CH. V. -- Gil Blas goes to the play, and sees a new tragedy. The success of the piece. The public taste at Valencia.
I STOPPED for some minutes before the door, to make my remarks on the people who were going in. There were some of all sorts and sizes. Here was a knot of genteel-looking fellows, whose tailors at least had done justice to their fashionable pretensions; there a mob of ill-favoured and ill-mannered mortals, in a garb to identify vulgarity. To the right was a bevy of noble ladies, alighting from their carriages to take possession of their private boxes; to the left a tribe of female traders in lubricity, who came to sell their wares in the lobby. This mixed concourse of spectators, as various in their minds as in their faces, gave me an itching inclination to increase their number. Just as I was taking my check, the governor and his lady drove up. They spied me out in the crowd, and having sent for me, took me with them to their box, what I placed myself behind them, in such a position as to converse at my ease with either.
The theatre was filled with spectators from the ceiling downwards, the pit thronged almost to suffocation, and the stage crowded with knights of the three military orders. Here is a full house! said I to Don Alphonso. You are not to consider that as anything extraordinary, answered he; the tragedy now about to be produced is from the pen of Don Gabriel Triaquero, the most fashionable dramatic writer of his day. Whenever the play-bill announces any novelty from this favourite author, the whole town of Valencia is in a bustle. The men as well as the women talk incessantly on the subject of the piece: all the boxes are taken; and, on the first night of performance, there is a risk of broken limbs in getting in, though the price of admission is doubled, with the exception of the pit, which is too authoritative a part of the house for the proprietors to tamper with its patience. What a paroxysm of partiality! said I to the governor. This eager curiosity of the public, this hot-headed impatience to be present at the first representation of Don Gabriel's pieces, gives me a magnificent idea of that poet's genius.
At this period of our conversation the curtain rose. We immediately left off talking, to fix our whole attention on the stage. The applauses were rapturous even at the prologue: as the performance advanced, every sentiment and situation, nay, almost every line of the piece called forth a burst of acclamation; and at the end of each act the clapping of hands was so loud and incessant, as almost to bring the building about our ears. After the dropping of the curtain, the author was pointed out to me, going about from box to box, and with all the modesty of a successful poet, submitting his head to the imposition of those laurels, which the genteeler, and especially the fairer part of the audience had prepared for his coronation.
We returned to the governor's palace, where we were met by a party of three or four gentlemen. Besides these mere amateurs, there were two veteran authors of considerable eminence in their line, and a gentleman of Madrid with tolerably fair claims to critical authority and judgment They had all been at the play. The new piece was the only topic of conversation during supper-time. Gentlemen, said a knight of St James, what do you think of this tragedy? Has it not every claim to the character of a finished work? Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn, a hand to touch the true chords of pity, and sweep the lyre of poetry; requisites how rarely, and yet how admirably united! In a word, it is the performance of a person mixing in the higher circles of society. There can be no possible difference of opinion on that subject, said a knight of Alcantara. The piece is full of strokes which Apollo himself might have aimed, and of perplexities contrived so that none but the author himself could have unravelled them. I appeal to that acute and ingenious stranger, added he, addressing his discourse to the Castilian gentleman; he looks to me like a good judge, and I will lay a wager that he is on my side of the question. Take care how you stake on an uncertainty, my worthy knight, answered the gentleman with a sarcastic smile. I am not of your provincial school; we do not pass our judgment so hastily at Madrid. Far from sentencing a piece on its first representation, we are jealous of its apparent merit while aided by scenic deception; our fancies and our feelings may be carried away for the moment, but our serious decision is suspended till we have read the work; and the most common result of its appeal to the press is a defalcation from its powers of pleasing on the stage.
Thus you perceive, pursued he, that it is our practice to examine a work of genius closely before we stamp on it the mark of a stock piece: its author's fame, let it ring as loudly as it may, can never confound our exactness of discrimination. When Lope de Vega himself or Calderona ventured on the boards, they encountered rigid critics, though in an audience which doted on them: critics who would not sign their passport to the regions of immortality till they had sifted their claims to be admitted there.
That is a little too much, interrupted the knight of St James. We are not quite so cautious as you. It is not our custom to wait for the printing of a piece in order to decide on its reputation. By the very first performance it sinks or swims. It does not even seem necessary to be inconveniently attentive to the business of the stage. It is sufficient that we know it for a production of Don Gabriel, to be persuaded that it combines every excellence. The works of that poet may justly be considered as commencing a new era, and fixing the criterion of good taste. The school of Lope and Calderona was the mere cart of Thespis, compared with the polished scenes of this great dramatic master. The gentleman, who looked up to Lope and Calderona as the Sophocles and Euripides of the Spaniards, could not easily be brought to acknowledge such wild canons of criticism. This is dramatic heresy with a vengeance! exclaimed he. Since you compel me, gentlemen, to decide like you on the fallacious evidence of a first night, I must tell you that I am not at all satisfied with this new tragedy of your Don Gabriel. As a poem it abounds more with glittering conceits than with passages of pathos or delineations of nature. The verses, three out of four, are defective either in measure or rhyme; the characters, clumsily imagined or incongruously supported; and the thoughts have often the obscurity of a riddle without its ingenuity.
The two authors at table, who, with a prudence equally commendable and unusual, had said nothing for fear of lying under the imputation of jealousy, could not help assenting to the last speaker's opinions by their looks; which warranted me in concluding that their silence was less owing to the perfection of the work than to the dictates of personal policy. As for the military critics, they got to their old topic of ringing the changes on Don Gabriel, and exalted him to a level with the under-tenants of Olympus. This extravagant association with the demi-gods, this blind and stiff-necked idolatry, divorced the Castilian from his little stock of patience, so that, raising his hands to heaven, he broke out abruptly into a volley of enthusiasm: O divine Lope de Vega, sublime and unrivalled genius, who has left an immeasurable space between thee and all the Gabriels who would light their tapers from thy bright effulgence! and thou, mellow, soft-voiced Calderona, whose elegance and sweetness, rejecting buskined rant and tragic swell, reign with undisputed sway over the affections, fear not, either of you, lest your altars should be overturned by this tongue-tied nurseling of the muses! It will be the utmost of his renown, if posterity, before whose eyes your works shall live in daily view, and form their dear delight, shall enrol his name, as. matter of history and curious record, on the list of obsolete authors.
This animated apostrophe, for which the company was not at all prepared, raised a hearty laugh, after which we all rose from table and withdrew. An apartment had been got ready for me by Don Alphonso's order, where I found a good bed; and my lordship, lying down in luxurious weariness, went to sleep upon the tag of the Castilian gentleman's impassioned vindication, and dreamed most crustily of the injustice done to Lope and Calderona by ignorant pretenders.