Lope de Vega & Spanish Golden Age Theatre

Women in Spanish Golden Age Theatres: In the Thick of It

– by Patricia Ash (B.F.A., ’09)

Where were women in the theatre of the Siglo de Oro? In the thick of it. Between 1580 and 1680, women were an active part of the audiences in the playhouses of Madrid and other cities. On Spanish stages, actresses played the female roles instead of boy apprentices, as on Shakespeare's stage. And while the female playwright was a rarity, the names and works of several talented women have survived.

During the Spanish Golden Age, anyone who could pay (and some who couldn't) packed the corrales (theatres) to full capacity, as people pack the subways in Tokyo and New York today. The corrales of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain were designed with a special gallery for women, called the cazuela , literally translated as "the stew pot," directly across from the stage at the back of the theatre, behind the patio, the large open area with seats or standing room for the mosqueteros (common men) . The women who sat in the cazuela were poorer and less respectable than the ones who rented private boxes. It was often said (and proved) that the rough mosqueteros determined the success of any given comedia (play) because of their cheers, jeers, and behavior. However, the women in the cazuela were almost as noisy as the men, shouting and rattling their keys against the railings of their "stew pot." In fact, the only reason they were less noisy is that the cazuela seated fewer spectators! A theatrical experience in one of the corrales would be a little like attending a soccer game or rock concert. Sometimes brawls and riots occurred, sparked by the rivalry between actors or an audience's response to a bad performance.

On the stage, reveling in the attention, were the Spanish actresses. Although they acquired a reputation for being immoral women, they attracted admirers in droves. Some of those admirers were attracted by the rumors (often false) that the actresses were immodest or notorious, while others were attracted by the women's beauty. Many spectators were simply captivated by the women’s talent onstage. One example, Maria de Riquelme, an actress in the first half of the 17th century, was renowned not only for her physical beauty and excellent acting, but for her virtuous life. When her husband, the autor Manuel Vallejo, died in 1644, she left the theatre and devoted the remaining twelve years of her life to religion. Some actresses, however, fit every word of the scandalous stereotype.

Maria Calderon, called La Calderona, had a son by King Philip IV of Spain, who was a great fan of the theatre and to whom she was most definitely not married.

Despite their reputation, the actresses possessed glamour, like famous actresses today. The Catholic Church, dominated by the Inquisition, protested that the theatres were a bad influence on young people—especially women. The Church was offended by “immoral” actresses playing such characters as the Virgin Mary. The combined authorities of the government and the Catholic Church handed down various laws and decrees that attempted to restrict theatres and their actresses. The fact that such a number of them were passed and that these laws tended to repeat each other in terms of conditions and issues suggests that these laws may not have been followed very closely. Some of these decrees include the following: an actress was forbidden from cross-dressing as a man on the stage (a popular convention in plays of the period), an actress was forbidden from receiving any visitors other than her husband in her dressing room, an actress was forbidden from performing suggestive dances during the entremeses between acts, and an actress was forbidden from treading the boards unless her father or husband was present in the theatre. Most actresses were part of a professional troupe that included other members of her family; most actors received their training through their family. Further, actresses were expected to be married. In 1596, the government banned women from the stage for a short time, but the people loved actresses so much that this ban was quickly revoked.

A good actress was well paid: "In March 1604...the celebrated Baltasara de los Reyes (called La Baltesara) agreed to act in the company of Gaspar de Porres for one year, receiving 16 reals for each performance and 6 reals daily for maintenance, besides traveling expenses. " This in an age where the average worker made about 6 reals a day. Granted, actors had to provide their own costumes - elaborate, fashionable, debt-inducing costumes, especially for women. The autor would often help defray the costume costs for lesser actors, but headliners paid for their own.

Whose words were these women speaking as they trod the boards of the Spanish stage? Mostly, men like Lope de Vega wrote the plays. Women wrote as well, but usually their poetry, prose, and plays stayed within the limited circle of their family. Occasionally, the works of some lucky, talented woman would be published or even produced. For example, Ana Caro Mallen de Soto's work was published in the same collections as famous male playwrights of the day such as Pedro Calderon de la Barca. There is record of payment to her as a playwright on two different occasions, one each in 1641 and 1645, for autos sacramentales. Two of her probably much larger and unknown number of secular comedias survive, entitled El Conde Partinuples and Valor, Agravio, y Mujer. Since much praise for her many comedias still exists, many scholars assume her works were widely circulated and perhaps produced in many places, although documentary records of these performances are few. Little is known about her and other female playwrights, much less than of their male contemporaries.

It is probable that women worked in the Spanish playhouses as seamstresses and dressers for the actresses, and perhaps in other capacities. Records, found in government and playhouse sources, do not name these women or provide details about their contributions. As in other European countries of the late Renaissance, history has swallowed whole the records of women's participation as audience members, actresses, playwrights, technical artists, and staff. However, the names of the few ladies we do know suggest the presence and talents of the many anonymous women who played a role in the brilliance of the theatre during the Siglo de Oro.

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