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.