An account of Lope de Rueda,
16th Century Comedian ExtraordinaireAnd his late 20th Century collaboration with
The Saint George Street PlayersOf San Agustin de La Florida
By Joan Hansen
And her alter-ego Juana Proprietress of the St. George Street Players
Summer, 1989, a retrospective
Lope de Rueda travelled the highways and byways, streets and lanes of Spain for 30 years or more, making people laugh: poor people, rich people, city folk and country folk, both the homeless and the royal…and one little boy who would grow up to become Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra, author of “Don Quixote de La Mancha.”
Lope de Rueda’s primary fame is that of comedian, his secondary fame is that of entrepreneur and finally that of an author of plays. In 1564, the year before his death he met Juan de Timoneda in Valencia. Timoneda was an author and publisher of plays and he persuaded Lope to let him publish his works.
Death took Lope de Rueda by surprise the following year, about the time that Pedro Menendez de Aviles was leaving for Florida to found and settle St. Augustine. And so, posthumously, in 1567 Lope de Rueda the actor-comedian, the inimitable farcist, became a published author, and as such, the rightful property of literary scholars for centuries to come.
But Lope was not a literary man. He was a funny man—who created comedy to be played by actors for an audience. Yet for 400 years scholars have been studying the twists and turns of his language and delighting to find within his scripts bits of 16 century dialect that have survived nowhere else but in the pages of Lope’s plays.
Then, a chilling moment: wafting from the towers of 20th century academia came the solemn verdict—“‘the works of Lope de Rueda are not funny.’” And as anything does that wafts anywhere, in a short time or long, it settled to earth—the earth of practicality.
Having translated and staged 19 of Lope’s 26 pasos, and having performed many of them for 10 years in English, we challenge that verdict. You can’t really know Lope until you have walked in his shoes on a stage before an audience. When you do you will hear the laughter. Then, tell us he isn’t funny.
Beyond the words is the character and the subtext, things you don’t find until you take the role and put it on, wear it and move about the stage in it.
In 1984 we took a company of four actors to the International Siglo de Oro Festival at Chamizal Memorial in El Paso, TX, where we presented a two-hour program of the Pasos of Lope de Rueda in English. Following the performance, a discussion session was held with our company and a panel of Siglo de Oro scholars.
In a discussion of “The Mask” (La Caratula) an interesting exchange occurred. The piece is about a servant who finds an actor’s mask and takes it to his master to inquire as to what it might be. The master tells him it is the actual face of a holy man, cut off by the robbers who murdered him, and left it behind in a ditch. The master subsequently wraps up in a sheet and puts on the mask as a prank to frighten the servant. But the servant eventually sees through the disguise and uses the situation as an opportunity to make playful “smart remarks” to his master, who then becomes the butt of the joke.
Panel: Why did you conclude that the servant had caught on to the prank?
Us: Because the servant says “ta-ta-ta” and then his attitude obviously changes.
Panel: “Ta-ta-ta” is a meaningless phrase; it doesn’t mean that.
Us: It is a device that Lope used in other plays which always signals a change in attitude on the part of the character who says it. In context, it is an aside, meaning “oh, ho, now I understand.”
Panel: I don’t see anything in the text to indicate that the servant has caught on.
Us: If he doesn’t catch on, it isn’t funny. Then it is only a cruel joke.
Panel: It isn’t a funny sketch. It’s about a cruel joke.
Us: Why would Spain’s most renowned comedian perform a play that was only the depiction of a cruel joke? He couldn’t make a living that way…
Another paso, “The Land of Ha Ha” (Tierra de Jau-Jau) raised a deliciously obscure point. The play is about two thieves who meet a man carrying a pot of stew to his wife who is in jail. The thieves take turns telling their victim tales of the delightful foods in the Land of HaHa while the other eats from the stew pot. During the thieves’ preliminary conversation with their target, Mendrugo, the victim with the stewpot explains that his wife is in jail but it will be all right because they are going to make her a bishopess and he is glad because that means that he will be a bishop.
The discussion went something like this:
Panel: Do you know what “bishopess” means?
Us: It’s bishop with a feminine ending. In other words, a female bishop.
Panel: A bishopess is a witch who is going to be burned at the stake. I’ve been trying for years to figure out a way to translate that play so that meaning could be conveyed. I don’t think there’s any way to convey that.
"Land of Ha-Ha" at Mission San Jose
on return trip from El Paso
Us: What difference does it make? Bishopess is funny enough. If someone in the audience knows it referred to a witch it will add another layer to his appreciation of the humor. But the play is, after all, about two thieves stealing stew. The bishop is only an embellishment. The audience doesn’t have time to worry about it in any case