History of Teatro Español in Madrid: the oldest and most eventful theatre in Europe

The Teatro Español, known as Corral del Príncipe or Teatro del Príncipe, is located in Madrid, next to the Plaza de Santa Ana. It is the epicentre of the Barrio de las Letras. Its origins date back to the 16th century and it was a former Corral de comedias (Spanish open-air theatre), which makes it one of the oldest theatres in Europe, as it has never ceased to be in operation. Today, it is one of the city’s main theatres; where some of the most popular national and international plays are performed.

From a medieval open-air theatre to National Theatre

Teatro Español Barrio de Las Letras, Madrid

Teatro Español Barrio de Las Letras, Madrid | Shutterstock

The Teatro Español is a clear witness of the history of Madrid, one of the most emblematic buildings of the city. In its origins it was a medieval Corral de comedias. It was the place where small performances of any performing art took place. It was where plays that would later become classics in Spanish literature were performed for the first time.

In the mid-16th century, performances were staged on the same site where the Teatro Español is now located. First in the Corral de la Pacheca, rented by the Brotherhoods of La Soledad and La Pasión to cover the costs of charity and hospitals with the proceeds from the tickets.

It was not until 1582 that the theatre was built on a permanent basis, popularly known as the Corral del Príncipe, due to the street of the same name where it was located. On 21 September 1583 it opened its doors and was the place where the best authors of the Golden Age premiered their plays.

The Brotherhood sold the theatre to the Madrid City Council due to its financial needs. In 1735, the architect Pedro de Rivera built the theatre’s floor plans; these plans and the structure coincide exactly with the current one.

During the reign of Isabella II, the Corral del Príncipe became a national theatre and was renamed Teatro Español. According to the act enacted in 1850, this was because it was mainly dedicated to the performance of plays by national authors. The Madrid City Council recovered the property in 1851.

The architecture of the Teatro Español after several fires

Fachada Teatro del Príncipe, Madrid

Façade of the Teatro del Príncipe, Madrid. | Shutterstock

The architecture of the Teatro del Príncipe has undergone numerous changes that have been a clear example of all the styles of the city’s history. In its beginnings it had a simple architecture, with a façade of only 13 metres, four access doors and a canvas that served as a roof.

In 1600, an additional floor was added, and years later two more; with space for side rooms and a foretaste of what would later become the boxes. The corral could hold more than 500 standing spectators and 300 seats; and even had rooms for the nobles and priests of the time. It was maintained until 1735, when the architect Juan Bautista Sachetti built the structure, together with Ventura Rodríguez. It was inspired by an Italian-style theatre.

In 1802 the theatre suffered a fire that destroyed practically the entire structure, leaving only the façade standing. Juan de Villanueva, architect of the Prado Museum, was commissioned to rebuild it. The current theatre still has the neoclassical façade from that renovation, with balconies and a triangular pediment.

Years later, Julian Romea made a series of improvements that led to the current layout of the theatre. From the elimination of benches or the construction of boxes on the four floors; to the installation of seats in the courtyard, among many others. In 1887 the theatre was on the verge of disappearing due to its poor condition; caused by a series of fires. But a popular campaign prevented this and it was rebuilt by Ramón Guerrero. Under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, Pablo Aranda improved the marble and technical installations.

After 14 reforms throughout its history, the last major reform was carried out in 1995, with an extension of the theatre, adding a cafeteria, exhibition hall, library and rehearsal room. The architects Andrés Oñoro and Enrique Ortega were in charge.

Today, it is a neoclassical building of great artistic and historical value. It is considered one of the most beautiful theatres in Spain. It has the Sala Principal with a marked Italian style, with three levels of boxes, the Sala Margarita Xirgu and the Sala de los Balcones, which leads to the balconies on the main façade of the theatre.

Curiosities of the Teatro Español

Fachada Teatro Español, Madrid

Façade of Teatro Español, Madrid | Shutterstock

In its beginnings, it was a Corral de comedias, very different from the French-style theatre of today. Teatro Español has a history full of curiosities, events such as fires and numerous transformations. It is the oldest theatre in Spain. In this location theatrical performances were held in the 16th century, it was a medieval open-air theatre. Moreover, it has never ceased to be in operation, making it one of the oldest theatres in Europe.

It is a reference point of the Golden Age. It is of great historical importance thanks to the fact that during this and subsequent periods, all the great playwrights, such as Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina and Moratín, performed on the theatre’s stage.

During the Corral de comedias and the early years of the theatre, the “musketeers” were of great importance. They were the male spectators who watched the performances standing in the courtyard; which was the busiest area and the ones in charge of deciding whether the show was successful or not. This nickname refers to the sound they made, similar to the booming of muskets.

Such was the importance of the theatre among the inhabitants of Madrid that disputes arose between the theatre companies and their audiences, forming two sides, called “los chorizos“, those of the Teatro del Príncipe, and “los polacos”, those of the Teatro de la Cruz.

Each dressing room in the theatre is named after a Spanish playwright. Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Cervantes, José Zorrilla, Valle-Inclán or García Lorca, among many others.

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