SEA 2019 Eugene blog: a colonial Spanish comedy performed in 18th-century California, and this weekend in Oregon

SEA 2019 Eugene blog: a colonial Spanish comedy performed in 18th-century California, and this weekend in Oregon

The SEA’s eleventh biennial is the Society’s first on America’s west coast (to be exact, Eugene is 100 km from the coast). It will highlight early American scholarship in and about the Northwest and the Pacific Rim. In the first of a series of blog posts leading up to the conference, I will describe some of the fascinating research by SEA members and by my colleagues here at the University of Oregon.

Over the Memorial Day weekend the University of Oregon’s Theatre Arts program staged the premiere of “Tricks to Inherit,” translated and directed by Olga Sanchez Saltveit, a PhD candidate in Theatre Arts. The play is a satirical comedy about a miserly uncle, his nephew, the nephew’s beloved, and the wily servants that collaborate to influence the uncle’s inheritance.

The full title of the play is Astucias por heredar un sobrino a un tío, and it was written in Mexico in 1789 by Fermin de Reygadas, a mining engineer and aspiring man of letters. Pedro Garcia-Caro, Professor of Romance Languages at Oregon, found the manuscript at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California in 2012, where he was conducting research for his course entitled “U.S. Hispanic Literary Cultures.” Later works by Reygadas made a name for him in Mexican revolutionary letters, but this work had been censored, banned from the stage at the capital’s grand Coliseo theatre. The manuscript sat in the archives for nearly two hundred years, but there was evidence that it had been performed in the Villa de Branciforte, near Santa Cruz, California, around 1796. A theatre historian called it, “the first drama performed in California.”

Director Olga Sanchez Saltveit is a member of the Milagro theatre troupe in Portland, which mounted a production of the play in the Spanish in 2015. This premiere coincided with the publication of Prof. Garcia-Caro’s critical edition of the text, as part of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage series from Arte Público Press. Garcia-Caro identified a source for the play in a 1708 Commedia del Arté work by the French dramatist Jean-François Regnard. Garcia-Caro traces the influence of 18th century theatre traditions, and the unexpected impact of the French Revolution, which led Mexican colonial authorities to be suspicious of a comedy about how servants outwitted their masters. Saltveit added a frame for the stage play by setting it in Branciforte (rather than Madrid, as in the manuscript’s text), where mestizos and servants assume the role of the eponymous uncle and his nephew, while colonial soldiers and officials play the roles of the servants.

The result is comedic brilliance. I laughed and loved the play and the verse translation is the work of a genius. The final performances are this weekend, June 8-9. If you can’t make that, look forward to the SEA conference next Feb. 28 – March 2, where Garcia-Caro and Sanchez Saltveit will describe their research and dramaturgy.

—Posted by Gordon Sayre, English and Folklore, University of Oregon

 June 4, 2018

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