How to perform El retablo de Maese Pedro aka El retablo de la libertad de Melisendra in Don Quixote with one puppeteer and a narrator/bottler

Whether Cervantes saw it or not, it is possible as he describes.

Gustave Doré's hallucinogenic 1863 engraving.

Gustave Doré's hallucinogenic 1863 engraving. Image: Wikipedia.

So how would it have worked?

Some background. The first Italian clown car in Spain, featuring a troupe led by a scoundrel called Il Mutio, is recorded in Seville in 1538, but Italian actors and puppeteers in search of a favourable revenue/bandit ratio seem to have travelled to Habsburg Spain in greater numbers following the conclusion of the Italian Wars in 1559. Why? The Italian states were left a pretty sorry way, France immediately launched into a long religious civil war, and Spain, though officially bankrupt, was still awash with colonial wealth, comparatively safe, and linguistically, climatically, and nutritionally compatible.1

Puppeteers, whether Italians or local imitators,2 played stripped-down, budget burlesques of the dramas put on in theatres and mansions by larger human companies. My sense is that they are comparable to the informal drolleries invented during the closure of the theatres by the English Puritans, and in Mallorca and perhaps other parts of Spain they were allowed to perform during Lent, when human theatres were closed.3 Their inspiration was often religious scenes (see e.g. Cristóbal de Villalón re the 1538 representation by foreigners in Valladolid of the Birth of Christ and the Passion – hence, according to some, but not Covarrubias, retablo, tableau but also altarpiece) or popular romance, as is the case here,4 but also, and to an increasing degree, Venetian or Neapolitan commedia dell’arte, featuring stock characters which recalled Roman comic types. Action was minimalist, reflecting supply constraints and the demands of a simple audience, pace Quixote, that the narrator “go on directly with your story, and don’t keep us here with your excursions and ramblings out of the road.”5

The happy conclusion of all this was the “Poppet-Show” witnessed in 1699 at Mayfair’s May Fair by Ned Ward, “where a Senseless Dialogue between Punchenello and the Devil, was convey’d to the Ears of the Listening Rabble thro’ a Tin Squeaker.”6 But while the 18th century puppet Pulcinella (puppeteer’s right hand) beats everyone else (left hand) to death with his stick before (not) suffering the same fate, Quixote’s Master Pedro a century previous is (still) less firmly unipolar and caricatural, although the personnel requirements are already the same as for the Puchinella show witnessed by Grigorovich in Petersburg in the 1840s: a puppeteer and a narrator, who between them do the sound effects and music.

Doré says that that configuration wouldn’t work (and patchwork writing7 might give grounds for doubt re the piece’s realism). I think he’s wrong, and in this table I’ve mapped Cervantes directions to one puppeteer’s two hands and their blocking on the stage:

Cervantes’ Don Quixote,8 superfluous dialogue featuring Pedro/Quijote omitted Left hand: drum, Charlemagne, Roland, Melisendra, Marsilio, crowd of Moors Right hand: clown horn, Gaiferos, Moor, bells
FRENCH PALACE
All were silent, Tyrians and Trojans; I mean all who were watching the show were hanging on the lips of the interpreter of its wonders, when drums and trumpets were heard to sound inside it and cannon to go off. drum clown horn/ swazzle
The noise was soon over, and then the boy lifted up his voice and said, “This true story which is here represented to your worships is taken word for word from the French chronicles and from the Spanish ballads that are in everybody’s mouth, and in the mouth of the boys about the streets. Its subject is the release by Señor Don Gaiferos of his wife Melisendra, when a captive in Spain at the hands of the Moors in the city of Sansueña, for so they called then what is now called Saragossa; and there you may see how Don Gaiferos is playing at the tables, just as they sing it—

At tables playing Don Gaiferos sits,
For Melisendra is forgotten now.

And that personage who appears there with a crown on his head and a sceptre in his hand is the Emperor Charlemagne, the supposed father of Melisendra, who, angered to see his son-in-law’s inaction and unconcern, comes in to chide him; and observe with what vehemence and energy he chides him, so that you would fancy he was going to give him half a dozen raps with his sceptre; and indeed there are authors who say he did give them, and sound ones too; and after having said a great deal to him about imperilling his honour by not effecting the release of his wife, he said, so the tale runs,

Enough I’ve said, see to it now.

Observe, too, how the emperor turns away, and leaves Don Gaiferos fuming;

Charlemagne Gaiferos
and you see now how in a burst of anger, he flings the table and the board far from him and calls in haste for his armour, and asks his cousin Don Roland for the loan of his sword, Durindana, and how Don Roland refuses to lend it, offering him his company in the difficult enterprise he is undertaking; but he, in his valour and anger, will not accept it, and says that he alone will suffice to rescue his wife, even though she were imprisoned deep in the centre of the earth, and with this he retires to arm himself and set out on his journey at once. Roland Gaiferos
ZARAGOZA CITY WALLS
Now let your worships turn your eyes to that tower that appears there, which is supposed to be one of the towers of the alcazar of Saragossa, now called the Aljaferia; that lady who appears on that balcony dressed in Moorish fashion is the peerless Melisendra, for many a time she used to gaze from thence upon the road to France, and seek consolation in her captivity by thinking of Paris and her husband. Observe, too, a new incident which now occurs, such as, perhaps, never was seen. Do you not see that Moor, who silently and stealthily, with his finger on his lip, approaches Melisendra from behind? Observe now how he prints a kiss upon her lips, and what a hurry she is in to spit, and wipe them with the white sleeve of her smock, and how she bewails herself, and tears her fair hair as though it were to blame for the wrong. Melisendra Moor
Observe, too, that the stately Moor who is in that corridor is King Marsilio of Sansueña, who, having seen the Moor’s insolence, at once orders him (though his kinsman and a great favourite of his) to be seized and given two hundred lashes, while carried through the streets of the city according to custom, with criers going before him and officers of justice behind; and here you see them come out to execute the sentence, although the offence has been scarcely committed; for among the Moors there are no indictments nor remands as with us.” Marsilio Moor
“This figure that you see here on horseback, covered with a Gascon cloak, is Don Gaiferos himself, whom his wife, now avenged of the insult of the amorous Moor, and taking her stand on the balcony of the tower with a calmer and more tranquil countenance, has perceived without recognising him; and she addresses her husband, supposing him to be some traveller, and holds with him all that conversation and colloquy in the ballad that runs—

If you, sir knight, to France are bound,
Oh! for Gaiferos ask—

which I do not repeat here because prolixity begets disgust; suffice it to observe how Don Gaiferos discovers himself, and that by her joyful gestures Melisendra shows us she has recognised him; and what is more, we now see she lowers herself from the balcony to place herself on the haunches of her good husband’s horse. But ah! unhappy lady, the edge of her petticoat has caught on one of the bars of the balcony and she is left hanging in the air, unable to reach the ground. But you see how compassionate heaven sends aid in our sorest need; Don Gaiferos advances, and without minding whether the rich petticoat is torn or not, he seizes her and by force brings her to the ground, and then with one jerk places her on the haunches of his horse, astraddle like a man, and bids her hold on tight and clasp her arms round his neck, crossing them on his breast so as not to fall, for the lady Melisendra was not used to that style of riding. You see, too, how the neighing of the horse shows his satisfaction with the gallant and beautiful burden he bears in his lord and lady. You see how they wheel round and quit the city, and in joy and gladness take the road to Paris. Go in peace, O peerless pair of true lovers! May you reach your longed-for fatherland in safety, and may fortune interpose no impediment to your prosperous journey; may the eyes of your friends and kinsmen behold you enjoying in peace and tranquillity the remaining days of your life—and that they may be as many as those of Nestor!”

Melisendra Gaiferos on horseback
“There was no want of idle eyes, that see everything, to see Melisendra come down and mount, and word was brought to King Marsilio, who at once gave orders to sound the alarm; and see what a stir there is, and how the city is drowned with the sound of the bells pealing in the towers of all the mosques.” Marsilio bells
“See what a numerous and glittering crowd of horsemen issues from the city in pursuit of the two faithful lovers, what a blowing of trumpets there is, what sounding of horns, what beating of drums and tabors; I fear me they will overtake them and bring them back tied to the tail of their own horse, which would be a dreadful sight.” troop of Moorish horsemen clown horn/drum

At which point Don Quixote ups and destroys the Moors “little pasteboard figures,” leaving “King Marsilio badly wounded, and the Emperor Charlemagne with his crown and head split in two. The whole audience was thrown into confusion, the ape fled to the roof of the inn, the cousin was frightened, and even Sancho Panza himself was in mighty fear, for, as he swore after the storm was over, he had never seen his master in such a furious passion.”

Let me know if you want to try it out: as Maese Pedro says, “operibus credite, et non verbis”. I haven’t yet seen the Falla opera:

… or listened to this Retablo de la libertad de Melisenda by Alain Recoing and Salvador Baccarisse.

Finally, Don Quixote doesn’t seem to have been the only one to lose it with puppets. McCormick, Popular Puppet Theatre in Europe:

Showmen usually aimed at what they perceived as realism, and audiences were frequently drawn into the illusion, confusing the fictional event on the stage with reality. Pasqualino cites various examples of modern Sicilian audiences attacking the hated traitor of the Charlemagne cycles, Gano di Maganza, and recalls witnessing a spectator rushing up to the stage, taking off his shoe and hurling it repeatedly at the puppet. A hundred years earlier, Gregorovius saw a youth hurl a piece of wood at the head of the same character. Sotiris Spatharis, in his memoirs, mentions an episode in 1922, during a performance of Bizat Finds his Brother. In this play, Bizat, brought up from childhood as a Turk, kills the Greek leader, Gavioti, who, unknown to him, is his brother. At a performance in Marousi, a policeman in the audience leapt to his feet, pointed his pistol at the screen and shouted “You filthy Turk”. Quick action by Spatharis’s brother-in-law saved the puppeteer’s life, but a brawl ensued in which both the stage and the café where the show was taking place were smashed up.

McCormick includes an image of a puppet cellar in the Repenstraat, Antwerp. The notice house left reads “Het is verboden te werpen,” “Throwing forbidden”:

Unread stuff

Anecnotes   [ + ]

1. The go-to ref for this is still José Sánchez Arjona’s Noticias referentes a los anales del teatro en Sevilla desde Lope de Rueda hasta fines del siglo XVII (1898).
2. Maese Pedro could be either – not that it really matters. Helena Percas de Ponseti, Cervantes y su concepto del arte (1975), p601 says that Guillermo Díaz-Plaja identified Italianisms in the scene – “hombre galante,” “bon compaño,” “¿qué peje pillamo?” – which, like the cart on which it travelled, tied the show into the Sicilian pupi, marionette versions of Frankish Reconquest epics such as The Song of Roland and Orlando Furioso. I’d mischievously add the Latin tag used by Maese Pedro, “operibus credite, et non verbis,” the first part of which can be found on the 1574 clock in Palermo cathedral.

3. Amades, Costumari català, vol II p 545
4. Here‘s the pseudo-Carolingian ballad of Gayferos and Melisenda in the 16th century version collected in Agustín Durán’s Romancero general, which begins “Asentado está Gayferos / En el palacio reale,” (Dorothy S Severin, “Gaiferos, Rescuer of his Wife Melisenda” has more sources, inc. “modern” Catalan, Portuguese & Sephardic) and here‘s the Young translation.
5. Motteux translation, which is far more pleasurable than Ormsby, but whose slapstick affections might have jarred with Cervantes.
6. The London Spy Compleat. Even then Mayfair was a criminal den, though perhaps more straightforward and sociable than now.

I say “conclusion,” but maybe the essentials were far older than 15th/16th century Italy:

7. The “chilladores delante y envaramiento detrás” are Quevedo. More revelations apparently in Francisco Rodríguez Marín, Estudios Cervantinos (1947).
8. Translation: the dull but dependable Ormsby.

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