El vergonzoso en palacio, wr. 1611(?), pb. 1624 (The Bashful Man at Court, 1991)
Marta la piadosa, wr. 1615, pb. 1636
Don Gil de las calzas verdes, wr. 1615, pb. 1635 (Don Gil of the Green Breeches, 1991)
El condendado por desconfiado, wr. 1615(?), pb. 1634 (The Saint and the Sinner, 1952; also knownas Damned for Despair, 1986)
La venganza de Tamar, wr. 1621, pb. 1634 (Tamar’s Revenge, 1988; also known as The Rape of Tamar, 1999)
El burlador de Sevilla, wr. 1625(?), pb. 1630 (The Trickster of Seville, 1923)
La prudencia en la mujer, wr. 1627-1633, pb. 1634 (Prudence in Woman, 1964)
Los cigarrales de Toledo, 1624
Deleytar aprovechando, 1635
Historia general de la orden de Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, 1639
Tirso de Molina (TEER-soh day moh-LEE-nah), Lope de Vega Carpio, and Pedro Calderón de la Barca are the triad of the great Golden Age dramatists of Spain. Tirso’s birth, around 1580, places him chronologically between the two other masters; in style and content, however, he belongs more to Lope’s dramatic cycle, and Tirso’s Los cigarrales de Toledo (the orchards of Toledo) contains a defense of Lopean theater.
Little is known of Tirso’s early life, although there is much speculation that he was born Gabriel Téllez of aristocratic, though illegitimate, birth. He studied at the University of Alcalá de Henares and entered the Mercedarian Order of Friars in 1600 or 1601. He was living in Toledo in 1613 when he met Lope de Vega, and his play Don Gil of the Green Breeches was performed in that city in 1615. Tirso had started writing for the theater several years before, and The Bashful Man at Court is probably the first play he wrote. (Because of the uncertainty surrounding the first performance of many Golden Age plays, the date given is generally that of the first appearance in print.)
In 1616 he was sent by his order to Hispaniola. On his return two years later, he increasingly immersed himself in his writing and in the exciting life of Madrid, the capital of the Spanish empire. His friendship with Lope opened many doors, and more of his plays were performed; soon he was basking in the applause of both public and critics. The authorities, however, were not won over. In 1626, he was banished to the backwater of Trujillo. The reason given was that a priest should not contribute to the “corruption” of others nor be seen in the “lewd” company of actors. No one knows the real motive behind this punishment, but it is widely believed that those in power had little or no toleration for Tirso’s thinly veiled criticism of the nobility and government of his day.
A good churchman as well as a good dramatist, Tirso then devoted himself to the affairs of the Mercedarians. He was named the order’s historian in 1632 and edited a history of the order, but he never stopped writing plays. Some four hundred comedias are attributed to him; eighty are extant, although a few are of doubtful authorship.
In 1630 Tirso published his greatest work, which saw the first appearance of one of the archetypal figures of world literature, Don Juan of The Trickster of Seville. Don Juan is a rebel who knowingly breaks every social and moral law; fittingly, he is damned for his actions. Other writers, notably José de Zorrilla, have changed the psychological and social focus of the seventeenth century play, but it is Tirso’s Don Juan, mocking and satirical, whose characterization has lent itself to so many interpretations.
One of the great debates of Tirso’s time centered on the importance of faith, grace, predestination, and free will in attaining salvation. Don Juan had been condemned for overconfidence, for relying too much on the mercy of God; in The Saint and the Sinner, however, Tirso presents the flip side of the coin. In this work, the religious man Paulo loses his salvation because he has lost confidence in God’s mercy and, in his denial of free will, gives way to despair and his own spiteful pride. Questions of free will and predestination are always relevant, but Tirso’s genius lies in his ability to put a human face on these abstract concepts. Paulo and Don Juan are characters of flesh and blood whose human frailties are very real.
Tirso has also been renowned for his portrayal of strong women characters, and some critics have insinuated that their psychological realism stems from Tirso’s knowledge of their secrets in the confessional. In 1633 Prudence in Woman introduced María de Molina to the stage; many consider her to be the most heroic female representation in Spanish theater. Prudence in Woman concerns a mother, acting as regent, who valiantly defends her son’s right to the throne while beset on all sides by ruthless nobles. The plot parallels the historical situation in Spain after the death of Phillip III in 1621. More than any other Golden Age playwright, Tirso consistently–and more or less openly–attacked corruption, political intrigue, and folly.
Tirso paid the price for this audacity. He never returned to Madrid, and although many of his plays were published during his lifetime, the number of performances diminished. In 1648 he died in virtual oblivion in Almazán, Soria, his work forgotten until its reappraisal at the beginning of the nineteenth century.