Long Before “Wonder Woman,” How One Women-Only Show Nearly Went Wrong

Have you heard about the kerfuffle over the Alamo Drafthouse’s all-female screening of Wonder Woman? If not, you’re probably a well-adjusted human who doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet (long story short, a respected independent movie theatre scheduled a screening of the upcoming superheroine flick for women only, and some grumpy men complained on social media). For the rest of us, it’s been a reminder of how a relative handful of trolls can cause a ruckus by trying to play on outdated ideas about gender.

But enough about them. The Wonder Woman flap reminded me of an anecdote from Melvina McKendrick’s indispensable Theatre in Spain, 1490-1700, in which another all-female show went very, very wrong. First, let’s provide some context: seating in theatres in Spain was generally divided by gender. Most theatre in Spain’s so-called Siglo de Oro, or “Golden Age,” took place in corrales, theatres constructed in the courtyards of residential buildings in the country’s urban centers. Because of their unique location, the corrales featured some unusual seating arrangements. The main area for the audience was called a patio, where theatregoers could stand and watch the show, much like the “groundlings” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. There were also bleachers on either side, and, if you wanted a fancier, more private (and more expensive) seat, you could purchase an aposento, basically the equivalent of a luxury box at a modern-day stadium. Since the theatres were built in residential courtyards, this effectively meant that you were paying money to sit in someone’s home and to watch the play out of their windows. There were also a number of special seating areas, including the tertulia, which was reserved for clergymen.

As for women, they were not supposed to attend the theatre unaccompanied, so their seating options were a bit more limited. They weren’t allowed to go onto the patio at all, and they had to have a male family member with them to sit anywhere else. There was one exception: the special second-level gallery opposite the stage known as the cazuela. No men were allowed in here, which meant that unaccompanied women could sit there without fear of harassment or social stigma. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t still trouble: as McKendrick writes, “the women rattled keys against the railings” in the cazuela “and if one of Lope’s [i.e. the famous playwright Lope de Vega] loas [short introductory plays] is to be believed, never stopped talking and laughing.” Lope complained about the women being disruptive, but they had just as much – probably more – to complain of when it came to men pestering them, even in their supposedly safe space. McKendrick notes how men would let off stink bombs or release mice into the cazuela, “and from time to time some bright spark took it into his head to put on skirts and cause consternation by joining the women in the intimacy of their box (there were severe fines for this.”

The worst example of this came in 1656, when King Felipe (Philip) IV planned to open up the royal theatre, or Coliseo, for a women-only performance. This was a nicer, more prestigious venue than the main corrales in Madrid, though still open to the public. However, Felipe wasn’t doing this out of the goodness of his heart. According to McKendrick, the whole thing was meant as a nasty prank (she scolds in an aside that the king “should have known better”); once the performance was underway, he would let loose “over a hundred mice” into the audience. As pandemonium ensued, he and his queen would get to watch and snicker from behind a strategically-placed screen. Luckily, the plan never came to fruition, apparently because someone pointed out that the king’s tasteless joke might have very serious consequences, should any of the women in attendance be pregnant and miscarry in the midst of the rodent-induced panic.

Throughout theatre history, the question of whether or not women may attend the theatre, and with whom, has been a vexed question, and even when the answer is in the affirmative, each theatrical culture often has complex social codes dictating where they’re supposed sit and how they’re expected to behave. Of course, in some cases, they simply weren’t allowed in at all, as with ancient Athens. I supposed it might be some consolation to those currently protesting the Alamo Drafthouse’s decision to know that Western theatre effectively began in a male-only environment (women were barred from the stage as well as the audience). For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that, as valuable as the theatrical past might be to us, there’s a lot to celebrate when we consider how far we’ve come.

Sources:

History of the Theatre, Tenth edition, ed. Oscar G. Brockett & Franklin J. Hildy.

Theatre in Spain, 1490-1700, by Melveena McKendrick. All quotes from p. 192.

The image below is a view of the cazuela (the second-floor gallery) and tertulia (the top gallery) from the stage of the Corral de Comedias in Almagro. It’s the last corral still in existence from the seventeenth century, and it looks more or less the same as it did back when it was first constructed. Photo via Ciudad Almagro (link here)

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