- The Teatro Cervantes in Alcalá de Henares
The 1980’s: Discovery and Preservation Have we misunderstood the origins of these Castilian playhouses? If commercial theater began in Madrid without a building, obviating the need for serious capital investment, was sponsorship by beneficent societies like the Madrid brotherhoods really necessary to the enterprise? What if it all began with only the energy and the talents of traveling companies of independent actors, without the patronage of key noblemen or sponsorship by any religious brotherhood? That is what Cervantes told us, after all, but no one seems to have accepted that narrative, or pondered what it might mean. Before we begin to look at the story of the playhouse that Sanz Ballesteros, Coso Marín, and Sánchez-Pardo discovered, we must consider for a moment the implications of the political and economic world in which it was built. That world was characterized by the independence of self-supporting actors like those in Cervantes’s account: in Alcalá de Henares, commercial theater began with an illiterate carpenter who bought a house and fenced in the back yard. Impressed by the performance he had seen in the Corral de la Cruz, Francisco Sánchez left Madrid that day with a promising business model for a low capital start-up venture in the entertainment industry in Alcalá; the corral in Almagro testifies to its adoption beyond the immediate vicinity of Madrid.
The relatively small investment needed to create a corral and the ease of replication elsewhere must have helped to assure the success of independent acting companies, which could thus flourish in Spain unconstrained by the sort of relationships with particular buildings and their owners that characterized the rise of Elizabethan theater in London. Furthermore, the peculiar circumstances of lateral boxes in the corrales also inadvertently increased the economic impact of the proportionally larger number of standees (the vulgo) in the yard. These two factors—the independence of the actors and the disproportionate influence of the vulgo—contributed to the development of a different kind of [End Page 177] theater in Spain than Shakespeare and his English contemporaries produced in London.
Steven Mullaney wrote a book some years ago in which he suggested that the banishment of the London playhouses from the central city to the outlying district called “the Liberties” resulted in their being ‘liberated’ in a certain way from the centers of power and control. Although the Spanish corrales did not enjoy the geographical distance from the authorities that their Elizabethan counterparts had in the Liberties, the economic influence of the governing classes in Madrid over the playhouses was significantly countered by the power of the vulgo, the common people so disparaged by Cervantes and Lope de Vega as arbiters of success on the stage in Spain.
Actor-producers in Spain could afford only the minimum space necessary to make a viable stage, but not the buildings adjoining the space, which remained privately owned, and whose windows became de facto viewing boxes. An unintended and surely unanticipated consequence of that curious combination of independent buildings was that very little of the entrance fees paid by the spectators in those lateral boxes made its way into the coffers of the actors or of the managers of the playhouses. Since the majority of the boxes were independently accessed through the private houses in which they were located, they escaped direct control by the management of the theaters; most of the income from this alien territory came in annual sums paid to the playhouse managers by the owners of those adjoining houses. Because these sums were often difficult to collect, variation in the day-to-day income of the managers and actors depended upon the number of spectators who paid daily for entry into the yard and the stands at each side of the patio, and not on receipts for the much more expensive lateral boxes. The power of the vulgo resulted from their relatively large influence over the survival of a corral compared to that of the residents with choice seats in the lateral private boxes.
Since the income proceeding from the owners of the lateral boxes remained relatively stable...