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Fuente Ovejuna

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Lope de Vega's play Fuente Ovejuna is a recognised masterpiece by a major writer of the Spanish Golden Age, depicting one of the most memorable acts of resistance in world drama. First published in Madrid in 1619, the play is believed to have been written between 1612 and 1614. It is based upon an actual historical incident that took place in the village of Fuente Ovejuna (now called Fuente Obejuna) in Castile in 1476.

This translation by Laurence Boswell was published by Nick Hern Books in its Drama Classics series in 2009.

The play's action follows the historical incident closely. A military Commander, Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, under the command of the Order of Calatrava, mistreats the villagers of Fuente Ovejuna, who revolt against their tyrannical overlord and murder him. When a magistrate sent by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella arrives at the village to investigate, the villagers, even under the pain of torture, respond only by saying 'Fuente Ovejuna did it'. In the face of this claim to collective responsibility, the village is pardoned and placed under the direct jurisdiction of the Crown.

The House of Bernarda Alba

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Finished just two months before the author's murder on 18 August 1936 by a gang of Franco's supporters, The House of Bernarda Alba is now accepted as Lorca's great masterpiece of love and loathing.

Five daughters live together in a single household with a tyrannical mother. When the father of all but the eldest girl dies, a cynical marriage is advanced which will have tragic consequences for the whole family. Lorca's fascinatingly modern play, rendered here in an English version by David Hare, speaks as powerfully as a political metaphor of oppression as it does as domestic drama.

This version of The House of Bernarda Alba premiered at the National Theatre, London, in March 2005.

The House of Bernarda Alba (trans. Munro)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Rona Munro's version of Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play The House of Bernarda Alba (La Casa de Bernarda Alba) was commissioned by Shared Experience and first performed at the Salisbury Playhouse on 11 March 1999 at the start of a tour.

The play is set in the titular house belonging to Bernarda Alba who, having been left a widow after the death of her second husband, locks all the doors and windows and imposes a seven-year mourning period. Her grown-up daughters, ordered to sew and be silent, begin to seethe as their chances of escaping their mother’s grip grow ever slimmer. The sisters are jealous of eldest daughter Angustias’ large dowry, inherited from her father and Bernarda’s first husband, which means that she at least has a shot at marriage. However, her proposed suitor, Pepe, is having a secret affair with another sister, Adela. The fight for Pepe’s attentions, and the potent sibling rivalry bred within the isolated house, ultimately lead to tragic consequences for Bernarda Alba and her children.

In an author's note in the published edition, Munro describes Lorca's play as 'a passionate appeal against repression. If only, the play seems to say, we could love where we chose. If only we could throw off mourning and reclaim our relationship with life. If only we could touch each other openly, not through the bars of a window in the dark... If only all the forces of tradition and landed wealth could be relaxed so that the rich could consider more than the future of their acres and the poor could be released from the eternal worry of where the next plate of chick peas was coming from.'

The Shared Experience production was directed by Polly Teale and designed by Angela Davies. It was performed by Gabrielle Reidy, Sandy McDade, Sandra Duncan (as Bernarda), Manda Drew, Tanya Ronder, Carolyn Jones, Janet Henfrey, Ruth Lass and Victoria Finney.

After touring Guildford, West Yorkshire, Richmond, Oxford, Bath and Liverpool, the production opened at the Young Vic Theatre, London, on 18 May 1999.

Rona Munro later revisited the play for a National Theatre of Scotland production in 2009 in which she updated the text by setting the story in the heart of gangland Glasgow.

Life is a Dream

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño) is a masterpiece from the Spanish Golden Age by Pedro Calderón de la Barca (1600–81), exploring illusion, reality and fate against the backdrop of a mythical Polish kingdom. Helen Edmundson's version, written entirely in blank verse, was first performed at the Donmar Warehouse, London, on 13 October 2009 (previews from 8 October).

The play's action focuses on the fictional Segismundo, Prince of Poland, who has been imprisoned in a tower by his father, King Basilio, following a dire prophecy that the prince would bring disaster to the country and death to the King. Basilio briefly frees Segismundo, but when the prince goes on a rampage, the king imprisons him again, persuading him that it was all a dream. However, Segismundo is released once again during a popular uprising; this time he translates his bewilderment over his changes of fortune into loving charity and kindness. In a complex subplot, Rosaura, a spurned woman, is eventually reunited with her lover.

The Donmar Warehouse production was directed by Jonathan Munby and designed by Angela Davies. It starred Dominic West as Segismundo. The other members of the cast were Rupert Evans, Kate Fleetwood, David Horovitch, Lloyd Hutchinson, Sharon Small, David Smith, Malcolm Storry and Dylan Turner.

Peribanez

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Tanya Ronder's adaptation of Lope de Vega's classic 17th-century tragicomedy, Peribáñez y el Comendador de Ocaña, was first performed at the Young Vic Theatre, London on 7 May 2003 (previews from 1 May).

The play is about a peasant named Peribanez, and a regional Commander who falls in love with his wife Casilda. The trouble starts during the wedding of Peribanez and Casilda, when the Commander is unhorsed while trying to control a raging bull and is forced to recover in Peribanez' house. Smitten with the beautiful bride, the Commander's ungovernable passion leads him to spy on Casilda, fruitlessly besiege her and eventually send her husband into battle against the Arab enemy. However, Peribanez asks the Commander to knight him before sending him into battle, so that he might fight with honour. The Commander obliges, unwittingly elevating the peasant to his own level and giving him the right to do battle with him.

The Young Vic premiere was directed by Rufus Norris and designed by Ian MacNeil, with David Harewood as the Commander, Michael Nardone as Peribanez and Jackie Morrison as Casilda..

Yerma

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Federico García Lorca's Yerma is a poetic drama about a childless woman living in rural Spain, and her desperate longing to conceive a child. It was first performed in the Teatro Español, Madrid, on 29 December 1934.

This translation is by Jo Clifford.

Yerma (the name derives from the Spanish word for 'barren') has been married to Juan for two years, but remains childless. Furthermore, her desire for a child is at odds with Juan's desire for money. Tortured by her incessant longing to conceive a child, and by Juan's insistence that she be content with what she has, Yerma murders her husband, and with him her only chance of having a child.

In an introduction to the play, Jo Clifford writes: 'The play was a huge commercial success and ran for more than 130 performances. The right-wing press, however, loathed it, and it became the focus of vicious attacks. It cemented Lorca’s reputation among the right as a left-wing homosexual degenerate and in that sense contributed to the hatred that led to his assassination.'

Given the prolonged dominance of authoritarian political regimes and religious absolutism in the history of Spain, its theatre is often ingenuously construed and appraised solely vis-à-vis its relationship with the powers that be. Much critical ink, for example, has been spilled on whether its greatest period in terms of creativity and popularity (the so-called Golden Age between 1580 and 1680) propagated or challenged imperial and Church dogma; in parallel, there exists deep ambivalence among contemporary practitioners and audiences towards these plays, and towards popular genres, on account of their use to propagandistic ends by the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975). Applied bluntly, such an approach tends to overvalue dissidence per se and to regard all other theatrical productions as complicit with a monolithic dominant ideology. This skewed perception of Spanish theatre needs to be borne in mind when engaging with its histories and canons.

While medieval Church liturgy in Spain made frequent recourse to dramatic forms, the birth of domestic theatre is often dated to the late-fifteenth and early-sixteenth centuries, which witnessed the development of popular theatre forms both short (sketches called pasos) and long (the comedia or play). The combination of the serious and light-hearted in these genres was crucial to the success of the later nueva comedia (new play), conceived by the prolific Felix Lope de Vega. The recipe for success outlined in Lope’s 1609 treatise – storylines centring on honour, verse forms to indicate mood, a mix of high and low-born characters – was eagerly copied by other authors and lapped up by audiences. The greatest playwrights after Lope were those who took his formula in unexpected directions: the impertinence of monk Tirso de Molina (credited with the first appearance of the Don Juan figure in El burlador de Sevilla, c. 1630) and the existential meditations of Pedro Calderón de la Barca. The latter’s La vida es sueño (Life’s a Dream) (1635) has come to be viewed as the Spanish Hamlet. The comedia format also traversed the Atlantic, as can be seen in proto-feminist dramas of Mexico-based nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

With the absence of funds, and of a monarch sufficiently motivated to maintain or resurrect this Golden Age, theatre entered a lengthy hiatus in 1680. This continued with the advent of democracy on account of the difficulties involved in implementing this political system effectively in Spain. Few plays written and performed between the late-seventeenth and early-twentieth centuries are staged regularly today: the two Nobel Laureates from the ranks of Spanish theatre who wrote towards the end of this period are long-forgotten (José Echegaray, winner in 1904) or seldom revived (Jacinto Benavente, 1922), most would say rightly so. Arguably the only exceptions to this are the neo-classical El sí de las niñas (The Maidens’ Consent) (1806), a denunciation of social norms and arranged marriage, and Don Juan Tenorio (1844), which re-writes the Don Juan myth so the protagonist obtains salvation via love for a woman. Increasing interest on the part of academics and directors is now being shown in the popular theatre which peaked at the turn of the twentieth century in the form of one-act comic sainetes and the zarzuela (operettas featuring spoken dialogue and song).

A bridge of sorts between this largely barren period and the blossoming of the avant-garde in the late 1920s is the figure of Ramón del Valle-Inclán, now held up by many as the finest Spanish dramatist of the modern era on account of his esperpento. In plays such as Luces de Bohemia (Bohemian Lights) (1920, revised in 1924), this genre combines the grotesque, elaborate wordplay, black humour and a dramaturgy inspired by silent film in its depiction of those living on the margins of a Spanish society long left behind by its European rivals. Similar features are found alongside traces of the European avant-gardes in the theatre of the next generation of artists. Yet all these innovations very rarely reached a national stage dominated by the demands of conservative theatregoers. It was only once these playwrights embraced more conventional structures, perhaps inspired by the shift towards more explicit political commitment advocated by European Surrealism around 1930, that commercial success was possible. Undoubtedly the most famous example of this is the theatre of Federico García Lorca, who moved away (although never entirely) from the experimentalism of works such as El público (The Public) to his more often performed dramas, the last of which is La casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba), completed just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. This tension between originality and accessibility is likewise observed in the theatre of the Second Republic (1931-1936), such as the activities of the ‘Theatre of the People’ troupe led by playwright Alejandro Casona, and the agit/prop plays of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

Relatively speaking, therefore, innovation was limited in what continued to be a cultural sphere resistant to change. The demands of a conservative audience continued to beleaguer the domestic theatre industry during the grim first decade of Franco’s military dictatorship. (This is one example of how the Civil War did not necessarily cause a clean break in developments on stage – as a Manichaean perspective on this period of Spanish history might assume – even though the conflict led to the death of García Lorca and to the exile of many of the most progressive men and women of the theatre.) Furthermore, theatre suddenly found itself surveyed by strict prior censorship. Nevertheless, differences of opinion could still be found on stage among the various political ‘families’ struggling for power under Franco. A comic relief rooted in the pre-war avant-garde was also there to see, principally from the pen of Enrique Jardiel Poncela, although these experiments were soon curtailed by market forces. Towards the end of the post-war decade, as commercial theatre settled into self-satisfied conformity, veiled criticism of the regime began to emerge from the left. Over the course of the next two decades, dissident dramatists leavened realism with novel techniques, the most important of which are Antonio Buero Vallejo’s ‘immersion effect’ (which encourages audiences to empathise with certain characters by enabling them to experience reality as they do) and Alfonso Sastre’s ‘complex tragedy’. The dramatic theories of Bertolt Brecht came to the attention of dissident playwrights at the very end of the 1950s via performances witnessed in France and Germany, and in copies of his writings sold under the counter; yet these were often applied in a rather pedestrian manner. These means of opposition to the regime were bolstered in the 1960s and 70s with the emergence of an independent theatre scene (often outside Madrid and Barcelona, the two traditional centres of theatrical production in Spain) that drew on popular genres, as well as expressions of dissatisfaction by a younger generation working within bourgeois formats, such as Ana Diosdado.

Since the transition to democracy (1975-1982) and the dismantling of state censorship, theatrical innovators in Spain have struggled to adapt to a less clearly-defined social role. Those who have best managed to do so are from non-Castilian cultures (the female dramatists who rose to prominence in the 1980s having been gradually denied access to mainstream spaces since then). Many of these practitioners are collectives, such as La Fura dels Baus, or directors, including the notorious Calixto Bieito. The opportunity to celebrate and build on the vibrant performance traditions of cultures repressed during Francoism appears to have enabled these practitioners to flourish, both domestically and internationally, to an extent not found elsewhere in other areas of Spain. Much of the most interesting work on stages across the country in the early twenty-first century, ironically, is led or inspired by those cultures which Francoism cruelly marginalised.

Stuart Green