In Review: The Mountain Girl from La Vera

cover image

The Mountain Girl from La Vera (La Serrana de la Vera) by Luis Vélez de Guevara
Translated with a Critical Introduction by Harley Erdman, Liverpool University Press, 2019
Reviewed by Kathleen Jeffs, Gonzaga University

Volume 7, Issue 4 (Fall 2019)

Here is an engrossing and troubling play in a translation crying out for contemporary performance. In fact, this translation was published in the midst of the performance process as Harley Erdman and Gina Kaufmann also adapted this play for the University of Massachusetts Department of Theatre, performed under the title Wild Thing in February 2019. The version under review here, in facing pages with the Spanish as is the custom of Aris & Phillips in the Hispanic Classics series, is built for the reader in conversation with the Spanish but is clearly written with an eye (and ear) for creating moments for actors onstage.

The introduction is an authoritative study of the playwright and his world, sources and contexts, historical events, including a critical analysis, textual and stage history, and bibliography. The translator’s note includes an acknowledgement to C. George Peale for allowing his and William R. Manson’s Spanish edition to appear in this work, noting that the editorial decisions are theirs for the Spanish. Erdman has included scene breaks and settings, and repositioned stage directions on the English side, also making suggestions for where a company might reasonably trim the text for performance. He offers a useful overview of his approach, which is to write for performers. “The side-by-side bilingual format of this series inspires me with the hope that my version, while containing every idea in Vélez’s play, can stand on its own, facing it across the page as an equal, different from but not subordinate to the original. Think of it as a sibling that has adapted itself to thrive in another set of circumstances rather than a distant mirror of something more authentic” (28). This is consistent in his approach to the polymetry, 85% of which in this play is in eight-syllable forms such as redondillas and romance. He has not written the English in metered verse, but instead explains, “I have committed myself to keeping the line length short for this same 85% of the play, using lines of 7-9 syllables, generally speak-able in four beats. I have tried to maintain attention to the integrity of the line as a unit of thought meaning” (29). The translation is mostly unrhymed apart from some internal and end rhyme woven into the rhetoric “whenever the opportunity presented itself without a risk of twisting the meaning” (29). Erdman takes inspiration from translators such as Boswell, Boyle, and Johnston, who write their translations of comedias for actors in the UK, playing at the Bath Theatre Royal and the Royal Shakespeare Company, among other places. Erdman’s approach foregrounds meaning as the highest value, endeavoring “never to sacrifice meaning for a turn of phrase” (29).

The plot is true-to-form comedia complexity, with delightfully unexpected twists around every corner. The play is structured like tragicomedies such as El caballero de Olmedo (c. 1620), full of festival and rural tradition, peppered with comedic tropes until the fatal turn to tragedy. Gila, the “moza varonil” (“He-Girl”) (152-3), falls in love, only to be seduced and betrayed by the object of her admiration and affection, a noble Captain who promises marriage but abandons her. She retreats to the wilderness where she transforms into the Serrana of legends, killing any man who approaches her until she is finally able to kill the seducer himself. Bereft of her honor, and already reviled as a manly woman, “lobo y zorra en la cautela” (“A girly fox, a mangy he-wolf”) (120-1), what future can she have other than as a serrana, fundamentally excluded? In the society dominated by the “Reyes Católicos” (“Catholic Kings”) and rigid code of honor in which Gila lives (this play was written in 1613, but is set earlier), one could argue that the Captain killed her first; deceiving her out of her virginity strips her of any possible identity and wrests away her future. All the typical gender-inversions and questions arise that one would expect from a comedia in the mujer varonil tradition, but this time, there is a dark twist: Gila is a tragic figure, brutally executed for her crimes. Pierced by arrows in her San Sebastian-esque execution, we see the public performance of what had been her inner reality of a death by a thousand cuts, an image resonant with many who experience “failed sociality” (21, Erdman quoting Heather Love’s Looking Backward 22).

The hierarchies of gender and power are sustained and undermined in Lacanian fashion (Erdman quotes Henry Sullivan, arguing that “the fundamental element underlying all comedias is Lacanian: the ‘unresolvable dialectic’ between Desire and the Law (333)” (14). Vélez pulls no punches and takes his fight straight to the Law’s top enforcers: Queen Isabella herself expresses a bootless sympathy for Gila as she faces her fate at the hands of the “Brotherhood,” a “powerful rural police force” whose prerogatives even fall outside of royal control (253). It is more than just ‘patriarchy’ that Gila threatens, but society itself, and Erdman persuasively argues that Gila has to burn down her own future in order to exist in the present. “Logically, the only space from which she can realize her commitment to no future is outside the space of society, in the sierra, from which she takes her epithet that gives name to the play” (22).

As the Serrana, Erdman points out that the way Gila kills is meaningful. She bloodlessly and rather perfunctorily throws men off a cliff, then marks the places with crosses. “By murdering not only the guilty but the innocent, she renounces narrative temporality, relinquishing her own future and any possibility of pardon or social reintegration. Indeed, she embraces this role and accepts her fate. Her war, after all, is not just with the Captain but everyone around her” (22). This is what is so moving about her situation; even from the beginning, she is utterly friendless and unaccepted. Her cousin Madalena, the closest she gets to a friend, says “Erró la naturaleza, / Gila, en no herte varón” (“Nature should have made you a man”) (78-9). This is what everyone, including Gila herself, wishes; not that she could be accepted in her queer state of being, but the acknowledgement that nature has made a mistake, that she is an aberration instead of a known quantity. The tragedy rests not in her choices, nor in her father’s choices when raising her, nor in the Captain’s vindictive seduction of her, but in the fact that her entire existence is a tragedy from the start: she is doomed before she even does anything. (She is to gender as the South African writer Trevor Noah speaks of his mixed race in South Africa: “Born a Crime.”) This is, I think, what makes the play so captivating; Gila’s unacceptability is built into the situation of the “Catholic Kings” whom Gila idolizes, and whose abdication of authority to a rule by the local Hermandad (Brotherhood) ensures she is eliminated. Ferdinand and Isabella abdicate their power to step out of their role as judges, conquerors and enforcers of the faith, even when their hearts suggest another course of action. King Fernando recognizes Gila too late (she had craved the royals’ recognition in the first act when it was denied her by the news that the Prince had been wounded in battle). Measuredly, the King asks her why she is killing men, and then, seeming to understand her logic, he behaves somewhat sympathetically to her with a non-committal warning: “Serrana bella, / guárdate de mi Hermandad” (“Lovely serrana, / Beware my Holy Brotherhood”) (198-9). King Fernando calmly orders her to spare Don Rodrigo (Girón, of famous nobility, known to comedia readers and audiences for appearing in Fuente Ovejuna), whom Gila holds at gunpoint. Acquiescing, Gila points out that the King thus bears a responsibility to her, to which he magnanimously replies: “Esa es deuda / que yo os la agradezco y todo” (“I acknowledge this great debt”) (200-1). The King shows her this respect and treats her as he would a nobleman, not like a “Mountain Girl” (or “Wild Thing,” as Erdman’s performance translation for Amherst dubs her). Yet he does not call off the Brotherhood, allowing himself to appear to be unable or unwilling to control them. The law of the land is that the Brotherhood will execute her unless she specifically appeals to the mercy of the King and Queen, and everyone is aware of this practice, down to the little girl Pascuala, who laments that the royals’ entrance happens the moment after Gila dies:

MADALENA ¡Pascuala, estos son los Reyes!

PASCUALA ¡Oh, si primero llegaran!

MADALENA Adrede llegan agora,

porque quieren que su Santa

Hermandad castigue. (244)

MADALENA The King and Queen are entering!

PASCUALA They came a moment too late!

MADALENA It’s all with express intention,

So the Brotherhood could inflict

Their punishment upon her first. (245)

The Spanish is clear that the “intention” is that of the royals; “su” in Madalena’s reply indicates that the royals are perceived to see this group as belonging to them, “theirs.” This reveals that the apparent sympathy or respect Fernando showed to Gila in his interaction with her was, ultimately, empty courtesy. His sentiments did not entail any actual action or willingness to engage with the root of her suffering. It is an interesting comment on the complex duty of monarch-as-judge, who must act according to the letter of the law (i.e. murder cannot be allowed to go unpunished, no matter how sympathetic one might be to the murderer’s circumstances, or how justified the motivation). The King thus fails, in some ways, to enact true justice, paradoxically admiring her but not enough to prevent her annihilation at the hands of popular justice.

The Mountain Girl from La Vera is full of ideas to engage the brains of the audience, but its true aim is at the heart. The moment that really sticks with me after a reading of the play is Gila’s inversion of Christ’s on-the-cross forgiveness of his oppressors, when she refuses to give the society that both created and destroys her the benefit of the doubt that “they know not what they do.” Instead, Gila shames her father, inviting him to draw in close only to bite off his ear in a horrific inversion of Simon Peter’s assault on Malchus in the garden of Gethsemane. As her father stands in shock and pain, holding his ear, Gila chastises him for failing to nip her masculine behavior in the bud:

GILA: […] Si tú usaras

rigor conmigo al principio,

de mi inclinación gallarda

yo no llegara a este estremo.

Escarmienten en tus canas,

y en mí, los que tienen hijos.

GIRALDO: Confieso que es justa paga

a mi descuido.

DON JUAN: ¡Estraña cosa!

Subid con ella.

(Éntrese con ella agora, y queden PASCUALA y MADALENA.)

MADALENA: Pascuala,

¿has visto tal cosa?

PASCUALA: El viejo

sangre y lágrimas derrama. (242 and 244)


GILA: […] Had you shown more discipline

When I was young and first inclined

To a daring way of life,

I would not be here today:

Let your gray locks be a searing

Example to anyone daring

To raise children in this world,

And let me be an example as well.

GIRALDO: I confess, it’s what I deserve for

My neglect of you.

DON JUAN: Remarkable!

Bring her on up over here!

(Don Juan exits with Gila. Pascuala and Madalena stay.)

MADALENA: Have you ever seen such a thing?

PASCUALA: The old man’s dripping blood and tears. (243 and 245)

Gila’s complicity in her own oppression by turning the blame on the person entrusted with raising her is an arrestingly sad capitulation to an inhumane social order.

Other plays from the Spanish Golden Age have shown gender and sexuality to carry consequences proportional to the form: La Serrana ends in tragedy, but comedies also bring the complexities of gender identity to light. The parallels between Gila and Hipólita, the heroine of Guillén de Castro’s La fuerza de la costumbre (The Force of Habit) (c. 1610-15) (also published in a dual-language edition with Aris & Phillips in 2019), are striking, though Castro’s play ends as a comedy with social reintegration and requisite matrimony. Some of the moments are interesting to compare, such as how their suitors’ admiration of the “lady’s” strength and battle-hardiness inspires sexual desire in the men. Performative aspects of gender expression associated conventions of dress, such as the wearing of high shoes such as ‘chapines’, is referred to in both plays, and gender identification as a process of learning / education is also explored in both plays. Recent performances of both texts bear out a zeitgeist of interest in these themes on contemporary stages.

The Spanish edition of La Serrana de la Vera by C. George Peale and William R. Manson that appears in this version brings the plays by Luis Vélez de Guevara released in 2019 to a generous number, for which the comedia community has to thank C. George Peale. Juan de la Cuesta released Vélez’s La rosa de Alejandría edited by Peale this year, as well as Correr por amor fortuna and Celos, amor y venganza, which Peale edited in collaboration with William R. Manson. Peale’s contribution to bringing Vélez’s work to light has made a major inroad in widening the field of study beyond the typically better-known works of Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and Calderón de la Barca. The landscape is open for new studies and performances of Vélez’s work due to Peale’s rigorous and precise approach to the publication of these texts in modern editions. A generous collaboration between Peale, Erdman, and Bolaños yields rich scholarly apparatus including a thorough explication of terms, literary and geographical references, and historical illumination found in the helpful endnotes.

The field of translation and performance studies of the Spanish Golden Age is richer for the addition of The Mountain Girl from La Vera. We are fortunate that Erdman was inspired to take on the project by a 2016 ASTR working session paper by Harrison Meadows “arguing for a trans lens on Gila” (Acknowledgments). After refining the text and translation through the crucible of readings aloud and the opinions of experts in the theatrical and dramaturgical nuances of the play, Erdman has produced a work of great value to comedia and translation students and scholars, as well as theatre practitioners hungry for fresh classics.


Kathleen Jeffs teaches theatre from the perspective of performance using both classroom and studio methods. Kathleen began directing at Gonzaga University in 2012 with her translation of a Spanish Golden Age play, The Force of Habit, written by Guillén de Castro, followed by Alice, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland by Devin Devine. Kathleen was the co-director and dramaturg for the Magnuson audience record-setting Jesus Christ Superstar with Suzanne Ostersmith, and for the musical-history-comedy-tragedy version of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, adapted by Sara Romersberger of Southern Methodist University. Recently she has collaborated in the Spokane community on Hapgood and Arcadia.


One thought on “In Review: The Mountain Girl from La Vera

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s