-Engendered Theatrical Space and the Colonial Woman in Sor Juana's

Los empeños de una casa

Julie Greer Johnson

University of Georgia

As critics move from the textual analysis of scripts to the examination of actual performance, the issue of space emerges as an integral part of dramatic representation. The designation of space may, in fact, influence the development of themes, plots, and characters and ultimately shape the meaning of any dramatization. A theater generally has three spatial divisions: the stage on which the actors perform, the behind-the-scenes area, and the auditorium where members of the audience are seated. Within this structural configuration, however, the playwright is at liberty to create what is known as theatrical space, a highly imaginative conceptualization that is projected upon the theater's architecture and is reformulated with the presentation of each individual play. On stage, characters move and position themselves in an expanse of perceived space that may range in designation from the commonplace to the fantastic. Inevitably these personages also make references to people, places, and events beyond the preview of spectators or visibly respond to a variety of sounds offstage, thus developing a dimension regarded as conceived space. The playwright, consequently, devises two distinct but related illusory worlds, one seen, the other not, and both are vital to the unfolding and resolution of the play's actions. Past the proscenium arches and beyond the footlights, however, lies the reality of the audience, a space for daily living. Occasionally, a character will cross the boundary between the stage and the public to confront its members directly with issues arising in the play and to remind them of the interrelationship between the world of the theater and actual existential space, the interface of art and life (Scolnicov 1994, 2-5).

In studying the concept of theatrical space from a feminist point of view, Hanna Scolnicov explores its interpretive possibilities and finds that it is indicative of attitudes toward women and their place in society. Where visible and non-visible space is conventionally designated as within and without, she states that

(t)he structural division of space into the interior and the exterior of the house carries with it social and cultural implications. Gender roles are spatially defined in relation to the inside and the outside of the house. Traditionally it is the woman who makes the house into a home, her home, while the world of commerce, war, travel, the world outside, is a man's world…. Seeing the within and the without in terms of the outdoors and the indoors immediately transforms the theatrical space into a gender-charged environment, naturally fitted for acting out the drama of man and woman. The question of the theatrical space thus becomes the question of woman. (Scolnicov 1994, 6-7) In her most outstanding comedia, Los empeños de una casa, Sor Juana employs this spatial distribution as a reflection of gender-designated roles in a patriarchal society of the early modern period. Although the patriarchy imposed in the New World by the conquering Spaniard was inevitably harder on women of intellectual and artistic talent, all women, whether they realized it or not, were denied choices by authoritarian males of every distinction. Just focusing on the gender barriers faced by Sor Juana alone, a general profile of the narrow existence with its lack of possibilities for colonial womanhood emerges. Respectable women were destined to remain "indoors" whether confined at home with family members or cloistered in a convent as a servant of God. Even those who frequented the court were there at the behest of royal officials or other gentlemen of the viceroy's entourage to add grace and gentility to matters of the strictest protocol. Barred from institutions of higher learning, women lacked the requisite education which would have afforded them at least a modicum of independence in providing for their own subsistence and ultimately in shaping their own future. Literate women were denied access to certain books deemed inappropriate by their protectors and limited by them as well to approved forms of communication. For nuns especially there were additional restrictions which compelled them to adopt the vida, based on the model set by the venerable Santa Teresa de Avila, as the principal form of feminine discourse. (1) While this genre has often proven to contain a great deal of artistic creativity and even an element of subversiveness, it is introspective by design, exploring interior space through the documentation of a religious woman's personal life and mystical encounters. (2) While poetry may have been an option for a woman of literary aspirations, secular theater certainly was not, as the prevailing theatrical tradition that emanated from the Peninsula was almost exclusively the work of male dramatists. With no actual chance for escape, but with the perceptivity and perspicacity of an ingenious dramaturge, the Tenth Muse makes it clear in Los empeños that a woman is suited to other social and cultural roles than the ones she currently occupied, and she demonstrates this by testing, transgressing, and transforming the skewed, conventional spatial boundaries on stage.

As the curtain rises on the Arellano household in the first act, Doña Ana, who is in charge in her brother Pedro's absence, converses with her maid Celia. Their dialogue establishes the parameters of outside space and appears to set the stage for the unfolding of a typical plot of a capa y espada play involving a love triangle, matters of honor, and a customary cast of characters. The most significant disclosure made by Doña Ana pertains to Don Pedro's well laid plans to forcibly take his ladylove, Doña Leonor, who, as he learns from her maid, will escape from her house to elope with Don Carlos that very night. Although those involved in the actual kidnapping will have varying versions of what happened to relate later, as one by one they find their way either by chance or by design to Doña Ana's home, the two suitors engage in a violent duel on one of Toledo's streets, and Doña Leonor, who is powerless to stop the fight, is quickly spirited away by Don Pedro's accomplices disguised as police.

In keeping with Scolnicov's theory that the world outside, represented in this case as the area offstage, is a man's sphere of endeavor, Doña Ana and Celia appear to wait patiently for the male characters to take action and thus, as agents of time, to set the principal events of the play in motion (Scolnicov 1994, 1). Ruth Salvaggio, who has also studied engendered spatial distribution, attests to a similar delineation by categorizing what might be regarded as masculine space as temporal and historical, a place where characters belong to a definite hierarchy and their corresponding roles are methodically carried out. Women under these circumstances, are relegated to the margins, restrained in their movement, and frequently lack voice (Salvaggio 1988, 271; 261). (3) In the scenes that follow Sor Juana protests a woman's limited influence on and opportunity in the outside world by contesting the unequal distribution of space between genders as well as the type of drama in which her restricted role was represented. Some of the most successful comedias of the Golden Age had been transplanted on American soil, and their prevalence not only reinforced the social status quo but threatened as well the very existence of local theater written by dramatists like Sor Juana herself. Her criticism of these plays is especially pointed when Celia, who is unphased by her mistress' recounting of Don Pedro's plan, suggests that such goings on are routine, hardly worthy as a topic of conversation not to mention as the subject of an entertaining dramatization.(4)

Señora, nada me admira;
que en amor no es novedad
que se vista la verdad
del color de la mentira,
¿ni quién habrá que se espante
si lo que es, llega a entender,
temeridad de mujer
ni resolución de amante,
ni de traidoras criadas,
que eso en todo el mundo pasa,
y quizá dentro de casa
hay algunas calderadas? (1957, 30-31)

With Doña Ana's brief prelude to the on stage action completed, the two women settle in for the evening to await the arrival of Doña Leonor. Attention is then directed toward the activity within the Arellano household, which becomes the focal point of the comedia (5).The house is a space traditionally designated for a woman, and it is here that her entire identity lies. Fathers, husbands, and other male heads of household provide protection and security for the female members of the family, who, in turn, are charged with converting the hearth into a home. Doña Ana and Celia take full advantage of the conventional space mapped out for females and additionally attempt to usurp masculine control by taking extraordinary liberties. The frenzy of activity that they generate indoors rivals the events that supposedly took place in the street, while creating a parody of the scene at the same time by transforming a play of capa y espada into a comedia de enredos.

When Doña Ana, who is the most assertive of the female characters discovers that she has the opportunity to win the affection of Don Carlos, who arrives unexpectedly at the house while running from the police, she immediately embarks on her own scheme, disrupting Don Pedro's master plan and consequently the play's principal plot. By doing this, Doña Ana becomes the director of a play within a play (Merrim 1991, 104), a metatheatrical device used by Sor Juana that permits the audience to envision two interpretations of the same themes, characters, and plot side by side (Hornby 1986, 32). The intent of this recourse is to defamiliarize the traditional drama of cloak and dagger presented in the framing play and to invite consideration of its subversive reinscription, which more closely resembles a comedy of manners. Such a juxtaposition is designed to contest the imposition of Spanish cultural codes on Americans and to highlight gender differences as well. The ingeniousness with which she arranges this, moreover, enables her to criticize a form of the comedia while simultaneously using the genre as a means of expression. (6)

Under Doña Ana's direction, the serious themes of love and honor, announced at the beginning of Act I, are played out in comedic fashion to the sheer delight of the audience. The hilarity peaks when Don Pedro and Don Carlos, who are moved about the house by Doña Ana like pawns on a gameboard, clash swords again but this time in complete darkness. When candlelight finally reaches them, they discover that the person they are fighting over is not Doña Leonor, but Don Carlos' silly servant, Castaño, who is dressed in her clothing in order to escape from the house.

Just as the action is inverted in Doña Ana's spatial dominion, so too are roles reversed. She outwits her brother continually, and other male characters as well are overwhelmed by her carefully orchestrated confusion as quickly as they cross the threshold. Don Pedro, however, who becomes a mere figurehead in his own home, fairs the worst as he winds up looking like an idiot when he makes amorous overtures to the elaborately clad Castaño. Unfortunately, he cannot blame this foolishness on Ana, as he becomes a victim of his own stupidity by placing such importance on a woman's outward appearance and consequently identifying Doña Leonor solely by her gown. To add to his downfall, Sor Juana even alters the ending of the traditional Golden Age play by condemning him to bachelorhood, certainly not a fate befitting the play's principal galán. This was, perhaps, a punishment meted out to him by Sor Juana for trying to take advantage of a woman who did not love him and for enlisting his sister to conspire with him. The severest penalty she can subject him to then, and the one to which men have automatically condemned women, is to deny him any choice in determining his own destiny.

Although the house is generally regarded as the woman's domain, it can also be the location where she is most vulnerable as Scolnicov notes:

Traditionally, the house has been associated with woman's social place, but it can also be seen to stand for her body and her sexuality…. In the theater, the contrast between interior and exterior space, between house and outside, is eroticized, and the seemingly innocent plot aimed at gaining access into the house takes on almost explicit sexual overtones of penetration. (1994, 7) In Pedro's absence, Doña Ana assumes complete control of the house and thus becomes the guardian of her own honor and that of her family. This responsibility is increased with the arrival of Doña Leonor whose reputation has been in jeopardy since leaving the confines of her father's house. The Arellano household provides a temporary refuge for her, but it is there that she will be exposed to the sexual advances of Don Pedro as soon as he returns home from an evening of mischief. Doña Ana's manipulations and a dark house keep him at bay throughout the play, and his only success is a ludicrous one when he mistakenly extracts a promise of marriage from the gracioso.

Don Carlos, on the other hand, gains entrance to the house with Doña Ana's consent. She is well aware of the risks she is taking by permitting him to come in, and she fears her brother will discover what she has done. Doña Ana's acquiescence to Don Carlos in this case is not a casual one, however, but based on the genuine feeling she has for him, as she believes that she is in love with him and has a chance to become his wife.

Perhaps the boldest example of a male character entering female space with the intent to conquer or violate has already taken place before the curtain rises. Unbeknownst to Doña Ana, Don Juan, who has gained access to the house with the help of Celia, is waiting for her in her bedroom. The calculating servant demonstrates her independence in this manner, and she, like her mistress, is responsible for directing her own minidrama. Although letting Don Juan into Doña Ana's bedroom without her knowledge ostensibly compromised her honor, his presence in the house conveniently enabled her to be suitably, although not ideally, married at the close of the play. (7)

While male characters are often intent upon entering space designated as a woman's sphere of influence, female characters are faced with trying to avoid being trapped. As Scolnicov states "from a woman's point of view, and especially in modern times, the problem is how to escape the restrictive space of her house. Woman's emancipation finds its theatrical expression in an actual, physical act of leaving the house" (1994, 8). Although the audience does not see Doña Leonor vie for space in the manner that Doña Ana rivals her brother for control of their house, her rebelliousness is nonetheless evident in her continual efforts to free herself from confinement. When Pedro kidnaps her in the street, she has just left her house with Don Carlos as an act of defiance against a father's parental right to choose a suitable husband for his daughter. While being held in the Arellano household, she pours out her heart to its female members and confesses that her entire life has been an escape from one confined space to another as she moved from her home, to the court, and finally to Don Pedro's where she faces another form of imprisonment. Doña Leonor is the character most closely associated with Sor Juana herself, and in the third act she even contemplates entering a convent as a last resort, yet another restricted space in which women are subject to male control (Johnson 1983, 126-127). It is clear from Doña Leonor's striking resemblance to Sor Juana that the dramatist chose her to bring aspects of her frustration with patriarcal society to the public, and she goes even farther by having Castaño, who by that time was attired in Leonor's gown, boldly declare his distaste for Don Pedro and his house and express his desire to be free to enjoy life. (8)

At the height of Los empeños' comedic action, Castaño, dressed as Leonor, steps from illusion into reality as he emerges from the stage to enter the space occupied by the audience. This transition was probably facilitated by the fact that there was little distinction between the area of performance and that designated for spectators, as the first performance of the play took place in the private home of Don Fernando Deza to celebrate the viceroyship of Don Tomás Antonio de la Cerda and the arrival of the new archbishop Francisco de Aguiar y Seijas (Paz 1988, 328). (9) Castaño is the only character in the play to actually cross the imaginary boundary between the world of the stage and the everyday world of the viewing public, and his momentary detachment from the comedia's action, which is metatheatrical in nature, not only calls attention to the fact that Los empeños is an enactment but brings the matter of women's issues to the fore to confront the audience directly with the fundamental question of where a woman's space or place really is.

When Don Carlos' awkward servant, attired in the typically feminine clothing of the time stands before the audience, he is the embodiment of the incongruity and absurdity facing New Spain's women. As a comical composite, he personifies womanhood as a male construct and flaunts its primary ordering principle which is based upon outward appearance. As incompatible and unrealistic as this image may have been, it ironically reflects the primary concept that inspired female portraiture in the art, literature, and drama that served as a model for young girls of the viceregal period. (10)

Although Sor Juana directs her criticism in Los empeños primarily toward domineering men who seek to define femininity and judge women on their ability to approximate this definition, she acknowledges that they would not succeed without the support of women themselves. In this vein, Castaño directly addresses the women in the audience who, as ladies of the court generally took great pride in their capacity to fulfill male expectations. The lesson to raise their consciousness is painfully prolonged as he dons each item of clothing, dotes on its appropriateness, and in a moment of utter self-absorption, comments effusively about his irresistible beauty. The final blow comes when he solicits confirmation of his behavior from the damas, thus compelling them to laugh at a brutal caricature of themselves and their obsession for playing the roles that men impose upon them (Weimer 1992, 94).

__¿Qué les parece, Señoras,
este encaje de ballena?
Ni puesta con sacristanes
pudiera estar más bien puesta.
Es cierto que estoy hermosa.
¡Dios me guarde, que estoy bella!
Cualquier cosa me está bien,
porque el molde es rara pieza.
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]
y vamos ya, que encerrada
se malogra mi belleza.
Temor llevo de que alguno
Me enamore. (1957, 137-138)

Cross-dressing was a commonly used technique in early modern theater, but it usually involved a woman who dressed as a man in order to enable her to move about freely in a man's world. (11)Sor Juana, however, reverses the concept of the mujer varonil by having Castaño don Doña Leonor's dress in preparation for reentering the interior of the house which is designated as female space. Feminine attire permits him to circulate at will and ultimately to outsmart Don Pedro just like Doña Ana. While cross-dressing in this case does give Castaño more freedom within the house, it also makes him more vulnerable, for, in keeping with Scolnicov's theory, he is immediately pursued by Don Pedro. To escape from his love-crazed suitor, Castaño does not divulge his real identity but keeps that of Doña Leonor and tries to exit the house in her gown. His experience as a cross-dressed gracioso, therefore, enables him to acquire a better understanding of a woman's attitude toward men, and moreover, the ease with which he exchanges a masculine role for a feminine one demonstrates how intricately allied gender-related behavior is to the performative (Dolan 1985, 9). The fact that he is out amid the audience when the actual transformation takes place and solicits the advice of its members not only emphasizes his own role playing but highlights as well that the public engages in this activity also and that the nature of the roles they take on is based on cultural tradition and social demands.

In her comedia, Los empeños de una casa, Sor Juana confronts the issue of space allotted to women on stage, in the theater world in general, and in society at large and illustrates that gender should not determine a person's sphere of influence nor the role, whether theatrical or actual, that he or she plays. By loosening the bonds of the prevailing male-dominated arrangement of theatrical space, therefore, she demonstrates that women have the desire and, indeed, the ability to move effectively in circles other than those customarily assigned to them. By minimizing the differences between men and women, a measure that underscores the human qualities they share, Sor Juana dramatizes the need for women to have the freedom to choose for themselves, just as men do, even if it means granting them the liberty to make their own mistakes, as in the case of Doña Ana. They must seek not only to develop interior space fully but to endeavor to extend their influence into exterior space.

The question of appropriate space for women was an extremely sensitive one during the viceregal era, and it made the role of comedy absolutely essential to its presentation. Levity is often used to defuse difficult situations and disarm opposition, and its relaxed tenor facilitated the experimentation with role playing and the testing of its viability without having the public suffer any consequences. However, as with many forms of humor, there is an important element of truth in the apparent chaos, which is that the recontoured theatrical space that Sor Juana proposes ultimately calls for a reevaluation of a woman's position in colonial society and culture, and thus a restructuring of the patriarchal hierarchy (Johnson 1998, 29). Sor Juana also appeals to her audience to reassess her own status as an exceptionally talented woman and her position vis à vis the intellectual and artistic community of New Spain. She quite clearly is wearing Doña Leonor's mask, and her alter ego lurks as well behind Castaño as the dama's impersonator. Just as previous masculine images of women in drama actually served as society's models in real life, so too should the self-assured images women have of themselves have a similar impact. With this objective in mind, then, Sor Juana portrayed on stage what she aspired to for all women in actuality, demonstrating that once more mobility in space is gained, women will have the opportunity to influence linear time by leaving their mark on history. She herself would prove this by becoming the greatest playwright, male or female, to write in Spain's American colonies. In this respect, she became the supreme role model for new generations of talented women, as she ultimately escaped the confined space of colonial society and culture with her transcendence of time.


(1). Although Sor Juana never wrote a vida as such, her now famous Respuesta to the Bishop of Puebla, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, does contain autobiographical information which at first glance resembles this form of discourse (1957, 445-447). On closer scrutiny, however, the recounting of her mischief as a school girl striving to learn as much as she could as quickly as possible, her intention to pass herself off as a boy in order to attend the university, and her desire to escape the secular world by seeking refuge in a convent, constitute a protest of such limited expression for women through a parodic reversal which approximates the picaresque (Johnson 1993, 77).

(2). With the excellent, ground-breaking study Untold Sisters: Hispanic Nuns in Their Own Works by Electa Arenal and Stacey Schlau, a wealth of information about religious women of the early modern period has come to light, and its analysis now constitutes an exciting field of investigation for colonialists. Among the outstanding books produced from this research are Kathleen Myers' Word from New Spain; The Spiritual Autobiography of Madre María de San José (1656-1719) and Kathryn Joy McKnight's The Mystic of Tunja: The Writings of Madre Castillo (1671-1742).

(3). Salvaggio relates the designation of space and women to a variety of works dating back to Aristotle.

(4). In Los empeños de una casa Sor Juana uses metadrama to call attention to her play as performance and to the comedia as a Golden Age genre. Celia's recognition of what has taken place in the street as having the characteristics of the typical dramatic plot is the first instance in which Sor Juana employs this technique. Richard Hornby identifies five metatheatrical devices, all of which are evident in this play: "1) the play within the play, 2) the ceremony within the play, 3) role playing within the role, 4) literary and real-life reference, and 5) self reference." In discussing the value of metadrama, he notes how important the theater is in teaching society's roles as well as the ability of one person to identify rather than objectify another (1986, 32, 71).

(5). In her essay "Subversion through Comedy?: Two Plays by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and María de Zayas," Constance Wilkins mentions that Sor Juana highlights the fact that the action of Los empeños takes place within the Arellano household by altering the last words of the title of Calderón's play Los empeños de un acaso (1991, 109).

(6). Had Sor Juana not approached Spain's domination of the theater by playing one dramatic form against another in this way, her work might never have been represented on a colonial stage. In her Sainete segundo, performed between the second and third acts of the comedia of Los empeños, she goes much farther in protesting the current theatrical trends emanating from the Peninsula and in defending the right of a women to participate in the direction the performing arts would take in the New World. See my article on this strikingly original sketch (1999, 5-18).

(7). Sor Juana may have denied Doña Ana her first choice for a husband and her status as heroine in order to reproach her for failing to relate to Doña Leonor's plight and to show solidarity with another woman.

(8). When Castaño becomes swept up in his impersonation of Doña Leonor, and thus completely taken by his role as a women, he makes the most singularly radical statement about gender relations during Sor Juana's time. His heroic stance on this occasion qualifies him to be not just an extraordinary gracioso but a comic hero who directly challenges patriarchal authority for the good of colonial womanhood (Johnson 2001).

(9). In discussing the location for theatrical performances during the early modern period, Valerie Hegstrom comments that Sor Juana's comedias and autos were represented outside the convent in New Spain and that some were probably performed at the court in Madrid (1999, 214).

(10). In her satiric ovillejos, Sor Juana demonstrates how feminine portraiture had become defeminized in both art and literature. While supposedly painting Lisarda's portrait, she cleverly disassembles the Petrarchan code and simultaneously presents a vision of herself as an actual female creator (Johnson 1993, 66-70).

(11). In her classic study, Woman and Society in the Spanish Drama of the Golden Age, Melveena McKendrick discusses several types of the mujer varonil that appeared in plays of the time. She dedicates an entire chapter to the Amazon women (1974, 174-217), an image that would also influence the portrayal of New World females in the chronicles of the Indies. For a discussion of this topic, see my study on colonial women (1983, 9-49).

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