Out of the Wings

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El gran teatro del mundo (1633-1648), Pedro Calderón de la Barca

English title: The Great Theatre of the World
Date written: sometime between 1633 and 1648
First production date: 1649
Keywords: morality, morality > vice-virtue, identity > class/social standing, identity > hierarchy, ideology > religion and faith, love, art > theatre > metatheatre
Genre and type: auto sacramental

In this one-act religious play Calderón takes the world-as-stage metaphor literally; God, as the Director and Producer, commissions human life as a play in His honour. The World is his stage-manager and he casts all of human society, represented by the King, the Rich Man, the Poor Man, the Worker, Female Beauty, Discretion and the Unborn Baby. The characters play their parts as well as they can before facing their Director’s final judgment. Complete with music and a poetic register typical of Calderón’s finest verse, this short play dramatises the allegory of the world-as-stage in a carefully structured human drama.


God, the Director, commissions a play for the purpose of celebrating His glory and greatness. He chooses His acting company, assigning each player a social role to play: He casts the King, Female Beauty, the Rich Man, the Poor Man and the Worker (or Farmer), along with another woman, Discretion, and the Unborn Baby. Although those less fortunate in their parts (the Worker and the Poor Man) protest that the seemingly arbitrary hierarchy is unfair, the Director (God) assures them that He is just as pleased with the representation of the part of the Rich as that of the Poor, so long as each plays his part well. The World is the stage manager, doling out the costumes and props appropriate to each role. The cast are not allowed to rehearse the play but must begin to perform immediately, as there is no rehearsal for human life. The two women are contrasted: Beauty enjoys the pleasures of the world, while Discretion stays with her mind turned to God and religion. The Rich Man is contrasted with the Poor Man, and the Worker complains of his unwillingness to work and the difficulty of his labour.

In turn, each character asks how to play his/her part best, and the Law of Grace responds to them: ‘Do good works, for God is God.’ The Poor Man is rejected by everyone as he seeks alms, apart from the Worker, who offers him his hoe so he too can work for a living. The Poor Man is offended, saying that work is not part of his role, as he is a beggar, not a worker, and calls the Worker cruel for not giving him alms. Discretion gives him bread, but then loses her balance; she is held up by the King, making the point that the state holds up religion like no one else can. God returns to remind everyone that he could step in to rectify the human faults he sees, but he insists on their free will and refrains from interfering.

The characters then take turns sharing stories. The King is first to speak, describing the immensity of his power. A Voice lets him know that his power has come to nothing, for it is the end of his life and his power will be taken from him when he dies; the King then dies, repentant of his sins. Beauty is next, claiming to have enraptured the souls of men, but the Voice tells her that human beauty is fleeting, and she dies wishing she had taken more care for her eternal soul. The Rich man reminds those who remain: ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’, and the poor man looks forward to his heavenly reward, having nothing but suffering to leave behind on the earth. As they pass through the door leading to death, the World reclaims all the jewels, clothes and props/possessions from the characters, for they must all be equal in the Director’s judgment.  ‘Dust to dust, ashes to ashes’. Even the Farmer’s hoe is returned to the World at the end.  However, Discretion is allowed to take her good works with her. The Director returns and judges each one: the Poor Man and Discretion are admitted to His banquet immediately, but the King and Beauty are left in Purgatory to work off their vainglory, before they are finally admitted to Heaven, along with the Worker, who was aided by indulgences sent from prayers and payments of those still alive on earth. The Unborn Baby is sent to Limbo, neither to be punished nor rewarded, for he’s committed no crimes or good works to earn either place. The Rich Man is the only one to be sent to Hell, to be tortured forever. The Director calls for a hymn, which will delight those in Heaven, offer hope to those in Purgatory, and torment those in Hell because they will never enjoy communion with God. Both the ‘play of human life’ and the short play end at this final judgment.


The notion that ‘all the world’s a stage’ was not introduced by this play; indeed Shakespeare’s As You Like It was not the first to employ the phrase either. Yet the way that Calderón uses the theme of theatrum mundi in this play is both structurally and ideologically masterful. Of the many places the playwright may have picked up the idea, scholars have suggested the work of Seneca and Quevedo’s translation of Epictetus as well as St. John Chrysostom. Jones (1976) has also suggested that Calderón may have been inspired by a sermon by Pedro de Valderrama (1550-1611), in which the orator compared life specifically to an auto sacramental, the type of play that El gran teatro del mundo happens to be. (See Jones 1976: 52-5). In any case, the notion of the ‘great theatre of the world’ was commonplace in the Golden Age—even the supposedly backward and illiterate Sancho Panza in Cervantes’ Don Quixote is familiar with the idea.

  • Jones, Harold G. 1976. ‘Calderón's El gran teatro del mundo: Two Possible Sources’, Journal of Hispanic Philology, 1, 51-60

Further information

There was a production of El gran teatro del mundo as part of the third centenary of Calderón’s death celebrations in Spain in 1981. For more information see Wheeler, 2008.

  • Wheeler, Duncan. 2008. ‘The Performance History of Golden-Age Drama in Spain (1939-2006)’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 60.2, 219-255

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 1974. El gran teatro del mundo. Ed. Domingo Ynduráin. Madrid, Istmo

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 1997. El gran teatro del mundo. Eds. John J. Allen and Domingo Ynduráin. Barcelona, Crítica

  • Calderón de la Barca, Pedro. 2001. El gran teatro del mundo; El gran mercado del mundo. Ed. Eugenio Frutos Cortés. Madrid, Cátedra

Useful readings and websites
  • Davis, Rick. 2004. ‘Calderón beyond the Dream: A Translator's Note’, Theater, 34, 1, 124-7 (available here: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theater/v034/34.1davis.html ) [accessed January 2010]

  • Johnson, Carroll B. 1997. ‘Social Roles and Ideology, Dramatic Roles and Theatrical Convention in El gran teatro del mundo’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 49, 2, 247-72

  • Jones, Harold G. 1976. ‘Calderón's El gran teatro del mundo: Two Possible Sources’, Journal of Hispanic Philology, 1, 51-60

  • Lipmann, Stephen. 1976. ‘ “Metatheater” and the Criticism of the Comedia’, Modern Language Notes, 91, 1, 231-46

  • MacLachlan, Elaine. 1960. Calderón's El gran teatro del mundo and the Counter-Reformation in Spain. Florence, Sansoni Antiquariato

  • McGarry, M. F. de Sales, Sister. 1937. The Allegorical and Metaphorical Language in the Autos sacramentales of Calderón. Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America

  • O'Connor, T. A. 1977. ‘Metatheater and the Comedia: A Further Comment’, Modern Language Notes, 92, 1, 336-8

  • Parker, Alexander A. 1943. The Allegorical Drama of Calderón. An Introduction to the Autos sacramentales. Oxford and London, Dolphin

  • Paun de García, Susan. 2006. ‘Sin telón: montando El gran teatro del mundo. Entrevista con Alejandro González Puche’, Comedia Performance, 3, 1, 165-84 (in Spanish)

    See Susan Paun de Garcia’s interview with a director of the play here: http://alejandropuche.blogspot.com/2007/04/el-gran-teatro-del-mundo-la-entrevista.html [accessed January 2010]

  • Vitse, Marc. 2006. ‘Métrica y estructura en El gran teatro del mundo de Calderón’. In La dramaturgia de Calderón: Técnicas y estructuras (Homenaje a Jesús Sepúlveda), eds. Ignacio Arellano and Enrica Cancelliere, pp. 609-24. Madrid, Iberoamericana and Frankfurt, Vervuert (in Spanish)

  • Wheeler, Duncan. 2008. ‘The Performance History of Golden-Age Drama in Spain (1939-2006)’, Bulletin of the Comediantes, 60.2, 219-255

Entry written by Kathleen Jeffs. Last updated on 4 October 2010.

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