Out of the Wings

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La comedia nueva (1791-1792), Leandro Fernández de Moratín

English title: The New Comedy
Notable variations on Spanish title: La comedia nueva o El café
Date written: from 1791 to 1792
First publication date: 1802
First production date: February 1792
Keywords: identity, identity > class/social standing, family > marriage, love > friendship, identity > celebrity, art > theatre

The premiere of Don Eleuterio’s historical epic has arrived. He is convinced that his action-packed play will be a success. But the public is hard to please, and Eleuterio soon learns that the life of a playwright is not as easy as it looks.


It is the opening night of Don Eleuterio’s first play. Before the performance, he hosts a celebratory dinner at a local café. He is joined by his loyal wife Agustina, his young sister Mariquita and two well-known faces of the theatre world, Don Hermogenes and Don Serapio. As an erudite critic, Hermogenes knows the public’s taste, and has been instrumental in encouraging Eleuterio to write his first masterpiece, The Great Siege of Vienna. Recently unemployed and with a wife and children to care for, Eleuterio hopes his play will bring him great success. Hermogenes, too, is eager for the play to be a hit. The critic might have a prolific store of Latin and Greek quotations, but when it comes to money, his pockets are far from overflowing. Engaged to Mariquita and pursued by his landlord for rent, Hermogenes is desperate for money. It is lucky for him, then, that he just happens to have befriended such a kind soul in Eleuterio, who promises to pay off all Hermogenes’s debts if his play is a success.

Other customers in the café soon hear about the forthcoming play. Don Antonio, a cultured gentleman, light-heartedly but cynically laughs at the prospect of a new play. He knows that few of them are ever very good, but will be going to see the performance nonetheless. Don Pedro, on the other hand, refuses to countenance going to see any new work. Pedro is a kind and erudite man, but his candid manner often leads to offence. When Eleuterio excitedly reads to Pedro from the newly-published version of his play, the older man tells him exactly what he thinks of it. For Pedro, the drama’s storm scenes, its sword fights and its tragic deaths are ridiculous. Antonio, less candid than Pedro, makes subtle fun of the predictable plot and characterisation. In fact, Eleuterio is so naïve, that he does not even realise he is being mocked.

Antonio promises Eleuterio that he will convince Pedro to attend the night’s performance. Before he left the café, Pedro also offended Hermogenes with his frank opinions, labelling the critic a pedant. Hermogenes consoles himself and Eleuterio with the idea that Pedro is merely jealous of their talents. He flatters himself and Eleuterio with talk of their greatness. Then, he just happens to bring up the subject of money. Perhaps Eleuterio might have a penny or two to give to his future brother-in-law? But Eleuterio’s pockets are empty, and will remain so until his play has been judged a success.

Eleuterio and Homogenes rejoin the women. Young Mariquita worries that the night may not be quite the success everyone else thinks it will be. Her fears are dismissed as those of an ignorant girl, as the group waits to leave for the theatre. They are reliant on Hermogenes’s watch, but this turns out to be as useless as all his Latin prating. Antonio returns, having been unable to get a seat in the packed theatre. The group makes to leave for the performance, only to be told by Antonio that it has already begun. Hermogenes’s watch has stopped, and they have missed the first act. The party makes the best of the situation, and leaves to catch the second act.

Antonio remains behind in the café. Pedro returns unexpectedly, having escaped the theatre. He gives an excoriating review of the performance, and it seems that the rest of the audience shares Pedro’s opinion. Very soon, Eleuterio and his party arrive back at the café. Agustina is shaken, taken aback by the audience’s reaction to her husband’s masterpiece. Others, however, are not so surprised. Hermogenes admits that the play was terrible from the beginning. The cynical critic only supported it in the hope that the undiscerning public might like it, and that he in turn would benefit financially from Eleuterio’s generosity. With the play a disaster, Hermogenes leaves, wishing to distance himself from the disgraced playwright and his family.

The public may not have liked Eleuterio’s play, but he still believes it to be great. Pedro is incredulous, and sets about listing each and every one of the play’s faults. Dejected, Eleuterio tells the assembled that he may be an awful playwright, but that he is a decent man. He wrote the play as a last resort, to try and provide for his family. When Pedro learns of Eleuterio’s reduced circumstances, his stern exterior dissipates. He reveals that he is very rich and offers Eleuterio a job … so long as the young man never writes another word. Eleuterio joyfully rips up the script of his play and promises to burn every last copy of it. The play ends with Pedro wishing that other terrible playwrights would follow Eleuterio’s lead, and stop kidding themselves that they can write theatre.


La comedia nueva is a satirical piece in which Moratín attacks and makes fun of the popular dramatic style of the era. His contemporaries typically wrote melodramatic plays featuring historical or mythical characters, rather than ordinary people. Although Moratín does not mention any contemporary writers in his satire, one of its most obvious targets is the playwright Luciano Francisco Comella (1751-1812). Comella was one of Moratín’s greatest rivals, and in La comedia nueva the playwright uses the failure of Eleuterio’s grandiose play to ridicule Comella’s dramatic style. Comella tried unsuccessfully to have La comedia nueva censored. He did, however, write a piece in response entitled El violeto universal o El café (1793) in which he made fun of Moratín.

The play is preceded by a note from the author. It includes a quotation from Horace, ‘Non ego ventosae plebis suffragio venor’ which translates as ‘I do not pursue the approbation of the fickle populace’.

Critical response

La comedia nueva (The New Comedy) received mixed reactions from audiences. Written as a satire and an attack on the theatre of its time, it is an important piece that marks a new kind of Spanish drama, written in prose and respecting the unities of time and space. Whereas playwrights at the time tended to write huge historical epics (just as Eleuterio does in the play), Moratín in this piece concentrated on ordinary people in an everyday setting. The play’s criticism of contemporary dramatic styles caused a few problems, as actors and theatre companies were reluctant to associate themselves with it, worried that they would suffer professionally from being involved in such an attack on theatre. The premiere was marked by shouts of outrage from Moratín’s detractors and applause from his supporters.

  • Moratín, Leandro Fernández de. 1802. La comedia nueva: comedia en dos actos en prosa. Madrid, Villalpando Printing

  • Moratín, Leandro Fernández de. 1968. La comedia nueva. El sí de las niñas, eds. John Dowling and René Andioc. Madrid, Castalia

  • Moratín, Leandro Fernández de. 1994. La comedia nueva. El sí de las niñas, ed. Jesús Pérez Magallón. Barcelona, Crítica

  • Moratín, Leandro Fernández de. 2002. La comedia nueva o El café, ed. Juan Antonio Ríos Carratalá. Alicante, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, [accessed May 2011] (Online Publication)

  • Moratín, Leandro Fernández de. 2003. La comedia nueva. Alicante, Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/obra/la-comedia-nueva-comedia--0/ [accessed May 2011]. Digital edition of the 1825 version published in Obras dramáticas y líricas de D. Fernández de Moratín, vol I, pp. 161-249. Paris, Augusto Bobée (Online Publication)

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Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 24 May 2011.

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