(Comedia in the Classroom Position Paper)
Reconstructing the “Renaissance” Through Comedia
by Harley Erdman
Associate Professor of Theater, University of Massachusetts/Amherst
As a dramaturgy professor in a production-oriented theater department who teaches world repertory courses required for undergraduate majors, I have not had the opportunity to offer a stand-alone course on the comedia. (Though this soon may
change!) Instead, I regularly teach the comedia under the more generalized rubric of
“Renaissance Theater,” as part of a course where students study Siglo de Oro plays and
their theatrical context alongside late medieval theater, Elizabethan/Jacobean theater, French Neoclassicism, Restoration, and other genres. Always, I teach the plays in translation. My students, most of them aspiring actors, respond enthusiastically to the comedia and embrace it. The genre is extraordinarily teachable.
Over fourteen years, I have devised many approaches to this course and covered a wide variety of texts. My goals, though, have remained the same. I try to foster critical thinking about the relationship of theater of society, as we look at these plays not just as isolated works of art but as complex products of a specific time and place. I also try to develop an understanding of dramaturgical practice in the theater today—that is, how
dramaturgs and other theater practitioners engage with classic texts for the stage. To meet these goals, I find it necessary to deconstruct and rebuild the students‟ preconceived
notion of the period—a stereotype shaped by Renaissance fairs, popular culture, and—in
terms of dramatic literature—an (over)exposure to Shakespeare to the exclusion of
almost all else. The comedia, alongside other course material tied to the early modern
Spanish empire, has been a lively vehicle for reaching these goals, or at least moving in their general direction.
I will briefly touch on three ideas which have informed my pedagogy over the years. I do not claim they are earthshaking—I imagine they are shared by many
colleagues—but I hope they will spur good conversation at ASTR.
1. Transatlantic Context:
By looking at performances from both sides of the Atlantic, I explode the exclusively European frame for the time period to bring in larger issues of conquest and colonialism. During this current semester, for example, we started with a unit on Aztec rituals of pre-Columbian Mexican. The students read selections from Fray Diego Durán‟s
Libro de dioses y ritos and John Bierhorst‟s collection of Cantares Mexicanos, and
looked at related archeological and visual evidence, including videos of contemporary recreations of Aztec performance. After a subsequent unit on European mystery cycles
th and passion plays, the students then read examples of syncretic religious drama in 16century Nueva España. This unit opened up to larger questions of ritual and power, as well as the relationship between performance and religious authority in early modern Spain.
Starting the semester this way has many virtues, which bear fruit as the weeks pass. The events in colonial Spain provide a simultaneous counter-narrative to the explosion of professional theater in Europe at the same time. The relationship between performance, state authority, and religious expression comes into play again when we consider the Baroque auto and the careers of Lope, Tirso, Calderón, Sor Marcela de San
Félix (Lope‟s daughter), and Sor Juana, all of whom had formal affiliations with the
church if not religious vocations. The unit also provides a context for discussion of plays like El condenado por desconfiado and Doctor Faustus, which deal with theological
questions of conversion and redemption. More largely, Europe‟s encounter with the
Americas emerges as an important force behind early modern theater, whether reflected directly in The Tempest or more obliquely in canonical plays like Doctor Faustus or La
vida es sueño, which examine paternal authority, slavery/subjugation, and travel across time and space. America becomes an invisible presence shadowing the period‟s
This area is one of the best opportunities afforded by the comedia. My students bring
acute awareness of this issue: the majority of our majors are women, and yet the vast majority of roles in Shakespearean theater are male. On a very practical level, the women discover in plays like Fuente Ovejuna useful new classical monologues that they can
bring to auditions. But the comedia also provides a stimulating counterpoint to
Shakespeare, and raises many questions. What do we know about actresses and female
thaudience members in 17 century Spain? How does the fact that comedia‟s women‟s
roles were written for female performers impact how these roles were written and how women were portrayed? Is this a positive development or just another gender masquerade, where male playwrights now have the luxury of female bodies to essentialize their representations? How is Tirso‟s mujer varonil different in Don Gil de las calzas verdesi
from Shakespeare‟s Viola in Twelfth Night?
The comedia also presents an outstanding opportunity to teach works by female writers. I have frequently taught the one play most easily accessed in English, Sor Juana‟s
Los empeños de una casa (which we also produced here at UMass in 2005). More
recently, I‟ve been requiring my students to read Ana Caro‟s El conde Partinuplés, in my
own translation. Partinuplés is a theatrical goldmine because, as a comedia de tramoya, it
calls for a wide variety stage machinery—ascents, descents, apparitions,
transformations—that represent the early modern bag of tricks. But it also provokes great discussion. How does this protagonist—a powerful young woman—negotiate the public
demands of her kingdom when confronted with private desire? Featuring its own Rosaura, its own Segismundo, and its own prophecy-to-be-avoided, the play pairs well with La
vida es sueño, and allows for the introduction of the concept of intertextuality, as we look at how Caro comments on and subverts Calderón‟s play. Taught alongside The Tempest
and Doctor Faustus, Partinuplés dramatizes the use of magic and manipulation to
achieve one‟s ends: how does and why does this magic differ when the power emanates
from a young woman rather than an older man? Taught alongside Don Gil, it highlights
how female tricksters use different theatrical strategies of (in)visibility to subvert paternal authority: the trickster as performer versus the trickster as stage director.
The biggest limitation is that very few plays by women exist in translation. This limitation has spurred my current book project: I am completing an anthology of plays in
thtranslation by four 17 century Spanish women: Caro, Sor Marcela, Angela de Azevedo and Feliciana Enríquez de Guzmán, Which brings me to my next topic.
As a translator and dramaturg, this dimension of the class probably excites me most. Though the students are not translators, some of them will end up working as dramaturgs on department plays. This means engaging the practical theater question of what script will we be used in a particular play. For Shakespeare, we ask: what are the differences—
and production implications—of Folio versus Quarto, or some combination thereof? How
should a play be cut for production? I stress that texts are not definitive and authoritative, but contingent and unstable, always changing for production, both in their day and today. The students, as performers, tend to readily grasp this concept.
Translation highlights this dimension. With every comedia, we talk about how it
works as a translation, and frequently get a scene from the play up on its feet. If we are using one of my own translations, I talk about my own process of translation, pointing out specific choices I have made (and sometimes asking their opinion about options I am weighing). Perhaps most valuably, I have the students read multiple translations of the same text. In the extreme, I have required them to read two translations in their entirety, but have found that I can accomplish the same goal more economically by their reading multiple translations of a single scene.
The best resource for my doing this has been Fuente Ovejuna since (along with La
vida es sueño and El burlador de Sevilla) it exists in the widest variety of translations. I
bring in three or four versions of the same scene, from readily available translations by Roy Campbell, Jill Booty, Adrian Mitchell, and Gwynne Edwards, which provide a striking triangle (or quandrangle) due to their sharp contrasts in content, language and tone. (I would be interested to add Laurence Boswell‟s new translation to the mix.) In
class, we stage the same scene in all translations. I prefer the final scene of Act One,
where Frondoso grabs the Commander‟s crossbow and confronts his nemesis, because
the differences are most striking; The students stage the scenes, and then ask: which worked best, and why? What are the virtues of prose versus verse translation? Rhymed versus unrhymed verse? Formal language versus colloquial diction? How do the characters change according to the translation—that is, how are the translators shaping
character? Where is the line between translation and adaptation, and what liberties can a translator take in changing his/her source text? Finally, after this discussion, we stage Lope‟s original Spanish (I can usually count on a few Spanish readers) and revisit the above questions in a more specific way, allowing us to look more closely at specific translation decisions. This leads to further considerations. What does it mean to be „true”
to an original text? To what extent should a translator preserve the “otherness” of the
source text? How easy should the audience‟s work be? The impact of hearing Lope‟s
Spanish—especially for the non-Spanish speakers—is enormous.