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Reviewed by:
  • Don Pedro Calderón
  • Hilaire Kallendorf (bio)
Don W. Cruickshank. Don Pedro Calderón. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xxi + 471 + 32 black-and-white illustrations. $99.00.

This new Calderón biography is the sort of mammoth enterprise best undertaken by a truly senior scholar. Fortunately, Dr. Cruickshank, Emeritus Professor of Spanish at University College, Dublin, is precisely that. Although its marketing by Cambridge borders on the hyperbolic (the blurb inside the cover flap announces, "Don Pedro Calderón de la Barca [1600–1681] is Spain's most important early modern dramatist": what about Lope de Vega?), this hybrid creation—part biography, part literary criticism—exceeds expectations. It includes at the back an extremely useful index of Calderón's works by title, characters' names, and subject matter, with English translations of the titles. A potential strength of the book is its judicious use of material from the plays themselves to find autobiographical clues. It excels at old-style historicism, pinpointing allusions in plays to specific historical events. While at times the plot summaries become excessive, causing the book as a whole to read rather like a laundry list of plays and the circumstances under which they were created, one is never tempted to divorce Calderón the man from his work. For a dramatist sorely in need of humanization, whose autos sacramentales in particular often seem remotely distant, cerebral, and abstract, this is the biography we have been waiting for to bring this complex thinker back to life.

For example, Cruickshank provides a fascinating analysis of Calderón's handwriting and how it changed over time (this can sometimes be used to date his plays). The book is sprinkled with flashes of human insight like the glimpse we get of Calderón's deteriorating eyesight as his letters grew larger on the page. This account makes sense of his compulsive revision, taking stabs at guessing why he might have changed certain lines but not others. This biographer is intimately attuned to the rhythms of Calderón's literary productivity, to the point that he can tell us that if a play exceeds 3,700 lines or is written primarily in romance, it was probably composed after 1650 (172).

He also brings home to his readers key practical aspects of Calderón's world. He illustrates the financial pressures on even a successful playwright who occasionally found himself forced to borrow money from the lessees of public theaters to make ends meet (this essentially amounted to requesting advance payment for his next play, but then subsequently there was even greater pressure to produce). This book sheds light on complex networks of power relations: plays had to be licensed—the privilegio amounted to a ten-year copyright—and approved, but Calderón thought nothing of submitting a manuscript for approval by his own uncle (180). Apparently, concerns with neither copyright nor nepotism were what they are today. In fact, in at least one instance, Calderón lifted a whole act [End Page 140] out of one of Tirso de Molina's plays and used it as the germ for one of his own. As Cruickshank notes, nowadays he might be sued for plagiarism, but back then it was likely considered a compliment or else an artistic tour de force (186). We can ill afford to view this sort of intellectual recycling anachronistically; as this scholar reminds us, "existing literature was seen as a quarry for literature to be written" (127).

Cruickshank introduces us to a literary culture radically different from ours, in which a dramatist like Calderón probably did not retain a copy of his plays after he sold them to a theater company (128) and had to try to buy them back from the company manager to publish them in his collected works (180). After all, in an age before Xerox machines, copying an entire play by hand would have taken all day. He displays great sensitivity to the vagaries of Spain's economy and the effects of economic recession/depression on the book trade (131). Here we learn, for example, that the ubiquitous comedias sueltas were actually illegal attempts to escape printing bans. Facts...