The Cave of Salamanca

Ocho ComediasYesterday, I picked up a book from the library (in the closed stacks), A Treasury of the Theatre. The reason was that it included one of Cervantes’s plays, and I have been keen to read his theatrical work because it was not considered good at the time and is generally discounted today. Melveena McKendrick notes that his genius is for character and not drama, so his plays don’t tend to work well.

In 1615, he published Ocho Cemedias, a collection of eight short comedic plays that, like most of his theatrical work, had not been performed. Some of these plays sound like too much fun. For example, The Divorce-Court Judge presents a married couple who seem happy to be constantly bickering. It sounds funny, right? But I know what you’re thinking, “Most of Shakespeare’s comedy lies flat on the page, Cervantes’ must do the same.” But whether it is because Cervantes is just funnier than Shakespeare or because the work has been translated in the 20th century, this is not true. According to the Glasgow University Library:

Cervantes could create character and write sparkling dialogue, but he was unable to sustain dramatic tension for any length cf time, nor could he develop a plot logically. But in these short satirical sketches where character and witty dialogue are more important than plot he succeeds brilliantly.

Take The Cave of Salamanca for example (translated by Edwin Honig). It starts:

[Enter Pancracio, Leonarda and Cristina]

pancracio: Mistress, dry those tears and stop your sighing. Remember, I’ll be away four days, not centuries. On the fifth day, at the latest, I’ll be back, God preserve me. But if it upsets you so, just say the word and I’ll break my promise and give up the trip altogether. Surely my sister can get married there without me.

leonarda: Pancracio, dear lord and master, I don’t want you to be discourteous because of me. Go now, God speed you, and meet your obligation, since the matter is so pressing. My grief I’ll keep to myself and spend the lonely hours as best I can. Only, I beg you to come back and not stay any longer than you promised. Oh, help me, Cristina, I’ve a pain in my heart!

[Leonarda faints]

cristina: Ah, weddings and holidays—such dreadful things! Indeed, sir, if I were you, I’d never go there.

pancracio: Run inside, girl, and get me a glass of water to throw in her face. No, wait, I know a few magic words I’ll whisper in her ear: they can revive people who faint.

[He speaks the words and Leonarda recovers, saying]

leonarda: Enough. It can’t be helped. I must be patient. My dear, the more you linger, the longer you delay my happiness. You friend Leoniso should be waiting for you in the carriage. God be with you and bring you back as quickly and safely as I could wish.

pancracio: If you want me to stay, my angel, I’ll be like a statue and not budge an inch.

leonarda: No, no, sweet comfort. Your wish is my desire, which means you must leave and not stay here, for your honor and mine are one and the same.

cristina: Oh, mirror of matrimony! If all wives cherished their husbands as my mistress loves hers, they’d sing a different tune.

leonarda: Go get my shawl, Cristiana. I must see your master safely off in his carriage.

pancracio: No, I beg you. Kiss me, but stay here, please. Cristina, be sure and cheer up your mistress, and I’ll get you a pair of shoes when I return.

cristina: On your way, sir, and don’t you worry about my mistress. I’ll see to it we both enjoy ourselves so she won’t miss your absence.

leonarda: Enjoy myself? Me? What a fantastic idea! Without my love beside me, I can know no bliss or joy, only grief and sorrow.

pancracio: I cannot bear this any longer. Ah, light of my eyes, farewell; I’ll see nothing to delight me will I gave upon you once again.

[Exit Pancracio]

leonarda: Good-bye, and good riddance to you! Go, and don’t come back! Vanish, go up like smoke in thin air! Good God, this time all your bluster and squeamishness don’t move me a bit!

cristina: And I was afraid your sweet nothings would keep him here and spoil our fun.

leonarda: Do you think our guest will really come tonight?

cristina: And why not? I’ve been in touch with them, and they’re just dying to come.

And so it goes. A student shows up looking for a place to stay for the night. He helps out as a servant when the two gentlemen callers arrive. Then the carriage that the husband was in breaks down and he returns home. Quickly, the lovers and student are hidden. The student is discovered, but he claims to be able to do magic and calls forward demons in the form of the two lovers. And they all enjoy the previously planned feast, with the husband none the wiser.

The whole thing probably runs about 15 minutes, and it is delightful from beginning to end. The characters are certainly as well-drawn as any in Shakespeare or Marlowe. But the most important thing is that the play is funny. In performance, I can imagine it being a riot.

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