A MIRACLE PLAY
In the windy month of March a sudden gloom falls upon Madrid, - the reaction after the folie gaiete of the Carnival. The theatres are at their gayest in February until Prince Carnival and his jolly train assault the town, and convert the temples of the drama into ball-rooms. They have not yet arrived at the wonderful expedition and despatch observed in Paris, where a half hour is enough to convert the grand opera into the masked ball. The invention of this process of flooring the orchestra flush with the stage and making a vast dancing-hall out of both is due to an ingenious courtier of the regency, bearing the great name of De Bouillon, who got much credit and a pension by it. In Madrid they take the afternoon leisurely to the transformation, and the evening's performance is of course sacrificed. So the sock and buskin, not being adapted to the cancan, yielded with February, and the theatres were closed finally on Ash Wednesday.
Going by the pleasant little theatre of Lope de Rueda, in the Calle Barquillo, I saw the office-doors open, the posters up, and an unmistakable air of animation among the loungers who mark with a seal so peculiar the entrance of places of amusement. Struck by this apparent levity in the midst of the general mortification, I went over to look at the bills and found the subject announced serious enough for the most Lenten entertainment, - Los Siete Dolores de Maria, - The Seven Sorrows of Mary, - the old mediaeval Miracle of the Life of the Saviour.
This was bringing suddenly home to me the fact that I was really in a Catholic country. I had never thought of going to Ammergau, and so, when reading of these shows, I had entertained no more hope of seeing one than of assisting at an auto-da-fe or a witch-burning. I went to the box-office to buy seats. But they were all sold. The forestallers had swept the board. I was never able to determine whether I most pitied or despised these pests of the theatre. Whenever a popular play is presented, a dozen ragged and garlic-odorous vagabonds go early in the day and buy as many of the best places as they can pay for. They hang about the door of the theatre all day, and generally manage to dispose of their purchases at an advance. But it happens very often that they are disappointed; that the play does not draw, or that the evening threatens rain, and the Spaniard is devoted to his hat. He would keep out of a revolution if it rained. So that, at the pleasant hour when the orchestra are giving the last tweak to the key of their fiddles, you may see these woebegone wretches rushing distractedly from the Piamonte to the Alcala, offering their tickets at a price which falls rapidly from double to even, and tumbles headlong to half-price at the first note of the opening overture. When I see the fore-staller luxuriously basking at the office-door in the warm sunshine, and scornfully refusing to treat for less than twice the treasurer's figures, I feel a divided indignation against the nuisance and the management that permits it. But when in the evening I meet him haggard and feverish, hawking his unsold places in desperate panic on the sidewalk, I cannot but remember that probably a half dozen dirty and tawny descendants of Pelayo will eat no beans to-morrow for those unfortunate tickets, and my wrath melts, and I buy his crumpled papers, moist with the sweat of anxiety, and add a slight propina, which I fear will be spent in aguardiente to calm his shattered nerves.
This day the sky looked threatening, and my shabby hidalgo listened to reason, and sold me my places at their price and a petit verre.
As we entered in the evening the play had just begun. The scene was the interior of the Temple at Jerusalem, rather well done, - two ranges of superimposed porphyry columns with a good effect of oblique perspective, which is very common in the Spanish theatres. St. Simeon, in a dress suspiciously resembling that of the modern bishop, was talking with a fiery young Hebrew who turns out to be Demas, the Penitent Thief, and who is destined to play a very noticeable part in the evening's entertainment. He has received some slight from the government authorities and does not propose to submit to it. The aged and cooler-blooded Simeon advises him to do nothing rash. Here at the very outset is a most characteristic Spanish touch. You are expected to be interested in Demas, and the only crime which could appeal to the sympathies of a Castilian crowd would be one committed at the promptings of injured dignity.
There is a soft, gentle strain of music played pianissimo by the orchestra, and, surrounded by a chorus of mothers and maidens, the Virgin Mother enters with the Divine Child in her arms. The Madonna is a strapping young girl named Gutierrez, a very clever actress; and the Child has been bought in the neighboring toy-shop, a most palpable and cynical wax-doll. The doll is handed to Simeon, and the solemn ceremony of the Presentation is performed to fine and thoughtful music. St. Joseph has come in sheepishly by the flies with his inseparable staff crowned with a garland of lilies, which remain miraculously fresh during thirty years or so, and kneels at the altar, on the side opposite to Miss Gutierrez.