Academic journal article Bulletin of the Comediantes

"Sois De Diablos": Portraying Indigenous Female Characters on the Golden Age Stage

Academic journal article Bulletin of the Comediantes

"Sois De Diablos": Portraying Indigenous Female Characters on the Golden Age Stage

Article excerpt

The voyage of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón) in 1492 is perhaps the most widely known historical event in the history of Spain and Spanish America. There have been song lyrics, poems, and various historical and fictional accounts written about it. Columbus Day is still celebrated in the United States, although the implications of viewing this as a celebratory occasion have been debated in recent years.1 For better or worse, the encounter and exchanges touched off by the events of that voyage have shaped the collective history of Europe and the Americas, and continue to do so, even now, more than five hundred years later. Given the importance of that moment one might think that those events-and the subsequent conquest taken on by Spain to form a new empire-would be fodder for innumerable accounts, both fictional and nonfictional. Nevertheless, there are no more than fourteen known theatrical plays which refer directly to either the actions of Columbus and his men or the ensuing conquista in the two centuries that followed. That there would be so little time and energy spent on such a significant event, not even during the most productive period of theatrical production in Spanish history is telling of the lack of public interest. Lope de Vega, perhaps the most prolific playwright of the period, is attributed with the writing of only three plays set in the Americas-four if we count the purportedly missing La conquista de Cortés o El marqués del Valle.

The lack of interest in the conquest of the Americas by Spanish society and by the intellectuals of the period has been discussed at length by various critics, such as Moisés Castillo in Indios en escena. As Castillo points out, this is, at least in part, due to the greater public interest in "comedias de capa y espada, milagros y figuras religiosas que en escenificaciones de las vidas de Colón, Cortés, o Pizarro" (Castillo 13-14). It also had to do with the lack of knowledge by the general audience of the affairs of the colonies and the Spanish Empire at large, as well as their inclination towards the more obvious and immediately important historical context within the peninsula: that of the Reconquista (Castillo 14).

Whatever the reasons so few plays exploring these topics exist, we can study the scant few still extant to understand how both the conquest and the indigenous peoples it affected were perceived at the time. It is through the lens of the comedias de conquista that I will discuss three theoretical approaches to one of the most neglected groups of the period: indigenous women.2 This work was inspired by a collaborative effort which resulted in the recently published Female Amerindians in Early Modern Spanish Theater, edited by Gladys Robalino. Rather than take an in-depth approach to an individual play or character, as was done in the book, this essay articulates theoretical approaches that could be applied to a variety of early modern representations of indigenous women.

Although the general history of the Americas and the conquest could not be changed, the playwrights used indigenous characters to comment on Spanish society and its role in the New World. This was not an uncommon practice; many playwrights used foreign settings and/or historical characters to pass cryptic commentary on Spanish nobility. The Americas, however, were far more foreign to the Spanish audience than the traditional stand-ins of Flanders or Italy-and thus the audience demanded a certain amount of exotic authenticity. In order to still maintain a loyal account of the events of the conquest, the easiest characters to manipulate were indigenous women as their actions would be the least likely to be recorded or understood in the collective memory. Women were not seen as threats (at least not so much as men would be), and the female characters we know through the plays or other written accounts are based less on historical figures than on fantasy and speculation. Many of the comedias de conquista were commissioned, and authors often used this platform to subtly criticize the conquest, so as to not endanger their precarious place in courtly favor. …

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