From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 2.1 (1982): 99-101.
Copyright © 1982, The Cervantes Society of America

REVIEW

Edward H. Friedman. The Unifying Concept: Approaches to the Structure of Cervantes' “Comedias.” York, S. C.: Spanish Literature Publications Co., 1981. x (unnumbered) + 185 pages.


     Cervantes' plays, other than the entremeses, are probably the least appreciated and the least understood part of his writing. Hispanists, accustomed to the comedia of Lope, Tirso, and Calderón, feel ill at ease with a dramatic art that defies all the conventions and that eschews straightforward plots. In his masterly comprehensive study Cervantès dramaturge: un théâtre à naître (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1977), Jean Canvaggio suggests that our author was engaged in a massive experiment designed to produce an alternative to Lope's theater, an experiment never carried to completion. This study is a hard act to follow. Edward H. Friedman, rashly but with a great measure of success, has done so.
     Friedman's rashness is compounded by the fact that most of his book has already appeared in print as articles, so that it presents to the reader a worn, déjà-vu effect. The book is also, as the author candidly admits in his preface, a reworking of his doctoral dissertation. The excessive plundering of the dissertation is no doubt the reason why the book was published by an obscure house rather than by a university press. Because of its high quality, it deserves more prestige and more publicity than it is likely to get.
     The thesis is not essentially at variance with Canavaggio's. Cervantes attempted to produce an alternative to Lope's paramount model of the comedia. Friedman, however, grants him more success in the endeavor. He accepts as axiomatic Cervantes' addiction to the episodic in all his writing. Following Forcione, he maintains that

     The elaboration of an “interwoven texture” may apply as well to the full-length dramatic works, to sustain the thesis that Cervantes achieves unity not by developing complications around a single action as do Lope and his followers, but through parallel events (or episodes) which form a conceptual unity; that is, that the individual episodes reinforce or complement an idea rather than expand an action (p. 21).

 This formulation of the thesis reveals a basic flaw in the book which a good editor would have easily corrected, the looseness of terminology. “Parallel events” need not be “episodes.” The “unifying concept” of the title assumes as many disguises as Pedro de Urdemalas: “this theme —or idea or concept” (p. 61). One wonders what is meant by “the [six] archetypal plays” (pp. 106,

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137), and which ones they are? Do they include “The early —prototypical— plays” referred to in the Introduction (p. 4)? How are they related to the “anti-type” and the “prototype” of p. 107? Definition of these terms (and others, such as “structure” and “theology”) would have greatly improved the book.
     Notwithstanding this defect, Friedman's reasoning often persuades. He is at his most convincing at the end of his fourth chapter, when he leaves the detailed comparison of Cervantes' and Lope's (?) Pedro de Urdemalas to contrast the former's “concentric structure” with the “linear development” of several examples of the comedia nueva. Here he introduces the nuances needed to show what Cervantes and the other playwrights hold in common, and in what respects they manipulate it differently. The common ground is the preeminence of “theme.” “Lope and his successors exert what may be called thematic control . . . over the linear structure of their plays” (p. 101); their subplots, whether integrated or not, are always subordinate to the main plot. Cervantes, on the other hand, separates episodes from the main plot “as elements of a conceptually determined structure” (p. 101); “a single concept provides a form for an apparently amorphous succession of events” (p. 102).
     This distinction is, I think, both true and important. But the terminological inexactitude invites a subversive line of thought. If Cervantes' and Lope's plays all have a conceptual —or thematic or ideological!— unifying principle, but only Lope's have a “linear structure” (sc. plot), then Cervantes' works are deficient in the dramatic component that most appeals to most audiences. That would sufficiently explain the predicament Cervantes describes himself as being in in the Prólogo to the Ocho comedias: “no hallè autor que me las [comedias] pidiesse, puesto que sabian que las tenia.” Friedman would not agree that these plays are inherently defective; but any attempt to rehabilitate them must recognize that by Cervantes' own admission they were written to be performed and not to be read. To demonstrate their artistry is not to demonstrate their merit as dramas.
     Even in the demonstration of the artistic coherence of Cervantes' plays in accordance with Friedman's thesis of the “unifying concept,” there is room for disagreement. Friedman considers that “the fundamental conceptual element . . . in Los tratos de Argel . . . is the idea of captivity” (p. 70). This seems to me too simple. In his discussion of Aurelio's fourth soliloquy (pp. 65-66), Friedman distracts himself from its real significance by writing not about “gold” but about “wealth” and “riches.” In fact, the aptly named Aurelio begins his soliloquy by evoking nostalgically the Age of Gold; he then contrasts it with the present age in which material gold (“ruuio metal”) reigns supreme, most especially in his circumstance of poverty in captivity (from which he can only be rescued by the arrival of a poor friar bearing gold for the “canalla” who hold him prisoner). Later Aurelio launches into a eulogy of the “sancta obra” of giving aims destined to the ransoming of Algerian captives; and just before the final prayers to the


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Virgin, Aurelio specifies the number of gold ducats brought to Algiers by “frai Gorge de Olivar.” The play is surely an appeal for a redoubling of the fund-raising effort to redeem Christian captives rather than variations on the theme of captivity. After all, the title refers to the commerce of Algiers. I have similar reservations about some of the interpretations of other plays.
     I do not think that Friedman would claim that his book is the definitive statement about Cervantes' theater. It contains many debatable assertions. I do not agree, for example (and neither would Eugenio Asensio, who coined the phrase), that “in the comic drama of the Spanish Golden Age, there is . . . no moral vacation” (p. 107). On the other hand, I find the put-down of O'Connor's repudiation of the comedia as metatheatre witty and masterful (pp. 110-17). Friedman's book is a thoughtful refocusing on some (but not all) of Cervantes' enigmatic plays. Even when I disagree with his conclusions, I find his arguments persuasive. To have seen the confusing La casa de los celos as “part of a system in which literature mediates literature and in which internal points of reference take precedence over external elements” (p. 119) is nothing short of a critical triumph. It is not the only one. I strongly recommend this book not only to Cervantists but to all who seek a better understanding of the whole of the Spanish comedia.


BRUCE W. WARDROPPER
Duke University


Fred Jehle jehle@ipfw.edu Publications of the CSA HCervantes
URL: http://www.h-net.org/~cervantes/csa/artics82wardropp.htm