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  • Treating the Public: Charitable Theater and Civic Health in the Early Modern Atlantic World by Rachael Ball
  • Ruth MacKay
Rachael Ball.
Treating the Public: Charitable Theater and Civic Health in the Early Modern Atlantic World.
Louisiana State UP, 2016. 212 Pp.

RECENT YEARS HAVE SEEN AN IMPORTANT TREND toward linking the Iberian Peninsula to its New World colonies and territories with the understanding that by crossing the ocean—in both directions, often multiple times—people, ideas, practices, and objects underwent transformations and were enriched and altered by contacts on either end. Rachael Ball’s book, her first, takes plays and theater troupes on this voyage, thus offering an original, intriguing, and entertaining way of tracking the survival and meaning of cultural practices. In addition to giving us a transatlantic look at theater, she adds two layers: the first is the link between theater and public health institutions or charity efforts, often run by religious confraternities; the second is a comparison between the Spanish experience and that of cities in England, Ireland, and Virginia.

The theater scene in Madrid and throughout Spain, as is well known, was exciting, active, and raucous. No other European country could compare. Its deep bench of playwrights and entrepreneurs benefited from a unique arrangement between municipal entities and theater; as hospitals depended upon ticket sales to finance patient care and alms-giving, the theaters, though shut down now and again for health reasons or for royal mourning periods, were ensured a relatively secure livelihood, notwithstanding some vocal critics of this popular entertainment on moral grounds.

The pairs of cities Ball presents for comparative purposes are Madrid and London, Seville and Bristol, Mexico City and Dublin, and Puebla and Williamsburg. At first glance these are fascinating pairings, seeming to offer a potential wealth of material and angles from which to better understand the two great Atlantic empires.

The final chapter, the book’s strongest (it also appeared as an excellent article in Sixteenth Century Review [vol. 46, no. 3, 2015]), is thematic rather than geographic, looking at antitheatrical sentiment and writings in early modern Spain and England. The critical genre enjoyed considerable success in both [End Page 117] places, but precisely because Spanish theater was so firmly lodged in cities’ welfare structures, and also because the physical playhouses (the corrales) were often lodged in central locations and thus were guaranteed massive (and mass) attendance, moralistic warnings and rants did not do as well in the south, though Spanish polemicists could cite the ancients as eloquently as the British did when it came to bemoaning the sinfulness and depravity of the stage.

Ball makes a point throughout the book of examining women’s role, and roles, in theater. In Spain they were on stage and off, behind the scenes, in the audience (separate from the men), and in front of the house. In England and its colonies, however, they were harder to find. The scandal of women’s presence, be it in the audience or on stage, was part of the impulse behind antitheatrical literature, which argued that loose morals incited the general decline of civility and politics. Ball further speculates that the spectacle of women at the theater also spurred an endless array of concerns over sexual identity and gendered behavior. In the wonderful words of Pedro de Guzmán (words that supplied Ball with the title to her above-mentioned article), public theater was “a cathedra of pestilence and the plague of the city” (142).

Madrid’s theater scene is probably the richest of those Ball describes, and it is well known. Less known to this reviewer were the scenes in Mexico City and Puebla, which offer interesting and entertaining examples of how class and colonial relations were enacted within the confines of the theater, at times mirroring the metropolis, at times taking syncretic directions. Both Mexican cities continued the Spanish custom of linking theater and charity or health, and theater furthermore was one of the staging grounds of jurisdictional conflict, a longstanding peninsular tradition. Ball describes Mexico City’s precolonial tradition of religious spectacle and ritual, which was certainly theatrical; however, I’m not sure it tells us much about later commercial institutions...


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pp. 117-119
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