Saturday, March 7, 2009
The Surgeon of His Honour, by Calderon de La Barca, translated by Roy Campbell
My brother is working on a Master's degree with Spanish literature as his specialty. He has a looooooong list of books to read and I suggested that he send me some titles to read and discuss with him. Of course he reads them in Spanish and I have to make do with English translations, but at least I'll have a basic idea of the plot right?
I only vaguely remember some Spanish playwright names from my theater history classes but this was the first time I had actually read a Spanish play (1635 if you were wondering).
A man named Gutierre is married to Mencia. Mencia, prior to her marriage, had been in love with Prince Henry, brother to King Pedro. Prince Henry was off fighting so much that Mencia's father arranged her marriage to Gutierre. Gutierre had been engaged to a Leonor before marrying Mencia, but broke off the engagement when he saw another man (Prince Henry's buddy, Arias) at her house. He assumed the worst, that she was having an illicit affair, and jilted her. There was actually nothing going on, Arias had been looking for another woman entirely; he just got lost and was there with Leonor when Gutierre stumbled in.
Maintaining personal honor, even through deceitful means, is paramount to just about every character in the play. Apparently honor was a major theme in Spanish plays at that time.
When the play begins, Prince Henry falls off his horse and is knocked senseless. His servants take him to the nearest estate to recover, which so happens to be Gutierre's house that he shares with his wife Mencia. Mencia is home alone when the Prince is brought in unconscious. Mencia worries about what the Prince might say if he discovers who she is, and she worries how her husband reacts if he finds out that the Prince had been in love with her before they were married. The Prince wakes up, and tries to rekindle the relationship, unaware at first that she is married. Once he realizes, he is torn up at the thought of losing her, but knowing that her honor must be maintained, he leaves as soon as a horse can be found for him, but not before Gutierre comes home. Gutierre greets the Prince pleasantly and offers his own horse when the Prince refuses to stay the night. After the Prince leaves, Gutierre tells his wife that he must pay his respects to the King, who has come to a nearby city. She laments that he must leave her, but he assures her he would rather stay with her and only departs because he must pay obeisance to the King as a noble should.
What follows is a slew of misunderstandings. The Prince comes to visit Mencia; she protests and tells him he can't see her anymore because it will ruin her honor. She's married, adultery isn't allowed, neither is the appearance thereof. She attempts to hide him when the husband comes home, and her nervous behavior makes the husband think something is wrong, and he proceeds to investigate in the coming days.
He concludes that his wife HAS been unfaithful, and must die, but he'll be generous and let her have a couple of hours to sort things out with God so her soul won't go to hell.
The King has had to sort out the claim of Leonor, a woman Gutierre had loved before, that Gutierre impeached her honor when he jilted her. The King can't have Gutierre marry Leonor because he is already married. Gutierre does come to the King to complain about the Prince seeing his wife, but the Prince ends up going into exile instead. Gutierre knows he can't ask the Prince for a duel, seeing how he is royalty and all, which puts all the more importance on punishing his wife to restore his own honor.
In the end, Gutierre has a barber "bleed her" as if for a disease, a common "cure" in the Middle Ages, and threatens the barber with death unless he lets her bleed to death. The barber complies, (blech) and Gutierre starts to lead him out of the city to slay him so the barber doesn't talk. They run into the King however, and Gutierre runs back to his house to play the mournful husband over the accidental death of his wife. The King puts two and two together and lets Gutierre know that he knows what was done and why - and doesn't punish him. The King insists that Gutierre marry Leonor to satisfy her honor and then never speaks of Mencia's death again.
This idea of Spanish honor, maintained through deceit and murder, is certainly a foreign idea to me. The slaying of an innocent wife because the husband "thought" she was being unfaithful is reprehensible, and I think that is what the playwright was trying to show. Apparently Calderon wrote many of these kinds of "honor" plays, although they are certainly not the only genre he was known for. Being a court playwright, there were many other shows that he wrote, both by himself and in collaboration with others. I'm interested in reading one of his autos - a biblical story performed on the street for people coming out of Mass on high holy days. One critic has suggested these works were where he excelled, adapting any story, even Greek mythology, into an auto.
I guess by modern standards, it's quite a tame little story. We've seen more gruesome murders on television.