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Darkness in the age of light: «Amnón» of María Rosa Gálvez

Daniel S. Whitaker

Throughout the history of Spanish literature, adaptations of the biblical story of the rape of Thamar by her brother Amnón have appeared in songs, poems, drama, and at least one novel. As Spaniards resurrect the Old Testament account (2 Samuel 13.1-13.39) over the years, however, they tend to underscore different aspects of the famous incident. The moving tale of forbidden love, incest, and parental remorse first takes root in Spain in the ballad form, a version of which appears in Primavera y flor de romances; in this early manifestation of the story, the anonymous author emphasizes the theme of family strife (Cobb 102)1. In the seventeenth century, Lope de Vega's novel Pastores de Belén (1612) includes the narrative and expands the role of Jonadab, Amnón's cousin. Later in the same century, Tirso de Molina's La venganza de Tamar (1621) stresses Thamar's search for lost honor as well as David's decision to pardon his wayward son. Calderón de la Barca in Los cabellos de Absalón (1684) shifts the focus from Amnón to the ambition of his younger brother, Absalón. In the twentieth century, Federico García Lorca concludes his Romancero gitano (1928) with still another interpretation of the forbidden passion of David's oldest son. The final ballad of the text is «Thamar y Amnón», which H. Ramsden has called «probably the most complex poem in the book» (114); in this modern version of the story, the poet highlights Amnón's uncontrollable sexual desire, an unchecked passion which begins as the young prince admires the naked Thamar from a nearby palace tower.

The Spanish Enlightenment shares with other periods of Spanish literature an ongoing fascination with the tale of Amnón and Thamar2. The most noteworthy retelling of the Old Testament story during this period is the tragedy of María Rosa Gálvez de Cabrera (1768-1806), Amnón, published in 1804. In Amnón, David's son stands beside other eighteenth-century tragic protagonists who, as René Andioc suggests, exemplify for neoclassic audiences the fatal consequences of uncontrollable passion (400-01). Whereas Tirso dwells on Thamar's quest for her lost honor and Lorca delineates Amnón's unbridled sexual drives, Gálvez' play underscores the remorse of Amnón as the youth grapples with the temptations of illicit love. More significantly, like the classical Greek tragedies before it, Amnón challenges the belief in a harmonious and comprehensible universe.

As Gálvez' drama opens, all of Israel celebrates the defeat of the Ammonites by King David and his commanding general, Joab; only the melancholy of David's heir, Amnón, casts a shadow over the festivities. Amnón finally confesses to his friend Jonadab that the source of his affliction is the fact that he is in love with his sister, Thamar, and that this love is an incestuous love prohibited by God and the laws of Moses. Jonadab suggests that Amnón's illicit love for his sister is caused by prolonged separation and recommends that his friend accompany her more often. Through familiarity, Jonadab reasons, Amnón will begin to consider Thamar a sister. This unfortunate advice leads to the rape of Thamar by Amnón and the latter's rupture with his well-meaning friend. Meanwhile, Absalón, an ambitious younger son of David who hopes to be king, takes advantage of Amnón's crime and conspires to kill his brother. At the end of the play, as David refuses to heed Thamar's pleas for justice, the luckless King receives the news that Absalón has killed Amnón at a banquet.

The first two acts of Amnón establish the oldest son of David as the tragic hero of María Rosa Gálvez' play and focus on his disastrous predicament. Conforming to Luzán's Aristotelian prerequisites for the tragic protagonist, Amnón is a virtuous youth of a noble family; the prince's unexpected inability to assume his proper role as the future King of Israel and his ultimate death signify «una gran mudanza de fortuna», which the author of La poética contends is «lo esencial del argumento de la tragedia» (433). The exposition of the drama (I.i-I.iii) underscores the reason for Amnón's failure to take advantage of an otherwise promising future -the forbidden love of his sister- and stresses the prince's personal suffering. Jonadab refers to his friend's «horrible dolencia» (7) and is greatly moved by Amnón's inner affliction as the hero finally confesses to his cousin that «yo idolatro / a mi hermana Thamar» (11).

In addition, Amnón closely aligns himself with other tragic heroes such as Hamlet who in long soliloquies reflect on their respective dilemmas. Russell P. Sebold maintains that the central preoccupation of these tragic heroes «es un À la recherche du temps perdu personal, una contemplación de las propias acciones pasadas y los motivos de éstas en relación con las circunstancias que de momento le hacen imposible la vida» (Rapto 244). In an extended speech (I.iii), David's son carefully explains how he began to love his sister when a child and his futile attempts up to this point to suppress the immoral attraction, which he calls his «fatal pasión» (15). Amnón's position in the opening lines of Gálvez' tragedy is not unlike the unhappy state of Racine's hero in Phèdre, Hippolytus, who laments, «Dans le doute mortel dont je suis agité» (76). Amnón himself grieves, «Yo dudo de mí mismo» (20).

Moreover, throughout the play, Amnón's quandary is compounded by his ready acceptance of bad advice from both his friends and his enemies, an error in judgement or «tragic flaw» not uncommon to other tragic heroes. To begin with, his best friend Jonadab contends that Amnón needs to be with Thamar more and deal with her as a sister. As Amnón accepts this fatal counsel -which will lead to the rape of his sister in Act III- the tragic hero reveals that he is unable to evaluate objectively the guidance of those around him. His death at the hands of Absalón in the rustic banquet of the final act is the result of adhering to the malevolent advice of his brother: that Amnón should rest in the countryside away from Jerusalem. Amnón's death is also the consequence of disregarding the advice of the sympathetic Joab, who warned him repeatedly not to trust Absalón. Amnón's poor judgement recalls the haunting words of Creon to Oedipus:

You do wrong
When you take good men for bad, bad
men for good.
A true friend thrown aside -why, life
Is not more precious!


Nevertheless, foremost in the role of Amnón as the tragic hero is the fact that his forbidden passion conflicts with the prevailing belief in a just, theocentric cosmos. Considering Amnón's previous virtuous behavior and noble war record, one notes that there is no explanation as to why the son of the prototype of the promised Messiah should be afflicted with the prohibited love of his sister. David summarizes this perplexing situation when he asks,

¿Cuál puede ser la pena que ha rendido
al heredero de David; al fuerte,
a quien el justo Criador previno
para subir al trono de Judea


David's words echo those of Megara in López de Ayala's Numancia destruida when the soldier laments,

Cae entre llamas y horroroso estruendo
el inocente niño... ¿Qué delitos
cometió su inocencia?


In Amnón, David is unable to comprehend the reason for his son's suffering, since God had promised to give «eterna salud» (19) to all of his descendents. Amnón broods over that same unanswered question when the hero asks Jonadab, «¡Yo un incesto!... ¡oh furor!... ¿lo ordena el cielo?» (15). The tragic hero can only conclude that «Los mortales, el orbe, y aun el cielo / se oponen a mi dicha» (36). Amnón's inquiry into the reasons for his dilemma continues throughout the tragedy and of course -as in all tragedies- remains unanswered at the time of his death. Gálvez has pinpointed the stuff of tragedy in Amnón's confrontation with the ordered universe of the Old Testament. In the treatment of his illicit love, María Rosa Gálvez joins company with the Greeks, Shakespeare, and Racine in depicting tragic drama as a metaphor «of world out of joint, an implicit, and at times explicit, critique of the divine scheme of things» (Shaw, Ataulfo 235). Amnón echoes Raimunda in Benavente's La malquerida when she states «Que hay cosas que no puen [sic] explicarse en este mundo. Que un hombre bueno... puea [sic] dejar de serlo» (68).

Gálvez' characterization of Amnón differs markedly from that of the son of David in the most famous version of the Old Testament story of the previous century -Tirso de Molina's La venganza de Tamar3. The Amnón of Tirso shows little remorse for his abuse of Thamar and in the third act even goes on to flirt with some pretty shepherdesses; the young prince simply accepts his father's forgiveness for the rape and promises to repay the love of his father by behaving better in the future: «Yo pagaré amor tan grande / con no ofenderle desde hoy» (394). Gálvez' tragic hero is despondent both before and after the rape of his sister and is dominated by the guilt he feels for his forbidden love throughout the play. More importantly, the Amnón of Tirso never questions, as Gálvez' Amnón pointedly does, the motives of God in making the heir to the throne of David suffer for no apparent reason. Especially in this latter deviation, Gálvez approaches much more than Tirso the central perplexing question of the classical tragedy: Why?4

Therefore, despite living in an age that prized didactic literature, Gálvez successfully eschewed the temptation to mold an ending in Amnón that might smack of poetic justice -the castigation of evil and the compensation for good. Amnón, far from being evil, is a noble character who meets a sudden death because of an uncontrollable forbidden love and a penchant for uncritically accepting the advice of others. His murderer, Absalón, who attempts to usurp the throne of David, flees from Jerusalem without any punishment. Thamar is the innocent victim of her troubled brother. In her tragic denouement Gálvez aligns Amnón with some of the most moving eighteenth-century tragedies, such as Raquel (1778) of Vicente García de la Huerta and Numancia destruida (1775) of Ignacio López de Ayala. The emotional impact of these works is enhanced by the fact that the audience cannot explain fully why the protagonists had to suffer and die. In contrast, more inexperienced enlightened dramatists often were tempted to teach the public a lesson. The closure of José Cadalso's tragedy, Don Sancho García (1771), for example, is patently didactic: «Venérese en castigo tan severo / el brazo de los cielos justiciero» (the last two verses of the play, 231). In Sebold's words, this play by the author of Cartas Marruecas «has the kind of double issue -punishment for the wicked and rewards for the virtuous- that Aristotle considered characteristic of comedy and tragedies of the second order» (Cadalso 149).

The remainder of Amnón -Acts III-V- is the unavoidable consequence of the tragic momentum already initiated in the opening scenes of the drama. Amnón's rape of his sister in Act III leads the tragic hero to even greater despair, and his thoughts of fleeing evaporate as his father convinces him to ask God for forgiveness. Amnón's presence at the fatal rural dinner hosted by Absalón is also motivated by his desire to seek relief from his inner distress in the beauty of nature and in the company of family members. It is significant to note that the misfortunes that befall Amnón in these final acts are inevitable, not eventual or accidental occurrences which might or might not have happened. Oscar Mandel differentiates carefully between these two concepts in tragedy, noting that tragedy is ironic not because the action eventually leads to the opposite of its intention but «because that opposite is grafted into the action from the very beginning» and causes the suffering or death of the hero (24).

Following the rape of Thamar in Act III two characters take a more active role in Amnón: King David and his abused daughter. David is a sympathetic figure, not unlike Shakespeare's Lear, who is confounded by the incest of one son, the ambition of another, and the rape of his beautiful daughter. The news of the assault on his beloved Thamar especially saddens him greatly; he cries, «Para siempre la dicha y los placeres / huyeron de David» (62). Lorca describes the state of mind of King David in like words: «David con unas tijeras / cortó las cuerdas del arpa» (467). However, whereas Lorca's David falls silent -this last verse ends the romance- Gálvez' King airs conflicting views concerning God's role in the affairs of his son as well as in his own life.

In this regard, Gálvez' David pointedly differs from other interpretations of the monarch's understanding of divine justice. In the seventeenth century, the David of both Tirso and Calderón affirms that God is a merciful God, and that accordingly Amnón also may seek forgiveness. As an example of divine grace, the baroque David cites the fact that the Deity had forgiven the Hebrew ruler of his one great sin -the murder of Uriah and his lust for Bathsheba. The David of Calderón affirms that «Adulterio y homicidio, siendo tal, me perdonó el justo Juez» (258). Lorca's monarch, in contrast, most probably views Amnón's sin as punishment for his own transgression against Uriah. As H. Ramsden maintains, «The King's cutting of the strings of his harp is a despairing recognition of the foretold retribution, evil raised up against him out of his own house» (121).

Gálvez' David, significantly, alternates between these two positions. Upon first learning of the rape, David asserts that the misfortune of Amnón is punishment for the King's murder of Uriah and his marriage with Bathsheba:

Señor, mi amistad pudo seducirme;
y en la virtud del Príncipe fiado...
No lo repitas: la justicia eterna
ofuscó tu razón; y pronunciaron
tus voces sus decretos inmutables,
que severos castigan mi pecado.


Yet, in Scene V of the same act, David now contradictorily alleges to Amnón that God indeed forgave him his sin:

Pequé contra el Señor: una hermosura
me arrastró al homicidio; pero el llanto
de mi arrepentimiento y penitencia
por su misericordia habrá borrado
mi crimen


Gálvez' inconsistent David is the consummate monarch for a world in which the absolute concepts of good and evil, of punishment and forgiveness, no longer hold sway. Accordingly, Amnón's unanswered inquiries concerning the reason for his misfortunes are now echoed in his father's unsuccessful efforts to explain the relationship between God and his heir's malady. The bewilderment of father and son calls into question the Hebrews' belief in an equable and comprehensible Creator.

Gálvez' tender drawing of a bewildered David is enhanced in Amnón through the dramatist's employment of several scenes reminiscent of another popular dramatic genre at the end of the eighteenth century, the comedia lacrimosa or tearful comedy. In Act IV, Scene V, both David and Amnón openly shed tears as the monarch affirms that he will ask God's forgiveness of his son's sin:




 (Tomando la mano a AMNÓN.) 

Ven a mis brazos,
ven a llorar conmigo.


Later, in an extended tearful scene, a weeping King David asks Thamar to forgive her brother (V.v). Shedding tears, David first implores God to soften the angry heart of Thamar («Mi triste llanto tu piedad implora» 95). Then, attempting to kneel, the sobbing monarch addresses his offended daughter:


 (Queriendo arrodillarse, THAMAR lo impide.) 

¿Te enterneces? Si no bastan
mis sollozos, prevén mayor esfuerzo
para negar a un padre, a ti humillado
la gracia de su hijo.


In these scenes the Hebrew ruler's human response to human tragedy closely parallels the reaction of the compassionate king in Jovellanos' tearful comedy El delincuente honrado (1774); when this sovereign learns of Torcuato's plight, Anselmo reports that «yo vi correr tiernas lágrimas de sus augustos ojos» (819). In her skillful synthesis of the lachrymose genre with the tragic, María Rosa Gálvez gently amplifies the audience's compassion for David and at the same time demonstrates her own thorough grasp of the Enlightened theater of her day5.

The other character who becomes more prominent in the last three acts of the tragedy is Thamar, Amnón's unhappy sister who has lost, in her own words, «La gloria de mi vida» (55). As she calls for the punishment of Amnón, the daughter of David meets a patriarchal stone wall6. Thamar's brother Absalón at first refuses to take any action against Amnón and at last kills him primarily to eliminate a rival to the throne. Absalón's chief advisor, Achitophel, suggests that the luckless princess flee to Gesur, the land of her grandfather. Worse still, Thamar's own father refuses to punish Amnón for the affront and demands that his daughter forgive her brother. David affirms to the outraged Thamar, «Recuerda que es tu hermano, que mi pueblo / su futuro esplendor en él espera» (87-88). When David again reminds her that he too had sinned in killing Uriah for Bathsheba and that he had asked God for forgiveness, Thamar, not being able to resist a criticism of the masculine world around her, reminds the King that Bathsheba is still with him as his wife: «Betsabet a vuestro lado / vive, y disfruta los honores regios» (89). At the end of the play, Thamar's only alternative is to live apart from her people; she asks her father for «Una caverna ignota a los mortales / sea mi asilo, y mi sepulcro a un tiempo» (96).

In María Rosa Gálvez' character of Thamar the dramatist continues a common trait of her dramatic work: the criticism of patriarchal authority and hypocrisy. Thamar's complaints echo those of Nancy, the protagonist of Gálvez' comedia lacrimosa, El egoísta; Nancy calls for the right of women to separate themselves from their husbands when the latter abuse them or their families. In her comedy Los figurones literarios, Isabel mirrors Thamar's outrage at masculine dominance and at the end of the work is able to rid her uncle of his foolish male friends. Leonor, the protagonist of the tragic La delirante, unsuccessfully struggles against the manipulating Lord Arlington. In Amnón, as in many of her other plays, Gálvez likewise questions the right of men -both those who are well-meaning as well as those whose intentions are less than noble- to control the destiny of women.

In all, María Rosa Gálvez' Amnón is a carefully crafted tragedy which closely follows Aristotelian precepts. Introspective characters, opposing family groups, and a well-known historical event are intertwined in her drama. Moreover, a sense of inescapable fatality, which Ivy L. McClelland terms «star-made or self-made» (1: 43), haunts Amnón throughout the tragedy; the prince even asserts that family members are instruments «en los horrores / de mi destino» (49). The language of Amnón adheres to the neoclassic preference for simplicity and clarity, and the unaffected syntax of the text matches the straightforwardness of the major characters as they react to Amnón's fatal attraction. A less able versifier than García de la Huerta in Raquel or especially in Agamenón vengado, Gálvez nonetheless diversifies the play's hendecasyllabic verses (romance heroico) and allots each act of Amnón a different assonance7.

Following the example that García de la Huerta set earlier in Raquel, Gálvez' rigorous adherence to the confining neoclassic unities of place, time, and action actually enhances the theme of her play8. The dramatist underscores Amnón's tragic course by focusing on the hero's misfortunes within a limited space -outside the walls of Jerusalem- and within a narrow time frame of less than twenty four hours. She also meticulously orders the principal events of the tragedy's plot. The rape of Thamar, the climax of the drama, takes place in the middle of Act III. Acts I and II occur in twilight and Acts IV and V take place as the morning sun arrives. Consequently, Gálvez' entire tragedy is oriented around the rape of Thamar, an event which transpires in the middle of the night and in the exact center of the play. In like manner, each act has its own moment of maximum emotion: Act I (Amnón's revelation to Jonadab that he loves his sister); Act II (Amnón's first conversation with Thamar); Act III (the rape of Thamar, occurring offstage); Act IV (the confrontation of David and Amnón); and Act V (David listening to the plea of Thamar for the chastisement of Amnón followed rapidly by the news of the murder of her brother by Absalón). In this regard the equilibrium of the entire play is repeated in the symmetry of action found in each act of Amnón.

One final structural element -an element that is not common in Spanish neoclassic tragedy- greatly enhances the tragic tone of Amnón: the participation of a chorus. Sophocles' belief that the chorus should be the «ideal spectator» is strictly followed in Gálvez' tragedy (Flickinger 144). The chorus in Amnón consists of a group of doncellas and guerreros who come on stage principally at the end of each act to comment on the events that have occurred. Gálvez successfully employs her musical talents -she is the author of a zarzuela- in varying the renditions of the chorus through the recitations of single members and the employment of various duets. Appropriately, the chorus sings either fragments of the psalms of David or similar verses originally composed by the dramatist. Demonstrating Gálvez' grasp of the tragic situation, the chorus' ironic verses underscore the inexplicable prohibited love that afflicts Amnón and highlight God's troubling conduct in the whole affair.

The chorus ends the first act reciting a fragment of Psalm 29, a psalm that in its entirety praises the ability of the Lord to over-power one's enemies: «Pues contra el enemigo / me diste tu favor» (23). The chorus' song immediately raises disturbing questions. Why has Amnón received neither comfort nor assistance from his all-powerful and just Deity? Does God's power only extend to the Hebrew's flesh-and-blood enemies and not to the potentially more dangerous adversary of uncontrollable passion? The chorus continues its role as the distressed collective conscience of the play at the end of the second act; at this juncture, two warriors chant «Contra el hombre perverso, / Dios me defenderá» (41). Since the referent of hombre perverso could be Amnón himself, this verse appears to imply that God indeed has abandoned David's son and that the people of Israel must protect themselves from the black sheep within their midst. In general, the employment of the Old Testament's most famous songs further enhances Gálvez' tragedy. Through the singing of the psalms -musical compositions attributed to a young David- the chorus drives home the passing of an innocent age characterized by optimism and faith. The ambiguous and highly suggestive verses of the chorus in Amnón are inseparably linked to Amnón's own search for the illusive truth and mirror the unanswered questions of Gálvez' tragic hero.

In comparison, although not labelled as a chorus, the castellanos in Raquel function as a public conscience in several scenes of that tragedy (Sebold, Rapto 240). Gálvez, like García de la Huerta, is acutely aware of the fact that her chorus of warriors and maidens has a unifying effect on the action of the drama; the stage directions of Amnón specifically require the chorus to remain on stage between the acts of the tragedy, thus providing a smooth transition between the events of each act. Yet Gálvez allots her chorus a more ambitious role than does García de la Huerta. Whereas the castellanos unequivocally support Alfonso VIII and call for the death of the usurper Raquel («Muera Raquel, para que Alfonso viva» 106), Gálvez' collective voice, as we have seen, takes an ironic point of view when commenting on Amnón's predicament. In the tactical utilization of her chorus, the author of Amnón not only unifies the series of occurrences which take place on the stage but also reinforces a principal theme of the tragedy -that the universe of the Hebrews is flawed.

In all, María Rosa Gálvez' Amnón is an exceptional illustration of the continuing enrichment of the tragic genre at the close of the Spanish Enlightenment. In her play, the dramatist from Málaga successfully transforms a popular biblical story into a classical tragedy through the creation of a tragic hero. Paralleling the fate of the luckless characters of Numancia destruida, Amnón presents a worthy prince who inexplicably suffers and dies at the hands of an unworthy opponent. Moreover, Gálvez alters the orthodox Judeo-Christian universe exemplified in the seventeenth-century versions of Amnón's rape of Thamar. Her protagonist, in contrast, functions in a world in which divine promises are unfulfilled and the motives of God are unfathomable. The cosmos of Amnón is similarly distant from that harmonious one which, according to Donald Shaw, «representative mainstream intellectual opinion in the eighteenth century wished to take for granted» (Ataulfo 233).

In addition, María Rosa Gálvez refines still further the high drama passed on to her by Nicolás Fernández de Moratín, García de la Huerta, and López de Ayala. Superimposing scenes suggestive of the tearful comedy, she underscores the personal involvement of Amnón, Thamar, and especially King David in the tragic events which engulf their lives. Her chorus, in addition to unifying the action of the drama, as does the public voice of Raquel, inserts another level of irony and ambiguity into the tragedy. The plight of Thamar as she confronts an unsympathetic masculine world echoes other works of Gálvez and addresses a topic often ignored by contemporary male playwrights. Finally, María Rosa Gálvez' tightly constructed tragedy not only builds on the past but also signals the future course of Spanish drama in the first half of the nineteenth century. Accentuated by the numerous lamenting speeches of the protagonists, the play's focus on adverse destiny and impossible love prefigures similar themes which explode on the Spanish romantic stage thirty years after the publication of Amnón.

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