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social sciences

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Gender Bending in Madrid Theater

The numerous regulations governing the professional and personal lives of actors indicate that the theatrical world was perceived as a threat to the stability of "decent" society. Legal codes established in 1615 and reaffirmed in 1641 required that theater owners supply the police with records of the martial status of all performers. Spouses of married actors had to be present at all public performances. In addition, unmarried women had to be accompanied by their fathers or other legal guardians; unmarried men were to be pointed out to police agents supervising performances.

Until 1600, authorities constantly changed rules on the performance of female roles-- sometimes requiring that they be played by women; other times mandating that they be performed by boys. The definitive laws on this subject, issued in 1600, allowed women to perform on stage and forbade boys and men to dress in female clothing. However, rules were not established at this time about cross-dressing by women. Theater owners quickly took advantage of the legal loophole and arranged a variety of popular entertainments featuring cross-dressed women. In response to the pleas of moralists who asserted that cross-dressing intensified the temptations of women's bodies, laws prohibiting actresses from wearing male garments were issued in 1608.

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Because the rules about cross-dressing by women were so frequently ignored, a compromise solution was established in 1641. From that point forward, women were allowed to wear men's clothing from the waist up if cross-dressing was required by the text of the play. Playwrights devised innumerable situations mandating that women disguise themselves as men, and they often articulate themes in their works. For instance, in Tirso de Molina's hugely successful El vergonzoso en palacio (The Bashful Man in the Palace, first performed in 1621), the central character, Serafina, solicits romantic affairs with both men and women while she is cross-dressed.

Farinelli in Madrid

The serious international political ramifications of the defection of Farinelli (Carlo Broschi, 1705-1782) from the London theater to the Madrid court in 1737 indicate the strong appeal exerted by those who transgressed gender conventions. Farinelli was perhaps the most famous of all castrati, male singers who had been castrated in order to enable them to sing the high ranges, normally attained only by women and boys.

In 1737, Queen Elizabeth Farnese lured Farinelli to Madrid in the hope that his singing would help to relieve the severe depression of her husband, King Philip V. From 1737 to 1739, acting at the request of Parliament, British diplomats tried to secure Farinelli's return to London. As McGeary has demonstrated, frustration over Farinelli's defection from the London stage helped to provoke the outbreak of war between Spain and the United Kingdom in 1739.

Because Farinelli's singing had such a positive impact on Philip V, he was given a lavish stipend, as well as a palatial residence and a large retinue of servants. His only obligation was to sing the same four songs to the king each day. Farinelli remained in Madrid until 1759 when he retired to Bologna. While in Madrid, he flaunted the restrictive morality of the Spanish code, and he openly pursued affairs with both men and women.

Developments in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

With the adoption of the Napoleonic Code in 1822, homosexual acts were decriminalized. However, homophobia remained prevalent in Madrid, and there seem to have been frequent queer bashings.

It seems likely that the parks remained a common place of homosexual encounters. The plays and novels of Mariano José de Larra, Ramón de Mesnero Romanos, Benito Pérez Galdós, and others characterize the parks of Madrid as dangerous places where the conventions of middle-class morality are transgressed. Although homosexual acts are seldom named, these authors provide suggestions that the "unmentionable vice" is involved.

In accord with general trends in late nineteenth-century medical science, Constancio Bernaldo de Quirós and José María Llanas Aguilanedo tried to identify distinguishing physical and emotional features of homosexuals and other criminal types in La mala vida en Madrid (Criminal Life in Madrid, 1901). Focusing upon homosexual prostitutes, Bernaldo de Quirós and Llanas found that clients for their services were dispersed in an almost invisible way through all strata of Madrid society. Further, these researchers maintained that homosexuals had developed a series of code words and gestures, so that they could recognize one another while avoiding detection by others.

During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Antonio de Hoyos y Vincent (1885-1940) and some other wealthy homosexual men in Madrid adopted the persona of the dandy, as that had been developed in late nineteenth-century Paris and London by Count Robert de Montesquiou (1855-1921) and others. An exceptionally tall man with a distinctive face, Hoyos was caricatured in numerous chronicles of Madrid literary circles. Protected by his wealth, he often brought handsome rent boys to fashionable salons. Although he seldom wrote about homosexuality directly, he frequently described bullfighters and other "macho" working-class men in sensual terms.

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