I've taken the liberty of lifting this article from the October issue of Prospect. I hope the author doesn't mind . . .
Spain’s hidden treasure
Spanish golden age drama is more than a match for Shakespeare and co., argues James Woodall.
When the National Theatre stages a play by a 17th-century Spanish friar this month, it might seem as if a jewel of exquisite rarity were going on display. To an English-speaking audience, the 16th and 17th centuries are the era of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and co—the undisputed master dramatists of their age. Yet for power and sheer productivity, the Spanish Golden Age—the Siglo de Oro, 1580-1680—is more than a match. Extant plays in Castilian outnumber, by many hundreds, all the work of the playwrights of Elizabethan and Stuart England put together.
Opening at the National Theatre is one of them. Damned by Despair, by Tirso de Molina, is a fascinatingly dense study of criminality and redemption. It concerns a pious hermit who chooses to test his and others’ commitment to God; but the Devil leads the hermit astray and links his fate with that of Enrico, a Neapolitan outlaw. With a femme fatale adding some glamour, the story becomes an allegory about who deserves heaven—the contrasting men being, it is thought, two sides of the playwright himself: one contemplative, one of action. Frank McGuinness’s taut, colloquial adaptation keeps the play, clearly of its time, thrillingly contemporary.
Tirso de Molina was an exceptional figure born at an exceptional moment in history. In the late 16th century Spain was enriching itself on magnificent plunder from its transatlantic empire. Painters, musicians and writers flocked to its relatively new capital, Madrid (chosen in 1561 over Toledo, just to the south). By the 1620s, the arts under Philip III were flourishing with a profusion unparalleled elsewhere in Europe. This was the glittering era of Miguel de Cervantes, the painter Diego Velázquez, the master playwright Lope de Vega—a great influence on Tirso—and composer Tomás Luis de Victoria.
Tirso joined the religious Order of the Merced in 1600 and led an itinerant life, including two years in Santo Domingo, and periods of banishment from Madrid in Seville and Cuenca. Of the 100-plus plays Tirso probably wrote, around 70 survive. Though little biographical data about him remains, the reason for his being cast out by the Order—and despite his nom de plume—was almost certainly his profane plays.
This cleric knew, in his head at least, an unholy amount about the human libido. An abiding Tirso creation was none other than Don Juan, the protagonist of The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, which was first performed around 1616. It provides the template for the most compelling man in western art, and the most priapic.
What was going on here—a Catholic priest writing apparently lewd dramas which were neither censored nor shelved?
There was a rampant public appetite for drama in imperial Spain. By the 1580s, courtyards—“corrales”—were being used as theatres, with a platform thrusting out into a space for spectators, similar to the theatrical environments, open to the sky, that Shakespeare knew. In Madrid there were two corrales: the Príncipe and the Cruz. Here, dramas such as those by Lope de Vega—the age’s most prolific playwright by far—and of course Tirso’s, were performed for audiences hungry for tales of transgression, sex, revenge and salvation. Plays flew from these writers’ desks like news scripts. Like Shakespeare they knew what their punters wanted; and unlike in Shakespeare’s time, women were not legally barred from acting. This was real, human stuff—“planks, people and a passion,” to adapt very loosely a celebrated Lope definition of theatre.
Tirso, Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca constitute a redoubtable triumvirate of 17th-century Spanish drama. (Even Cervantes began his career as a dramatist.) Of the three Tirso had the most acute insights into human nature. Calderón, who died aged 81 in 1681, was a great poet, a perfectionist, a philosophical pessimist, and monastic. His 1630s play, Life Is a Dream, with its themes of mental isolation, vengeance and life’s illusory thinness, is regularly and widely performed.
Not so the plays of Lope, who might have written some 1,500, of which around 400 remain and are known to be by him. Through a 60-year career, he produced plays of intrigue, of honour defiled and restored, historical dramas, romances and comedies. Some titles, because they have had occasional outings in English, will be familiar: Fuenteovejuna, Punishment without Revenge, The Dog in the Manger.
Though not a poet of Calderón’s stature—think more Orton crossed with Ayckbourn—Lope was prodigiously popular in his lifetime. His industry alone was responsible for the huge business that was Spanish theatre in the mid-17th century, a fecundity that has never been matched. For sheer, bold inventiveness only Athens in the 5th century BC and late-Elizabethan London can rival it.
If today Lope and Co remain a hard sell, it’s not least because of patchy translation of their plays. Tirso at the National Theatre this month is the tip of a gigantic iceberg. If McGuinness or any other potential translator-adapter out there is keen, consider this: around another 1,999 Golden Age Spanish plays are available.