Research | Queen’s University Canada

Reading between the lines

Reading between the lines

Sometimes when approaching a subject, more great insight can be found in the cracks and crevices, the small details, than in the big picture.

For Dr. Peter Thompson, a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures specializing in the literature of the Spanish Golden Age, more information about everyday life in 17th-century Spain can be found in the short theatre pieces, or interludes, that were performed during the intermissions of longer theatre performances.

And, as he points out, if you are talking about short theatre in Spain, you have to talk about Juan Rana (the stage name of actor Cosme Pérez), who was the focus of many short comedic pieces during the era.

It was a time of contrasts in Spain, a country in ascendancy but at the same time falling into decadence; a time of cultural creativity as well as stifling conservatism. Short theatre, Thompson explains, is where the issues of the day were brought up, and that is what drew his attention.

“The reason that this is interesting is because it was comedy, because it was very exaggerated, because it was sort of a throwback to the medieval period in some ways, like street plays, everything subversive could be done there,” he says.

These are no simple comedy sketches. The short pieces are complex and the writing is intricate, with words and phrases often carrying double and triple meanings. But because of this the writers and actors, such as Rana, were able to address issues of the day – political and social issues, including sexual identity.

Rana himself is a man of contrasts. A favourite of the kings and nobility, he was also a known gay man at a time when homosexuality was a crime. He would be arrested in 1636 for “nefarious sin,” but unlike others who would be tortured and burned alive, Rana escaped death because of his popularity amongst those with power.

His career would be affected but not negatively. Instead, the roles he would play changed and sexuality became a key element.

[painting of Juan Rana]
Juan Rana

“From then on in most of the plays he was dressed as a woman. He was a pregnant man in one,” says Thompson. “There's a lot of women’s issues involved, a lot of sexual issues involved and there’s a lot of homosexual or queer things.”

It’s this aspect of Rana’s life, the fact that the Golden Age’s most popular comedic actor was gay, that Thompson would find was wholly unexplored despite the fact that much scholarly research had been devoted to the interludes and Rana.

“Either they ignored it, they denied it or they refused to deal with it,” he says.

Take for example the actor’s stage name, Rana, which means frog. “There’s a play on words on being amphibious, ambiguous, and in one of the plays he’s described as neither fish nor fowl,” Thompson explains. “Even in his name they're playing with his sexuality.”

Thompson’s investigation on this subject resulted in a number of articles and the books: The Triumphant Juan Rana: A Gay Actor of the Spanish Golden Age (2006) and The Outrageous Juan Rana Entremeses: A Bilingual and Annotated Selection of Plays Written for this Spanish Golden Age Gracioso (2009). Short theatre continues to be his main area of research.

Perhaps not surprisingly, researching such complex pieces is a difficult task, an effort compounded by the fact that Thompson approached the interludes in their original 17th-century Spanish. In fact, most of the short plays had not been republished since the time they were written. He would eventually translate 14 of the pieces into English.

While the plays may be short – around six pages – each translated piece could have up to 30 footnotes due to the intricacies of the language and the history surrounding the given topic.

“What's interesting is if you give these plays to a Spaniard to read, they won’t necessarily be able to get the full gist of it. It really has to be studied with a knowledge of all the double meanings of the period. I used dictionaries, I used glossaries and I used very specific dictionaries about medical terms, about slang, in order to get all the meanings that I could,” he says, adding that he could spend a full day on just three words. “It’s very intense research.”