Although it has almost been forgotten today, the All Saints festival used to have a rich theatrical tradition. The ethnologist Salvador Palomar tells us all about it in this Carrutxa special dedicated to All Saints’ Day. In the Middle Ages, a sacramental ceremony was performed inside churches called the Dance of the Dead. Although it is not well documented, it is known that it featured the figure of Death, who went in search of various characters, accompanied by a retinue of souls in torment.
But if there is one performance that is closely linked to the All Saints festival, it must be ‘Don Juan Tenorio’. José Zorrilla’s play, first published in 1844, tells the story of a legendary hero who had already featured in some 17th century works such as ‘The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest’, attributed to Tirso de Molina, and ‘The Feast of Stone’, by Molière. As the dead have a leading role in the plot, performances of ‘Don Juan Tenorio’ became a traditional part of All Saints.
The play, which is a clear example of Castilian romanticism, attained enormous fame and in the second half of the 19th century, it was performed year after year in many Barcelona theatres on the days around 1 November. It became so popular that it transcended the professional theatre, and was performed in hundreds of cultural centres and amateur dramatics groups.
This led to the appearance of a number of versions, variations, adaptations and second parts. One of the most successful was ‘El nuevo Tenorio’ by the Reus playwright Joaquim Bartrina and the Barcelona journalist Rossend Arús. It was published in 1885, and from then on, it was performed after the original play in many theatres. There were also many parodies, which distorted the plot, and burlesque versions, where one of the big attractions was the performers reading the play’s original Spanish lines badly.
With time, outdoor performances of the play also became popular, especially in locations that were appropriate to the tone of the festival. That meant under torchlight and, above all, in cemeteries. Because one of the most popular scenes in the play is the dialogue between the hero and the nun, when Tenorio is already dead. For this reason, for many years, one of the most outstanding performances was staged in the Modernista cemetery in Poblenou.