Hunger's Brides
Reader's Page: Scripts
Novel Excerpts | Sor Juana's Poetry

"Caracol Script"


From the actors' script of Caracol




Author at a desk, stage right. Projection screen, centre-stage. 3 actors at music stands, stage left.

SEGMENT: Pre-show

LX        house lights up

LX        house lights to 50%

LX        house lights down

SEGMENT 1: A Baroque Century

DVD CUE, runtime 3:11 --


SEGMENT 2: Portrait



[ He addresses the audience. It will not be immediately apparent that he is rehearsing for an audience not yet present.]

In July of this year I went back to Mexico City to work with theatre composer Richard McDowell. We, mostly he, were able to produce this beautiful introduction. It establishes a place. A time. And a name, situated among other great names we know and recognize.

       But where to go from here? Almost 500 writers have come to read at Wordfest over the past 9 years. Virtually every one will have struggled with the problem of doing justice, in a few minutes, to characters we have lived with in our minds for years. It is sometimes daunting to imagine how these characters might view their own portrayals.

       For instance, here tonight, using this new medium.

       I was thinking along these lines as we produced this short video clip featuring a Mexican actress reading a sonnet by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. It's a sonnet in which Sor Juana comments on a portrait of herself, a painting she finds too flattering.

DVD CUE: runtime 55 secs -- Zaide voiceover

In which she rejects a painted portrait of herself...

Este, que ves, engaño colorido,

que del arte ostentando los primores,

con falsos silogismos de colores

es cauteloso engaño del sentido;

  éste, en quien la lisonja ha pretendido

excusar de los años los horrores,

y venciendo del tiempo los rigores

triunfar de la vejez y del olvido,

  es un vano artificio del cuidado,

es una flor al viento delicada,

es un resguardo inútil para el hado:

  es una necia diligencia errada,

es un afán caduco y, bien mirado,

es cadáver, es polvo, es sombra, es nada.

This painted semblance that you so admire,

of an art flaunting its mastery

with false syllogisms of colour,

that smoothly mocks the eye.

   This face - in which flattery pretends

to still the horror of the racing hours,

to stay the hand of ravishing time,

and spare us ageing and oblivion -

   is only panic's thin disguise,

is a garland to bar the hurricane,

is a cry in the wilderness,

is a token gesture made in vain,

is wasted toil and - through these eyes -

is Corpse. Dust. Shade. Nothingness.


SEGMENT 3: The players - 2:00


It's one thing to summon up the voices of these characters, but another altogether to perform them.

      What we would need here tonight is ... a cast of players.



'You sure it's not just your voice they've come to hear...


[ Making no acknowledgement.]

One writer - four principal voices. Three of them, women.


There's a problem with his equipment.


For an evening of performances, we would need someone to play Sor Juana.


And we would need someone to play some of the other women in the story. A vice-queen, a palace courtesan, and Beulah, a young researcher from our place and time, whose life is in danger of being consumed by her work on Sor Juana.

      And we would need a man, a certain sort of man, to play a 17th-century Don Juan, to play an officer of the Inquisition, a professor of the royal university of Mexico City - and perhaps Dr. Donald Gregory could put in a brief appearance: a professor of the University of Calgary. Beulah's ex-teacher, ex-lover.

      And a man, finally, to play a Mayan poet Beulah meets in the ruins of the city of Tulum, in the Yucatan.


      But all this would mean having to work with ... actors.



I should say, at this point, how delighted I am to have had the opportunity to go back to Mexico - and bring these images, sounds, and voices back ...


[prompting him with expansive gesture including and addressing the audience.]

For you.


[ Not hearing ]



[ Repeating the gesture, addressing Paul now. ]

For them.


For ... audiences here in Canada.


[ Shakes his head, dismissively. ]

SEGMENT 4: From Portrait To Music - 2:30


To sketch a fair likeness of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz represents a special challenge, considering the extraordinary range of her passions and her accomplishments, the richness of that life.

      And she has already given us a glimpse of how she felt about her own portraits - an ambivalence that is perhaps understandable: from the most closely watched, scrutinized, most mythologized figure of her place and time.

      The problem here is to talk a bit about Sor Juana's time without making me sound like a stuffed shirt...


  [Slightly stuffed-shirted.]

A sharp tension between the spirit and the flesh was a characteristic of that era, the Baroque: extremes of ecstasy in pain, joy in anguish and anguish in joy - a communion of the altar and the gutter ... of church and charnel house.

       During life in the Baroque - indeed, as in our own 500 channel universe - the planes of myth and history, the sacred and the profane, were engaged in daily ... intercourse ...



Well ... never mind.

      In Sor Juana's time, and most especially in Mexico, myth and metaphor were everywhere.

      And in the poetry of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, music - music was a god of the air...


Sweet deity of the air, harmonious

suspension of the senses and the will,

in which the most turbulent awareness

finds itself so pleasurably enthralled...

And thus:

your art reduces to what surpasses even science:

to hold the soul entire suspended

by the thin thread of one sense alone...


And this is where we go from here - to one tiny facet of her work that nevertheless reveals so much about her passion and her pleasures.

      Our theme, tonight, is music.

[Michael & Onalea could leave the stage. Returning at Palace Games. ]

SEGMENT 5: Revolutionary Woman - 1:30

DVD cue: runtime 1:30:

She was an artist. A revolutionary woman. First song - Hay!

SEGMENT 6: Caracol - 4:20


Juana Inés de la Cruz was frequently commissioned to write simple carols and sacred verses to be sung in Church festivals. Little songs similar to the one we just heard, and songs written in Nahuatl, a language spoken also by the Aztecs. Her skill and fluency were such that she may have been the greatest living poet in not just one language - the greatest writer of not just one world ... but two.

      Her understanding of prehispanic myth and Aztec ritual was profound. As was her knowledge of musical theory. In her work modern musicologists have deciphered advanced musical structures embedded in apparently simple verses, and so have conferred upon her the title of a lost medieval discipline




The medieval musicus appears to have been a speculative philosopher of the musical structure of the cosmos...

      Among all the works she might have completed had she been given time - and the many we know she did write, but have since been lost to us - one work stands out: a musical treatise that Sor Juana called Caracol. Caracol is Spanish for the spiral staircase, and also for the spirals of the inner ear, for the spiral shell we call conch, and for the trumpet the ancient Mexicans made from it.

      This lost treatise becomes a part of the novel, Hunger's Brides. And presenting it, here tonight, is a both form of reconstruction and an emblem of that loss.

      The structure of the work seems to have been a series of poetic demonstrations on music. For an audience, perhaps, much like you.

     Making her chapter on the spiral shell go something like this...


One clear shell-trumpet call to start reading.


[Making it clear that she is reading from the novel.]

We take up again the case of the conical shell cut now with a very fine saw. The cross-section yields a spiral, a winding stair, ever widening in its compass ...

       Taking this as a symbol, then, we may say the winding stair is Grace and detect, in the properties of the spiral, Grace's structure and agency. For as we have seen in the properties of the speaking trumpet and caracol, spirals propagate sound, lending it strength and amplitude.

       On this voyage, Mind is the guide, Grace is the strength we are given to rise.

       Music is the Mind of God brought into Time, spiralling down through the Creation. The spiral shell is a voice from the depths of the sea, that silence from which the echo springs, the instrument through which we speak to the sky.

       Here in Mexico, the Lord of the Wind wore a conical hat, and here in this city his temples were round, with no sharp angles to stand against the wind.

       He was called Ehecátl. Here, the wind was the breath of heaven; the storm was the music of the sky - the thunder his drum, the wind his strings, the rain and the hail on the earth were his water sticks. And the caracol was his wind-jewel...

       And so we find in the caracol, the hidden emblem of our soul. The secret shape of Grace. The echo of a celestial correspondence.

       Even as we hear in ourselves, if we listen, a distant echo of God...

SEGMENT 7: Musical Maps   - 2:20

DVD cue:

How could one person know so much?Have girls chiming in...


Music, literature, poetry, astronomy, gastronomy, painting, science, art. Everything that was happening at the time in Mexico....everything.


Guitar drops after 6 seconds.


June 29th, in the year 1691.

      The children have a game here in the capital, one I arrived too late to play myself but of which I had often made good use in class. In this game the city itself is the music and each church and temple, each cloister and monastery, is a saintly instrument on a musical map, each ringing in a certain pitch. The lowest of these was the bell of San José - Ut, our C. San Bernardo, three blocks north, got Re. Mi, Mi, Mi ! was for our most elegant, Jesús María, whose bell is said to be of pure gold. The cracked brass bell of Santo Domingo gets the semitone, Fa. Sol goes to the convent of Santa Teresa. And the highest of these is our own, La. The low note on the overlapping hexachord gives us an Ut in F, and so on. Depending on whose bell first strkes the hour, the map gives a different melody of pitches and chords - time running through the city as Re, Mi, Sol, Fa - or Ut, Fa, Sol, La, Mi, etcetera -

      Children leaping up when their note was struck, a good deal of laughter...

DVD cue

Voces de Sor Juana Interview & song ... fades out


As you can imagine, the interview here was one of the high points of my trip. Just over two months ago, we were sitting on the lawn out behind the Mexican National Arts Centre, where they are music students.

      The name they have chosen for themselves is: "Voces de Sor Juana".

      The Voices of Sor Juana.

Knowing this, I couldn't help imagining them in Sor Juana's convent, 300 years ago, as novices attending her music classes.

      And I was thinking how fascinating it would have been to sit in.

      For Sor Juana, Music could be the most surprising things: a map - the arrangements of movement in space, a form of echo-location, a guide to navigation. For her, music was mathematics, music was Time itself.

     And to contemplate music carefully was to catch glimpses of the mind of God.

Segment 8 DELETED

SEGMENT 9: Dark Days - 6:30 to 7:30


Poet of science...


In the 17th century, the violent conflict between Faith and Reason, which, at the turn of our century, seems more than ever a deadly feature of the modern world, was only just beginning.

       It was possible for a poet like Sor Juana to dream of a science that would combine objective observation and subjective feeling, drawing from art and music and faith and passion - to create a science of wonder...

Just as it was possible for Galileo before her, to see nature as the ultimate holy book, in which the designs of the Divine could be read.

But for the Inquisition, there could be only one ultimate book.

      And God's designs were for the Church alone to interpret.

      After Galileo's trial, the trial of that century, a small few - such as Sor Juana's friend don Carlos, an astronomer - still tried to put reason in the service of both our faith and our common humanity, by promoting science as the enemy of popular superstition.


Street preacher. After 16 seconds the thunder dies out.


The 23rd day of August, 1691.

      Unnumbered times had the capital been warned, a dark day was to come. Make ready. It would be for all to see, a terrible majesty, written in the sky.

       With the Archbishop's blessing, my dear friend Carlos had spent the past weeks going to the churches to explain what was to come.

The people were frightened, the people were prepared. They had no sense that the source of this foreknowledge was in any way different from prophecy. All had the date now and an hour and the hour was drawing nigh.

       There were small flaws in the plan, but chief among them: no one is ever quite prepared for a total eclipse of the sun.


Carlos had only just purchased a new telescope, and given us his old one.

      He came several times to instruct us in its features

      The plan was that we should set up the instrument in the very centre of the patio at the moment of the eclipse, for there were numerous events to watch for in every quadrant of the sky. I did not think the chances particularly good.

      It had been raining for a year.


Thursday dawned cloudless. On this of all mornings, a clear blue sky was itself an uncanny sign, but particularly for those who still doubted. The sun shone over the city on the lake and the lake within the city, scintillating in ten thousand places, in the sloughs of the streets and in garden puddles and cattle troughs.

      Just before nine o'clock in the morning, two before the hour fixed by the prediction, the street dogs disappeared from the alleys of the barrios. At nine o'clock on August 23rd the sun died. The imperial capital of Mexico, city of the centre of the earth, was cast onto an otherworldly plane of night. Swiftly, with the bellringers standing by, the bells of the city began their tolling from fifty belfries and campaniles.

      To four hundred thousand people came the moments of greatest terror they had known. Mule-teams and riderless horses stampeded and screamed through what seemed like total darkness, fearing to be struck down by what they could not see.

       Moving as though blind, stumbling / falling through the dark, the people of the city made for the sound of the bells. Beneath the belfries lay shelter. In the movement of the bells lay life and hope of Life. The churches were lit by thousands of candles, the churches were Light.


We had made our preparations, too, at San Jerónimo, to prevent panic. It was to have been a moment of triumph for human learning and science. There were small flaws in the plan.

       The sisters around our little patio had been standing just inside their doorways, casting dark looks at the telescope, and over at me. The moon's edge was at first invisible against the sun's glare, fast diminishing.

      Something unseen was wrong with the sun - then a scythe moved against the fields of light.

      Then darkness fell.

      A chill fell upon us with the darkness, as if we had stepped into an icy room, the room that was the world. The screaming started with the chill -

      The chill was of draft, of premonition, of the devil and death. The warmth still lay on my left shoulder as if I had turned away from a fire, as if the sun had just gone out.

I started toward the orchards. I stopped just at the trees. It was too dark to go forward. The sensation was of blindness, the impression of total dark, yet it was not - no, the eye saw and what it saw was darkness. Then a stirring, darkly, in the branches.

Hundreds upon hundreds of grackles were roosting in the trees. At dusk the clatter they raise is ungodly.

But here was utter silence, and in that instant I felt it, sheerest terror - the still panic of a groundling hunted from the sky. I had the thought that they were blind, countless clattering birds silent now, helpless, too frightened to cry out in their blindness.

      Design. Intent. Terrible flaws in the Plan.

      I looked into the branches, stood staring but did not understand it, like a child, all science transcended.


With time, the senses seeped back through their prism. Venus and Jupiter glowed red as blood.

Then a pearl light glowed on the walls of a convent / I had come to understand I hated and in equal measures loved.

Nuns crying, whispering..

      Church bells tolling in the distance, a summons, a sounding, a song.

San Jerónimo, San José, Santo Domingo, Jesús María - Sol-Fa-Fa-Re-Fa-Sol-La - Sol-Sol-Sol-Fa-Sol-Fa-Re-La - Sol-Mi-Sol-Mi-Sol-Re-La - a babble like baby talk, more and more bells joining now throughout the capital, its map crumpled and convulsed. Dancing across the city now not Time but the echoes of its stop.

      I thought in that moment of John of the Cross, our great poet of the night, of his love for her beauty, of the verses that had inspired my own.

      Yet first was there Night, then Terror, only then did Science and Beauty and Holiness come.


The account of an eclipse, without us, is like a play without actors, a story half-told.

Nor do we always see most clearly through a telescope, or by observing each thing separately, as if from nowhere.

We are not nowhere, we are in Mexico. We are not separate, we are here together for an hour.

  And though each eclipse might be tracked through infinite pasts and into infinite futures, this one hour will only happen this way once. In everything we feel and see and know lies this more ancient wisdom.

The dying of the Sun,

      in all its terrible beauty and glory,

      comes only once,

      for us.

SEGMENT 10: Silly Men - 2:00, plus Zaide's clip



Poet of Venus and Mars

AUDIO CUE: volume drops


Sor Juana's quarrels were not always with men of the Church, or of the Inquisition.

       Before her entry into a convent, there were men EVERYwhere, all around her.

       And men, especially, at the Palace.

      At this point it gives me pleasure to introduce one of my favourite actors.

      My friend Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, whose voice we first heard tonight reciting Sor Juana's sonnet on the portrait, is one of Mexico's finest and most celebrated artists, with national awards for radio, television, film, theatre, monologues, comedy, drama, theatre direction, and lifetime achievement.

      Her work has been cited by the Mexican Academy of Cinematic Arts and Sciences and by the Library of Congress of the United States.

       In 1996 I was lucky enough to have her and Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit do readings from the unfinished manuscript of Hunger's Brides, at the convent in Mexico in which Sor Juana lived the final part of her life.

       Zaide has been good enough to appear here tonight to introduce one of her favourite actress - Ofelia Medina, singing one of the most famous poems of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

      Verses on the machismo of men, and perhaps not just men in Mexico.


Hombres necios que acusáis

a la mujer sin razón,

  sin ver que sois la ocasión

  de lo mismo que culpáis:

   si con ansia sin igual

  solicitáis su desdén,

  ¿por qué queréis que obren bien

  si las incitáis al mal?

   Combatís su resistencia

  y luego, con gravedad,

  decís que fue liviandad

  lo que hizo la diligencia.


¿Qué humor puede ser más raro

  que el que, falto de consejo,

  él mismo empaña el espejo,

  y siente que no esté claro?


   Opinión, ninguna gana;

  pues la que más se recata,

  si no os admite, es ingrata,

  y si os admite, es liviana.


Fools, you men - so very adept

at wrongly faulting womankind,

not seeing you're alone to blame

for faults you plant in woman's mind.

   After you've won by urgent plea

the right to tarnish her good name,

you still expect her to behave -

you, that coaxed her into shame.

   You batter her resistance down

and then, all righteousness, proclaim

that feminine frivolity,

not your persistence, is to blame.


    For plain default of common sense,

could any action be so queer

as oneself to cloud the mirror,

then complain that it's not clear?


   Whether you're favoured or disdained,

nothing can leave you satisfied.

You whimper if you're turned away,

you sneer if you've been gratified...

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