From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 17.1 (1997): 188-91.
Copyright © 1997, The Cervantes Society of America
REVIEW

Zimic, Stanislav. El teatro de Cervantes. Madrid: Castalia, 1992. 422 pp.

     This book is a boon to those specialists who have profited during the last 30 years from Zimic's detailed, provocative and highly original studies of Cervantes' theater. The volume collects those articles, brings them up to date and edits them for the general reader. Nothing of substance has been lost in the process, and both author and publisher are to be congratulated on the book's clarity, concision and ease of consultation. Each chapter is dedicated to one work. The ten extant plays (Los tratos de Argel and Numancia, followed by the eight plays of the 1615 Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses nunca representados in their original order of publication) are studied as a separate section. A second section

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of eight chapters is dedicated to the interludes. There is a prologue, a conclusion, an extensive bibliography, largely exemplary in its thoroughness, and an index of authors cited. Footnotes are used judiciously throughout, facilitating the reader's appreciation of their contribution to the arguments they illustrate.
     Zimic's prologue clarifies the focus and method of his work. He sees in Cervantes' plays a highly ingenious synthesis of historical and social reality with literary sources (11). He elects to classify and study each play's episodes according to their poetic function, questioning the validity of any system that classifies Cervantes' theater according to its subject matter: for example, La casa de los celos, while based on Boiardo's Orlando Innamorato, has less to do with the deeds of knights errant than with the dramatization of their most deeply hidden thoughts by means of allegorical figures (Ibid.). Zimic considers Cervantes a dramaturgical innovator, ceaselessly experimenting with historical and fictional sources and with theatrical techniques to expand the limits of the imaginative universe the theater could depict (12). An important catalyst of Cervantes' experimentation was his rivalry with Lope, whose comedia nueva, written to appeal to the sensationalism of a mass audience (12-13, 21), was largely incompatible with Cervantes' artistic vision, however much the latter experimented with characters and episodes of the new school, notably in El gallardo español and La entretenida. Zimic argues persuasively that Cervantes found Lope's theater too formulaic, one in which psychological, social and historical verisimilitude were sacrificed to an idealized vision of society and the individual's place therein (22). By contrast, Cervantes' greatest theatrical innovation is his treatment of each character as an individual, rather than as the representative of a class or type (23). Zimic finds most noteworthy Cervantes' treatment of humble characters, whom their author endows with psychological depth and individuality. Their foolishness, venality or bigotry come from their unique experience and viewpoint, not from their lowly social status (25). And if they are humorous, they are not so because they are common but because they are human, and much of humanity is, alas, ridiculous. In this respect, Zimic argues that the plays and the interludes are cut from the humanistic philosophical, aesthetic and ethical cloth of Cervantes' prose works. For this scholar, the enduring value of Cervantes' theater is its artistry and exemplarity, each quality inseparable from the other (29). He finds this an especially remarkable innovation in the interlude. Far from the slapstick and broad innuendo common to most interludes of his time, Cervantes' creations are ironic, subtle and carefully constructed so that each detail contributes to a rational appreciation of the artistically and morally exemplary whole (28-30). Zimic sees the focus of the interludes as either the vice or foolishness of one individual (for example, the cuckolded husband Pancracio in La cueva de Salamanca) or the ills of an entire society reflected in the actions of a group (as when couples quarrel and cannot be reconciled, an emblem of a society in conflict in El juez de los divorcios) (29).
     Zimic's knowledge of his literary sources and his reasoned, imaginative employment of them are themselves exemplary. For instance, he illuminates our appreciation of the humor of La cueva de Salamanca by arguing that Cervantes


190 ELLEN M. ANDERSON Cervantes

had in mind that literary emblem of conjugal fidelity, the story of Odysseus' return to Penelope, as he composed the story of the foolish Pancracio and his libidinous wife Leonarda. Zimic demonstrates with carefully chosen textual quotations from the Odyssey, placed next to appropriate passages from the interlude, how Cervantes in the presentation of his characters has consciously and with exquisite irony employed his epic source to enlarge the scope of the work's comedy (378-81). Pancracio's utter refusal to read his situation accurately makes his imprudence and foolishness even more telling when contrasted with the emblematic prudence and sagacity of its parodic model, Odysseus' return. I offer this example from the many that could be cited throughout the book because it illustrates how carefully its author follows to their logical conclusion all the textual hints he discovers, even in a minor work. He does not merely ascribe a literary culture to Cervantes; he clarifies how Cervantes incorporated his reading into his creative process. Moreover, he makes manifest how the realization of this source can deepen its reader's or spectator's enjoyment of the work's hilarity and of its exquisite subtlety by comparison with entremeses of the period.
     Zimic's appreciation of Cervantes' historical milieu and his judicious explanation of its salient features for the well-educated general reader is equally impressive. Even in Pedro de Urdemalas, based on folkloric and literary antecedents carefully adduced by Wardropper and Canavaggio, Zimic is able to find and elucidate a cunning Cervantine portrait of the venality and incompetence of the highest level of Spanish society. He reveals and explains the similarities between the King, the courtier Silerio and the Queen of the play with Philip III, the Duke of Lerma and Margaret of Austria (274-81) to arrive at a reading that demonstrates the play's profound social criticism as an integral part of its exploration of the frontiers between fiction and history, artfulness and hypocrisy. Zimic provides a suggestive alternative to most previous evaluations of the play as a loosely-constructed, episodic work whose coherence is difficult for any spectator to discern. By intertwining history with literature in his reading, he leads his reader to an appreciation of Pedro de Urdemalas as a carefully ordered journey with the protagonist through all ranks of society to explore how women and men of every station employ words to deceive themselves and one another (283). The title-character in this reading succeeds (where Don Quixote fails) to find a parallel universe, the world of the theater, where Pedro's talent ingenuity and good will can be rewarded with the success that the theater of the world chooses to deny to one of his lowly station (285-8). This chapter's elegant logic and restrained eloquence distinguish it as one of the volume's finest.
     Zimic considers not only the linguistic and literary characteristics of Cervantes' playscripts but also their visual characteristics in performance. A particularly fine example is his discussion of the interplay of named characters and emblematic figures in La casa de los celos, a play frequently dismissed as impossible to perform and difficult to understand. His discussion of Angélica's initial appearance, only to be “transformed” by means of a tramoya into a satyr, is acutely discussed as an example of Cervantes' theatrical innovation: showing to the audience the paladin Roldán's moral surrender to lust and arrogance by means of a striking visual metamorphosis of his beloved (135). This is one of his


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most convincing and original examples of Cervantes' overriding dedication to the task of showing the audience the inner life of his characters.
     Zimic's study may well cause the greatest controversy in his conclusions about Cervantes' original intentions in composing the plays and interludes and about why those published in 1615 were never performed in his lifetime. He firmly rejects the notion, most recently championed by Spadaccini and Talens and Reed, that Cervantes wrote his works to be read rather than performed, adducing as evidence Cervantes' own words in the prologue to the 1615 volume and in the Adjunta al Parnaso (13-14). He modifies Spadaccini's and Talens' thesis that Cervantes originally composed the plays in their published form in order to be read because their literary subtleties would inevitably escape the ear of the spectators, distracted by the speed and by the overwhelming visual impact of performance. Zimic contends that Cervantes later saw as a rather good second best the alternative of publishing plays he hoped to see performed (402-3), a reasonable and defensible position that in effect re-opens the question for scholarly discussion.
     Zimic's contention that Cervantes' theater is more effective on the page than on the stage is less convincing. He finds Cervantes' plays too dependent on verbal complexity, linguistic subtlety and literary intertextuality to be appreciated by any audience of any epoch (25-26). These qualities can be appreciated, he affirms, only when the plays are read and savored by the individual reader (402-3). Students of oral culture might beg to differ with that assessment; audiences accustomed to the complex rhetoric of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century public sermons were unlikely to miss all aspects of Cervantes' verbal artistry for the stage. This is another aspect of the problem that deserves further research and discussion in light of Zimic's carefully reasoned arguments. His book was completed before the Teatro Clásico's 1992 production of La gran sultana, performed to nearly universal acclaim, greatly appreciated by its extremely heterogeneous audience. It would seem from that experiment that, in Canavaggio's poignant phrase, Cervantes' plays are “un théâtre à naître,” waiting to be born into our time, whose audiences and readers are comfortable with images and with print: spectators who read what they see. It would be fascinating to re-open this debate in the light of this theatrical experience. As the first book on Cervantes' complete dramatic corpus since Canavaggio's seminal 1977 work, Zimic's study is of great importance and will be a most worthwhile addition to the collections of cervantistas and comediantes alike.


Ellen M. Anderson
York University


Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim
Fred Jehle jehle@ipfw.edu Publications of the CSA HCervantes
URL: http://www.h-net.org/~cervantes/csa/artics97/anderson.htm