Spain’s Golden Age of Theatre – From Liturgical Drama to Zarzuela and Comedia nueva
Introduction to Spain’s Golden Age of Theatre
Just as Italy and England had their own its own theatre Renaissance, Spain had its renaissance or Golden Age of theatre. Spain’s Golden Age went for almost 100 years from 1585 through until about 1685. The sources of influence for the emerging national theatre of Spain of this period were as diverse as the theatre that nation ended up producing. Storytelling traditions originating in Italian Commedia dell’arte, minstrel entertainments and long poetic narratives and liturgical dramas are some of the influences. This period saw the performing arts being patronized and saw not only an increase in the number of plays written and performed but also the emergence of some of the greatest playwright’s in the Spanish language. The patronage and support of Spanish aristocrats meant that theatre flourished in Spain during this period. This meant that theatre also opened itself up to the working classes and was a highly accessible art form for all Spanish people.
The number and variety of Spanish plays written and performed during the Golden Age was unprecedented in the history of world theatre, surpassing, for example, the output of the English Renaissance writers by three to four times. Around 30,000 plays were produced over this period in Spain and they varied in style and subject matter. In its own time, this prolific production helped to contribute to theatre's accessibility in Spain.
What separated Spain’s Renaissance in theatre from the renaissance dramas of Italy and England is that Spain’s renaissance simultaneously included secular and religious dramas and saw the development of both forms. Additionally, state sponsored drama existed harmoniously alongside popular for-profit theatre, with many theatre artists contributing significantly to both. Stylistically, plays ranged from commedia style plays to dramas to operas to greek style tragedies. Some specifically Spanish forms of drama such as Zarzuela and Comedia nueva were developed
Spanish Liturgical Drama
From the 12th Century onwards, Spain had developed a rich history of Liturgical Drama. The oldest Liturgical Drama Auto de los Reyes Magos which dates from around the 1145 was written in old Spanish. By the 16th century, Easter Passion Plays and Christmas Liturgical Dramas (particularly those that told the story of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus) were popular through many regions of Spain. A popular story which often appeared in Easter pagaents was the visiting of Mary to Jesus’ grave after his resurrection and this was a story often performed in Miracle plays of this period.
Lope de Vega
One of the greatest playwright’s of this period and a contemporary of Shakespeare, was Lope de Vega, the most prolific playwright of all time. He wrote about 1500-1800 plays. His plays ranged in style from pastoral romances such as La Arcadia (1598) to fantastical fictionalized histories such as the story of Sir Francis Drake’s last expedition as told in La Dragontea (1598) to morality dramas such as Las Flores de Don Juan (1605) to his Honor Plays. However, during his day, Lope de Vega was most well known for his invention of the Three Act comedia. In 1609, Lope de Vega published his artistic manifesto Arte Nuevo de hacer comedias en este tiempo to validate his innovations and his break away from the traditional three unities of place, time and action. Lope de Vega boasted that many of his comedies only took 24 hours to write. Many of these comedies can be described as having capa y espada (cloak and dagger) plots. His most well known works today are El perro del hortelano (‘The Dog in the Manger’) and La viuda de Valencia (‘The Widow of Valencia’).
Baroque Zarzuela and the
Some styles or forms of comic drama started to emerge and come to prominence during this period and one of the most famous of these was the Zarzuela form. This is a form of lyric drama which is like musical theatre in that the dialogue and action alternates between spoken dialogue and dialogue which is sung. This form of drama during this period is sometimes referred to as Baroque Zarzuela to distinguish it from the Romantic Zarzuela’s developed in Spain during the 19th century. The Zarzuela form had an influence and developed in many Spanish colonies including in the Philippines where it is known as sarsuela. One of the most significant playwrights of this form during this Golden Age was Calderon de la Barca. Other important figures were Gil Vicente, Lope de Rueda and Juan del Zorrilla who are said to have helped developed the Commedia Nueva form. Two of the last of the playwrights of this Golden Age were Tirso de Molina and Juan Rana.
Spain’s Golden Age of Theatre Practical Exercises and Discussion
Do a reading of the following extract from Lope de Vega’s The Demoniac. Discuss the style of the piece. How might non-naturalistic acting styles such as commedia dell’arte, musical theatre, melodrama and demonstrational acting help you to develop and perform this scene.
INES, his Daughter
PEDRO, INES’S Lover
A Street. ENTER GIL and PASCUAL.
Gil. No, master wiseacre, you had better not engage in a contest with me; you would be sure to get the worst of it.
Pas. Silence, fool! I contest with you? Your wits are far from great enough to tempt me to match mine against them. Everything you say is as complete folly as ever I heard in my life.
Gil. Folly, it seems to you? Listen to me. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am a hunter, have my musket slung across my back, and come across country to an inn. Seven sparrows are sitting on the roof of the inn. I take aim and kill two. How many remain?
Pas. A question, forsooth, to puzzle wiser heads. If there were seven sparrows to begin with, and two are killed, five remain. Surely, that’s clear?
Gil. Now I’ll show you what an ass you are. If I kill two with my musket, the other five fly off. That’s clear as day!
Pas. To be sure!
Gil. Hence none remain.
Pas. I grant that I’m beaten.
Gil. Do you see that fellow coming up here? We had better go, for the devil walks abroad.
Pedro. Thank Heaven they are gone. I can hardly step out into the street without meeting these enemies of my heart; for that they are. It is their master’s daughter who, fair as an angel, so fills my soul that I may neither eat nor sleep, but ever like a rocket ascend athwart the sky. It is her wish to speak to me at this hour. Hist! hist, lady!
Ines (at window). Who is there?
Pedro. Who could it be but I — I, whose soul is steeped in adoration of the divine beauty of your eyes!
Ines. Leave compliments aside, and never cross the street again. My father and my brothers have become aware of the way you haunt our house, and it has caused me great annoyance. Therefore, go! Good luck to you, but never return.
Pedro. Is this possible, sweet lady? Can you drive me away thus? I must return! Leave me not so forsaken in the world!
Further Readings and Resources on Spain’s Golden Age of Theatre
de Armas, F. 2004. Writing for the Eyes in the Spanish Golden Age. Bucknell University Press. Lewisburg.
Frier, F.R. 1977. Lope de Vega. Insel Press. Frankfurt am Main.
Ibanez, M.A.P. 2004. Lope de Vega: Edicion y Estudio. Eneida Press. Madrid.
Larson, D. 1977. The Honor Plays of Lope de Vega. Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA.
Trueblood, A. 1974. Existence and Artistic Expression in Lope de Vega. Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA.