Book Review: The New Art Of Writing Plays

The New Art Of Writing Plays, by Lope de Vega, translated by William T. Brewster, with an Introduction by Brander Matthews

In all fairness, this new art of writing plays is not very new, but that hardly matters, given that Lope de Vega is one of my favorite Spanish playwrights [1], and a talented contemporary of Shakespeare whose prolific and excellent writing deserves to be better known. Although this is marketed as a book, the core of the material is not even a very long essay that is only about twenty pages long, with an introduction that roughly doubles its length and notes that are almost as large as the essay themselves. Despite its small size, the work is a worthwhile one because although the art of English drama during the Elizabethan and Jacobean and the slightly later French drama of the Bourbon eras is well-known to drama-loving audiences in the Anglophone world, the drama of Spanish playwrights is much less well-known. This essay, coming as it does from one of the most notable Spanish playwrights, is therefore of particular worth.

The core material of this book is divided into two parts. The first part, nearly twenty pages in length, is an introductory essay by Brander Matthews that discusses the intellectual heritage of Lope de Vega’s poetic essay on the new art of making plays, with its attitude of uncritical acceptance of the standards of drama laid down in Greek and Roman times by thinkers such as Horace and its advice to playwrights to act in ways that appeal to the desires of the audience, even if one admits the superiority of the ways of the ancients when it comes to art and literature to our own vulgar times. One can picture similar advice being written today by someone like Michael Bay, for example. The second part of this book is the essay by Lope de Vega, which has all the appearance of someone who is well-read, very busy with his own work, and far more interested in popularity than in critical appeal, but who is plainly a prolific writer who had at the time of writing this essay written 483 plays by his count, most of which violated the restrictive rules of thematic unity, which were supposed to make comedy and tragedy entirely separate and to lay down certain requirements for unity of action. Almost all of my own plays, it should be noted, violate these standards as well, even without a deliberate attempt to thumb my nose at such traditions. The essay comes off as something that was written in haste by someone who needed material for a seminar on drama in which he was invited to come as a talented and successful practitioner of the dramatic arts, not as someone who was self-consciously writing in order to make his name and reputation as a dramatic critic. After the prose rendering by the translator, excerpts of a somewhat stilted poetic translation follows within the comparatively lengthy endnotes, which point out as well de Vega’s many learned but often subtle references to previous authors, which pointed out to his scholarly audience his own extensive knowledge and learned erudition, and points out the similarities between de Vega’s plays and that of others, like the ancient Greek playwrights and the more modern Ibsen.

Even so, the work, although short and written vaguely enough that learned analysts have read opposite senses into it, there are a few ways in which the translator has done excellent work in conveying genuine eloquence. Witness, for example, the thoughtful closing words of de Vega’s essay, “Let one hear with attention, and dispute not of the art; for in comedy everything will be found of such a sort that in listening to it everything becomes evident (38).” What de Vega is saying here, in defense of his own writing, is that it is not the nature of comedy to leave things mysterious, but rather to reveal everything so long as one pays attention. We see in our own contemporary comedies the devotion to slapstick, the making of everything plain and obvious, without restraint, and the same was true of the comedies of Lope de Vega, or, for that matter, the comedies of Shakespeare, Moliere, Machiavelli, Terrance, Aristophanes, or many other comedians for that matter. As de Vega was here attempting to defend his deviance from the rules of comedy, he notes that his monarch was not fond of the representation of kings on the stage in a comedy, as he felt it detracted from his honor and dignity. In writing as he does, de Vega is pointing out that he merely gives the people what they want, and that is how he has been so successful, and that those who desire success would imitate his example, as indeed they did, and he is not writing in order to appeal to monarchs or elite scholars in so doing, pointing out that even at this early age there was a sharp division between high and low art, a separation that continues to exist to this day, and one which thoughtful people who wish to communicate well in a variety of genres need to understand and overcome.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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