Early modern magic

January 23, 2019 | Arts & Culture
On January 30, MacEwan’s theatre season continues with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staged in the university’s Theatre Lab. The fantastical play was first performed in 1605, and remains a favourite of the renaissance period.

According to one MacEwan prof, it wasn’t only Shakespeare shaking up the theatre scene in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. During that time, Spanish theatre entered a renaissance of its own, and if you like what you see at A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you might also find something appealing in the pages – and stages – of Lope de Vega, Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Miguel de Cervantes.

“What’s interesting about both English and Spanish plays from that period is that we still relate to them today,” says Dr. Erin Cowling, assistant professor of Spanish. “Some of the language might be antiquated, but the underlying themes about the ways in which people want to see their life play out, or what it means to be a good person, haven’t changed much in 400 years.”

According to Erin, the magic of that period began with a shift away from Aristotelian principles for theatre, which suggested that a good play should be structured according to strict rules around action, time and place. But in the 1500s, playwrights – including Spain’s Lope de Vega – began to re-examine what audiences wanted. “Lope wrote that audiences wanted to be entertained, and they wanted something to relate to,” says Erin. Centuries later, his advice still holds up.

Some of the language might be antiquated, but the underlying themes haven’t changed much in 400 years.
—Dr. Erin Cowling

So where should a Shakespeare fan begin their foray into the work of his Spanish counterparts? It can be a little overwhelming considering the proliferation of Spanish theatre from the period. For instance, while Shakespeare wrote 39 plays, de Vega is thought to have written between 400 and 1,000.

But according to Erin, there are standouts that provide a good entry point. She often starts her students with Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño, known in English as Life is a Dream. “It’s about someone trying to figure out what is and isn’t reality when people aren’t being honest with him. In a way that’s a struggle we identify with today,” she says. “People put a certain face forward on social media, but that’s not necessarily how their everyday lives are playing out, and we have to try to decipher what’s real and what isn’t.”

Whatever your taste in theatre – English or Spanish, early modern or contemporary, or something else entirely – Erin has one piece of advice: see it live. “Early on in my studies for my bachelor’s degree in Spanish, I read some Spanish plays and thought they were okay. But then I had the opportunity to go to Spain for a course and see some live theatre there – I was hooked. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how, but I want to do this for the rest of my life,’” she says.

“Theatre was meant to be performed. It was meant to be read out loud, not just on the page. That’s what allows us to connect with it and really see ourselves in the characters and stories.”


A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Lysander loves Hermia, and Hermia loves Lysander. Helena loves Demetrius; Demetrius used to love Helena but now loves Hermia. Off to the forest they go, where magic awaits.

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