Commedia dell’Arte and the Spanish Golden Age Theatre

Authored by: Nancy L. D’Antuono

The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  November  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415745062
eBook ISBN: 9781315750842
Adobe ISBN: 9781317613374


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My area of expertise is the relationship between the Commedia dell’Arte and the theatre of Spain’s Golden Age. Early in my academic career I began working with the Italian novella and its presence in the theatre of Lope de Vega. As I examined the thirty-two Lope plays derived from Italian short stories, I became reacquainted with the Commedia dell’Arte and its role in shaping Lope’s dramaturgy in general, and, in particular, the eight plays examined in detail. About twelve years ago, at a conference in Rome, a fellow comedia (Spanish – a drama or play that could be either in a serious or comic genre) specialist suggested that I look into the presence of the Spanish comedia in Italy during the seventeenth century and its impact on Italian dramaturgy, both as concerns the Commedia Erudita or Sostenuta and the Commedia dell’Arte. As I proceeded with my research, I ran into a critical stance on the part of Italian scholars which paralleled that of scholars treating Spanish Golden Age plays. Only a few plays met the high standards of these critics as concerned content. Most of the rifacimenti (a rewrite of an Italian play or Commedia into Spanish) of Spanish plays were written off as neither fish nor fowl and barely worthy of discussion. As for the Spanish repertory of the Commedia dell’Arte: nary a word. The rigidity of posture reminded me of my undergraduate and graduate courses in Spanish drama in which the same “sacred” plays were discussed over and over again as the masterpieces of Spain’s seventeenth-century theatre. Among these were El Medico de su Honra (The Surgeon of His Honor, Calderón de la Barca 1945) in which a husband has his wife bled to death to prevent his “honor” from being tarnished by the prince’s unwelcome attentions; Fuenteovejuna (The Sheepwell, Vega Carpio 1950) which treats the themes of the responsibility of rulers and the respect for human dignity no matter what the social class; and La Vida es sueño (Life is a Dream, Calderón de la Barca 1959) which deals with the question of man’s comportment in this world if, indeed, it is but a dream. Rarely did we read a comic play. I can recall only one, Don Gil de las Calzas Verdes (Don Gil of the Green Stockings, Tellez 1944). Yet when one considers the immense popularity of the Spanish comedia at home and in Italy (under Spanish domination from 1504 until 1700) and the vast quantity of plays that reached the boards of both nations, how can it be that so few plays emerge as representative masterpieces? If all of the others are, by implication, so imperfect, how do we account for their unqualified success as Spanish stage pieces and their subsequent triumph as Italian rifacimenti and Commedia dell’Arte scenari? I mention both genres together since I believe them to be one and the same, theatrically speaking, with common roots and much interdependence in the evolution of their form, if not their content.

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