Out of the Wings

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Spanish Golden Age

The term 'Golden Age' (or Siglo de Oro in Spanish) is used to describe what is broadly the Early Modern period in Spain, a time of extraordinary artistic flowering. The period stretches from the mid sixteenth century to the death of the great playwright, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, in 1681. This is the period in which Miguel de Cervantes wrote the first modern novel, Don Quijote (1605 and 1615), when the 'painters' painter', Diego de Velázquez, was producing his astonishing canvases for the court, when Spanish culture was spreading irresistibly to the New World and throughout the Old. It is also the time when, in parallel with Shakespeare’s England, a new type of drama took hold in newly-fashioned playhouses in Madrid and the other major cities of the Iberian peninsula. Although there was a lively tradition of theatrical performance in Spain before the 1580s, it was the coming of age of Lope de Vega, during the last two decades of the sixteenth century, that ensured that Golden Age Spain would produce such a vibrant and far-reaching dramatic legacy. Lope was the leader of a first generation of dramatists who included the monk-playwright Tirso de Molina, Guillén de Castro, Mira de Amescua, Ruiz de Alarcón, Vélez de Guevara and a host of more minor but still much admired and highly successful figures. And it was Lope’s new type of theatre, a blend of the popular and the classical which became known as the comedia nueva, that inspired a second wave of dramatists in the mid seventeenth century, this time more closely associated with the court of the play-loving monarch, Philip IV. These included Calderón de la Barca and his ‘school’: Moreto, Rojas Zorrilla and the Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Despite its richness, Golden Age drama is not well known outside academic settings. When performed in translation it tends still to have a novelty value. The reasons for this are several: in Spain, the drama has been successively, although never universally, mistrusted, rejected as formally inept, rewritten, abused for political purposes, and misunderstood. It is not possible to talk of a performance tradition for the comedia nueva in the way it is for English or French drama of the same period. Beyond Spanish borders, despite the attentions of pockets of admirers in different parts and in different periods, it has tended to suffer because of its perceived foreignness: the polymetric poetry in which it was written (in which verse forms change, often to suit different speakers or circumstances) has been seen as an obstacle to successful translation, and the concerns of the plots have seemed to some to be rather particular to Spain. In recent years, however, both within and outside Spain, there is strong evidence of a renaissance in Golden Age theatre. The more consistent testing of these plays on the stage, and the renewed interest which accompanies it, can only help to erode the misconceptions and ignorance that so often surround them and create a performance tradition that will allow understanding to develop.

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