A Scholar’s Journey

October, 2004

Barbara Lopez-Mayhew sees her doctoral thesis come to life.

A scene from La Traición en la Amistad performed by students from Oklahoma City University at the Siglo de Oro Drama Festival, Chamizal National Memorial Theatre, El Paso, Texas, March 2003. Photo by Ann Sherman  (Ann Sherman.photo.com).

A scene from La Traición en la Amistad performed by students from Oklahoma City University at the Siglo de Oro Drama Festival, Chamizal National Memorial Theatre, El Paso, Texas, March 2003. Photo by Ann Sherman (Ann Sherman.photo.com).

As a doctoral candidate in Hispanic literary studies at Boston College in the mid-1990s, concentrating on 16th and 17th century Spanish peninsular literature (known as the Golden Age), the choice of a thesis topic was not particularly easy. It appeared to me that everything had been said and analyzed up until then, with the exception of a handful of plays, or comedias, written by women who were slowly making their way into the literary canon.

Then my dissertation advisor told me that several manuscripts had recently been rediscovered—manuscripts formerly held in private libraries for centuries. Very few people even knew they existed.

I learned of one play, La Traición en la Amistad (Friendship Betrayed) that had become part of a special collection in the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid (The National Library of Madrid). The autograph manuscript was written by María de Zayas y Sotomayor, a “hot” author who had been the focus of much criticism and analysis in the last two decades of the 20th century. Her novelas ejemplares (exemplary tales) were of particular interest to the critics, with very limited studies existing on her comedia.

I began by requesting a microfilm of Zayas’ manuscript through the Boston College library. The microfilm arrived after several weeks of waiting. After re-spooling a microfilm that had been spooled backwards, I realized that I had been sent a microfilm of a Latin text rather than Zayas’ comedia. A new request was issued, and after several more weeks of waiting, the correct microfilm arrived at Boston College. I was finally able to photocopy the entire comedia.

As I compared the microfilm with the few editions that existed, I noted several discrepancies between the texts. Some verses were missing, and actors had been assigned verses differently from the original text. Doubting the credibility of my resources, I thought it best to work directly with the original manuscript, and seek more information about Zayas’ biography. I was awarded a research scholarship from the Boston College department of romance languages and literature to work with the original manuscript in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid.

My weeklong stay in Madrid turned out to be beneficial. I wandered into the Catholic parish of San Sebastián in the old section of the city. After attending the last segment of a noontime Mass, I was guided to the secretary of the archives, don Matías Fernández García, who told me about the church’s famous literary parishioners, Miguel de Cervantes, Felíx Lope de Vega and María de Zayas.

Don Matías and I sat in a small, shelved area that held documents from centuries ago. As we carefully ran our index fingers down fragile folios containing baptismal and death records, we discovered a baptismal entry for María de Zayas’ sister, who had never before been mentioned in the author’s biography.

One of the most exciting moments in the archives was seeing and holding an aged leather-bound book pierced by a bullet hole. This had happened when the collection was being transported to the Biblioteca Nacional for safekeeping at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. If the archives had not been removed, they would have been incinerated when the original church was set on fire.

With documents in hand from Boston College and Plymouth State confirming that I was a graduate student working on my doctoral dissertation and a faculty member of Plymouth’s department of foreign languages, I was allowed to enter the Biblioteca Nacional and pass through security with only a pencil, the photocopies I had made of the microfilm and a notebook. Entrance to the library was restricted, particularly in the section which contained a special collection of manuscripts, one of which was María de Zayas’ comedia, La Traición en la Amistad.

Upon arrival in the special collections area, I was at first denied the original manuscript and offered the microfilm I had already seen. After further explanation to the librarians about my research, and mentioning that my cousin (a professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela) had contacted them regarding my arrival, I was told to wait at a table. After several minutes, a boxed manuscript was cautiously delivered to me.

I felt an incredible sense of excitement and accomplishment as a researcher as I carefully handled the small, leather-bound folios from the 17th century, knowing few would have the same opportunity to handle or even see a manuscript written centuries ago. By using the original manuscript, I was able to clarify words or letters that were illegible in the microfilm’s photocopies. For example, what one edition called a hole in the last folio, I discovered was actually an inkblot. I was momentarily satisfied, yet aware that further visits to Madrid, to convents, cloisters, other parish archives and the Biblioteca Nacional, would be necessary in order to solve the mystery of Zayas’ life.

I was determined that if I were going to dedicate a great deal of time and effort to writing a critical edition in Spanish of Zayas’ comedia, my edition would be published. In the meantime, I decided to write a critical edition of La Traición en la Amistad, retaining the 17th century Spanish. I received a dissertation fellowship from Boston College and took a leave from teaching at Plymouth State. After a successful doctoral defense, I submitted my manuscript for publication. After anxiously waiting for a response from the editor of Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, I received confirmation that my manuscript would be published.

In fall 2002, I received some exciting news. The debut performance of the English translation (by Catherine Larson) of La Traición en la Amistad would take place at the Siglo de Oro Drama Festival at the Chamizal National Memorial Theatre in El Paso, Texas, on March 7, 2003. This production was directed by David Pasto and featured students from the Oklahoma City University department of speech and theatre, where Pasto is a professor of theatre. The performance followed the plot of Zayas’ comedia which involves various liaisons between young ladies of the 17th century Spanish court and gallant and persistent gentlemen, and the incorrigible actions and deceit of an insidious and egotistical female friend, Fenisa. As the play progresses, multiple love triangles are resolved between the main characters Marcia, Gerardo, Belisa, don Juan, Laura and Liseo, with the end result of ostracizing the seductive and traitorous Fenisa.

After attending this performance and presenting a paper at the El Paso symposium, I was asked to submit a review and an article on the play’s performance to the Association of Hispanic Classical Theater journal’s inaugural edition on comedia performance.

I soon learned that there would be yet another premiere performance of Zayas’ play, this time in Spanish, at the International Festival of Classical Theatre in Almagro, Spain, July 18 – 20, 2003. Who would have thought that after more than 350 years, an unknown play would make its debut on stage twice within the same year?

I knew I had to see the Almagro performance, although there was less than a week to make all the arrangements. My Internet search led me to the festival’s box office which indicated the performances were sold out. Numerous phone calls led me to the director of the festival, Luciano García Lorenzo, who graciously arranged for my lodging in an otherwise fully occupied hotel, and reserved front-row seats for the premiere performance. I made very last minute flight arrangements for my youngest son and me to arrive in Madrid on Friday, July 18. My father (who lives in Spain) joined us for the two-hour drive south to Almagro. We arrived with ample time to pick up my tickets for that evening’s performance and spend some time in the medieval town.

La Traición en la Amistad was presented at the Palacio de Fúcares by Volarte Producciones, directed by Mariano de Paco Serrano. The performance began at 10:45 p.m., lighting was minimal and only a star-filled sky could be seen in the darkness of the patio. The intimate setting could not have been more appropriate: an interior open-roofed patio with balconies along the perimeter, and two sets of bleacher-style seats facing the stage, which accommodated approximately 120 spectators.

Being in the audience was an unforgettable experience, particularly since the opportunity to attend had truly been against all odds. The excitement of sitting front-row, center, at a performance of a play that had only existed in a manuscript for centuries, was comparable to the moment when the manuscript had first been brought to me at the Biblioteca Nacional.

I knew that the occasion to see La Traición en la Amistad onstage for the first time in Spanish was more than special. It was a culmination of the years I had dedicated to Zayas and her comedia. I left Almagro satisfied in knowing that there were others as attached to Zayas’ play as I have been, and that the director and actors were able to bring her manuscript to life in a remarkable performance.

Looking back, I see the need to be determined to succeed from the beginning and to look for and accept opportunities when they are offered. Although obstacles arise, wonderful things can happen with a bit of patience or moments of spontaneity, and by direct communication with people who can help.

This past August, my critical edition finally came out in print. I would like to return to Spain to continue research on Zayas’ life, and perhaps stumble upon another one of her “unknown” literary works, or discover another comedia written by a woman playwright who needs as much attention as Zayas did.

Barbara Lopez-Mayhew is assistant professor of Spanish and chair of the department of foreign languages at Plymouth State University.

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