Academic journal article Bulletin of the Comediantes

The Performance of Divine Providence on the Early Modern Stage: Tumbling Canvases and History Plays

Academic journal article Bulletin of the Comediantes

The Performance of Divine Providence on the Early Modern Stage: Tumbling Canvases and History Plays

Article excerpt

Early modern special effects, a seemingly incongruous word combination in this age of computer-generated imagery', were nevertheless quite common in seventeenth-century' Spanish theaters. Trapdoors provided the means to an easy disappearance; the central discovery' space allowed a quick reveal of anything from triumphant allegorical figures to gruesome death scenes; and intricate machinery hoisted actors aloft and carried them through the air on moving clouds.1 The most elaborate and costly' machinery, of course, found a home in royal productions designed to enhance the king's image and power through awe-inspiring theatrical splendor. In fact, Pedro Calderón de la Barca's final court play', the chivalric fantasy Hado y divisa de Leonido y Marfisa, required one hundred and five workers to man the complex stage machines and scene changes (Greer 14-15). While seventeenthcentury' public corrales did not have the advantage of the seemingly limitless funds that subsidized grandiose palatial productions, these commercial theaters frequently utilized elaborate set design, stage properties, and special effects. Moreover, these popular effects often pointed to common cultural practices of early modern Spain.

The falling painting, one such stage effect, features prominently in several extant play's.2 One of the first playwrights to utilize the falling painting was Damián Salustio del Poyo in La próspera fortuna de Ruy López de Ávalos, first performed by Gaspar de Porres's peripatetic company between 1603 and 16()5.3 In Poyo's comedia, a Jewish physician attempts to enter the room of the sleeping king Henry' III of Castile to kill him, but a portrait of doña Catalina, Henry''s future wife, falls and blocks the doctor's path: "Va a entrar, y cáese el retrato, y tápale la puerta y queda espantado" (fol. 250v). The painting, guided by unseen forces, effectively saves the king and, by extension, Castile. Along with its timely fall, the portrait seems to present a sentient force that threatens the scheming physician, and he exclaims, "[P]arece que se demuda / y me amenaza si paso" (fol. 250v). His plan foiled, the doctor is caught, and he readily confesses his guilt. Luis Caparros Esperante, in his study of the Poyo's work, emphasizes the value of this stage effect for the plot and as a model for later playwrights: "Este buen golpe teatral es ya totalmente literario, y sirvió, muy probablemente, como modelo de episodios semejantes en La prudencia en la mujer, de Tirso de Molina, y El mayor monstruo del mundo, de Calderón" (137).

While its literary' value is apparent, the falling painting's unaided movement adds complexity to an otherwise entertaining plot effect. As one of the few scholars to have treated this stage device extensively', Christopher B. Weimer has identified a connection between the falling painting and many of the philosophical discourses that informed visual representation, both on the stage and on the canvas, during the early' modern period. Understanding the effect as more than just entertainment for early modern theatergoers, Weimer shows the ways in which the falling painting accentuates Baroque ideas on the ambiguous relationship between the painted image and the person represented.4 Drawing on Weimer's reading of the falling painting as a significant cultural object, I find that this effect also foregrounds other discourses of the early modern period. By' examining its use in three history' play's, Tirso de Molina's La prudencia en la mujer, Diego Ximénez de Enciso's La mayor hazaña de Carlos V, and La Baltasara, written by a team of three playwrights, I will analyze the dynamic role of this stage property' that falls seemingly' without human intervention. I will argue that the painting, thus imbued with animate potential, represents unseen divine forces and establishes an elaborate connection between art, history', and divinity'. As we will see, the falling painting reinforces art's moralizing and didactic function in a visual manner for audiences attending early modern corrales, and it also embodies the relationship between divine providence and early modern historiography. …

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