In The Sins of Sor Juana playwright Karen Zacarías re-imagines the later life of legendary seventeenth-century poet and nun Juana Inés de la Cruz. Forbidden to write after sending a controversial letter to the Bishop, Juana struggles to reconcile religious faith and artistic freedom. As she attempts to live a life in the convent without writing, the play travels back in time to the court of the viceroy and vicereine of New Spain. It is here that 16-year-old Juana blossoms into a beautiful young woman full of passion and skill. Her talent does not go unnoticed, however, and the jealous viceroy hires a brilliant criminal, Silvio, to seduce her and ruin her reputation. Silvio proves a match for Juana’s wit, and an unsuspected passion is unlocked in both of them. What lies ahead is a story of love, betrayal, and magic in which Juana is forced to choose between the power of the pen and the perils of the heart.
June 19 – July 25
Life in the convent for Sor Juana
by Caro Dixey
Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz de Asbaje y Ramirez entered the Convent of the Order of St. Jerome in 1669 at a time when there were over 50 religious Monk and Nun communities in Mexico City. Much like today, the cloister’s function was largely societal, involving charity work, welfare and education, although it should be noted that to become a member of the cloth was often thought of as a career.
Convents were particularly responsible for providing female culture in Mexico, providing sanctuary for girls placed in the convents care by their family, and lay sisters (who do not take vows). The girls were taught sewing, embroidery, and cooking, and were also exposed to art, music, dance and theatre.
For women, entering a convent was much the same as entering a marriage and she was expected to provide a dowry ranging from three to four thousand pesos, as well as to assume financial responsibility for the ceremony of profession. Far from the traditional idea of convents lacking home comforts, many of the convents in Mexico at the time of Sor Juana reflected their economic productivity. Profits from the sale of fresh produce from a convents garden and/or orchard were significant, and funds were also generated from the leasing of haciendas and farms to local individuals. Gemelli Carrei, the seventieth century Italian explorer, sums up the financial positions of religious institutions at of the time: “in a way religious orders – male as well as female – resembled modern corporations although with an important qualification: the orders were rich but their shareholders (monks and nuns) were not.”
This is not strictly true. Despite a general vow of poverty taken by the Nuns, they lived in relative luxury in two story “cells” each with personal maids (generally three per nun). The relaxed vow of poverty extended to the nuns’ possessions and clothing; Octavio Paz writes that “at the end of the seventeenth century, in the convent of Jesus Maria the nuns wore jet bracelets, rings and pleated scapulars and coifs.”
Confinement within the cloister was another rule that was only moderately observed. While the nuns rarely left the convent, visitors were frequently admitted for both religious and secular ceremonies or events. Salons were formed and brief theatrical performances by the girls studying with the nuns were often performed on the patios of the convents. More individual visits also took place and it could be said that Nuns of the seventeenth century were treated much in the same way that actresses of today are: with devotees that ‘paid court’ to them.
For the most part the convents ruled themselves as small republics with the intervention of higher authorities only occurring in extreme situations. The hierarchy of the convent was decided by secret vote every three years and positions such as disciplinarian, archivist, gatekeeper, manager, bookkeeper, and arbitrators were held on a rotating basis. As a distinguished scholar, Sor Juana held the positions of bookkeeper and archivist for nine years.
Information about the life of Nuns today can be found on convent websites, and even nuns’ personal blogs — which speaks to how religious orders of 2010 are adapting to the modern world. A blog is comparable to the salons held in Sor Juana’s time, in which opinions and theories are shared with selected audiences.
Today there are ten convents listed in Chicago, each serving their communities in similar ways to that of 17th Nuns: teaching, caring for the elderly and sick, and various charity work.
The Mexican Revolution
By Steve Scott, edited by Caro Dixey
The Mexican war of independence raged between native Mexcians and the Spanish Cononial authorities between 1807 and 1821. After years of conflict the Treaty of Córdoba was signed on August 24, 1821, creating the Mexican empire of which Agustín de Iturbide became emperor.
This defeat ultimately ensured Carranza’s election as president in 1917, allowing him to forge a new constitution which incorporated reforms for workers and peasants. He also helped change the legal status of women in Mexico. Although Carranza’s presidency would last only three years (he was deposed by a coup of his generals in 1920), the Constitution of 1917 still governs Mexico today.
Carranza’s successor, General Álvaro Obregón, was able to rally support for the liberal social reforms that Carranza had advocated, while uniting most of the disparate elements of Mexican society. However, the Constitution of 1917 had called for a final separation of church and state in Mexico, an idea fervently opposed by supporters of the church.
These conflicts were attenuated by the election of Obregón’s hand-picked successor to the presidency in 1924, General Plutarco Elías Calles, who called for the closing of all church-run schools and the nationalization of the church’s property. In 1926, in what would be the final phase of the revolution, the Cristero Wars erupted, featuring periodic peasant uprisings and continued guerilla tactics from zealous church supporters.
Why The Sins of Sor Juana?
by Robert Falls, Artistic Director
Although she is relatively unknown to non-Spanish speaking readers, Juana Ines de la Cruz is one of the most compelling figures in all of Spanish literature, and one of the most revered authors in the development of Mexican culture. A self-taught Latin scholar, and a talented writer and musician, Juana was sent at a young age from the small village of San Miguel de Napantla to Mexico City, where her intellectual prowess (and her reputed beauty) attracted the patronage of the wife of the viceroy, Antonio Sebastian de Toledo. Although she thrived in the world of the palace, the conventions of her time forced her to enter a religious order to further pursue her intellectual pursuits; taking the name Sor Juana, she spent an uncomfortable time with the ascetic Carmelites, then joined the more welcoming Jeronomytes. She flourished here, writing poetry and treatises which eloquently defended the study of science and the education of women, compositions which are now viewed as among the most important in the Golden Age of Spanish literature. But her work offended the church hierarchy; abandoned by her powerful mentors, she ultimately withdrew from her literary pursuits, sequestered herself in an isolated room in the convent, and took to writing religious vows in her own blood, signing them, “Juana, the worst of all.” At the age of 43, she perished in a cholera epidemic, her work largely ignored by her contemporaries.
The story of this remarkable woman has spawned an equally remarkable play, Karen Zacharias’ The Sins of Sor Juana. Far from a standard docudrama, Zacharias has reimagined the life and work of Juana in a soaring dramatic celebration, filled with the passion, wit, romance and rigorous intellect that has made Sor Juana a true legend. Guiding this production will be Resident Artistic Associate Henry Godinez, a longtime champion of this play, who memorably directed the Goodman world premiere of Zacharias’ Mariela in the Desert. Henry has chosen Sor Juana to be the centerpiece of our fifth Latino Theatre Festival, which commemorates the bicentennial of Mexican independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution with a series of readings, presentations by local Latino theater companies, and special events at Millennium Park as well at the Goodman. This Festival will feature another landmark event: the American premiere of Cuba’s celebrated Teatro Buendia, which has received praise around the world for its disciplined, highly physical theatrical style.
The Sins of Sor Juana and the Latino Theatre Festival provide a multifaceted ending to a Goodman season notable, I think, for its range and variety—from the delights of Animal Crackers to the searing insights of Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett, and featuring distinguished new plays by writers including Dael Orlandersmith, Brett C. Leonard, and Rebecca Gilman. As with all of our work at the Goodman Theatre, I hope that you have found productions which have challenged you, provoked you, and entertained you. As always, we thank you for your support and patronage—and we look forward to seeing you next season.