Philosophy in 'Sombreros'

Harvard TEATRO! stages Spanish language play

When Harvard TEATRO!’s production of “Tres sombreros de copa” (“Three Top Hats”) premieres this Friday, it will mark the Spanish play’s first performance in its original language in the United States. But Spain isn’t the only faraway place on the mind of the play’s director: Verónica Rodriguez Ballasteros, a Madrid native, hopes to introduce Harvard audiences to her figurative homeland as well as her literal one.

“The need to direct this play here at Harvard University comes from my missing the bohemia,” Rodriguez says, explaining that Harvard students engage in little of the laid-back philosophizing that Spanish students do. “Nobody has time to stop and dream or contemplate or reflect.”

A bohemian ethic pervades Miguel Mihura’s 1932 script, which revolves around a man who reaches a crossroads in his life and realizes that he can no longer live by following societal dictates. In addition to a thematic focus on the importance of questioning assumptions, the absurdist aesthetic of “Tres sombreros de copa” promises to challenge conventional understandings of theater.

Rodriguez believes that the whimsical yet reflective production will facilitate a less rigid approach to theater as well as life. She points out that the seriousness that Harvard students bring to their work also influences their understanding of drama. At Harvard, Rodriguez says, students are more likely to view participation in a play as a chance to build a resumé. Elsewhere, theater offers an escape from practical concerns.

“In Spain, for example, in the theatre you find that students play because they want to have fun, because they want something different,” she says. “They want a little bit of bohemia to separate from their academic lives, so it’s like an alternative life.”

The need for playfulness extends to the audience of “Tres sombreros de copa.” Rodriguez explains that the play can seem purely comedic despite its more philosophical implications.

“You have to see the meaning underneath, but maybe for many people it’s just like playing, pure playfulness and not something serious.”

Rodriguez, a playwright and director who currently teaches an introductory Spanish course at the college while completing her doctoral work, first encountered “Tres sombreros de copa” as assigned reading in high school. But she is quick to note that Mihura’s play fast became far more than an academic requirement.

“It was something that you had to do but it was so full of life and so wonderful and so unforgettable,” she says.

The production marks a change for TEATRO!, the Spanish-language drama company that Harvard students founded this year. The group’s first play was more canonical and far more serious: Federico García Lorca’s tragedy “Bodas de sangre” (“Blood Wedding”).

“We thought we’d start with a foundational text in Spanish theatre,” TEATRO! founder Julie Ann Crommett ’08 explains. “With ‘Tres sombreros’ we wanted to do something that was more obscure.”

Although “Bodas de sangre” is better known in the Anglophone world than “Tres sombreros de copa,” Crommett says she thinks Mihura’s play will be more approachable, particularly for audiences who aren’t fluent in Spanish.

“‘Tres sombreros’ particularly is a very physical comedy show as much as a verbal comedy show, so I think that makes it accessible to any audience member no matter what their level of Spanish.”

She adds that TEATRO! worked to emphasize non-verbal aspects of “Bodas de sangre” in order to help audiences understand Lorca’s script.

“We don’t have to focus our efforts as much as we did in ‘Bodas’ because the stage directions themselves call for that kind of accessibility,” Crommett says.

Despite its accessibility, “Tres sombreros de copa” promises to offer much of its audience a completely new experience, whether because of its foreign language or its absurdist tendencies. Rodriguez’s description of the changes the play’s protagonist undergoes could just as easily express TEATRO!’s hopes to offer the typical Harvard playgoer something completely novel.

“In just one night, all his assumptions are going to be challenged,” Rodriguez says. “He’s going to discover that everything that he assumed before—and all the things that he thought were in just one way—can be very different.”

—Staff writer Marianne F. Kaletzky can be reached at


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