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Prologue to the Reader

Dearest reader, I can but beseech that you might pardon me, should you take the view that in this prologue I am departing somewhat from my customary modesty.

Some days ago I found myself in a conversation with friends, in which we talked about plays and related matters, and they so dwelt on their finer points as to leave them, it seemed to me, at the peak of perfection.

There was also talk of who was the first in Spain to get plays out of their swaddling clothes, give them airs and graces and dress them up in fine robes. I, the oldest present, said that I remembered having seen the great Lope de Rueda perform, a man of outstanding acting ability and intelligence. He was a native of Sevilla and a goldbeater by trade—in other words he made gold leaf. He was wonderful at pastoral poetry, and in this style no one has ever bettered him, either before or since; and although, because I was a boy then, I could not reliably judge the quality of his verse, when I look back, at the age I am now, at some that I remember, I find what I have said to be true, and, were it not to exceed the purpose of this prologue, I would set some down here that would prove this to be the case.

In the time of that celebrated Spaniard all the equipment of an actor-manager was kept in a sack, amounting, more or less, to four white sheepskins decorated with gilded leather, four beards and wigs, and four crooks. Plays were dialogues, like eclogues, between two or three shepherds and some shepherdess, spiced up and fleshed out by two or three interludes, whether about a black woman, a ruffian, a simpleton or a Basque. The said Lope played all these four figures and many others with the greatest imaginable excellence and mastery. At that time there was no stage machinery, nor duels between Moors and Christians, on foot or on horseback; there was no figure who might emerge, or appear to emerge, from the centre of the earth via the space beneath the stage, which was made up of four benches in the shape of a square and four or six planks placed on top, whereby it was raised up from the floor by the width of four palms. Nor were there any clouds with angels, or souls descended from heaven. The backdrop was an old blanket pulled by two ropes from one side to the other, which made what they call a changing room, behind which were the musicians, singing some old romance without a guitar. Lope de Rueda died, and on account of his being an excellent and famous man they buried him in the main church of Cordoba, where he died, between the two choirs, where that famous madman Luis López is also buried.

Lope de Rueda was succeeded by Navarro, a native of Toledo, who was famous at playing the part of the cowardly ruffian. He brought to a somewhat higher level the stage décor and replaced the sack of costumes with chests and trunks; he brought music, which was previously sung behind the blanket, on to the stage; removed the beards from the actors—until then no one acted without a fake beard—and saw to it that they performed clean-shaven, except those who had to play old men, or other characters who might require a change of face. He introduced stage machinery, special effects involving clouds, thunder and lightening, duels and battles, but he did not bring these to their present sublime level.

And it is incontrovertibly true, and here I have to be a little outspoken, that The Commerce of Algiers, which I wrote, and The Destruction of Numancia and The Naval Battle, where I dared to reduce plays from five acts to three, were seen performed in the theatres of Madrid; that I revealed, or rather was the first to present on stage, the workings of the imagination or hidden thoughts of the soul, by bringing allegorical figures to the theatre, to the general and appreciative applause of the audience; and that I composed at that time up to twenty or thirty plays, all of which were performed without cucumbers or other missiles being thrown, and ran their course without whistles, cries or uproar.

I had other things with which to occupy myself and gave up the pen and playwriting, and then that monster of nature, the great Lope de Vega, entered, usurped the theatrical throne, subjugated and placed under his control all the actors, and filled the world with his own successful and well-plotted plays, of which he has written so many that they fill more than ten thousand sheets of paper, and all of which he has seen performed, or at least heard of their having been performed, which is one of the most important things that can be said; and even though some, and there are many, have wished to rival him in his output and share some of his glory, what all of them put together have written does not amount to half of what he alone has managed.

However, since God does not grant everything to one man alone, one should not, despite all that has just been said, underestimate the works of Dr Ramón, who was the most prolific after the great Lope; the highly ingenious plots of the licenciate Miguel Sánchez, the gravity of Dr Mira de Mescua, who honours our nation in his own unique way; the intelligence and endless inventiveness of Canon Tárraga; the sweet, flowing verse of don Guillén de Castro; the incisiveness of Aguilar; the lavishness, rumbustuousness, pomp and grandeur of the plays of Luis Veléz de Guevara; the plays currently in preparation by the quick-witted don Antonio de Galarza, and what is promised by Gaspar de Ávila’s The Tricks of Love. All these and others have helped to bear the weight of the great machine that Lope has created.

A few years ago I returned to my former vice and, thinking that the period in which my praises were sung still endured, wrote some more plays; but I did not find any birds in the nests of yesteryear, in other words I did not find an actor-manager who wanted them, even though they knew I had them; and so I threw them into a chest, consigning and condemning them to perpetual silence. At the time a bookseller informed me that he would have bought them, had a actor-manager of some note not told him that much could be expected of my prose, but of my verse nothing. If truth be told, it certainly upset me to hear that and I said to myself: Either I have changed or times have improved, which is the reverse of what usually happens, since the past is always praised. I looked over my plays again, and over some interludes of mine that had been thrown into a corner with them. and found them to be not so bad that they did not deserve to emerge from the darkness of the opinion of that actor-manager into the light of that of other less cautious and better informed ones. I grew tired of the situation and sold them to the aforementioned bookseller, who printed them as you find them offered here. He paid me reasonably for them; I took my money with equanimity, without having to argue with actors. I would that they were the best in the world, or at least not bad: you will be the judge, dear reader, and should you find them to have some good points, then, when you bump into that slanderous actor-manager, tell him to mend his ways, since I offend no one, and to note that my plays don’t contain patent and obvious silliness; that the verse meets the demands of drama, which requires the lowest of the three styles; that the the language of the interludes is appropriate to the characters they introduce; and that, as a peace-offering, I will present him with a play that I am writing, entitled Appearances Can Be Deceptive, which, if I don’t deceive myself, is bound to please him. And herewith, God grant you health and me patience.

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