Marissa Skudlarek, on weaving a tale in another time, another place.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been living with half my head in the 21st century and half of it in the Renaissance. I’ve been hard at work readying my new full-length play Juana, or the Greater Glory for a staged reading on Saturday night as part of the Loud and Unladylike Festival, and therefore I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about mad queens, scheming dukes, and sickly princes.
Juana tells the incredible true story of a young Spanish Habsburg princess in the mid-1550s, who is the only woman ever to become a Jesuit. This is an earlier era of history than I’ve ever really tackled in writing before: I’ve written full-length plays that take place in 20th-century America, and at least one of my short Olympians Festival plays takes place in vaguely defined “classical” times, but never a full-length play that takes place in such a different time and country.
The 1550s in Spain and Portugal are well-documented enough for us to know what happened and who was involved with it (at least when it comes to royal and aristocratic families), but not necessarily enough for us to know the reasons why certain things happened or why people made the decisions they did. Maybe this would be different if I’d improved my ability to read Renaissance Spanish, gone to Madrid, and sought out old documents in obscure archives; but from the perspective of a 21st-century Californian with passable but not expert Spanish, doing most of my research on the Internet, I’ve been able to put together a timeline of the key events of Juana’s life, but not to read her words or understand more than the bare facts about her. But, as a playwright, this is what I love: the historical facts give me a structure, but I get to flesh out my characters’ psychology and motivations, and make them my own. In a way, this is similar to what I’ve done when writing mythology-based plays for the Olympians Festival: Greek myths provide a vivid cast of characters and the outlines of a plot, but not necessarily an explanation for why the gods and mortals behave as they do. Writing mythology-based plays prepared me for writing a play based on a distant, dramatic era of history that (from my perspective) might as well be myth.
I feel like the 1550s setting also forces me to be a stronger writer, since I cannot fall back on appeals to persons, places, or things that the audience will find familiar. Many young writers, having seen too many episodes of The Simpsons or 30 Rock, think that cleverness in writing is merely a matter of making endless pop culture allusions. Writing a play that takes place in the Renaissance strips you of that crutch. You can allude to the Bible, to Greco-Roman mythology and history, to certain folk tales, and that’s about it. I do have to be clever – especially because I am writing about a person and a period of history that are pretty obscure to American audiences – in order to convey the necessary backstory without boring or confusing the audience. But it is not the superficial glittering cleverness of pop culture allusion and snark.
While drafting Juana, I motivated myself with thoughts of “What would Shakespeare do?” If you are writing historical drama about medieval or Renaissance-era royalty, it makes sense to look at how Shakespeare did it, and especially, how he wasn’t afraid to combine characters, ignore facts, and invent encounters out of whole cloth, as long as they made for better drama. “What would Shakespeare do?” therefore is my way of justifying my own elisions, inventions, and places where I deliberately ignore the facts. I haven’t done too much of that in Juana: the main examples I can think of are that I’ve aged up a child from about 9 to about 14, for both plot and produceability reasons; and I’m saying that a certain Spanish nobleman was in Spain during this time when really he was in England. But frankly, this is nothing compared to what Shakespeare did. I want to honor Princess Juana’s amazing true story – I’ve really come to love and admire her through writing this play – but I do not feel an obligation to fact-check every line I write.
All the same, I’ve done a lot of research for this project. I’ve read 400 pages of writings by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. I’ve nearly driven myself nuts trying to calculate how long it would take letters to get from Lisbon to Madrid, and Madrid to Rome, circa 1550. I’ve learned the symptoms of juvenile diabetes, the differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, and the rules for what was and wasn’t permitted during Lent in the 1550s. I’ve looked up the names of all of the Catholic kings of Europe at the time and whether they had sons of marriageable age (this information is now in a document on my computer titled “Possible second husbands” and I giggle every time I see it). More than anything else, I’ve tried my best to get into that death-haunted, Catholic, hierarchical worldview that characterizes Renaissance-era Spain. Before the invention of modern medicine, people by necessity thought about death more than we do. That awareness of and conscious preparation for death is present in writers of the period, like Shakespeare, and also in modern pieces of historical fiction and drama. (I joke that I’m going to turn Juana into a rap musical so that she can proclaim “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory” and “See, I never thought I’d live past twenty.”)
Yet there is also the danger of too much research, of writing something that would be better as a novel or nonfiction piece than as a play. Juana, or The Greater Glory covers about two years of Juana’s life (the most eventful and dramatic years, IMO) – and it’s been a bit of a challenge to compress two years of events into a two-hour play. But the problem would have been even more acute if I’d tried to cover an even longer period of time. Juana’s son Sebastian, for instance, who appears in my play only as an infant, grew up to have a short but fascinating life as the King of Portugal. He would be a great subject for a play. Someone else’s play.
See the staged reading of Marissa Skudlarek’s play Juana, or the Greater Glory at PianoFight on Saturday, July 16 at 7:30 PM. (Note the start time!) Tickets here.
In 1979, the San Diego Opera premiered Gian-Carlo Menotti’s opera, Juana La Loca (whose title was later shortened to “La Loca”) as a vehicle for Beverly Sills.
I saw the production in San Diego and New York. On September 16, 1979 WNCN-FM offered a live broadcast of the New York première of the opera. I cannot remember if it was telecast from the New York City Opera as part of the “Live From Lincoln Center” series on PBS.
Here are two excerpts:
Thanks, George! Just to clarify, the central character of my play is Juana la Loca’s namesake granddaughter, Princess Juana, who became Regent of Spain and then a Jesuit. La Loca appears in a few scenes of my play, though — because following my rule of “What would Shakespeare do?”, he wouldn’t pass up the chance to write a scene between a young princess and her mad old grandmother, the rightful queen.
I enjoyed these excerpts of Menotti’s opera and Juana la Loca is certainly a fascinating character. In fact, this whole period of Spanish history is rife with drama and I wish it were better-known in this country. I also enjoyed seeing Verdi’s “Don Carlo” at SF Opera last month — Carlo was “my” Juana’s nephew and King Philip was her brother. Verdi and his librettist certainly took some liberties with the facts, though!
“Many young writers, having seen too many episodes of ‘The Simpsons’ or ’30 Rock’, think that cleverness in writing is merely a matter of making endless pop culture allusions.” Always glad to see I’m not the only one who sees this, though I’ve never seen ’30 Rock’. (I would’ve just said there are too many graduates from the Seth MacFarlane school of “comedy”).
Making allusions is a necessary part of world-building on the part of the dramatist. Congratulating oneself simply for knowing that reference is something else entirely.
Yes, and I think it’s also a matter of whether the allusion serves a larger dramatic purpose, or whether the writer thinks that the mere act of making an allusion is clever/funny. The best allusions do work on multiple levels.