The Rojas Theatre
The Rojas Theatre
From the “Mesón de la fruta” to the Rojas Theatre (1576-1878)
Rafael del CERRO MALAGÓN
The Auto de los Reyes Magos from the 12th century – a mystery play about the Biblical Magi – symbolizes the connection between the first plays in Spanish with Toledo. This piece is an example of how it used to be a common tradition adapting some episodes from the life of Christ and performing them inside churches on Christmas and Easter. Eventually, those plays were taken outside, to the markets, squares and nearby streets; they even were a part of the Corpus Christi procession. During 15th century, Toledo unified its Judeo-Arabic local heritage with the new Italian Humanism that appears mainly through manuscripts about courtly love or romances without any religious reference. Later in the 16th century, Toledo was governed by the Corregidores – mayors appointed by the king – and obtained patronage from nobles and archbishops. Therefore, they could fund new buildings for the local government, courts, jails, hospitals, markets, waterwheels to lift water from the Tagus river, brothels or more decent inns for entertainment such as Casas de Comedias. One of these has even endured until the 19th century.
Corrales, Mesones and Casas de Comedias
According to J. Porres, under the reign of Charles V, a successful corral could have existed in San Justo Square next to the Cómicos dead-end alley until 18th century. Nothing is known about its history, but being placed next to Toledo Main Square may have helped because the market gathered there several citizens every day. By the end of 16th century that area reached the cathedral walls and three important markets of the city: Carnicería Mayor (1545), Red del Pescado (1596) and Mesón de la Fruta (1575) – butcher, fish and fruit markets. The last one was an open courtyard surrounded by galleries built by the Corregidor Gutiérrez Tello. Actually, the corrales were open-air theatres inside some buildings.
Regarding the Mesón de la Fruta, historian Francisco de Pisa wrote in 1605 that “decent comedies and religious plays were performed there over the years”. When Lope de Vega lived in Toledo described the atmosphere of this corral as a place full of whistling, voices and arguments while actors were on stage. At the beginning of 17th century, the market was removed from the Mesón de la Fruta to create a permanent place for comedies there. In 1605 Jorge Mauel Theotocópuli – son of El Greco – received a silver tray as payment for his floor plant designs and project management, although he was offered a hundred Spanish escudos. An article of Borja de San Román published in 1927 mentions the demolition of a previous building and how the project of Jorge Manuel Theotocópuli was examined by the main architect of the Alcazar, Juan Bautista Monegro. According to Adolfo Aragoneses (1922) that Casa de Comedias was destroyed by a fire on August 1630 and quite little is known about its restoration. However, a panoramic sight of Toledo drawn by builder Arroyo Palomeque showed a closed building, without the usual open central space of corrales, which was commonly covered with sliding cloths and curtains, at the beginning of 18th century.
This structure was kept for two centuries, but it suffered slow deteriorations due to the city economic recession, the terrible consequences after the Peninsular War and the lack of funds of the Economic Society of Friends of the Country, who supported the educative influence of the theatre in the 19th century. Toledo Municipal Archive conserved a drawing from 1842 signed by architect Martín y Ruíz. It presented the old building facade elevation divided in two levels with six open spaces each one that formed a gallery. Four of the five entrance halls were rented in 1849 by the city hall to those market stalls in which neither meat nor offal nor charcoal was sold. The sixth entrance hall led to the interior of the old theatre, represented with a semicircular arch in the drawing from 1842. The design of Martín y Ruíz was not carried out according to a stereo photography taken between 1855 and 1860 that was consulted in the collection of Luis Alba.
The portrayals of that Casa de comedias made by Parro (1857) and Martín Gamero (1862) in the first half of 19th century are extremely clarifying. They described it as a tumbledown building with two levels of box seats – also known as lunetas, long bench without back –, lateral seats made of brick, the tertulias or middle galleries with lattice and a special box seat for distinguished personalities. Not only the building needed an urgent renovation, but also the old equipment, threadbare curtains, tallow candles and the chandeliers. Furthermore, the traditional men and women separated seating was kept until 1866.
Thanks to the Municipal Archive it is known about diverse programming played during some seasons of the first half of 19th century, poetry companies and their repertoires, some poetry evening events and diverse shows of gymnastic, transparencies or magic. After opening the Castillejo-Toledo railway line on 12 June 1858, Queen Isabel II attended an evening event at this theatre in the Main Square. Nonetheless, there may have been another royal visit before to this place on April 1824 when Ferdinand VII and his wife Maria Josepha Amalia of Saxony stayed for a few days in the city.
- New Coliseum: The Rojas Theatre
Mayor Gaspar Díaz de Labandero entrusted local architect Luis Antonio Fenech with a new design for the theatre in January 1865. It would be placed where the old Casa de Comedias building was before its demolition between 1866 and 1869. During those years, the city was carrying out other projects such as remodeling Zocodover and its access, street arrangements, pavement renewal, new public lightning, restoring the Alcazar to house the General Military Academy, a new water supply from Pozuela, a slaughterhouse and a bullring. However, many of those projects took decades to be finished due to a weak local economy and the political crisis under the reign of Queen Isabel II.
When L.A. Fenech passed away in March 1869, his position was filled by Ramiro Amador de los Ríos until 1872. The new architect took over all the works without changing anything, except for the theatre. Instead of building a shining space for social meetings surrounded by the smells from the old Carnicería Mayor from 16th century, he insisted on moving it to the old Mother of God convent, which was next to the Jesuit Church and seemed as a more exclusive location. Nevertheless, the political desires of progressing and the lack of funds were determining to keep the theatre in its original place. In 1871 the construction works were auctioned for 84,000 Spanish escudos after revising the Provincial Deputation and San Fernando Academy reports. Meanwhile, journalist Antonio Martín Gamero suggested the city hall to name the future theatre after local playwright Francisco De Rojas in order to thank him for his great talent.
In the following years, very important events happened in Spain, such as the First Republican Essay published in 1873. As a consequence of that, the theatre construction was not progressing as fast as everybody wished, so a local committee was created to control the works. Detailed information about the building – indoor adjustments, auditorium decoration (done by Pintado Díaz), stage equipment with a movable seating area (designed by Egidio Picoli) or the front curtain (from a sewing workshop in Madrid managed by Bussato, Bonardi and Valls) – was collected in several files signed by different architects of this project until its opening in 1878. Although the most important renovation was made in 1984 by architects Rodriguez Noriega and Tuñón Álvarez, several improvements were carried out over the years: electric lightning in 1895, a metallic truss on the roof between 1910 and 1913, new emergency exits and heating, a metallic curtain done by Hermanos Canosa in 1929, firefighting systems and adjustments to project films.
Endurance and uniqueness of the Theatre
According to the files, the Rojas Theatre was built based on L.A. Fenech’s drawing from 1866, in which he proposed to expand the construction area and the access to the Main Square by adding an entrance of arches on the facade, an upper gallery and specific rooms for administrative work. Inspired by Italian models and the Garnier Opera in Paris, the auditorium was designed with a horseshoe shape surrounded by box seats raised in three levels. Also, the stage was conceived as a large space that included backstage and separate entrance for performers and technicians.
Amador de los Ríos added the current stairwell on the main facade to elevate the building, removed the arcade porch and maintained two irregular axes from the ground plan. Thus, the first axis divided the space between the main entrance and the foyer, and a non-perpendicular second one unified the auditorium, stage and backstage. Abandoning the simplistic design of Fenech, the indoor area between the entrance hall and the auditorium was separated by another stairwell – the original drawing had only two – foyers, wardrobes, powder rooms, smoking rooms and a café. Decoration was inspired by a Plateresque and Baroque style that filled the walls with stuccoes, gold molding, paintings and a remarkable ceiling over the auditorium with baroque frescoes from 17th century.
The Rojas Theatre was opened on 19 October 1878 leaving behind the old, noisy and crowded Corrales de Comedias. The new coliseum combined perfectly the audience comfort with performance requirements to play Opera, Zarzuela or any sort of show. By the second half of 19th century, this splendid auditorium was finally completed in the center of Toledo – as main Spanish cities did – and became a non-religious place where the new bourgeoisie celebrated its social meetings with floral games, debates, memorials, civic ceremonies and balls. Since the first movies were projected in 1896, the Rojas Theatre reached new audience from lower social classes and allowed them to be a part of an exclusive and select place that was created for public entertainment.
Varios Autores. Francisco de Rojas. Escenario y vida de un autor toledano
Toledo: Ed. Pareja, 2007. 95p.