Out of the Wings

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Historiography of the Spanish Golden Age

Although research undertaken in the last 100 years or so has provided us with a good understanding of the world of the theatre in Early Modern Spain, and the types of stage on which and playhouse in which drama was performed, no single contemporaneous, eye-witness account of a Golden Age play has come down to us. We can only guess at the styles of acting employed and we have to piece together many other details of performance (costume, staging, use of music and special visual and sound effects) from sparse stage directions and other disparate sources. In this partial vacuum it is always difficult to know how a particular play might have been received in the theatre. When we add to this lack of information the almost complete absence of a performance tradition for Golden Age drama (at least in its original form) throughout much of the eighteenth, the nineteenth and a good portion of the twentieth century, we can see that the sum of what we know about performance of Golden Age drama is small.

One of the by-products of the recent increase in interest in Golden Age drama, exemplified in particular by the creation of the Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico in Madrid (the closest organisation in Spain to the Royal Shakespeare Company), is that some scholars and critics have begun to show an interest in Golden Age drama as theatre to be performed. For a long time, the plays of Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, Calderón de la Barca and their fellow dramatists were treated in the academy rather as if they were novels or long poems, as if they were primarily literature. In this regard scholars of Spanish Golden Age drama have been slow (understandably, with very few performances at their disposal) to catch up with the sort of developments that the study of the plays of Shakespeare and his English contemporaries have undergone. When many productions of Golden Age plays are introducing an audience to the play in question for the first time, there is self-evidently no cultural memory involved in its reception the way there is for critics and other audience members who sit down to watch an interpretation of Twelfth Night or even The Changeling in London or Stratford. Much can be learned, as English scholars have discovered over recent decades, from the performance of older drama, from 'versions' of plays, interpretations against the grain or produced within specific cultural circumstances, such as wartime or periods of censorship.

The performance of Golden Age plays (indeed any Spanish-language plays) in translation, and out of a Hispanic context, promises to teach us a great deal about the universality of this drama, as well as about the specific relevance it has and ways it can be understood and interpreted in English-speaking contexts. Modern performances of plays from the selection by the Golden Age dramatists will also, however, shed light on the possibilities of their original performance and reception, as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2004 season of these plays amply demonstrated.

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