Maegan Clearwood: Tell me about your journey with María de Zayas’s Friendship Betrayed. How did it all begin?
Catherine Larson: During the Spanish Golden Age (16th to 17th centuries, or early modern times), there were few women dramatists, and those who did write plays were generally not able to see their works performed in the public theaters. We believe there were probably only 23 women writing in Spanish, and not all of them were writing secular drama, nor were they all writing in Spain. Still, this small group created a number of really good plays; the dramaturgas often got together in literary salons—with or without male playwrights—to read the plays aloud to one another or share them as written texts. My own appreciation for Zayas’s comedy led me to seek ways to let others know about her work.
The decision to share Zayas’s play with the rest of the world was part of what was happening in the field of Hispanic literary studies starting in the late 1980s–early 1990s: scholars began to get excited about literature written by women. When I was a graduate student, plays written by women were not included in the canon, with maybe one exception—most of us didn’t even know that female writers existed. Feminist literary studies began to influence the ways we talked about women characters; this was quickly followed by the decisions of many professors and scholars from across the globe to locate and publish “lost” texts by women. They often found those plays in public and convent archives. Many of us believed that the first thing we had to do was find the texts of these women so that they wouldn’t be silenced anymore. Valerie Hegstrom, a colleague from graduate school, said that she’d like to do an edition based on this play, which would help us get the word out. Friendship Betrayed is a funny comedy, a great play to share with the world, so we decided to create a bilingual edition based on the manuscript, which is how the translation came into being: we wanted English speakers to also have access to the play.
Spain’s national library, the Biblioteca National in Madrid, owns the only extant 17th-century version of the play, the manuscript that served as the basis for our bilingual edition. The manuscript contains 49 folios measuring approximately 6 by 8 inches, and they are bound in leather. The pages are generally in good shape, although they have yellowed and show some age spots.
Our bilingual edition, with Valerie Hegstrom’s edition in Spanish and my translation in English, was published in 1999. Although I had imagined an audience interested in reading Friendship Betrayed, I never thought it would be performed in public. I think I was stuck in the mindset of looking at the play as a literary text. My own thinking has greatly evolved since then, and my research now centers on performance, but at that time the profession was turning a corner, just beginning to look in new directions. It has been gratifying to see Friendship Betrayed in performance; prior to this production, it has been staged in Oklahoma City, OK; El Paso, TX; Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; and Washington, DC.
Every time I see it performed I learn something new. The previous DC production [Washington Women in Theatre, 2006], directed by Karen Berman, was beautifully modernized and filled with a great deal of sexual energy and vibrancy. There was a lot of symbolism in the staging; the audience loved it. The earlier productions were performed by university students, who, using their bodies and presence on stage, did an astonishing job with almost no set. The director changed a major scene at the end of the play, transforming a catfight between two female characters into a sword fight, and it worked well.
What was Zayas’s life like?
Zayas (b. Madrid, 1590-1650?) interacted with people who, like her, were from the aristocracy. We know little about her life. Like her female friends, Zayas was well educated, knew what was happening in the theater world, and chose to write plays, even though her only known play wasn’t staged until centuries later.
Zayas was hugely popular as a prose writer in the 17th century; she wrote two extremely well received collections of novellas, and she was respected as a writer by both men and women. This was the era of a number of famous writers, such as Miguel de Cervantes, Luis de Góngora, Lope de Vega, and Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and painters such as Diego Velázquez. The Golden Age was filled with creative figures and royal patronage.
It was called the Spanish Golden Age for a reason: the great writers were creating plays and characters that were incredibly important in terms of the trajectory of Hispanic drama. Lope de Vega, who authored hundreds of plays in his lifetime, wrote The New Art of Writing Plays in 1609, which revolutionized the theater. Lope insisted that plays should please the public, so instead of five long acts, the number was reduced to three; the plays were written in verse, and dramatists were called dramatic poets. The three main themes in Golden Age drama were love, honor, and faith. There were comedies and the Spanish version of tragedies (very different from Shakespeare’s)—a huge variety of plays, with an emphasis on action. Unlike the situation in England, Spanish women were allowed to act, but actresses in general were associated with loose morals, and there were very specific laws about who was allowed to act: for example, you had to be married to join a theater company, and even then, female actors were judged harshly.
The earliest public theaters were in Madrid, Valencia, and Seville. They were open-air theaters with platform stages erected in patios surrounded on three sides by houses. The stage was at the far end, and there was a canvas awning over it so that the whole spectacle was shielded from the rain and sun. The wealthiest people from the nearby houses watched from their balconies. Less-wealthy males paid very little and stood in front of the stage, somewhat like the groundlings of Shakespeare’s theater. Women spectators were segregated in the back, in the cazuela, or “stew pot,” with guards keeping men out. Most plays began with an introduction praising the patron of the playwright, followed by the three acts, with short (comic) plays or dances between the acts and a fin de fiesta at the end. The admission money not only paid the actors but went to support hospitals and orphanages. Theater audiences were often rowdy, especially due to the men in the front, who would yell and throw fruit and vegetables if they didn’t like what they saw. There were sometimes people from other towns who would attend a few performances, memorize everything they heard, go home, write down what they had heard, and then have locals perform the play. There were also lavish palace productions: because Spain controlled parts of Italy at that time, Italian set designers were brought in to transform the settings of royal performances. Finally, the theater also played an important role in religious festivals and convent life.
First of all, I was struck by how really funny this play was, and how Zayas had a great sense of how to use language in ways that made the situation come alive. Even more than that, this is a play about community, female community, and what it means to be loyal or disloyal to other women. Fenisa is a transgressor of limits—young noblewomen shouldn’t steal every man in sight—but she has no qualms about doing that. Fenisa is not easy to define: she is not a spiteful vixen in the negative sense, because she insists that she honestly has room in her heart to love many men at the same time. On the one hand she’s exciting and subversive, pushing the envelope on how women act with one another, but she is also punished for breaking social codes. Zayas shows how other women view Fenisa’s betrayal of the culture of support among women, and how they choose to help someone like Laura, who made the mistake of surrendering to the man whom virtually all the other women would like to marry. In the theater (and often in society) in those times, if a woman were dishonored, she would have three options: marriage, the convent, or death. Laura is a driven young woman: she leaves her home with the intention of forcing her seducer to live up to his promise of marriage. Zayas’s spin on this situation is to foreground the supportive reactions of all of the other women except Fenisa. This play is ultimately about how women can both challenge and maintain social and cultural codes. That’s what I love the most about Friendship Betrayed: it talks from a woman-centered perspective, an approach you didn’t see in plays written by men.
I translated Friendship Betrayed truly for the joy of it, and because I thought it was important to get Zayas’s name out there to a larger public. We thought that an English translation could appeal to theater people and to those who can’t access the comedy in Spanish, which is exactly the case for Avant Bard right now. Today, I believe much less in the need for a translation to express fidelity to the original source text (linguistically or culturally), because I recognize how much a text in performance is already an adaptation, as is a translated text: there is no such thing as a word-for-word translation. As I was translating the play, I was already inserting some of myself into the text, because I was trying to create a text that would come alive in the reader’s or spectator’s mind. I wanted the translation to be lively, because this is a comedy, and language matters. I tried to create a framework that the director and actors could build upon in their own interpretation of Zayas’s play. My thinking about translation and adaption has changed a lot from seeing theater, hearing translators talk about it, and doing it myself.
Are you excited to see Avant Bard’s performance?
I love the idea that this play is offered in translation to an audience, because Spanish theater of that time period and by people like María de Zayas deserves to be discovered and experienced by more people. I know that Kari is updating it to the 1920s, which is an interesting approach; my sense is that she is trying to capture another time in history when women were transitioning out of positions of weakness and were displaying themselves as strong and witty and in control. So I understand those directorial decisions and I can’t wait to see how that comes about onstage. Hispanic theater is my great love, so the chance to see a production of Friendship Betrayed is exciting. We’re creating a new performance history here with this play.
Friendship Betrayed plays to October 11, 2015 at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online.
Catherine Larson is a professor in the Department of Spanish and Porgtuguese at Indiana University Bloomington specializing in Golden Age literature (especially Comedia), Spanish American theatre, and Gender Studies.
Maegan Clearwood is Avant Bard’s Director of Audience Engagement and Resident Dramaturg. She recently completed a year as the Literary Associate at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, where she served as Assistant Dramaturg on Slaughterhouse-Five (music by Jed Feuer, book/lyrics by Adele Ahronheim) and End of Shift (by Jenny Connell-Davis). Favorite credits from her Olney Theater Center Dramaturgy Apprenticeship include I and You, The Piano Lesson, The Tempest, and Colossal. She studied drama and English at Washington College and is a proud Sophie Kerr Prize finalist, Association for Theatre in Higher Education Dramaturgy “Deb,” and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas member.