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Audiences of Empire: Lope De Vega, the Spanish History Play, and Me

Audiences of Empire: Lope De Vega, the Spanish History Play, and Me

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Audiences of Empire: Lope De Vega, the Spanish History Play, and Me

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Mar 17, 2011


LOPE DE VEGA (1562-1635), poet/playwright of unrivaled popularity during Spains Golden Age of literature (including Miguel de Cervantes and Caldern de la Barca), rescued theater from ineffective conventions and claimed authorship of some 1800 titles. Many of the almost 500 existing plays are stagings of pivotal events and protagonists from national history. Lope entertains his eager public with colorful stories of the passions, heroism and villainy of the high and mighty blending these with the virtues and vices of ordinary folk and stock characters. In the twilight of the once great empire, now powerless and bankrupt, Lope draws his audience into a reimagined past that is confirmed and redeemed by a prophecy of future greatness. With the history play Lope gives new meaning to the moniker often ascribed to him, Phoenix of Spain.

In Audiences of Empire, author Elaine Bunn proposes a new subgenre, the populist national history play that is communal and deliberately expansive. She shows Lope, the frustrated historian, connecting king to commoner and putting myths, legends and miracles to fresh use.

Finally, Audiences of Empire includes a personal reminiscence by the author about the challenges of the writing process and her experience as a feminist academic in a slowly transforming patriarchal university system. Her protracted research on Lopes early theater makes her aware finally of the significance of her own historical moment with surprising insights.

Mar 17, 2011

Sobre el autor

ELAINE BUNN is Professor Emerita of Spanish Language and Literature at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. She earned a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Rutgers University, and Douglass College in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She currently resides in Highlands, New Jersey.

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Vista previa del libro

Audiences of Empire - Elaine McDermott Bunn

date:  3/11/11


Notes from the Author

Making it Clear

Narrowing the Field

Dilemma of Abundance

Getting it Right

Critical Perspectives

Too Much Information

High Expectations and Mistaken Identity

Submitting the Manuscript

Academic Titles and College Teaching

Placement Advice Recommended

Other Hurdles: Prelims

Other Hurdles: Orals

Sacrifices and Consequences

Consequences II

Personal and Political

The Kind Assistant(s) and the Dean

From ABD to PhD

Douglass College: an Interim Station

Bad Advice

Nearly an MBA: Making a Choice—Money or Love

Taking Stock


Me and the MLA

Text and Pretext

The Early History Plays of Lope de Vega:


Part 1:

The Background

Chapter I:

The History Play and Lope de Vega

Chapter II:

Sixteenth-Century Historiography

Chapter III:

History in Drama Before Lope de Vega

Juan del Encina

Francisco de Madrid

Andrés Ortiz

Hernán de Yanguas

Bartolomé Palau

Jerónimo Bermúdez

Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola

Juan de la Cueva

Anonymous Gran comedia de los famosos hechos de Mudarra

Francisco Agustín Tárrega

Miguel de Cervantes


Part Two:

The Plays

Chapter IV:

Composition and Structure of Lope de Vega’s History Plays

Communal Drama

Selection of Events

Dramatic Meaning

Expansive Form and Dramatic Unity

Length and Breadth

Character Portrayal


Plot-Story Ratio

Repetitions and Juxtapositions

Variety of Activities

Multiple Plots


Chapter V:

Analysis of Selected History Plays by Lope de Vega


Span of Events

Arrangement of Plays

Los hechos de Garcilaso de la Vega y moro Tarfe (l579–83?)²⁶¹

La vida y muerte del rey Bamba (1597–1598)²⁷⁸

La Santa Liga (1598–1600?)²⁹⁹

El último godo (l599–1600?)³¹²

Carlos V en Francia (November 20, 1604)³²⁶






My severest critic and my greatest fan was my mother, Marie McDermott (1903–1993), who prized education above all things and whose love of words was contagious. My siblings Barry, Ron, Joan, and Carol Sue are wise, witty and—what’s more—they always answer the telephone. Joan’s steadfast commitment to this project never (ever) wavered, nor did her good humor.

My children—April, Colin, and Austin—never asked me for more than I could give and gave me more than I ever knew existed. Without them, I would never have heard the music in quite the same way.

I have been most fortunate to count among my friends and colleagues Phyllis Zatlin, Marsha Swislocki, Kathy Kish, Selma Margaretten, Lucy Miller Murray, Babbie Carballal and Barbara Myzlik Woodward, all talented and wonderful women with whom I have shared many sacred spaces in the best of times and the worst of times. Their friendship and generosity has meant more to me than they will ever know.

Ever the careful reader, Peter P. reminded me to do the same, thankfully.

Herb Stubbman graciously took my photo on a hot summer day in New Jersey.

Notes from the Author

Making it Clear

I would like the reader to consider these prefatory remarks required reading or, at least, highly recommended for anyone who out of curiosity or courtesy intends to proceed to the actual text that follows. The life and fortunes of that text were—and still are—woven tightly into the fabric of my life story and this is the story that I want to tell here. My comments should clarify the otherwise hardly defensible publication in book form of a manuscript written more than thirty years ago to fulfill an academic requirement.

As I take inventory of my life and worldly goods, I am faced with a recurring problem regarding the disposition of research notes, index cards, and miscellaneous papers neatly packed in three numbered boxes that have survived as many moves. With each of the latter, I deployed a herculean defense of the material. I simply would not—or could not—dispose of the seeds of my early labors: the research, thinking, and writing had held me hostage for far too many years. The work itself had sunk quickly into public oblivion leaving few visible traces, but it was always on my mind demanding closure, absolution, letting go. It is time to reap. These notes from the author represent a kind of apologia pro opere suo, or meo, to be exact, (borrowing unapologetically from St. Augustine’s Confessions).

The hitherto unpublished PhD dissertation submitted so long ago to the University of Pennsylvania in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, as the title page says, is here with all of its original parts, although these are arranged differently to conform to the publisher’s protocol. Typos, misspellings, a penchant for which over that, an overabundance of howevers and a few pesky homonyms overlooked in the original have been corrected. Otherwise, it is complete with its warts and wrinkles—an aging artifact from a prior life that nevertheless continues to exercise its power over me. It has been bound to me inextricably, like a shadow.

When I reread the work now, it seems unbearably prolix, its prose arcane—few will have the background or patience to read it (except my brother, Ron, who reads absolutely everything with un-distractible attention and great reverence). Its repetitiveness bears witness to its tentativeness—a sure sign of the writer’s (my) insecurity and, I might say, using an expression of my time, my fear of flying. In the process of converting the text to an electronic one (now required by the publisher and executed with great care by my talented, long-suffering, and ever-reliable sister, Joan), I have read it more than several times and, with each reading, I am reminded painfully that I always thought it said more than it does. I was so certain that what I was thinking about at that time was what I had written; that belief was—and still is—a delusion. I wonder if other writers experience that same self-deception. I hope that the reader will more fully understand this comment while reading what follows.

Narrowing the Field

I don’t remember the exact date of conception—the moment when the decision to write about Lope de Vega’s early history plays was made. I do know that it was by default, that is to say, I had spent about six months researching another topic. The living room floor of our two-room apartment on Pine Street in Philadelphia was covered during the day with little three-by-five-inch index cards, each with one of hundreds of proverbs that had been culled from an influential medieval text. I was hoping to submit a proposal to IBM showing how the computer could aid in my research in the humanities—a company initiative being promoted at the university in the mid-sixties (with the promise of company funding). I had attended a meeting that included a visit to a giant computer. I gave up on it all when I realized that I was doing the work I had hoped the computer could do better, it ceased to be interesting to me, and I could produce no good organizing principle for the computer-aided research to implement.

With some chagrin, I began a serious inquiry into the Spanish theater of the Golden Age (ca. 1580–1680) with promising guidance. The year before my arrival at the university in the fall of 1963, Dr. Arnold Reichenberger had published a much-acclaimed edition of a play (called comedia in its time) by the popular seventeenth-century playwright, Lope de Vega; thus, as one might expect, our conversations were about the playwright and his time. Although I had studied Spanish classical theater on several occasions and had enjoyed seeing performances in Madrid by the National Classical Theater Company, I don’t remember having any specific ideas of my own. As a result, I followed his suggestion to look first at the broad topic of Lope’s early comedias—his jungendramen. It seemed a natural choice for me to undertake research with the supervision of a professor whose small classes of earnest students I had enjoyed. They were intimate discussions of Golden Age poetic verse held in his cozy basement office surrounded by hundreds of books within arm’s reach—a space where time stood still. He was a kind, fair, and good-humored German-born scholar whose Spanish was heavily accented and for whom English was the lingua franca. His facsimile edition of a holograph (signed manuscript) by Lope was being highly praised for its superb editing standards and its meticulous historical research. It is not surprising, therefore, that he would be particularly interested in the topic of history. However, I do think it was I who found confusion in the definition of a history play. Early on in my reading of the plays, I decided that I would have to devise a selection process and criteria that would separate a history play from its fictional look-alike—even though much of history turned out to be fiction! I had hoped that the plays themselves would show me the difference and that I would learn from close readings something important about the use of history in drama and the structural challenges of composing plays in which not only national heroes and familiar historical figures would appear, but also the historical events that had made them famous. Those familiar with early Spanish history will no doubt recognize some of the many Spanish and other personages who appear in the plays: for example, Rodrigo, the last Visigoth king, Wamba (Bamba), Pelayo, Charles V, Phillip II, Andrea Doria, Titian, Frances I, and Spain’s patron saint, Santiago (de Compostela), to name a few.

Dilemma of Abundance

I had no idea that I would be setting off on a search for the ur-text of a drama based on Spanish history or that historiography would be so essential to understanding the sex, lies, and misconstruances of highly charged religious (Catholic) and patriotic chroniclers. The other challenge working on Lope de Vega is the sheer quantity of extant comedias. This prolific monster of nature—as he was called by his contemporaries—claimed to have written 1,800 plays, 1,500 of which we can account for and almost five hundred extant plays. The other playwright on the European stage at the time, William Shakespeare, would author some forty plays and, of those, several were written with or by others, it seems. Unlike the plays of Lope, Shakespeare’s history plays were separated in their own folio from the beginning.

I often wonder why I was not encouraged (along with my classmates) to prepare a scholarly edition of a comedia from the many that had been purchased by the successful Philadelphia hat entrepreneur, John B. Stetson (1884–1952), and generously donated to the Penn library after his death. We had been trained somewhat in that editing skill—and by its most admired practitioner—and in his classes, we had often spoken of the virtues of a good scholarly edition. Certainly, we all might have collaborated in the editing rubrics; we would have finished the degree much sooner and some of us who never completed the dissertation might have done so. In addition, we would all have gotten the works published with relative ease since there is a great need for critical editions of these plays. A book in hand would have secured teaching positions quickly and with more or better choices, perhaps, and one published at a later date would, no doubt, have strengthened the resume for tenure and promotion. Did we even ask for that opportunity? Our reticence and timidity at the time are puzzling and that silence informs a disturbing acknowledgement of our powerlessness and absolute lack of initiative or entitlement.

Getting it Right

The consequences of false starts and misguided research topics are many and can be quite serious in the long run. Nevertheless, I cannot recall having had any discussion about my future or the compatibility of my research to the academic marketplace. I am sure that there were some among us who possessed the savvy to anticipate the opportunities, but I don’t think there were many—at least not among the grad students I knew. The satisfaction and/or the displeasure felt by the Penn faculty when some of us received offers were never overt, but in the culture of the romance language department, I suppose it was understood that we should find positions in research universities. I do know that there was great disappointment when a promising young scholar accepted a position at a junior college (later a community college). His priorities placed maintaining family ties at a higher level than institutional prestige (this I learned unintentionally as I waited outside a faculty office), but his advisor was not happy. There would be other probable consequences to his decision, including an increased number of teaching courses per semester, a limited number and variety of upper-level or literature classes, and little or no institutional support for his own research.

Critical Perspectives

The other matter that is so obvious here is my lack of readiness to take on this enormous project—the dissertation. I don’t think I was alone in not having given too much thought to possible topics, to the particular resources of the university, or to the research needs in the field. For some years, we have been in an age of interdisciplinary studies—the opening up of traditional texts to the fields of sociology, psychology, political science, women’s studies, etc. This reenergized literary studies by yielding unexpected insights into familiar texts and the broadening of the time-honored canon. In the Spanish departments, we were long on the sidelines; we were watching, but not yet wholly participating in the development of literary theory. I recall thinking that taking issue with literary assertions by long-departed scholars was not too difficult, but replacing, extending, and creating new ways of seeing the texts was the real challenge. I was beating a dead horse like many others. My situation was akin to a view I had as a child growing up on the New Jersey shore. At the end of Absecon Island in a town called Longport, you can see the bay meet the ocean currents. It is turbulent and scary to watch; small boats have to maneuver carefully and increase power to cross over into the calmer water. For many years I felt caught in that same tidal tension. Now I see that I was stalled in the endgame of traditional comedia studies. I didn’t realize that my research approach was so very traditional. In defining or refining a sub-genre of comedias I was looking back to models established in classical literature and refined through the centuries by the adherents to western modes of thought. It was still impressionistic and evaluative. Literary theory was not then what it would become; the isms were on the horizon. My contributions were merely nuanced reassemblings of the opinions of established scholars, principally British and American. Spanish scholarship from Spain was mainly textual commentary that reconciled philological discrepancies, or repeated and extended the paradigms of established models working with similar critical tools. The breakout of literary theories that would embrace non-literary modes of thinking and apply those concepts to the written word were gradually making their way to the established programs.

Too Much Information

I would like to share with you the tediousness of the process and my tendency to problemetize the issues unnecessarily as I realized later. The extensive period of gestation included painstaking research, laborious and intermittent writing, followed by the frustrating transfer of material to an unforgiving series of electric typewriters before I was finished. My inexperience as a writer was no doubt to blame for the overly complex project. First, I would have to identify a dramatic sub-genre as history by researching previous applications of this word. Second, I would identify all possible candidates (plays) for this taxonomy; and last, I would set up specific criteria to apply to the play texts. In addition, I would have to find predecessors and examine any development in the use of history in drama. Equally important would be to deconstruct representative plays by Lope that would illustrate his craft. I was eager to prove that a history play as a complex structure is defined by more than its historicity. I remember talking about this rationale and, I admit, overly ambitious plan with my mentor who listened attentively, and then closed his eyes, muttered something, and began to snore lightly at first and then more deeply.

High Expectations and Mistaken Identity

I wondered whether the proposal was lame and I had bored him to sleep. I felt really uncomfortable and, then, it struck me that perhaps he was hanging around after his retirement age only to see me finish. After all, the faculty always had high expectations of me. From the beginning, they thought erroneously that I had been the student of a brilliant former graduate student, Charlotte Daniels Stern, who in reality had been a colleague of mine at Randolph Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. This was my first college position following the MA degree from Middlebury College. That degree included a productive year at the Instituto Internacional in Madrid and a semester on the Vermont campus. The experience abroad would improve dramatically my accent and fluency in Spanish, which was exactly my goal. As for Charlotte Daniels Stern, in spite of her auspicious beginnings and obvious abilities as a scholar (deciphering sayagués—a medieval shepherds’ dialect!), she could not be hired as full-time tenure tract in the Virginia women’s college because her husband was already in the economics department and school policy forbade married couples to occupy full-time positions concurrently. Years later when the policy changed, she did advance rapidly and reaped the benefits of her talents and expertise. In any case, I took my sleepy advisor’s abulia to be an affirmative response and continued on with the monumental task of reading about the writing of early modern history—historiography—in Spain, defining a historical sub-genre of theater, choosing from among hundreds of plays mostly available only in enormous beige, marble-patterned, leather-bound volumes (in very recognizable Madrid binding) published by the Biblioteca de la Academia Española (BAE), and, finally, applying the criteria to selected plays. The last part took six months to complete; the earlier parts, interminable and tumultuous, took six or seven years.

Submitting the Manuscript

It was probably the summer of 1975 when, finally, I submitted what would be nearly the final draft to my forbearing advisor who returned it quickly with only positive (not effusive) comments and a few complimentary inquiries about the modernity of its bibliography. I suspect that he did not read the text in its entirety since he overlooked the misspelling of his own surname in one of the early pages. Sometime after that, I handed it over to the graduate school secretary whose rubber index finger was the ultimate arbiter of its acceptance or rejection. Which one depended on adherence to the technical guidelines for margins, order of material, typestyle, etc. all of which had been spelled out in some document that was required reading for graduate students. It was painful to watch the visible disappointment on the face of the future CEO of the Monterrey, Mexico, steel monopoly being outwitted by the rubber finger and forced to return to his room and realign his work on cash flow. I imagine that the challenges of language and culture that he had had to overcome to get to that point probably prepared him to show more patience than others might have shown at that moment. I avoided that impediment by hiring an experienced typist familiar with the common pitfalls of Penn’s self-important protocol.

By winter term of 1975, I could say I had finally completed all of the requirements and looked forward to marching with my fellow PhD candidates in May 1976, with my mother, husband, and three children proudly looking on.

Academic Titles and College Teaching

Submitting the completed dissertation and having it accepted by the graduate school office represented the last hurdle in securing the highest academic degree, the coveted PhD (Latin initials for philosophiae doctoris or Doctor of Philosophy) in Romance Languages. With a PhD in hand, one can begin to ascend the proverbial academic ladder with the title of assistant professor. Without a PhD one has little security in higher academic life. At most institutions, you cannot be tenured unless your field is a creative one, in which case a MFA (Master’s in Fine Art) is the terminal degree. At many institutions, you cannot hold a full-time teaching position for more than a certain number of years. This limitation is thought to prevent the exploitation of professors by keeping them interminably at lower ranks; this is approved by the AAUP—the American Association of University Professors—the closest approximation to a professional union.

Placement Advice Recommended

In spite of having been the recipient of a competitive teaching fellowship, an invitation to teach various classes more advanced than those normally taught by graduate students, and being the beneficiary of a prized dissertation fellowship that meant I would have no teaching responsibilities, I was never offered guidance (nor did I seek it, surprisingly) with respect to a future academic position. I know that when the time came, only major universities were on my list. Why hadn’t I considered the small liberal arts college, similar to the one that I had attended (Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia) or Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, where I successfully and happily climbed the faculty ladder, taught a variety of courses in language, literature, and culture, and retired as full professor emerita? I had my turn as chair of the department and spent considerable time outside the US directing short and long programs abroad; and on leave of absence for two years, directed the long-established Vanderbilt-in-Spain program.

Other Hurdles: Prelims

Two other hurdles facing a PhD candidate in those days were prerequisites to the dissertation. Prelims at Penn were in fact finals. (They were preliminary if you did not have an MA before entering the PhD Program.) If you did not pass them, you could not continue in the PhD program or begin work on the dissertation. These exams—in the form of essay questions—were administered weekly for four weeks as I remember. They were designed to demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of the field and, in my experience, to show a full command of the bibliographies in all literary genres and periods with special expertise in one field identified at an earlier date in the process.

I remember being alone in an unfamiliar classroom with the exam topics, writing materials, and blue books. No one ever came by and I wrote all day and into the evening since no one had said when to stop. To prepare for these exams, my husband and I had rented an extra apartment in our New Jersey complex (he had exams for an MA in modern European literature at another university). For six months, we would alternate in that space while the other one was watching our infant daughter and doing chores. I rather enjoyed this part of the final triad. I liked being in the quiet of the unfurnished, carpeted rooms, sitting on the floor, surrounded by the tools of the trade: books and index cards and lists. I had made flash cards for the titles and commentaries on bibliographies. It was almost enjoyable to memorize titles, authors, publication information, and assessments. Bibliographic information was concrete and unchanging—with no room for improvement or interpretation. Today, that information can be accessed in microseconds on the computer. Other parts of the exams were interpretive, but no essay title took me totally by surprise.

I was provided with a manual typewriter and asked to type the essays after the first one when some readers on the committee struggled with my handwriting. I am left-handed and did not participate in the Palmer method exercises in my Catholic grammar school. When the tap, tap, tap of the nun’s wooden ruler on the desk or on our hands could not change our stubborn ways, we lefties were abandoned to find our own style with varying degrees of legibility. In my case, I don’t think that the typed exams proved to be that much more legible.

Other Hurdles: Orals

As a result of successful completion of the written preliminary exams, one had to also suffer through the oral exams that followed by a month or so. These seemed to be based on the results of the written exams and the candidate was offered the opportunity to defend any weak responses to the written essays. I was terrified of facing all of my professors at once—four men and one woman, as I remember. They were seated at a long rectangular table—one of those heavy oak library tables with aggressive lion’s claw feet. I felt like Alice in Wonderland at one end of this table, the door behind me, a long window facing me at the other end, and the lion’s claw feet poised to pounce on my ankles. The questions were relentless and I went stone cold on all the questions related to the plots of Golden Age plays—my area of specialty—how dreadful, how embarrassing! I can still remember my face burning, the red blush visibly creeping up my neck as it did so often when I was feeling shy, ill at ease, interrogated, angry, or stupid. It got worse. My mouth became so dry and parched that I could literally not speak. Why didn’t I—or somebody else—think to put a glass of water on the table? I was directed to the water fountain right outside the room after I requested a break. Each time (and there were three returns to the trough), I would push the heavy upholstered arm chair back noisily, walk across the wide plank flooring hearing my heels clicking, pull open the heavy oak door, get a drink from the fountain, take a deep breath, and exhale a Hail Mary before I returned.

The fact was that only a small part of my horrible awkwardness could be called intellectual uncertainty. When he heard my growling early that morning, berating myself and complaining of misspent youth and bad decisions, my husband had convinced me to take a special pill, assuring me that it would make me calm and in charge. My thoughts would flow, he promised, and I would show the committee how clever and smart I was and deserving of their confidence and investment in me. The fact was that I was unaccustomed to taking pills for anything and my system had an extreme response. I did make it to the end, however. Later, the interrogators convened and came into the hall where I was waiting nervously. Each one congratulated me

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