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«Los figurones literarios» of María Rosa Gálvez as an enlightened response to Moratín's «La comedia nueva»

Daniel S. Whitaker

At the end of the eighteenth-century, both María Rosa Gálvez de Cabrera (1768-1806) and Leandro Fernández de Moratín (1760-1828) advocated reform in the Spanish theater. In their view, the poor quality of the dramatic fare of the day was caused by inexperienced playwrights who catered to the uneducated public's taste for visual spectacle and who ignored indispensable neoclassic precepts. Moratín's second major work, La comedia nueva o el café (1792), is the most famous statement of the Spanish Age of Enlightenment by the nation's most successful playwright on the subject of theatrical reform. This play affirms that nothing less than national pride is at stake in the high calling of the dramatic craft. María Gálvez's Los figurones literarios published twelve years after La comedia nueva, echoes the didactic message of Moratín's work in affirming the serious nature of a playwright's task. Like Moratín, Gálvez also points out that aspiring playwrights must avoid the bad advice of well-meaning but inexperienced friends.

The fact that Los figurones literarios, underscores the weaknesses of the theater in Spain and that Gálvez's play has some similarities with the plot of La comedia nueva has led many critics, such as John A. Cook and Juan Luis Alborg, to claim that Los figurones literarios, is merely a detective imitation of Moratín's well-known work1. Yet, such a judgment fails to recognize that her approach to comedy is fundamentally different from that of Moratín and overlooks the indisputable dramatic skill of María Gálvez. More importantly, Los figurones literarios, proposes an alternate role for women in society, a role which contrasts sharply with the patriarchal status quo affirmed in La comedia nueva. Thus, although Los figurones literarios parallels La comedia nueva in its call for theatrical reform to the enlightened minority of the Spanish eighteenth-century, María Rosa Gálvez's first major comedy merits its own original place among the dramatic works of the day.

Los figurones literarios, takes place in the study of Don Panuncio's home one afternoon in Madrid. Don Panuncio considers himself both a renowned scientist and especially an unsurpassed playwright. Nevertheless, afraid of possible adverse public reaction to his first play, El contraste contrastado, the hopeful dramatist claims that the work is that of his son, Alberto, and arranges for its performance that afternoon. Meanwhile, Don Panuncio has also agreed to the marriage of his niece, Doña Isabel, to an old friend and antique dealer, Don Epitafio. Alberto objects strongly to both actions of his father -he knows the play will fail and he is in love himself with Isabel. To make matters worse, flattering friends of Don Panuncio -Don Cilindro, el Barón de la Ventolera, and Don Esdrúxulo- encourage their host in his scientific and dramatic exploits. The inevitable failure of the drama plays into Isabel's hands. She now threatens to reveal to all that Don Panuncio is the author of the absurd play if he insists on marrying her to Don Epitafio. At the conclusion of Los figurones literarios Don Panuncio bows to Isabel's wishes and accepts her marriage with Alberto as well as her advise to expel his frivolous companions from his house.

Los figurones literarios does share some surface similarities with Moratín's La comedia nueva o el café. In both comedies an inexperienced playwright is chastised (Don Panuncio in Figurones, Don Eleuterio in La comedia nueva); a projected marriage is cancelled because of the failure of a play (that of Isabel and Don Epitafio, and Mariquita and Don Hermógenes); and various characters call for the general reform of the Spanish stage (Alberto and Don Pedro). In addition, both plays follow the neoclassic unities of time (under 24 hours), place (all action takes place in a single location), and action (a unified sequence of events).

However, differences between Los figurones literarios and La comedia nueva are also evident. Los figurones literarios has more characters (nine principal characters -only seven for La comedia nueva); its action takes place in a home and not in a café; the drama of María Gálvez is in the traditional Spanish eight-syllable romance, not prose; and Los figurones is a longer work, written in three acts (La comedia nueva is composed in two acts). Moreover, the titles of the two works demonstrate the difference in the focus of each play. In La comedia nueva o el café the didactic message is divided evenly (in the two acts) between the urgency to improve the quality of the Spanish theater and the necessity to change the social behavior of various personages (behavior open to public view in the café). The title of Los figurones literarios mirrors a different didactic thrust: the requirement to choose with care one's social relationships. While the writing of good plays is stressed in Gálvez's work, successful literary activity is subordinate to the selection of worthy friends and colleagues.

In addition, two other principal discrepancies separate Los figurones literarios and La comedia nueva even further: Gálvez's use of caricature as well as other key elements of the sainete and the key role of Isabel in Los figurones literarios. Despite a similarity in theme, then, Los figurones literarios is markedly different from La comedia nueva; as Eva M. Rudat correctly states, María Gálvez's work «tiene(n) argumento, desarrollo de la acción y personajes completamente originales» (244).

An essential dissimilarity between Los figurones literarios and La comedia nueva is caused by Gálvez's utilization in her comedy of many of the techniques of Ramón de la Cruz's popular sainete, an aspect that is lacking in Moratín's second major work. The sainete, we recall, is that short work evolved from the sixteenth-century paso and the seventeenth-century entremés; in the eighteenth-century dramatists stage the sainete between the acts of longer dramatic works. In María Gálvez's time, Ramón de la Cruz is the chief craftsman of this género chico and establishes the constants of the sainete: fast-paced slapstick comedy; witty dialogue in romance; the lambasting of popular eighteenth-century characters such as petimetres, abates, and cortejos; and a moral lesson at the end of each work. A key to the sainete's success is the role of caricature, that «rare and rather paradoxical combination of exaggeration and plausibility», in John Moore's words (25).

Caricature is central to the comic effect produced by Los figurones literarios. Many characters and several scenes have all the flavor of a typical sainete of Ramón de la Cruz. The four «figurones literarios» are caricatures of the academic, professional, or social personages suggested by their allegorical names: Don Cilindro (science), Don Esdrúxulo (poetry), Don Epitafio (dealer in antiques), and Barón de la Ventolera (nobility). As the four friends of Don Panuncio are introduced in the first act, the audience readily notes that language, gestures, and even stage props distinguish each of Don Panuncio's fashionable friends. This characterization of a role by the stressing of one or more personality traits is typical of the sainete. Often, the speech of the character mirrors these same traits. The spoiled marquesa in Ramón de la Cruz's La comedia de maravillas is depicted in this manner as the constantly asks her male escort for luxury items while waiting for the drama to begin:

Señor Barón, mi pañuelo...


Señor Barón, dos pastillas...


¡Señor Barón!, el estuche...


In Los figurones literarios, the Barón is a caricature of the Frenchified Spanish nobility and, like Ramón de la Cruz's marquesa, again is easily identified by his speech:

[...] ¿La palabra
parler es en español
hablar? ¡Oh! Tengo olvidada
nuestra miserable lengua.


Another example of a character who can be easily identified by his speech and his actions is Don Cilindro, who prefers to employ trendy scientific terminology. He calls Alberto a «producto» (267) of Don Panuncio and enters the scene (VII, Act I) with a glass box.

Several entire scenes in Los figurones literarios resemble the popular sainete. In the second act (scene IX and X) Isabel arranges the chairs of her uncle's study so that all invited guest can view Don Cilindro's glass box along with its mysterious powers -as the scientist exclaims that he is «el maquinista mayor de la Europa» (310). Don Panuncio interrupts the proceedings to request that all look through his telescope at a comet (which only Alberto can see). The Barón cuts short this scientific endeavor by his hasty entrance and accidentally breaks a glass side of Don Cilindro's box, much to the latter's sorrow. Highlighted by the «play within a play» effect of the makeshift theater of Isabel, the events of these scenes echo the comic essence of the sainete through the utilization of unexpected occurrences, quick dialogue, farce, and even through the use of romance, the most widespread verse form of the género chico.

The use of farce and caricature, central to the structure of Los figurones literarios and reminiscent of the sainete, is absent in La comedia nueva. Typical of the comedia moratiniana, the author of El sí de las niñas portrays the principal characters -Don Pedro, Don Antonio, Don Eleuterio, and Doña Mariquita- in a realistic fashion as required by the neoclassic tenet of verisimilitude. Don Hermógenes, the bombastic pedant and suitor of Doña Mariquita, is the only character who approaches caricature. His comic effect originates chiefly from his language. This fact is clear from the first act, when Don Eleuterio requests that Doña Mariquita's future husband give his opinion about the upcoming play:

Sí, diré; pero antes de todo conviene saber que el poema dramático admite dos géneros de fábula. Sunt autem fabulae, aliae simplices, aliae implexae. Es doctrina de Aristóteles. Pero diré en griego para mayor claridad. Eisí de ton mython oi men aploi oi de peplegmenoi. Caí gar ai praxeis...


In relying principally on a linguistic repertoire of proper names, foreign words, and hyperbole, Don Hermógenes' speech is closely related to the narrator-professor of Cadalso's Los eruditos a la violeta. Humor in both discourses originates from the utilization of superficial knowledge for social advantage. As the wily instructor in Cadalso's work confesses to disciples, «Las ciencias no han de servir más que para lucir en los estrados, paseos, luneta de las comedias, tertulias, antesalas de poderosos y cafés...» (57). In La comedia nueva, Don Pedro is the first character to censure Don Hermógenes' trendy but empty language and tells he pedant to his face that «usted es un erudito a la violeta, presumido y fastidioso hasta no más» (29).

Don Hermógenes' limited comic role contrasts sharply with the antics of Don Epitafio, Don Esdrúxulo, Don Cilindro, and the Barón in Gálvez's play. As we have seen, Gálvez draws each of these caricatures not only by their individualized language but also by their gestures, stage props, and above all by slapstick actions. More importantly, whereas the humorous Don Hermógenes is a secondary figure in Moratín's didactic message, María Gálvez's figurones literarios are central to her aesthetic lesson. Gálvez's play stresses the negative effects of superficial friendship principally through Don Panuncio's comic interaction with his four erudite friends; Moratín, on the other hand, relies on the moralistic speeches of Don Pedro to point out Don Eleuterio's poor choice of companion as well as to advise him on other matters. Don Pedro's didactic voice for the characters of La comedia nueva and theatergoers alike dominates the final scene (Act II, scene IX), where the hombre de bien lectures Don Euleterio on how to write plays:

Qué, ¿no hay más sino meterse a escribir, a salga lo que salga, y en ocho días zurcir un embrollo, ponerlo en malos versos, darle al teatro y ya soy autor? Qué, ¿no hay más que escribir comedias? Si han de ser como la de usted o como las demás que se le parecen, poco talento, poco estudio y poco tiempo son necesarios...


In this last scene, the austere Don Pedro also proposes a change in Don Eleuterio's private life:

Yo tengo bastantes haciendas cerca de Madrid; acabo de colocar a un mozo de mérito, que entendía en el gobierno de ellas. Usted, si quiere, podrá irse instruyendo al lado de mi mayordomo...


Although Isabel and Alberto occasionally do give advice and opinions in Los figurones literarios, María Gálvez's moralizing approaches the didactic technique of the sainete, in which the audience is given a lesson through the actions of the characters themselves and not trough the lengthy speech of one character. Ramón de la Cruz's La presumida burlada exemplifies the sainete's moralizing thrust. The audience is aware of Doña María Estropajo's pretensions and pride through her treatment of servants, her husband, and finally her own mother. Yet the overt moralizing is summed up briefly by Don Gil at he end of the sainete:

Pues enjuguen
las lágrimas; y pasando
a la pieza de comer
el que quiera acompañarnos,
verá cuántos beneficios
producen los desengaños
a quien los recibe humilde
y procura aprovecharlos.


This speech is very similar to the brief final statement of Isabel at the conclusion of Los figurones literarios:

Quiero que de mis vivezas
me perdonéis, y que unidos
en la amorosa cadena,
que para nuestros placeres
formó la naturaleza,
para elegir los amigos
usemos de más reservas:
pues hombres de bien y sabios
son pocos los que se encuentran.


In her reliance on farce and caricature, María Rosa Gálvez joins other writers of the eighteenth-century both in Spain and other European countries who depend on burlesque for didacticism as well as for comic relief in an age that is overly-serious and overly-logical (McClelland, 270). Thus in her second comedy, Gálvez aligns herself more closely to the popular sainete of Ramón de la Cruz than to the comedia moratiniana. The Barón best summarizes María Gálvez's desire to teach her lesson through the techniques of the popular género chico in Los figurones literarios when he acknowledges that «[...] aquellos Dramas de las Parodias... son encanto del pueblo» (304).

Another fundamental difference distances Los figurones literarios from the well-known La comedia nueva: the role of women in each work. In this regard, Bridget Hill, in her text on eighteenth-century women, has demonstrated that after 1740 throughout Europe there was a concerted effort in literature to define the proper place of women in society. As women in the Age of Enlightenment became more active in salons, literary endeavors, and even in the affairs of state, they needed to be reminded, according to many masculine observers, of their traditional feminine roles as wife and mother. Underlining theses roles was the male view that female mental and physical capabilities were inferior to men. Thus, women in general were to listen and not to speak; feminine virtue was defined in such terms as restraint, passivity, compliance, submission, and delicacy. Masculine traits in women, such as intellectual activity, were considered forbidding. In Spain, as Kathleen Kish has convincingly argued, the masculine playwrights of the theater «deemed woman's correction a top priority concern» (187). The didactic message of many of these works, Kish concludes, forms nothing less than an aesthetic curriculum of a school for obedient wives.

Moratín's La comedia nueva follows the European eighteenth-century tendency to limit the woman's place in society and parallels other masculine dramatic works in Spain. Don Pedro's didactic lesson for Don Eleuterio concerning theatrical reform also contains a lesson for his wife, Doña Agustina. Instead of concerning herself with the writing of dramas, Don Pedro recommends that she only perform domestic duties:

Si cuida de su casa, si cría bien a sus hijos, si desempeña como debe oficios de esposa y madre, conocerá que sabe cuanto hay que saber y cuanto conviene a una mujer de su estado y obligaciones.


The pedant Don Hermógenes is the only character in La comedia nueva who approves of Doña Agustina's dramatic efforts, but the real meaning of his support for women is all too clear:

[...] y los experimentos cotidianos nos enseñan que toda mujer que es literata y sabe hacer versos, ipso facto se halla exonerada de las obligaciones domésticas. Yo lo probé en una disertación que leí a la Academia de los Cinocéfalos...


Moreover, Mariquita, the sister of Don Eleuterio, is happier at home preparing meals, sewing, cleaning, and other traditional female chores. Saying that she will never understand Don Hermógenes' instruction in the arts and sciences -«[...] si soy ignorante, buen provecho que haga...» (39)-, the sixteen-year-old affirms her own valued skills:

Sé escribir y ajustar una cuenta, sé guisar, sé planchar, sé coser, sé zurcir, sé bordar, sé cuidar una casa; yo cuidaré de la mía, y de mi marido, y de mis hijos, y yo me los criaré.


Closely allied with these domestic abilities is Mariquita's principal concern in La comedia nueva: the selection of a husband. Don Pedro also has advice for her in this area and recommends that she «disimula un poco las ganas que tiene de casarse...» (60).

Los figurones literarios sharply contrast with La comedia nueva in the role it offers women in society. To begin with, Isabel is a key character in Gálvez's comedy. It is she who convinces Don Panuncio that he should approve her marriage with Alberto. She, along with Alberto, points out to Don Panuncio that his friends are merely leaches and that they should be thrown out of his house. Finally, Don Panuncio puts such trust in his niece that he leaves to her discretion who should enter his home:

Lucas, no has de abrir la puerta
a nadie, si mi sobrina
no te concede licencia.


Isabel clearly enjoys her ability to control her masculine relatives and to teach them a lesson, as she tells Alberto:

Pero entre tanto pensemos
en divertirnos nosotros,
y sea a costa de ellos.


Moreover, in contrast to La comedia nueva, in which a discredited Don Hermógenes praises non-traditional roles for women in the literary field, in Los figurones literarios it is the foolish Don Esdrúxulo who claims that woman could not possibly understand poetry:

Barón, hablar con mujeres
de poesía es dar a cerdos
margaritas. Explicadme
a mí el numen altanero
de Góngora.


Nevertheless, women are also caricatured in Los figurones literarios. The mother of Isabel, Doña Evarista, is a woman who is driven by a desire to read newspapers of the day in order to keep up on current events. As she arrives at the house of Don Panuncio, her first concern is to know the news of the nation:

Panuncio, hace mucho tiempo
que no he sabido palabra
de la actual situación
política. ¿Cómo andan
los Gabinetes? ¿Cuál tiene
en su mano la balanza
de la Europa?


Yet at the end of the play, no masculine character attempts to reform her or to suggest that Doña Evarista return to totally domestic concerns, as Don Pedro advises Doña Agustina in La comedia nueva. In Los figurones literarios Doña Evarista joins the comic group of Don Cilindro, Don Epitafio, Don Esdrúxulo, and el Barón as one of the play's caricatures. As in the case of the masculine comic figures, she is ridiculed for the superficial knowledge she possesses of her field of interest. There is no suggestion that she or her masculine counterparts stop their respective studies; on the contrary, they need to study more and talk less.

Underlying the role of women throughout Los figurones literarios is a suspicion of masculine authority. Epitomizing this aspect of the work is the opening scene of Act III, in which Isabel is reading a text entitle Descubierta de la India. Isabel is amazed that in India women throw themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands. Although Doña Evarista tries to bring humor to the scene -she wants to intercede with a minister so that the custom does not become popular in Spain- Isabel remains serious. She concludes that women in general

[...] no tenemos en nuestra
vida un día más feliz
que aquel, en que come tierra
un marido...


Thus, the questioning of patriarchal authority as well as the forceful role of Isabel differentiates Los figurones literarios from Moratín's La comedia nueva. In the latter work, Don Pedro gives a lesson on the correct writing of plays as well as the proper place of women in the home. In María Gálvez's work, it is Isabel who orchestrates the lesson for her uncle as well as her future happiness as the bride of Alberto. In addition, Isabel's strong female role corresponds to Nancy in Gálvez's lachrymose drama El egoísta. In that play the protagonist decides to separate herself and her son from her wayward husband. In all, Los figurones literarios offers different view of the capability of women in society, a view not only at variance with La comedia nueva but also with many other eighteenth-century dramatic works in Spain. As René Andioc contends, Moratín as well as his masculine contemporaries «desconfía del bello sexo en general y tiene por ley objetiva la falsedad y doblez de la mujer como tal» (465).

In conclusion, Los figurones litetarios is fundamentally different from Moratín's La comedia nueva. While both call for reform in the theater of the day and at times are vaguely analogous in plot and structure, María Gálvez's drama incorporates the techniques of caricature to drive home her moral lesson. In deforming characters and exaggerating their defect for didactic purposes, Gálvez joins other eighteenth-century Spanish satirists such as Ramón de la Cruz, Cadalso, Torres Villarroel, Isla, and Goya. Moreover, whereas La comedia nueva supports the traditional role of women obeying a masculine authority, Gálvez in Los figurones litetarios provides different role models for women. Her work exemplifies those plays in the Spanish eighteenth-century which demonstrate, according to Glendinning, «[...] a movement towards a different and less hierarchical society, a sense of injustice of the status quo» (120).

In this regard, could Los figurones litetarios have been a dramatic reply to the earlier La comedia nueva? I believe that this contention is possible2. It has been shown that several events and characters from La comedia nueva are echoed in Los figurones litetarios but are developed in a different way. For example, in La comedia nueva Mariquita loses a promising husband because her brother and sister-in-law want her to marry pompous Don Hermógenes; in Los figurones litetarios, Isabel succeeds in marrying the man of her choice through her own wits. Moratín's work takes place in the café, a generally masculine world where literary theory is discussed and from which, at the end, women are banished to the home; Gálvez's work occurs in a home, the traditional female theater of operations from which at the end of the work foolish men along with inappropriate dramatic theory are expelled to the street. Finally, as we have seen before, Don Hermógenes's discredited praise for literary women is mirrored in María Gálvez's work by Don Esdrúxulo's questionable affirmation that women could not possibly understand poetry. As a general rule, in Moratín's second comedy, women who venture outside roles assigned to them by men are chastised; in María Gálvez's work women are rewarded for challenging these same subordinate roles. Viewed as a response by Gálvez to La comedia nueva, Los figurones litetarios rejects the patriarchal message of Moratín's play while joining with the earlier work in its call for reform on the stage in Madrid.

María Rosa Gálvez de Cabrera was proud of the works that she wrote for the Spanish stage. Her death at the age of 38 prevented the dramatist from further polishing her dramatic craft. She was also well aware of the fact that she was a woman writing in a field dominated by men. In several prefaces to her literary texts as well as in various plays themselves one notes today statements that remind her contemporary public that she, as a woman, was forging a new role for her sex3. In the conclusion of Un loco hace cien, the character Don Pancracio perhaps summarizes most succinctly Gálvez's pride in that comedy and other works written by her, such as Los figurones litetarios:

Y si él (Un loco hace cien) sirve para corregir la preocupación de las personas extravagantes, quedarán premiados los desvelos de una Española amante de su nación, que por desterrar este defecto, ofrece esta pequeña pieza a la diversión del público.


Works Cited

  • Alborg, Juan Luis. Historia de la literatura española: siglo XVIII. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1972.
  • Andioc, René, Teatro y sociedad en el Madrid del siglo XVIII. Valencia: Fundación Juan March y Editorial Castalia. 1976.
  • Cadalso, José. Los eruditos a la violeta. Madrid: Aguilar, 1967.
  • Cook, John A. Neoclassic Drama in Spain: Theory and Practice. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1959.
  • Cruz, Ramón de la. Sainetes. Ed. José María Castro y Calvo. Madrid: Editorial Ebro, n. d.
  • Dowling. John. «Estudio sobre La comedia nueva». In La comedia nueva y El sí de las niñas. Eds. René Andioc and John Dowling. Madrid: Clásicos Castellanos, 1968.
  • ——. Introducción. Sainetes I. By Ramón de la Cruz. Madrid: Clásicos Castellanos, 1981.
  • Fernández de Moratín, Leandro. La comedia nueva o el café. El sí de las niñas. Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe, 1965.
  • Gálvez de Cabrera, María Rosa. El egoísta. Comedia original en tres actos. In Obras poéticas, vol. I. Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1804, pp. 111-236.
  • ——. Los figurones literarios. Comedia original en tres actos. In Obras poéticas, vol. I. Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1804, pp. 237-367.
  • Glendinning, Nigel. A Literary History of Spain: The Eighteenth-Century. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., 1972.
  • Hill, Bridget. Eighteenth-Century Woman: An Anthology. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1984.
  • Kish, Kathleen. «A School for Wives: Women in Eighteenth-Century Spanish Theater». In Women in Hispanic Literature. Ed. Beth Miller. Berkeley: U. of California P., 1983, pp. 184-200.
  • McClelland, I. L. Spanish Drama of Pathos, 1750-1808. 2 vols. Toronto: U. of Toronto P., 1970.
  • Moore, John. Ramón de la Cruz. New York: Twayne, 1972.
  • Rudat, Eva M. Kahiluoto. «María Rosa Gálvez de Cabrera (1768-1806) y la defensa del teatro neoclásico». Dieciocho 9 (1986): 238-248.