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Unlocking the Language and Culture of 17th Century Spanish Theater
Unlocking the Language and Culture of 17th Century Spanish Theater


Professor DeLys Ostlund of the Dept. of World Languages and Literatures is a scholar of the literature of the Spanish Golden Age. Her scholarship focuses on the dramatization of historical events in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Over the past several years, Dr. Ostlund has been preparing a Spanish-language critical edition of an obscure play by Lope de Vega, the most prolific playwright of the Spanish Golden Age.

A contemporary of Cervantes and Shakespeare, Lope de Vega was said to have written well over a thousand plays. Unlike Cervantes, who’s well known in the U.S., the seldom-translated and preformed Lope de Vega is largely unfamiliar to readers and theater-goers in the States. At the turn of the 17th century, however, Lope de Vega was the most celebrated playwright in Spain.

Four centuries later, Dr. Ostlund is reintroducing Spanish-language readers to Lope de Vega and developing a critical edition of a unique play that has garnered little attention until recently. Dr. Ostlund was introduced to the play through an English-language adaption, The Labyrinth of Desire, put on by the Miracle Theater Group, a Portland-based, Hispanic-focused troupe Dr. Ostlund occasionally consults for. La prueba de los ingenios (“A Trail by Wits”—a title notably different from that of the adaption) is the comedic tale of a woman, Florela, fighting to regain her honor and marry the man who took it from her . Read a synopsis of the play here: PDF iconPrueba Plot Synopsis.pdf

While honor is the central theme, Dr. Ostlund points out that other major themes addressed in the play would have been considered salacious at the time, though they’ve become valid topics of discourse today. It was this observation that prompted Dr. Ostlund to take a closer look at the text.

The ways the play dealt with themes of women’s equality and homoerotic desire were of interest, as was cross-dressing, a literary trope frequently undertaken by female actors disguising themselves as men. In Spain, female-to-male cross dressing was far more common than male-to-female. In La prueba de los ingenios the trope is more complicated, in that a female character, pretending to be a male disguised as a female, competes for the love of another woman.

“At the time I saw the adaption, I was teaching a course on 16th and 17th century civilization and culture,” Dr. Ostlund said. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to introduce students to Lope de Vega. But what we saw was not a Lope de Vega play; it was modernized and my sense was that it had been changed substantially. I was surprised by the treatments of homosexual desire and woman’s equality; I didn’t know the original play at the time and so that got me engaged.”

Dr. Ostlund, who had previously written, The Re-creation of History in the Fernando and Isabel Plays of Lope de Vega, decided to begin another study of the playwright's work, this time focusing on La prueba de los ingenios. She located the text and found much of what she assumed were changes made by Caridad Svich, the play’s English-language adaptor were indeed there in the play. Given the domination of the Catholic Church over the culture of the time, the role of these “immoral” themes as key plot mechanisms make La prueba de los ingenios unique and worthy of sharing with the academic community as well as readers of Spanish-language literature.

“There is value in these texts,” Ostlund said. “And we can look at the play and examine how the text approaches honor, women’s equality and homosexual desire; and by examining how the text approaches these themes, we learn more about the culture that produced the play.”

To compile the critical edition, Dr. Ostlund scrutinized several editions published over the past 400 years, including the first and second editions published in Madrid in 1617 and Barcelona in 1618. Changes and discrepancies between texts were noted to add to the critical edition. Ostlund is also adding annotations to provide context to the play, a critical analysis and an introduction with notes on the history of publication and the text’s place in relation to Lope de Vega’s other theatrical works.

“In my experience as an educator,” Dr. Ostlund said, “Spanish literature from this period is difficult for students, partly because of idiom, partly because of the social morays. The critical edition is a way to guide readers through the text. Theater in 17th century Spain is poetry—verse is a part of the writing. A lot of students don’t read Spanish at a level where they have access to these parts of the text. I want to guide them through the text and give them the tools they’ll need to have access to the original language. My intent is that the critical edition will help students become familiar with a text they otherwise wouldn’t find approachable.”

For Ostlund, making the text of La prueba de los ingenios approachable is not just about unlocking language; it’s also about understanding the culture from which the play comes. According to Ostlund, Lope de Vega’s characters, and characters in 17th century Spanish literature in general, are unlike those written by English.

“Someone who knows English theater might look at Spanish theater and think it inferior. I think people pass that judgment because they don’t understand the differences between English and Spanish theater. The poets in Spanish recreated history in their plays. Their characters weren’t psychological studies like Hamlet or Lear. The Spanish playwrights placed emphasis on theme. Action was meant to illuminate themes, honor, for example. People today don’t think about themes the way the Spanish did in the 17th century. That’s why it’s just as important to understand the culture that produced these works as it is to understand the language.”

Ostlund hopes a critical edition of La prueba de los ingenios will provide readers access to the theater, culture and civilization of 17th century Spain. If she does so, she will also preserve part of the Spanish Golden Age’s cultural heritage for future generation.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted October 29, 2013 


Visit Dr. Ostlund's Faculty Homepage