Diversifying the Classics: Suggestions for Production
In our experience working on translations and adaptations in Los Angeles, we have found that theater practitioners are both surprised and delighted by what the comedia has to offer. From Lope de Vega and Guillén de Castro to their distinguished peer from across the Atlantic, the Mexican Juan Ruiz de Alarcón, the corpus has a great deal to offer those who want to venture beyond Shakespeare to imagine a more diverse repertoire.
Comedias were plays for the people: performances took place in open-air theaters, where audiences of all classes and both sexes commingled. At the same time, the works are sophisticated dramas, offering pointed reflections on the constructed nature of class and gender as well as the performativity of social roles, issues that resonate with audiences today. The comedia offers fantastic roles for women, many of them written for famous actresses in the period—unlike in Elizabethan England, in Spain there were women on stage, although they still relished cross-dressing plots.
We aim above all for language that will work for actors and allow them to shine. We have tested our translations both in our workshop, which is regularly attended by practitioners, and in staged readings by Chalk Repertory Theatre and the UCLA Department of Theater. Our translations include dramaturgical introductions and annotations. We are also available to supply additional support for productions as necessary, and to translate or adapt any play not on the list below. Please contact Barbara Fuchs at email@example.com for further information, or follow our work at http://diversifyingtheclassics.humanities.ucla.edu/
THE COMEDIA IN CONTEXT
The “Golden Age” of Spain offers one of the most vibrant theatrical repertoires ever produced. At the same time that England saw the flourishing of Shakespeare on the Elizabethan stage, Spain produced prodigious talents such as Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and Calderón de la Barca. Although those names may not resonate with the force of the Bard in the Anglophone world, the hundreds of entertaining, complex plays they wrote, and the stage tradition they helped develop, deserve to be better known.
The Diversifying the Classics project at UCLA brings these plays to the public by offering English versions of Hispanic classical theater. Our translations are designed to make this rich tradition accessible to students, teachers, and theater professionals. This brief introduction to the comedia in its context suggests what we might discover and create when we begin to look beyond Shakespeare.
Comedia at a Glance
The Spanish comedia developed in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As Madrid grew into a sophisticated imperial capital, the theater provided a space to perform the customs, concerns, desires, and anxieties of its citizens. Though the form was influenced by the Italian troupes that brought commedia dell’arte to Spain in the sixteenth century, the expansive corpus of the Spanish comedia includes not only comic plays, but also histories, tragedies, and tragicomedies. The varied dramatic template of the comedia is as diverse as the contemporary social sphere it reflects.
While the plays offer a range of dramatic scenarios and theatrical effects, they share structural and linguistic similarities. Roughly three thousand lines, they are usually divided into three different jornadas, or acts. Plots move quickly across time and space, without much regard for the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and place. The plays are written in verse, and employ different forms for different characters and situations: a lover may deliver an ornate sonnet in honor of the beloved, while a servant offers a shaggy-dog story in rhymed couplets. The plays’ language is designed for the ear rather than the eye, with the objective of pleasing an audience.
The comedia was performed in rectangular courtyard spaces known as corrales. Built between houses of two or three stories, the corral offered seating based on social position, including space for the nobles in the balconies, women in the cazuela, or stewpot, and mosqueteros, or groundlings, on patio benches. This cross-section of society enjoyed a truly popular art, which reflected onstage their varied social positions. A comedia performance would have included the play as well as songs, dances, and entremeses, or short comic interludes, before, after, and between the acts. As the first real commercial theater, the corral was the place where a diverse urban society found its dramatic entertainment.
What’s at Stake on the Comedia Stage?
Comedias offer a range of possibilities for the twenty-first century reader, actor, and audience. The plays often envision the social ambitions and conflicts of the rapidly-growing cities where they were performed, allowing a community to simultaneously witness and create a collective culture. In many comedias, the anonymity and wealth that the city affords allows the clever to transcend their social position, while wit, rather than force, frequently carries the day, creating an urban theater that itself performs urbanity. An important subset of comedias deal with topics from national history, exploring violence, state power, the role of the nobility, and religious and racial difference.
The comedia often examines social hierarchies that may be less rigid than they first appear. Whether the dominant mode of the play is comic, tragic, historical, or a mixture, its dramatic progression often depends on a balancing act of order and liberty, authority and transgression, stasis and transformation. The title of Lope de Vega’s recently rediscovered Women and Servants, in which two sisters scheme to marry the servant-men they love rather than the noblemen who woo them, makes explicit its concerns with gender and class and provides a view of what is at stake in many of the plays. Individuals disadvantaged by class or gender often challenge the social hierarchy and patriarchy by way of their own cleverness. The gracioso (comic sidekick), the barba (older male blocking figure), and the lovers appear repeatedly in these plays, and yet are often much more than stock types. At their most remarkable, they reflect larger cultural possibilities. The comedia stages the conflicting demands of desire and reputation, dramatizing the tension between our identities as they are and as we wish them to be.
Among the many forms of passion and aspiration present in the comedia, female desire and agency are central. In contrast to its English counterpart, the Spanish stage permitted actresses to play female roles, thus giving playwrights the opportunity to develop a variety of characters for them. While actresses became famous, the powerful roles they played onstage often portrayed the force of female desire. In Lope’s The Widow of Valencia, for example, the beautiful young widow Leonarda brings a masked lover into her home so as not to reveal her identity and risk her reputation or independence.
The presence of actresses, however, did not diminish the appeal of the cross-dressing plot. One of Tirso’s most famous plays, Don Gil of the Green Breeches, features Doña Juana assuming a false identity and dressing as a man in order to foil the plans of her former lover, who is also in disguise. Dizzying deceptions and the performance of identity are both dramatic techniques and thematic concerns in these plays. Gender, like class, becomes part of the structure the comedia examines and dismantles, offering a powerful reflection on how we come to be who we are.
Remaking Plays in Our Time
In Lope’s witty manifesto, the New Art of Making Plays in Our Time, he advises playwrights to stick to what works onstage, including plots of honor and love, strong subplots, and—whenever possible—cross-dressing. For Lope, the delight of the audience drives the process of composition, and there is little sense in a craft that does not entertain the public. Lope’s contemporaries followed this formula, developing dramas that simultaneously explore the dynamics of their society and produce spectacle. For this reason, early modern Hispanic drama remains an engaging, suspenseful, often comic—and new—art to audiences even four hundred years later.
The Diversifying the Classics project at UCLA, engaged in translation, adaptation, and outreach to promote the comedia tradition, aims to bring the entertaining spirit of Lope and his contemporaries to our work. Rather than strictly adhering to the verse forms of the plays, we seek to render the power of their language in a modern idiom; rather than limiting the drama as a historical or cultural artifact, we hope to bring out what remains vibrant for our contemporary society. Given that these vital texts merit a place onstage, we have sought to facilitate production by carefully noting entrances, exits, and asides, and by adding locations for scenes whenever possible. Although we have translated every line, we assume directors will cut as appropriate for their own productions. We hope that actors, directors, and readers will translate our work further into new productions, bringing both the social inquiry and theatrical delight of the comedia to future generations of audiences.
Professor Michael Hackett and first-year students in the MFA Acting and Directing Programs, Department of Theater, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, in a staged reading of Lope de Vega’s A Wild Night in Toledo, translated by The Comedia in Translation and Performance working group directed by Barbara Fuchs.
Photographer: Reed Hutchinson