The Spanish playwright Juan Ruiz de Alarcón y Mendoza (1581-1639) was a major figure of Spain's Golden Age, 1580-1680. His work is distinguished by mastery of humorous dialogue and by use of a thesis, or basic premise, to satirize common human failings.
Juan Ruiz de Alarcón was born in Mexico to parents from distinguished Spanish families. He was educated in both Mexico and Spain and obtained two law degrees. He returned to Spain in 1614 and became a playwright, and there he received most of his acclaim.
Perhaps Alarcón's colonial background and certainly his physical defect (he was hunchbacked) inspired the monstrous jibes directed at him, such as "dwarfed camel," "monkey," and "trunk poet." Although Alarcón returned the barbs in kind, bitterness may account for the presence in his plays of characters who lack physical grace but possess impressive moral strength. At the same time, several of his physically attractive characters invite disapproval because of some moral defect. For example, the handsome but scan-dalmongering Don Mendo in Las paredes oyen (The Walls Have Ears) loses the lovely Ana to Don Juan de Mendoza, who describes himself as "poor, ugly and with a very undistinguished appearance."
Alarcón wrote less than 30 plays, all in verse. In spite of his output, relatively small in his day, he ranks among the European comic geniuses. His most famous play is La verdad sospechosa (The Suspected Truth), which the French dramatist Pierre Corneille adapted and in part literally translated as Le Menteur (1644; The Liar). The Suspected Truth tells the story of a personable young university graduate who is, in the 17th century sense, a complete caballero except for one notable moral defect: impulsive lying. From this Alarcón developed multiple situations affording sparkling entertainment while pointing out a moral.
Many of his protagonists have a ruling passion, a convention adopted by the French playwright Moli'e in, for example, L'Avare (1668; The Miser). One early play by Alarcón, No hay mal que por bien no venga (From Evil Good Always Springs), features a protagonist to whom comfort is the motive for every decision or act, whether important or trivial, except in matters of honor. In Mudarse por mejorarse (His Eye on the Main Chance) the indecisive Don Garcia loses the love of the beautiful, wealthy Clara because of his vacillation between her and her niece.
Occasionally Alarcón departed from writing his customary thesis plays. Then he abandoned his usual moderation for a more exuberant style, as in El anticristo (The Anti-Christ) and the second part of El tejedor de Segovia (The Segovian Weaver).
There is no biography of Alarcón in English. He is included in two general studies, George Tyler Northup, An Introduction to Spanish Literature (1925; 3d ed., revised by Nicholas B. Adams, 1960), and Richard E. Chandler and Kessel Schwartz, A New History of Spanish Literature (1961). His complete works have been published in Spanish, Obras completas de Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, edited by Agustin Millares Carlo (3 vols., 1957-1968). □