Davis Crusades for New Golden Age of Spanish Drama

Posted: July 20, 2010 at 1:02 am, Last Updated: July 20, 2010 at 8:08 am

By Catherine Ferraro

Rick Davis, associate provost of undergraduate education, professor of theater, and co-artistic director of Theater of the First Amendment.

While few individuals in the English-speaking world recognize the name Pedro Calderón de la Barca, he is on a level with Shakespeare in his native country.

Calderón is regarded as one of Spain’s leading dramatists who helped further develop the country’s golden age in the 17th century. But because comparatively few of his plays have been translated, Calderón’s influence seldom reaches beyond the Spanish-speaking world.

Joining other like-minded individuals eager to spread the word about Spanish-language theater, Rick Davis, associate provost of undergraduate education, professor of theater, and co-artistic director of Theater of the First Amendment, presented a paper on Calderón at the 2010 Out of the Wings Symposium held in England in March.

A translator and director of Calderón’s plays, which he much admires, Davis presented “Calderón Beyond the Dream: Thoughts on Text and Production for a New Golden Age” at the two-day conference held at Oxford University’s Merton College. The conference focused on Spanish golden-age dramas and new approaches to production and translation.

Despite the success and popularity of Calderón and his golden-age contemporaries in their homeland, only one of Calderón’s plays, “Life is a Dream,” is widely anthologized, studied and produced by American college theater departments and professional companies, Davis notes.

“One of the reasons that Calderón and Spanish theater in general is relatively invisible in America is because we don’t have access to the range of the works of these playwrights like we do Shakespeare and Ibsen,” says Davis. “Therefore, American theaters and universities are hesitant to produce or teach a play that they haven’t read by a playwright they don’t know.”

In fact, according to Davis’ research, only 18 Spanish golden-age plays were produced in the past 15 seasons at professional theaters in the United States, of which there are about 400.

Book coverMeaningful translations and productions will help bring Spanish theater and playwrights to life in the English-speaking world, Davis argues. Although no translation is fully accurate, he notes, translators should try to capture the feeling and tone of the original work while striving for what he calls “speakability.” This allows the language to spring to life in the mouths of actors in a way that is understandable and accessible to contemporary audiences.

Throughout his presentation at Oxford, Davis drew on his own work in translation and production of Spanish-language theater. In a volume published in 2008 titled “Calderón de La Barca: Four Great Plays of the Golden Age,” Davis gave readers a taste of the playwright’s broad reach. Davis chose to translate four plays that range from delightful romantic comedy to serious religious epic: “The Phantom Lady,” “The Constant Prince,” “Life is a Dream” and “The Great Theater of the World.”

“I have a kind of missionary zeal when it comes to expanding the canon of dramatic literature that is actively studied and staged,” says Davis. “I wanted to create this volume of translations because it’s unfair to judge Calderón based on his one popular play, as is the case with many other Spanish dramatists.”

Davis makes a case for a natural alliance between theater companies steeped in Shakespeare and the material of the golden age. Though the texts are quite different, the actors know how to work with classical rhetoric, and audiences are accustomed to listening to the nuances of the language, he says.

As a final call to action at the symposium, Davis proposed an “all-out assault” on the 264 Shakespeare festivals, companies and theaters in North America, encouraging his colleagues to send out their playable and meaningful translations and production strategies. Since returning from the conference, Davis has sent out more than 20 copies of his Calderón book to companies and theaters across the country.

“Now,” he says with a hint of self-mockery, “I sit by the phone and wait for the flood of invitations to start pouring in.”

On a serious note, he adds, “Having the opportunity to be exposed to 17th-century Spain or any other time period in history is valuable to broadening one’s perspectives of the world. Hopefully, if our proposal is successful, we’ll soon see a burst of Spanish golden-age plays in North American theaters and be able to share these works with a new generation of individuals.”

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