Friday, January 1, 2010

Los Empenos de Una Casa (Pawns of a House), by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Intro by Susana Hernandez Araico, translated by Michael McGaha


Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a nun living in Mexico when Spain controlled a good share of the New World. This play was published in a collection in 1692. This particular book gives the Spanish text on one side and the English translation on the other. I'm not fluent in Spanish by any means, but for those who are bilingual, this version allows the reader to get the original text. Translation is never easy to begin with, and across centuries of cultural change the task is even more difficult. Certain nuances are bound to be lost or distorted, but even so, I found the play hilarious in it's English form. I can only imagine what a rib-buster it must have been to the original audience for whom it was written.

Sor Juana was a rare intellectual for her day in a time and culture that preferred that women take a back seat to men. Her humor follows her intellectual bent. This play, while not without physical gags, is not a slapstick comedy. Rather, this baroque play unfolds with more akin to the social maneuvering of the characters of "The Importance of Being Ernest" mixed with the mistaken identity situations of "A Comedy of Errors". There is some sexual innuendo and cross-dressing, so just be aware that this would probably rate a PG if it were made into a movie.

In the play, Dona Leonor and Don Carlos are eloping. One of Leonor's admirers, Don Pedro, decides to abduct Leonor and enlists two of his friends to dress up like policement to "arrest" Don Carlos. Don Pedro plans to have Leonor taken to his house where his sister, Dona Ana, is waiting to receive her and watch over her. Don Pedro then plans to later woo Leonor in hopes of winning her love without interruption from other suitors. The plan goes awry when Don Carlos wounds a man in the scuffle and runs to the house of Don Pedro and begs Dona Ana to hide him. She agrees because she has admired Don Carlos from afar. When she finds out Carlos is the intended of Leonor, she and her maidservant Celia play musical rooms in an attempt to keep both Carlos and Leonor separated and to keep Pedro from coming home to find his rival is in the house. Add to this tenuous situation, Don Juan, who loves Dona Ana, is also hiding in the house with the assistance of Celia in an effort to find out why Dona Ana no longer fancies him. Don Carlos's servant Chestnut serves as the wise fool of the play, offering good advice, savvy observation of human nature and one-line zingers.

In the end, everyone ends up with the mate they wanted to be with all along, but getting there is the fun part. I got a good chuckle out of this. If you're worried about the text being hard to understand like Shakespeare's stuff, don't worry. The translation flows easily, without all the "thee" and "thou" and middle English words that can so often trip up modern readers. I believe Pawns of a House would provide an excellent introduction to Sor Juana's works.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this play and the acts in between give food for thought. Sor Juana was certainly a smart cookie. Leonor's monologue mirrored some experiences Sor Juana had while she was a lady-in-waiting to the viceroy's wife. The cross-dressing Castaño is also a good part too because it shows the absurd practices of courting at that time.

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