The Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina (1584-1648), to whom is attributed the initiation of the Don Juan theme, ranks as one of the three greatest dramatists of Spain's Golden Age of literature.
The identity of the family of Tirso de Molina and most of the facts of his life remain obscure. Born Gabriel Téllez in Madrid, he studied at the University of Alcalá and in 1601 entered the Order of the Merced as a monk. He probably initiated his career as a dramatist about 1605 with El vergonzoso en palacio (The Bashful Man at Court). After representing his order in Santo Domingo in the West Indies from 1616 to 1618, he returned to Madrid, where in 1621 he published his first book, Los cigarrales de Toledo (The Orchards of Toledo), a miscellany. Tirso was chronicler of the Order of the Merced in 1637 and prior of a monastery in Soria in 1645.
In his writings Tirso portrayed human foibles and vices with such scatological humor that in 1625 he was ordered silenced by the Council of Castile—an order he disobeyed—and was exiled to remote rural monasteries. Although his self-styled nephew, Francisco Lucas de Ávila, claimed that Tirso wrote more than 400 plays, only 55 authentically assigned to him are extant. Some 28 other plays he probably wrote in collaboration.
Tirso's work encompasses most of the subjects prevalent in the 17th-century Spanish theater: Spanish and Portuguese history and tradition, biblical material, contemporary customs, and palace intrigues—as well as one-act religious plays called autos sacramentales. Conjugal honor preoccupied him less than it did his contemporaries. He has generally been classified with Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón as a member of the triumvirate of foremost 17th-century Spanish dramatists. Pending definite proof of Tirso's authorship of El burlador de Sevilla (The Love Rogue) and El condenado por desconfiado (The Man Condemned for Little Faith), his position in the triumvirate remains debatable.
El burlador de Sevilla initiated the Don Juan theme. The protagonist of this play is a wealthy libertine, Don Juan Tenorio, whose sole aim in life is seduction. During the play's three acts he victimizes four women, two from the upper classes and two from the peasantry. In scenes set in Italy and in Spain, he incites others to violence by his lawless conduct. In one scene, after he accosts Doña Ana in her bedroom and her distinguished father, the Commander of Calatrava, attempts to rescue her, he kills her father. A stone statue is erected over the Commander's tomb.
Don Juan comes across this tomb by chance and mockingly invites the statue to supper. The statue accepts the invitation, appears at Don Juan's supper, and in turn invites Don Juan to dine with him in the graveyard. As a point of honor Don Juan never refuses any challenge to his courage. He accepts the statue's invitation, and he is served hideous food on a coal-black table. After supper the host offers his hand. Contact with the statue seems to ignite unearthly fires, and both descend to hell. An offstage chorus ominously chants a melancholy admonition: "No debt in life is left unpaid…."
In other plays Tirso raised theological issues momentous in his day. His greatest theological play, if it is his, is El condenado por desconfiado. It is based upon the story of the two thieves on the crosses. In the play a criminal, Enrico, is saved by unswerving faith, and an intellectual hermit, Paulo, is lost through philosophical doubt.
La prudencia en la mujer (Feminine Shrewdness) vies for first place among Tirso's historical works. The play takes its subject from Spain's past—the childhood of Fernando IV (1285-1312)—and it portrays the regency of Fernando's mother, Maria de Molina, who retains the throne for her 14-year-old son against the treachery of the deceased king's two brothers. Tirso also wrote a historical trilogy about Francisco, Hernando, and Gonzalo Pizarro in order to pay homage to the brothers and discredit their enemy, Diego de Almagro. In this trilogy Tirso blended history, tradition, and fantasy, especially in the second play, Amazons en Ias Indias (Amazons in the New World), in which he com-mingled conquistadores and passionate and warlike Amazons.
Tirso's light comedies include El vergonzoso en palacio, with a provocative and mischievous young countess as its protagonist; Marta la piadosa (Martha the Hypocrite), a play about another provocative young woman; and Don Gil de las calzas verdes (The Man in Green Britches), a comedy crowded with bawdy humor and pornography.
Tirso's supreme accomplishment was the creation of unforgettable characters with psychologically sound motivations: Don Juan, the libertine of The Love Rogue; Tisbea, the peasant girl who rents the air with her anguish when seduced and abandoned by Don Juan; Paulo, the outlaw, and Enrico, the hermit, of The Man Condemned for Little Faith; Maria de Molina, the canny regent of Feminine Shrewdness; Martha, the engagingly pious fraud of Martha the Hypocrite; Gonzalo Pizarro, the conquistador of Amazons in the New World; the comic Tello of El amor médico (Love the Physician); and the chickenhearted youth Rodrigo of El castigo del Penséque (A Lesson for Mr. Alibi).
Competent translations of Tirso's plays are lacking, except for two translations of El burlador de Sevilla: Harry Kemp's, published as The Love Rogue (1923), and Ray Campbell's, titled The Trickster of Seville and His Guest of Stone, included in Eric Bentley, ed., The Classic Theatre (4 vols., 1956-1961). Ilsa Barea translated Three Husbands Hoaxed (1955). A brief and rather subjective study of Tirso and his works is in Gerald Brenan, The Literature of the Spanish People from Roman Times to the Present Day (1951; rev. ed. 1953). Alice Huntington Bushee, Three Centuries of Tirso de Molina (1939), is primarily for the specialist. Leo Weinstein, The Meta-morphoses of Don Juan (1959), traces the story of the Don Juan legend. Background on the Spanish stage of Tirso's time is in Hugo A. Rennert, The Spanish Stage in the Time of Lope de Vega (1909). For historical background see John A. Crow, Spain: The Root and the Flower (1963).