Antiquity through the Eighteenth Century: Spanish Theater


Spanish Theater, 1580–1700

  • The “Golden Age” of Spanish literature, art, and dramatic theater arose with Spain’s emergence as a European power in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
  • Prior to the Golden Age, Spain was under Muslim rule until Christian armies took over after winning the Battle of Granada (1492).
  • Spain was unified in 1469 through the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile.
  • Catholicism predominated in Spain; the Protestant Reformations sweeping much of northern Europe were prevented by the Spanish Inquisition.
  • The legacy of Muslim occupation led to a focus on Honor in Spanish plays, and the Catholic influence kept secular and religious theater separate.

Religious Drama: autos sacramentales

  • These dramas celebrated the mystery of the Eucharist by mixing the human, supernatural, and allegorical.
  • They were performed in two or four carros (two-story wagons) in parades around Madrid and other cities as part of the Corpus Christi processions.
  • They were produced by trade guilds until the mid-sixteenth century when municipal authorities produced them at great expense.
  • They were performed by professional acting troupes and mixed civic and religious authority.

Public Theater: The corrales

  • Professional public theater was established in Spain’s major cities during the 1570s.
  • The Corral de la Cruz, built in 1579, was Madrid’s first permanent theater.
  • Corrales originated from courtyard performances, and were constructed within rectangular courtyards enclosed by buildings on three sides. The stage was raised with a permanent backdrop, and a patio for standing spectators was placed in the upper levels.
  • Alojerias were refreshment booths and above them were galleries for more spectators: cazuelas (reserved for women), and aposentos (box seats).
  • Audiences were often lively and unruly.
  • Corrales were originally licensed to charitable organizations, which used performance to support hospitals and aid the poor.
  • In 1615 Madrid assumed control and hired companies made up of actor-managers (autores), actors, and apprentices, subject to government rules.
  • After 1603 only licensed companies could work in Spain, and licenses were limited in availability.
  • Unemployed actors joined the compañías de la legua (“companies of the road”) and performed in the countryside.
  • Companies could not perform in one place for more than two months annually, and only one company was permitted to perform at that location.
  • Women were licensed to perform in 1587, but this practice remained controversial until 1599, when a royal decree stipulated that only women married to company members could perform.
  • Female and male actors could not dress in clothing of the opposite sex, though women disguised as men wore male clothing above the waist with a skirt below.

Theater at Court

  • Court performances emerged during the seventeenth century during Philip II’s reign (1598–1621) at Alcazar, the royal palace.
  • In 1633 Buen Retiro—a new palace on the outskirts of Madrid—became the center for court entertainment; in 1640 by Italian set designers supervised the  establishment of the Coliseo, a permanent outdoor theater.
  • Cosimo Lotti (1571–1643) engineered a special stage above lake waters with a silver chariot drawn across the surface by two large fish, and a mountain was transformed into a palace in Calderon’s Love is the Greatest Enchantment (1635).

Spanish Golden Age Drama

  • Autores de comedias wrote plays performed by early professional troupes.
  • During the 1590s comedia nueva (new drama) became the most popular dramatic form.
  • Comedia nueva consisted of three-act plays in varied verse, mixing high and low, tragedy and comedy, and utilized plots from history, myth and legend, the Bible, popular ballads, and Italian novella.
  • Comedia nueva consisted of subgenres included comedias de capa y espada—cape-and-sword plays featuring romance and intrigue, and comedias de costumbres—comedies of manners.
  • Typical characters included the caballero (gentleman), galán (cavalier), dama (lady), and gracioso (fool).
  • Lope de Vega Carpio (1562–1635) was the foremost dramatist for comedia nueva, writing 1,500 plays. Lope abandoned classical rules in favor of verisimilitude.
  • Tirso de Molina (ca. 1571–1648) authored the Trickster of Seville—the earliest version of the Don Juan story.
  • Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–1681) was a leading figure in the corrales and in the court of Philip IV; he also became such a master of the autos sacramentale form that between 1647 and 1681 he wrote all of the autos produced in Madrid.

Legacy of Golden Age Drama

  • Calderón’s death marked the end of Spanish Golden Age drama, and later works mirrored the state of Spain as it was weakened and demoralized by a century of wars, declining wealth, and influence.
  • Spanish drama found its legacy in the Americas and Philippines (e.g., the Philippine komedya, derived from European romances brought by Spanish soldiers).
  • Mexican scholar, poet, and nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648?–1695) completed nearly 30 autos sacramentales, comedies, and loas (preludes).
  • Theater of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain provided the world with its first global drama.