The remarkable Sor Juana falls victim to church politics,
This review is from: Heresy of Love, The (Nick Hern Books) (Paperback)
Sor Juana, or more fully Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, was a quite remarkable person. Writing in Mexico in the seventeenth century she was, by all accounts, beautiful and clearly fiercely intelligent and independently minded. She was a bit like a seventeenth century Spice Girl, except she could sing! Initially she wrote plays an poems for the Court but the only way to continue her academic study and to maintain the impressive library that she had in the male-dominated world of the time was to enter a convent where she was afforded some leniency in continuing this while also writing hymns and religious tracts. What's more remarkable is that if you find a good translation of her works, such as Catherine Boyle's translation of "House of Desires", even to a modern audience the farces are still very, very funny - and certainly not what you'd expect to come from the pen of a Seventeenth century Mexican nun.
There are two aspects to her life that are particularly fascinating - firstly the choice to enter take holy orders (there is some evidence to suppose that she did indeed have strong religious convictions but how much of this may have been seen as her only choice to continue her work in the highly male and honour-based world is open to conjecture) and how the church tolerated this work and it's sometimes quite racy content. Helen Edmundson's play tackles only the latter issue. While it works very well dramatically, we start with Sor Juana already tucked away in her cell and it's a shame that how she got there is not addressed. Perhaps this might make another equally entertaining play?
Putting aside this quibble, the play itself is cleverly constructed much in the manner of Sor Juana's own works. There's some underhand plotting by servants, some macho posturing by males who should know better and plenty of humour. But the story itself is a sad one. Sor Juana becomes a pawn in the power struggle between seniors in the church and particularly of the new Archbishop who seeks to ban plays as un-churchlike. While there is some duplicity involved in who Juana trusts, the truth is that she was on a hiding to nothing once the Court was changed and she was always going to be something of a sacrificial lamb in the struggle between church and state.
As a play, it works well with some great characterisation and a satisfying arc of a story. Sor Juana deserves to be more widely known and, while how much is fact and how much is Edmunson's own fertile imagination here doesn't really matter - it's highly entertaining.