Harrison Meadows

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Staging Gender Non-Comformity and Transphobia in Hispanic Classical Theater

As we consider new approaches to Hispanic classical theater, the prefix “trans” provides access to a seemingly limitless conceptual terrain. Not only does it offer a versatile framework for theater scholars and acting companies to bring these works to life in a contemporary context, its many applications can serve to promote consciousness raising for our students and for theater-going audiences. Thanks to the work and creativity of specialists in the field, more early modern Spanish plays are being staged and translation initiatives make dramatic works more accessible for English-speaking audiences. Yet, it is still true that Hispanic classical theater remains marginalized due to preconceived expectations regarding the cultural production of so-called “

Golden Age” Spain as ideologically conservative, unfamiliar, and lacking artistic quality. The expansive lexicon associated with “trans,” however, offers a vocabulary to uncover the power these plays still generate in the context of current social realities, which this paper will explore. One aspect of our present context, described simultaneously as having reached a “tipping-point” yet also defined by sustained resistance to the transgender movement and also gender non-conformity, requires that spaces are created where productive conversations can take place for progress to occur. In this paper, I will argue that Hispanic classical theater offers precisely such an opportunity, both in the classroom and through performance. Most recent scholarship has constructively highlighted the instances in which the representation of gender in Hispanic theater during the period subverts the prescriptive norms of hegemonic discourse. While there are many instances that substantiate this claim, I employ a different approach that focuses less on how particular examples of staged gender non-conformity subvert dominant ideology. Rather, I will explain how the internal responses to those representations within the plays expose the hollow nature of ideological presuppositions that support them, even (or especially) when those reactions to transgressive gender performance seem persuasive within their own context. I will develop this approach through the analysis of transgender identity and transphobia in "La serrana de la Vera" (1613) by Luis Vélez de Guevara and the representation of gender non-conformity in "La sirena de Trinacria" (1661) by Diego de Figueroa y Córdoba. By considering those distinct questions in each work, I provide an outline for incorporating dramatic texts such as these in the undergraduate classroom, and how they can serve the purpose of consciousness raising, and train students to identify ideology and understand its mechanisms. I will then proceed by describing the adaptability of both plays, and how judicious modifications to plot, staging, or emphasis could productively transform their meaning and impact for contemporary audiences regarding the urgently relevant question of gender identity and performance.

Working Paper:

Harrison Meadows

American Symposium for Theater Research

“Transgressions and Translations in Early Modern Spain”

5 November 2016

Staging Gender Transgression and Transphobia in Hispanic Classical Theater

In this paper, I will discuss two plays that illuminate the complex matrix of gender identity and expression, which includes an analysis of the representation of Gila in Vélez de Guevara’s La serrana de la Vera (1613) and Ismenia in Figueroa y Córdoba’s La sirena de Tinacria (1678). Current discussions surrounding the topics of gender expression and identity have given rise to a polemic that often seems irresolvable as ideological camps talk at each other rather than engaging each other in productive conversation. Out of this need to creatively transform the discord over the question of gender, I offer a framework for understanding the capability of these two plays (and so many other comedias) to produce transformative experiences for theater-goers and opening avenues for productive conversation on these topics within the classroom. While it is crucial for us to continue to pursue more precise knowledge of the complexities of the types of reactions these plays would have elicited in the cultural context in which they were originally produced, my analysis here will focus on the potential of these plays to impact audiences and readers today, and how we find ourselves situated to promote Hispanic classical theater’s unique capacity to destabilize the tenets of hegemonic ideology––in this case, on the topic of gender expression and identity.

In the fall of 2015, I had the opportunity to include Vélez de Guevara’s La serrana de la Vera in an upper-division Spanish course. I developed the class around the theme of monstrosity, about which I guided the students to three principle objectives in each of the works we examined. It was their first task to identify the monster in each play, followed by an examination of the qualities or actions that constituted their monstrosity. Finally, students were asked to consider the implications of the process by which the monster is eliminated––be it either the symbolic or literal death common to most monster narratives. Vélez de Guevara’s representation of Gila offered productive terrain to employ this approach, particularly because the students’ explanations of what constitutes Gila’s monstrosity and the meaning of her death were at odds with a superficial reading of the play. When viewed through the conceptual lens of monstrosity, Gila is not a monster because she murders hundreds of men; she becomes one long before she begins to enact her vengeance against all men who cross her path. Rather, she is pushed to the periphery––the quintessential site of monstrosity––for transgressing societal norms of gender performance and for succumbing to the disingenuous sexual advances of the Captain, don Lucas.

Matthew Stroud begins to address the question of Gila’s transgender identity in his chapter on the play in Plot Twists and Critical Turns; however, his analysis focuses more on the question of sexuality than gender identity. Nevertheless, his insights serve here as a point of departure for discussing this aspect of the play. According to Stroud, echoing Otero-Torres, Gila’s “homosexual or transsexual desire for the queen and her violent hostility to the norms of her society cast [her] as yet another type of character familiar to the comedia, the monster” (135).

On five occasions, Gila rebukes men who either attempt to emphasize Gila’s femininity or call into question her ability to outmatch them in a challenge. In each instance, she goes beyond a description of her masculine qualities to use language that powerfully accentuates her profound sense of male gender identity. Perhaps this sentiment is no clearer than when she confesses to her father that “Hasta agora / me imaginaba, padre, por las cosas/ que yo me he visto ser hombre y muy hombre” (1577-79). Affirmations such as this one resonate with modern readers of the text, and it is precisely the sympathetic responses elicited by such statements that prepare them to productively identify and analyze the ambiguity of the play’s final scene.

My students consistently echoed Margaret Boyle’s analysis of the play, which highlights the ambiguous nature of exemplarity in the final scene based on the representation of Gila leading up to it. Nevertheless, this ambiguity ultimately gave way to interpretations that argued for the inherent tragedy of the play, which views Gila as the victim of social forces that precipitate the unraveling of the events that take place. By emphasizing the moments when Gila’s overt expression of male gender identity seems most at odds with the way others project their expectations upon her, along with the inherent cruelty of don Lucas’ deception, Gila’s execution can only nominally be considered capital punishment for the deaths of the men she has slain; seen through the theoretical lens of monstrosity, her transgressions are cultural in nature, and her death therefore replete with symbolic force. Without changing any of the details of the work, to modern audiences Gila’s masculinity is neither a decision nor the result of misguided paternal affection. Even though she faults her father’s negligence for shaping the person she has become, her rebuke can really only be a red herring that gives the appearance of prescriptive closure at the end of the play. In her own words:

si tu usaras

rigor conmigo al principio

de mi inclinación gallarda,

yo no llegara a este extremo (III, 1096-99)

Yet, all evidence suggests that shaping her into a homosocial cultural being––if possible––could only occur in spite of her “inclinación gallarda.” That is, Gila’s identity that we encounter at the beginning of the play formed in the absence of cultural imposition, and it is only once those around her begin to enforce societal norms does the conflictive sequence begin. The most impactful conclusion at which La serrana de la Vera arrives is that, despite certain voices that dominate current polemic on the topic, gender identity is more complicated than biology,[1] and La serrana de la Vera powerfullydramatizes the dangerous consequences of policing social prescription under the pretenses of an ultimately oversimplified understanding of nature. Through Gila’s struggle against the fickle tides of social convention, the tenets of dominant ideology emerge as capricious––even dangerous––when compared to her unfaltering expression of traits contrary to orthodox notions of gender.

Regardless of Vélez de Guevara’s intention, and even if Fernando’s final decree that she “de exemplo sirva de España” (1140) is meant to guide us to the nature of exemplarity in the play, the ideology that supports such a claim breaks down at crucial moments. This is apparent than in the final scene of the play, as Gila’s arrow-riddled body remains on display, the visual impact of which forces the audience to decide what to make of her death. Was her execution punishment for the murders of hundreds of men? Nominally, of course. Nevertheless, the scenes that depict her murderous revenge against all men are relatively brief in relation to the first two acts that are dedicated to Gila’s character development, and even the scenes that depict her serial murders mostly focus on the death of Lucas, which can be considered poetic justice. In other words, the economy of the narrative suggests that her murders are not what the play is truly concerned with, nor the genuine trigger for the final scene. Gila’s mutilated body is a powerful visual metaphor that displays the toll of social transgression; however, for modern audiences, the tragedy of this scene seems inherent, which can only lead to a reevaluation of the ideology that rejected her in the first place, and precipitated the sequence of events that lead to her sanctioned death.

Figueroa y Córdoba’s La sirena de Tinacria also dramatizes the policing of gender norms, which comes into focus early in the play when Ismenia, the titular siren, is plucked from her forest home by shipwrecked sailors and brought to the court of Matilde, the duchess of Tinacria (sic). Her disheveled appearance and clothing fashioned out of animal skins immediately piques the interest of those at court, and straight away the Duchess tasks one of her maidservants with tutoring the young Ismenia in courtly etiquette. Although she had always wanted to escape the solitude of the unnamed Mediterranean island where the sailors find her, it quickly becomes clear she is less than keen on exchanging her animal skins for a farthingale and chopines. The chopinescause her particular strife, about which she chides her tutor’s nonchalance about their ease of use. When Flora, the tutor, elaborates regarding why women wear them, she remarks that they make them taller, to which Ismenia aptly quips that such a notion is false, for if they cause her to fall, she certainly would not be considered taller while lying in a heap on the ground. Her remark of “Aquesso es falso”, meant to cause laughter, simultaneously highlights the ideological artifice being physically imposed upon her body. This scene demonstrates the social forces imposed onto the subject, literally molding and re-shaping Ismenia’s body through shoes that make her taller, along with a bodice and farthingale that both constrict and expand her body, literally pulling, pushing, and squeezing her in every direction––a feeling she befittingly describes as a “strange torment” (f. 389) The attire she is forced to wear serves as an apt metaphor for the greater process of acculturation to which the audience watches Ismenia being subjected. The stage directions are scant, but it takes little imagination to see Flora pulling the bodice tighter, further restricting Ismenia’s movement (and breathing, no less), much like the narrow path of prescribed norms she will henceforth be required to maintain. The term farthingale, however, loses its symbolic force in English suggested by its Spanish synonym, guardainfante. Any characteristic, desire, or behavior to which anyone is naturally inclined but transgresses cultural norms––i.e. does not fit within the narrow constraints of the bodice––must be occluded behind the veil provided by the farthingale, the inevitable disavowed space created by hegemonic ideology in spite of its explicit purpose. For Ismenia, the prescriptions of courtly culture are initially oppressive, as much as her corset is constricting, and she refuses to conceal any facet of her nature, outwardly represented by her frequent petition to have her animal pelts, bow and arrow returned to her. Matilde’s response to her request reflects the performative nature of culture, here so closely tied to gender performance: “with time and experience / it will come to suit you” (f. 139). This reflects Judith Butler’s assertion that gender is a construction based upon the repetition of performed behaviors, which the subject comes to understand, or misconstrue, as essential characteristics of gender. Ismenia compellingly questions these behaviors every chance she gets, which challenges the essentiality of gender norms, even if her transgressive tendencies are ultimately suppressed.

Thanks to Flora’s instruction, Matilde’s prediction comes to pass, about which Flora boasts to Talego:

Ismenia, que altiva, y vana,

se ha buelto ya Cortesana:

y olvidando los estremos

rusticos, vive sujeta

a la razon. (f. 399)

Clearly meant as a compliment, Flora’s words escape their intended meaning. She says “razon”, but modern critics might interpret this line orthographically as “Razón”. They have successfully corralled her wildness, and tamed the aspects of her character that do not fit underneath her metaphorical corset. This hides any evidence of her uncivilized past––exemplified by the discarded animal pelts, bow, and arrow––, a disavowal represented in her wearing of the guardainfante. The invisible hand of ideology succeeds in creating the subject by providing assurance to what is Right, while all else that exists is repudiated as if it didn’t, gilded by fine linens that hide their wire-mesh support. From this point forward, the outward signs of Ismenia’s wild upbringing disappear; nevertheless, the interpretation of her behavior as a reflection of her past is less clear. She may gracefully don the clothes that Flora has instructed her to wear, but Ismenia remains openly incredulous the culturally constructed performance of her gender that is expected of her over the course of the play. The irony of the Baroque comedia is its simultaneous attempt to call attention to its uniformity, while failing to hide the deformity tenuously hidden beneath its surface.

Revisiting these plays opens a gateway for students and audiences into the discussion of the artificiality of ideology. The seemingly distant social context of Baroque Spain provides a space for modern spectators to identify ideology when they see it, as it is easier to dissect the elements and forces that comprise a social context through the telescopic lens offered by four hundred years. However, plays like the ones I have discussed in this paper are critically relevant to our own current social and political climate, and have the even greater power to transform the lens of our objective viewpoint focused on the past into a mirror to better see ourselves. As my students demonstrated in their reading of La serrana de la Vera, audiences and students are primed to recognize the anxiety and torment artificially imposed on subjects whose gender identity (in the case of Gila) and gender expression (in regards to Ismenia) transgresses prescribed norms.

Works Cited

Boyle, Margaret E. “Women’s Exemplary Violence in Vélez de Guevara’s La serrana de la Vera”. Bulletin of the Comediantes 66.1 (2014): 159-175. Print.

Daphna, Joel, et al. “Sex Beyond the Genitalia: The Human Brain Mosaic.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America. 112.50 (2015): n.p. Web. 15 September 2016. <<http://www.pnas.org/content/112/50/15468.abstract>>

Figueroa y Córdoba, Diego de. La sirena de Tinacria. Parte quarenta y quatro de Comedias nueuas, nunca impressas, escogidas de los mejores ingenios de España. Madrid, 1678. 369-412. Cervantes virtual. Web. 17 July 2014.

Stroud, Matthew. “Homo/Hetero/Social/Sexual: Gila en Vélez de Guevara’s La serrana de la Vera. Plot Twists and Critical Turns: Queer Approaches to Early Modern Spanish Theater. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2007. Print.

Vélez de Guevara, Luis. La serrana de la Vera. Manson, William R., and George C. Peale. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta, 2002. Print.

[1] Although, biology, it turns out, is more complicated on this question than polemicists contend. See Daphna, Joel, et al. “Sex Beyond the Genitalia: The Human Brain Mosaic.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America. 112.50 (2015): n.p. <<http://www.pnas.org/content/112/50/15468.abstract>>