Theater in Golden-Age Spain

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Theater in Golden-Age Spain

A Century of Greatness.

Although Spain suffered military and economic setbacks in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, this same period was one of brilliance in the arts and literature in the country. By 1600, the cities of Spain had already developed a vigorous theater that was in many ways even more vital than that of London. The origins of Spanish theater can be traced to the late-medieval dramas that were performed on solemn religious occasions. Like England, the Feast of Corpus Christi in late spring was an important occasion that was often celebrated with the staging of imposing religious dramas. Unlike many parts of Europe where Protestantism gradually restricted religious drama, such productions remained a vital part of urban piety in the seventeenth century, inspiring a new genre of auto sacramentals, or sacramental plays, that aimed to teach the Spanish the tenets of Counter-Reformation Catholicism. In particular, these sacramental plays focused on the theology of the Eucharist, and their series of scenes often demonstrated the biblical events that had produced the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as well as the rise of Christianity. Even as such religious theater remained a growing tradition in Spain's Golden Age, popular secular drama was undergoing a dramatic expansion, although its roots also lay in the religious institutions of the country. In the second half of the sixteenth century religious confraternities—brotherhoods of lay and clerical members—began to stage performances of secular dramas and comedies for paying audiences. Many of these brotherhoods cared for the sick and dying, and the profits of their dramatic performances were used to underwrite their charitable efforts. The typical Spanish theater of the time was known as a corral, a word that referred to the walled-in courtyards in which plays were performed. At one end of these corrals a raised stage provided the setting on which the dramas were performed. Usually these stages were two stories high, with an upper gallery that was decorated to suggest towers, houses, and other elements of urban architecture. The first two of these theaters—the Corral de la Cruz and the Corral del Principe—were constructed as makeshift affairs in the newly named Spanish capital of Madrid. Others developed there and at Seville, and by 1600, these two cities were home to the most vigorous theater life in Spain, although other theatrical troupes thrived elsewhere in the country. By 1630, Madrid had seven theaters that accommodated crowds of around 2,000 people in each for daytime performances. As theatergoing became an increasingly popular pastime for Spaniards, the country's corrales—that is, its open-air playhouses—were often remodeled and roofed over to acquire a greater sense of permanence. Wealthy merchants and aristocratic patrons rented boxes in the galleries that stretched above the stage, while the poor were relegated to the ground from which they looked up at the stage. The staging used in these productions was still quite rudimentary since painted scenery and other elements of stage machinery did not become popular in Spain until later in the seventeenth century. The relatively modest production values aside, an incredible number of plays were written and performed in the period. No one has ever been able to ascertain the total number of dramas produced in this period, but estimates of the number of plays written in seventeenth-century Spain range from between 10,000 and 30,000. A list of Spanish playwrights compiled by a commentator in 1632, for instance, noted more than eighty authors then active in the province of Castile alone, and the most prolific of these figures produced hundreds of works during their lifetimes.

Links to Renaissance Italy.

Because of close ties in trade, culture, and language, Italy's influence upon Spain in the sixteenth century had been great. Renaissance humanism, with its emphasis on the study of classical Antiquity, had made many inroads in the country. As the new forms of secular drama became popular in Spanish society toward the end of the century, playwrights experimented with ways to adopt classical forms to the developing professional stage. In Italy, however, the comedies and tragedies of the Renaissance had frequently been performed in courts, where long hours might be devoted to watching elaborate stage productions that were frequently punctuated with imposing interludes known as intermedi. Comedies modeled on ancient examples had usually consisted of five acts, and when the full complement of accompanying interludes was figured into an Italian production, these plays might last for as long as six hours. The corrales of the Spanish Golden Age had no such luxury. Performed in the open air, dramas were required by law to be completed one hour before night fell. Thus a taste developed for shorter, three-act dramas known as comedias. Short verse preludes often preceded the beginning of the first act to set the mood for what followed. In between acts, comic skits or dances were usually performed. While the roots of the word comedia are similar to the English "comedy," the Spanish used the term to refer to any drama—serious, tragic, or comic—that was performed in verse. Much of the quality of poetic writing displayed in these plays was of a high artistic standard. Like the writing of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson, Spanish seventeenth-century playwrights labored mightily to please an audience that seems to have appreciated language in all its complex and difficult forms. The effect of many of these works is thus musical in nature since authors altered the verse structure throughout their works, relying on one rhyme and syllabic structure in a scene to suggest a certain mood and then changing it to fit another in other portions of the play. Commoners were frequently depicted using simpler, native rhyme structures, while noble characters were often portrayed with more complex meters drawn from Italian Renaissance examples.

Character of the Comedias.

In place of thorough character development and psychological exploration, Spanish audiences in the seventeenth century seem to have preferred fast-moving action. Cases of mistaken identity, deceits, and disguised characters abound in the plays from the era, and dramas were often punctuated with duels and other violence. The precise subjects of the dramas were drawn from other literary forms like short stories, medieval and Renaissance epics and romances, from history, and from the classics, but in many of these works the theme of honor figured prominently. Spanish playwrights did not consider this abstract human quality to be something associated merely with aristocratic status or wealth. Instead the tone of most dramas was highly moralistic, insisting that everyone in the social structure—from the highest noble grandee to the lowest peasant—shared a human dignity and a mission to fulfill, but this precise duty was peculiar to a character's specific station. Along the way to the conclusion of the comedias, characters' honor is frequently called into question and subjected to a test. But almost always, the conventional morality of the plays ensures that the wicked are punished and the good rewarded. For this reason the Spanish theater of the Golden Age has long been viewed as a force of social control and conformity. Unlike England where playwrights were constantly testing the boundaries of royal censorship, Spanish dramatists were often content to uphold the established social order, and seem to have infrequently cast a penetrating, critical gaze on established social realities. Instead their high-quality productions were notable for the artistry of their words and meter. At the same time, the enormous output of writers at this time reveal that in many works authors did examine critically elements of the Spanish character, making all easy generalizations about the lack of social criticism in the Golden Age theater difficult to maintain. The continuing discovery of new works that have been forgotten for centuries means that the sheer variety and complexity of themes treated at this time will continue to be debated for many years to come.

Lope de Vega.

Of the many competent and even accomplished seventeenth-century dramatists active in Madrid, Seville, and other theatrical centers in Spain, two figures stand out as particularly brilliant: Felix Lope de Vega Carpio (1562–1635) and Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681). Lope de Vega was the son of an embroiderer; despite his humble origins, he learned to read and cultivated a rudimentary understanding of humanism through his broad exposure to noble circles in Madrid. By the 1580s he was already writing works for the stage in that city, but by the later part of the decade he was named in a libel case for verses he wrote against a local noblewoman who rebuffed his advances. Sent into exile from Madrid for eight years, he eventually overcame his legal troubles and returned to the capital. He ingratiated himself with several members of the nobility, lived in their houses, and served as a secretary to a duke until 1605. Lope also began to experiment with new dramatic forms, eventually establishing the comedia style that dominated the Spanish stage for much of the seventeenth century. A gifted writer of lyric poetry, the dramatist perfected his work during these years and thus began one of the most brilliant outpourings of dramas in history. Although the precise number of his plays cannot be definitely established, one of his admirers noted shortly after Lope's death that he had written at least 1,800 dramatic works. Of these, more than 300 survive today that appear to be definitely from his hand, while another almost 200 have long been attributed to him. Thus Lope seems to have written at least 500 comedias intended for the professional stage in Madrid, but he also wrote shorter dramatic works, as well as an enormous amount of poetry. Many of his most important dramatic works treated events from Spain's history, but the author was also well known for his comedies, which often included figures of wise peasants and servants as prominent characters. For his dramatization of the life and death of the ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots, Lope de Vega was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from the pope in 1627. While his enormous productivity continued throughout his life, numerous trials continued to punctuate his personal life. A string of mistresses brought the playwright a number of children, but the difficulties associated with these liaisons spurred him to take up the religious life around 1610. But after toying with several religious orders, Lope de Vega began another romance and gave up all thoughts of becoming a member of a religious order. Somewhat later, he lost a treasured mistress, and two beloved children died under trying circumstances—circumstances that Lope de Vega commented upon in his poetry. When he died in 1635, his larger-than-life romantic exploits as well as his enormous productivity had already made him a hero in and around Madrid, and his death was mourned as a national tragedy in Spain.

Pedro CalderÓn de la Barca.

Pedro Calderón de la Barca, by contrast, was born into the minor nobility of Madrid and received his early education from the Jesuits. He intended to become a lawyer, but he eventually turned to writing plays in his twenties while serving the Constable of Castile. Like Lope de Vega, Calderón produced a number of sparkling comedies, writing the majority of his 120 works before he was in his mid-forties. Among the most famous of these, El médico de su honra (The Surgeon of His Honor) and El pintor de su deshonra (The Painter of His Own Dishonor) held up a mirror to Spanish society, examining its preoccupations with honor. In other works Calderón defended Catholicism and gently mocked the inequities that noble privilege produced. While he flourished as a writer for Madrid's professional troupes until about 1640, Spain's worsening political crisis eventually led him to abandon his career as a professional dramatist. During the 1640s, revolts in Portugal and Catalonia resulted in the closure of Spanish theaters, and Calderón entered a religious order. In this new role, he authored Madrid's religious plays, or autos sacramentales, which were performed in conjunction with the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi and other major religious festivals. He also wrote plays and directed productions for the crown. Besides providing the dramas for these events, he continued to rework his own plays and to edit and rewrite those of others. His efforts helped finally to perfect the three-act comedia structure that Lope de Vega and others like Tirso de Molina (1584–1648) had developed. He is credited with developing the form to a high art that possessed considerable intellectual integrity as well as sensual poetry, but although the theater did not disappear in Spain, no author of similar genius arose to take his place following his death in 1681.


Melveena McKendrick, Theatre in Spain, 1490–1700 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

N. D. Shergold, A History of the Spanish Stage from Medieval Times until the End of the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).

Margaret Wilson, Spanish Drama of the Golden Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).