Putting on Golden Age comedies

Sander Berg 


Golden age 1A few years ago I taught a number of excellent thespians who also happened to be good Hispanists. Or maybe it was the other way round, I can’t remember. In any event, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. So I decided to put on a Spanish play. An obvious choice might seem to be Lorca. After all, his rural trilogy is a kind of evergreen on Spanish syllabi and they are powerful, poetic plays. But – and this is a big but (think Kim K) – I have a personal aversion against am-dram interpretations of Lorca, and of tragedies in general. Many a good play has been spoiled by shouty overdramatization. And to image a precocious teenage girl with ivory skin playing a tough, leathery, spiteful or intensely frustrated older woman like Yerma, or the Madre in Bodas de sangre, or – God forbid – Bernarda Alba. Yikes!

I thought about other modern plays such as Historia de una escalera or Bajarse al moro, but all I could remember from the latter is that it involves a woman smuggling dope in Golden age 2the reproductive bit of her anatomy. Perhaps not so suitable. Then I thought about La muerte y la doncella by Ariel Dorfman, best known perhaps in the film version by Polanski with Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. But again, the play is a little on the serious side. Plus, there is little action: it hinges entirely on the psychological tension created when the husband of a former victim of Pinochet’s fascist regime brings home a man whose car has broken down and the wife thinks she recognizes his voice as that of the man who tortured and raped her in prison while she was blindfolded and he listened to the Schubert string quartet that gives its name to the play.

And so I turned to the era I know best: the Spanish Golden Age, a period that bursts at the seams with comedies. Melveena McKendrick, a well-known scholar and expert on the matter, estimates that there are as many as 10,000. Not all of them brilliant, to be sure, but some of them really are superbly funny, witty and fast-paced. A few years ago in London there was a short-lived renaissance of some of these plays and I remember going to see Fuenteovejuna (where the audience had to pelt the Comendador with water balloons – such fun!) as well as Los locos de Valencia, La dama boba, El castigo sin venganza, all by Lope de Vega, and Don Gil de las calzas verdes by Tirso de Molina. I considered putting on one of these plays but eventually settled on a comedy by Calderón de la Barca called La dama duende.

This play is a classic cloak-and-dagger comedy (comedia de capa y espada) and was first performed in Madrid in 1629. Like most plays of the period the plot revolves around a love interest and honour. There are the usual confusions and misunderstandings and the play features a gracioso: a comic, irreverent character, usually a servant. It tells the story of Doña Angela, a beautiful young widow, whose honour is jealously guarded by her brothers Don Juan and Don Luis and who lives in a secret alcove. One day she sneaks out to go to the theatre, wearing a veil. She is spotted by her brother Don Luis who runs after her. Not that he has recognized her – that would have spelled her death. He is just intrigued by this mysterious veiled lady who seems keen to avoid him. As she runs away from him, she asks a random stranger, Don Manuel, who has just arrived in Madrid, for help. Don Luis almost catches her up but Don Manuel stops him. Swords are drawn, allowing Doña Angela to make her escape. In the middle of the duel, Don Juan, the other brother, enters the scene only to realise Don Manuel is his old comrade-in-arms. Don Manuel is invited to stay in their house and is given the room next to Doña Angela’s – of course!  While Don Manuel is out, having ostentatiously locked the door, Doña Angela enters his room through a hidden entrance, leaving the room in a mess and a letter for its occupant (I love a zeugma). His servant Cosme is convinced this is the work of a hobgoblin or house sprite, in other words: a duende. Don Manuel, however, is intrigued and starts a correspondence. Eventually Doña Angela boldly invites him for a tryst, tricking him into believing he is in a different house, even though he is in fact in his old room. More confusion ensues, with Cosme believing he has been abducted by the dama duende and causing a hullabaloo. There follows another duel between Don Luis and Don Manuel and it is rounded off, like all comedias, with the classic nuptial ending.

Golden age 3

In putting on this play I had two problems to solve. Two challenges. One was time. I could not see even very talented pupils learn enough lines for a full-blown comedy. Not to mention the audience having to sit through a good hour and a half of Spanish when they might not even speak the language. I had to find a way to reduce the play to about twenty to twenty-five minutes, also because I had made a deal with the school’s director of drama to incorporate La dama duende into a European Drama festival alongside a German (Der Besuch der alten Dame) and a French play (I can’t remember, a weird and modern piece about a museum and people changing into fish, or something). That created the second challenge. Assuming not everyone in the audience would understand Spanish, how were we to involve them? How to keep the audience interested and entertained? The performance was to take place outside, in a garden, so having surtitles or something like that was not a realistic option. And anyway, that is too complicated – it can only go wrong. A more practical and funnier way had to be found. So I introduced a narrator-slash-commentator who would break through the fourth wall. After the whirlwind of the opening scene, one actress, who had been sitting on a log on stage throughout, gets up, theatrically claps her hands next to her head like a flamenco dancer, whereupon the actors freeze. Then the narratrix says to the audience: ‘Are you as confused as I am? Let’s rewind a little’. The actors run backwards as if we are watching a film being rewound, then freeze again. ‘Let me explain what is going on… This here (walking towards Doña Angela) is Doña Angela, a beautiful young widow…’. You get the idea. Thus punctuated, the play made sense even for those unable to follow (all) the Spanish. And the actress was brilliant at communicating with the punters.

That was the solution to the second problem. The first was solved by condensing the play. I got rid of a few minor characters and a subplot and struck many scenes. A few short exchanges survived in the original form, but all the long ones were drastically cut and often ‘sewn’ back together with a few of my own lines or words. In the process, I decided to keep some of the early modern Spanish to give it the right flavour. This meant: lots of vos, decís, sois, estáis and Válgame-el-cielo’s. It also meant a for modern Spanish ears unusual word order sometimes (‘Si excusa buscas, espera’). But the aim was that a Sixth Form pupil would be able to follow (most of) it. Difficult (amparar) and out-dated words (agora) or words that no longer mean the same (bizarro, meaning elegant, industria, meaning trick) were replaced by modern Spanish.

Golden age 4

The play was directed by a pupil who also starred as Cosme, the gracioso (graciosa, in her case) and it was a roaring success. I can encourage anyone who is interested in putting on a Spanish play to mine the rich vein that is Golden Age comedy – you’ll find a true Potosí of plays. Some comedias to consider are Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna, La dama boba or Los locos de Valencia, mentioned above, or El perro del hortelano. Then there are Calderón de la Barca’s La dama duende or El galán fantasma as well as Tirso de Molina’s Don Gil de las calzas verdes, which I hope to put on this summer: a hilarious comedy with lots of cross-dressing and mistaken identities.

To give some idea of how I went about reducing the full play to a twenty-five minute mini-comedy, compare the original opening scene with the condensed version. Underlined are the bits that survived in some form or other.


Original version(694 words)

(Salen don MANUEL y COSME, de camino)

Don MANUEL     Por un hora no llegamos

                              a tiempo de ver las fiestas

                             con que Madrid generosa

                             hoy el bautismo celebra

                             del primero Baltasar

COSME                Como ésas, cosas se aciertan

                             o se yerran por un hora:

                            Por una hora que fuera

                            antes Píramo a la fuente,

                            no hallara a su Tisbe muerta

                            y las moras no mancharan

                            porque dicen los poetas

                            que con arrope de moras

                            se escribió aquella tragedia.

                            Por una hora que tardara

                           Tarquino, hallara a Lucrecia

                           recogida, con lo cual

                           los autores no anduvieran,

                           sin ser vicarios, llevando

                           a salas de competencias

                           la causa, sobre saber

                           si hizo fuerza o no hizo fuerza.

                           Por una hora que pensara

                           si era bien hecho o no era

                           echarse Hero de la torre,

                           no se echara, es cosa cierta,

                           con que se hubiera excusado

                            al doctor Mira de Amescua

                            de haber dado a los teatros

                            tan bien escrita comedia,

                            y haberla representado

                            Amarilis tan de veras

                            que volatín del carnal

                             —si otros son de la cuaresma—

                             sacó más de alguna vez

                             las manos en la cabeza.

                             Y puesto que hemos perdido

                             por una hora tan gran fiesta,

                             no por una hora perdamos

                             la posada, que si llega

                             tarde Abindarraez, es ley

                             que haya de quedarse fuera;

                              y estoy rabiando por ver

                              este amigo que te espera

                              como si fueras galán

                              al uso con cama y mesa,

                              sin saber cómo o por dónde

                              esta dicha se nos venga.

                              Pues, sin ser los dos torneos,

                              hoy a los dos nos sustenta.

Don MANUEL     Don Juan de Toledo es, Cosme,

                              el hombre que más profesa

                              mi amistad, siendo los dos

                              envidia ya que no afrenta

                              de cuantos la antigüedad

                              por tantos siglos celebra.

                              Los dos estudiamos juntos

                              y, pasando de las letras

                              a las armas, los dos fuimos

                              camaradas en la guerra.

                             En las de Piamonte, cuando

                             el señor duque de Feria

                             con la jineta me honró,

                              le di, Cosme, mi bandera.

                              Fue mi alférez y después,

                              sacando de una refriega

                              una penetrante herida,

                              le curé en mi cama mesma.

                              La vida, después de Dios,

                              me debe. Dejo las deudas

                              de menores intereses;

                              que entre nobles es bajeza

                              referirlas. Pues pos eso

                              pintó la docta academia

                              al galardón una dama

                              rica y las espaldas vueltas,

                              dando a entender que, en haciendo

                              el beneficio, es discreta

                              acción olvidarse de él;

                              que no le hace el que le acuerda.

                              En fin, don Juan, obligado

                              de amistades y finezas,

                              viendo que su majestad

                              con este gobierno premia

                              mis servicios y que vengo

                              de paso a la corte, intenta

                              hoy hospedarme en su casa

                              por pagarme con las mesmas.

                              Y, aunque a Burgos me escribió

                              de casa y calle las señas,

                              no quise andar preguntando

                              a caballo a dónde era,

                              y así dejé en la posada

                              las mulas y las maletas,

                              yendo hacia donde me dice.

                              Vi las galas y libreas,

                              e, informado de la causa,

                              quise, aunque de paso, verlas.

                               Llegamos tarde en efecto,


(Salen doña ÁNGELA e ISABEL, en corto tapadas)

Doña ÁNGELA    Si como lo muestra

                               el traje, sois caballero

                               de obligaciones y prendas,

                               amparad a una mujer,

                               que a valerse de vos llega.

                               Honor y vida me importa

                               que aquel hidalgo no sepa

                               quién soy y que no me siga.

                               Estorbad, por vida vuestra,

                               a una mujer principal,

                               una desdicha, una afrenta,

                               que podrá ser que algún día…

                               ¡Adiós, adiós; que voy muerta!


COSME                ¿Es dama? ¿O es torbellino?

Don MANUEL     ¿Hay tal suceso?

COSME                 ¿Qué piensas hacer?

Don MANUEL     ¿Eso me preguntas?

                               ¿Cómo puede mi nobleza

                                excusarse de estorbar

                                una desdicha, una afrenta?

                                Que según muestra, sin duda,

                                es su marido.

COSME                   ¿Y qué intentas?

Don MANUEL        Detenerle con alguna

                                  industria. Mas si con ella

                                  no puedo, será forzoso

                                  el valerme de la fuerza

                                  sin que él entienda la causa.

COSME                    Si industria buscas, espera;

                                 que a mi se me ofrece una.

                                 Esta carta, que encomienda

                                 es de un amigo, me valga.

(Salen don LUIS y RODRIGO, su criado. Retírase don MANUEL)

Don LUIS               Yo tengo de conocerla,

                                no más de por el cuidado

                                con que de mi se recela.

Don RODRIGO    Síguela, y sabrás quién es.

Condensed version (201 words)

DON MANUEL    Date prisa, Cosme, por favor.

                              No quiero perder las fiestas

                              con que se celebran hoy

                              el bautismo del príncipe Baltasar.

COSME                Sí, pero dime, ¿quién es

                             este amigo que te espera?

DON MANUEL    Don Juan de Toledo es,

                              uno de mis mejores amigos.

                              Los dos estudiamos juntos

                              y pasamos de las letras

                              a las armas; los dos fuimos

                              camaradas en la guerra.

                              Me va a hospedar en su casa.

(Salen DOÑA ÁNGELA y ISABEL en corto tapadas.)

DOÑA ÁNGELA   Si como lo muestra

                               vuestro traje, sois caballero,

                               ayudad a una mujer en apuros.

                               Es muy importante,

                               que aquel hidalgo no sepa

                               quién soy yo, y que no me siga.

                              ¡Adiós, adiós, que voy muerta!


COSME               ¿Es dama o es torbellino?

DON MANUEL    ¡Hay tal suceso!

COSME                 ¿Qué piensas hacer?

DON MANUEL    ¿Eso me preguntas?

                               No me queda sino una opción

                               Este que viene ahora,

                               sin duda es su marido.

COSME                 Y ¿qué intentas?

DON MANUEL    Detenerle con alguna excusa.

COSME                 Si excusa buscas, espera,

                              que a mí se me ofrece una:

                              podemos usar esta carta que tengo.

(Sale DON LUIS.)

DON LUIS            Yo tengo que conocerla,

                              no más de por el cuidado

                              con que de mí se esconde.