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Written in the Summer of 2011 to accompany a free reading of Tirso de Molina’s Marta the Divine, translated by Harley Erdman.

The name “Tirso de Molina” derives from the Greek “Thyrsus”: the rod wrapped in vine leaves and topped with a pine cone which was carried by the female worshippers of Dionysus. No one knows whether the rod was used as a weapon for animal sacrifice or as a symbol of fertility. Quite the pen-name, then, for Fray (Friar) Gabriel de Téllez, a theologian of the Order of Merced who wrote plays in the early 17th century, in tacit violation of his religious orders. It is a suggestive pseudonym, hinting at the double nature (metaphysical and sensual) of Tirso’s plays.

Nearly all of Tirso’s 80 extant plays (out of a reported 400) dramatize the tension between the pleasures of the flesh and the salvation of the spirit. In all of them, a theologian’s view of Catholic eschatology lies in ironic counterpoise with sensuous, irreverent and theatrical Dionysian antics. In Tirso’s most famous play, The Last Days of Don Juan, the legendary lover Don Juan embodies this dichotomy. He id Dionysian Man by way of Cervantes and Spanish folklore, forced to come to a religious understanding of life through a confrontation with his own mortality.

Like Don Juan, Tirso’s Marta the Divine is a freewheeling adaptation of a story drawn from popular myth. Also like Don Juan, this play focuses on a strong title character who is placed in a situation of swashbuckling existential peril. But unlike his more famous play, Tirso here satirizes religion in order to inspect a woman’s role in society.

Marta, a name proverbial in Spanish culture for false piety just as Don Juan was associated with false loving, is the strong-willed protagonist. When informed that she must marry Captain Urbina, a friend of her father’s, Marta immediately starts to behave like a pious ascetic in preparation for the convent, thus avoiding marriage to the older man. But Marta cannot resist her Dionysian self, and she also contrives sexual visits with her lover, Don Felipe, in disguise as her Latin tutor. Suspense over the discovery of this state of affairs speeds the play toward its unexpected conclusion, in which all intrigues are unveiled.

At every turn in the play, Marta uses the restrictive patriarchal codes of Spanish society to gain a measure of personal freedom. She blasphemes religion, filial and sisterly duty and the wishes of her father in favor of achieving the romantic objectives of her heart. By indulging in profanation, she becomes pious in the most important sense, as a person true to her inner duty. The Spanish comedia of the Golden Age often set two such abstract forces in conflict, and one can find in the play traces of the love-versus- honor plots popularized by Tirso’s mentor, Lope de Vega. But Tirso structures the play in a modern manner, around his female protagonist’s journey toward self-government rather than two competing social codes. In doing so, he anticipates Molière in his subordination of plot to the portrayal of a character type (and Tartuffe in his depiction of religious hypocrisy) and looks forward to Federico García Lorca’s very 20th-century concern for the civil rights and private desires of female characters.

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