The literal meaning, from the Latin actus sacramentales, is "sacramental plays." Though variant types exist, an auto (as it was often called in abbreviation) may be defined as a one-act play presenting, with personified abstractions as characters, an allegorical action about ideas closely or loosely related to the Holy Eucharist, and, from the 16th to the 18th century, performed in Castilian Spanish during the Octave of Corpus Christi before outdoor audiences.
The institution of the Feast of corpus et sanguini s christi by Urban IV in 1264 gave Christendom a new holy day, rooted in dogma and conducive of joy. It was characterized early by street processions in which the Host, attended by the clergy, was borne from the sanctuary for public adoration. In Spain the procession also featured less solemn marchers—giants, dancers, and figures of fantastic animals. Floats carried statues representing biblical or allegorical scenes; in time the statues were replaced by men, who gradually relaxed their frozen postures, and performed slight choreographic movements. Eventually, at the stations, or stopping places, of the procession, the masqueraders acted, first in dumb show and then with improvised speech, the scenes they had portrayed as tableaux vivants. Drama had entered the procession, and from this stage to the presentation of written sacramental plays was but a short step.
By the end of the 15th century, Spain, unlike other European countries, was still producing only simple liturgical dramas based on the Officium pastorum. But she progressed rapidly in the 16th century. Out of these primitive works emerged piece by piece the great secular and religious theater of the golden age. The autos sacramentales were but one of several lines of development. The Officium pastorum plays had three parts: the appearance of the shepherds, the angel's announcement of the birth of Christ, and the adoration of the shepherds. In the plays that anticipate the autos, the angel is replaced by a hermit or a friar, who answers the questions of the simple shepherds. The next step was to substitute for the learned informant a personification of Faith. Meanwhile, the shepherds had themselves become individuated and made to represent some idea. The plays became wholly allegorized.
By the 17th century it was customary, in the capital and other large cities, to erect trestle stages in the plazas. Huge wagons, on which elaborate scenery had been constructed, were drawn up around the stage. After each performance the wagons, bearing the props and actors, would move to the next plaza. Performances of as many as four plays might be given each day in four locations. The city commissioned poets to write autos and bore the cost of the entire production. Intercity rivalry led to lavish expenditures. The actors, men and women, were professionals from the secular theater, attracted to the autos by their devotion and the financial rewards. In addition to the fees, the municipality offered a substantial prize to the best troupe. Dignitaries sat near the stage; the citizenry was free to stand and watch. The poetry was often lost in the hubbub, and action and spectacle were thus almost as important as the words. The autos were the main contribution of the civic authorities to the religious feast.
Allegory was the proper form for a Eucharistic play. A Sacrament, says St. Thomas, is signum rei sacrae, and a sign serves per nota ad ignota pervenire. The autos played their part in helping man to grasp the unknown through analogy with the known. During the 16th century the allegorization process continued in the works of Diego Sánchez (before 1550), the 100 anonymous plays of the Códice de autos viejos (c. 1575), and the autos written or edited by Juan de Timoneda (d. 1583). The genre approached its maturity in the works of Lope de vega and José de Valdivielso (1560?–1638). These dramatists wrote essentially penitential autos, designed to move spectators to compunction, Confession, and Communion. Their autos were not yet great intellectual constructions illuminating with poetic intuitions the mysteries of theology.
It was left to Calderón to raise the autos to these heights. Interpreting the Eucharist as an all-embracing Sacrament, Calderén explored, in daring allegories, a wide range of dogmatic themes. An abundance of allegorical personifications—Judaism, Nature, Grace, Thought, Beauty, Night—carry the profound religious action. His art was best described by the poet himself: "Sermons set in verse, problems of Sacred Theology set in representable ideas, which my words cannot explain or comprehend, inclining man to joyfulness on this Corpus Christi day." With Calderón's enormous production—some 80 autos— the sacramental play reached its perfection.
Rationalists in the 18th century found the autos in-comprehensible and irreverent, and in 1765 Carlos III banned their performance. Since that time autos have survived in occasional performances only as archaic curiosities.
Bibliography: e. gonzÁlez pedroso, ed., Autos sacramentales (Biblioteca de Autores Españoles 58; Madrid 1865). p. calderÓn de la barca, Autos sacramentales, ed. a. valbuena prat, 2 v. (Clásicos Castellanos 69 and 74; Madrid 1926–27); "The Great Theatre of the World," tr. m. h. singleton in Masterpieces of the Spanish Golden Age, ed. a. flores (pa. New York 1957) 368–395. b. w. wardropper, Introducción al teatro religioso del Siglo de Oro (La evolución del auto sacramental: 1500–1648 ) (Madrid 1953). a. a. parker, The Allegorical Drama of Calderón (New York 1943).
[b. w. wardropper/eds.]