Love is the Greater Labyrinth is a madcap take on Greek mythology by famous Mexican author Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, now translated into English for the first time. A swashbuckling adventure, romantic farce, and morality tale all rolled into one, the play follows Teseo (Theseus) as he goes to meet his fate in the jaws of the monstrous Minotaur. Little does he know that his greatest test will come when he escapes one labyrinth and heads straight into the even more disorienting complications of love. Princesses Fedra and Ariadna pull him in two different directions—which path will he choose?
In a love triangle that somehow keeps adding sides, love gets all the blinder with masked balls and secret nighttime trysts. Meanwhile, mad King Minos’s insatiable desire for revenge threatens to turn this into a tragedy after all. Sor Juana explores the epic consequences of emotion run amok through increasingly knotty entanglements and witty metatheatrical play, as the heroes of myth find themselves helpless against the power of Cupid.
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (ca.1650–1695) was a prolific Mexican writer and polymath, hailed in her own lifetime as “the Tenth Muse.” Born in what was then the Viceroyalty of New Spain as the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish father and a criolla mother (Mexican-born, but of Spanish descent), Sor Juana showed an early love of learning, mastering at a young age Latin, Greek, and Nahuatl, a local indigenous language. She entered a convent in order to continue her intellectual pursuits free from the constraints of marriage, and soon gained renown as an author. Writing for the Viceroy’s court, she designed entertainments for religious festivals and state events. Her highly regarded (and often translated) lyric poetry includes amorous verses depicting lesbian desire. She also wrote a powerful argument for women’s right to think and write, the “Letter to Sor Filotea.”
Sor Juana’s oeuvre includes three comedias—a form of secular drama that was popular throughout the seventeenth-century Hispanic world. Love is the Greater Labyrinth (Amor es más laberinto) is her last, after La Segunda Celestina (1675) and Los empeños de una casa (1683). Like the other two, Love is the Greater Labyrinth was first performed as part of a court festival, and like La Segunda Celestina, it was a collaboration with another playwright. Sor Juana’s co-author, Juan de Guevara, was a priest, author, and sometimes her competition in local poetry contests. Although little is known about Guevara today, some of his poetry survives, along with contemporary reports of his reputation as a talented writer. Shortly after Love is the Greater Labyrinth was written, some church and state authorities became threatened by Sor Juana’s outspoken critiques of the misogynistic culture that limited opportunities for women in her time. They forced her to give up writing before she died during a plague outbreak in 1695. Yet her substantial body of work spread her fame far and wide, from multiple collected editions published in Spain during her lifetime and shortly after, to performances as far away as the Philippines (Love is the Greater Labyrinth in 1708). After a period of critical neglect and dismissal, scholars in the twentieth century took interest in her work from feminist, LGBTQ+, and Latin American perspectives. Today, her plays, poems, and fiery treatises still bring us Sor Juana’s singular voice, despite the heteropatriarchal structures which tried, but failed, to silence her.
Like the Minotaur itself, Love is the Greater Labyrinth (Amor es más laberinto, 1689) is a chimerical mix of elements, skillfully weaving the story of Theseus and the Cretan labyrinth with threads of romance, farce, and sociopolitical commentary. It demonstrates the variety and playfulness of Baroque drama in late seventeenth-century New Spain (now Mexico) and provides a dazzling showcase for the pen of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the famous philosopher, poet, playwright, and nun. The result is a mythological play that finds its Greeks acting suspiciously like seventeenth-century Spanish courtiers, matching wits and swords in messy love pentangles as their servants crack jokes behind their backs. Love moves nimbly between high and low registers, with a ranting tyrant spewing death threats one moment, and the gracioso (the traditional comic sidekick in Hispanic drama) offering sly metatheatrical commentary on the over-the-top performances from the side. Even the authorship is complicated: Sor Juana wrote most of the play, while her friend, the priest and poet Juan de Guevara, contributed most of the second act. Together they construct a labyrinthine plot that proves the course of true love never did run smooth, presented in English translation for the first time.
Love is the Greater Labyrinth makes a few notable changes to the Greek myth that show its ethical investments and modern outlook. First, instead of one female lead, there are two: lovestruck Ariadna still provides Teseo (Theseus) with the string that helps him escape the labyrinth, but this time she finds herself vying for his love with her sister Fedra (Phaedra), who is absent during the Cretan portion of the original story. The sisters are often paired in stylized sequences which reveal their inner monologues and contrast their differing personalities through poetry or song, giving the actresses a showcase and incorporating musical interludes. Along with the dances at the masked ball, these scenes provide the pleasing multimedial spectacle that Baroque audiences would expect from their drama.
The original audience for the premiere was the viceregal court in Mexico City. A new viceroy had just arrived and Love is the Greater Labyrinth was presented as part of his birthday celebration. The play shows a grasp of the court culture around which Sor Juana spent most of her life and lightly critiques some of its excesses, safely distanced by the ancient Greek mythological setting. Teseo’s speech in Act I outlining his own heroic deeds focuses heavily on his fights against bloodthirsty tyrants, and culminates in his assertion that “the greatest of victories” is “to triumph over [your]self.” In the end, he proves his true heroism not by slaying the Minotaur, but by showing mercy to his enemy, King Minos. Teseo also behaves honorably toward both sisters throughout the play, unlike his more frequent depiction in myth. Presenting Teseo as an enlightened prince who is scrupulously courteous towards women, as opposed to the maniacally vengeful Minos who at one point threatens to execute his own daughters, may have been Sor Juana’s message to the new viceroy about the proper behavior of a ruler, and her hope for a continued good relationship with the palace.Sadly, it was not to be, as she shortly thereafter became embroiled in controversy over her views on women’s education and church hierarchy. The ensuing battle with hostile male members of the clergy eventually resulted in the loss of her independence as well as her impressive collection of books. Love is the Greater Labyrinth was her last play. Today its formal inventiveness and warning about the dangers of corrupt leaders feel more timely than ever. This new translation expands the English theatrical canon with another example of Sor Juana’s timeless brilliance.
Marta Albalá Pelegrín
Paul Fitzgibbon Cella
Javier Patiño Loira