Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Collective Suicide: Rafael Alberti's Updating of Cervantes's la Destruccion De Numancia

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Collective Suicide: Rafael Alberti's Updating of Cervantes's la Destruccion De Numancia

Article excerpt

La destruccion de Numancia, the tragedy wherein Cervantes depicted the Iberians' collective suicide rather than surrender to the invading Romans, was twice adapted by Rafael Alberti, first in 1937 in a Madrid besieged during the Spanish Civil War, and then in 1943 in the changed circumstances of his post-war exile in Latin America. The article considers Alberti's rereading and pruning of the Cervantine text, and the work of the actress-directors, Alberti's wife Maria Teresa Leon in 1937 for an audience of soldiers, and Margarita Xirgu in Montevideo in 1943, for an audience that might view Numantia's collective suicide very differently.


In the nineteenth century a generation of admiring Romantics from the Schlegels onwards accorded the highest praise to Cervantes's tragedy of collective suicide, La destruccion de Numancia (at times under its alternative title El cerco de Numancia), and it was much translated. However, it was in the twentieth century that the ancient Iberian city of Numantia's choice of self-immolation rather than surrender to the besieging Roman army came, as Francisco Vivar has recently shown, to hold 'un lugar importante en el imaginario de los espanoles de antes y de ahora' as a symbol of resistance against overwhelming odds, even though very few Spaniards of recent times were likely to be familiar with Cervantes's text. (1) At the same time, as Patricia McDermott has noted, La destruccion de Numancia has since its composition in the 158os 'continued to be revived and reworked in the course of the following four centuries' (2) Moreover, these reworkings involve at times radically different reinterpretations, on occasion with surprisingly differentiated ideological purposes. For nineteenth-century commentators the tragedy by Cervantes was an exemplar of conservative patriotism, and a no less exemplary tale of horror and bloodletting altogether too violent for modern performance. Gyll, in the notes to his translation into English published in 1870, observed, following Sismondi's De la litterature du midi de l'Europe, that

There is a strong feeling of patriotism manifested by Cervantes in his Numantia. He has taken the subject of his tragedy, the destruction of a city which valiantly opposed the Romans, and whose inhabitants, rather than surrender themselves to the enemy, preferred perishing beneath the ruins of their homes, slaughtering one another, precipitating themselves into the flames. It is not a tragedy for modern representation; it is too extensive, too public, and too little adapted to the display of individual passions, and of those motives which operate upon persons and not upon nations. It is an expiatory sacrifice offered up to the Manes of a great city. (3)

As will be seen later, while the more recent versions and adaptations concur in the view that the Cervantine text is 'too extensive', it is precisely in the 'public' message of this text and its application to 'nations' rather than to individuals or 'persons' that its attraction would lie. For a slightly later translator, as Patricia McDermott has noted (p. 271), the appeal of La destruccion de Numancia lay in its relevance, in Victorian Britain, to the country's imperialist destiny, where the play's ending is seen as an example of noble sacrifice. James Gibson's translation, published in 1885, was dedicated

To the memory of GENERAL GORDON, the hero of Khartoum, the modern Paladin, our Christian Theogenes, whose sublime faith, fortitude, and self sacrifice, matchless in these times, have made his name sacred in every household, the translator humbly dedicates this English version of one of the saddest tragedies ever penned; which nevertheless is instinct with that tragic pain which purifies the soul, and incites to such deeds of self devotion as distinguished the hero, whose loss Britain mourns this day with a peculiar sorrow, not unmixed with shame. (4)

In his brief introduction Gibson follows Gyll in granting emphasis to the patriotic tone of the play but, anticipating the twentieth-century approach, notes the presence of a message for the times, speaking, as it were to 'nations' rather than to 'persons':

There is, if I may so speak, a sort of Spartan pathos in the piece; every single and personal consideration is swallowed up in the feeling of patriotism, and by allusions to the warlike fame of his nation in modern times he has contrived to connect the ancient history with the interests of his own day. …

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