Out of the Wings

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Modern Spanish Theatre

The word 'modern' is open to much debate – particularly perhaps in the context of Spain, whose cultural history has been unmistakably shaped by the special brand of sham politics that served to isolate the country from the rest of Europe for great swathes of time from the Enlightenment on.

For the theatre-goer, of course, the epithet 'modern' seems to promise a play that will at least make some sort of call on the contemporary attention. But part of the transformative process of the translation of any play, regardless of its time and place, is precisely to ensure that such a call is activated. It is partly for that reason that this project offers a wide interpretation of what the modern period of Spanish theatre may be, and partly because there are undoubtedly plays and authors lurking in the Early Modern period that remain absolutely unknown to, and unrecognised by, the end-users for whom this resource is designed.

As the resource grows it will become as comprehensive – or at least as representatively comprehensive – as possible, and it will range in scope from the last decade of the eighteenth century, and the theatre of Leandro Fernández de Moratín, to new plays currently on stage in the major cities of Spain.

The five comedies of Moratín, performed between 1790 and 1806, represent not solely a late-flowering Enlightenment in which radical liberal rationalism was to take root, but they also give voice to that growing bourgeois strand in Spain that refused to pact with the feudal and which would have no truck with the romantics or irrationalists. Moratín is, in that sense at least, the father of the modern Spanish drama. In many ways he bequeathed a paradigm for much theatre writing in the modern period – there is no real difference of technique, rhythm or vision, for example, between Moratín and Spain’s two Nobel-Prize-winning dramatists of the early twentieth century – Echegaray and Benavente.

This is clearly a good place to begin, with a significant playwright virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. It is a choice that signals that this resource is primarily conceived as an enabling one, not canonical in either spirit or structure, but, indeed, one that in many ways runs counter to the claims of canonicity.

It is a commonly-accepted idea, for example, that nineteenth-century Spain produced no theatre of any international interest. Even the most successful play of the period, Don Juan Tenorio, by the romantic poet José Zorrilla, which is performed every year in the Teatro Español, was generally held to be little more than a self-absorbed national tradition. But theatre constantly reinvents itself, and in order to do so very often has to look at unsuspected sources. Ranjit Bolt’s translation – The Real Don Juan – became a major success in 1990.

And even apparently internationally-known writers like García Lorca and Valle-Inclán are represented in the English imagination by a mere handful of their plays, so that it is perfectly possible still to speak of the unknown Lorca or the still-to-be-discovered Valle-Inclán. The modern period of Spanish theatre is still to a large extent limited on the English-speaking stage to a handful of plays by these two writers. Out of the Wings certainly does not challenge the right of those plays to be considered masterpieces of international theatre. But it will also present for the first time to the English-speaking practitioner the much wider riches of the modern Spanish stage.

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