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Cataloging project reveals previously unknown copy of a comedia suelta

By Paloma Graciani Picardo

The cataloging of the Texas collection of comedias sueltas at the Harry Ransom Center—funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources, Cataloguing Hidden Special Collections and Archives program—has proven to be a great success in revealing unknown jewels of early printed theater in Spain. One such jewel is Juan de la Cueva’s Comedia de la muerte del rey don Sancho y reto de Zamora, printed in Barcelona by Sebastian Cormellas in 1603.

 

This recently discovered suelta, not included in Mildred Boyer’s Texas Collection of Comedias Suelta: a Descriptive Bibliography (1978), broadens the date range of the collection and provides a unique example of the earliest suelta format. Although a suelta with the same title and imprint had been recorded by Spanish bibliographers, Golden Age theater researchers had considered it a lost edition. Before this find, the only Juan de la Cueva play confirmed to have been printed as a suelta was the Comedia del saco de Roma y muerte de Borbón. It was also published by Cormellas in 1603, and the only known surviving copy is held at the Hispanic Society of America in New York.

 

The Comedia de la muerte del rey don Sancho was performed for the first time in 1579 at the Corral de Comedias de doña Elvira, sixteenth-century Seville’s most popular theater. It adapted a medieval ballad, introducing for the first time on stage one of Spain’s most beloved national heroes, El Cid. With this Comedia, Juan de la Cueva (1543–1612) pioneered the merging of popular legendary themes with the Spanish classicist theater in an attempt to promote national patriotism.

 

Between 1579 and 1581, Cueva staged 14 plays in Seville that he eventually published as a compilation in 1583. A second edition appeared in 1588. His plays showed signs of some of the key characteristics that Lope de Vega later introduced, and Golden Age scholars consider him a forerunner in the renewal of Spanish theater. Current researchers agree, however, that his major accomplishment lies in the fact that he had the vision to publish his work at a time when it was uncommon for dramatists to do so.

 

With his publishing endeavor, Cueva aspired to reach a wider audience than the one attending the performances and ultimately preserved his work for the present day. The lack of stage directions within the text and the inclusion of a plot abstract for each of the acts reveal an underlying motive of addressing his work to the private reader. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, printed dramatic works had achieved considerable popularity, and printers soon realized the consequent benefits. The suelta format is clearly product of this demand.

 

Sebastian Cormellas’s print shop, located at Carrer del Cal, was one of the most productive in seventeenth-century Barcelona. Cervantes himself visited the shop in the summer of 1610, making it famous when it was later described in the second part of his immortal novel Don Quixote as one of the few nonfictional locations of the book. Cormellas was known to be a savvy businessman who printed on demand, many times without the author’s consent. Whether Cueva was an author ahead of his time or just one of the many writing in Seville in that period, the publication of at least two of his titles in the suelta format and in Barcelona is a reflection of the greater acceptance that Cueva’s theater may have had with its contemporary audience.

 

Little is known about the history of this copy held in the Ransom Center’s sueltas collection. Ownership marks include illegible marginalia and a Latin inscription of the opening verse from the Lamentations of Jeremiah (1:12). This biblical sentence was widely quoted in the late Middle Ages, especially in Gregorian liturgical psalms. No exlibris, stamps, or signatures are provided. The fact that it was not mentioned by Boyer in her bibliography could be a clue to date its acquisition sometime after 1978. Even so, no record has been found relating to the acquisition or the provenance of this suelta. Most likely, it was acquired as part of a bulk purchase of Spanish theater materials and joined the rest of the sueltas collection in the Ransom Center stacks until it was cataloged.

Image: Cover of Juan de la Cueva’s Comedia de la muerte del rey don Sancho y reto de Zamora.

 

Related content:

Stories from the Sueltas: Cataloger sheds light on gems in the Spanish comedias sueltas collection

Illustrating the Sueltas

Sueltas feature cartoons by Spanish caricaturist Manuel Tovar

Zarzuelas: The music of the sueltas

Zarzuelas: The music of the sueltas

By Paloma Graciani Picardo

As cataloging of the Texas collection of comedias sueltas continues at the Harry Ransom Center, new features about these plays continue to be identified. The sueltas collection comprises nearly 14,000 titles published from the second half of the seventeenth century through the early twentieth century. More than half of the collection’s cataloged works were published between 1850 and 1900, which isn’t surprising as theater was the center of cultural and social life in nineteenth-century Spain.

 

The nineteenth-century witnessed the building of new theaters, a growing audience, an increasing number of highly prolific writers, and the development of new techniques of staging and dramatic performance. One of the most prominent developments, however, was the blossoming of lyric theater, which in Spain reached its pinnacle with its very own national genre: the zarzuela.

 

Lyric theater has existed in Spain since the 1630s, when King Philip IV started hosting performances at his hunting lodge near Madrid, known as La Zarzuela because of the brambles (zarzas in Spanish) that surround it. One of the earliest known performances of this genre is El jardín de Falerina written by Calderón de la Barca with music by Juan Hidalgo. In fact, Calderón became the most prominent lyric theater author, and some of his later works, such as El Laurel de Apolo, were already being referred to as zarzuelas.

 

When Italian opera was brought to Spain at the beginning of the eighteenth century, its popularity overshadowed the baroque zarzuelas. In the 1850s, while some intellectuals in Madrid were trying to create a truly national Spanish opera, other less ambitious composers revived the zarzuela. It was in the second half of the nineteenth century that zarzuelas would reach their Golden Age with authors such as Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, Tomás Bretón, Federico Chueca, Amadeo Vives, and Ruperto Chapí.

 

Differing from opera because it included dialog alongside singing, the new zarzuela had an excellent reception in Spanish society. At that time, Spain was going through a tumultuous period marked by the Revolution of 1868, an economic crisis, political instability, and the eventual crisis of identity brought on by losing the Spanish American War of 1898. Zarzuelas were an escape for the nineteenth-century Spanish theatergoers, much in the same way that musical films were for the American postwar public of the 1940s and 1950s. Zarzuela themes—usually love stories—were based on Spanish folklore and set in familiar Spanish locations. The plots, set mostly in the working-class districts, ranged from the buffa, or comic style, to the extremely dramatic. They were sung in Spanish and frequently included folkloric dances and costumes. Some of the most popular titles like La verbena de la Paloma, La Revoltosa, La Gran Via, or El barberillo de Lavapies are still being performed today in Madrid at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, open to the public since 1856.

 

The librettos and music were generally sold separately, and the rights of reproduction were held by different entities, as can be inferred from the catalogs printed on the wrappers and the dealers’ stamps found in the cataloged zarzuelas. However, some of the copies in the Ransom Center’s collection include additional pages with printed or handwritten scores and lyrics.

 

The hundreds of zarzuelas in the Ransom Center’s sueltas collection provide an excellent example of this genre’s popularity and reach. Without a doubt, these works constitute a valuable source for the study of Spanish popular culture of the period, as well as for the understanding of specific matters related to nineteenth-century theater as an organized entertainment industry.

 

The cataloging of the comedias sueltas is supported by a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives.

 

Related content:

Ransom Center receives grant to catalog Spanish comedias sueltas

Stories from the Sueltas: Cataloger sheds light on gems in the Spanish comedias sueltas collection

Illustrating the Sueltas

Sueltas feature cartoons by Spanish caricaturist Manuel Tovar

 

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