Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Notes on Spain's Golden Age

Early Spanish Drama

During the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain asserted its power across the globe. It dominated Europe, conquered much of the Americas, and established footholds in Africa and Asia. Spanish literature and the arts flourished, and the theatre in Spain came into its own. Religious dramas grew into elaborate pageants called autos sacramentales that celebrated the sacraments of the Church. Secular drama, influenced by French farces and Italian commedia dell'arte, spread across the peninsula. These plays were frequently performed by traveling troupes that could consist of anything from a single actor reciting stock pieces to refined companies with as many as sixteen actors.

Both men and women acted, though there were fewer actresses on stage, and boys frequently played the lesser female roles. The most famous of these early strolling players was Lope de Rueda, the son of a goldsmith who rose to fame as an actor in the middle of the sixteenth century. He was famous for playing comic characters and also wrote many of his own plays. These works ranged from full-length sweeping dramas to short farces called pasos, for which he was most famous. Popular folk humor was the basis for many of these pasos, including The Olives, a play about a husband and wife arguing over how much to charge for olives that will grow from a newly planted shoot.

One of the many people to see Rueda was Miguel de Cervantes, who later recalled that when he was a boy he had witnessed the great actor perform a play on a simple stage made up of four or five boards on benches with a blanket used as a backdrop. Cervantes later became famous for his novel Don Quixote, but before that, he wrote numerous plays, including the four-act historical drama The Siege of Numantia. The play uses allegorical figures such as War, Hunger, Pestilence, and Fame, as well as historical figures like the Roman general Scipio. There are plenty of opportunities for pageantry, such as a woman representing Spain entering crowned with towers and bearing a castle in her hand. Stage directions also call for complicated special effects, including shooting off rockets to represent lightning and rolling a tub full of stones to create the sound of thunder.

In between the acts of such serious plays, performers often staged interludes called entermeses. Later on in his career, Cervantes published eight of these entermeses. One of the more famous of these, The Vigilant Sentinel, shows the author's ironic stance toward soldiers and chivalric values. In the play, a soldier courts a kitchen maid, chasing away any men who might even possibly be rivals. In spite of his efforts (or perhaps because of them) she rejects his suit and marries instead a sacristan who knows nothing of the arts of war.

The Spanish Stage 

The improvised stages of traveling players continued throughout the Golden Age of Spanish drama. However, the larger cities in Spain established permanent playhouses. In 1574, the Italian architect Giovanni Bellini built Spain's first permanent theatre of the period in Seville. Others followed in Cordoba, Valencia, Madrid, and elsewhere. Spanish theatres tended to be built in preexisting courtyards, earning them the name corrales. In the town of Almagro, one of these corrales still exists and is used for theatre even today.

On one side of the corrale was the stage, which had a balcony or balconies for entrances from above. The Siege of Numantia calls for a character to leap from a tower, an effect likely achieved using one of these balconies. Like public theaters in England, these stages had few scenic elements, which allowed actors to travel across miles or years in the space of a few lines. Audience members wishing to be seen could sit on stage for an additional fee, occupying areas to the side of the stage referred to as mountains. At the back of the stage was frequently a discovery space where a curtain could open to reveal additional characters or a new scene.

Directly in front of the stage was an open courtyard known as the patio. Originally men stood in this area, though gradually theatres added benches. Only men were allowed in the patio, and these were the rowdy, lower-class playgoers known as mosqueteros. Frequently, it was the mosqueteros who decided the success or failure of a play, and writers were obliged to please them. If the mosqueteros did not like a play, they hissed and whistled until it could not be heard.

Facing the stage was an elevated gallery for women, who were kept separate from the rough men in the patio. This area, known as the cazuela, or "stew pot," had benches that were frequently fought over by the female playgoers. To sit in the front, where a woman could be easily seen by men, was considered brazen, but it was hard to see from the back rows, so women came early to the theatre to get one of the middle seats. Sometimes, there was another level above the cazuela reserved for dignitaries. Below the cazuela was typically the refreshment stand, or alojeria, which also sent sellers up to the cazuela to hawk snacks.

On either side of the patio were rows of seats rising up at an incline. These were known as the gradas, and an extra charge was required for these seats. Unfortunately, many playgoers felt they were entitled to such seats--and indeed to admission period--without paying. It was a constant struggle to keep order in the gradas as well as the patio. Also, actors did not own the corrales. They were either paid a flat fee or kept only a portion of the admission charge, so freeloaders could cut painfully into the income of performers.

Above the gradas were boxes known as aposentos. These originally connected to the houses on either side of the courtyard in which the corrale was built. They sometimes had private entrances through the houses, which led to complex arrangements with the homeowners, who typically took a cut of the admission for these seats. The aposentos were the only places where women and men could sit together, but a respectable woman would only go to the theatre in the company of family members. The top levels of aposentos were sometimes called attics, or desvanes.

Originally, theatres only performed plays on Sundays and during religious festivals, but beginning in 1579 authorities began making exceptions. Performances were not allowed at all during Lent, however, or during periods of national mourning. The corrales had to shut down for the hottest part of the summer, and they were closed as a matter of course during plagues or wars. This meant they could remain open fewer than 200 days out of the year. Since the corrales were open to the sky, rain could also spoil a performance.

Lope de Vega

The one man who shaped Spanish Golden Age drama more than anyone else was the playwright Lope de Vega. Born in Madrid in 1562, he came to write literally hundreds of plays and became so famous that most critics are now on a first-name basis with him, referring to him simply as Lope. Lope studied at the University of Alcala, but never completed his degree. He became a soldier and fought in numerous military expeditions, including the ill-fated Spanish Armada that launched in 1588 to invade England. Lope's ship was one of the few to make it back to Spain, an example of his prodigious good luck, which got him out of numerous scrapes and close calls throughout his life.

Before Lope's time, Spanish plays had any number of acts. Lope, however, found that three acts worked best for him. Once he established three acts as the standard for himself, both his tremendous skill and incredible output led other Spanish writers to adopt the three-act form as well. He specialized is so-called cape and sword dramas, which valued swashbuckling action and ingenious plot twists over complex characterizations or overly decorous poetry. This led many critics to attack his plays, frequently citing his failure to follow neoclassical rules.

In response, Lope published The New Art of Writing Plays for Our Time in 1609. Written in verse, this defense of free and inventive playwriting imitates the informal style of Horace's Ars Poetica. Though Lope apologizes for breaking neoclassical rules, he slyly counters that had he followed those rules his plays would not have been nearly so popular. While abasing himself before classical scholars, he also throws in jabs about how he actually has experience writing plays, and very successful ones at that. Anyone who does not like his plays need not come see them, he notes.

The New Art also gives a great deal of practical advice about playwriting. It recommends writing each act on no more than four sheets of paper, as any more would test the patience of the audience. Rather than condemning the entire play to take place in a single day, the poem recommends confining each act to a single day. The first act should set out the matter of the play, and the second act should weave together events, but only in such a manner that the audience will not be able to guess the outcome. Only in the final scene should the play's ending become apparent.

Unlike English drama, which settled upon blank verse as the standard poetic form for writing plays, Spanish Golden Age drama was written in a variety of styles. In fact, the verse form typically changed throughout a single play. The New Art suggests fitting the verse form to the mood of each scene. For instance, complaining characters should use ten-line stanzas called decimas. A character waiting in anticipation might speak in a sonnet, while grave matter might be related in three-line tercets.

One of Lope's most famous plays is Fuenteovejuna. The play is inspired by actual events in the town of Fuenteovejuna, whose name roughly translates to "The Sheep's Well." A sadistic commander torments the town, raping and torturing villagers with impunity. Eventually, a group of villagers kill the commander, and the king orders that the murderers be punished. Even under torture, however, the villagers refuse to name names, calling out only, "Fuenteovejuna did it!" Lope depicted an even more famous event from Spanish history in The New World Discovered by Christopher Columbus.

Another play, The Dog in the Manger (or The Gardener's Dog), plays off of an old fable about a dog who will not eat hay but refuses to let others eat it, either. In the play, a noble woman falls in love with her secretary. While she does not want to marry him, she prevents him from marrying anyone else until a wily servant tricks everyone into thinking the secretary is the long-lost son of a noble. Lope created a darker outcome for The Knight of Olmedo, the story of a virtuous gentlemen who beats all of his rivals to win the heart of a lady in Medina. Out of revenge, the spurned lovers shoot and kill him as he is riding back to Olmedo.

Lope's reputation was beginning to fade when at the age of 68 he wrote the play Justice Without Revenge (sometimes titled in English Lost in a Mirror). At the time he wrote it, his daughter Marcela had already gone mad and was in the process of slowly dying. Though honor prevails in the play, it is at a great price, and the dark, passionate drama won new respect for Lope. Justice Without Revenge has many parallels with Jacobean revenge tragedy, and in fact Lope wrote his own version of the events depicted in Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. In Lope's The Duchess of Amalfi's Steward, however, the mood tends to be pastoral until the play's bloody final act.

Lope's Contemporaries

Though Lope dominated the stage during his lifetime, Spain's Golden Age produced a number of other important plays and playwrights. The author Guillen de Castro transformed the epic Spanish poem The Cid into the play The Youthful Deeds of the Cid, which came in turn to inspire the French playwright Pierre Corneille. Castro also wrote plays based on classical mythology as well as some inspired by the prose of Cervantes. Lope dedicated one of his plays to him, and he dedicated the first volume of his plays to Lope's daughter. Unfortunately, Castro was not as successful as his friend, and he died in poverty.

The friar Gabriel Tellez, better known by his pseudonym Tirso de Molina, wrote a number of popular plays around the same time as Lope. His most famous work, The Trickster of Seville, introduced to literature the character of Don Juan, a charismatic womanizer who devotes his life to seducing women. In the play, Don Juan kills the father of a young woman he has seduced and later invites the dead man to supper. When the father does show up, Don Juan is dragged off to hell without the chance of repenting of his sins. Playwrights from Moliere to George Bernard Shaw to David Ives have retold the classic story, though often lending it very different interpretations.

The Mexican-born Juan Ruis de Alarcon churned out about 25 of plays, including The Suspicious Truth, about a compulsive liar. Like Castro, Alarcon later influenced Corneille. He was a friend of Cervantes, but won the enmity of Lope, who lampooned him. A short, hunchbacked redhead, Alarcon stood out in Spanish society. Eventually, however, he was appointed to the Royal Council of the Indies and achieved relative stability through his position in government.

By far the most important of Lope's contemporaries was Pedro Calderon de la Barca. By the time Calderon was born in 1600, Lope had already established himself as a playwright, so while the two were contemporaries, Calderon came from a very different generation. While Lope developed Spanish drama from its rough-and-tumble origins to the form it would take throughout the Golden Age, it was Calderon who refined it and brought out its poetry. Lope was the more influential writer, but most critics today consider Calderon to be the better dramatists. In fact, when Lope died in 1635, the young Calderon had already surpassed him in reputation.


Like Lope, Calderon was born in Madrid. He was fortunate enough to receive a Jesuit education, but after his father died, Calderon was orphaned at the age of 15. He later studied law at the University of Salamanca. In 1622, he entered a poetry competition in honor of Saint Isidore, who was in the process of being canonized. Not only did Calderon's poetry win first place, it was specifically praised by Lope, who was one of the judges in the competition.

Shortly after that, Calderon's plays began appearing in the corrales. One early play, The Constant Prince, tells the story of the historical Prince Ferdinand of Portugal, who died imprisoned in Morocco due to Portugal's decision not to hand over the city of Ceuta to Muslim forces. The play is notable for its sympathetic portrayal of many Muslim characters, even though Christian forces are ultimately victorious. The role of Ferdinand is demanding, both emotionally and physically, as the young prince is systematically (and willingly) tortured to death. In the twentieth century, the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski used the play to create one of his most famous productions.

In 1635, Calderon wrote his most famous play Life Is a Dream. The play follows the fictional Segismundo, the heir to the throne of Poland. Sigismundo's father, King Basilio, imprisoned the prince due to a prophesy he would bring disaster to the country. Having a change of heart, the king tests Segismundo, bringing him to the palace, but when the prince behaves abominably, King Basilio has him drugged and brought back to his cell where he is told the whole experience was a dream. In the third act, Calderon introduces new plot twists that leave a reformed Segismundo wondering whether all life might indeed be but a dream.

Though most critics consider Life Is a Dream to be Calderon's masterpiece, he continued to produce exceptional works for years afterward. His play The Mighty Magician influenced Goethe's Faust. In such dark plays as The Doctor of His Own Honor Calderon drew out traditions of honor in Spanish society to fantastic and chilling extremes. In 1651, Calderon became a priest. That same year, he wrote The Mayor of Zalamea, one of his last great secular plays.

After taking Holy Orders, Calderon focused on writing explicitly religious plays, the autos sacramentales for Corpus Christi and other religious feasts. However, the king asked him to write entertainments for the court, and Calderon could scarcely refuse. Teaming up with the composer Juan Hidalgo de Polanco, Calderon helped to create a new operatic form for the king, the zarzuela. These pieces are partially spoken and partially sung. Today, the zarzuela remains a popular dramatic form in Spain and many Spanish-speaking countries.

Autos Sacramentales

Autos sacramentales during the Golden Age of Spain could take many forms. Some told biblical stories, like mystery plays. Others recounted miracles or the lives of saints, like miracle plays. Most frequently, however, they contained allegorical figures similar to those found in morality plays. In any case, the finest dramatists available, including both Lope and Calderon, were chosen to write the plays.

Though older plays were sometimes revived, from 1647 to 1681 all of the autos sacramentales performed in Madrid were new works commissioned especially from Calderon. In fact, when Calderon died in 1681, he was writing one of the auto sacramentales for that year's Corpus Christi celebration. Of Calderon's many plays of this type, the most famous is The Great Theatre of the World. The play portrays God as a theatre director who casts individuals as King, Female Beauty, Rich Man, Poor Man, Worker, Discretion, and Unborn Child. God asks each to act his or her part as well as possible then sends them each to a final judgment.

The actors for these plays processed through the streets on two-story wagons called carros. There were usually two carros for each play, and actors would descend onto an acting area for the performance. The acting areas were originally also on wagons, though they were later replaced by fixed stages in various parts of the city. In addition to performing the autos sacramentales, actors danced and sometimes put on short farces, much to the dismay of religious conservatives. In 1765, the government officially banned the plays.

New World Performance

As Spain's culture spread throughout its empire, Spanish theatre spread as well. In the Americas, Spanish theatre blended together with indigenous theatrical practices. In Guatemala, the theatrical dance known as the Rabinal Achi became associated with the Feast of Saint Paul on January 25. Also known as The Dance of the Trumpets, it is still performed annually in the town of Rabinal on that day. The dialogue of the play is in Mayan, and the story recounts events prior to the conquest by Spain. Still, the fact that it came to be associated with a Christian religious holiday shows that there were attempts to bring together Spanish and indigenous cultures.

Given that indigenous Americans often already had theatrical traditions, many Christian missionaries found theatre to be an effective tool for evangelization. Beginning in the 1530s, the Spanish began performing their own plays in the Americas. These performances were usually religious in nature and frequently occurred on feasts such as Corpus Christi, as they did in Spain. The first great Spanish playwright to be born in the Americas was Juana Ines de la Cruz, a highly educated nun generally known as Sor Juana. Born in present-day Mexico, Sor Juana wrote both secular and religious plays and is considered the founder of Latin American drama.

The illegitimate daughter of a Spanish captain and a Mexican woman of Spanish descent, Sor Juana learned to read and write Spanish at an early age. By the time she was a teenager, she knew Latin and Greek as well. She joined the court of the viceroy of New Spain, but in spite of receiving numerous marriage proposals there, she chose instead to enter a convent. Finding the rules in that convent did not agree with her, Sor Juana left after a few months, but in 1669 she entered another convent run by the Order of St. Jerome, where she remained until her death. It was there that she composed her best-known works, including most of her plays.

Sor Juana wrote (or at least collaborated on) some secular plays, but more critics have been drawn to her autos sacramentales. The most famous of her religious plays is The Divine Narcissus, a complex allegory of faith. The play contains a short introductory piece called a loa. In her loa to The Divine Narcissus, Sor Juana portrays the conquest of the New World in allegorical terms. Occident and America are shown worshipping the God of Seeds, but are overcome by Religion and Zeal. Though Zeal wishes to slay America, Religion promises to convert the pagans by means of the play that follows.

The loa to The Divine Narcissus shows just how ambitious a writer Sor Juana was. Unfortunately, her plays were mostly forgotten before the twentieth-century poet Octavio Paz brought renewed attention to Sor Juana's work. Today, however, historians credit Sor Juana with laying the foundations of all Latin American drama that was to come. The roots of drama in the Americas extend back much further than the nineteenth-century, as past historians might have us believe. Instead, the Golden Age of Spain quite clearly extended to the Western Hemisphere, having a lasting impact on the other side of the globe.