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Who’s Afraid of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz?

Transatlantic Performances of Los empeños de una casa (The House of Desires)

The emerging field of transnational studies is a promising avenue for the study of theatre and performance practices. As an inclusive and global approach, it opens a constructive critical dialogue around different cultures, social histories, and economic and political realities implied in artistic productions across nations. I have found these avenues of research and inquiry especially illuminating when approaching early modern theatre in Spanish-speaking contexts.

The plays belonging to this period have been relegated to the rear of Elizabethan drama. To this day, they continue to carry the weight of the stale and strict code of honor that originated in seventeenth century Spain as a direct consequence of the social and political rigidity that marked the Spanish nation within and outside the Iberian Peninsula. Studying early modern Hispanic theatre from a transnational lens can allow the dramatic productions to be seen outside their Spanish cultural context and, instead, in a globalized context, which is worth evaluating from our present day.

five actors onstage

The House of Desires at the GALA Hispanic Theatre. Photo by Lonnie Tague.

Sor Juana and The House of Desires

There has been a perceptible effort from directors to bring to light more Hispanic works of female authorship. International theatre festivals as well as companies open to performing international playwrights as part of their regular repertoire have been ahead of this intellectual and cultural endeavor by having their stages become transnational artistic grounds par excellence.

Within the history of performance in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we can locate a significant corpus of productions of Mexican poet and playwright Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s 1683 play Los empeños de una casa (The House of Desires) on both sides of the Atlantic. Sor Juana (1648–1695) is the most performed early modern Hispanic author, followed by Ana Caro Mallén de Soto (c.1600–1645), and María de Zayas y Sotomayor (1590–1661) and their plays Valor, agravio y mujer (Valor, Outrage and Woman) and La traición en la amistad (Friendship Betrayed), respectively.

Sor Juana’s The House of Desires brings questions of cultural and aesthetic whitewashing to the fore in the way it has been conceived for the stage around the world. In most European productions, directors tend to neutralize aesthetic features proper to Hispanic and Mexican cultures; Mexican and North American directors, alternately, add aesthetic elements that make the play unmistakably associated with Mexican culture.

To better illustrate the issues when it comes to transnational productions, let’s look at two adaptations of The House of Desires by two of the most influential classical European theatre companies: the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Straford-upon-Avon and the Spanish Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico (CNTC) in Madrid.

The emerging field of transnational studies is a promising avenue for the study of theatre and performance practices.

The Royal Shakespeare Company Production

The RSC production, directed by Nancy Meckler in 2005, opened with an air of religiosity. A copper wall served as a frame for an altar, which encompassed the back of the stage. Two novices shone the floor, and Sor Juana, figured as a nun, wrote at a table in front of the altar. Religious music imbued the conventual atmosphere. Although the stage would soon become Don Pedro de Arellano’s house, this initial setting established the tone for what theatre critic Susan L. Fischer described in an essay as “an inner world of memory” that recalled Sor Juana’s life. In addition to the Mexican-style altar, the only other Hispanic reference is the characterization of Don Juan de Vargas, whose machismo is revealed in his physical aggressiveness, which is reminiscent of both the bullfighter and flamenco dancer. It is worth emphasizing that the flamenco is, according to Fischer, “the RSC’s default setting whenever [producing] anything Hispanic.” While writing in full view of the audience, Sor Juana strips her religious habit to transform into Doña Leonor de Castro, the female protagonist in this cloak-and-dagger play. The zealous act of changing identities alludes to a transgression from the religious to the secular.

This activity also reveals a powerful metatheatrical moment, as the subject of her writing is the play we are about to see: a story of untamed human passions and the ways to undermine seventeenth century patriarchal society. Gender transgression is especially crucial since not only are the female protagonists shown as openly desiring subjects, but the Don Carlos’ servant, Castaño, disguises himself in full view of the audience in women clothes to deliver a letter from his master unrecognized.

It is worth noting that to encourage audiences to dig deeper into the meaning of female oppression—that is, the trigger for transgression—one of the cultural events featured during the RSC’s season was called “Girls on Top,” where the audience was segregated by sex in order to recreate the restrictive social environment of playhouses at the time. Just as in the corrales de comedias (Spanish commercial playhouses), women were forced to watch the play from the so-called cazuela (stewpot), a crowded space above the stage reserved for female spectators.

For the scenes of great chaos about the two couples looking for their actual partners, which happened in the dark and revealed a world of love and sensual desire, Meckler intentionally chose to expose them in full light for the audience to see without filters. The director, as Fischer explains, uses “a reverse lighting device from Chinese classical theater and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy (1965): the stage lights were turned up to signify what the characters experience as a blackout, so that the audience saw them feeling around in pretend pitch-darkness.” As such, transgression—of both the religious and gender orders—wins out thematically in this production, as specific cultural referents are barely taken into account.

In most European productions, directors tend to neutralize aesthetic features proper to Hispanic and Mexican cultures; Mexican and North American directors, alternately, add aesthetic elements that make the play unmistakably associated with Mexican culture.

The Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico Production

The second production of The House of Desires that moves away from portraying the play as one that is specifically Mexican is the Joven Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico adaptation by Antonio Álamo that premiered in 2018 in Madrid’s Teatro de la Comedia, directed by Pepa Gamboa and Yayo Cáceres. In the institution’s thirty-two years, this is the first time a play by Sor Juana has been performed—especially significant because their sole mission is to stage Hispanic classics. Women playwrights have been generally overlooked by the company in favor of male authors since, for most of the general public, they are still unknown and therefore represent a higher risk for commercial theatres.

The performance of The House of Desires unfolded in a small black box theatre that the Compañía reserves for more experimental performances by the younger actors of the company. A minimalist but highly suggestive scenography strove to neutralize any reference to Sor Juana’s Mexican identity, similar to Meckler’s production. Neither the costume or set design, nor the music, feature any reference to Mexican culture. The only non-intentional hint that we could interpret as a misplacement of these characters in a broader cultural context is the lighting design. The play manages to create a powerful aesthetic with lights and shadows that suggests, at times, a phantasmagorical atmosphere where the protagonists seem to be displaced, living in a dream where they do not belong.

In this performance, the audience viewed a simple setting: a room with two side doors of smoked glass and wrought iron. However, a sumptuous atmosphere was achieved by four Mannerist murals of mythological nudes by Bartholomeus Spranger that lend an air of voyeurism in a private chamber. Spranger’s totalizing aesthetic reifies the female body exposed to the male gaze and projects the spatial setting of the play as what we might call a “Europeanizing” cultural framework that contributes to stripping the production of its roots in Mexican culture.

Sor Juana is one of the few female playwrights highly recognized of Viceregal Mexico and the lack of inclusion of any referents to this artistic and culturally rich period makes The House of Desires lose its uniqueness and fall into another homogeneous adaptation within the broader scope of early modern drama.

two actors onstage

House of Desires at the Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico. Photo by Daniel Alonso.

Reflecting on Production Choices

As a scholar and critic of theatre, I see this absence of dialogue between cultures as a political, cultural, and artistic lack. But the importance of a transnational critical perspective lies in leading us to reflect on—not even to answer—why European productions of The House of Desires analyzed divest the play of its cultural origins, while Mexican and North American companies tend to restore and privilege an approach grounded in Mexican culture.

José Solé directed The House of Desires in Mexico City in 2008, set the play in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and peppered it with indigenous references. Additionally, in 2015, Hugo Medrano, the artistic director for Gala Hispanic Theatre in Washington D.C., explicitly adapted the play to the aesthetics of 1940s Mexican cinema and the films starring Pedro Armendáriz.

This is far from an exhaustive analysis of the corpus of contemporary adaptations of The House of Desires, but the comparative approach adopted here is meant to trigger a series of questions regarding how to include Hispanic cultural referents in classical plays in a period of rising Hispanophobia, where cultural nuances become increasingly problematic to represent. On the one hand, productions such as those from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico are valuable in their effort to globalize the classics, away from reductionist and localist cultural stereotypes that, in the case of early modern Hispanic theatre, have greatly devalued its artistic and intellectual value. On the other hand, works as unique as The House of Desires, whose themes and female authorship are part of the essence of Sor Juana’s struggle in a very specific historical moment of Viceregal Mexico, must stand out with a series of references that reminds audiences of its origin.

Transnationality has become a hot topic in cultural productions. It is mostly regarded as a plus, but some cultural products occupy a very fragile place in present times, such as The House of Desires, which needs a delicate handling on the stage. Now more than ever is it time to speak openly about the differences inherent in the various productions.

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Thank you for your article, Esther! I have been doing a lot of research on this specific play, and it is incredibly helpful to hear about production choices and to get such a scholarly and thoughtful reflection of those choices. In this particular case, I struggle to find much in the original text that strikes me as specifically Mexican and not written to run parallel to Iberian structure and values. Could it be argued that Sor Juana's goal may have been to have this produced in Spain with little commentary on her Mexican heritage, or even her religious background? She certainly wrote other plays that focused on Mexico (the loa to El divino Narciso) and many plays that were about religious themes (El divino Narciso itself), but it seems to me like this play is intentionally neither of those things. Are we pigeon-holing the playwright if we insist that her work be produced in a certain way?

Thank you for this essay. I directed/produced HOUSE OF DESIRES in 2018 at SUNY Sullivan and the mise en scène included two casts: one in the orchestra pit that were all nuns and one on the proscenium proper in the mind of Sor Juana.  The cast and myself scored the script for the nun version of each character to say some lines and the imagination character to say other lines.  They also said many lines in concert with one another.  Fights on stage had swords, whereas fights in the pit had sticks.  We designed the set to look much like the adobe casitas in the Hispanic world.  Our theater program is committed to producing a Golden Age of Spain play every other year, for many of the reasons you stated in your essay.  I live more in the practicum world, as opposed to the critical world of theater, but it is nice to see more writing about some of the forgotten pieces.  We just produced the world-premiere English-language translation of THE COUNT PARTINUPÉS by Ana Caro Mallén, translated by Harley Erdman.  We ended up having to do it on Zoom, but...we're committed.  Thank you, again...

Absolutely, translations are key in this conversation as well as textual adaptations in the original language. Each of these topics, I believe could be an article within a similar framework than the one I present here.  Somehow related to some of the points you raise in your comment and in the context of transnational studies, I am interested in knowing more about how subtitles function in international theater festivals. Who chooses the translation? Why some play have subtitles and other don't? What the subtitles bring to the theatrical experience as a whole in the context of an international theater festival?


Thank you, Esther, for this astute piece and for your broad transnational purview.

If the Hispanic classical tradition is to get its due, we must also think about what happens to the texts in translation. The texts also vary across productions, and translations must themselves be attentive to the markers of geographic and cultural difference. How to recognize diversity without invoking stereotype? How to render the multiple versions of language in the original as a text is translated? How to produce and adapt translations for specific audiences? These are some of the questions we grapple with as translators in the Diversifying the Classics project.