Theatre Activity and Frederic Soler, "Pitarra"

Carme Morell

Theatre activity in the mid-nineteenth century

The figure of Frederic Soler i Hubert, born in Barcelona on 9 October 1839, cannot be seen separately from a whole generation in the theatre that was born, to put it in literary terms, in the early 1860s and subsequently eclipsed by the fame and prominence achieved by the man who for a hundred years was regarded as the "founder of Catalan theatre". In order to explain how this generation appeared and the reasons why its members adopted Catalan as its language for the stage, one must offer some details as to the way in which a stage production functioned in the mid-nineteenth century.

The theatre performances announced in the entertainment sections of nineteenth-century dailies were not confined to a performance of a work of three, four or even five acts, always in Spanish – even when the subject or author were Catalan – but they also included an opening symphony, a dance or one or two short pieces – sainets (one-act farces) – that padded out the main attraction, which was the play itself, originally written in Spanish or adapted. It is in these brief, secondary, almost always anonymous sketches which, before the 1860s, were also mostly in Spanish, that one first finds a more prominent use of Catalan, thanks to the success of such pieces by Frederic Soler and other members of his generation.

As for the main play, it was not only Spanish in its language but also in authorship. The Hispano-Moroccan War, however, decisively changed this situation. The prevailing patriotic mood inspired some Catalan playwrights to write works, still in Spanish, but dealing with Catalan matters alluding to the events of the times. La rendición de Tetuán (The Surrender of Tetuan), a drama in five acts by Ramon Mora, and El presidiario de Ceuta (The Convict of Ceuta), a comedy by Antoni Altadill are good examples of this patriotic furore. Works in Catalan alluding to the same theme, for example the four one-act plays by Antoni Ferrer i Fernández, which were performed in the Liceu under the general title of Catalanes en África (Catalans in Africa), and the bilingual comedy A Tànger, catalans! (To Tangier, Catalans!), also by Ramon Mora, were still one-act topical pieces, which is to say sainets, which had a totally subsidiary part in the show as a whole. In the heat of the same patriotic frenzy, Antoni Altadill began to write in 1860 Don Jaime el Conquistador (Don Jaime the Conqueror), which was later to be the target of a satire by Soler. Other authors who would afterwards write exclusively in Catalan, tried their luck in Spanish, in other genres: in 1863 J. M. Arnau wrote the very successful comedy based on magic (El castillo de los encantados – The Castle of the Bewitched), while Francesc de Sales Vidal, whose bilingual comedy Una noia com un sol (A Girl Like the Sun) premiered in the Teatro Circo in 1861, had received good reviews, strove to stage in Barcelona more ambitious dramas in Spanish, these including La marquesa de Javalquinto (The Marchioness of Javalquinto) and Tempestades del alma (Storms of the Soul). Nonetheless, he did not succeed in this endeavour until 1866 when he had already made his name as a Catalan playwright. It could not have been otherwise. The language of culture of all these playwrights, and of prestigious theatre as well, was Spanish. One revealing detail is that they signed the production in Spanish with their own names while, with only a few exceptions, plays in Catalan or bilingual works were anonymous or signed with a pseudonym because they regarded these works as a mere finishing touch or light entertainment.

Frederic Soler, "Pitarra"

More versatile than the other members of his generation, Frederic Soler, self-educated of necessity since he had left school before the age of fourteen to work as a watchmaker's apprentice, combined his profession as a watchmaker with writing light-hearted pieces for workshops and flats, venues for gatherings of students wanting some fun, and home-performed plays – a common type of entertainment in private houses of the nineteenth century – which were staged in the home of his future father-in-law Don Bernat de las Casas. If he wrote completely irreverent parodies for the students' amusement (for example Don Jaume el Conquistador (Don Jaume the Conqueror), a scathing lampoon of Altadill's previously-mentioned work, or L'engendrament de don Jaume (The Begetting of Don Jaume), a spoof on a fragment of Catalan history, which Soler sets in a nineteenth-century brothel, portrayed in an acute, merciless comedy of manners), for the residence of Don Bernat de las Casas he produced such satires as La botifarra de la llibertat (The Sausage of Freedom), Les píndoles d'Holloway (Holloway's Pills) and La pau d'Espanya (The Peace of Spain, 1860) where he mocked, with a scepticism that was not remotely combative, the patriotic ardour shown in the works of Ferrer i Fernández, and poked fun at all the dramatic literature that came in the wake of the Hispano-Moroccan War. By no means alien to the way of thinking of the members of his generation, however, Frederic Soler was well enough satisfied on seeing how well his light entertainment worked in those gatherings of family members or friends to be encouraged to write more ambitious works. His linguistic choice was once again Spanish, but more diffident, or less sure of success than Arnau or Vidal, he signed his works with the pseudonym "Miguel Fernández de Soto".

In effect, his work Juan Fivaller, a historical drama in three acts, was premiered in the Odeon Theatre on 11 April 1864 but the response was lukewarm. However, the sketch that provided the finishing touch that day, a two-act farce in Catalan titled L'esquella de la torratxa (The Little Bell on the Little Tower), parodying the hugely successful historical drama of Antoni Palou i Coll, La campana de la Almudaina (The Bell of the Almudaina, 1859) and signed with the pseudonym "Serafí Pitarra", was an unprecedented success. With the failure of his drama in Spanish, Soler never claimed paternity of the sketch. Only two years later, in 1866, when he was already very successful as a playwright writing in Catalan, did he again present Juan Fivaller, this time with the pseudonym that had made him famous, "Serafí Pitarra", but once again the play was a flop. Soler then shelved the drama until he translated it into Catalan in 1873. This time it was a great success. Perhaps this (the fact that the "founder of Catalan theatre" had first of all attempted to be a Spanish-language playwright) is why the work went unnoticed for more than a hundred years by all the historians, including the man who has studied his work most extensively, the Catalan theatre historian, Xavier Fàbregas.

After its official premiere in the Odeon on 11 April 1864, L'esquella de la torratxa – which had been performed previously, on 24 February the same year by a private group, the Sociedad Melpómene – was a steady and growing success. So much was this the case that, by the beginning of May the Llibreria Espanyola had published it in a collection named "Singlots poètics" (Poetic Hiccups), which was especially designed for it. It also brought out five other works by Soler, all of them signed with the pseudonym of Serafí Pitarra and in language described as "Catalan as it is spoken today", everyday Catalan in contrast with the stiff, archaeological Catalan that poets were trying to resuscitate in the Jocs Florals literary competitions. That summer, the theatres of the passeig de Gràcia – open-air venues attracting a more general public than the inner-city theatres – were keen to include it in their repertoires. The public response was so positive that other playwrights were quick to follow in Soler's footsteps: Eduard Vidal i Valenciano staged his A boca tancada (Lips Sealed) that summer, while Francesc Camprodón, well-known for his romantic dramas in Spanish, premiered the comedy La tornada d'en Titó (The Return of Titó). Soler, for his part, kept producing new parodies: Ous del dia! (Eggs of the Day!), a satire on Camprodón's Flor de un dia! (Flower of One Day!) in July; La vaquera de la piga rossa (The Cowgirl of the Fair Freckle), a burlesque on La vaquera de la Finojosa (The Cowgirl of Finojosa) by Luis de Eguílaz, in August; and La botifarra de la llibertat, the sketch he had written for the soirées in the home of Don Bernat de las Casas, in September. It was clear that the public response was good and he needed to make the most of his commercial success. In October that year, the Odeon announced the establishment of a Catalan section: a company expressly created to perform works in Catalan and named "Secció de la Gata" (She-Cat Section). This was inaugurated with a new work by Soler, El Cantador (The Singer), written jointly with Conrad Roure and parodying another famous romantic drama, El trovador (The Troubadour) by A. Garcia Gutiérrez. However, Soler realised that the public was tiring of the genre of the farce and soon alternated his satirical plays with comedies of manners, dramatised pieces on the customs and conventions of the day, mainly set in Barcelona and portraying the classes he knew best, workmen and artisans. El punt de les dones (The Women's Point) and Un barret de rialles (A Bonnet of Laughs) would soon be even more successful than his craziest parodies.

The following season, that of 1865-1866, the Romea Theatre formed another company for Catalan plays: the Secció Catalana (Catalan Section). Critics who were viewing Soler's success with growing disquiet since they considered his theatre irreverent and romantic in its aesthetics, immediately lined up on the side of the Romea company and its authors (Vidal i Valenciano, Francesc de Sales Vidal, Josep Vancells i Marquès...) whom they saw as more concerned with manners and mores and less combative. Indeed, the visible leader of this group, Eduard Vidal i Valenciano, had premiered on 4 April 1865 the play Tal faràs, tal trobaràs (As You Sow So Shall You Reap), quite a successful work that is deemed to be the first drama in Catalan. This made Soler think that writing serious theatre in Catalan was perhaps a project that should not be totally discarded after all.

Moved by this ambition and spurred on by the totally unfavourable reviews his work was receiving (however successful it was among the public), Soler wrote the drama Les joies de la Roser (Roser's Jewels), which opened on 6 April 1866 at the Odeon. In order to get the work staged, he changed the name of the Catalan company, which was now called Teatre Català so as to pre-empt any link that might be made with the facetious sketches that had previously been staged by the Secció de la Gata. Soler, who had learned the techniques of romantic drama by parodying the genre, now applied them in writing his own dramas. The critics immediately sang his praises. The public took a little longer to react. Les joies de la Roser never achieved the public acclaim that his farces had enjoyed, but the elements of the comedy of manners in the work gave it a freshness that the dramas in Spanish had never conveyed. It was the strength of this element, already present in his satires and parodies, which had enabled Soler to triumph now with his dramas as well, and this permitted him to shine in the same venture in which he had failed years earlier with his Juan Fivaller.

At the time of the premiere of Les joies de la Roser there had been two significant changes, one quantitative and the other qualitative. Since the premiere of L'esquella de la torratxa, the presence of Catalan theatre on Barcelona's stages had multiplied ninefold in only two seasons, while the main attraction was now a drama or comedy in Catalan. This change in the situation of Catalan dramatic literature had evidently not been due to the qualities of just one man, Frederic Soler, but was fruit of the efforts of an entire generation of writers – and only some of the most significant among them have been named here – who, in barely two years, had produced out of nothing a repertoire of works in Catalan that was ample enough to maintain the two Catalan companies regularly working in Barcelona. At the same time, Catalan actors had had to adapt to working in their own language, while theatre impresarios, booksellers and publishers had also been called upon to give their vote of confidence to Catalan dramatic literature, which they did, although not for patriotic but rather for commercial reasons. The key factor, however, was the public. Soler and the members of his generation had inadvertently managed to get a sector of Catalan society to identify with their plays. First the artisans and later the bourgeoisie saw themselves portrayed and, in an immediately ensuing period, idealised in the comedies of manners penned by this first generation of Catalan playwrights and, if they were occasionally satirised, it was through the filter of parody that was both conservative and effective in its distancing.

Convinced that the public was now sufficiently mature to admit treatment of serious matters in the Catalan language, Soler no longer balked at any genre. He kept hoeing the row opened up by the comedies of manners, with Les joies de la Roser, La rosa blanca (The White Rose), La dida (The Nursemaid), et cetera. Then again, he kept working with the historical drama as well, with Les heures del mas (Ivy on the Farmhouse), Els segadors (The Reapers), El plor de la madrastra (The Stepmother's Tears), inter alia. In the confluence of these two genres a third form was gestating, the juridical drama, as it was dubbed by the critic Josep Yxart. Neither did he relinquish parody in general or satire – L'últim rei de Magnòlia (The Last King of Magnolia), El moro Benani (The Moor Benani) – or the city-based comedy on domestic manners and mores – Palots i ganxos (Poles and Hooks), La bala de vidre (The Glass Bullet) and Els egoistes (The Egoists). In the assortment of genres he was working with, however, the juridical drama deserves a more detailed account since, with this, Soler was channelling a debate that would furnish the Catalan bourgeoisie with an ideology to justify its Catalan nationalism.

Soler's full-time focus on the historic drama and the comedy of manners during the six-year democratic period from 1868 to 1874 may seem surprising if one bears in mind the fact that, once censorship in the theatre was abolished it was now possible, for the first time, to write political theatre, whether of the republican ilk, as was the case of Rossend Arús i Arderiu, or of liberal or obviously conservative bent, all of which clearly focused on the country's problems or political positions. Apart from L'últim rei de Magnòlia, written at the time of the September Revolution, no other political theatre written by Soler during this period has come to light. Nevertheless, if analysed, the historical dramas he wrote during these years are all characterised by a clearly political underlying reading that patently reveals his scepticism about Spanish politics at the time. In Les heures del mas, which was first performed in the Romea in March 1869, one finds a call to pay heed to claims on behalf of national particularisms, of hearth, home and family, of ancestral values while, in the later play, La dida, premiered in 1872, he plainly presented the priority of the clan over the individual. All in all, Soler's was an openly traditional and conservative discourse, one fervently embraced by the Catalan bourgeoisie.

With the juridical drama, Soler was to have his best instrument for sustaining this kind of argument. The central theme is always the handing down of family property and goods, and the preservation of customs that had evolved into genuinely Catalan laws, thereby shaping an autochthonous civil law which was championed by both the most conservative sectors and the men of the nationalist Centre Català (Catalan Centre). It was, in a nutshell, a matter of integrating the conservative values of rural Catalonia, especially those of Carlism, into quite a wide-ranging code of Catalan-ness and prevailing over divergences that, as the war had demonstrated, could lead to disaster. Hence, the juridical dramas sought not only to shape myths for bourgeois citizens, but to forge this shared lore (hearth and home (in La dida), the family (in Senyora i majora – Mistress of All)) and the customs and traditions appearing in all these works plus differential rights (the prerogatives of heirs and heiresses (in Senyora i majora), of whole classes like the landowners (in La dida) and the subordination of the second, male, child to the heiress daughter (in El pubill – The Heir)) into a mark of identity for the Catalan bourgeoisie and a homogenising force.

After the Bourbon restoration, melodramatic and fantastic elements began to populate Soler's historical dramas and the scant remaining political discourse was finally dropped for fear of seeming involved. In El plor de la madrastra, he went so far as to sing the praises of Spain and her realms, and the return of a strong monarchy while in La banda de bastardía (The Band of Baseness), the conflict over serfdom is rapidly set aside in favour of fantastic elements. The final impression one has of the historical dramas of this period, including Batalla de reines (Battle of Queens, 1887), which was awarded the Royal Academy's prize for the best dramatic work of the year, is that of a string of implausible events seasoned with precise, sensationalistic dramatic devices, for example the trap over the torrent in Batalla de reines, or the gunpowder in El monjo negre (The Black Monk, 1889), to mention just a couple.

By contrast, Soler's attempts at renovation after El dir de la gent (As the People Say), which was first staged in 1880, directly linking up with his most spontaneous, fresh plays, which is to say the comedies of manners, could have been quite another thing. He did not succeed because the thematic revolution was not followed up by any real formal renovation. Trying to bring on to the stage middle- or upper-class characters, situated in current times, and making them speak in verse, doggerel filled with hyperbatons while posing impossible antitheses in normal conversation was an error that even his most devoted public could not forgive in the end. The subjects dealt with in El cèrcol de foc (The Hoop of Fire, 1881) or La ratlla dreta (The Line on the Right, 1885) were tremendously topical but were presented with the inane aesthetics of the most sugary romantic drama.

When Soler attempted with his El dring de l'or (The Clinking of Gold, 1884) to replace verse with prose, the result was very different. The language flows easily and naturally, free of rhetoric. The plot is convoluted yet credible and, for the first time, Soler does not resort to a deus ex machina to resolve it but, true to the best tradition of psychological comedy, he makes the characters resolve it themselves. Yet his attempt to introduce sociological and psychological comedy into Catalonia was immediately aborted by the critics. He was criticised for veering too close to reality, which was not appropriate in Catalan theatre, and was invited in the pages of La Vanguardia to keep writing "the genre that God called him to write", which was the same as condemning him to remain pigeonholed under the label of comedy of manners. Soler at once introduced changes to the work but, in any case, it was only performed eleven times. Pressure from the critics had once again afflicted a soul as susceptible as his. The path he abandoned this time, however, might have meant for Catalan theatre adopting the realist-style of sociological comedy now fashionable in neighbouring countries and a decided renovation that regrettably had to wait several more years while Soler went back to outmoded forms of the historical drama and strayed off into the realms of mystical dramas, for example Judes (Judas, 1889), which brought him more dishonour than delight. On 4 July 1895, when he had not yet turned fifty-six, embittered and feeling he had been shunted aside by new trends in the theatre, Frederic Soler died of heart disease.

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