Fernández de Moratín, Leandro and Nicolas

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Fernández de Moratín, Leandro (1760-1828) and Nicolas (1737-80): Spanish Poets and Playwrights

Don Leandro Fernández de Moratín is considered the most outstanding Spanish neoclassical playwright. Shy in temperament, due to facial scaring caused by chicken pox, with excellent judgment and a rich cultural background, he is the foremost Spanish dramatist of the eighteenth century. He was the son of playwright Nicolas Fernández de Moratín, a lawyer and professor of poetry at the Imperial College. Nicolas wrote many plays in an attempt to reform Spanish drama. In1762, Nicolas wrote “Desengaño al teatro español” which criticized the 17th century style of drama especially the Auto Sacramental. His other works include, La Petimetra, Guzmán el Bueno and Hormesinda, a tragedy.

Leandro was born in Madrid, on the 10th of March 1760 to a noble family. His father, Nicolas understood that earning a living from writing was sometimes difficult and sent him to be apprenticed as a jeweler. At the age of nineteen, he entered a literary contest and was awarded a prize for his epic ballad: La toma de Granada por los Reyes Católicos don Fernando y doña Isabel. In 1780 his beloved father died. Two years later in another literary contest he won a second prize for his Sátira contra los vicios introducidos en la poesía castellana, a satire of the popular poets of the day. These contests gained him literary recognition and the job of secretary to Count Cabarrus. As secretary to Cabarrus, he accompanied him on a special mission to Paris in 1787, where he had the opportunity to study French neoclassical drama and meet other well known literary figures. Returning to Spain in 1789 Moratín continued the work begun by his father to reform Spanish drama based upon the French neoclassical model and wrote La derrota de los pendantes. Under the patronage of Godoy, prime minister and favorite of Charles IV, he was able in 1790 to stage his first play, “El viejo y la niña.” In 1792 he wrote one of his most famous plays: “ La comedia nueva o El café.” During a trip to Paris in 1792, the French Revolution caused him to travel to England, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Germany, where he furthered his study of 18th century European theatre. In 1802 he staged “El Báron,” followed in 1804 by “La Mojigata” (the female hypocrite), which the Inquisition tried to suppress. In 1806 Moratín’s best work “El si de las niñas” was written. It was a great success, filled crowded theatres, and was translated into several foreign languages. Because of his alliance with the French invaders and his loyalty to Jose Bonaparte, he was given the position of Chief Librarian. At the end of the war he was obliged to emigrate because of his French alliances. He returned briefly to Spain and later died in Paris in 1828.

Apart from his Epistolario, his works can be grouped according to (A) Original Theatre: El viejo y la niña, El barón, La mogigata, El café o la comedia nueva, El si de las niñas, (B) Translations: El medico a palos, La escuela de maridos, Hamlet (C) Poetry: Satires, Epistles, Sonnets, Epic ballads, Odes, Elegies, etc., and (D)Didactic-Critical Prose: La derrota de los pedantes, Orígenes del teatro español.

As a critic, Moratín was an inflexible follower of the neoclassical norms of artistic perfection. Following a tradition set by Iriarte, he created a series of works based on the preoccupations of 18th century society in Spain. The original theatre of Moratín is based on literary and social satire. His attack on social rules can best be seen in his play La comedia nueva, o el café. El si de las niñas is a play that satirizes the problem of arranged marriage. Moratín did not deny parents the right and even the duty to advise their children on marriage. He did, however, rebel against education that forces society to pretend and disguise sentiments. He rebelled against the ambition of parents that force their daughters to agree to arranged marriages based on economic gains. He was also against marriages between partners of disparate ages as illustrated in El viejo y la niña, El si de las niñas and El barón. His satire of hypocrisy was the material of the play: La mojigata. His was a theatre of daily life, with its small intrigues and problems. His skillful dialogue was used to portray a society of human beings who exemplify the “good manners” of the 18th century, finding a solution to all social conflicts.

The ideology of Moratín can be summed up as a study of the decadence of Spanish Literature in the 18th century, and its invasion by pedantic poets. He believed that literature should respect and imitate neoclassical models under the constant vigilance of reason with the help of Nature and personal inspiration. While he strictly adhered to the French unities, he was original in dividing his play into three acts and using the short romance verse. He was undoubtedly the best Spanish playwright of the 18th century.

Further Reading:

Fitz-Maurice Kelly, A History of Spanish Literature, New York, 1906.

Edith F. Helman: “The Elder Moratin and Goya,” “Hisp. Review, XXIII. Pennsylvania, 1955.

B. Perez Galdos: Moratín y su epoca. “Nuestro Tiempo,” Madrid, 1923.

Christine Bridges-Esser

Lamar University