On this day–September 21–in 1583 the second of Madrid’s great outdoor playhouses opened behind the facade of a converted estate just across the street from the convent of Santa Ana on the Calle Principe. Built by a group of theatre patrons known as the “chorizos” and headed by King Philip II, the theatre stood defiantly as the crosstown rival to Madrid’s other great playhouse, the Corral de la Cruz, which opened just a few years earlier, sponsored by a competing group known as the “polacos” and vigorously supported by Madrid’s nobility. The Corral del Principe soon became home to some of Spain’s greatest playwrights and performers, premiering the works of Lope de Vega, among others, while stealing some of the top theatre practitioners from the Cruz. Both facilities were immensely popular–so popular, in fact, that each hired crews of hefty young men called “aplastadores” (or crushers) to pack audience members into the already stuffed pits–similar to those white-gloved guys in suits who today stuff riders into the Tokyo subway before the doors close.
For years the chorizos (presumably after the sausage) and the polacos (Spanish for Polish–who knows why?) battled each other on stage for the best players, playwrights, and performances in an artistic rivalry not seen in any other European city–a rivalry that was far more intense, disruptive, and pronounced than anything experienced in Elizabethan London between Burbage and Henslowe, for instance. It was a rivalry that lasted generations, well into the 18th century, and occasionally erupted into violence when one group would invade and disrupt the other’s performance. By the early 19th century, both the Cruz and the Principe had been rebuilt, remodeled and transformed multiple times into large indoor facilities, typical of the age, and the great rivalry slowly died out.
Today, Madrid’s Teatro Español, one of the city’s grand playhouses and home to major Broadway-style productions, sits on the original site of the Principe, continuing the long theatrical tradition. The convent across the street is now a popular city square (known as the Plaza de Santa Ana) filled with restaurants, cafes, and wonderful nightlife–certainly not something the nuns would have approved of. And the Corral de la Cruz? Well, not much remains, unfortunately. In fact, the only thing left is a small historical plaque on a building that houses a Spanish fast food outlet called “Las Bravas”–famous for their “Patatas Bravas” (fried potatoes in a red hot sauce)–an indignity that I’m sure the polacos would not have tolerated. Though I must admit the sauce is pretty damn good and is perhaps the only thing left to remind an avid (and hungry) theatre historian of the once red hot rivalry between these two great theatres.