Diversifying the Classics | What We Owe Our Lies
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What We Owe Our Lies
A comedy by Juan Ruiz de Alarcón
Translated from the Spanish by the UCLA Working Group on the Comedia in Translation and Performance:
Marta Albalá Pelegrín
Paul Cella
Adrián Collado
Barbara Fuchs
Jennifer L. Monti
Laura Muñoz
Javier Patiño Loira
Payton Phillips Quintanilla
Veronica Wilson
Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta, 2018

INTRODUCTION

 

Paul Cella and Javier Patiño Loira

 

What We Owe Our Lies (Los empeños de un engaño, first published in 1634) depicts the efforts of two women, Leonor and Teodora, to pursue their love against the dictates of their brothers, who are trying to arrange reciprocal marriages for them. Occupying different floors of the same building, the two women are not enthusiastic about the prospect of marrying each other’s brother. They contend instead for the love of Don Diego de Luna, a stranger in town who roams up and down their street, attracting the attention of everyone in the neighborhood.

 

The play is set in Madrid, a courtly and sophisticated hub to which money streams from remote corners of Spain’s empire. Finance and money inform the characters’ actions and, especially, their language. Yet, as seventeenth-century men and women were increasingly aware, urbane refinement often accompanies more or less covert forms of deceit. As Don Diego’s servant, Campana, persuades his master that lying to one of the ladies is the only way to achieve anything with the other, we realize that we are dealing with a society where deception has been normalized. Alarcón presents his audience with a study of the practicalities and the complications involved in strategic forms of deceit. The supposedly tactical nature of the lie nonetheless represents a struggle for Don Diego, torn between abiding by standards of behavior that befit a nobleman (such as keeping his word or avoiding ingratitude) and the constraints (or “empeños”) that a single lie has placed on him. Don Diego experiences in miniature the conflict between ethical values and expediency that characterizes a city that is also the royal court.

 

THE PLOTS

 

As the play opens, Leonor Girón, a Madrid noblewoman, is looking out from her second-story apartment, where she lives with her brother, the impetuous Don Sancho. She is observing Don Diego de Luna, who has been circling about long enough to catch her attention (and, dangerously, Don Sancho’s). Leonor has fallen in love with Don Diego from afar, but suspects he is interested in Teodora, Leonor’s friend and downstairs neighbor. Leonor’s suspicion is justified. Don Diego has indeed come to Madrid in pursuit of his beloved Teodora, who had reluctantly left Seville (and Don Diego) to settle in Madrid with her brother, Don Juan. To complicate matters, by an agreement between Don Juan and Don Sancho, Teodora is supposed to marry the latter, whom she despises. In exchange, Don Sancho has agreed to marry Leonor off to Don Juan. Meanwhile, Leonor tells her servant, Inés, that she would prefer the unknown Don Diego to a loveless marriage to her neighbor.

 

Campana, Don Diego’s servant, falls for Inés, having caught sight of her while his master hung around near the building. Inés notices him waving at her and, seeing an opportunity to help her mistress, beckons Campana, who jumps at the apparent chance to meet his love. Campana runs in eagerly, and unexpectedly encounters Leonor, who feigns outrage, accusing Don Diego of jeopardizing her honor by lingering in front of her house. In fact, Leonor’s hostility is a ploy to find out whether Don Diego loves her or Teodora. Campana covers for his master, claiming that Don Diego loves Leonor and that any apparent interest in Teodora is meant to disguise his true feelings.

 

Delighted with her new romantic prospects, Leonor faces the awkward task of breaking off her engagement to Don Juan. She must also get rid of a second suitor, the powerful, love-struck Marqués, who once fought alongside Don Diego in Spain’s protracted wars in Flanders. Having repeatedly encountered him outside the house, the Marqués asks Don Diego whether he, too, is courting Leonor. Don Diego swears truthfully that he is not, despite Campana’s ruse. Caught between his obligation to the Marqués, his unsought commitment to Leonor, his love for Teodora, and both women’s jealous suitors and brothers, Don Diego takes Campana’s pragmatic advice, to pretend to love Leonor and tell her that, in order to disguise his true feelings, he must woo Teodora.

 

Don Juan announces to Teodora that he must take a short trip to Seville and that Don Sancho will remain in his patriarchal stead. During Don Juan’s absence, motivations collide. Teodora and Don Diego finally see a chance to be together; Don Sancho grows suspicious of Don Diego; and Leonor, despite an apparently auspicious romantic beginning, mistrusts her conquest and remains jealous of Teodora.

 

Tied up in a business meeting, Don Sancho has Leonor keep an eye on Teodora, who convinces her friend to countenance a rendezvous with an unnamed lover. Leonor readily acquiesces, hoping this romance will distract Teodora, and clear the way for her own affair. From an adjacent room, Leonor watches in dismay Don Diego and Teodora’s affectionate encounter, which is rudely interrupted when Don Sancho, having seen Don Diego come in, follows him in a jealous rage, his vengeful sword drawn. Don Diego challenges Don Sancho, and receives a nearly fatal wound. The deathblow is averted only when Leonor claims that Don Diego is her husband, thus placating her brother’s zealous defense of Teodora’s honor.

 

Act II opens with Don Diego convalescing in Don Sancho’s bedroom, torn between love for Teodora, fear of Don Sancho, and obligation to Leonor. Leonor, having saved Don Diego’s life, will see any outcome except their marriage as a disgrace. Teodora, happy with Leonor’s action, first addresses her with gratitude, but quickly becomes confused and, finally, indignant, as her naïve trust confronts Leonor’s cynical determination to secure her love and Don Diego’s irresoluteness. Meanwhile, Don Juan, who has raced home upon learning what has happened, is, like Teodora, bent on revenge. For his part, the Marqués, thinking Don Diego is set to marry Leonor, challenges him to a duel. Don Diego vainly plans his next move, unaware that he is under Leonor’s lock and key. To respond to the Marqués’s challenge, he jumps out the window, but remains injured below, giving rise to the siblings’ characteristic reactions: Don Juan and Don Sancho wish to be rid of a threat to their reputations; Leonor, thinking Don Diego is fleeing from her, faces the futility of her coercion; and Teodora, concerned for her lover’s well-being, softens her heart, so recently intent on vengeance.

 

As Act III opens, we find Don Diego sunk in grief. His failure to show up at the duel with the Marqués has seemingly left him dishonored. To make matters worse, his chances of reconciliation with Teodora look slim. After his jump from the balcony, Campana, thinking Don Diego had jumped to pursue Teodora after having read a letter from her, gave the letter to Teodora so it would not be seized as evidence of their romance. As Campana relates his action to his master, both Don Diego and the audience know that, in fact, the letter contained the Marqués’s call to a duel over Leonor’s love. Teodora feels betrayed, thinking it was Don Diego’s love for Leonor that prompted him to risk his life.

 

In another twist, the Marqués pays Don Diego a visit, having learned from Campana that Don Diego truly loves Teodora, not Leonor. Intent on making things right, he offers his help to his old military comrade. While the Marqués keeps Don Juan and Don Sancho busy in the street, Don Diego tries to explain the truth to Teodora, undoing the confusion unleashed by Campana’s original lie to Leonor. After a heated exchange, Teodora accepts Don Diego’s version of events. Don Juan and Don Sancho try to intervene, but the presence of the Marqués prevents them from fighting Don Diego. Teodora, when asked, states her wish to marry Don Diego. Leonor, upset by the Marqués’s role in frustrating her relationship with Don Diego, takes her revenge against him by marrying Don Juan, however half-heartedly.

 

WOMEN AND MEN

 

As is often the case in the comedia, the characters in What We Owe Our Lies do not fit neatly into the conventional gender roles of early modern Spain. Like many of their female counterparts in other plays, Leonor and Teodora are strong, resourceful, and capable of asserting their wills despite opposition from a male-dominated social order. The play turns conventional expectations on their head by presenting the control of women’s actions as an ongoing struggle in which they can successfully resist, as opposed to a fait accompli of patriarchal domination. Society’s effect is thus the opposite of what we might expect. It does not define the women, but creates the conditions in which they define themselves as complex characters capable of the sort of nuanced observations denied to the men. The women show us the underbelly of the conventional mores the men champion with relative naiveté. Don Juan’s self-aggrandizing description of his supposedly perilous race home to right Don Diego’s wrongs is more ridiculous than impressive, coming as it does after the women in question have mocked the very ethos he is trying to uphold. Don Juan’s concern for Teodora’s “good name” must confront the fact that his sister’s happiest moment comes precisely when her brother (the representative and defender of her “good name”) leaves for Seville and, finally alone, she can reunite with Don Diego: “I’ve waited ages/ for this happy moment” (489–490). We get the impression that Don Juan is merely aping the commonplaces of a sort of pater familias in training and has cemented his personality as a social type, while Teodora emerges as an individual, with particular motivations that challenge social norms. Leonor, for her part, makes more complex our understanding of the marriage scheme that the men have designed. Don Juan’s matter-of-fact reference to concerted marriage and women’s role therein as a good to be exchanged sounds hopelessly anachronistic with the echo of Leonor’s contempt for her husband-to-be ringing in our ears: “I shall not be sorry to lose/ what I do not wish to have” (41–42).

 

Compared to Leonor and Teodora, Don Juan and Don Sancho threaten to become caricatures of stereotypical masculinity who ineffectively exercise the power that is theirs according to convention. The plot focuses on a single generation—the young lovers—without a patriarchal figure who might intervene to shore up the male domination represented by Don Juan and Don Sancho. The absence of such authority and the fact that the play’s conflicts must be resolved intra (not inter) generationally mean that the men cannot appeal as readily or effectively to tradition to justify themselves, but must come to a resolution with their peers. When the Marqués assumes the role of arbiter, he does so not as a voice of customary wisdom, but of reason. Don Juan and Don Sancho’s position has no authoritative advocates, while the women’s is vindicated, according to the Marqués, as “just.”

 

The men are also unflatteringly portrayed, and so compel audiences to question the authority they assume for themselves. Meanwhile, the women’s prescribed submissiveness appears inadequate when we see them outsmart and outmaneuver the men. A case in point is when Teodora pushes forward her plan to punish Don Diego’s apparent infidelity by shrewdly persuading Don Juan not to abandon his engagement to Leonor only because Don Diego has been staying in Leonor’s house as her husband. Don Juan presents us with the trappings of the stereotypical, strong-willed man (e.g., his hyperbolic account of his seflessness during his purportedly perilous return home from Seville), but he is really a more impressionable figure, easily convinced to play the role Teodora wants him to play. Don Sancho’s vice is not Don Juan’s bluster, but temerity and cowardice, respectively, the excessive and deficient versions of the typically male virtue of courage, which serve precisely to call attention to Don Sancho’s lack of valor. Always too quick to grab his sword, he recklessly almost kills Don Diego without properly challenging him. And he does so in cowardly fashion, by outnumbering him with the help of his cousins. Also, Don Sancho’s attempts to control his home seem futile when he cannot even manage the confusion that ensues after he confronts Don Diego and Teodora in the latter’s apartment. Don Sancho not only lacks the practical authority to restore order, but symbolically places himself on the same plane as the rest of the characters (including the servants Campana and Inés) by adding yet another inconsequential interjection to the uproar. Like those of the characters preceding him, Don Sancho’s words fall on deaf ears.

 

In sum, Don Juan and Don Sancho recall ideals of masculinity that they fail to live up to, while Teodora and Leonor clearly reject what is expected of them as women by disagreeing with the marriage plans laid out by their brothers and pursuing their own courses of action. Leonor and Teodora are not only more efficient than the men in managing the resources and means available to accomplish their aims. They also thrive in a suspension of male authority that becomes even broader when Don Juan leaves for Seville. The subsequent transfer of control from Don Sancho to Leonor (who remains in Teodora’s apartment as her guard) signals the helplessness of Don Juan and Don Sancho in handling domestic affairs. The men’s weakness creates a power vacuum that, in turn, makes the play’s recurring themes of physical enclosure and separation call attention to their own impossibility. In other words, the obvious cracks in the male-dominated power structure are transposed onto the physical structures intended to perpetuate it.

 

THE HOUSE

 

The house is as much a character in the play as the people living in it. Leonor’s apartment is located on the second floor, right above Teodora’s. This elicits a remark by the servant Inés, who flatters Leonor by comparing her with the sun, as it rules in the fourth sky of heaven, way above the moon to which Teodora is likened. The simile is not new. We find Alarcón’s characters resorting to it in other plays to express preference for one love interest over another. Yet what makes it powerful here is the conflation of cosmography and architecture, through which the house itself becomes the embodiment of a heaven conceived after the model of Ptolemy, by then nearly obsolete. Inés’s comparison becomes strikingly literal, as the coexistence of the two women on different floors of the same house and the confusion provoked by Don Diego gravitating to one or another set the plot in motion.

 

The flow of people up from the street is a main channel for action. Yet access is not granted to everyone under the same conditions. Servants, as vehicles of information and facilitators of encounters, have an easier path in and out than their masters. A sign from Inés is enough to let Campana into Leonor’s apartment and turn the characters’ world upside down.

 

Windows and balconies are the path to a street that everyone sees from inside. Down below, on the figurative earth under the apartment’s heaven, Don Diego tries to go unnoticed; at other times, we find Don Juan and Don Sancho on the street, about to go upstairs and find out, much to their dismay, that the presence of another man has intruded in the domestic space they claim to control. In fact, the reconciliation between Don Diego and Teodora is made possible thanks to the cooperation of the Marqués, who freezes the action by detaining the two men in the street and preventing them from reaching Teodora’s apartment.

 

The inner space of the apartment allows desire, danger, and voyeurism to operate all at once. Through its threefold division, it allows for the meeting of Don Diego and Teodora in a main chamber flanked by two rooms. Leonor spies on their encounter from one room, while the entrance hall allows Don Sancho to catch them as he enters from the opposite side. Accessibility, however, is not the rule throughout the play. As the plot becomes more complicated, it becomes more restricted, and spaces become more isolated as the traffic in and out of the house is progressively closed.

 

The victim of this closure is Don Diego, for whom the house functions as a site of both desire and fear: Teodora’s apartment is his goal, yet the lie of which he and Campana are guilty condemns him to end up in the wrong apartment. Under Leonor’s lock and key, he realizes only too late that there are true barriers keeping him isolated from the world outside. The doors are locked and the exit is under surveillance. The physicality of the space becomes the focus of attention, while windows and balconies become once again a truer, if hardly more secure, path to the street. As he rushes to the duel with the Marqués, Don Diego finds himself trapped between a locked door and a balcony, and chooses the latter, even if it costs him some broken bones.

 

DECEIT

 

What We Owe Our Lies examines the impact of deceit on the lives of those who stumble onto the path of untruth. Since at least the ancient Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence, the willful use of equivocation and the fabrication of appearances have been intimately tied to the workings of comedy. Of all Spanish Golden-Age playwrights, Alarcón is most strongly associated with the workings of deceit, given his most famous play, Suspect Truth (La verdad sospechosa). It tells the story of Don García, a compulsive liar blessed with the gift of inventiveness, who dazzles other characters by weaving a fabric of lies that eventually brings about his own downfall. Alarcón is skilled at unfolding, sometimes with a remarkable degree of complexity, the particular ways of deceit in a world marked by pervasive counterfeit.

 

Compared with such an example of “reckless mendacity,” as Jules Whicker has described Don García, the lying in What We Owe Our Lies appears harmless. Strategic in scope and limited to a single moment of untruth, lying is hardly sinful or diabolic here, and operates rather on a practical, social key. Even more significantly, the lie itself (started by Campana, then praised as expeditious by Don Diego) fails entirely from the start, redirecting our attention from the falseness itself to the trouble that it sparks in the relations among characters.

 

Don Diego lacks entirely the Machiavellian leanings that are typical of other characters in Alarcón’s plays. Despite the feeling of slapstick in the episode when Don Diego gets hurt jumping from a balcony, his succession of mishaps stem not from a series of errors of his own, but rather from the clash between the only mistake of which he is guilty—going along with Campana’s lie—and his scrupulous observance of his code of behavior. The lie places him in situations from which he cannot escape without harming his reputation for courage and worthiness—the two meanings that coalesce in the term valor, which he repeatedly uses to describe his social and personal status. When locked in Leonor’s apartment, Don Diego rejects Campana’s suggestion that he should escape, arguing that what is acceptable for a servant does not befit him: “For the highest glory is not/ to be born a lord,” Don Diego claims, “but to be worthy/ of that name” (2149–2152). Only a more pressing constraint makes him escape from Leonor, as he jumps out the window to face the duel with the Marqués and avoid being taken for a coward. Easily persuaded at the start to lie to Leonor, Don Diego feels tormented by the idea of showing himself ungrateful to her after she saves his life by feigning that they are married. Ingratitude and cowardice are faults a gentleman cannot afford, and Don Diego laments the lie told by Campana as a source of new complications rather than as something evil, or even sinful in itself.

 

Campana’s lie activates two significant concepts of the period, simulation and dissimulation. Campana’s reminder that the conventional wisdom at court is to “rob Peter to pay Paul” (418) echoes the widespread notion that revealing naked truths was not only naive but dangerous. The idea that the court requires a dispassionate, less punctilious attitude resounds in Teodora’s mocking advice to her brother Don Juan not to see things with the eyes of “some poor small-town nobleman” (1460). However, as Jon R. Snyder explains, it is one thing to dissimulate by concealing something that is, and quite another to simulate by making up that which is not.

 

The constraints placed upon seduction in seventeenth-century Spain taught lovers various forms of dissimulation. Concealing one’s object of interest and intentions (both covered by the term intento) was considered mandatory for women and expeditious for men. Don Diego tries to pass unnoticed as he roams around in front of Teodora’s apartment, a behavior that appears unproblematic, but, according to Campana, is also insufficient. Should Leonor learn about the love between Don Diego and Teodora, Campana claims, she would immediately notify her brother, Don Sancho, who expects to marry Teodora, and he would tell Don Juan, Teodora’s brother. Alarcón’s play illustrates something of which many contemporaries were fully aware: it is often necessary to simulate one thing in order to dissimulate another. According to Campana, lies bedazzle the interlocutors by drawing their attention elsewhere, so that they fail to see what really matters. A well-designed lie mobilizes self-love, and so persuades easily, as when Leonor puts aside her suspicions that Don Diego might love Teodora instead of herself.

 

If the play does not condemn Don Diego, the lie nonetheless turns out to complicate his plans. Its consequences ramify endlessly, putting his reputation at risk. These are the empeños to which the play’s title refers. In economics, “empeño” refers to anything left in pawn, of which one cannot freely dispose until it is redeemed. Sebastián de Covarrubias’s 1611 dictionary shows that the term was used metaphorically to indicate constraints upon individual freedom, such as a favor received from someone else or a promise. In Alarcón’s play, a single lie heaps one complication upon another. Campana’s lie encourages Leonor to fabricate, in turn, that Don Diego is her husband. Unless he is willing to forsake both their reputations and show himself ungrateful, Don Diego is now in her debt—he has unwittingly pawned his freedom. But that is not all: when the Marqués comes to believe that Don Diego loves Leonor, he challenges him to a duel, further limiting his range of possible action. Campana’s lie places Don Diego in a state that he gloomily characterizes through metaphors of despair, a dark night, or the sword of Damocles hanging over him as he drowns in a tempestuous sea between his very own Scylla and Charybdis—losing Teodora or being ungrateful to Leonor. He would certainly agree with the servant Inés in Alarcón’s El desdichado en fingir, who laments: “To keep a lie alive/ requires many more lies.”

 

Nothing hurts Don Diego’s prospects so much as the fact that Teodora, too, has been deceived. Even lying requires talent, and Campana and Don Diego fail to let the woman Don Diego actually wants in on the secret in time. The plot unfolds, to some extent, as a protracted delay of Don Diego’s notifying Teodora about the simulation of which Leonor alone should have been the victim.

 

Campana and Don Diego may be amateurs in the art of lying, but they allow Alarcón to make a statement about deceit as the trigger of a plot—a mechanism that, by creating a gap between what some characters know and others do not, creates dramatic irony and gives the audience the satisfaction of watching it all work out.

 

HONOR AND REASON

 

What We Owe Our Lies asks a political-philosophical question so old that it has been pondered since Plato: is the source of political truth conventional and particular or natural and universal? The play asks this question by contrasting characters’ appeals to honor (particular truth) and reason (universal truth). As in Plato’s dialogues, in Alarcón’s play the defenders of convention are presented in a negative light. Specifically, their attachment to honor restricts their access to knowledge and information. They are, in other words, blinded by convention and so unable to appreciate non-conventional, natural truth, which is presented positively as a means to liberation and the enrichment of lived experience.

 

The tension between convention and reality is announced in the play’s first lines, when Leonor draws attention to the particularity of her space and perspective: the man she sees, Don Diego, is a “stranger,” encroaching on the territory of others, “our street” (1–2). The audience, thus confronted with the power of convention to erect social barriers, is led to sharpen its understanding of this concept by inquiring about its opposite, universality. Moments later, Leonor responds by describing the (Platonic) idealness of human connection as a perfectly tuned instrument: “if he adores me,” she says, “my own love will resound,/ strummed only by the breath/ of his consonant tune” (34–37).

 

The conflict announced by Leonor is later intensified by the male characters, who are the proponents of social convention. The characterization of Teodora illustrates this point. We are introduced to her by Don Juan, her brother, whose first word to her is “[s]ister” (429), a label that functions not as a reference to familial intimacy, but as an obligation to comply with the social expectations of the role. For Don Juan, Teodora’s duty is to “[give] in” and “be Don Sancho’s wife” (444–445). The inadequacy of Don Juan’s understanding of things becomes apparent immediately, when Teodora, in conversation with her servant, Constanza, describes herself not as a sister, but as Don Diego’s lover, and so expands our perspective beyond her brother’s relatively narrow vision. Teodora’s complexity is contrasted with the stringent demands of honor, which make her brother unable to conceive of nuance or resistance. Conversely, for Teodora, one’s character is conditioned by one’s feelings, not social expectations. Again, just prior to his trip to Seville, Don Juan reduces experience to convention, when he has Don Sancho assume his place as patriarch: “Don Sancho will remain here/ in my place until I return” (429–430). Whereas Teodora exemplifies the multi-dimensionality of identity (e.g., as a sister, a lover, etc.), Don Juan understands character in terms of social types defined by custom. For him, a sister is a sister, and a man is a man.

 

The demands of their own code of honor also blind the male characters to the real world beyond it. Don Juan, when faced with the option of marrying Leonor, who has already promised her heart to Don Diego, responds conventionally. Despite acknowledging that “a happier man/ may count transgression as a virtue” (1456–1457), his own moral “scruples” (1455) demand his conclusion: “Am I to be husband of one / who’s called another by that name [. . .]?” (1432–1433). Teodora’s response points to Don Juan’s narrow mind. Her brother’s words do not match up with reality: “If favors from eyes and lips, Don Juan,/ were now considered trespasses,” she asks, “what honest woman would not be/ guilty of such a sin [. . .]? [. . .] what man would go/ blameless to his wedding bed?” (1461–1466). The motivation for Don Juan’s decisions is an ideal of premarital chastity prescribed by society, while Teodora counsels the abandonment of social dogma and unprejudiced observation of the real world. The same conflict is artfully put on display when Don Sancho, having burst into Don Juan and Teodora’s apartment and demanding a response to Teodora and Don Diego’s transgression, is ignored amidst a cacophonic series of asides, in reaction to which he bellows: “And what about my jealousy?” (771). Don Sancho has his own idea about what should take priority, and the other characters have theirs. He thinks the reparation of a moral transgression must be addressed, but his demands for attention are symbolically drowned out by real-world events he cannot control. Alas, the world is not reducible to his moral standards.

 

While Don Sancho and Don Juan conform to the demands of their own moral order, the women act relatively unconstrained. Don Sancho, for example, more preoccupied with his domestic duties and keeping an eye on Don Diego than with his work, abandons after just a few minutes a habitual meeting with his cousins and business partners: “From the moment I walked in,” says one of his cousins, “he seemed distracted and upset,/ more focused on the street than anything else” (774–776). Don Juan, for his part, cuts short his trip to Seville, before even “taking off [his] spurs” (1262), to race home to ensure his marriage to Leonor and Teodora’s chastity. The men’s obsession with honor rules their lives, and is in no way glorified in this play. Rather, it constrains potential lived experience outside a particular moral framework.

 

Honor is both a cause and an effect of the restriction of experience and knowledge. If Don Juan’s moral “scruples” will not allow him to see things as they are, and Don Sancho’s self-righteousness blinds him to diversity of opinion, honor also comes from the men’s active concealment of information. To avoid the sullying of his name should the details of Don Diego’s visit become known to the public, Don Sancho advocates secrecy: “we must keep secret/ all that has happened here” (850–851). The house’s honor is maintained at the expense of knowledge, by “keep[ing] secret” the truth. Honor thus has nothing to do with truth, as when Don Sancho says to Don Juan, regarding the nuisances occasioned by Don Diego: “with [Don Diego] out of the way or dead,/ we’ll have no fear for our reputations” (1736–1737). Don Sancho explicitly sets aside any interest in truth, and the men are happy to have their reputations rest on ignorance.

 

The two female characters deepen the play’s examination of the moral frameworks that condition action and access to knowledge. Both women want to flee from the house and its limiting code of honor. However, by the end their paths diverge in important ways. The final revelation of the truth of Don Diego’s love for Teodora leads the latter to act according to what her instinct told her all along, that is, to separate herself from the house’s moral system and go off with Don Diego. Logically, then, a connection is made between ignorance and the house, on the one hand, and knowledge and the exterior, on the other. Conversely, the same truth leads Leonor to retreat into the house, significantly breaking her ties with the Marqués, who, demanding what is “just,” functions in the final scene as a rational arbiter between the house’s obscurity and the world outside. The two women thus dramatize two distinct ways of understanding the interaction of morality and knowledge. Teodora desires vengeance only while she ignores the truth—her appeals to honor are born of error. Leonor’s love, however, is possible only when shrouded in lies, and when the truth is discovered, she reassumes her assigned social role.

 

What We Owe Our Lies was written in the early 1620s, at the beginning of Philip IV’s reign and the Count Duke of Olivares’s privanza, or virtual rule, a time when many in and out of Spain’s royal government advocated for the rationalization of the kingdom’s political systems, the subjugation of unruly nobles to the Spanish Crown, and the political incorporation and empowerment of Spain’s small middle classes: a formula of political centralization which, at the time, was working well for Spain’s ever-more powerful and threatening French neighbors. In this context, a play about the shortcomings of aristocratic codes of honor and the transformative possibilities of rational, knowledge-based action would surely have resonated with audiences. The vanguard of European political thought advanced the notion that tomorrow would be different from yesterday, which is exactly what Teodora embodies and Don Juan and Don Sancho fail adequately to recognize.

 

RECENT PERFORMANCE HISTORY

 

Obscured by the enormous popularity of his Suspect Truth, Alarcón’s What We Owe Our Lies has been almost completely absent from the stage. However, Germán Castillo Macías directed the play in 1979 for the company of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), and went on to win a prize at the 1980 edition of the Siglo de Oro Drama Festival in El Paso, Texas. The production, which was received with mixed reviews, framed the urban plot of the play with excerpts from works of Spanish missionaries and the Mayan books of Chilam Balam. The juxtaposition attempted to underscore the violence at the origin of the colonial society of which the author was a product, and was perceived by critics as yet another attempt to address the often debated question of Alarcón’s Mexicanness, and the alleged neglect of colonial settings and topics within his dramaturgy.