Comedias sueltas: An Introduction

D. W. Cruickshank ~ 2015 ~


Comedias sueltas are not unique to Spain: in several countries, in the early modern period, plays were printed singly, the gatherings ‘stabbed’ rather than bound, with no covers, to be sold cheaply, often by that prototype of the travelling salesman, the chapman. Like their contemporaries in the English book trade, these single plays were printed in quarto. What makes Spain exceptional is the quantity of them: Urzáiz Tortajada’s recent catalogue (2002), of seventeenth-century authors alone, lists around 10,000 titles, although this figure includes autos sacramentales and shorter pieces as well as full-length plays (Urzáiz Tortajada 2002). We can compare this with Sir Walter Greg’s Bibliography of the English Printed Drama to the Restoration, which lists 941 titles, 187 of them lost (Greg 1939–59). (Arguably, Greg’s cut-off point of 1660 is compensated by Urzáiz Tortajada’s excluding the pre-1601 period). Those who insist on comparing numbers of printed plays only may consider Juan Isidro Fajardo, whose Índice de todas las comedias impresas hasta el año de 1716, compiled without the aid of online catalogues or scanned title-pages sent as email, records around 2170 titles (the precise number of plays is uncertain until it is determined how many titles are alternatives for the same work).

What makes Spain exceptional is the quantity of single plays printed cheaply in quarto: Urzáiz Tortajada’s recent catalogue (2002), of seventeenth-century authors alone, lists around 10,000 titles…

In the days before radio, film and television, when complete books were relatively expensive, reading was a major form of home entertainment—and the ephemeral format of sueltas was relatively cheap. In illiterate rural communities, the few persons who could read might be called on to read aloud to fellow-villagers, as portrayed in the Quijote. It is clear, too, that the producers of sueltas came to realize that their purchasers not merely read them but also performed them, and they advertised their wares accordingly (‘fácil de executar en cualquier casa, para cinco hombres solos’; ‘pieza militar en tres actos, fácil de executar en casas particulares, por estar arreglada para siete hombres solos’): there were evidently authors who eschewed the public theatres and catered for this home market, for example, El joven Pedro de Guzmán, escena unipersonal para uno de siete años (at least five suelta editions between 1793 and 1820). If even single scenes were too much for amateur performers, there were the relaciones de comedia, not plot summaries but famous soliloquies (or, occasionally, dialogues) from classical plays. We know that these were used as ‘party pieces’ at literary gatherings, tertulias, in the later eighteenth century, and that the earliest ones date from around 1680 (Blanco White 1972, 250–1; Moll 1976).

Plays got into print in various ways. If the author had kept a copy (no small ‘if’ when every copy had to be written by hand) or could buy his text back from a friendly company-manager who was hoping for a new play as part of the deal, he could use it to make up a volume, a parte, of his own plays: several major authors did this, and the resulting partes could be quarried by printers of sueltas. Often, perhaps more often, a text with no remaining performance potential would be sold by the company manager to a publisher. If the publisher managed to get a dozen suitable texts, he could produce a collected volume of diferentes autores or comedias escogidas; if not, he could publish them as sueltas. Sometimes, we suspect, the actors would bypass the publisher and go straight to the printer, who could set and print 1500 copies of a play in a week, secure in the knowledge that he could hardly be traced and prosecuted for the lack of a licence if his imprint was equally lacking. It was possible for actors who quarrelled with their manager to take his entire repertoire with them in their memories, and sell it (the so-called ‘bad quarto’ of Hamlet was arguably produced in this way). Finally, there were individuals who, it was claimed, were able to watch a play (perhaps more than once, and perhaps with the aid of shorthand notes), and assemble the text from memory. Plays were alleged to have been sold on for printing in this way.

The genie was out of the bottle: financial returns were a major incentive in the production of sueltas.

Some critics claimed that plays corrupted morals, and that some of them were politically subversive. Live theatre could argue, with some success, that part of its profits supported the hospitals; the increasingly alarmed authorities turned their attention to the huge growth in the market for printed plays. In 1625 the Council of Castile decided not to issue more printing licences for plays in Castile (Moll 1974). This simply had the foreseeable effect of stimulating the trade in places where the Council had no jurisdiction (in Aragón in particular), or where policing was complicated by distance (in Andalucía). Printed plays with false imprints or no imprints proliferated, especially in Seville. The writers complained, but since the same Council had told Lope de Vega in 1616 that a play he had sold after writing it belonged to the buyer, who could print it if he chose, there was only one thing the members could do: they finally decided, in 1634, that the withdrawal of licences had done more harm than good, and began to reissue them. The genie was out of the bottle, however, and the wishes it granted were monetary ones: financial returns were a major incentive in the production of sueltas. Working from figures in original eighteenth-century documents, François López calculated that the return on investment in printing them could be as high as 800%, while the collected volumes of partes produced only 45% (López 1994, II, 707–19).

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, in an article in Editing the comedia, I began by saying that

Spanish plays of the Golden Age may survive in three different forms: unpublished, as a manuscript; and published, either collected in a parte or singly as a suelta. No one has ever conducted any census on this matter, but the comedia suelta may well be the commonest of the three forms. A scholar who wishes to edit a Golden-Age play needs first of all to discover whether it survives as a suelta and, if it does, the relative importance of the suelta text or texts.

Plays were published singly (i.e., as sueltas) from the early sixteenth century onwards, but for practical purposes the suelta period runs from 1600 to 1850. In this article I shall refer (somewhat arbitrarily) to sueltas printed before 1700 as ‘early’, and to those printed after this date as ‘late’.

Discovering whether a play survives as a suelta—or, more frequently, how many different sueltas it survives in—can take up a good deal of time. There are large numbers of suelta collections throughout the world, and since some plays have survived in more than thirty different suelta editions, the conscientious editor will find it necessary to check as many collections as possible. Fortunately, a good deal of time can be saved by using printed sources (Cruickshank 1991, 97–8).

There followed a list of sources as they were then, and some examples to show how sueltas, once discovered, can be dated, and their printers identified. The conclusion was that

The task of studying imprintless sueltas would be greatly simplified if we had more (and bibliographically detailed) catalogues of existing collections; if we had more studies of the distribution of type designs throughout Spain; if we knew much more about the origins and dates of introduction of the new eighteenth-century designs; and if we had more published catalogues of major collections of Spanish books in general, with printer indexes. This is a lot to ask, but in the computer age it is a good deal less than it was fifty years ago. (p. 120)

Much has changed since these words were written: recent research by Germán Vega García-Luengos indicates that in eighteenth-century Seville alone there were around 1500 suelta editions, involving 800 different titles (Vega 2009, 21–45). As for the total number of editions, there are, for example, forty-six known suelta editions prior to 1833 of La vida es sueño alone (if every Calderón play survives in an average of ten suelta editions, we reach the thousand mark for a single author). Consulting Fajardo (1717), we realise that many of the sueltas he lists have been lost (or, at best, are awaiting rediscovery). That is, of the standard print run of 1200–1500 copies, none is recorded: there can be no doubt now that sueltas were and are the commonest form of the texts of classical Spanish plays. We have more catalogues of them than we had, most of them supplying more information than before, even to the extent of providing images of the first pages (as in González Cañal, Cerezo Rubio and Vega García-Luengos, Bibliografía de Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla): this greatly facilitates the task of distinguishing one edition from another (González Cañal, Cereza Rubio & Vega 2007). A growing number of imprintless sueltas is being dated and assigned to printers, thanks in large part to the typographical studies of Jaime Moll (Moll 1994, 2011). Study of typographical design, in which scholars had to use the pioneering but dated work of Updike (1922, revised 1937), has now been carried by Albert Corbeto into the nineteenth century (Corbeto 2011). Finally, a major bibliographical step forward has been taken by the IB17 project, which seeks to record, on line, all items printed in Spain or in Spanish between 1601 and 1700 (it should be remembered, for example, that some Spanish-language sueltas were printed in Italy, Vienna and Amsterdam). Numerous small items of this century, including many sueltas, have no imprint and no date, a fact which highlights the need for more research on them, so that IB17 may include or exclude them on the basis of evidence rather than mere guesswork.

It may be objected that lots of sueltas, perhaps the vast majority, are simply reprints of earlier editions: they follow their predecessors page for page and line by line, omitting the same lines as the texts they were printed from, repeating the same obvious errors and adding new ones. This view is supported by the fact that some examples have survived which still carry ‘mark-up’ to allow them to serve as copy for new editions. The danger here is that some suelta editions, conveniently dated, have reprinted everything, including the date; but they can be identified typographically (Moll 1971, 263). Other sueltas, however, are the earliest known editions: thus Liverpool University Library preserves a nonce volume of single plays, one of them of the first version of La vida es sueño. The types used to print it belonged to Francisco de Lyra of Seville between 1632 and 1634, several years before the two versions were published, almost simultaneously, in the collected volumes of Diferentes autores XXX and Calderón’s own Primera parte (both of 1636) (Cruickshank 2007). Ostensibly, the first edition of Calderón’s La hija del aire II was his Tercera parte of 1664; but the real first is the text printed in Diferentes XLII, a volume made up of sueltas and dated 1650—and typographical evidence shows that this date is correct (Cruickshank 1984). The same Tercera parte includes Mañanas de abril y mayo, but the first edition is a suelta preserved in Freiburg University Library, which is printed in the types belonging to Nicolás Rodríguez de Abrego of Seville, around 1650 (Cruickshank 2000).

It might be thought that the textual problems posed by sueltas can be solved relatively simply, by identifying the early ones: once an undated suelta has been assigned to a period much later than the traditional first edition, it can supposedly be forgotten about. This is not so, however. El príncipe constante appeared in Calderón’s Primera parte in 1636. Freiburg University Library has a volume calling itself Escogidas VI (‘1654’), composed of twelve sueltas, one of them of this play. The volume was assembled much later than 1654, however, for one of the sueltas is of the 1720s, and another, of the period 1664–1676. The suelta of El príncipe constante has so far resisted precise dating, but it seems to be of around 1650 (i.e., significantly later than 1636). The recent doctoral thesis of Isabel Hernando reveals that this unpromising edition is unique in preserving the correct forms of proper names used in Calderón’s historical source, a fact which suggests that its other unique readings are probably also correct: it has a branch of the textual tree all to itself (the dissertation, which includes an edition of the play, is now at press). This suelta is not the princeps, but it derives from an earlier text, now lost, which had managed to preserve readings not found anywhere else. It is even clearer than it was in 1991 that the conscientious editor cannot afford to ignore any suelta editions of his or her play.

We may think that suelta editions will be discovered in small provincial collections, but it is clear that even well-known libraries have still got work to do in cataloguing ephemera such as sueltas.

All these examples are from Calderón. However, while it may turn out to be true that Calderón’s plays prompted more sueltas than those of any other author, textually important suelta editions are being identified for other authors.

If any of the now lost titles listed by Fajardo and others are recovered, they are more likely to be found in suelta format than in any other. We may think that these will be discovered in small provincial collections, even private ones, but it is clear that even well-known libraries, especially the older ones, have still got work to do in cataloguing ephemera such as sueltas. This is true even of the Biblioteca Nacional de España: Germán Vega’s discovery there of a large group (thirty) of unrecorded sueltas, by various authors, dates back only to 1994 (Vega 1994). These are not merely unknown editions: most of the thirty are unknown texts, although the titles of many had appeared in the lists of Fajardo and Medel. One of them, he has argued, is the truncated remnant of a play written by Calderón and Antonio Coello about Wallenstein, which had to be taken off when the news reached Madrid of Wallenstein’s treason, and the text of which had apparently been lost (Vega 2001).

I also said, back in 1991, that a good deal of time could be saved by using printed sources. This was true enough at the time, since suelta catalogues obviated the need to search in the catalogues of whole libraries, many of which offered little more than author, title, format and call number: a tedious process (the call number was usually correct, but another feature of classical plays, and of suelta editions in particular, is the unreliability of authors’ names and even of titles). On the other hand, searching through the printed sources was only slightly less tedious: stretching the definition of ‘suelta catalogue’, I was able to list thirty-one of these in 1991. Almost half of this number involved collections preserved in the United States or Canada. What was needed was some kind of union catalogue, of this large group at least. Now we have a 21st-centuryversion of such a catalogue: a website.

A catalogue which illustrates, as this one does, the first and last pages of a suelta, tells us around 95% of what we need to know about it; the collation will tell us most of the rest. First, we shall be able to identify similar but different editions. Unless the running headlines are set in different fonts from the one on the last page, or the ends of Acts I and II differ typographically from that of Act III, or the beginnings of Acts II and III differ from that of Act I (all of this is unlikely), we shall be able to identify virtually all the typographical material. We shall be able to notice damaged sorts, especially in the larger faces, and find them in other sueltas. While this may not help us to identify printers in the short term, when individual damaged sorts are discovered in items with imprint and date, we may be able to attribute whole groups of sueltas.

Printers gradually became aware of the importance of advertising, eventually using wording such as ‘Se hallará en la librería de X, en la calle de Y, … asimismo un gran surtido de comedias antiguas y modernas, tragedias, sainetes y unipersonales’.

Many eighteenth-century sueltas have an imprint, and most of these include a date, but sueltas with neither predominate in the seventeenth century (the arbitrary dividing-point of 1700 is still useful). Printers gradually became aware of the importance of advertising, at first by adding their names, then their addresses, and eventually used wording such as ‘Se hallará en la librería de X, en la calle de Y, …asimismo un gran surtido de comedias antiguas y modernas, tragedias, sainetes y unipersonales’. Such sueltas are rarely problematic: the problematic ones are those that have none of this. However, even a suelta with no such details can tell us a great deal. The main sources of information are spelling, typographical style, format, signatures, series numbers, the manner of numbering the pages, the running headlines and the types used.

In spelling, the use of ‘y’ (‘yr’, ‘Luys’) is invariably early (especially initial ‘y’); so is ‘ç’ for ‘z’, ‘vn’ for ‘un’, ‘x’ for ‘j’ (‘dixo’), ‘g’ for ‘j’ (‘sugecion’), ‘ss’ for ‘s’, or latinate spellings such as ‘assumpto’. Not all of these early forms died out at the same time.

Typographical style includes layout, which includes white paper. As time went on, printers crammed the text ever more tightly, trying to avoid ‘wasting’ blank space. Early sueltas used pica (12-point) for the text, usually cast at about 80–84mm/20lines, although sizes of 85–88mm were common in the second half of the seventeenth century. Small pica (70–75mm/20 lines) began to be used late in the century for whole texts or, especially in Madrid, for compressing a gathering or a page or two of text to make it fit a gathering neatly. Long primer (66–69mm/20 lines) was used in Seville as early as the 1670s, and continued to be common there for another century. The use of smaller type enabled compositors to set two columns of hendecasyllables per page, instead of one, and eventually to set three columns of octosyllables where two had been the norm. Swash letters, including even lower-case letters like ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘r’, when the ‘tail’ indicated a full stop, were common in the sixteenth century, and persisted in Spain in the first half of the seventeenth. First to go were the lower-case letters, and the ‘d’ with a cross-bar (= de). Swash capitals became increasingly sporadic, but persisted much longer, as did ‘q’ plus tilde (for ‘que’).

In early sueltas, whose printers were less concerned about space, we are more likely to find decorative woodblock tailpieces or metal ornaments such as leaves, hands, stars, arabesques, although some eighteenth-century ones may have columns of ornaments between the columns of text. There are exceptions, though: the Orga dynasty of Valencia used a trademark row of ornaments between the dramatis personae and the act-heading.

Most of the fonts used in seventeenth-century Spain were of the sixteenth century, produced in France or the Spanish Netherlands. These had no J or U, and tended to have three different accents on vowels (á, à, â). By the 1670s, Seville printers had access to J and U in an increasing mumber of fonts. Madrid printers took longer, but any suelta with the setting IORNADA SEGVNDA is most unlikely to be after 1700; a suelta which mixes all three accents indifferently is more likely to be early: the circumflex accent was weeded out long before the grave. Typesetters of plays need far more examples of ? and ! than is the case with most texts, and more upper-case letters: we often see the earlier ones, running low on punctuation, using sorts from other fonts, or semi-colons upside-down for queries: and they will borrow italic capitals. Again, this dies out by 1700, although we can often identify printers from their different improvisations. In 1685–86 the Burgundian punch-cutter Pedro Disses prepared a total of seven faces: two-line paragon caps, two-line great primer caps, two-line pica caps, printer’s flowers, St Agustine roman, and italic and roman great primer (Cruickshank 1982–83; Moll 2013). The text types were not a huge success, but the three designs of capitals were used by printers in Madrid, Andalucía and even the New World. If any of these designs turns up in items dated prior to 1684 (such as the fake edition of Calderón’s Séptima parte, ‘1683’), we know the items are fraudulent.

It is probably misleading to think in terms of ‘house style’ before 1700, but the practice of using standing type for wording common to all sueltas (COMEDIA FAMOSA, Personas que hablan en ella, IORNADA PRIMERA, etc.) meant that sueltas produced by the same compositor were stylistically alike. If standing type can de identified in such sueltas (either by damaged individual sorts, supplemented by measurement of the ‘set’, i.e., width), it may enable us to group them in the hope of identifying the printer of one of them, and so of all the group.

Sueltas printed before ca. 1635 are much more likely to use quarto in eights, i.e. two sheets (eight quarto leaves) per gathering. This is technically more complex than setting in fours, and the simpler format became gradually more widespread after 1630. It was still being used for larger items into the eighteenth century, but by 1700 all, or virtually all, sueltas were in fours. If the first four leaves of an eight-leaf gathering have been signed correctly (A, A2, A3, A4), there is no need to sign any of the others for the convenience of the binders, but the practice of signing one or more of them persisted sporadically until the 1650s.

Series numbers for pliegos sueltos have been traced back to 1592, but a century went by before the book trade applied the concept to sueltas. A suelta with a series number (at the top of the first page) is most unlikely to be before 1690.

Foliation (as opposed to pagination), especially when ‘Fol. 1’ appears on the first leaf, is usually early, although many sueltas have no numbering of any kind on the pages. As for running headlines, they are perhaps the least useful evidence. The commonest type used for them is the italic of the text, although early sueltas often use a larger size of roman. Occasionally, italic (all caps) was used, but it is hard to see a useful chronology in this.

Finally, it is relatively common for early (before 1640) sueltas to note the name of the company manager who performed the play (the suelta of La vida es sueño referred to earlier, for example, carries the wording Representòla Christoual de Auendaño). The name of the autor de comedias may help us date the play, and its presence in the printed text helps us date the edition.

Works cited

Blanco White, José. Cartas de España. Trans. Antonio Garnica. Madrid: Alianza, 1972.

Corbeto, Albert. Daniel B. Updike y la historia de la tipografía en España. 2 vols. Vol. 1, Daniel B. Updike: impresor e historiador de la tipografía. Vol. 2, Los tipos de imprenta en España. Valencia: Campgràfic, 2011.

Cruickshank, D. W. “Some Problems Posed by Suelta Editions of Plays.” Editing the comedia II. Ed. Michael McGaha and Frank P. Casa. Ann Arbor: Michigan Romance Studies, 1991. 97–98.

———. “The Second Part of La hija del aire.” Golden-Age Studies in Honour of A. A. Parker. Ed. Ann L. Mackenzie. Spec. issue of Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 61 (1984): 286–94.

———. “The Text of Calderón’s Mañanas de abril y mayo.” Calderón: Protagonista eminente del barroco europeo; un volumen homenaje en el Cuarto Centenario. Ed. Kurt Reichenberger and Roswitha Reichenberger. Kassel: Reichenberger, 2000. 249–69.

———. “The Types of Pedro Disses, Punchcutter.” Journal of the Printing Historical Society 17 (1982–83): 72–91.

———. “‘Ya no eran mías las que lo fueron’: Le rôle de l’éditeur dans le théâtre espagnol du Siècle d’Or.” Le Parnasse du théâtre: Les receuils d’oeuvres complètes de théâtre au XVIIe siècle. Ed. Georges Forestier, Edric Caldicott, and Claude Bourqui. Paris: Presses Universitaires de Paris-Sorbonne, 2007. 45–58.

Fajardo, Juan Isidro. Índice de todas las comedias impresas hasta el año de 1716. MSS/14706, Biblioteca Nacional de España. Biblioteca Digital Hispánica. Biblioteca Nacional de España, n.d. Web.

González Cañal, Rafael, Ubaldo Cereza Rubio, and Germán Vega García-Luengos. Bibliografía de Francisco de Rojas Zorrilla. Teatro del Siglo de Oro, Bibliografías y Catálogos 46. Kassel: Reichenberger, 2007.

Greg, W. W. A Bibliography of the English Printed Drama to the Restoration. 4 vols. London: The Bibliographical Society, 1939–59.

López, François. “Une édition fantôme de Calderón (Pour une histoire de la comedia suelta).” Hommage à Robert Jammes. Ed. Francis Cerdan. Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 1994. 2:707–19.

Moll, Jaime. De la imprenta al lector: Estudios sobre el libro español de los siglos XVI al XVIII. Madrid: Arco, 1994.

———. “Diez años sin licencias para imprimir comedias y novelas en los reinos de Castilla: 1625–1634.” Boletín de la Real Academica Española 54 (1974), 97–103.

———. “Las letrerías grabadas por Pedro Disses.” Bulletin of Spanish Studies 90 (2013): 767–85.

———. “Las nueve partes de Calderón editadas en comedias sueltas (Barcelona, 1763–1767).” Boletín de la Real Academia Española 51 (1971): 259–302.

———. Problemas bibliográficos del Siglo de Oro. Madrid: Arco, 2011.

———. “Un tomo facticio de pliegos sueltos y el origen de las ‘relaciones de comedias.’” Segismundo, 12 (1976), 143–67.

Urzáiz Tortajada, Héctor. Catálogo de autores teatrales del siglo XVII. Investigaciones Bibliográficas sobre Autores Españoles 5. 2 vols. Madrid: Fundación Universitaria Española, 2002.

Vega García-Luengos, Germán. “Calderón y la política internacional: las comedias sobre el héroe y traidor Wallenstein.” Calderón de la Barca y la España del Barroco. Ed. José Alcalá Zamora and Ernest Belenguer. 2 vols. Madrid: Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales/So­ciedad Estatal España Nuevo Milenio, 2001. 2:793–827.

———. “La investigación sobre los formatos del teatro español del siglo XVII en la imprenta.” Bibliologia 4 (2009): 21–45.

———. “Treinta comedias deconocidas de Ruiz de Alarcón, Mira de Amescua, Vélez de Guevara, Rojas Zorrilla y otras de los mejores ingenios de España.” Criticón 62 (1994): 57–78.


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