Unhappily Married in Valencia - Diversifying the Classics
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Unhappily Married in Valencia
A comedy by Guillén de Castro
Translated from the Spanish by Laura Muñoz and Veronica Wilson
Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta, 2018



The typical finale of a seventeenth-century Spanish play is a wedding, and often multiple, simultaneous marriages are the recipe for resolution. Not so with Guillén de Castro’s Unhappily Married in Valencia (Los mal casados de Valencia, c. 1595–1604), an amazingly modern, biting comedy which looks past “happily ever after” and challenges the traditional marriage ending. Two married couples, Ipólita and Don Álvaro and Eugenia and Valerián, are disillusioned with their respective marriages and look outside of their conjugal vows to try to realize their fantasies of a better match. Eugenia heats up the stage in her effort to seduce Don Álvaro, yet is unaware that her husband Valerián is in pursuit of his friend’s wife, Ipólita. Don Álvaro brings his mistress Elvira into the home he shares with his long-suffering—and to him insufferable—wife Ipólita. Innuendo, accusations, and revenge steal the show while the cross-dressed Elvira merrily manipulates one and all.




The play opens in the home of Don Álvaro and Ipólita, where much of the action takes place, as members of the upper class test the limits of social norms. We meet the two couples and their respective love interests, including a mistress. While his friend Don Álvaro is out of town on business, Valerián is knee-deep in his attempt to woo Ipólita. Just as it seems Valerián will overwhelm Ipólita despite her protests, the old squire Galíndez appears, announcing the return of his master Don Álvaro. Outside, Don Álvaro has just finished explaining to his mistress Elvira, who is dressed as a boy, that she must continue the pretense of being a man because he is married. Before she can respond, Ipólita and Valerián appear to greet the new arrivals. Almost immediately, Ipólita suspiciously questions her husband about the women she assumes he met while in Zaragoza. Valerián excuses himself, and the discussion between the married couple intensifies. Don Álvaro expresses his disgust for Ipólita’s jealousy and denies any missteps while his mistress watches on in amazement. Unsatisfied by her husband’s platitudes, Ipólita exits crying. Elvira, for her part, is not the suffering type. Once she and Don Álvaro are finally alone, she calls him a traitor and a liar, but agrees to continue their relationship when Don Álvaro smooth-talks and woos her.


Valerián returns with his wife Eugenia, who feigns exhaustion in order to remain with Don Álvaro while her husband takes the opportunity to speak to Ipólita alone. Eugenia uses her malaise as an excuse to tempt Don Álvaro with her heaving bosom, but the blatant flirtation accomplishes nothing. As he continues to rebuff Eugenia’s advances, Valerián and Ipólita enter having a similar conversation. The couples see each other and momentarily face the prospect that their respective spouses have heard the attempts at seduction. Before the accusations can fly, they are distracted by Elvira, now as “Antonio” the page, who runs in fleeing from an infuriated Galíndez, as they blame each other for their behavior. Eventually the two couples decide to spend the evening playing a word game; they invite the servants, including Galíndez, Elvira/Antonio, and a foreign servant named Pierres, to play. The game consists of choosing a letter and then crafting a story to go along with it, including the name of a person they met on a trip and what they dined on, etc. Before long, it becomes clear that the couples are using the game to express their true feelings, as they each pick the letter that corresponds to the person they desire. Among the servants, Elvira displays her cunning by creating an allegorical story, while both Galíndez and Pierres entertain everyone with their foolish responses. The game ends with a punishment for those who made mistakes: Valerián and Eugenia must declare their love for Ipólita and Don Álvaro, respectively. Although nominally this is in jest, Elvira realizes that the game has come far closer to the truth than anything that came before. Valerián and Eugenia retire for the night, promising to visit the next day.


The second act opens the next morning at the house of Valerián and Eugenia. Valerián gets ready for the day, lamenting the sleepless night he spent and wondering how he will deliver the love letter he has written to Ipólita. He enlists the help of Elvira/Antonio, but before she can leave, Eugenia (not realizing Valerián has written a letter to Ipólita) decides to entrust her with a letter, too, declaring her love for Don Álvaro. Letters in hand, Elvira takes advantage of her role as messenger. Adding two letters from Galíndez and Pierres, she plans to manipulate all the other characters. Don Álvaro appears and is immediately trapped by Eugenia’s amorous advances, while Elvira watches astounded at Eugenia’s shamelessness. As Don Álvaro rejects her once again Eugenia’s pleas become a threat. Just then, Ipólita and Valerián enter the room, surprised to find their spouses looking upset. While Valerián escorts his crying wife away, Ipólita begins another jealous argument with her husband, this time demanding to know what is going on between him and Eugenia. The argument ends with Ipólita storming off, but before Don Álvaro can catch his breath Elvira begins denouncing him and the disguise he is making her wear. Once again Don Álvaro uses his charms to soothe Elvira’s feelings, although this time he gives her an ultimatum: either she stops acting like a jealous wife or he will leave her for good. Tired of the jealousies of his wife and mistress, Don Álvaro walks out, leaving Elvira more determined than ever to complicate matters for the deceitful married couples. Eugenia, angered by rejection, tells her husband that Don Álvaro has made a move on her; Valerián vows to pursue Ipólita both for his own pleasure and as revenge against his friend.


On the way back home Elvira teases Galíndez, who leaves the two women alone. Ipólita then asks Elvira/Antonio to confirm her suspicions that her husband has been unfaithful while he was away, and that he is now pursuing Eugenia. Elvira uses the opportunity to give her Valerián’s letter, saying that it is from her husband Don Álvaro to Eugenia. Just then Don Álvaro enters and Ipólita confronts Don Álvaro with the note, which he reads and realizes immediately was meant for her instead. He demands to know how far Valerián has gone with Ipólita, while she denies everything; Don Álvaro considers taking Eugenia as revenge, but decides instead to feign ignorance until he has proof.


Eugenia arrives, having made plans with Ipólita earlier to see a play, and invites Don Álvaro to go with them. While they wait for Valerián to join them, Elvira decides to stir up some mischief with the other servants and pretends to give Galíndez and Pierres notes from the servant girls they want to seduce. She then sees Valerián and entangles him further, giving him the note his wife wrote for Don Álvaro and claiming it is for him from Ipólita. He joins the others, elated because he believes that Ipólita is finally succumbing to his advances.


On the way to the play, everyone hides their true state. The men escort each other’s wives as an act of “good faith,” which is really a test to see how everyone reacts. Meanwhile Elvira plays a trick on Galíndez, tying him up and painting his face with the help of Pierres and his foreign friends. The couples are interrupted by Galíndez’s cries for help, but once they untie him they realize it was all a trick by Elvira/Antonio and continue on their way, amused by the antics of the servants.


Act III begins with Don Álvaro demanding to know who gave Elvira the letter for Ipólita, threatening her if she refuses to answer. She tells him that Valerián wrote the note, but that she lied to Ipólita because her love for Don Álvaro had made her so jealous. He laments Valerián’s betrayal, stating that no man he has met is as loyal as he is, and vows to kill his old friend. Elvira pleads with him to calm down, and they enter his study for some privacy. Galíndez arrives in time to hear Don Álvaro praise his cross-dressed lover’s beauty and to see them embrace; as he spies through the keyhole, he becomes convinced that they have a homosexual relationship. Ipólita enters and Galíndez tells her what he has just seen, then invites her to see for herself. Horrified, Ipólita begs Galíndez to get her brother immediately, although she pretends to know nothing when Elvira/Antonio enters. Elvira apologizes for the trick with the letter and convinces Ipólita that Don Álvaro plans to kill her, his own wife, that night, advising her to leave her room as soon as her husband leaves the house. Ipólita is at her wit’s end when her brother Leonardo arrives, leaving Elvira free to set up Galíndez for her final trick.


Ipólita tells Leonardo what she thinks she saw, and he proposes to take her marriage contract to a judge to have the marriage annulled, suggesting that Ipólita hide in a room other than her own while she waits. Elvira goes to Eugenia and tells her that she can arrange a secret meeting between her and Don Álvaro, and then promises to do the same for Valerián with Ipólita. With that arranged, Elvira must answer to an angry Pierres, upset because he has received a note which Elvira claims is from the servant girl Rafaela, but is actually from Galíndez. Elvira convinces Pierres that his love will be waiting to meet him that night, when in fact it will be Galíndez. With her traps set, Elvira escorts Eugenia to Ipólita’s room, where she has also sent Valerián. Her trick serves a double purpose: not only will the cheating spouses end up being “unfaithful” to each other, Don Álvaro will believe that his wife has been seduced by Valerián. Elvira sets her plans in motion, first escorting Pierres, dressed as a woman, to Galíndez’s quarters, then making sure that Valerián enters the room where his wife is.


The confusion culminates when Leonardo returns with officers of the law to settle the matter of the “illegal” marriage, only to find Don Álvaro, dressed in a nightshirt, ready to kill Valerián after finding him in Ipólita’s room. Leonardo and the officers stop him from killing Valerián, with everyone thoroughly confused when Eugenia exits the room in fear. Just then Pierres, still dressed as a woman, enters fighting with Galíndez, each trying to kill the other for the trick played on them. Ipólita comes out to investigate the noise, and the officer in charge demands an explanation.


Elvira steps forward and confesses that she is a woman, and responsible for the confusion. Valerián seizes the chance to reveal that he paid for Eugenia’s first husband to be killed so they could marry. The constables agree with Valerián’s claim that this is enough to nullify the marriage, freeing him from any obligation to her. The officer in charge, a bailiff of the Archbishop, then informs Don Álvaro and Ipólita that their marriage has been annulled because they never had the necessary paperwork to make it legally binding. With the marriages dissolved, Elvira surprises everyone, especially Don Álvaro, by declaring that she will return to Zaragoza. After witnessing first hand the awful deceit and disillusion of married life, she decides she would rather be a nun and avoid the whole mess.




Unhappily Married humorously imagines the ins and outs of unrequited love, jealousy, and betrayal, and puts them in motion via various theatrical tools. Guillén de Castro creates a hilarious, action-packed, and quick-witted platform for telling the truth about our hearts’ desires in the context of marriage and strict social norms. At a time when society’s rules favored men, and disorder was punished by sword or sheriff, Castro gives female characters the agency to confuse their counterparts in the quest for love, and even to reject marriage. Women and servants are afforded the tools of irony and revelation, allowing an audience to discover the systematic injustices of patriarchy that the play charts. Castro juxtaposes dialogues, asides, and wordplay that toy with notions of honor, commitment, and the institution of marriage.


The characters openly hate their marriages and simultaneously hatch secret schemes against their spouses, so that it becomes difficult to determine just how much each character knows about the others. The constant asides offer different levels of insight into the spousal relationships and the dexterity of Elvira’s scheming throughout. In early modern Spanish theater, asides are an important theatrical practice: they add psychological depth, playfully engage the audience with a character, and offer social commentary about the events of the play as they unfold. The characters in Unhappily Married are not exactly likeable, yet they are profoundly relatable, a feat that Castro accomplishes in large part by having them speak their minds in the asides. These moments give us insight into past hurts, current jealousies, and motivations for how the characters react, as well as conveying joy, dismay, or anger, often solely expressed through asides.


Beyond the asides, Castro conveys motivation, psychological depth, and complex relationships through staging and dialogue. Many of the most important scenes are staged as juxtaposed duologues, where pairs of characters hold entirely separate, often parallel conversations on different parts of the stage. In Act I, for example, the characters become separated from their spouses and instead are paired with each other’s, Valerián with Ipólita and Eugenia with Don Álvaro, with the former attempting to seduce the latter. This scene ends when both couples, each having its own exchange of seduction and refusal, end up in the same room:


Enter VALERIÁN and IPÓLITA without seeing the others


IPÓLITA Stop, on your life.


VALERIÁN My love will not allow me.






DON ÁLVARO Who says so?


VALERIÁN I’m crazy for you.


DON ÁLVARO You’re not yourself.


IPÓLITA If you insist,

I will let the whole world know.


EUGENIA My lord!


IPÓLITA (Aside) Oh, heavens!

They all see each other (421–431)


Before the two pairs see each other, their dialogue plays like a game of ping-pong. When the stage directions finally indicate that the spousal pairs become aware of the other’s presence, we can imagine them on opposite ends of the stage, each one eyeing his or her respective spouse nervously as they all make their way toward center stage. This is one of Castro’s favorite staging and dialogue techniques, used to great effect to map out the complicated set of relationships between the characters. Such scenes also increase the ambiguity of the marriages and their secrets. How much does each character know? How much do they suspect? While the audience ponders these questions, it becomes clear that the best informed, or at least the most vocal about her knowledge, is the mistress Elvira.


Elvira has access to information and secrets because, as far as most of the others are concerned, she is merely a servant and thus poses no threat: she is asked to deliver adulterous love letters, she is there when Eugenia declares her love to Don Álvaro the second time, and she witnesses all of Ipólita and Don Álvaro’s fights. Her status as a servant also makes her a confidante to the other characters—someone with whom they can share their secrets and woes, without having to worry these will be used against them. Ipólita continues to trust her even after witnessing the love scene between “Antonio” and her husband, believing the disguised mistress when Elvira says that Don Álvaro plans to kill poor Ipólita. And yet, there is some indication that Elvira’s disguise is not as convincing as it seems. Eugenia and Valerián’s constant comments about how witty and beautiful “Antonio” is hint at their knowing or suspecting more than they let on.




Beyond its unique portrayal of married life, Unhappily Married also provides insight into the domestic life of the urban nobility, exemplified by two scenes in which the characters engage in the leisure activities of their class. Plays reflected the common people’s fascination with court life through the extensive portrayal of games that both the nobility and the wealthy merchant classes played to pass the time. Economic privilege allowed for leisure time, and parlor games were often represented on stage as a way to move the plot forward or give context to relationships between characters. This is the case in Unhappily Married, where parlor games and references to theatrical events are opportunities for the characters to voice their true desires or concerns. The first of these is the juego de letras, or alphabet game, which takes up the latter half of Act I. Such games were typical of the teatro cortesano, or courtly theater, as the spectacle and pageantry of court and festival life often made their way into more commercial plays. In this scene, the characters lay it all out on the table, acting out their desires to the amusement of some and the displeasure of others.


The second of these moments, perhaps odder for a modern reader, occurs at the end of Act II, as Eugenia and Ipólita prepare for an evening’s entertainment in the form of a comedia at a local merchant’s house. Meanwhile, in a capsule scene separate from the main plot, the cross-dressed Elvira plays a mean trick on the squire Galíndez. As the characters themselves note, this scene could very well be the entremés or comic interlude for the play the characters are on their way to see, while functioning metatheatrically as the comic interlude for Castro’s own play. This scene has its roots in other forms of traditional Valencian theater, which often had episodic comic moments only loosely related to the central plot, similar to the set pieces from commedia dell’arte and the later entremeses played between acts of long-form theater. Even the stock characters of traditional theater and the short-form entremés appear: the foreign fool (Pierres), the crotchety old man (Galíndez), the passionate woman (Eugenia), the effeminate, cowardly husband (Valerián), the womanizer (Don Álvaro). While the amused reaction of the characters to the cruel trick may strike us as callous, it is important to keep in mind that in the theatrical context of performance the entremés exists as a no-holds-barred moment that is meant to take the audience, momentarily, out of the action, suspending the higher-stakes narrative of the comedia. While Galíndez is humiliated in a way which would normally call for disgust and horror, his treatment is standard for an entremés; it elicits laughter despite its violence not only because comedy of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century derived its humor more cruelly than modern sensibilities are accustomed to, but also because the scene has been carefully transformed, metatheatrically, into an entremés. Galíndez is no longer Don Álvaro and Ipólita’s loyal servant but rather el vejete, the archetypal old man always worthy of ridicule in the context of the comic interlude. This scene provides an excellent opportunity for the modern director to bracket the scene with a different acting style, a sketch comedy routine, or even a bit of improv, in the same spirit of the seventeenth-century entremés.




The dissolution of the marriages in the final scene is a unique element of this play, in stark contract to typical Golden Age comedias urbanas. It is important to note that what occurs at the end cannot rightly be called divorce, for divorce as such did not exist in seventeenth-century Spain (it only became legal there in 1981). The only hope unhappily married couples had for the dissolution of marriage was annulment or, of course, for one of the spouses to die. Unlike in Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s bloody wife-murder plays, which were written some decades after Mal casados, no spouses are killed in this play. Instead, the plot leads to a totally unexpected, and unprecedented, dissolution of marriage based on legal technicalities and not a little fudging of the truth. Castro was clearly well informed on all the valid reasons for annuling a marriage, as the list was very short:


[C]ases of annulment of marriage were also very exceptional and were related to the husband’s impotence or “the wife’s extreme reticence,” which prevented consummation, the young age of the spouses, clandestine marriages or enforced marriages following abduction, consanguinity, the solemn vow [to enter religious life] of one of the spouses, bigamy, or the murder of the previous spouse in order to be able to remarry.


In Unhappily Married, Ipólita’s brother Leonardo convinces himself—and more importantly, convinces the Archbishop’s bailiffs—that the papal dispensation required for Don Álvaro and Ipólita’s marriage to a cousin was never properly notarized, thereby nullifying the entire thing. Meanwhile, Eugenia and Valerián’s marriage is nullified through the very specific and oddly fitting technicality of the period which declared that in the case of the murder of one spouse for the purposes of marriage to another, the second marriage would be null and void. It is also interesting to note that while the bailiffs admit that Valerián owes nothing to Eugenia due to the murder of her first husband, neither one is brought up on charges; apparently, their horrible marriage has been punishment enough.


“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.” So says Mr. Spock, of Star Trek fame, about a marriage gained through duplicitous means. This certainly seems to be the case for the unhappy couples of this seventeenth-century play, for whom the circumstances of marriage in both cases seem to have required more trouble than they were ultimately worth. From beginning to end, the characters are so dissatisfied with their marriages that they are more than a little relieved to find themselves free of their spouses when the curtain closes. Of all the characters, Elvira seems to have learned this hard lesson best: after nursing jealous desires for Don Álvaro during most of the play, her decision to remain single and become a nun comes as another shock in an already surprising denouement. It is clear, however, that her experience with these toxic marriages has shown her that achieving one’s desires does not always lead to a happily-ever-after. Rather than try for marriage with Don Álvaro, who has proven himself to be a suavely manipulative husband fond of gaslighting his spouse, Elvira opts to forgo marriage altogether by joining a convent.




Unhappily Married in Valencia, based on Eduardo Julia Martínez’s 1927 edition of Los mal casados de Valencia, was translated by Laura Muñoz and Veronica Wilson and workshopped by the UCLA working group The Comedia in Translation and Performance. Directed by Dr. Barbara Fuchs and sponsored by the Center for 17th– and 18th-Century Studies, this working group is comprised of UCLA graduate students, local theater practitioners and Golden Age scholars. An adaption of the play, written by Luciano García Lorenzo, toured in Spain in 1994 and again in 2013. More recently, in 2014, a modernized English adaptation by Laurel Ollstein, also entitled Unhappily Married in Valencia, was read on the grounds of UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library as part of Golden Tongues, a performance series in association with Playwrights’ Arena that aims to engage local Los Angeles playwrights with the rich corpus of Golden Age Spanish plays.


Condensed to one hour, Ollstein’s adaptation was drawn from only a synopsis and a few scenes translated by Kathleen Jeffs on Out of the Wings, an online database of Spanish-language plays for English language researchers and practitioners. Ollstein moved the action to Valencia, California, a neighborhood in Santa Clarita which was founded in the 18th century as part of Spanish colonizing and missionary efforts. Skipping any reference to a painful history of Colonial Spain in the Americas, Ollstein’s adaptation focuses on today’s Los Angeles: Don Álvaro is Alvy, a literature professor at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts). In this context, Valencia provides a contemporary suburban setting where isolated couples look for love in all the wrong places.


In Ollstein’s words, her play is an “edgy farce about two mismatched married couples living in Valencia, California, each of them searching for something different than what they have, leading to declarations of love for their neighbors’ spouses, going off meds, and one husband’s mistress (or mister) manipulating everyone.” Ollstein’s main twist is Elvira’s character—not a cross-dressed woman but a gay man who returns from a poetry conference with Alvy. Despite gender changes and an abbreviated plot, Ollstein conveys the enduring themes from Castro’s play, bringing modern audiences closer to Spain’s classical theater and illuminating human experiences that have not changed much between then and now.




Although the movement from verse to prose and a modernization of spelling and punctuation are the only substantive textual manipulations in our translation, the dialogue of minor character Pierres did force us to deviate from our standard translation from Castilian to English. Pierres, a character of uncertain origin, is an interesting anomaly for Spanish theater of the period, given that he does not speak Castilian, the standard language of long-form comedia. Pierres is referred to by the other characters as a gabacho, a term which might be familiar to a modern-day audience of Spanish speakers as a somewhat derogatory term for people speak Spanish poorly. This, as it turns out, is not too dissimilar from its seventeenth-century usage, when it was used to describe people of the who left the region of the lower Pyrenees, and moved south into the Kingdom of Aragon in search of work. The stereotype of the gabacho, willing to do the most menial and degrading tasks to earn money before returning home, is well documented in the Diccionario de Autoridades. We have chosen to keep this term as used in the original, because there is no one word in English that would cover the complexity of the Spanish.


Pierres has been a complicated character to translate: he speaks an odd combination of standard Catalan, Valencian dialect, possibly some Occitan, and Castilian of the period. He is described as a drunkard and uneducated to boot. The other characters refer to him as a Frenchman, though he speaks no recognizable French. We have chosen to translate this character with a combination of languages in an attempt to parallel the complicated language mixture used in the original, in this case with a combination of Catalan, Spanish, English, and French, which should also be made comprehensible through context and gestures. In cases where a gesture will suffice to make the meaning clear, we have attempted to leave in as much as the original language as possible, with translated footnotes where necessary.