Book Review Archives - Diversifying the Classics
archive,category,category-book-review,category-44,vcwb,ajax_fade,page_not_loaded,,select-theme-ver-2.4,wpb-js-composer js-comp-ver-7.5,vc_responsive

Book Review

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.