Why "La Celestina" is a bfd
The reason this was a worthy project is because the English speaking world is woefully ignorant of this brilliant, dark, and powerful story. It stands as one of the three pillars of Spanish literature alongside Don Quijote, the first novel, and Don Juan Tenorio, the play by Zorilla. Perhaps the reason “La Celestina” hasn’t had the audience it deserves is because it doesn’t have a genre. It is a dialogue. Just characters talking. Like a play. Except the action ranges all over from one location to another, not broken into acts and scenes for staging. It's a spectacular story as told through the voices of these crazy horrible funny people talking to each other and to the “audience. And it is way too long! But it isn’t a novel, because there is no narration. And anyway, the novel didn’t exist yet. The printing press was still just a few decades old, and hardly anybody could read. So people would gather at the pub and pay a professional reader to recite for them. It could be news, war stories, or better yet—something racy and violent!
And, oh boy did “La Celestina” deliver on that front! It is full of sex. My favorite example is when Celestina throws the sweet young virginal servant, Parmeno, into bed with one of her prostitutes, Areusa. And then wants to watch them have sex. Why not? She is a professional and can help coach them. She is the original capitalist, happy to sell anything or anyone, completely free of any impediments like morals or shame. She is a master of tactics and a brilliant student of human desires and weaknesses, which she exploits for her own personal gain. She quotes the bible to great effect to support her arguments and conjures the devil to draw power from the dark side as well. Yeah. It’s like that. There is also a great murder, one accidental death, and a suicide. Plus 2 other deaths by police. Did I mention she conjures the devil? But it is also very funny! There is a wacky little lady in waiting and a blowhard thug. And Celestina herself is a walking carnival of diabolical pragmatism and twisted witticism. People loved this nasty funny tale so much that in its day “La Celestina” was the most printed thing in the whole world—second only to the bible. Needless to say, the Catholic church banned the work, and people wanted it all the more.
But I digress. Here is why “La Celestina” is a big deal. First of all, it was the original Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare stole it, exactly 100 years later. Also, it was the very first piece of art that was called a tragicomedy. For the first time, a piece of literature combined truly funny characters and scenes with deeply serious themes and events. (Kind of like life, no?) Rojas also invented the first Falstaff character—the braggart warrior buffoon so often copied by later writers.
The other thing that makes it so unique, is that the driving force of the story is an old lady. Even today that is a rarity. And honestly, the things she says and does are still shocking today. She is proudly known as the “puta vieja” or “old slut.” One of her famous skills was to sew up the hymens of her prostitutes so they would bleed as virgins every time she rented them out. She brags at one point that she sold the same girl to a stupid French count 6 times as a virgin and he never caught on. I admit with some shame that I left that part out of my adaptation. I hate to think that we are more prudish than Catholic Spain of 1499. But I just thought that was kind of gross. Maybe when the show gets adapted for HBO…
What I did do, though, was to give Celestina back-up singers. They are four pasty, androgynous, vaguely demonic chorus boys that appear whenever she is working her machinations. Nobody seems to notice them or question who they are or why they are there. But I thought she needed that. You can’t have a huge star like Patti LuPone out there bringing the house down without a little back up from some sexy boys.
As far as Celestina resonating today, does anyone remember Dr. Ruth Westheimer? The weird old sex therapy lady? That is one of Celestina’s businesses—coaching young people in their sexual exploits. She also brings to mind Joan Rivers on QVC. Celestina will sell anything to anyone. And, of course, I have a reference to her being an Avon lady. (I hope that doesn’t get me sued…) And, of course, she is a booze hound. So that still works. And she has lesbian tendencies. (That should help our demographic appeal.) Also, she conjures the devil and exhibits hints of pedophilia. Neither of those are condoned, of course. But if public outrage from certain groups helps to bring media attention, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. The Catholic Church banned the original tragicomedia, and sales went through the roof!
It is not an overstatement to say that Celestina is the most important female character in all of Spanish literature. She is to literature what Patti LuPone is to the Broadway musical. One of a kind. Incomparable. Iconic. Slutty. Fabulous.