Spanish and Portuguese

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The early modern period was a time of significant developments in the quality, quantity, and popularity of dramatic literature and performance across Europe. For Spain and Portugal, this period is known as the Golden Age of drama, when the works of hundreds of playwrights were performed daily to great acclaim on urban stages and by traveling companies all over the peninsula. Although plays were a popular form of entertainment throughout the Iberian Peninsula, the greatest playwrights and dramatic works are associated with Spain, and particularly Madrid, which became a cultural and artistic center after the court settled there in 1561. The best-known Spanish writers included Félix Lope de Vega Carpio (Lope de Vega; 15621635), who did the most to popularize drama and claimed to have written well over a thousand plays, and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (16001681), whose death is often considered the end of the Golden Age. For Portugal, the single outstanding figure was Gil Vicente (1465?1537?), whose work defined court theater in the early sixteenth century.

Golden Age drama drew on a range of native medieval traditions including vernacular folk ritual, Christian liturgical ceremony, and the secular pageantry of the elite. With the transition to the Renaissance, Italian traditions became influential as well, as scholars revived the elements of classical Latin drama. Many early Spanish Golden Age dramatic texts were drawn from Italian translations of Latin plays (particularly those of Plautus, Terence, and Seneca), and Spanish actors also borrowed from the Italian improvisational commedia dell'arte. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese playwrights emerged to make their own contributions; Juan del Encina and Bartoloméde Torres Naharro were the most influential of these early playwrights in establishing the structure and form of Golden Age drama.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, drama evolved into genres distinguished by content and setting. One form was the theater of the court, performed in the various royal residences of Portugal and Spain by professional actors and by the members of the court themselves. These spectacle plays often drew on classical and allegorical themes and featured elaborate scenery and stage machinery. Another genre was that of the auto sacramental, a brief one-act play with religious themes performed in the streets during the yearly Corpus Christi celebrations. Others included the zarzuela, a musical play which later evolved into the nineteenth-century operetta, and the loa and entremés, short dramatic pieces that served as preludes and interludes to accompany a full-length play.

By far the most popular and influential form of drama was the comedia, a uniquely Spanish genre established largely through the contributions of Lope de Vega and his treatise, The New Art of Writing Plays in Our Time, published in 1609. The comedia was a secular play in three acts, usually around 3,000 lines long, that blurred the classical distinction between tragedy and comedy. It drew on a wide range of subject matter from history, mythology, biblical stories, medieval epics, folklore, saints' lives, and contemporary Spanish life. Regardless of the setting in time or place, its most consistent characteristic was its reflection of contemporary language, customs, and relationships. The dramatic tension was usually caused by conflicts between love, honor, and the expectations and obligations connected to one's position in the social structure. To this end, rather than developing individual personalities, the comedia tended to portray stock figures that represented the different elements of society, and many significant characters were identified more readily by title or position than by name: the governor of Ocaña, the mayor of Zalamea, the knight from Olmedo. The comedia cast always included a young male protagonist (galán) ; one or more leading ladies (damas) ; an older, more powerful man (the viejo, a king, captain, or father figure); occasionally a peasant or other representative of rural life; and always a comic figure (gracioso), usually the servant of the galán.

The Golden Age comedia was dedicated to the tastes and interests of the broad cross-section of Spanish society that attended the plays. Before the sixteenth century, dramatic production had depended on the patronage of the nobility, the court, or the church. By the 1540s, playwrights and actors began to appeal to wider public audiences, as traveling companies of actors made their way across the peninsula performing in city marketplaces, taverns, inns, and public plazas. The number of these acting companies grew and, in the 1560s, charitable brotherhoods in Madrid and other cities began to hire them for regular fund-raising performances. The success of these ventures depended on drawing in large audiences, so plays ceased to be linked to particular occasions or messages, and turned more toward broader themes not limited by region or social class. Plays were appreciated by everyone from the king to the humblest laborer, and comedia performances in Madrid alone could draw in audiences of a quarter of a million each year.

By the turn of the seventeenth century, most major Spanish cities had established permanent public theaters, such as the Príncipe and the Cruz in Madrid, and authors wrote comedias with these spaces in mind. Because even the most established theaters were still open-air spaces with a simple platform for a stage, the most important factor in any performance was the text itself; unlike those of court drama, the props, costumes, and stage effects of the comedia were extremely simple. Often, after plays had gone through a series of performances, they would be published in Spain and throughout Europe, demonstrating their popularity as textual pieces as well.

During its height in the early seventeenth century, Spanish drama was widely known and imitated across Europe. However, by the end of the century, its quality declined. In the eighteenth century, with the transition from the Habsburg to the Bourbon dynasty, literary preferences shifted from baroque drama to neoclassic essays and poetry. Within the realm of drama, the Spanish comedia lost the originality that had led to its success, and became more derivative of French styles; with these changes, the curtain closed on the Golden Age.

See also Calderón de la Barca, Pedro ; Commedia dell'Arte ; Portuguese Literature and Language ; Renaissance ; Spanish Literature and Language ; Vega, Lope de .


Cohen, Walter. Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain. Ithaca, N.Y., 1985.

McKendrick, Melveena. Theatre in Spain 14901700. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Shergold, N. D. A History of the Spanish Stage: From Medieval Times until the End of the Seventeenth Century. Oxford, 1967.

Ziomek, Henryk. A History of Spanish Golden Age Drama. Lexington, Ky., 1984.

Jodi Campbell

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