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Criminality and Control in the Comedia after Maravall

From: Bulletin of the Comediantes
Volume 65, Number 1, 2013
pp. 107-130 | 10.1353/boc.2013.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Manda el estafar a todos,
que en este siglo de barro
no hay ninguno que no sea
deudo suyo por lo hurtado.

Jacinto Alonso Maluenda Infanzón, “Jácara del Zurdillo de la Costa”

… con haber bastante número de alguaciles de corte, son pocos los que acuden al ejercicio de sus oficios, procurando más sus comodidades, regalos y entretenimientos, dándose más unos a las ejecuciones y causas civiles, y otros acudiendo a las casas de juego, no con fin de estorbarlo, y a las comedias, y no a sus oficios, como debían …

1629 Auto from the Noticias y autos de Sala [de Alcaldes de Casa y Corte ]

Nos hallamos—no sólo en España, de donde tantas veces se ha dicho, sino en toda Europa—antes una época que, en todas las esferas de la vida colectiva, se ve arrastrada por fuerzas irracionales, por la apelación a la violencia, la multiplicación de crímenes, la relajación moral, las formas alucinantes de la devoción, etc. etc.

José Antonio Maravall, La cultura del Barroco

In a society beset with criminal behavior and lax or ineffective law enforcement, how effective is theater as a tool for maintaining public order, especially when the theater itself becomes an arena for illicit activity both on and offstage? Early modern Spain’s plentiful theatrical lawbreakers and their real-life counterparts, who prowled the streets and mingled with spectators in the corral , present a challenge to Maravall’s thesis that the comedia functioned as an unequivocal tool for state propaganda. For Maravall, the comedia , epitomized by Lope de Vega, would “servir el gusto suelto del vulgo—lo que quiere decir que trate de afanosamente de controlarlo” (La cultura del Barroco 223). In other words, its pleasure was directed towards the shaping of a mass ideology in support of an absolutist state. What happens, though, when the characters pleasing the crowds are violent criminals? That criminal types did, indeed, appeal to the public’s gusto is manifest through their plentiful appearances in the corrales . What begs consideration is that their accompanying disruptive and questionable (if not reprehensible) behavior often appears sanctioned on the stage, and it is difficult to see how such behavior could be channeled to serve a statist function. Beyond a moral hazard, violent criminals threatened order in a very tangible way, and not just as a marginal class but as people at every level of society, including the very authorities in charge of maintaining order. Another way to frame the question would be to ask what occurs when seemingly attractive yet dangerous behavior is the value plugged into Maravall’s function of the theater, which he describes not as an overtly political and rhetorical force, but instead as a more subtle operation that uses “modernity” as a lure:

Si la comedia, y a la vez todo el arte barroco, se esfuerza en hacer obra “moderna” es porque con ello lo que se pretende es alcanzar, en su sensibilidad, en su ideología, a los presentes a quienes se propone atraer a una concepción de la sociedad y de los hombres, en cuyos intereses se orienta, en su base social, la cultura barroca—decimos “atraer” y no “convencer”, y en ello hay un matiz importante del que no podemos dejar de hacer mención.

(Teatro y literatura 17)

Maravall associates the same modernity with both novelty, the contemporary notion of “lo moderno” (Literatura picaresca 257), and an increase of what he calls “desviación,” which can lead to criminal behavior (Literatura picaresca 421). But what happens when transgressing laws is theater’s draw—that with which it “attracts” audiences?

It might be tempting to view criminal characters and their acts as subversive threats to what Maravall called the “orden monárquico-señorial” (Teatro y literatura 19). However, they more likely served as indictments of the laxity and corruption in law enforcement that historians have demonstrated were endemic to early modern Spain. Moreover, if comedia scholars spend too much time with a figurative scorecard, trying to see who is winning, subversives or oppressors, we may fail to detect some surprising interactions between theatrically fictionalized criminality and...



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