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The Netherlands enthralled by Spanish theatre

Joost van den Vondel is considered to be the greatest Dutch poet and playwright of his time, but he certainly wasn’t the most popular. The 17th- and 18th-century public preferred to watch ‘Spanish theatre’. University lecturer Olga van Marion has written a book about this, together with Frans Blom (University of Amsterdam).

From the mid-17th century to way into the 18th century, Spanish plays by authors such as Félix de Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca stole the hearts of the Dutch theatre-going public. ‘It was those plays that the people of the Dutch Republic spoke about and referred to, not the works of authors like Joost van den Vondel, whom Dutch literature scholars wrote a lot about later,’ says Van Marion. She describes Spanish theatre and its popularity in the Netherlands in the book Spaans toneel voor Nederlands publiek. The key message of her research is clear: ‘When looking at 17th- and 18th-century theatre culture in the Netherlands, we have to move away from that nationalistic,  inward-looking viewpoint.’ 

‘When looking at 17th- and 18th-century theatre culture in the Netherlands, we have to move away from that nationalistic, inward-looking viewpoint.’

Sigismundus, Prince van Poolen

Van Marion has reached this conclusion having looked at the accounts of the Amsterdam Theatre in that time, more or less the only European theatre to kept records. Thanks to information on its takings and other data on staged productions, collected in the digital ONSTAGE database, she was able to gain a full picture of the impact of Spanish theatre in the Netherlands. To demonstrate the popularity and reach of Spanish theatre, she takes the example of the production Sigismundus, Prince van Poolen (From the Spanish: La vida es sueño, or Life is a dream). Different versions of this play were on the programme in the Netherlands for as many as 150 years.


Sigismundus, Prince van Poolen is – to put it simply – about a Polish prince who is imprisoned by his father because a prophecy says the son will plunge the empire into misfortune. Sigismundus grows up in a tower, unaware of why he is there or who he is. When Sigismundus reaches adulthood, his father wants to see what will happen if his son reigns for a day. Sigismundus is drugged, taken out of his prison and put on the throne. He soon becomes the much-feared tyrant, so is given a soporific and returned to his cell. Upon waking he thinks it was all a dream. He then thinks about his deeds in the dream and begins to feel remorse. At the end of the play, Sigismundus becomes king after all, but then a benign and peace-loving one. 

Traditional laws jettisoned

‘Sigismundus has all the features of the Dutch public’s oh-so-beloved Spanish theatre,’ says Van Marion. ‘It’s about rulers who fall and everyday folk who are elevated to rulers. It’s about love and has tragedy and comedy, but all the traditional Greek drama laws about unity of time, place and treatment have been jettisoned. The famous Spanish playwright Lope de Vega said that this was a conscious move. It’s about entertaining the audience, he said, rather than about responding to ancient literary laws.’ 

How Rembrandt recovered his voice

In our Science Shot podcast Olga van Marion talks about another unique project that she worked on. Together with other researchers she reconstructed the voice of painter Rembrandt van Rijn. (In Dutch)

Rise of domestic drama

Dutch interest in Spanish theatre waned during the 18th century. This was probably due to the rise of domestic drama, says Van Marion. ‘Spanish theatre often took place at a royal court and was about fantastic developments. But at a certain point normal people and their everyday lives began to play more of a part.’ 

The popularity of Spanish theatre was responsible for another important development in the Netherlands: the rise of the actress. Van Marion is writing more about this in another book, Gouden Diva’s. 

Text: Jan Joost Aten

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