The beginnings of modern Spanish theatre and the Commedia dell’arte

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At the dawn of the 16th century, Spain not only became the most powerful nation in the world thanks to its Italian and overseas possessions, but it was also about to become a factory of literary genius with a fertile Parnassus that included poets, novelists and playwrights.

Authors of the Spanish Golden Age

Illustration of a corral de comedias

Illustration of a corral de comedias

The best known period within the – not always correctly – so-called Spanish Golden Age is undoubtedly the first half of the 17th century, which brought together in a short space of time a generation of literary geniuses like never before seen anywhere: Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Francisco de Quevedo, Tirso de Molina, Luis de Góngora… Just to mention the best known, but the list is very long.

But none of them couldn’t have come out of nothing, so I began to look for the origins of modern theatre in Spain, which took such root that at the time it was the most popular entertainment, along with bullfighting and cañas, enjoyed by nobles and commoners alike; even the king and his family went to the corral de comedias (literally a theatrical courtyard).

Theatre in the Golden Age

With the consolidation of urban centres, these first fundamental changes took place for the consolidation of theatre.

Corral de comedias in Almagro, Spain

Corral de comedias in Almagro, Spain

The place that the nobility or the Church had occupied, and would continue to occupy, as potential patrons of the playwright, would now be joined by an urban audience, willing to pay a ticket. This led to the formation of the first companies of professional actors, as well as the figure of the professional playwright. Probably no other activity related to creative literature was to offer the writer the possibility of turning his work into a way of life.

The 3 stage practices of Golden Age theatre

Around the 1540s, we find three different stage practices: firstly, a popular stage practice, originating in the tradition of minstrel shows and, above all, in the tradition of the religious theatre of the 15th century. Another cultured, erudite practice, originating in humanist circles, which specialised in the Tragedies. And finally, the one that most appealed to the public, a dramatic formula strongly influenced by the reading of Latin comedy and to which they incorporated a gallery of comic situations taken from the Hispanic tradition itself, popularised at that time thanks to the picaresque novel.

Lope de Rueda

Lope de Rueda

Here we meet the first great figure of Spanish theatre, the Sevillian Lope de Rueda, who was a playwright of great versatility who wrote comedies, farces and entremeses, and who is considered the forerunner of the Golden Age of theatre in Spain.

The Commedia dell’arte

During the first half of the 16th century, plays were performed in palaces, or by transhumant actors on improvised stages at village festivals. But then the Corral de la Pacheca opened in Madrid, a place where professional comedians performed plays throughout the year. Shortly afterwards, the Corral de la Cruz was opened in 1579 and the Corral del Príncipe in 1583. This theatrical activity quickly spread like wildfire throughout the peninsula, and it was rare for a town not to have a corral of representatives.

From 1574 onwards, a new genre arrived in force from Italy: the commedia dell’arte. The most famous was the company of the author Zan Ganassa, who was “resident” in the Corral de la Pacheca, and on Corpus Christi and New Year’s Day performed for the Royal Household. The troupes of this new genre were very successful because they mixed comedy of entanglement with a great staging that included juggling and acrobatics, crazy fencing matches and archetypal characters very easily identifiable for the audience. Commedia dell’Arte is also known as comedia all’improviso or comedia de Maschere (comedy with masks).

Characters in the Commedia dell'Arte

Characters in the Commedia dell’Arte

Unlike previous plays, the text was not entirely written, but the actors improvised much of it on the basis of an elementary script. Except for the lovers, who were the protagonists and were uncovered, each character was distinguished from the others by his or her mask and marked personality.

The most famous masks were Harlequin (the one who did the acrobatics), Polichinella (who was usually a funny or more philosophical brute), Brighella (a plotter, cunning and scheming), Pantalone (a miserly and petty Venetian merchant) and Colombina (Harlequin’s lover). The success was such that these characters are still known today, and places like Venice maintain their masks as popular iconography. Ganassa remained in Spain for ten years, possibly until around 1585, reaping great success and paving the way for the whole “theatrical mass phenomenon” that was to follow.

A very curious fact that I came across, and which made me smile as it showed me once again that the stupidity of those who want to pretend is timeless, is that at the beginning when the Spanish aristocracy began to hire Italian companies to entertain their parties, the main requirement was that the plays had to maintain their original language: Italian.

Many nobles could speak it, but, of course, many others could not; nevertheless, they pretended to do so in order not to appear vulgar, so you can imagine half the audience nodding gravely at the dialogues without understanding a word. With the common people, usually less concerned with such nonsense, Italian plays did not take off. As Steffanelo Bottarga himself, another notorious actor of the time, would say: “because they are not understood and have not been appreciated, people don’t come”. So they had no choice but to perform in Spanish.

Sources

This post was translated from:

Castro, H.J. (2020) ‘Los inicios del teatro moderno español y la Comedia del Arte’, El Reto Histórico, 25 April. Available at: https://elretohistorico.com/primer-teatro-espanol/ (Accessed: 24 August 2021).

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