An old man and a young girl marry. The results, unsurprisingly, are as tragic as they are predictable.
Well into his seventies, miserly Don Roque has just married again for the fourth time, to 19-year-old Isabel. His old manservant Muñoz never tires of telling him that, at their age, it is madness to think that a union between an elderly man and a young girl will succeed. Indeed, even as the play begins, Roque is having problems. A houseguest has arrived from Madrid. This is young Don Juan. Roque used to do business with Juan’s now-dead uncle, and casually offered the young man lodging if he were ever to visit Cadiz. Of course, Roque never expected Juan to take up the offer, and is now rather put out, not least because he has spied the young man in the middle of an intense conversation with Isabel. Roque’s suspicions are immediately aroused, and he turns to Muñoz for advice.
Muñoz, however, has only bad news for Roque. He tells Roque that Isabel and Juan have known each another since they were children. This only adds to Roque’s suspicions, as he worries that his young wife is in love with Juan. There is, in his mind, only one solution: he must ensure that Juan leaves his house as soon as possible. But Juan is already planning a dramatic departure, arranging to sail for the Americas. He and Isabel were indeed once in love. Even when Juan was forced to leave Cadiz to live with his uncle in Madrid, they exchanged tender letters. One day, however, Juan stopped receiving letters with no explanation. Juan took the opportunity of returning to Cadiz on business to try to discover what had become of his beloved. Unaware that Roque had married Isabel, the sight of her as the elderly man’s wife is devastating. For him, the only cure for his broken heart is to take a dangerous voyage across the sea – to be as far away from Isabel as possible.
Before Juan leaves, he has a brief moment in private with Isabel. He refuses to believe her when she claims that she had no option but to marry Roque. Soon, the truth behind the cruel situation is revealed. Isabel explains that she was led, deliberately, to believe that Juan had already married. Believing her true love to have betrayed her, she miserably agreed to marry Roque. Now, both confess their enduring love for each other. But it is too late. Isabel is already married, and they both agree that Juan must leave for the sake of honour.
While Juan remains in the house waiting for an available ship to take him away, he remains a threat to Roque. Obsessed with finding out what exactly Isabel feels for Juan, Roque gets his servant Muñoz to spy on the couple. While Muñoz hides, he hears Isabel bidding Juan a heart-wrenching goodbye. She has finally accepted that he must leave, although she wishes that he would remain in Cadiz, where his friends could help him through his heartache. But Juan is intent on leaving for the Americas. Isabel lets him go, but in a moment of panic, she urges his servant Ginés to hurry and find his master at the port. She has more to say to Juan, and wants him to return to the house.
Muñoz tells Roque about Juan’s imminent return. Wanting to ensure that the love between Isabel and Juan is crushed forever, Roque comes up with a cruel plan. He reveals to Isabel that he knows that she has fetched Juan back. Roque forces Isabel to tell him never to return, and to deny ever having loved him. Roque hides, as Juan enters. The young man is destroyed as Isabel, under duress, denies her love for him. After Juan leaves, Isabel is distraught. She hears the sound of a ship’s horn, and knows her true love has left forever. With nothing left in her miserable young life, she squares up to her aged husband. She bitterly maintains her innocence: while she did love Juan, neither of them ever acted upon their feelings. Her reasons for demanding that Juan return to the house were also honest – she simply wanted to beg him not to take such a dangerous voyage across the sea. Knowing that Roque will always be a suspicious and jealous husband, Isabel asks to be allowed to live out the rest of her life in a convent. Roque eventually agrees, admitting that Muñoz was right all along: that he is far too old to be married to a young girl.
The play was subject to censorship and underwent a number of revisions before it was granted a licence to be performed. The cuts, however, were such that the play was unrecognisable, and so Moratín refused to allow it to be staged for a number of years. When it was first performed in 1790, it was a great success and was subsequently translated into Italian and staged in theatres throughout Italy.
Moratín, Leandro Fernández de. 1795. El viejo y la niña: Comedia en tres actos. Madrid, Imprenta Real
Moratín, Leandro Fernández de. 1970. Teatro completo 1: El viejo y la niña; El sí de las niñas, ed. Fernando Lázaro Carreter. Barcelona, Labor
Moratín, Leandro Fernández de. 2002. El viejo y la niña, ed. Juan Antonio Ríos Carratalá. Alicante, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, http://184.108.40.206/FichaObra.html?Ref=578&portal=0 [accessed May 2011]. Digital edition of the 1825 version published in Obras dramáticas y líricas de D. Fernández de Moratín, vol I, pp. 47-219. Paris, Augusto Bobée (Online Publication)
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Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 24 May 2011.