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El Genero Chico

In the evening I wandered again along the quay, my thoughts part occupied with the novel things I expected from Morocco, part sorrowful because I must leave the scented land of Spain. I seemed never before to have enjoyed so intensely the exquisite softness of the air, and there was all about me a sense of spaciousness which gave a curious feeling of power. In the harbour, on the ships, the lights of the masts twinkled like the stars above; and looking over the stony parapet, I heard the waves lap against the granite like a long murmur of regret; I tried to pierce the darkness, straining my eyes to see some deeper obscurity which I might imagine to be the massive coasts of Africa. But at last I could bear the solitude no longer, and I dived into the labyrinth of streets.

At first, in unfrequented ways, I passed people only one by one, some woman walking rapidly with averted face, or a pair of chattering students; but as I came near the centre of the town the passers-by grew more frequent, and suddenly I found myself in the midst of a thronging, noisy crowd. I looked up and saw that I was opposite a theatre; the people had just come from the second funcion. I had heard that the natives of Cadiz were eager theatre-goers, and was curious to see how they took this pleasure. I saw also that the next piece was Las Borrachos, a play of Seville life that I had often seen; and I felt that I could not spend my last evening better than in living again some of those scenes which pattered across my heart now like little sorrowful feet.

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The theatre in Spain is the only thing that has developed further than in the rest of Europe--in fact, it has nearly developed clean away. The Spaniards were the first to confess that dramatic art bored them to death; and their habits rendered impossible the long play which took an evening to produce. Eating late, they did not wish to go to the theatre till past nine; being somewhat frivolous, they could not sit for more than an hour without going outside and talking to their friends; and they were poor. To satisfy their needs the genero chico, or little style, sprang into existence; and quickly every theatre in Spain was given over to the system of four houses a night. Each function is different, and the stall costs little more than sixpence.

We English are idealists; and on the stage especially reality stinks in our nostrils. The poor are vulgar, and in our franker moments we confess our wish to have nothing to do with them. The middle classes are sordid; we have enough of them in real life, and no desire to observe their doings at the theatre, particularly when we wear our evening clothes. But when a dramatist presents duchesses to our admiring eyes, we feel at last in our element; we watch the acts of persons whom we would willingly meet at dinner, and our craving for the ideal is satisfied.

But in Spain nobles are common and excite no overwhelming awe. The Spaniard, most democratic of Europeans, clamours for realism, and nothing pleases him more than a literal transcript of the life about him. The manners and customs of good society do not entertain him, and the genero chico concerns itself almost exclusively with the lower classes. The bull-fighter is, of course, one of the most usual figures; and round him are gathered the lovers of the ring, inn-keepers, cobblers and carpenters, policemen, workmen, flower-sellers, street-singers, cigarette girls, country maidens. The little pieces are innumerable, and together form a compend of low life in Spain; the best are full of gaiety and high spirits, with a delicate feeling for character, and often enough are touched by a breath of poetry. Songs and dances are introduced, and these come in the more naturally since the action generally takes place on a holiday. The result is a musical comedy in one act; but with nothing in it of the entertainment which is a joy to the British public: an Andalusian audience would never stand that representation of an impossible and vulgar world in which the women are all trollops and the men, rips, nincompoops and bounders; they would never suffer the coarse humour and the shoddy patriotism.

Unfortunately, these one-act plays have destroyed the legitimate drama. Whereas Maria Guerrero, that charming actress, will have a run of twenty nights in a new play by Echegaray, a popular zarzuela will be acted hundreds of times in every town in Spain. But none can regret that the Spaniards have evolved these very national little pieces, and little has been lost in the non-existence of an indefinite number of imitations from the French. The zarzuela, I should add, lasts about an hour, and for the most part is divided into three scenes.

Such a play as Los Borrachos is nothing less than a genre picture of Seville life. It reminds one of a painting by Teniers; and I should like to give some idea of it, since it is really one of the best examples of the class, witty, varied, and vivacious. But an obstacle presents itself in the fact that I can find no vestige of a plot. The authors set out to characterise the various lovers of the vine, (nowhere in Andalusia are the devotees of the yellow Manzanilla more numerous than in Seville,) and with telling strokes have drawn the good-natured tippler, the surly tippler, the religious tippler. To these they have added other types, which every Andalusian can recognise as old friends--the sharp-tongued harridan, the improviser of couplets with his ridiculous vanity, the flower-seller, and the 'prentice-boy of fifteen, who, notwithstanding his tender years, is afflicted with love for the dark-eyed heroine. The action takes place first in a street, then in a court-yard, lastly in a carpenter's shop. There are dainty love-scenes between Soledad, the distressed maiden, and Juanillo, the flower-seller; and one, very Spanish, where the witty and precocious apprentice offers her his diminutive hand and heart. Numerous people come and go, the drunkards drink and quarrel and make peace; the whole thing, if somewhat confused, is very life-like, and runs with admirable lightness and ease. It is true that the play has neither beginning nor end, but perhaps that only makes it seem the truer; and if the scenes have no obvious connection they are all amusing and characteristic. It is acted with extraordinary spirit. The players, indeed, are not acting, but living their ordinary lives, and it is pleasant to see the zest with which they throw themselves into the performance. When the hero presses the heroine in his arms, smiles and passionate glances pass between them, which suggest that even the love-making is not entirely make-believe.

I wish I could translate the song which Juanillo sings when he passes his lady's window, bearing his basket of flowers:

Carnations for pretty girls that are true, Musk-roses for pretty girls that are coy, Rosebuds as small as thy mouth, my dearest, And roses as fair as thy cheeks.

I cannot, indeed, resist the temptation of giving one verse in that Andalusian dialect, from which all harsh consonants and unmusical sounds have been worn away--the most complete and perfect language in the world for lovers and the passion of love:

Sal, morena, tu ventana, Mira las flores que traigo; Sal y di si son bastantes Pa arfombrita de tu cuarto. Que yo te quiero Y a ti te doy Tos los tesoros der mundo entero, To le que vargo, to lo que soy.


William Somerset Maugham