Famous Blue Raincoat

Songs of Love and HateIn a conversation, Leonard Cohen came up—in particular, his song Famous Blue Raincoat. It is my kind of song. It is written as a letter to a brother. It recounts the story of the brother cheating with the writer’s wife: “So you treated my woman to a flake of your life / And when she got home she was nobody’s wife.” Famous Blue Raincoat is filled with the kind of resignation and tired bitterness that seems to define adult life.

Leonard Cohen came up in a discussion of Jacques Brel. In discussing him and having to defend my high opinion of him, I have come to see that what I most connect with is the sadness, anger, and bitterness of his songs—both in writing and in singing. See if you can spot these elements in this recent performance of Famous Blue Raincoat:

“Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.” Wow.

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Fuente Ovejuna

Lope de VegaI recently read the Angel Flore and Muriel Kittel translation of Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna. It was written right at the end of Shakespeare’s career, when he was writing such gems as Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Fuente Ovejuna is not a perfect play by any means, but by the standards of the time, it is a classic.

The main thing one notices while reading it is that it has great dramatic momentum. It certainly has speeches and songs, but they are short. It resembles nothing so much as what a group of high school students would create if asked to put on a play about this historical event.

The synopsis of Fuente Ovejuna is really quite simple. The lord of the town is misbehaving by raping many of the young girl. Finally, the town men rise up and kill the lord. Given that the plot is so simple, the play can deal with the characters, and more important, their interactions.

No character is more important or well written than Laurencia. I know of no female character in all of Shakespeare who can compare with her. There are reasons for this, of course. Vega had actual women actors playing his female characters whereas Shakespeare had boys. As Gary Taylor has noted, this tended to limit the females in his plays to pretty young things and old hags. The only Shakespearean character that strikes me at all like Laurencia is Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. But even Beatrice is at heart a sad sop. Laurencia is captured by the lord, but manages to escape before being raped but after being beaten. She finds the men of the town and yells at them for allowing all that has happened. She shames them into action.

One of my great annoyances about Shakespeare is the density of the text—the overuse of allusions and puns. It is hard to say if Lope de Vega suffers from these problems, because I read an English translation. But it doesn’t seem as though he does. It also seems likely that he didn’t have time for such nonsense. Shakespeare wrote 38 plays (more or less); Lope wrote many hundreds. I’m all for craft, but not when it just annoys me.

The only major flaw of Fuente Ovejuna is that it throws in scenes about the higher lords and the King. This is a problem that Shakespeare shares, but to a much worse extent. In most of Shakespeare’s plays, you can get nauseous from the rapid scene changes. This is not the case here. And there is a reason for these scenes. But it is clear that the play could have focused entirely on the town with what must be more recent theatrical innovations.[1]

Just like Shakespeare is rarely performed in the Spanish speaking world, Lope de Vega is rarely performed in the English speaking world. There is a whole Spanish filmed version of the play online. But mostly, even in Spanish, Fuente Ovejuna is performed in adaptations. Here is a collection of scenes from a caberet act based on the play:

Overall, Fuente Ovejuna is an excellent play, especially for its time. We English speakers should definitely pay more attention to Spanish golden age theater. Theater that begins and ends with the English Renaissance is a very poor theater indeed.

[1] This is the one thing that most defines early 17th drama: the inclusion of lots of narrative that the audience just doesn’t care about. Think of Romeo and Juliet. Did we have to see the apothecary scene? We learned everything we needed when Romeo dies, “Oh true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick.”