Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Languages of Puppetry: Rewriting Early Modern Iberian Theater for the Contemporary Stage

Academic journal article Romance Notes

The Languages of Puppetry: Rewriting Early Modern Iberian Theater for the Contemporary Stage

Article excerpt

PLACING Spanish classical theater on a par with puppetry might seem paradoxical at first glance since sixteenth and seventeenth century dramaturgy is considered an established literary and performative tradition, while the marionette --in the Western world--suffers the prejudiced view that it is a parodic genre, an entertainment mainly for children or, in Scott Cutler Shershow's words, "a marker or rubric of the 'low'" (6). Nonetheless, in the last decade a number of Spanish directors have managed to masterfully combine Early Modern plays with puppets in order to re-think from the stage some prominent classical dramatic texts, with varying degrees of popularity and cultural impact on modern audiences. That is the case for hagiographic and religious theater, which is hardly ever staged today, most likely because of its thematic concerns, nowadays considered less palatable than other forms of classical drama. In contrast, canonical Early Modern comedias, such as Tirso de Molina's El burlador de Sevilla [The Trickster of Seville]--a play that will be referred to later in this article--have had a rich tradition of performances that have left an imprint of expectation on audiences, particularly concerning the mise-en-scene in the collective imaginary. In this article I will illustrate, through the analysis of three case studies, how the dramatic language of puppets contains, on one hand, the power to reinvent and invigorate a dramatic form--that of religious and hagiographic theater--with minimal impact on contemporary mise-en-scene and, on the other hand, to deconstruct and reconceptualize in a new light the performative tradition of the most emblematic classics.

(RE)CREATING THE SPECTACLE OF HAGIOGRAPHIC PLAYS

The subject of hagiography today does not enjoy the popularity it did during the seventeenth century due, in large part, to the fact that contemporary audiences are not familiar with the lives of saints (Dassbach 162). This lack of contextual knowledge on the part of the public and the sense of implausibility these comedias inspire combine for a dramatic genre that is completely foreign to contemporary audiences. Nonetheless, this disconnect can be compensated for by the spectacular quality of the hagiographic plots, materialized on stage through the presence of the puppet. Indeed, the puppet's theological dimension and its unconstrained acrobatic power make it the most suitable entity for embodying the supernatural characters and forces of hagiographic comedia. The marionette possesses the ability to generate on stage the "plausible impossible," to borrow Michael Malkin's terminology (quoted in Tillis 37), referring to the connection between the real and the imaginary in the art of puppetry or, in other words, to transform what Antonio Risco has called "lo maravilloso cristiano" (17) into "lo supernatural verosimil" (17). Evidence of this is seen among playwrights of European modernism and the Avant-garde, such as Anatole France, Maurice Bouchor, Paul Claudel and Michel de Ghelderode, who wrote religious plays and dramatizations of the lives of saints intended for performance solely by puppets, as emphasized in Bouchor's own words: "I persist in believing that the appearance of Saint Michael, of celestial voices, of miraculous flowerings of lilies and roses, and the transfiguration of a martyr are more appropriate to our small stage than to conventional theaters where the personality of the actor, too real and too familiar destroys all impression of the supernatural" (9).

Following this theory of materializing the supernatural through the presence of the inanimate on stage, artistic director Jesus Caballero initiated a research project in 2006 based on the historical reconstruction of the stage set of a maquina real. The expression maquina real refers to those seventeenthcentury theater companies specialized in fully staging hagiographic plays exclusively with marionettes in corrales de comedia [Spanish playhouses] during Lent. …

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