Learning the Language of Spanish Swords

This semester’s theatre production is La dama duende (The Phantom Lady) by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. It’s a Spanish Golden Age comedy with a secret passage, a love triangle, and classic mistaken identities.


Phantom Lady Audition poster image & title

Photo and graphic design by Melissa Irwin


The story behind the play is that of a young widow who is tired of being stuck indoors. At the time, a Spanish woman whose husband died was kept inside and protected by her male family members for fear that, since she’d already been married once, she’d be more likely to do something to besmirch the family honor. Being caught sneaking out would incur severe punishment. Obviously, there are some feminist issues to explore here, and some class issues as well, since this was the case for a woman from a wealthy family, while the men from the same family were free to keep mistresses from the lower classes (likely affording said mistresses some financial considerations).

In the play, a young man defends her, without knowing who she is, when her brother almost catches her and then later turns out to be a guest in her brother’s house. She spends the rest of the play sneaking letters (often with the help of her servants) to his chamber through a secret door built to conceal her chamber – she wasn’t just hidden from the outside world, she was hidden from everyone who wasn’t a member of the household. The strange events caused by her infiltration of the room terrify the young man’s servant, who is convinced that the place must be haunted.

It’s a funny play that I’ve always loved, and I’m excited to be working on it. The comic characters are hilarious to watch, and I’ve always enjoyed the fact that while the world is overall a patriarchy, women have always found creative ways around many parts of it. I just had an interesting discussion, in fact, about how there is also a matriarchy that men are not allowed in, and how feminism also needs to address that (a subject for another post).

The most enjoyable part for me, though, is the dueling. I’m always a fan of swordfights, especially when I get to help work with them, but this has been even more interesting because we have been learning the Spanish rapier style of La destreza. It’s very different from the Italian style, which we normally use. It’s more upright and features smaller movements.

In a real fight, the Spanish style would dominate the Italian because its smaller movements are quicker and because of its focus on subduing the other fighter’s weapon. It also seems that the Italian style will tire a fighter out faster. Especially the stage style, which encourages larger movements.

Visually, though, it’s difficult to see these types of movements from the audience and it tends to look a little fake, oddly enough. The small movements look like the fighters aren’t even trying. The Italian style, especially for stage, features large sweeping movements that read as vigorous and dangerous – even though, as I said, the Spanish style would win if pitted against it.

Our director/choreographer (whose dissertation was on sword fighting in Spanish comedias) has stayed largely true to the Spanish style. To add a little visual interest, though, he’s added some Italian attacks and parries. I’ve really enjoyed learning about the new style, even though I don’t like it visually, and seeing the actors practicing it. They’ve worked incredibly hard, but they seem to be loving it.

If you’re in the area during the second and third weekends of November, come out and visit us! It promises to be a very fun production.

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