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Much of the current debate around the theater of Golden Age Spain has centered on whether, as an institution, it can be characterized as an ideological tool in the service of the Habsburg monarchy. This position finds its most forceful proponents in the renowned Spanish historian José Antonio Maravall and, more recently, in the literary critic and historian José María Díez Borque. Such a perspective on the canonical texts of Spain’s period of greatest literary achievement was, in the sixties and seventies, when much of Maravall’s work was being published, a radical, if not scandalous, innovation. Currently, however, there is another wave of criticism that would relegate Maravall’s theses to the dustbin of traditional thought, one that claims that any attempt to categorize the dramatic production of the Golden Age on one side or another of some imagined ideological border is necessarily reductive, and does violence to the irrepressible wealth of its polyvalent discourses. 1 I have argued elsewhere, and will continue to argue here (although with a twist), that there is more than enough evidence to support Maravall’s claims, if one takes the time to understand these claims.

The debate hinges on two contentions: propaganda, and therefore the agency behind that propaganda; and the homogeneity of reception. Anti-Maravallians feel that it is ludicrous to believe that there were members of the ruling class who actually exercised control over the content of plays in order to disseminate their system of values. Equally absurd, they claim, is the idea that the entirety of the theater and its constituents would be successfully imbued with these values; what, they ask, about resistance? The problem with these objections is an implicit assumption that they share (whether or not this assumption is present in Maravall’s own work is a topic for another discussion): namely, that the model presupposes a group of autonomous, receptive individuals who are seduced by the illusory message propagated by the theater and uniformly accept a system of values that is not commensurate with their interests. Herein lies the twist that is the subject of this paper: the form of theatricality that emerges in the sixteenth century and becomes the [End Page 391] comedia nueva of the Spanish Golden Age represents a movement of not merely propagandistic or ideological proportions, but rather of epistemological dimensions. The relationship of a viewer to the stage is the fundamental element of a new epistemological structure, one that creates the very conditions of possibility of what we today call ideology.

I. Medieval Theatricality

Before the sixteenth century, the theater—if it could be so called—in Spain was quite different from what goes by that name today. The theater semiotician Jean Alter has defined theater in the following terms: “the set of past, present, and perhaps future public performances that are based on fixed verbal texts essentially composed by dialogues, and during which live actors present the actions of characters involved in a fictional story.” 2 What is most extraordinary about this definition is that every element the author mentions is characteristic of theater as it appears after the second half of the sixteenth century; before that time, what we will call medieval theater shared none of these defining elements. If modern theater depends on actors to represent a text through the performance of dialogues and actions, medieval theater had no need of a stable text, no clearly defined agent to be the actor, and the roles that were played often had no point of reference outside of the place and time of the performance. In other words, if modern theater is concerned with representation through performance, medieval theater was only concerned with performance, or what one can call the production of presence. 3

Theater in its medieval manifestation was essentially a form of ritual, always connected to some event of importance in court, religious, or town life. In the context of a nobleman’s home, for example, a kind of theater might be involved with the festivities surrounding a banquet, in which the guests are not only offered entertainment before and after the meal, but in between the dishes as well: “These royal banquets...

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