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Authority and Theatrical Community: Early Modern Spanish Theater Manuscripts
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Authority and Theatrical Community:
Early Modern Spanish Theater Manuscripts

Who is the effective “author” of our most beloved Renaissance plays? Shakespeare or the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who mounted those plays and might change, as Hamlet complained, the meaning of the written scripts? His friends and first editors John Heminge and Henry Condell or the many editors who altered and added to his texts over the centuries? Spanish golden age drama invites a complex answer to this question, for Lope de Vega called Gaspar de Porres, the impresario who staged many of his early plays, an “autor famoso.”1 Porres collaborated with Lope in publishing the Parte IV of his Comedias (plays),2 supplying the manuscripts he owned and signing the preface for his friend’s volume.

Lope is not merely complimenting a colleague, however; he is also following established Spanish practice by which a theater company actor-manager was called an autor de comedias. Yet Porres’s role has more important implications than simply enlarging our sense of the authorial agency that may have been involved in first oral performances of texts. His activities also call into question the authorship involved in the extension into print of the manuscript materials that we know underwrote the first performances of any early modern play. Medievalists, of course, are fully cognizant of the importance of manuscripts, since their texts survived only in that form well into the age of print. For early modern theater studies, however, dealing with [End Page 101] manuscript culture presents a challenge; surviving manuscripts represent a small proportion of early witnesses, and what Paul Werstine aptly labels their “fierce particularities” and “irreducible historical messiness” makes it difficult to establish their relationship to playwrights, performers, and publication.3

Moreover, we have been working with what Jerome J. McGann calls a “ ‘readerly’ view of texts . . . elaborated through the modern hermeneutical tradition in which text is not something we make but something we interpret.4 Each generation of scholars with its own theoretical approaches adds a new layer of interpretative studies, but except as editors of scholarly editions, we rarely work seriously with theater manuscripts and archival documents of theater history.5 This scant attention to theatrical documents remains generally true despite increasing interest in social and material practices, performance history, and the work of such scholars as Roger Chartier and Fernando Bouza, who demonstrate how forms of cultural transmission—oral, manuscript, and print—are crucial in shaping the meaning that texts transmit.6 An important contribution to correcting this situation for English drama is Grace Ioppolo’s Dramatists and Their Manuscripts and the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitisation Project she founded and directs (http://www.henslowe-alleyn.org.uk/). As Ioppolo states, “It is impossible to study, interpret or define the transmission of an early modern printed dramatic text, or its use in the theatre before publication, without studying, interpreting or defining the role of manuscripts in those processes.”7 Knowledge of the role of manuscripts is equally important in understanding early modern Spanish dramatic texts. Given the significant parallels in the development and cultural centrality of Elizabethan and Spanish theater, awareness of Spanish theater manuscripts’ role might help resolve some controversies over practices in the Elizabethan theater world, such as that of memorial reporting, as English practices can illuminate Spanish uses.

A treasure that awaits scholars interested in the drama and theatrical community of Spain is the survival of some three thousand manuscripts dating from the last decades of the sixteenth century to the early years of the eighteenth. In the Biblioteca Nacional de España (National Library of Spain) in Madrid alone, there are at least one hundred autograph or partly autograph manuscripts of the principal dramatists of the period, including twenty-four by Lope de Vega and [End Page 102] eighteen by Calderón de la Barca, and many more autographs in other Madrid libraries, in the Institut del Teatre in Barcelona, the Hispanic Society in New York, the British Library, and other European and American libraries.

A dry climate helps explain this relative abundance of surviving Spanish manuscripts, but the principal factors were the extent and depth in time and space of the theatrical...