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Joan Oleza Simó, From Ancient Classical to Modern Classical. Lope de Vega and the New Challenges of Spanish Theatre

Jonathan Thacker
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Joan Oleza Simó, From Ancient Classical to Modern Classical. Lope de Vega and the New Challenges of Spanish Theatre, New York, Idea Books, 2012, 159 p.

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1This handsomely presented volume, published by the Instituto de Estudios Auriseculares comprises a prologue, written by Ignacio Arellano, and four chapters by the author, two of which are newly published and all of which are translated into English for the first time. The studies are closely related and focus on the creation (principally by Lope de Vega) and the formative period of the comedia nueva in Spain.

2The first chapter, «The Arte nuevo from the Authority of Ancient Art: the Discussion of Dramatic Genres», sets the scene and explores the early Lope in terms of the subject matter of his dramas, basing itself on some of the research conducted for the ARTELOPE database, a web-based project that J. Oleza Simó has directed at the University of Valencia. Oleza has refined his arguments, published in an influential article in 1981, about Lope’s first two hundred or so plays, in particular with regard to the predominant sub-genre of «historical dramas» (see below), which he views as much more important than has hitherto been acknowledged by scholars. One might argue that the very variety that Oleza astutely observes in Lope’s myriad plays of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries militates against too rigidly generic an approach to his drama. The author is aware of this, writing that «in one play or another, the discourse tends to deconstruct itself, to explore unexplored routes, to delve into the possibilities of the heterogeneous» (p. 58), but he still stands by his broad generic categorisations, and indeed, he is frequently able to show how the comedia develops as elements common to one genre or another rise to the surface and fall away.

3In his second chapter, «Historical Dramas of Private Events, by Lope de Vega: a Requirement of Subjects», the author develops his analysis of Lope’s predominant sub-genre of historical dramas (though he prefers the Spanish historial as an epithet in this context). He had noted in chapter i that of the 130 plays in this category no less than 73 can be said to depict «private» histories, that is, in Oleza’s definition, stories of individuals set against a known historical backdrop, however minimal a role that may play in the development of the plot. Some of Lope’s best-known plays fall into this category, one which has been barely noted by subsequent editors and scholars, in thrall to Menéndez y Pelayo’s original groupings of plays. Oleza’s analysis is often illuminating here, in particular in his insistence that genre is not inevitably linked to subject matter, for example, honour. His handling of large numbers of plays is especially useful given the critical tendency of recent decades to focus narrowly on the canon.

4In «From Montaigne to Lope: Various Events from the Same Counsel», first published in Spanish in 2009, the author argues that, despite the unlikelihood of Lope knowing Montaigne’s work, the Spanish dramatist shares a casuistic approach with the French essayist. Both writers, he avers, show secular tendencies, introducing human experience, in all of its unstable variety and unpredictability, into their writing, replacing the idea of Providence with that of «accident» (p. 119). Oleza’s conclusion that the world presented is «more founded in observation and in experience than in the obligatory observance of inherited universal principles» (p. 123) is important because it opens up another front in the critical response to «totalitarian, univocal, ideologicalized (sic) interpretation of a popular and ultra-Spanish Lope» (p. 103) who is an upholder (after Maravall) of the monarchical-seigneurial status quo. The chapter might be further enriched by a consideration of how Lope’s position as a dramatist writing for the commercial theatre, with its particular demands, might (or might not) make his case distinct from that of Montaigne.

5The final chapter, «Schemes, Functions, Motifs and Cases: Elements for the Analysis of Spanish Baroque Theatre», overlaps somewhat with material presented earlier in the volume. It too was published in Spanish in 2009. In it the author explores the notion of the play’s traza (or «scheme»), exemplified primarily here by the motif of the lustful despot, and he insists above all on his point about similar subject matter regularly crossing generic boundaries. An engagement here with Melveena McKendrick’s study, Playing the King, would enliven the chapter further, especially given Oleza’s belief that «the key purpose of this scheme [of the lustful despot]» (p. 151) may be found in the treatises on kingship so prevalent in the period.

6The main drawback of this stimulating series of studies is the quality of the translation from the original Spanish. English-speaking readers will find the over-literal (and at times inaccurate) rendering of the Spanish to be an obstacle. This is a shame because Joan Oleza’s important scholarship deserves a wide readership: his ideas and analyses have moved forward our understanding of this defining period in the evolution of the comedia nueva.

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Référence électronique

Jonathan Thacker, « Joan Oleza Simó, From Ancient Classical to Modern Classical. Lope de Vega and the New Challenges of Spanish Theatre », Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez [En ligne], 44-1 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2018, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL :

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Jonathan Thacker

University of Oxford (Merton College)

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