Spanish golden age drama is more than a match for Shakespeare and co.by James Woodall / September 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Don Juan, Tirso de Molina’s most abiding creation
When the National Theatre stages a play by a 17th-century Spanish friar this month, it might seem as if a jewel of exquisite rarity were going on display. To an English-speaking audience, the 16th and 17th centuries are the era of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and co—the undisputed master dramatists of their age. Yet for power and sheer productivity, the Spanish Golden Age—the Siglo de Oro, 1580-1680—is more than a match. Extant plays in Castilian outnumber, by many hundreds, all the work of the playwrights of Elizabethan and Stuart England put together.
Opening at the National Theatre is one of them. Damned by Despair, by Tirso de Molina, is a fascinatingly dense study of criminality and redemption. It concerns a pious hermit who chooses to test his and others’ commitment to God; but the Devil leads the hermit astray and links his fate with that of Enrico, a Neapolitan outlaw. With a femme fatale adding some glamour, the story becomes an allegory about who deserves heaven—the contrasting men being, it is thought, two sides of the playwright himself: one contemplative, one of action. Frank McGuinness’s taut, colloquial adaptation keeps the play, clearly of its time, thrillingly contemporary.