" to Antonio and Pedro concerning a woman who dies from starvation but not before pronouncing a lengthy diatribe against a vizier. Antonio murmurs some mild compliments while Pedro calls it stupid. Hermogenus, devoted to Eluterio's sister, Mariquita, settles the question. According to Eluterio, he is the "most eminently capable arbiter of the question that so agitates us". Hermogenus admits that Eluterio has arrived at the "pinnacle of knowledge". But before judgment is rendered, Pedro leaves in disgust at these discussions. Because Hermogenus is threatened by his landlord for failing to pay his rent for a period of 18 months, he and Eluterio are counting on the play's success. Mariquita has doubts about Hermogenus' sincerity either towards the play or her own person, a regrettable fact because her own love has no limits. "Has a Pyramus, a Marc Antony, Ptolemies of Egypt or all the Seleucides of Assyria ever nourished a flame like mine that burns up all my being?" she inquires. Eluterio's sister, Agustina, also has aspirations as an author. She complains of often being distracted from writing by nursing her children. "For learned women, fecundity is a malediction," she asserts. Hermogenus waxes particularly eloquent on the subject of poetry, certain that "verses are written thanks to the pineal gland". But the group is abashed on learning from Eluterio that only three copies of his play were sold. In talking thus, no one has noticed that Hermogenus' watch has stopped and so they are late for the opening of the play. Pedro encounters Antonio, who had left before the ending of the play; he reports hearing among the crowd "a low grumbling sound, harbinger of the storm". The group of friends re-enter defeated by the play's outcome. Mariquita adds further comments on the public reaction. "How agitated they were, how they coughed, how they yawned! At last from all sides infernal noise!" The famine scene was interrupted by ironic applause and out the public went. Hermogenus now agrees with public opinion, and is cursed by all for his hypocrisy. Having lost him, Marquita becomes anxious as to her future. "Sixteen of age already and without a husband!" she exclaims. Due to his play's failure, Eluterio is also worried about the future, mainly because of impending poverty, all the more so with having to care for a family of four children, none older than six years old. He is rescued by Pedro, who hires the playwright to free him from his debts.