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Reading Performance: Spanish Golden-Age Theatre and Shakespeare on the Modern Stage (review)

From: Bulletin of the Comediantes
Volume 64, Number 2, 2012
pp. 203-204 | 10.1353/boc.2012.0036

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Through the collection of essays Reading Performance: Spanish Golden-Age Theatre and Shakespeare on the Modern Stage, Susan L. Fisher offers a comprehensive overview of early modern plays in performance. Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Tirso de Molina, and Lope de Vega are the key playwrights analyzed in this book, as well as the theatrical adaptations of Fernando de Rojas’s La Celestina and appropriations of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in Spain and France. As Fischer makes clear, the study of performance “energizes potentials that have remained obscure or dormant in the original text” (220). The book makes the argument for theoretical inquiry into performances as nonstatic cultural events.

Reading Performance is composed of revised versions of Fischer’s already-published articles across three main areas: productions of comedias done by Madrid’s Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico (CNTC) between 1986 and 2005, comedias translated into English and performed in the U.S. and U.K, and productions of Shakespeare and Lope de Vega in translation on the French and Spanish stage. Although each essay stands alone, this collection inspires consideration of the critical overlaps between the plays in performance. Fischer utilizes theoretical perspectives from a variety of authors, including Patrice Pavis, Peter Brook, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida, and brings into conversation the often-estranged academic critic and theater practitioner. In Fischer’s words, “contemporary theory, then, can prompt the critic of the text and performance to recall that all readings have ideological implications, to examine the extent to which interpretation and ideology are intertwined, and to create a framework for deciphering the operations governing the production of new readings that arise from such culturally determined constructs” (20).

One of the most significant contributions of this book is that it offers a detailed record of CNTC’s comedia productions over nearly two decades, comprising such canonical works as El médico de su honra, Fuenteovejuna, El burlador de Sevilla, El castigo sin venganza, and La vida es sueño. Special attention is paid to the influence of the late director of the company, Adolfo Marsillach, and his particular interest in learning from CNTC performances in order to benefit future productions. Although Fischer acknowledges that the experience of participating in theater as an event is almost always subjective, as a critic she attempts to offer an analytical description of performance by following a meticulous approach to reading performance. She views productions multiple times from different locations in the theater and rigorously studies the play’s script in order to detect spontaneous or intentional additions or omissions. Likewise, Fischer keenly observes and describes the acting, direction, lighting, sound and music, blocking, set design, costuming, and audience reactions. Although such an approach to theater participation may hinder fresh reactions to performance, rigorous attention to detail permits the author to generate contextual appreciation for the playwrights and each play’s performance history.

Jonathan Thacker argues in the forward that, because Performance Studies have been less pervasive among critics of Spanish Golden Age drama, many academics have looked to Shakespeare Studies for inspiration. Interestingly, Fischer locates the instability of the written script as the key shared factor between Shakespeare and plays of Golden Age Spain. In her words, “the printed text is merely one text in a continuous process, with no particular authority over other stages” (46). Given this approach to theater as a fluid art, it is especially relevant to consider the applicability of Fischer’s theoretical model in alternate (trans)national contexts. It is useful to consider, for example, how her theoretical approaches might benefit analyses of recent productions from Chamizal National Memorial’s annual Siglo de Oro Drama Festival or non-CNTC productions staged annually at Almagro.

Reading Performance will also be of major interest to those who study translation, broadly conceived. While the collection specifically treats the issues raised when translating a play from one language to another, it also addresses the complex questions associated with translating or transcending set social, cultural, and political norms, particularly those unique to a fixed place or time period. In this vein, the two chapters dedicated to translations of The Merchant of Venice are especially interesting. Fischer explains that...

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