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  • Role and Freedom in Calderón's The Great Theater of the World
  • Gerhard Poppenberg (bio)

Every individual intelligence can be regarded as a constitutive part of God, or of the moral world-order.

—F. W. J. Schelling1


Pedro Calderón de la Barca's drama The Great Theater of the World belongs to the genre of autos sacramentales that arose in Spain in the sixteenth, reached its height in the seventeenth, and disappeared from the stage in the early eighteenth century.2 It did not spawn imitators outside of the Spanish-speaking world. An auto sacramental is a play performed on Corpus Christi. In 1264, Pope Urban IV introduced the feast of Corpus Christi for the purpose of glorifying the Eucharist. John XXII (1316-34) advocated the institutional and liturgical arrangement of the feast; he decreed, for instance, that its celebration include a procession wherein the consecrated host in the monstrance would be brought outside of the church into the world and then carried back again into the church. The Corpus Christi procession articulates the sacred along with the profane as a liturgical act. In Spain, the arrangement of the procession became more and more splendid over time. Wagons with superstructure provided display areas during the procession; while at first these featured paintings of biblical scenes or saints, later such figures were represented by real persons as tableaux vivants and eventually were scenically reenacted. In the wake of the sixteenth-century schism initiated by the Protestant Reformation, which objected, among other things, to Eucharistic dogma, the feast of Corpus Christi became increasingly valorized among Catholics. In Spain's Siglo de Oro, it became the most important feast of the year. [End Page 309]

As the scenic representations on the wagons became progressively more complex over the course of the sixteenth century, they were finally spun off from the procession and performed at its end. Thus arose from various sources—for example, the liturgical dramas performed around Christmas and Easter since the Middle Ages and the dramaturgical elements of the comedia nueva that developed in the sixteenth century—the auto sacramental in Spain as the independent literary genre of the Corpus Christi plays.3 By the second half of the sixteenth century, it became an integral part of the feast of Corpus Christi. The autos sacramentales—just as the classical tragedies for the Dionysia—were newly written each year for the feast.

An auto sacramental is a one-act play whose subject matter refers to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Etymologically, the determinatum auto comes from the Latin actus; sacramental is the determinans. Thus the auto sacramental, by means of its generic term, refers to the liturgical actus sacramentalis as its subject matter: the transformation of the bread and wine, during the Mass, into the sacramental body and blood of Christ, who is truly present then—really present—in this sacramental form.

Calderón's introduction to the first volume of his collected autos sacramentales (1677) includes an innovative pair of concepts that has been broadly adopted by recent research. He draws a distinction between argumento and asunto, between the action and the subject matter of the plays. The subject matter of the Eucharist underlies all the plays in equal measure; the action that stages the subject matter varies from one play to another. In most of the autos sacramentales, the subject matter of the Eucharistic transformation is displayed in an action whose protagonist is the human soul. Its conversion constitutes the theme; from an initially good life, it transforms itself into evil and is finally, through the redemptive act of Christ, the bloody sacrifice on the cross, redeemed and retransformed into good. The sacrament of the Eucharist is the spiritual and unbloody repetition of the sacrifice on the cross.

From this perspective, The Great Theater of the World seems an untypical play. The fall that makes up the conceptual center of almost all the other autos sacramentales occurs only parenthetically in this play (115, 259, 344, 558, 1198). Here worldliness, creatureliness, and also materiality, not sinfulness, seem to be the other of godliness. In contemporary spiritual [End Page 310] writings, carne, mundo, and diablo are mentioned as...


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