April Reading – Numancia (Spain,1585)

John O’Neill

Cervantes is, of course, best known as a writer of prose fiction. However, his first love was the stage, and before the publication of Don Quijote in 1605 somewhere between twenty or thirty of his plays had been performed in the 1580’s and 1590’s in the newly founded corral theatres of Madrid. These plays were well received, according to Cervantes, who amusingly informs us that ‘todas ellas se recitaron sin que se les ofriecese ofrenda de pepinos ni de otra cosa arrojadiza. Corrieron su carrera sin silbos, gritos ni barahúndas.’ (‘All of them were performed without any offerings of cucumbers or other throwable objects. They ran their course without whistling, barracking or public disorder.’). We have no reason to doubt Cervantes’s word regarding the success of his plays, for La confusa, a play of which he was particularly proud, was still being performed as late as 1627. That play, together with most of his early works for the theatre, is now sadly lost. The only two that survive are El trato de Argel, which was inspired by his experience as a hostage in Algiers, and La destruición de Numancia, which was written sometime between 1581 and 1585, before the publication of his first novel La Galatea.
Numancia is based on historical events: the siege of the Celtiberian city of Numancia, and its eventual defeat, after years of stubborn resistance, by the overwhelmingly superior force of the Roman empire and its allies, commanded by the consul Scipio Aemilianus. Scipio defeated the Numantines by building a wall around their city and starving them into submission—a brutal but effective strategy that had appalling consequences, including cannibalism and the suicide of many of the inhabitants, who preferred to die rather than surrender. When the city finally succumbed there were only a handful of survivors, who were enslaved and taken back to Rome for Scipio’s victory parade. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Spanish historiographers mythologised the events, creating a version in which the Numantines, depicted as the glorious ancestors of the Spanish people, destroyed all their possessions and committed mass suicide, leaving not a single survivor, thus denying Scipio the symbols of victory.
The performance and translation history of Numancia is testimony to the different ways in which the play can be interpreted. In Spain the play was used as a rallying point during the siege of Zaragoza by Napoleonic forces in 1808 and 1809. Gibson’s English translation of 1885 revealed an interesting change in ideological perspective, since it was dedicated to General Gordon, who died at the siege of Khartoum defending the interests of the British Empire against the Mahdi’s indigenous Sudanese forces. In Cervantes’s play the imperial army is, of course, outside the city. Rafael Alberti’s 1937 adaptation, performed as Franco’s Nationalists laid siege to Madrid, underlined the play’s potential to depict a Spain at war with itself, and not just defending itself against invasion. Ironically, the next performance in Spain, at Alcalá de Henares in 1956, implicitly supported the ideology of Franco. A version in Italian directed by Virgilio Bardella in Milan in 1969 was linked to protests against the war in Vietnam.
A survey of the criticism of the play also reveals widely differing opinions as to its meaning. Many have found it to be an unambiguous and patriotic celebration of the Numantines’ choice of collective suicide in order to preserve their liberty. However, others have found the play to be one that questions rather than supports the imperial project.
At the end Cervantes’s play there are no survivors. However, I do not believe that because Cervantes follows the mythologised version of history in this detail, not because he wished to celebrate the self-destruction of the Numantines, but because this version of events had greater dramatic potential, allowing him to explore more fully of the horror of war. As an ex-soldier who had lost the use of an arm fighting heroically at Lepanto he was well aware of the price of conflict.
Despite the final laudatory speech of the allegorical character Fama, the play leaves me with a sense of devastation at the appalling loss of life, and in particular the butchering of the women and children of Numancia by the men of the city. It also leaves me with a sense of the terrible consequences that can result when intransigence—in this case the refusal of Scipio to negotiate an honourable settlement with the Numantines—is met with similar intransigence by a determined enemy who refuses to surrender, whatever the cost. Scipio’s brutal strategy brutalises the Numantines.
Numancia is a play that has haunted me ever since I first read it, thirteen years ago. I feel that it is a play that very much speaks to the times that we live in, and especially the conflict in the Middle East, where innocent civilians suffer so much as their cities are reduced to ruins, and entrenched positions make it so difficult to broker peace.
I started translating the play about ten years ago, but only got halfway through the literal translation before the demands of my PhD forced me to abandon the project. Since completing my doctorate in 2012 I have occasionally mentioned to Catherine Boyle that I would like to get back to it, and she has encouraged me to finish what I started, offering me a platform to explore scenes from the play within Out of the Wings.
I feel that translation brings me closer to a text and its meaning than any other activity, probably because it requires reading (and re-reading) in super-slow motion—the kind of reading that rarely happens when we read a novel, for example. This is especially true of an Early Modern text, in which verse forms often obscure the syntax and where words often have shades of meaning that are quite different to those that exist in modern Spanish. Like a deep-sea diver putting on his suit prior to immersing himself in unexplored waters, I surround myself with my trusted period dictionaries—Sebastian de Covarrubias’s extraordinary Tesoro de la lengua castellana, published in 1611, and the Real Academia Española’s Diccionario de autoridades (1726, now online). The diver moves slowly and deliberately, partly because of the weight of the suit and partly because of the density of the water. As a translator my progress is also slow, for I am weighed down by the words and the density of the syntax. I manage a hundred lines of verse in about three hours, if things go smoothly. Sometimes I am stopped in my tracks for half an hour or more by one word or phrase. This diver’s pace can sometimes be frustrating, but the great advantage of this slow unfolding of the meaning is that I notice details that might escape me when reading a play for the first time, or seeing it in perfomance. Cervantes touches on this in the Adjunta al Parnaso, when he describes his reasons for having his Ocho comedias published: ‘Pero yo pienso darles a la estampa, para que se vea de espacio lo que pasa apriesa, y se disimula, o no se entiende, cuando se las representan. Y las comedias tienen sus sazones y tiempos, como los cantares’. (‘But I am thinking of having them printed, so that one has the time to notice what passes by quickly, or is hidden, or cannot be understood, when they are performed. And plays have their seasons and times, like songs.’)
What emerges for me from this slow unfolding of Numancia is that Cervantes had a profound understanding of the theatre. He explores time and space like a cinematographer in this play, moving between time past, present and future, panning out to survey the horror of the destruction from afar and then zooming in on moments of heart-rending intimacy, such as a scene between two lovers, or a mother comforting her starving child. These changes in perspective are mirrored by his skilful use of verse form—from the epic octave real to the conversational redondillas, reflecting changes of tone that I must try to capture in my translation. The extraordinarily detailed stage directions—one is a hundred and twenty words long—indicate that he thought deeply about the visual effect that he was trying to create. It is almost as if he were trying to direct the play with his pen. Inevitably one is drawn into imagining how powerful the play could be on stage.
The reading of the play with Out of Wings was very special for me. Having been there at the beginning, as the research student attached to the project, I was delighted to see its development and continuing life. I want to thank everyone who was present for their valuable contribution. It meant so much to me that the response to the play and the translation was so positive. Translation can be a lonely occupation, and sometimes, when you get a bee in your bonnet about a particular play and its importance, as I have about Numancia, you have moments of wondering whether is is only you who feels that way, so to find that so many of those present were as excited as me was incredibly encouraging. I am looking forward to completing the second draft, in order to prepare the translation for a possible full reading. It is my dream to see a professional production of this play. The success of the reading means that I can carry on dreaming. If I may borrow Cervantes’s phrase, maybe now is the season for Numancia.