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from Four plays
by Serafín and Joaquín Álvarez Quintero
(1871-1938) & (1873-1944)
In English versions by
Helen and Harley Granville-Barker
(?-1950) & (1877-1946)
Little, Brown, and Company
Copyright, 1927, 1928,
All rights reserved
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
So runs the inscription round the charming faience fountain in the park of Seville. A tiled space, a square basin fed by running water, flowers, trees overhanging. Surrounding it a bench, and the names of chosen plays are enscrolled along the back. There are even shelves to hold the plays themselves. You may make your own choice, sit there and read. Dominating all, in painted relief, is the two-masted ship, the emblem of the authors.
Not that Serafín and Joaquín Álvarez Quintero are dead! They cannot even be called elderly, though they have it is the fecund Spanish tradition a hundred and fifty plays and more, long and short, to their credit; and they are still writing. But Seville has not waited to acclaim them, for they have enshrined Andalusia in drama, and in turn she does them homage. Serafín was born in 1871, Joaquíin in 1873. They have always collaborated. Their first play was produced in 1888.
The four in this volume are not set forth as necessarily their best, but as representing very fairly their most characteristic work. The Women Have Their Way, a simple picture of life in a little Andalusian town, is the sort of thing for which they are renowned; A Hundred Years Old, we in England would call sentimental comedy; Fortunato is a picaresque farce, with a difference; The Lady from Alfaqueque is a comedy of the Andalusian exiled to the harsher world of Madrid.
The plays really need no prefacing. They will answer for themselves, if we bring as little sophistication to their reading as the authors have brought to the writing of them. But the English theatre (that part of it which takes itself seriously, not to say solemnly) has for a generation past been travelling paths that diverge widely from any such Arcadian dramatic country as the Quinteros inhabit. We have become, perhaps (some of us), a little artistically self-conscious, and a little apt to look down our noses at the simple thing. Not that these plays are artless in the too literal sense of the word; let us not fall into that critic's booby-trap. But as their kind is somewhat out of fashion with us we may have lost our sense of their artistic values; and simplicity was ever art's best disguise. Take The Women Have Their Way. A young Madrid lawyer comes to visit a little Andalusian town. His only thought is to do his business, make himself agreeable to the people he meets, and be off again. But the ladies of the town will have it that he has fallen in love with a pretty girl among them. "Nothing of the sort," he says, and the pretty girl herself most modestly scoffs at the notion. The ladies protest that it is so, they prove by chapter and verse that it is so. And they talk and talk till every tongue in the town wags to the tune; and what every one says is so, surely must be so. And in the end much to the young man's surprise; not so much to the pretty girl's it turns out to be so. And that, and no more, is the play! Its plotlessness might be counted to it for sophisticated righteousness. "How like Tchekov!" one hears the chorus. But where is the mordant philosophy, the ironic character drawing, the criticism of society? Where are the epigrams or, if epigrams are a little outmoded for the moment, where, at least, is the brilliant dialogue? Neither philosophy nor social criticism is thrust on us, and it may almost be said that not a witty or clever remark is made in the whole course of the play. Yet an idea both animates and dominates it, that is none the less an idea for being light in hand. The published play significantly is dedicated
A Don José Echegaray
and its theme is, in fact, the tragedy of El Gran Galeoto turned to laughter.
The dialogue is simple, because this, it could be argued, is how people do talk. But there is a better reason. Such simplicity is attuned to the subject, to its treatment and its scope. The play is all of a piece and an artistic whole. It would be beside the point to stress the difficulties of writing such dialogue; of devising these strings of commonplaces that never sound banal, talk that is lively yet never calculated, that speeds on the action yet never seems to hurry it. For all one knows, the Quinteros may, after long practice, find this easy. If any one thinks there is "nothing in it", let him try! But it is worth remark that these simplicities are what most defeat the translator. Solid, intellectual meat can always be transposed from one language to another, and if style is lost in the process, the substance will endure. But when, as in one or two and not the least important scenes of this play, the dialogue resolves itself for a space into something like a series of mere musical sounds, what is to be done?
Remember that the English equivalent must be as trivial and as swift to speak if the little scene's emphasis is not to be overcharged, and that something of the happy sound of it must be reproduced if the dramatic effect is not to be missed altogether. But this introduction is not the translators' apology.
Note, however, that no less a critic than Azorin, speaking of this very play which he calls its authors' masterpiece and thinks technically most admirable praising the economy of its exposition, praises also this particular quality in its dialogue; a lucid simplicity, he calls it. For a Spanish verdict upon the Quinteros one need hardly look further than Azorin. He places them in the direct line of dramatic succession. From Lope de Vega, he says, the sceptre comes to Moratín. "From Moratín to Bretón, and from Bretón to the Quinteros." And, speaking of more essential qualities, he says of them that their plays show and this is their particular gift a finely adjusted sense of how the dramatic balance must always be held between the individual and society as a whole. In the vigour of Tamayo, and later in the impetuous force of Echegaray, a certain disequilibrium is found. The Quinteros restore the balance and hold it fairly. The "atmosphere", he insists again, for which they are so praised, is by no means the only thing of value about them; their plays are charged with emotional force.
They seem always to be asking themselves (to continue this paraphrase of Azorin's opinion): "Is right on the side of the one or of the many?" They study the social scene in all its detail, perceptively, painstakingly, bringing men and women of all sorts into their picture. But they sway to the end between those two points of view; and if their own standpoint seems to reflect a certain mild scepticism, it reflects pity and sympathy too. They seem quite unable to take one side against the other. Through all their work sounds this placid note. But now and then, by a sudden turn, comedy becomes tragedy, and we find that they have led us, all unaware, to some battle-ground of emotion. Yet however tragic the conflict we shall condemn no one wholly, hate no one very deeply. The pervading temper of the play will be so gentle, so full of compassion, that hate and anger and violence will seem to have no place there. And it may be that our own compassion, thus subdued, will be the deeper and the more enduring.
It is true. Nothing (to finish with Azorin) that the Quinteros may have to say will be pretentiously thrust on us. We may think, mistakenly, that they have nothing to say. But if we will but surrender our minds to the simple story, and let our imaginations absorb the very homely picture, we shall find life interpreted there.
The English-speaking theatre, it could be argued, broke the shackles of Sardou, a generation back, only to take on the equally alien shackles of Ibsen, and ran some risk in so doing of becoming intellectually pretentious. Ibsen, a poet and a great dramatist, was a philosopher besides and had something to say. Bernard Shaw, using drama like a flail, has much to say; and doubtless there are others. But the average man even the average playwright is not necessarily seething with a message for mankind whenever he opens his mouth; and of all tiresome things in the world, sham philosophy is the most tiresome. The example of the Quinteros, then, may not come amiss. Their work is evidence, at least, that great skill, taste, and judgment can be set to produce very simple effects which will yet not be artistically negligible.
It was a pity that the English theatre produced no worthy successor to T.W. Robertson, no one to enrich his technique, to bring a more catholic view of life and a robuster mind to play-writing. A Hundred Years Old, turn its Spanish environment to English, might be the work of a later Robertson. It is unashamedly sentimental; but is wholesome sentiment to be anathema? And see with what artistic tact the authors have placed the sentiment in the mouths of a very old man and a very young girl, have kept them briskly merry besides, and have surrounded them with vigorous comedy.
Further, one gathers that Spanish audiences must like acting for its own sake, must enjoy the interpreting of character, like to see pictured before them the comings and goings of ordinary folk, just a little heightened, coloured, clarified, made more purposeful by art. A "superior" drama, grown superior to acting, lies on its death-bed. Neo-Ibsenism in England drifted perilously towards that state. Plays grew so austerely intellectual that their performance seemed a profanation; and we saw the actors moving apologetically through their parts as if they had been told that they were rather vulgar people with no real right there at all. Not that acting is to be rescued from such nihilism as a yet later school seems to hold by the study of voice-production and the principles of psychology, or eurhythmics, or by some knowledge of anatomy and of the history of costume; excellent as these things are in their way, and good education, not for actors only. For neither is acting the art of physical and intellectual posing. It is concerned, first and last, with the vivid interpretation of life. Not, again, that the Quinteros write plays merely to provide good parts in them for actors. Their attitude is a sounder one than that. They see the theatre very much as our own Elizabethan dramatists saw it and as Spanish dramatists of that day saw it. Spain, indeed has held, in this as in other things, to a tradition that England lost. For the Quinteros, acting, with its airs and grace, its tricks if you will, and its simple triumphs, holds not only a legitimate but a most honourable place in the dramatic scheme. Their plays are conceived solely to be brought to bring upon the stage, and after to live a normal life there. No unnatural burdens deform the action; nor are the characters ever as good men struggling with the adversity of their authors' private opinions upon this point or the other. A character has, indeed, seldom any duty to do by the Quinteros but to abound in its own sense; consequently even the most subordinate will be effective. On the other hand for we all have the defects of our qualities they do not always discipline their work into a very self-contained perfection. Generous in opportunity to its actors, they rely on them now and then (yet again as our Elizabethans did) to cover up a slap-dash crudity or so. The construction of The Lady from Alfaqueque could hardly be held up by Professor George Pierce Baker to his Yale students as a shining example of "how to do it." The characters move in and out all too obviously to the convenience of their authors; and oh, horrible! will even fill up time, if need be, with a soliloquy. Apparently the Quinteros' only care is to make it an amusing soliloquy. Truly this is most incorrect. But then by what amount of study, by what following or breaking of rules (as Professor Baker will sigh and smile to admit) does one learn to devise such scenes of pure comedy as that in which Adoracion innocently "blows the gaff", as that last one in which Felipe is left triumphantly declaiming his poem to an audience of his victims? And it is these things and the like that make the play. In art it is sometimes paradoxically true that the strength of a chain is not that of its weakest but of its strongest link.
Now and again these authors will provide their actors with such a piece of bravura as Fortunato. And what actor, one asks, will not rise up and bless them for the pure histrionics of the robbing of the blind beggar, for the St. Sebastien-like immolation which ends this "tragic-farce"? Fortunato, however, has other claims on our interest than this. It is done in the true Spanish vein; that picaresque vein which has shown its streaks of influence in European literature for these three hundred years. Here it is in a modern manifestation. Its episodic form is typically Spanish too. And, like most good farces one might say, indeed, there could be no exception to the rule its fun is rooted in a fundamentally serious idea. The secret of the successfully comic actor does not, for his part, lie in the fact that he is a funny man, a fellow that can make us laugh once, while at his second try we wonder what we laughed at. It lies in his power to make us fond of him. We laugh at Fortunato because he is so very lovable. Another paradox; and one that strikes deeper.
Finally, we recommend these plays to the reader the layman in dramatic matters as veritable pictures of Spanish life seen through the benevolently humorous eyes of their authors. They lose terribly in translation perforce; and doubtless by the shortcomings of their present translators. But we have not been at any pains to disguise and so only emphasize the loss by dressing up their phrases in what might seem Spanish fashion, or by stressing their strangeness. One must, after all, write and speak one language or another. Enough of their virtue should survive translation, if it lies and it does in their truth to human nature. For this does not differ much as between Spain and England or Patagonia, possibly. And while literary fashions change and pass, this does not change overmuch.
WE have to thank Mr. A.H. Wykeham-George for so skilfully fitting our English words to Spanish tunes, and Mr. A.E. Filiner for guidance in some details of Catholic terminology.
H. and H. G.-B.