A Century of Greatness – 17th Century
Although Spain suffered military and economic setbacks in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, this same period was one of brilliance in the arts and literature in the country. By 1600, the cities of Spain had already developed a vigorous theater that was in many ways even more vital than that of London. The origins of Spanish theater can be traced to the late medieval dramas that were performed on solemn religious occasions. Like England the Feast of Corpus Christi in late spring was an important occasion that was often celebrated with the staging of imposing religious dramas. Unlike many parts of Europe where Protestantism gradually restricted religious drama, such productions remained a vital part of urban piety in the seventeenth century, inspiring a new genre of auto sacramentals, or sacramental plays, that aimed to teach the Spanish the tenets of Counter Reformation Catholicism.
In particular, these sacramental plays focused on the theology of the Eucharist, and their series of scenes often demonstrated the biblical events that had produced the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as well as the rise of Christianity. Even as such religious theater remained a growing tradition in Spain’s Golden Age, popular secular drama was undergoing a dramatic expansion, although its roots also lay in the religious institutions of the country. In the second half of the sixteenth century religious confraternities brotherhoods of lay and clerical members began to stage performances of secular dramas and comedies for paying audiences. Many of these brotherhoods cared for the sick and dying, and the profits of their dramatic performances were used to underwrite their charitable efforts.
The typical Spanish theater of the time was known as a corral, a word that referred to the walled in courtyards in which plays were performed. At one end of these corrals a raised stage provided the setting on which the dramas were performed. Usually these stages were two stories high, with an upper gallery that was decorated to suggest towers, houses, and other elements of urban architecture. The first two of these theaters the Corral de la Cruz and the Corraldel Principe were constructed as makeshift affairs in the newly named Spanish capital of Madrid. Others developed there and at Seville, and by 1600, these two cities were home to the most vigorous theater life in Spain, although other theatrical troupes thrived elsewhere in the country.
By 1630, Madrid had seven theaters that accommodated crowds of around 2,000 people in each for daytime performances. As theater going became an increasingly popular pastime for Spaniards, the country’scorrales that is, its open air playhouses were often remodeled and roofed over to acquire a greater sense of permanence. Wealthy merchants and aristocratic patronsrented boxes in the galleries that stretched above the stage, while the poor were relegated to the ground from which they looked up at the stage. The staging used in these productions was still quite rudimentary since painted scenery and other elements of stage machinery did not become popular in Spain until later in the seventeenth century.
The relatively modest production values aside, an incredible number of plays were written and performed in the period. No one has ever been able to ascertain the total number of dramas produced in this period, but estimates of the number of plays written inseventeenth century Spain range from between 10,000 and 30,000. A list of Spanish playwrights compiled bya commentator in 1632, for instance, noted more than eighty authors then active in the province of Castilealone, and the most prolific of these figures produced hundreds of works during their lifetimes.