Spanish Golden Age Theatre: History & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Spain's Renaissance came a little later than most of Europe's, but it was no less spectacular. In this lesson, we'll see how the Spanish Golden Age impacted theater both inside Spain and out.

The Golden Age of Spain

Lots of places have had a golden age. The English had a golden age. The Chinese had a golden age. Even Dutch furniture makers had a golden age. But rarely is a golden age a literal term.

The Spanish Golden Age (ca. 1580-1700) was a period of extraordinary growth, intellectual development, and political ascension built, pretty literally, by gold (as well as spices and slaves). This was the era when Spanish colonialism took off, extracting millions of tons of resources from the Americas. With this wealth, Spain sought to transform itself into an unrivaled empire of power and sophistication. One place we see this is in Spanish literature and drama. Spanish theater of this time was built on the wealth of empire and was equally rich in terms of production and development. It was a genuine Golden Age of drama.

Background and Influences

The Spanish Golden Age was unique, to say the least. While the rest of Europe had gradually transitioned into the Early Modern era throughout the Renaissance, Spain sort of missed that step. Instead, Spain was caught in a nearly 800-year long religious war to expel Muslim Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, a campaign known as the Reconquista, that lasted until 1492.

The Reconquista had major impacts on Spanish society and drama. For one, it established a strong military culture and Spanish men became obsessed with chivalric honor. In fact, honor became one of the most important themes in Spanish drama, to the point that it even discouraged an exploration of other motifs.

Since Spain had missed much of the Renaissance, they were desperate to catch up once the Reconquista ended. (So desperate, in fact, that the monarchs were willing to fund a crazy Genoese sailor who claimed he could open a trade route to China by sailing west in 1492.) This desperation fueled the conquests of Mexico and Peru, and as the wealth started pouring in, Spanish monarchs had a chance to transform Spain into a more modern, less medieval nation. In particular, this was a major project of Philip II (r. 1556-1598), who brought artists into Spain in order to inaugurate a Spanish Renaissance. Philip wanted the world to know that Spain was not only caught up but in the lead, and theater would play a part in that.

Theater and Government

During Philip's reign, Spanish theater began to transform. What had been a pastime dominated by wandering troupes of minstrel-like performers became professional drama, performed in corrales, or permanent theaters. The first of these was the Corral de la Cruz in Madrid, which opened in 1579. Corrales were used to raise money for hospitals and other charities, giving them a moralistic function.

A corral still used to perform Golden Age drama in Spain today.
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From the mid-16th century, the Spanish government started playing a larger role in theater. By 1603, only fully licensed theater troupes were allowed to perform in Spain, and the government only distributed a limited number of licenses in order to maintain quality and control. Women were allowed to perform after 1587, although the government amended its laws in 1599 so that any woman who wanted to act had to be married to a man in a professional troupe.

Types of Plays

Theater flourished in Spain, with roughly 30,000 plays being produced in the Golden Age. In general, however, these could be divided into two categories.

First were the autos sacramentales, religious plays that reflected Spain's militant Catholic devotion. Autos sacramentales combined normal human stories with supernatural, allegorical, and biblical motifs to create emotional religious dramas. They were often performed on two-story stage wagons during religious processionals, and while they were originally conducted by trade guilds, municipal authorities starting putting lots of money into funding these by the mid-16th century.

Catholic culture was very important in Spain, so religious and secular productions were kept separate. Autos sacramentales were religious plays, while secular dramas were embodied in comedias nuevas. These three-act plays combined comedy and tragedy with themes from history, mythology, popular culture, and the Bible into polymetric verses (meaning there's no set meter) that shifted throughout the performance.

A modern troupe performs a comedia nueva.
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