Photo: Leo Cabranes Grant
Photo: Leo Cabranes-Grant

A Failed Mass: Jesusa Rodríguez and her “Striptease de Sor Juana”

A tenacious blanket of thick fog delayed the arrival of many participants of the Sixth Hemispheric Institute Encue_ntro, taking place in Buenos Aires (June 8-17 of 2007). Only a few weeks after the event, the Casa Rosada would be turned into a transitory White House by the first snowfall seen in the city in a hundred years. The Argentinean capital was also in the midst of an intense electoral campaign; a candidate from the Right was ahead in the polls, and ended winning the contest a few days later. The Institute’s focus this time was on the intersections among bodies and politics, terror, and social discourses. It is in this context that Jesusa Rodríguez presented Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in the flesh—so to speak—at the Teatro Empire the night of June 11. Rodríguez had enacted the character of Sor Juana in an ealier piece, “Sor Juana in Prison: A Virtual Pageant Play”, published in 2003. On that particular occasion, Sor Juana was presented inside a penitentiary cell that replicated her convent room, surrounded by contemporary technology and standing trial. The play performed in Buenos Aires shares certain details with this previous work—especially the presence of electronic devices— but Rodríguez makes a more daring decision now by staging a “Striptease de Sor Juana” based on the text of the Mexican nun’s most important poem, Primero Sueño.

Probably written around 1685, Primero Sueño is a philosophical poem of 975 lines strongly influenced by Luis de Góngora’s unfinished Soledades (1613). Góngora was invested in creating a poetic practice that was intentionally difficult to decipher, challenging the intelligence of the reader. Following Góngora, Sor Juana includes in her poem all the rhetorical resources that today we associate with the Baroque style: erudite allusions, unusual vocabulary, extended metaphors, and syntactic manipulations. Sor Juana uses the same metric form of the Soledades, a combination of lines of eleven and seven syllables, with extremely flexible rhymed endings, called silva, a name that resembles selva (a leafy forest). The language of Primero Sueño is dense and highly specialized, integrating into its imagery elements taken from astronomy, medicine, theology, music theory, physics, anatomy, history, and esoteric traditions. Rodríguez knows that audiences will not be able to grasp all the nuances of the poem, and her decision to recite a substantial amount of its lines in an incantatory, almost neutral tone serves her well in this case. As a result of Rodríguez’s hypnotizing delivery, the poem becomes more a sequence of riddles and enigmatic statements than a logical argumentation, a series of fluctuating sound patterns rather than an academic lecture.

Primero Sueño
Jesusa Rodríguez

Primero Sueño

Primero Sueño describes how while the body rests at night the soul explores the boundaries between physical experience and epistemic enlightenment. A balancing act between scientific fact and lyrical perception, Sor Juana considered the poem her most important work. Rodríguez transforms the poem into an auto sacramental. The autos were one-act plays dedicated to the Eucharist, and they were performed during the feast of Corpus Christi. Mostly associated today with Calderón de la Barca, Sor Juana’s own contribution to the genre includes a justly famous example—The Divine Narcissus— a religious drama in which Ovidian metamorphosis becomes a trope for the staging of the first confrontation between Mexico and Spain. The autos relied on a highly refined network of allegorical techniques and Biblical references that helped to convey the subtle implications of the Mass and the miracle celebrated at its center: transubstantiation, or the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

My emphasis on the autos is not merely philological; as performed by Rodríguez, Primero Sueño actually becomes a failed Mass, an anti-auto of sorts. The setting of the play fully supports this view: a long table, covered with a white cloth, functions as both an altar and a desk. On top of the table, a transparent magnifying glass projects, like a camera oscura, a diverse array of images onto the auditorium’s walls. Placed beside a feather pen, an old book hides within its pages a small computer. Towards the middle of the piece, a naked Sor Juana stands behind the same table, like a priest, and eats a wafer while delivering a segment of the poem that deals with digestion and nourishment. Later on, she will also drink ink, developing an acute stomach-ache. In another scene, Sor Juana stands on top of the table, under a crucifix and a sphere that are suspended from the ceiling, floating in a glow of cosmic darkness. She takes the crucifix and starts playing with the figure of Christ, dialing it around as if it were a roulette wheel; then she moves on to open the sphere—very much as if it were a piñata—allowing multiple marbles to fall over her head. These atomic particles—or monads, to recall Leibniz’s theories— rolling all over the stage, underline Sor Juana’s perplexity in front of a world that presents itself to the eyes as multiple, inciting the mind to grasp the common rules that might unify it. For Rodríguez, this tension between the particular and the general hinges in the tangible topography of Sor Juana’s body, the conflicted transactions between matter and spirit that Primero Sueño tries to navigate and that Rodríguez’s striptease aspires to unpack.

Primero Sueño
Jesusa Rodríguez

Primero Sueño

The unabashed narcissism of Rodríguez’s rendering of Sor Juana’s verses is a direct response to the poem’s obsession with the boundaries of self-awareness. The text of Primero Sueño expands by consistently contracting its focus: the more we concentrate on the body itself—its organs, its functions—the further the soul goes in its exploration of the realms of wisdom. At the beginning of the play we see Sor Juana seated on a high chair in a pose that mimics the portrait of the nun by Miguel Cabrera (1750). Under the lights, her multilayered habit duplicates the fundamental geometric shape that traverses the whole poem: “Piramidal, funesta, de la tierra/ nacida sombra, al Cielo encaminaba /de vanos obeliscos punta altiva, escalar pretendiendo las estrellas” (“Pyramidal, doleful, mournful shadow/ born of the earth, the haughty culmination/of vain obelisks thrust toward the Heavens,/ attempting to ascend and touch the Stars”). The pyramid reappears in the play under several guises, most importantly as the “montes artificiales” (“artificial elevations”) of Sor Juana’s exposed breasts. Peeling the onion of its religious costume, Sor Juana’s striptease maps the poem’s journey into the realms of essence, but the process is then reversed when she wears the tablecloth as a robe (tunic)—acquiring a classical demeanor— and when she adds a black cloak that makes her look like a Mexican peasant woman. She also marks her bared torso with a rubber stamp, turning her skin into another kind of text, inscribing with ink the living page of her presence. At the close of the play, Sor Juana returns to her book, sobbing, while the spoils of her dream—the stage now in complete disarray—lay around her.

Primero Sueño
Jesusa Rodríguez

Primero Sueño

Rodríguez thus encodes Sor Juana’s quest for knowledge in terms of a frustrated sacrament, a ritual that inflicts pain without ever fulfilling her intellectual aspirations. The poem becomes a lonely incursion into how the mind and the body mutually test their limits. While the fact that Sor Juana is a woman remains relevant—how else could it be— Rodríguez is less invested here in rendering a feminist envisioning of the nun’s predicament than in revealing how poetry enables us to peruse the rifts between physicality and logic. Re-writing the Primero Sueño both as an auto sacramental and a striptease is a surprising choice that illuminates the text with unexpected questions and possibilities. The poem’s final lines, “el Mundo iluminado, y yo despierta” (“the World illuminated, and myself wide awake”) implies both a recognition of the shortcomings of reason and a tribute to the efforts of our intelligence. Sor Juana’s disappointed return to gender, bone and marrow after a night of metaphysical inquiries has been translated by Rodríguez’s performance into a poignant acceptance of our finite humanity, our precarious condition as thinking beings that can only have access to ideas through the process of inhabiting—and sometimes torturing—the flesh. It was particularly disturbing and touching to attend this performance in Buenos Aires, while the sharp, cold air was wrapping itself around the corners of a city that still remembers how bodies can disappear in the name of slogans and for the sake of abstractions.


Leo Cabranes-Grant moved to the United States from Puerto Rico to pursue doctoral studies in Golden Age drama at Harvard University. His main areas of research are Spanish, Latin American, and Caribbean performances and intercultural relations. His research has appeared in several journals, including Profession (MLA) and Bulletin of Hispanic Studies. His book "Lope de Vega and the Uses of Repetition" was published in Spain (2004). He is also a director and an award-winning playwright, including the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture Award (2005). At this moment he is Associate Professor at the Departments of Theater and Dance, and Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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