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Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Pedro Calderón de la BarcaBorn: 17-Jan-1600
Birthplace: Madrid, Spain
Died: 25-May-1681
Location of death: Madrid, Spain
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, Madrid, Spain

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: Hispanic
Occupation: Playwright

Nationality: Spain
Executive summary: La Vida es Sueño

Spanish dramatist and poet, born at Madrid on the 17th of January 1600. His mother, who was of Flemish descent, died in 1610; his father, who was secretary to the treasury, died in 1615. Calderón was educated at the Jesuit College in Madrid with a view to taking orders and accepting a family living; abandoning this project, he studied law at Salamanca, and competed with success at the literary fêtes held in honour of St. Isidore at Madrid (1620-22). According to his biographer, Vera Tassis, Calderón served with the Spanish army in Italy and Flanders between 1625 and 1635; but this statement is contradicted by numerous legal documents which prove that Calderón resided at Madrid during these years. Early in 1629 his brother Diego was stabbed by an actor who took sanctuary in the convent of the Trinitarian nuns; Calderón and his friends broke into the cloister and attempted to seize the offender. This violation was denounced by the fashionable preacher, Hortensio Félix Paravicino, in a sermon preached before Philip IV; Calderón retorted by introducing into El Príncipe constante a mocking reference (afterwards cancelled) to Paravicino's gongoristic verbiage, and was committed to prison. He was soon released, grew rapidly in reputation as a playwright, and, on the death of Lope de Vega in 1635, was recognized as the foremost Spanish dramatist of the age. A volume of his plays, edited by his brother José in 1636, contains such celebrated and diverse productions as La Vida es sueño, El Purgatorio de San Patricia, La Devoción de la cruz, La Dama duende and Peor está que estaba. In 1636-37 he was made a knight of the order of Santiago by Philip IV, who had already commissioned from him a series of spectacular plays for the royal theater in the Buen Retiro. Calderón was almost as popular with the general public as Lope de Vega had been in his zenith; he was, moreover, in high favor at court, but this royal patronage did not help to develop the finer elements of his genius.

On the 28th of May 1640 he joined a company of mounted cuirassiers recently raised by Olivares, took part in the Catalonian campaign, and distinguished himself by his gallantry at Tarragona; his health failing, he retired from the army in November 1642, and three years later was awarded a special military pension in recognition of his services in the field. The history of his life during the next few years is obscure. He appears to have been profoundly affected by the death of his mistress -- the mother of his son Pedro José -- about the year 1648-49; his long connection with the theater had led him into temptations, but it had not diminished his instinctive spirit of devotion, and he now sought consolation in religion. He became a tertiary of the order of St. Francis in 1650, and finally reverted to his original intention of joining the priesthood. He was ordained in 1651, was presented to a living in the parish of San Salvador at Madrid, and, according to his statement made a year or two later, determined to give up writing for the stage. He did not adhere to this resolution after his preferment to a prebend at Toledo in 1653, though he confined himself as much as possible to the composition of autos sacramentales -- allegorical pieces in which the mystery of the Eucharist was illustrated dramatically, and which were performed with great pomp on the feast of Corpus Christi and during the weeks immediately ensuing. In 1662 two of Calderón's autos -- Las órdenes militares and Místicay real Babilonia -- were the subjects of an inquiry by the Inquisition; the former was censured, the manuscript copies were confiscated, and the condemnation was not rescinded untill 1671. Calderón was appointed honorary chaplain to Philip IV in 1663, and the royal favor was continued to him in the next reign. In his eighty-first year he wrote his last secular play, Hado y Divisa de Leonido y Marfisa, in honour of Charles II's marriage to Marie-Louise de Bourbon. Notwithstanding his position at court and his universal popularity throughout Spain, his closing years seem to have been passed in poverty. He died on the 25th of May 1681.

Like most Spanish dramatists, Calderón wrote too much and too speedily, and he was too often content to recast the productions of his predecessors. His Saber del mal y del bien is an adaptation of Lope de Vega's play, Las Mudanzas de la fortuna y sucesos de Don Beltran de Aragón; his Selva confusa is also adapted from a play of Lope's which bears the same title; his Encanto sin encanto derives from Tirso de Molina's Amar por señas, and, to take an extreme instance, the second act of his Cabellos de Absalón is transferred almost bodily from the third act of Tirso's Venganza de Tamar. It would be easy to add other examples of Calderón's lax methods, but it is simple justice to point out that he committed no offense against the prevailing code of literary morality. Many of his contemporaries plagiarized with equal audacity, but with far less success. Sometimes, as in El Alcalde de Zalamea, the bold procedure is completely justified by the result; in this case by his individual treatment he transforms one of Lope de Vega's rapid improvisations into a finished masterpiece.

It was not given to him to initiate a great dramatic movement; he came at the end of a literary revolution, was compelled to accept the conventions which Lope de Vega had imposed on the Spanish stage, and he accepted them all the more readily since they were peculiarly suitable to the display of his splendid and varied gifts. Not a master of observation nor an expert in invention, he showed an unexampled skill in contriving ingenious variants on existing themes; he had a keen dramatic sense, an unrivalled dexterity in manipulating the mechanical resources of the stage, and in addition to these minor indispensable talents he was endowed with a lofty philosophic imagination and a wealth of poetic diction. Naturally, he had the defects of his great qualities; his ingenuity is apt to degenerate into futile embellishment; his employment of theatrical devices is the subject of his own good-humored satire in No hay burlas con el amor; his philosophic intellect is more interested in theological mysteries than in human passions; and the delicate beauty of his style is tinged with a wilful preciosity.

Excelling Lope de Vega at many points, Calderón falls below his great predecessor in the delineation of character. Yet in almost every department of dramatic art Calderón has obtained a series of triumphs. In the symbolic drama he is best represented by El Principe constante, by El Mágico prodigioso (familiar to English readers in Shelley's free translation), and by La Vida es sueño, perhaps the most profound and original of his works. His tragedies are more remarkable for their acting qualities than for their convincing truth, and the fact that in La Niña de Gomez Arias he interpolates an entire act borrowed from Velez de Guevara's play of the same title seems to indicate that this kind of composition awakened no great interest in him; but in El Médico de sa honra and El Mayor monstruo los celos the theme of jealousy is handled with sombre power, while El Alcalde de Zalamea is one of the greatest tragedies in Spanish literature. Calderón is seen to much less advantage in the spectacular plays -- dramas de tramoya -- which he wrote at the command of Philip IV; the dramatist is subordinated to the stage-carpenter, but the graceful fancy of the poet preserves even such a mediocre piece as Los Tres Mayores prodigios (which won him his knighthood) from complete oblivion. A greater opportunity is afforded in the more animated comedias palaciegas, or melodramatic pieces destined to be played before courtly audiences in the royal palace: La Banda y la flor and El Gallán fantasma are charming illustrations of Calderón's genial conception and refined artistry. His historical plays (La Gran Cenobia, Las armas de la hermosura, etc.) are the weakest of all his formal dramatic productions; El Golfo de la sirenas and La Púrpura de la rosa are typical zarzuelas, to be judged by the standard of operatic libretti, and the entremeses are lacking in the lively humor which should characterize these dramatic interludes. On the other hand, Calderón's faculty of ingenious stagecraft is seen at its best in his "cloak-and-sword" plays (comedias de capa y espada) which are invaluable pictures of contemporary society. They are conventional, no doubt, in the sense that all representations of a specially artificial society must be conventional; but they are true to life, and are still as interesting as when they first appeared. In this kind No siempre lo peor es cierto, La Dama duende, Una casa con dos puertas mala es de guardar and Guárdate del agua mansa are almost unsurpassed. But it is as a writer of autos sacramentales that Calderón defies rivalry: his intense devotion, his subtle intelligence, his sublime lyrism all combine to produce such marvels of allegorical poetry as La Cena del rey Baltasar, La Viñi del Senor and La Serpiente de metal. The autos lingered on in Spain until 1765, but they may be said to have died with Calderón, for his successors merely imitated him with a tedious fidelity. Almost alone among Spanish poets, Calderón had the good fortune to be printed in a fairly correct and readable edition (1682-91), thanks to the enlightened zeal of his admirer, Juan de Vera Tassis y Villaroel, and owing to this happy accident he came to be regarded generally as the first of Spanish dramatists. The publication of the plays of Lope de Vega and of Tirso de Molina has affected the critical estimate of Calderón's work; he is seen to be inferior to Lope de Vega in creative power, and inferior to Tirso de Molina in variety of conception. But, setting aside the extravagances of his admirers, he is admittedly an exquisite poet, an expert in the dramatic form, and a typical representative of the devout, chivalrous, patriotic and artificial society in which he moved.

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