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Baroque Theater Of The Golden Age: Juan Ruiz de Alarcon

Updated on June 23, 2014

Novohispanic Dramatists and Baroque Beauty

During the golden age of Spain, art flourished and honor plays largely dominated theatre. Theatre was for Spanish culture at that time, what stand-up comedy and highly festive entertainment venues are for our culture today. These honor plays concerned were at once very entertaining and funny for a vivacious audience, but they also poked a lot of fun, in an intelligent way, at the weaknesses of culture. In a sense, this elaborate covering up of weakness and shortcomings defined the Baroque movements within the Spanish world at the time. Baroque style, in literature, architecture, music, and theatre largely concerned itself with elaborate artistry used to ornately cover up the destruction of previous times and the artificiality of an often hollow culture. In theatre, Baroque characteristics exhibited themselves as elaborate plot twists, ornate language, dark settings and moods, and the overall preoccupation with appearances rather than reality. In Alarcon's Sospecha De La Verdad, the dramatist uses many Baroque characteristics to convey his overall themes. At the heart of this comedy about truth, lies, and the craziness of romantic love, Alarcon seeks to criticize the culture at large. He does this by telling a story that shows the extreme examples of the kind of dysfunction that his culture is producing. The chief example, Don Garcia, is a character that is simply incapable of telling the truth. Likewise, Alarcon is ultimately arguing that the Spanish culture at the time is incapable of truth. While there are beautiful women, rich charming men, and much ornamentation in people and places, the heart of his culture has a huge and horrifying hole and an emptiness of integrity. In essence, the culture is not living truth, on all the different levels that such a theme implies, and characters and society are going to great lengths to elaborately cover up this lack of truth and integrity. This concept is at the heart of what is typically thought to be Baroque. It is the purpose of this paper to express why and how Alarcon attempts to use Baroque methods and themes to criticize his culture.

The extreme emphasis on appearance versus reality in Spanish culture is exhibited especially in the way certain characters act, if not all the characters. From the beginning of the drama, this theme is expressed clearly and comedically in the interaction between Don Beltran and his lawyer, who has been taking care of Don Beltran's son, Don Garcia. Don Beltran is a wealthy aristocrat and his attachment to his wealth, high status, and lifestyle are obvious from the start. The lawyer kneels before his feet piously and comedically, whereby Beltran tells him to stand up, laughingly. Then Beltran wants to know all about his son and his son's time in Madrid. Yet the inquisitive nature of Beltran's concern is focused primarily on his son's reputation and status. He is not a father compassionately concerned about his child's psychological development and holistic health. Instead, he asks the lawyer nervously at the start about his son's reputation in Madrid. Beltran is concerned with how his son is perceived by other people and how well his son will uphold his family name and inheritance. This extreme emphasis on appearances is especially Baroque. The lawyer, in Baroque style, responds to Beltran's questions with many words. The lawyer constantly takes a long time to say one simple point, and his speech is elaborate and florid. He gives a long introduction of all of Don Garcia's positive attribute before beginning to hint at his one serious problem. Even here, he takes a while to say it, as much as Don Beltran is nervously panicked, fearing that his family name will be disgraced. These are the extensive attempts of both characters to nervously hide the seriousness of the problem at hand, an element that defines the Baroque period. In turn, Alarcon through this microcosm, intends to reveal how Spanish society is doing the same. The society is using Baroque ornamentation to hide the serious problems that it doesn't want to examine. Because ultimately, Don Garcia's inability to tell the truth is simply a symptom of a much larger disease: the lack of integrity in the culture.

Darkness defined the Baroque period in many ways. The obscurity and the deep, brooding sentiments and settings wove themselves into the aesthetics of the artists of the time. It was more than a mere criticism of the absence of the light of truth in society. It was also a certain appreciation of a mysterious, decorative beauty. It was both things. Darkness was a metaphor for the covering up the truth, and darkness was a beauty in itself. For certain, Alarcon intended to use darkness as yet another vehicle to expose patterns of behavior that were metaphors for the cultural predicament. On the other hand, the use of a dark and ornate beauty to cover up ugliness and decay was probably an unconscious reflex in most people of the time, understood on this way after the fact by more objective observers. However, Alarcon uses it masterfully on many levels, most especially in the scene in the chapel with Jacinta and Lucrecia. The setting is dark in lighting, as most baroque cathedrals were. Also, the characters exhibit an obscurity in their attire, the veils, and in the way they enact their motives.

The obscurity occurs on many levels. One, because the setting is dark, the two women are partially hidden from view when Don Garcia approaches. This setting, too, is intentionally chosen by the two women as they have asked Garcia to meet them specifically in the chapel. Two, the women were veils, and the veils are another layer of more deeply hiding their identities. Third, Jacinta speaks for Lucrecia, as Don Garcia has been led to believe that Jacinta is Lucrecia, by several conspiring characters. These layers of darkness show the propensity of the society to go to great and elaborate lengths to obscure the truth. Furthermore, the play is extremely interesting here, in an interesting setting, with comedic twists. So Alarcon has made something that is entertaining to watch as well as philosophical.

There is even another level on which Alarcon uses elaboration and confusion: the experience of the audience. Speech act theory, though too extensive to describe in full within the scope of this paper, includes three levels of experience: the author's intention, the actual literal truth of the drama or work at hand, and the audience's reaction and interpretation. In this play, Alarcon uses the three levels by constantly keeping the audience in suspense as to what the literal truth of the situation is. Even though, the audience knows Don Garcia is a liar, they do not always immediately know what is lies are and are not, and more importantly, what the truth is. Alarcon uses revealing and obvious clues at some point to let the audience know the truth, but he has usually kept them in suspense for a period of time first. The principal comedic deception, that Garcia is courting the wrong woman, is not obviously revealed to the audience at first. Most likely, audience members realized the truth at various times, but for the purpose of this paper, it is important to realize that across the plane of narrative time, Alarcon covers up and reveals. It is largely a move from darkness to light, from confusion to clarity, and these are employed in the plot twists and the audience's reaction and indeed the process the audience has to go through to learn the truth is all an expression of this Baroque method. The confusion, elaboration, and the way Alarcon uses the audience to be participants in this confusion by attempting to confuse them -- these are Baroque characteristics. And again, Alarcon uses these Baroque methods to criticize the lack of honesty in the culture. Ultimately, the audience become products of his confusion in the same way that society members become products of the culture's confusion and lack of integrity.

In conclusion, the drama is a Baroque work of art. Its very artistic style, Baroque, both reveals cultural flaws and uses them as their very vehicle. It is done here as an example of an entertaining theatrical beauty that instructs and delights. On different levels and in many ways, through plot twists, obscure and dark theatrical devices, ornate language, and the emphasis on appearance and reality in the characters and plot, Alarcon works in the Baroque framework. In so doing, he gives us a multi-layered web of meaning that still survives to this day as a popular play.


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