Friday, December 24, 2010

Two Men without Names: The Trickster in Spanish Comedy

In the plays The Dog in the Manger and The Trickster of Seville, Spanish playwrights Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina use the character of the trickster to shape the central action and themes of their respective comedies.  Lope de Vega’s character of Tristan seems to be a force for the common good, while Don Juan is a notorious and unrepentant seducer of women whose adventures produce significant instability in his society.  Tristan and Don Juan are very different characters, but they also share similarities in their roles of social deception.  A trickster doesn’t fall conveniently into the categories of good and bad, hero and villain, though the earliest English definition of the trickster occurred in the eighteenth century, referring to one who lies and cheats.(1)  What makes a character a trickster is that he is beyond the categories of good or bad; he transcends them.  Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina present tricksters at different ends of the life cycle; with implications for the society in their behavior and the outcomes of each play.  The Dog in the Manger presents the birth of a trickster in response to the failure of the social order in matters of true love, while the trickster of Seville faces his death when he cannot trick Almighty God in the same manner that he fooled a corrupt society. 
Aside from the obvious differences between Tristan and Don Juan, these two tricksters also have much in common: in their use of disguise, their disregard for honor and it precepts, and their willingness to break societal rules and conventions in their serial lies and manifold deceptions.  Both men are liberated from the taboos of society, or they behave as if they were.  A noble who is willing to go beyond social norms and taboos is much more dangerous than a servant who does the same.  At the end of The Dog in the Manger, it is worth noting that the basic structure of a Don Juan seduction is present, in Tristan’s deeds and fictions: with Ludovico as the cuckolded father and Diana as the seduced lady who has lost her honor to her servant.  It is only Teodoro that keeps things above board on one side of the trickster’s seduction--by telling Diana the truth about who he really is.  That wasn’t part of Tristan’s plan, and the trickster was more than happy to pull the wool over the lady’s eyes as he led her to the bedroom for her sacrament with Teodoro.    
The trickster is a character who assumes many different forms and guises.  His type is to be found far and wide in mythology and world literatures, though he is hard to define precisely.  Some famous examples of the trickster include: Coyote, Hermes, Mercury, Krishna, Bugs Bunny, the American con man, the “white man,” the politician, and the biblical character of Jacob.  The character of Jacob is notable in that he eventually has to face other tricksters after stealing Esau’s birthright; his father-in-law Laban and also God in the form of an angel with whom he wrestles.  In the last encounter, his name is changed to Israel, “one who struggles with God.”  The example of Jacob shows that the character of the trickster is not antithetical to the life of faith.  Though the character of the trickster is beyond conventional standards of good and evil, he may still be a force for good, a servant of God, despite his moral ambiguity.  The trickster does not represent the devil, though Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan is called Lucifer by others, and his simultaneous death and damnation are the climax of the play.  The trickster must always be careful to stop his tricks in the presence of Almighty God.  At his best, the trickster may advance God’s agenda, even as he serves his own.  There are certainly examples of the good trickster, the one who seems to be in relative harmony with the divine.  As the messenger of the gods, Hermes is a trickster who is never tricked himself, and his adventures are mostly for the common good.(2)
The trickster is the lord of the in-between, the one who seems to straddle the most important boundaries of the known world.(3)  These social boundaries invoked by the trickster may include: nature and society, the animal and human, the living and the dead, men and women, heaven and earth, servants and nobility, life and death.  The sacred boundary is where the trickster will be found, and he creates a new boundary for society that was previously hidden.  For Don Juan, the union of honor and virtue is the new boundary established by God through Don Gonzalo, while a vision of natural nobility is included in the social order upheld by Tristan’s fiction for Teodoro.  The trickster is a traveler, on the road, or on the run.  He may be an explorer of the frontier, or he may be forced to flee one place because of his behavior.  Jacob always has to move when he has burned a bridge behind him, and Don Juan burns a bridge wherever he goes.  As a servant, the destructive flames of Tristan must be hidden—with all bridges intact, and his uninhibited, invisible wandering in the play is among the various social classes. 
The trickster is not immoral.  He is amoral, which is a more comfortable assumption with Tristan than Don Juan.  By any moral standard, Don Juan is a pretty bad guy.  But Don Juan is only immoral in comparison with Don Gonzalo, not the other characters because they share his immorality by degree.  Don Juan can then be amoral because all of society is already immoral.  He is not a monster on the loose, but he reflects something monstrous about his society that is not different from him in kind, as it should be in a just kingdom.  Don Juan’s Spanish kingdom has gone to sleep morally, and only an amoral character can truly wake it up.  In Tirso de Molina’s play, the trickster must be sacrificed to rouse a world without authentic honor, and absent any Christian virtue.  For Lope de Vega, Tristan must put an unimaginative and corrupt aristocracy to sleep: in order to secretly preserve them with a natural noble, and the natural selection of a fertile love.  Nature is honored by Tristan, and society must live up to his tricks because they are just.  He is the secret boundary that changes everything, while keeping order at the same time.  If we lose the natural love that really binds us, one to another in romance, who needs honor?  Lope de Vega’s trickster allows the audience to get back in touch with nature, mating, and the sweet swoon of true love.  Tristan lets the audience sing a song of love with the players, and he serves his own interests at the same time.  The play is true to nature, and nature is true to God in Lope de Vega’s new order. 

The questions of a trickster’s origins are invoked in each play’s major action and themes.  Where does the trickster usually get his start?  The trickster has his origins in appetite, such as hunger and lust, which are the two basic food groups for Tristan and Don Juan.(4)  In the example of Bugs Bunny, the rabbit innocently begins his career as prey for people and other animals who want to eat him.  Not only does he survive, he thrives comically, and Bugs begins to develop his art as a smartass trickster, generating great pleasure instead of the old fear, reversing the roles of prey and predator.  Bugs Bunny gets to eat his carrots then--and not be eaten.  But he develops a taste for something other than mere rabbit food.  It is in returning to these incipient appetites that the trickster develops his abilities, his tricks of the trade.  For Don Juan, sex is clearly not the central motivator of his behavior anymore, but it once was when he began his tricky career of salacious mayhem.  The trickster is often known for his hyperactive sexuality--even magical tricks with the penis itself.(5)  It can be fun work if you can get it.  For Tristan, the genesis of his art is poverty and hunger.  Though we cannot know directly the true identity of a trickster, the true self is most fully revealed in the feeding, the successive returns to the scene of the original crime.  Don Juan is best known when he meets his old need, and, like an addict, it takes a little more every time for him to be satisfied.  This may help to explain why he is willing to be true to his word with Don Gonzalo, along with his desire to appear fearless before any adversary.   It is the consumption of male and female honor that feeds both characters ultimately, though Tristan’s tricks are still related to survival, food, and not getting killed.  Because of his status as a servant, he must feed on honor secretly in his gambles.  In order to eat, Tristan cannot get caught.  Though public in his exploits, Don Juan believes that his status as a noble will always insure his escape. 

In his book Trickster Makes the World, Lewis Hyde argues that the trickster belongs essentially to the world of polytheism.(6)  The trickster is responding to more than one power in the world, and more than one god.  The polytheism of the trickster’s world therefore creates a paradox in the character’s importance in a particular story; that important boundaries need to be respected and disturbed at the same time.  The trickster is the only character who can manage these seemingly contradictory roles.

“…Here we have come back in a roundabout way to an earlier point: trickster belongs to polytheism or, lacking that, he needs a relationship to other powers, to people and institutions and traditions that can manage the old double attitude of both insisting that their boundaries be respected and recognizing that in the long run their liveliness depends on having those boundaries regularly disturbed.
Most of the travelers, liars, thieves, and shameless personalities of the twentieth century are not tricksters at all, then.  Their disruptions are not subtle enough, or pitched at a high enough level.  When he lies and steals, it isn’t so much to get away with something or get rich as to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds.  When Pablo Picasso says that ‘art is a lie that tells the truth,’ we are closer to the old trickster spirit.  Picasso was out to reshape and revive the world he had been born into.  He took the world seriously; then he disrupted it; then he gave it a new form.”(7)

The classical monotheism of the Spanish Church seems to preclude Tristan and Don Juan’s status as true tricksters by Hyde’s definition.  But there are many gods in the Spanish cosmos of these plays, including honor and love as opposing deities, among other binarian opposites.  Hermes can now steal cows from Apollo, and Zeus can figure things out between the two of them.  There is more than one god with whom to reckon, and the Spanish characters can wear the timeless disguise of the trickster.  The honor code is certainly a powerful deity to be served in the Spanish comedy; honor provides all the polytheism the trickster needs.  These two playwrights are themselves tricksters who use trickster characters in their own double attitude “…of both insisting that their boundaries be respected and recognizing that in the long run their liveliness depends on having those boundaries regularly disturbed.”(8)  In this light, neither play nor playwright can be seen as truly conformist.  They are disturbing boundaries to preserve their society, and the conformist argument reflects their tricks, not their love, or fear, of the status quo.  Both Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina are seeking a newer world. 
The tension and conflict between love and honor is at the heart of The Dog in the Manger.  Tristan begins the play as a clown not a trickster, and the clown is a wisdom teacher for Diana’s secretary.  He tries to set Teodoro straight on many occasions.  He offers pearls of life wisdom, many lessons on love (from his experience loving fat, ugly women), and regular warnings about Teodoro’s untenable romantic situations.  Unlike Don Juan, Tristan’s appetite of genesis is clearly not love.  To Tristan, love is about the most destabilizing force in the world, and he is worried enough about Marcela in the beginning, and her impact on the judgment of Teodoro.  A wise man, according to Tristan, keeps his distance from love.  Yet his wisdom is all to comic effect as Teodoro begins to fall for Diana, the central siren danger of the comedy.  The laughter produced by the clown makes the audience ready for a newer world, a place where Teodoro and Diana can come together.  Tristan makes us laugh, which triggers our imagination to consider new social possibilities.  His comedy prepares us for another world by his mockery of our current one:
“That’s me all over: late again,
missing all the fun, like a virgin at an orgy.”(p. 88)

It is important to note that Tristan performs no tricks in Acts I and II.  He is just a clown, not yet a trickster.  He is willing to lie to Diana, the only character who is able to do that and get away with it.  Tristan thinks, but does not act, outside of the sacred honor code.  But his actions will surely follow his thinking in Act III.
“’Lamp,’ says I, ‘say we’re strangers here.
‘You lie,’ says the lamp, bold as brass.
So I took my hat off to him
And settled the score there and then.
No lamp’s going to call me a liar.
I think my honour’s been avenged.”(p.33)

Tristan is not a lover by trade; he is a gambler at heart, and a comic realist: “Hope clutters most things.”(p.34)  The third act is his great gamble, and Teodoro and Diana must gamble everything with Tristan for love to triumph over honor: “It’s wise to learn to gamble young,/ because a gambler’ll never starve.”(p. 40)  Tristan is loyal to Teodoro, but there are questions about his motives.  After a prudent evaluation of Diana’s passion, Tristan pushes his master out on his high wire act, and he takes money to kill Teodoro (twice).  Earlier in the play, Diana accuses him of being a pimp by trying to reconcile Teodoro and Marcela.  Ambition and self-interest are part of his motives, and he buys new clothes as the new secretary as soon as the big money starts to come in.  Diana and Teodoro have endangered him and the other servants, and Tristan is creative enough to save them all though his deceit.  He knows it is time to act when it’s clear that Diana and Teodoro’s hierarchy will soon be horizontal.  Tristan observes sagely, and clinically:
“These extremes will resolve themselves,
like the doctor’s servants: in bed.”(p. 92)

In the mighty third act, Tristan is a relentless liar, an assassin for hire, a Greek merchant (wearing a dress), a storyteller, and the most creative of pimps in the final seduction of Diana the lady, according to his master plan.  In Act III, Tristan clearly moves from the sidekick clown to the trickster of disguises, the way of the shape-shifter: “As shape-shifter, the trickster can alter his shape or bodily appearance in order to facilitate deception.  Not even the boundaries of species or sexuality are safe…”(9)  Tristan has moved completely out of his role as a servant, and he can be anything or anyone he wants to be: “What’s money when you’ve wits like mine?”(p. 109)  The most liberated character is the one with the least honor, a servant’s servant, and he is called a devil by the corrupt aristocrats of the comedy:
“Everything’s falling into place.
Isn’t it great, a lackey’s wit
Turns the whole of Naples upside down.”(p. 109)

Tristan serves natural love over and against the honor code and the rigid social hierarchy.  He functions as a priest, facilitating a creative marriage of mutual consent, the romantic language of the Church as opposed to arranged marriages.  The audience is implicated in the deception and must keep the secret at the end.  Sadly, the marriage at the end to Dorotea suggests that Tristan’s career as a trickster may be coming to an end.  But who can really predict the future with a trickster?  The past is complicated enough in Act III.
In The Dog in the Manger, Tristan violates conventional ethics to serve a greater good, to push the boundaries of society secretly.  It might be said that Tristan has made good his evil, while Don Juan has made evil his good.  Don Juan feeds on lost honor, male and female, and he likes violating the men just as much as he likes taking honor from women through sexual conquest.  The behavior of the aristocracy is condemned in both plays, and a trickster who is a noble is a danger to everyone.  From the first seduction that begins the play, the immorality of the other characters is as apparent as Don Juan’s.  Isabel and Don Pedro are willing to lie, while the king avoids any responsibility at the beginning.  Don Pedro not only frees his nephew; he fingers Octavio who is unwilling to speak up for Isabel, the woman he ostensibly loves.  When it comes to hitting the virtuous mark, all players in this comedy miss the target completely in their moral archery. 
It is a dangerous world when society is too much like the trickster, and society is eating itself in The Trickster of Seville.  The play directly indicts the moral failure of those who are supposed to uphold justice; the corruption of the nobility is spreading to all classes.  Seville and Castille are full of tricksters in every social class, and Don Juan embodies the worst characteristics of his society, while raising the common stakes through each conquest.  Don Juan is not really caught in the act of love at all; he is caught in the act of feeding on the honor of others.  He is a kind of bisexual cannibal in his behavior.  The seduction of the fisherwoman Thisbe shows that Don Juan has to work harder to be feed himself as the play progresses.  With the common folk, he uses no disguise, and his nobility is the only aphrodisiac needed with Thisbe, who has coldly rejected all overtures of love up to this point.  Thisbe is just as opportunistic as he is, just as willing to consume his nobility as he is her virginity.
“But surely, sir, you won’t abuse her,
Who saved you life?”(p. 161)

“Here I swear, O peerless eyes!
Where he looks within them swoons and dies,
To be your husband.”(p. 163)

Her role as his savior only increases the pleasure for Don Juan.  Thisbe fears his deception, but cannot resist his nobility.
“Darling, save your breath
But oh, remember God exists—and death.”(p. 163)

Despite his oath of marriage, he not only seduces Thisbe, but sets her hut on fire, their former nest of love, as he departs in great glee.  It has been a banner day at the sea.  But these oaths are catching up with Don Juan, and he continues to take them with Aminta and with Don Gonzalo.  They are the partners in his oaths, but God is a bound partner in their sacred pacts as well.  This is the ultimate crisis of empty words, an apocalypse of disorder which eventually brings Don Juan to the judgment of God in Act III, and the eternal moral boundary of judgment is without mercy when it comes to Don Juan.  God must step in where the kings have failed.  In the words of the King of Castille:
“Don Juan’s my creation and my henchman,
And of this trunk a branch.”(p. 209)

This extraordinary statement is not spoken in ignorance or naiveté, but after hearing of all of Don Juan’s adventures except for the peasant wedding fiasco.  Don Juan’s reputation is not a secret to those who know him, and both kings certainly know their man, who reminds them of their youth.  Don Juan is not so different from them, even in their old age, and the lower classes imitate their accepted immorality.  In this moral vacuum, a dead man is the only person of honor.  A servant is the only voice of moral reason and conscience in the play, and the trickster will be caught one day.
“You claim that we’ll escape being caught out
But those who live by cheating must be cheated
In the long run.”  (P. 174)

Though the trickster is moving along in his adventures, the most recent events are at another level entirely, even for the trickster of Seville.  Don Juan has entered the red zone, the final frontier for the trickster, the end of the road for the traveler.  The oath to Don Gonzalo (including that he will be killed by a dead man) is binding in the play.  Don Juan’s last acts are indeed despicable: the killing of the old man defending his daughter, hiding in a church, and pulling the statue’s beard.  These are the last antics before Don Juan’s damnation.  The only honorable man, the dead man, becomes the church militant as he finally tricks the trickster with honor.  Don Gonzalo transmutes God’s judgment to Don Juan through the second touch of the hands in the church. 
The boundary revealed in the death of Don Juan is that the seduction framework of the trickster cannot succeed with God.  Like Jacob, he has finally met his match.  But unlike Jacob, Don Juan must die in the end.  The meeting of God (through Don Gonzalo) and Don Juan is a crisis not simply for the trickster, but for all society, perhaps even all humankind.  Judgment Day will come, and all of the players in The Trickster of Seville will be called to account.  Rather than Don Juan’s death being a just event in isolation, the society that is like him in character must convert anew to God’s law in order to survive.  Human society has a long way to go, and it is not clear that we will ever get there on our own.  Don Juan’s crisis is ours, and any kind of restoration is surely incomplete at the end of the play.  Humankind must find a way to stop consuming itself, and the addiction to human beings is the worst addiction of all. 

In The Dog in the Manger, a creative deception allows a new order to spring from the old, secretly, while Tirso de Molina uses the death of a trickster to make an old order unite Christian virtue to their honor code.  Kings and their subjects must restore order or ultimately face the final condemnation of the play’s anti-hero.  Could Don Juan’s death paradoxically save them?  Such collective salvation is incomplete in the play, and fear and reverence are the only hopeful signs at the end of The Trickster of Seville.  The fact that subsequent works have changed the essential character of Don Juan, and therefore changed the ultimate ending, is not an encouraging sign in departure from the friar’s climax.  Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan is a trickster not a lover.  In the subsequent resurrections of the great seducer, the message of the servant Catalinon is completely lost.  We clearly prefer Don Juan alive and well so that we can fall asleep to our own vices and hypocrisies.  But in Tirso de Molina’s third act, the necessary polytheism is eliminated at the end of The Trickster of Seville, and reduced to God alone.  The trickster must die because there is only one god.  Only God can be amoral in the end.  In The Dog in the Manger, Tristan’s role in the play provides a secret service to love instead of honor.  He is the monotheist in hiding.  The audience is an accomplice to the secret revolution of the play, one that winks at the social order but revolts against it.  The audience is reoriented to the natural pursuit of love as imitators of God who created us in his/her image as male and female.  The audience can interrupt the sacred dance between Teodoro and Diana, and it must speak now or forever hold its peace.  What a society cannot imagine in new social arrangements, a trickster can.  While honor is puffed up, the public idol of Spanish society, the hermetic trickster instead serves romantic love as the true and lasting icon of a loving God.  Tristan is a secret messenger of the gods whose violation of taboo becomes a golden edge of new life for the lovers, and for the audience as their seconds in the makeshift wedding party. 

End Notes
1. William G. Doty and William J. Hynes, “Historical Overview of Theoretical Issues: The Problem of the Trickster,” Mythical Trickster Figures (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1993), p. 14.

2. William G. Doty, “A Lifetime of Trouble Making: Hermes as Trickster,” Mythical Trickster Figures, p. 57.

3.  Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), p. 7.

4.  Ibid, p. 18.

5. William J. Hynes, “Mapping the Characteristics of Mythic Tricksters,” Mythical Trickster Figures, p. 43.

6.      Hyde, p. 13.

7.  Ibid.

8.  Ibid.

9.  Hynes, “Mapping the Characteristics of Mythic Tricksters,” p. 36.

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