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May 1, 2000

Critically acclaimed translation becomes critically acclaimed book

By Barbara McKenna

The name Tirso de Molina is well known among critics, but until recently the 17th-century Spanish playwright was little known to the general public. That changed in 1992, when the Lyric Studio Theatre in London staged The Rape of Tamar--considered one of the most powerful of the 80-odd plays attributed to Tirso. That staging is believed to be the first public performance of the play in roughly 350 years. Judging by the rave reviews from critics, the event was long overdue. Those reviews reflected not only the genius of the neglected playwright, but also the exceptional translation and writing skills of theater arts professor Paul Whitworth.

Photo of Shakespeare Santa Cruz
A scene from the 1994 Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of The Rape of Tamar Photo: Shmuel Thaler
Whitworth's translation premiered in the U.S. in 1994 at Shakespeare Santa Cruz (where Whitworth is currently artistic director) and, this past year, was published in the Absolute Classics series by Oberon Books, London.

The translation, which has received a steady stream of critical acclaim, benefits from Whitworth's dual sensibilities as an actor and director and as a scholar. The translation communicates Tirso's dramatic intent and at the same time manages to transfer into English the play's original cadences (including iambic pentameter) and rhyming schemes. The London Evening Standard noted, "There is considerable comedy and irreverent wit in Mr. Whitworth's translation, which contains the best rhyming couplets this side of Tony Harrison." A critic from the Independent on Sunday said, "Brilliantly translated by Paul Whitworth, the play dramatises lust, vengeance and parental grief alongside down-to-earth pleasures, and comic realism"

Both the London and California stagings of the play garnered accolades. In London it was named one of the "Five Best Plays" by the Independent on Sunday, while the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production won five Dramalogue Awards. Whitworth directed both productions and also played a leading role in Santa Cruz as King David.

Tirso de Molina lived from 1582 to 1648. A Mercedarian monk, he wrote popular plays for the public theaters of Madrid, the most famous of which is El Burlador de Sevilla, the first great dramatic treatment of the Don Juan story. According to Whitworth, "The Rape of Tamar is one of the most erotic plays of the Spanish Golden Age. It blends 17th-century Spanish revenge drama with a strange episode from the Old Testament, telling the story of the incestuous rape of Tamar by her half-brother Amnon."

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