The Tenth Muse

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 12.19.36 PMBy Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The memory of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is alive and well in the U.S. Her writing and ideas about the need to educate women are central to a play, The Tenth Muse, which recently had its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. Set in a convent in Mexico City in 1715, twenty years after the death of Sor Juana, the central plot of the play is the discovery of the writings and musical scores of the iconic champion of women’s rights which had been hidden by her niece, also a nun, to prevent burning by the Inquisition.

The Festival commissioned the play to be written by 36-year-old, Sinaloa-born Tanya Saracho, a citizen of Mexico who has achieved critical acclaim in the theater world. Following a practice increasingly common among playwrights of her generation, Saracho did not arrive with a script but started with a concept – a comedy based on one of the hilarious sketches of Sor Juana about the manners and foibles of 17th century upper-class Spaniards in colonial Mexico. During the process of working with the Festival actors chosen for the play, who in this production are all women, many Latinas, the play took on a life of its own.

Superficially, the production is about three adolescents who for various reasons were cloistered in the convent, one a whiny brat (Manuela), one an irrepressible chatter-box (Jesusa), and one apparently very timid but with a spine and morality of steel (Tomasita). The girls, having discovered Sor Juana’s clandestine writings, decide to enact one of her plays for their own amusement. The scenes of their amateur production are wonderfully comedic.

But surrounding the comedy, the play raises, explores, dissects and realistically leaves unresolved important issues addressed by Sor Juana and still relevant around the world today. Issues of class and race are at times painfully illustrated by the interactions between the nuns and the girls and among the girls themselves – one an upper class criolla (born in “New Spain” — now Mexico – of two parents from Spain), one a mestiza, and one an indigenous Indian. The natives who comprised this lowest caste were not permitted to be literate in Castellano nor to be educated. In the play, conversations between the mestiza and the native Indian in reaction to cruel racist treatment are often conducted in the Nahuatl language, and no translation is needed to recognize the hurt engendered by their superficially placid submission to the caste system. Some Nahuatl words are used often enough to become understood by the English-speaking audience… probably a first occurrence of this in a US theater production.

Repression of human rights and rights of women in particular are embodied by the officials of the Inquisition who, although never appearing on stage, totally preoccupy the nuns and shape their actions and words.

The nuns are yet another class of society, highly educated, responsible, and not normally as isolated from the rest of society as the word “cloister” might suggest. Two nuns are especially affected by the external pressures of the Inquisition. The Mother Superior has turned absolutely tyrannical in an attempt to protect her convent and Sisters. And the niece of Sor Juana (Sor Isabel) has been devastated by the burning of her aunt’s extensive library 20 years earlier and by her aunt’s personal treatment at the hands of the Inquisitors. Her physical and mental health deteriorates before the eyes of the audience. Although these nuns are fictional characters, the actual words of Sor Juana threaded throughout the scenes provide a poetic platform of verisimilitude. To lighten the play, one of the nuns is constantly, frenetically, and very humorously cooking up a storm to produce delectable dishes and pastries for the imminently arriving Inquisitors.

In the second act, with some visually stunning scenes, the play turns symbolically dark and powerful, with the continuing breakdown of Sor Isabel contrasted with her reading of the exquisite love poetry of Sor Juana. Mother Superior discovers the girls’ possession of Sor Juana’s papers and the complicity of Sor Isabel in encouraging and participating in their play. To her it is an incomprehensible shattering of then-normal separations among the different classes of society, and she observes that the playful enactments tentatively broke gender distinctions as well. In the tradition of theater reviewers, we will not tell you more about what happens.

Especially for those of us who live or travel in Mexico and have read of Sor Juana (such as in the pages of earlier issues of The Eye), brief references in the play evince present-day associations, like the kind of food prepared by the Santa Clara nuns in Puebla. We asked one of the actors, Alejandra Escalante, what she knew about Sor Juana before she was involved in the production. She explained that since her father is Mexican, she was raised on the words of Sor Juana: “My father started to read her poetry to me when I was six.” Sor Juana had been held up to Alejandra as an example of what a woman could accomplish through education.

Escalante assumed that “everyone knew about Sor Juana – she’s even on our currency.” She was surprised to learn that few people outside of Mexico, “even other Latinos,” know about Sor Juana. Part of her joy in acting in the Tenth Muse is educating people about Sor Juana. “Maybe someone will go home and google her,” she concluded.

The Tenth Muse (which, by the way, is a title that Plato gave to Sappho, a woman writer of lyric and erotic poetry and music) will be on stage in Ashland until November 2. If you can’t see it there, badger the artistic director of your local theater to bring it to your stage.

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