Spanish “Golden Age”
In Spain, the Renaissance period, from approximately 1550-1650, is called the “Golden Age.” This is largely because of the fact that during this time frame, Spain’s very large fleets of ships were in control of the world’s oceans, for the most part. They started a vast program of exploration and colonization. These efforts were driven by two primary goals: to spread the message of Christian salvation to all the peoples they encountered, and to reap riches and wealth from those same areas of the world.
Rich and powerful
As a result of their outreach to new places and to new cultures through the efforts of exploration, conquest, and trade, Spain became the most powerful and richest nation in the world at the time. Their gold fleets were made up of large Galleons fitted to conquer new areas and to carry huge quantities of treasure from the New World and the Pacific.
Very Catholic nation
Spain was a staunchly Catholic nation. Its rulers were often looked to by the Church as essentially enforcers of Catholic doctrine throughout the realms of Roman Catholic influence. This was the period when Protestantism was beginning to grow and challenge the centuries-old dominance of people’s hearts, minds, and souls by the Church in Rome. One of the key tools that the Spanish used was the Inquisition. The Inquisition was sanctioned by the Pope, and its stated purpose was to root out heresy and convert the Jews. However, the zealousness with which the Spanish pursued this resulted in some heinous actions. Torture, murder, false accusations, and more murder, forced conversions under penalty of torture or death, and other extreme actions gave the Spanish Inquisition the reputation for cruelty and violence. It was eventually cancelled by the Pope because it had gotten out of control. Still, the impulse that was behind it was the motivating factor for much of the influence of the Catholic Church throughout Spain and its colonial outposts even through today.
Strong period for theatre – including popular theatre
Growing out of the church-influenced Middle Age theatrical practices, Spanish Golden Age theatre developed two primary types of theatre. The first was a continuing strong tradition of church-influenced religious drama based on Medieval practices. The second was a secular drama that developed in parallel to religious drama. It is this secular drama that we will focus on primarily in this part of the supplement.
The main type of secular drama was known as Comedias. Despite the appearance of the name, this was not only comedy, it involved all types of secular drama. In many ways it is drawn from the influence of the Roman domestic drama and the influence of the Italian Pastoral. These plays dealt with love and honor, and in their style, they most closely resemble modern melodrama.
Lope de Vega
The most well-known Spanish playwright from this period is Lope de Vega (1562-1635). He was a very prolific playwright, writing in the neighborhood (by one estimate) of 800 plays. These were generally formulaic, similar to modern romance novels. The playwright used a simple basic outline for the action of the play and just changed the details to fit a new location or set of characters. Not all of his plays remain, but enough do to be able to discern his patterns. He wrote what became the model for the modern Heroic Tragedy. That is, he wrote stories that had some sort of tragic element in them, but where the ending turns out happy, or at least not very tragic. Most of his plays had a prominent reference to the honesty and integrity of the king, who usually was referred to as the reason that everything turns out right at the end of the play.
Another very interesting development in the Spanish Golden Age is that women started to write plays. They were not frequently performed, but they were written and circulated in written form. These female playwrights were not at all common before the Renaissance, and their plays began to challenge accepted gender roles in society, not to the degree that modern feminists would want, but they also questioned traditional play forms and ideas.
Theatre Production in Spain
Much of the theatre in Spain followed traditional Medieval theatre practice, but they did develop a type of theatre space that is fairly distinct. These were known as Corrales. They were built in existing courtyards between buildings that had been used as storage space or pens for animals. They had walls added at each end and the newly enclosed spaces became open-air theatres that were more reminiscent of English Renaissance stages than those of the Italians.
They did incorporate some of the seating ideas of the Renaissance in that the seating around the sides consisted of box and gallery seating. A Spanish Corral was rediscovered in Almagro, Spain and has been refurbished to be used as a modern theatre. The modern theatre uses seats in the open area, or patio, the open area directly in front of the stage. Originally, it would have been used for standing room and possibly a few benches near the stage.
Another new development in the theatre space was the Cazuela. This was a separate place in the audience for unaccompanied women. It was placed above the entrance door, with its own separate access, usually guarded by an armed sentry to prevent any men from entering. This was designed to allow women to watch plays even if they did not have a father, brother, or husband to protect their honor among other audience members.
The area usually above the cazuela was often reserved for churchmen to attend the play and watch over the crowd. They were usually there in a type of censor role, to ensure the play was acceptable to the church and that the audience behaved in a way that was in accordance with church expectations.
The main entrance would be in the wall opposite the performing space. In addition, there was often a tavern or refreshment stand on either side of the entrance called an Alojeros.
These corrales would usually hold about 1500-2000 people at the maximum. That would be about 1000 places for men, about 350 or so seats for unaccompanied women, and the remainder (mostly the boxes and galleries) would have been set aside for high-ranking officials, accompanied women, and churchmen.
The use of scenery, like in England, was very sparse. They would use the text of the dialogue to indicate location and other relevant details about the setting and let the audiences’ imaginations fill in the image.
Spanish Acting companies
The acting companies were also very similar to those in England at the time. They were made up of a mix of “shareholder” companies and hired/contract players. Most companies consisted of 16-20 people, and then would hire additional actors if/when needed. One area where Spain differed from England, however, is in the fact that women were allowed to perform in Spain, in both religious and secular plays. To ensure women were protected while with the acting company, the Church made the government make specific rules for women. After 1599, women had to be married to or related to another male member of the troupe. Again, this was in the assumption that the male relative would protect the woman and defend her honor amongst the other men of the troupe.
France in the 17th century
In the remaining major country in Renaissance Europe, as far as theatre is concerned, the Renaissance came fairly late to France. It was delayed by a religious civil war between the Catholic upper classes and a growing Protestant middle class. This war ended in 1594, and when it did, the Catholics had won, and the relative peace that ensued was ripe for growth and change. As the French recovered from war, they observed the effects of the Renaissance in the countries around them where it had already developed significantly. Essentially, the French didn’t have to grow and develop their own version of the Renaissance, they adopted the one that was already in progress!
The French readily embraced the cultural influences, mostly of the Italians, when it came to the Renaissance in France. They were eager to expand on the new culture of expansion and excess. France very quickly joined the colonial race to embrace overseas, newly discovered territories and draw on them to refill French wealth and influence. They were also a powerful seafaring country, and they started on a vast program of exploration and expansion. This often brought them into conflict with the other major powers, but mostly Spain and England.
The French king at the time was Louis XIV, known as the “Sun King.” He selected that sobriquet for himself, because he thought of himself as the “light to his people.” One of the changes made in Renaissance France was the style of dress. It became quite extravagant. Interestingly, the French style placed most of what we consider “feminine” clothing elements on the male. Men wore wigs, women did not. They wore heels, and women did not. Men wore a lot of jewelry and fancy clothing accessories, and women tended to wear rather plain and understated clothing!
French Neo-Classical drama
In terms of the theatre of the French Renaissance, it is important to start with one of the most influential playwrights in this period in France, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, also known as Moliere (1622-1673). He had a very colorful history in the French theatre, and in terms of getting various noblemen, including the King, angry with him, and then making peace and coming back into favor with the rich and powerful. Moliere is mostly known for his comedy playwrighting, but he was an actor, too. He led a troupe of actors as they traveled around France, outside of Paris, where he learned a lot about what made people enjoy theatre. He witnessed a lot of the Italian travelling Commedia delle’Arte and was significantly influenced by it. Most of what he saw was incorporated into his written plays but adapted for the upper levels of society in Paris.
He used the exaggerated characters, the satire, and the physical forms of comedy associated with slapstick. He often used sexual innuendo, but no overt sexual content. Another device that Moliere used quite heavily, and sometimes itself with very comic effect, was deus ex machina (god from the machine). This is a technique where near the end of the play with a relatively serious plot development (sometimes bordering on the tragic), a sudden, and unexpected, reversal of circumstances happens and results in a happy ending. It is based on the classic Greek technique of using a mechane to bring the god or goddess into a play to “save the day.”
While Moliere is most widely known for his comedies, there are two French playwrights who stand out as the most influential writers of Neo-Classical tragedy. They are Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and Jean Racine (1639-1699). Corneille’s play Le Cid (1636) was based on a Spanish play. It was judged to be too far away from the Neo-Classical rules for plays, and so it was condemned as being “not a good neoclassical tragedy,” even though it was hugely popular with its audiences. Racine, on the other hand, wrote Phaedra (1677) which was acclaimed as the best of all French Neo-Classical tragedies.
Theatre Production in France
Theatrical production was largely influenced by the Italian developments in theatre during the Renaissance. However, it was the French who first built a new permanent theatre building (designed and intended to be a performance venue for theatre) in 1548, the l’Hotel de Bourgogne. The religious order in Bourgogne wanted to build a theatre to perform religious plays associated with their monastery. The building was finished in 1548, but in that same year, the French government outlawed the performance of religious drama, so the churchmen turned the space over to perform secular drama.
This theatre continued to be used for drama well into Moliere’s time, but by then it had been remodeled with a proscenium arch (in the 1640s). It also incorporated a unique seating arrangement. In addition to using gallery and box seating around the sides of the theatre, there was at the back of the floor area (the Pit) the French added an area of bank seating to allow for middle class patrons to have a seat instead of standing for the entire performance. This semi-circular area of bleacher-like seating at the rear of the auditorium was called amphitheatre seating. In addition, some audience members would sit at the edge of the performing space – right on the stage itself. These were considered the best seats in the house and were reserved for dignitaries and high social-ranking individuals. They were able to be seen from every other seat in the auditorium. Remember that in the Renaissance, throughout Europe, going to the Theatre was often a social event more than for the entertainment value of the play.
Here are some examples of other kinds of theatres used by the French during the neo-classical period. Not all theatres were special built for theatre. Some were created in other buildings, but they were normally converted for permanent use as a theatre. One example of this is the Theatre du Marais (1634). It was built in a converted tennis court. It also had the bleacher-like seating at the far end of the court from the stage. It had added box seating at the sides, but most of the audience area was reserved for standing room. It was also remodeled in the 1640s to be a proscenium arch theatre.
Another important theatre was built in Paris by Cardinal Richelieu, who was a major advisor to the king. It is known as the Palais-Royal (1641). After Moliere returned to Paris, his plays were often performed there. It is also the first theatre to have a proscenium arch as part of its original design built in France. It was after the Palais-Royal was built that most other existing theatres throughout France were converted into Proscenium Arch theatres.
The king, Louis XIV, had a very large ego and enjoyed making grand entrances. To suit this taste, a very large theatre was built near his palace. It is known as the Salle des Machines (1660). It was originally constructed as a space for performing ballet, but it was also used for theatrical productions. It had a huge stage, backed with an even larger space for scenery and machinery. This area is just a little bit bigger than the seating area and the stage area combined. A very large machine was built there to allow the king, and the entire royal family (including a significant number of staff) to be raised in chairs on a platform, rolled forward, and then lowered onto the stage to make very impressive entrances.
The last theatre we will look at is one specially built by commission of the King. The French have always been very guarded about preserving the French national identity, and the Comédie Française (1689), was built for that very purpose. Louis XIV created the government organization called the Comédie Française in 1680 and commissioned it as a French national theatre company. The theatre itself was opulent, because it was designed for the King as a personal theatre to present plays on demand. It was also the organization that was given nearly absolute control over theatre in France. It became a clearing house for all plays written to be performed in France – an approval process that was essentially a government censor for the quality and content of plays in France. The official charter, which is still in effect today, granted the Comédie Française a monopoly over all French drama.
Other theatre production
Throughout France, most acting companies were share-holder companies that included women. Unlike the theatres of Spain, there was no requirement that the women be accompanied by a male relative, but many were married to other share-holders, or were mistresses of high-ranking noblemen.
Once the Comédie Française was established, the idea of using limited rehearsal and preparing several plays for performance at a time became the norm throughout France. Today, we refer to this practice as “repertory” theatre. This practice provided vey limited time to rehearse plays, and as a result, they were often somewhat limited in staging by the actors. Reliance for atmosphere and affect was placed on the scenery and the words rather than the acting style. Plays often changed daily, especially at the Comédie Française, where the King would select the play to be performed from a group of plays known and prepared by the acting troupe.