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Court, Corral, Convent, and Comedia: A Review of Women Playwrights of Early Modern Spain Edited by Nieves Romero-Díaz and Lisa Vollendorf Translated and Annotated by Harley Erdman

English-speaking audiences might be forgiven for believing that the marvelous drama of the Spanish Golden Age was exclusively penned by male playwrights. In a list of twentieth- and twenty-first century productions of the comedia compiled by Kathleen Mountjoy and Duncan Wheeler, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz stands out as the only woman in the illustrious company of such titans as Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, and Miguel de Cervantes. Yet, as the title of this volume makes clear, early modern women in Spain were not only acting onstage, overseeing the theater business as autoras and empresarias, and taking in the spectacle from the cazuela, but also composing complex and intriguing theatrical works.


The introduction by Romero-Díaz and Vollendorf provides a context for these stellar translations by depicting the overlapping worlds of the court, the corral, and the cloister. Queen Isabel de Borbón’s regular attendance at theater performances, sponsorship of productions at court, and co-authorship of the 1622 Niquea’s Glory (La gloria de Niquea) may have been the most public female participation in the theater world—she was even rumored to have set mice loose in the cazuela to frighten women spectators, thus creating a play-within-a-play—but in the quiet space of the convent, literary production was also common. The fame of Teresa de Ávila as a popular author-saint led to increased educational opportunities for women, who wrote from, and often for, their own enclosed religious communities. This traffic between secular and sacred spaces, and the relationship between art and early modern Spanish society, can be glimpsed in stories like that of the famous actress La Baltasara, who claimed God had spoken to her during a performance, and answered his call by joining a religious order. That onstage conversion was in turn replayed in future theatrical performances.


The plays included here, by Feliciana Enríquez de Guzmán, Ana Caro Mallén, and Sor Marcela de San Félix, reflect and comment on their society. In the First Interlude from her Tragicomedy of the Sheban Gardens and Fields (Tragicomedia de los jardines y campos sabeos), published in 1624, Guzmán’s characters are deformed parodies of mythological figures, who compete for the hand of the three “moldy” graces. In the end, all six suitors marry all three graces, in a conclusion where bigamy is the solution for physical desire and social propriety dissolves in a bawdy comic romp. Explicit sexual transgression, obviously forbidden in Guzmán’s seventeenth-century Seville, becomes possible on the stage. One suitor remarks, in Erdman’s fine rendering of the Spanish wordplay, “I accept the slouching sentence of this raucous caucus of Bacchus” (45). One may imagine that Guzmán’s audiences felt the same.


The life of Sor Marcela, illegitimate daughter of Lope de Vega and the actress Micaela Luján, and author of five volumes of literary works in addition to secular and religious drama, would make a good play on its own. Included here are four of her loas, which are short pieces designed to be performed as prologues to longer works, and an allegorical coloquio in which the female figures of Soul, Peace, and Sincerity must rein in the aggressive violence of masculine Zeal. Sor Marcela’s wit is most evident in the loas, which she may have both written and performed for her convent audience. The short piece Erdman titles “The Hungry Scholar” consists of a monologue in which the titular scholar wishes to trade a loa to a convent for food. A nun instructs him, “Give us a loa so utterly perfect, / so absolutely free from error, / that it surpasses in every way / the work of the great Lope de Vega!” (202). The continual references to hunger suggest the hardship of life, but a reader of this volume may also imagine the delight of Sor Marcela’s convent audience in response to her self-referential humor.


The sole play included in its entirety is Ana Caro’s Count Partinuplés, which draws from a medieval romance but places the lady Rosaura, rather than the Count, in the role of protagonist. Caro, born in Granada to a Morisco slave family in the late sixteenth century, would go on to become to only female playwright who we know was paid for her work. In Partinuplés, echoes of works from Lope, Calderón, Shakespeare, and Caro’s medieval source combine in a carnivalesque atmosphere of magic and spectacle, rich with nods and winks to the audience. When Gaulín, comic sidekick to the Count, realizes that he will be the only one unmarried at the end of the play, he says, “Here I am, the unhappy lackey, / who sees where this farce is headed / but has no lady to whom to declare / lovey-dovey words of passion. / The playwright, she’s made a big mistake. / May all of you forgive her!” (91). Erdman points out that “the playwright” (la poeta) is specified by Caro in the original as feminine.


In a note on the translations, Erdman expresses the need to consider both the contemporary reader and the original context of these works. He writes, “These plays come from a time and culture other than our own, and often take up non-normative positions (thematically and linguistically) even for their times. These translations therefore ask the reader to make the journey to another world—or at least to meet these works halfway” (28). In Women Playwrights of Early Modern Spain, Erdman, and the editors Romero-Díaz and Vollendorf, give readers a chance to take that journey, and to experience the social commentary and comic sensibilities of previously untranslated works. As Anglophone scholars, theater professionals, and audiences continue to look to the rich and complex drama of the Spanish Golden Age, this collection helps diversify the voices we may find there. Beyond being a delightful read on every one of its pages, the anthology allows us to go not just beyond Shakespeare, but beyond Lope as well.


Robin Kello.

“Writing Forward” in Troubled Times: David Johnston on the Art of Translation



David Johnston’s Translating the Theatre of the Spanish Golden Age: A Story of Chance and Transformation is a delicious mixture: it is at once a memoir of a life in the theatre, a treatise on translation, an introduction to Spanish Golden Age drama, and a meditation on the value and power of art. Rejecting the fantasy of the perfect conversion from one language and time to another, Johnston defines his craft as an “act of writing forward,” of bringing the rich playtexts of the past into present contexts (11). The string that ties together the varied elements of this slim volume is the idea that contemporary audiences may respond to these plays as much as the audiences of early modern Spain, and that they deserve to performed again, to be heard in the idiom of today, and most of all, to be seen.


The story of Johnston’s own conversion from theatre lover and student of the Spanish language to award-winning translator begins with an explosion. Taking a book down from the Queen’s University library stacks, Johnston feels the reverberations of a bomb from nearby Dublin Road. In his lucid, fast-moving prose, he describes the chance and transformation that follows: “A four-story building had disappeared from the skyline and a stunned and bewildered flock of dark starlings was still spinning in the air in front of a huge pall of grey smoke and brick-dust. I looked down at the book in my hand. A battered Spanish edition of Calderón’s Life’s a Dream” (6). In the collision of 1635 Madrid and 1974 Belfast, the poetic illusion and the stark reality of the leveled building, and the echoes of authoritarianism that united them in Johnston’s consciousness, the translator found his vocation.


The rewards of that inspiration are evident throughout the book, as Johnston peppers his story with his own marvelous English renderings of the original Spanish. Adept at both comic and tragic tones, he illustrates the vibrant character and contemporary relevance of these plays by providing examples of his process and its products. Unlike more conservative translators, he argues that the use of profanity is sometimes necessary to shock the audience. He thus translates Laurencia’s monologue from Lope’s Fuenteovejuna, in which she condemns the cowardice of the village men, to convey the force of her rage: “You call yourselves men? Go and fuck / each other, then finish your sewing! / Cowards! Sheep! Hide behind your women / . . . we’ll dress you in scarves and skirts. / and powder your white cheeks with rouge” (43). Through Johnston’s words, the reader can feel Laurencia’s torment and fury.


Johnston brings a translator’s sensitivity to not only the language of these characters but the larger social dynamics they portray onstage, rejecting the idea that these works unequivocally reinforce orthodox, Catholic, patriarchal values. In his account of Fuenteovejuna, “its depiction of the outer excesses of authoritarian abuse, its recognition of the causes, if not the validity, of revolutionary action, and its positioning of women as both the victims of, and, in the final analysis, the prime movers against sexual violence,” still resonates today (55). The theater offers a space for a culture, whether 17th-century Spain or the current United States, to simultaneously perform and examine itself. The social inequalities and anxieties over authority that dominate our public conversation are also at the center of these vital early modern plays. Drama does not merely reflect, but instead foregrounds a proliferation of voices and interpretations.


Toward the end of his story, Johnston remarks that the book will be a success if it inspires others to translate. As part of the Diversifying the Classics project at UCLA, I’m grateful to have Johnston as model and motivation, but the audience for this book is far broader than aspiring translators of dramatic texts. It may be especially valuable for those in the theater, but this wonderful story of chance and is transformation is a rare gift for anyone interested in the conversation between Spanish and English, past and present, politics and art.


Robin Kello.

Coming soon: The Widow of Valencia

Set in Valencia at the end of the sixteenth century, The Widow of Valencia tells the spicy story of the young widow Leonarda, and her posse of hopeless suitors. Written between 1595 and 1599 by Lope de Vega, perhaps the most renowned playwright of Spain’s Golden Age, the play was not published until 1620. The publication date, as well as the text’s dedicatory to Marcia Leonarda, makes the play all the more intriguing.

Lope’s lover, Marta de Nevares, is, according to critics, the woman from the dedicatory, and she also shares a name with the play’s protagonist, Leonarda. Marta had, in fact, become a widow in 1618, and one cannot help but think of an analogy between Lope and Camilo, the one man with whom Leonarda falls in love. Though there has been great interest in the play in Spain, without a translation it has remained relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. Now UCLA’s Working Group on the Comedia in Translation and Performance has translated and annotated Lope’s play, and will soon be posting it for open access on the group’s website: http://diversifyingtheclassics.humanities.ucla.edu.


The play’s juiciness lies in its intricate plot and permeating sense of mystery. Lope here inverts the myth of Cupid and Psyche, in which the god of love takes on the role of a mystery lover: in The Widow of Valencia, Leonarda becomes an invisible lover to Camilo. Widows were expected to maintain a pious, devout, and reserved life, yet Leonarda, with her servants Julia and Urbán, devises a plan to enjoy her lover’s company without compromising her family name and social status. Camilo is to be hooded by Urbán and brought into Leonarda’s house through the back door, so that the two can consume their passion in the dark, away from curious eyes. To add to the general sense of confusion, Lope sets the play in Valencia—one of the most vibrant and festive Spanish cities of the time—during Carnival, when amorality, chaos, and false identities were normalized and accepted.


Leonarda must face the dangers to which attractive young widows were exposed in sixteenth-century Spain—dozens of suitors roam her house at all hours, hoping for a glance, a smile, or a kind gesture. They even disguise themselves as door-to-door vendors for the chance to speak with her face to face. Leonarda deglamorizes her apparently favorable romantic situation to uncover the difficult reality of being a rich widow. In a passionate speech to her uncle Lucenio, who insists that she marry, Leonarda points out the pompousness and dishonesty of most suitors, who wish to marry her only to snatch her fortune. By keeping her identity a secret in her dealings with Camilo, Leonarda manages to maintain social decorum without renouncing her appetite for sexual pleasure.


Clever, compelling, and entertaining, The Widow of Valencia takes on universal themes of love, pride, and social standing, yet it remains unique in its daring portrait of intrigue and female sexuality. With the forthcoming translation, Lope de Vega’s one-of-a-kind play can finally be enjoyed by actors, directors, and theatergoers in the English-speaking world.


Jennifer L. Monti


Boni B. Alvarez’s FIXED was originally commissioned for the second “Golden Tongues,” a festival of Golden Age adaptations at the UCLA Clark Library, organized by the Center/Clark in conjunction with Playwrights’ Arena. A staged reading at the Clark in Summer 2014 was warmly received.


Inspired by El médico de su honra (The Doctor of His Honor), Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1637 play about jealousy, power, and revenge in medieval Spain, and Paris is Burning, a 1990 documentary film about “ball culture” in New York’s LGBTQ community, FIXED explores themes of love, honor, identity, and social conflict through the story of Miracles Malacañang, a transsexual masseuse in the Historic Filipinotown of Alvarez’s hometown of Los Angeles.  


FIXED will premiere this fall with the Echo Theater Company at the Atwater Village Theater, in a production directed by Rodney To.


Be a part of the 20th Anniversary Season of the Echo Theater Company, Los Angeles’s “best bet for ballsy original plays” (LA Weekly)! Come see the latest chapter in what Rodney To calls Alvarez’s “provocative,” “unique and daring” work: “a tragic love story.”


FIXED runs from September 17 through October 22. Opening night, Sunday, September 17, begins at 6 pm. The schedule for all other performances is as follows: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 4 pm; and Mondays at 8 pm. Three preview performances are set for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, September 14-16, at 8 pm.


Tickets are $34 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and $20 on Mondays.


Atwater Village Theater: 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, CA. 90039 (free on-site parking).


For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.echotheatercompany.com, or call (310) 307-3753.


Paul Cella.

Siglo de Oro Drama Festival at the Chamizal National Monument

“At a time when Shakespeare’s plays are being televised to millions thanks to the British Broadcasting System and P.B.S., it is gratifying to know that the dramas of his Spanish contemporaries also have some opportunity where their theatrical expression before the public is welcomed and realized.” So wrote Donald Dietz, a professor of Spanish at Texas Tech University in 1979, after his visit to the 4th annual Siglo de Oro Drama Festival at the Chamizal National Monument (El Paso, Texas). Considering Shakespeare’s remarkable popularity in any number of cultural contexts — from high school classrooms to international festivals, and films as well as television — Professor Dietz’s observation still holds today: there are precious few venues in the U.S. where one can take in a play by Félix Lope de Vega or Pedro Calderón de la Barca.


Every year since 1976, theater companies, theater lovers, and scholars from around the world have gathered in El Paso to celebrate Spain’s Golden Age of theater, which spanned the 16th and 17th centuries and included not only Lope and Calderón, but Miguel de Cervantes and Tirso de Molina, the first to put Don Juan on stage. According to Susan Paun García, professor of Spanish at Denison University and president of the Association for Hispanic Classical Theater (AHCT), in the United States Chamizal is “the first festival of its kind – and [the] longest-running” to pay homage to Spain’s “enormous wealth” of classical theater, which was produced at the same time as Shakespeare’s, and predates France’s greatest era of theater (including Molière, Pierre Corneille, and Jean Racine), serving as inspiration for some of France’s best works, such as Corneille’s The Liar – based on Juan Ruiz de Alarcón’s The Suspicious Truth.


The festival was conceived by Franklin Smith, the first superintendent of the Chamizal National Memorial, as a way of commemorating the U.S.’s bicentennial (1976) and, in the words of Walker Reid (a retired director of cultural affairs at Chamizal) “of fostering a positive relationship” between the U.S. and Mexico, particularly following the resolution, in the 1960s, of a century-old international border dispute over some 600 acres along the Rio Grande, called the Chamizal. Since its inception, the festival has become a mainstay in the area, and an annual recognition of the region’s Hispanic heritage. Always popular with people from near and far, it is now, for park ranger Gina Hernandez, “its own establishment,” with many locals who grew up with it attending with their own kids. And it has been an international affair from the start, with actors from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Spain, and with more recent contributions from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and the United States.


What has changed over the years? Today, the festival is truly bi-national, with parallel events in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso. It has also added an educational outreach program, which takes the plays into community schools. Pablo Jasso, a theater teacher at Bel Air High School (El Paso) has his students perform a Golden Age play every year and attends Chamizal’s performances with them. So, although Donald Dietz’s observation of Shakespeare’s predominance still rings true, for more than 40 years the Chamizal National Monument has done its part to diversify theater-goers’ options, with, as Professor Dietz put it, most gratifying results.


Paul Cella

Diversifying the Classics: Translating for Performance

On May 2nd, 2017 we took our work to Cal Poly Pomona, where we held a workshop on theater and translation for performance that was attended by one hundred students, teachers, and professors from the College of Arts and Letters. The two-hour event, organized by Cal Poly Pomona Assistant Professor Marta Albalá Pelegrín, proved to be dynamic, informative, and engaging, as discussants and members of the audience interacted openly and had the pleasure of attending two dramatic readings of selected monologues by Bernardo Solano, Chair of the Department of Theater and New Dance, and theater professor Linda Bisesti.


The members of Diversifying the Classics: Translation for Performance prepared a booklet for the translation workshop that was available beforehand, so that students could work with it during the event. It contained original translations of two monologues from the early modern plays The Truth Can’t Be Trusted and One House, Many Complications, by Mexican playwrights Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Juan Ruiz de Alarcón. The group’s original translations faced Dakin Matthews’ translations of the same scenes. Several students in the audience had also prepared their own translations for the workshop as part of a class assignment, so that they could contribute to the discussion while acquiring a deeper understanding of the nuances of literary translation.


Professor Barbara Fuchs opened the workshop with a presentation on the Diversifying the Classics project. Jennifer Monti, Adrián Collado, and Robin Kello further contextualized the workshop by presenting on transatlantic Golden Age Theater, and Alarcón’s and Sor Juana’s plays, while Paul Cella and Laura Muñoz acted as discussants. The workshop familiarized the audience with Hispanic Golden Age Theater and the intricacies of translating for performance, and was met with enthusiasm and delight. The discussion was followed by a truly engaging and fascinating Q&A session moderated by two group members (Javier Patiño Loira and Marta Albalá Pelegrín).


Translating for Performance allowed us to bring our work to Cal Poly Pomona, share our passion and interest in Hispanic Golden Age Theater with students and professors, and ultimately captivate a modern-day audience with a small taste of the immense theatrical repertoire from Spain’s Golden Age of drama.



Jennifer L. Monti


Comedia Summers: New Award from the Pine Tree Foundation Supports Students and Translations



The Comedia in Translation and Performance working group recently received some fabulous news: the Pine Tree Foundation awarded Diversifying the Classics a grant that will allow us to complete the translation of two more Golden Age plays between now and the summer of 2018!


The funds will specifically support graduate students from the working group who will spend their summers editing, annotating, and writing introductions to plays that underwent draft translations during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years. These students will also prepare the plays for publication (in print and online) and for their debut performances in UCLA’s Department of Theater (a fall quarter tradition).


The first of these plays, which is currently being workshopped, is Lope de Vega’s The Widow from Valencia (La viuda valenciana, c. 1595-1600). The play begins with Leonarda rejecting a series of potential suitors in order to protect the freedom she gained with her husband’s death. But, when she discovers that disguise can offer its own freedoms, she engages in a clandestine affair from behind the protection of her veil. Lope presents us with a balancing act of visibility and invisibility, liberty and imprisonment in the pursuit of personal desires.


Thank you to the Pine Tree Foundation and to its director, Szilvia Szmuk-Tanenbaum—a passionate scholar and supporter of the Spanish Golden Age comedia—, for making our project possible!


Payton Phillips Quintanilla

About…Productions: Your Ticket to Seeing Spanish Classical Theater through a Social Justice Lens


About…Productions is a current partner in the “Classics in the Classroom” pilot project, a K-12 curriculum-building area of Diversifying the Classics. Co-founder and Producing Artistic Director of the company, Theresa Chavez and Teaching Artist Sayda Trujillo are collaborating with members of UCLA’s Comedia in Translation and Performance Working Group to develop a series of lesson plans using our translation of Guillén de Castro’s comedic play The Force of Habit (La fuerza de la costumbre, 1610). At the center of the play are siblings separated at birth, the brother raised by his mother wears robes and knows how to sew, the sword-wielding sister grew up with her father and is skilled in battle. As the plot unfolds, we’re faced with questions about gender identity and nature versus nurture, and power structures not just in a family unit but the broader social context.


About…Productions’ Chavez and Trujillo are experts in embodiment and dialogue exercises from the traditions of Agosto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed. TO traditions offer a guide to recognizing discrimination and marginalization faced by the disenfranchised and approaches to overcome social divisions, with steps to community building and resistance. To develop lessons for The Force of Habit, the company uses their model, Young Theaterworks (YT) program, a literacy-based theater residency for underserved, at-risk high school students, primarily in East L.A. Our graduate students are observing YT in the classroom and community spaces, learning about engagement with underserved students and arts-based educational tools. Lesson development for The Force of Habit with About…Productions has been an exciting opportunity to incorporate methods in theater arts to create safe spaces to talk about family dynamics, patriarchal social structures, and factors that contribute to forming and performing who we are. The working group will be providing open access (via its website) to all materials created from this initiative, so as to reach teaching artists, teachers and many more students nationwide.


Veronica Wilson



We are once again collaborating with the Department of Theater at UCLA to present a dramatic reading of the group’s most recent translation efforts, Juan Ruiz de Alarcón’s What We Owe Our Lies (Los empeños de un engaño).


What We Owe Our Lies (Los empeños de un engaño, c. 1621-25) depicts the efforts of two women, Leonor and Teodora, to pursue their love against the dictates of their brothers, who are trying to arrange reciprocal marriages for them. Occupying different floors of the same building, the two women are not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of having their marriages arranged for them, and contend instead for the love of Don Diego de Luna, a stranger in town who ceaselessly roams up and down their street, attracting the attention of everyone in the neighborhood. Their amorous pursuits lead them into an intricate web of lies and obligations which pile up into seemingly insurmountable obstacles.


Under the direction of Michael Hackett, professor of Directing and Theater History, first year students from the MFA program will have the opportunity to practice their craft while engaging with the theatrical tradition of the Spanish comedia. For many of the students this will be a new experience. As it has always been the group’s aim to be a resource to the theatrical community, we will be involved in our capacity as translators and students of comedia in the rehearsals leading up to the performance. Part of what makes this collaboration so exciting is that members of the Working Group learn just as much about dramaturgy as the students learn about Golden Age Spanish theater. The opportunity to engage with practitioners is especially invaluable to us as translators, as it allows us to witness first-hand what works and what doesn’t on stage. Is a joke too obscure for an actor to pull off? Is the language clear as well as poetic? Does the staging make sense? These are all questions that can only really be answered in practice, and it is always a truly informative—not to mention fun!—experience to see practitioners at work.


We invite you to join us on Wednesday, November 2nd for what promises to be a night of laughter and fun. For more information on booking, please visit http://www.1718.ucla.edu/events/lies/


Laura Muñoz