Federico García Lorca Critical Essays

Federico García Lorca Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Most of Federico García Lorca’s dramas were written when the poet-playwright was in growing command of his art. Intense creativity, however, meant little time for literary theorizing, and García Lorca’s views on his own work and its part in the projected renovation of the Spanish theater must be sought in the plays themselves and the various interviews he gave. His vision was at once lucid and surprisingly socialist for an otherwise apolitical writer: “I have given myself over to drama which permits more direct contact with the masses.” He saw the theater as a vocation requiring personal sacrifice from the dramatist to ensure not commercial success but a real identification with his people. Only half-jokingly “speaking as a true socialist” did García Lorca think the theater should be a “barometer,” marking the moral ascendancy or decadence of a nation. Thus finely attuned, the theater would act as a natural conscience, and its themes in Spain of the twentieth century would inevitably treat “a religious and socioeconomic problem.” Far from seeking out the exotic, García Lorca advocated a return to the classical norms of tragedy. If he also insisted that poetry and theater were inextricably linked, his poetic drama was to be neither cultish nor middlebrow ersatz, but would live naturally onstage, since “the theater is poetry taken from books and made human.” In less than ten years, García Lorca’s own dramatic style moved from a quasiromantic sensitivity to a classical starkness. He utilized his poetic talent to develop symbols and re-create popular traditions that effectively emphasized his view of the omnipresence of the tragic in human life.

There is a tendency to restrict critical analysis of García Lorca’s theater to the elaboration of the monolithic themes that recur throughout his works. Those most frequently identified are impossible love, frustrated love, separation, and the opposition between desire and reality. Such an approach, however, tends to fragment and compartmentalize without doing justice to the superb theatricality of García Lorca’s dramas. By peopling his plays with characters who are “horribly tragic and bound to our life and times,” García Lorca managed to communicate to his audience the true passions of men and women, facilitating catharsis in the best tradition of the theater. Francisco Ruiz Ramón rightly argues that García Lorca’s canon derives from a basic “dramatic situation” rather than from any single theme, that his dramatic universe springs from the essential conflict between the principles of authority and freedom. This conflict is repeated and elaborated in every play and provides the dramatic structure that in every case has a concatenation of poetic symbols or themes (such as earth, water, moon, horse, bull, blood, and knife) and dramatic incarnations (examples of order, tradition, reality, and collective conscience that oppose those of instinct, desire, imagination, and individuality). Quite deliberately, García Lorca chose to present poetic drama on the modern Spanish stage; coincidentally, his is very much according to the theories of William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot, though with more conspicuous success in the practice than either of those two. Any exploration of the range of moral, socioeconomic, telluric, sentimental, or psychological problems encompassed by his poetic theater must take into account this radical decision. With García Lorca, nineteenth century realism in Spanish stagecraft gives way to a more fluid and dynamic concept of dramatic action to which dialogue, language, song, dance, movement, and scenery all make vital contributions.

García Lorca’s theater was experimental and controversial, in keeping with his purpose of putting onstage “themes and problems that people are afraid to face.” In his chosen context of the dramatic conflict between authority and personal freedom, his own untimely death was the greatest tragedy of all.

The Butterfly’s Evil Spell

There is an obvious thematic connection between García Lorca’s first play, The Butterfly’s Evil Spell, and, notably, poems such as “Los encuentros de un caracol aventurero,” “Canción otoñal,” and “Balada triste,” from his first collection, Libro de poemas. Romantic in theme but influenced by the subtle symbolism of the early poetry of Juan Ramón Jiménez, both the poems and the play tell of love, illusion, frustration, and death; a new force breaks through the tranquillity of the old order, leaving senses and soul perturbed. The play dramatizes in lyric form the confusion caused in the daily life of a community of insects by the eruption of love which is mortal. The hero of this miniature tragedy, the cockroach poet Curianito, breaks with the logic, conventions, and strictures of his codified world by falling in love with “a vision which was far removed from his life,” a dying butterfly that has fallen to the ground. Precisely his atypical condition of poet makes Curianito seek union with the butterfly, which is at once the incarnation of an unrealizable ideal and the victim of the desire to attain that ideal. Through the impossible love between Curianito and the butterfly, García Lorca dramatizes the subtle relationship between aspiration and goal and the inevitable frustration of both as deviance in an otherwise ordered world.

The essential dramatic situation of all García Lorca’s theater is present even in this early effort. The dramatic structure derives from the clash between the norm and the ideal worked out onstage by archetypal characters (who will reappear in the later plays) such as the mother (Doña Curiana), the spinster (Curianita Silvia), the doomed lovers (Curianito and the butterfly), and the tyrannical voice of public opinion emanating from the chorus of neighbors and onlookers (beetles and worms).

With encouragement from Gregorio Martínez Sierra, The Butterfly’s Evil Spell was performed at the Teatro Eslava, in Madrid, on March 22, 1920. Despite García Lorca’s pious hope, expressed in the prologue, that his audience would appreciate this lesson from the natural world, the public had little interest in a play ostensibly about beetles and worms. Accustomed to the drawing-room plays of the commercial theater, they booed it mercilessly off the stage. Bitterly disillusioned, García Lorca learned the hard way that the Spanish theatergoing public still needed to be educated in the modern techniques so successful in Prague and Paris.

Mariana Pineda

Seven years elapsed before García Lorca ventured back to the commercial stage, and to a resounding triumph. Mariana Pineda was performed in June, 1927, at the Teatro Goya, in Barcelona, by Margarita Xirgu’s company, with scenery designed by Salvador Dalí and under García Lorca’s own direction. It premiered that October at the Teatro Fontalba, in Madrid.

In part, García Lorca’s success was a matter of felicitous timing. Mariana Pineda was a legendary figure of Granada, and her contribution to the republican opposition to Ferdinand VII had contemporary relevance for a twentieth century audience living under Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship. Probably this currency was rather more political than García Lorca intended; he had seized on the poetic possibilities of the historical facts. Certainly, García Lorca’s second dramatic production was less esoteric than the first. His starting point was the ballad about Mariana Pineda sung in Granada’s streets; this was developed into a total spectacle by expert staging and intuitive choreography. Such a combination, with the added appeal of topicality, assured the play a successful run.

On its simplest level, the play is a romantic love story full of passion and sacrifice. Mariana’s association with the liberals of Granada is explained by her love for one of them, Pedro de Sotomayor, but both her love and the cause are doomed. Pedro escapes, leaving Mariana to face Pedrosa, the king’s representative, and certain death. The play moves through moments of great lyricism, notably the meeting between Mariana and Pedro in act 2, and Mariana’s tragic view of love in the final moments of the play. Good use is made of poetic symbolism both in a traditional visual fashion (for example, the red lettering on the banner and the children’s game, which combine to suggest spilled blood and death, or the conflict between good and evil reflected in the use of white and black in the scene sets and costumes) and in novel poetic interludes or portents of disaster when García Lorca interjects a romance extraneous to the plot but integral to the play’s thematic unity (for example, Amparo’s retelling of the bullfight in act 1 or Mariana’s lullaby of the tragic fate of Duke Lucena in act 2).

From the first, love dominates the scene, and there is a growing sense of individuals caught helplessly in their own passion and in the affairs of others: Mariana in her love for Pedro, Fernando in his love for Mariana, Mariana and Pedro in their hatred for Pedrosa, who himself hates Pedro and desires Mariana.

Mariana, the first fully realized character in García Lorca’s theater, is also the first in a long succession of society’s victims, but she never acts from purely political motives. This realization leads the spectator or reader to the second level of the play’s action: a dramatic situation in which love and liberty become identical. García Lorca’s heroine learns that individual liberty and society are mutually exclusive, that any attempt at personal freedom is doomed to failure and death.

The Tragicomedy of Don Cristóbal and Doña Rosita

García Lorca’s early romanticism was one reaction against realism onstage; a return to the puppet theater of his youth, with its frantic pace, cross-purposes, and knockabout action, was another. His two puppet plays, The Tragicomedy of Don Cristóbal and Doña Rosita and In the Frame of Don Cristóbal, are, in effect, two versions of the same story, the second version being the more stylized.

In The Tragicomedy of Don Cristóbal and Doña Rosita, the theme of love in conflict with parental obligation is treated with dramatic vigor: The father sells his daughter Rosita to Don Cristóbal, a rich man known for his lechery and cruelty. In this broadly comic farce, however, the fact that Rosita and her true love Cocoliche kiss in front of the cuckolded husband is enough to make Don Cristóbal fume and die, literally, ha estallado. Again, the dramatic situation exposes the power that feeds on fear, lies, and covetousness and argues in favor of the authenticity of the individual who escapes societal conventions.

In the Frame of Don Cristóbal

In his In the Frame of Don Cristóbal, García Lorca shows some of the innovative technique that distinguishes the more ambitious The Audience by beginning the farce with a prólogo hablado in which Director and Poet turn the original story inside out. Don Cristóbal, by definition evil, now turns out to be good at the heart and forced by society to play an evil role, and Rosita has the truly insatiable sexual appetite. By replacing the lyric with the grotesque, García Lorca followed closely the esperpentos of Ramón María del Valle-Inclán and, as the Director notes, a whole tradition from “the Gallician ‘Bululu,’ Monsieur Guignol from Paris, and Bergamo’s Signor Harlequin.” How significant was this return to “the very essence of the theater” in order to give the theater new life is better seen in García Lorca’s two farces for people, The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife and The Love of Don Perlimplín for Belisa in His Garden.

The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife

García Lorca started work on The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife in 1926, but he did not finish the play until 1930. It was performed publicly first on December 24, 1930, at the Teatro Español with Margarita Xirgu in the leading role, Rivas Cherif as director, and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso; García Lorca subsequently revised and expanded the play into the version known today, which was premiered by Lola Membrives and her company on November 30, 1933, in Buenos Aires and on March 18, 1935, at the Teatro Coliseo in Madrid. The play was a huge success; its similarities to the highly stylized forms of ballet and operetta were noted and parallels were drawn with Manuel de Falla’s adaptation of El sombrero de tres picos (1874). Theater critics appreciated García Lorca’s blend of dialogue, poetry, and song, pointing out how he had captured the essence of Andalusian speech rhythms. The protagonist was considered a tour de force; a modern version of the unhappily married wife who, however unhappy her condition, consistently rejects all suitors, she is one more in a distinguished literary lineage that dates back to the earliest Spanish ballads.

García Lorca, himself, however, insisted on the universality of the Shoemaker’s Wife and increasingly emphasized the poetic element of her struggle. In interviews held in 1932, he explained that “the Shoemaker’s Wife is not any woman in particular but all women” and, moreover, that “every spectator has a Shoemaker’s Wife beating in his breast.” He conceived this “poetic example of the human soul” to portray the violence of the clash between fantasy and reality:The poetic creature which the author has dressed as a shoemaker’s wife with the grace of a refrain or simple ballad, lives and sparkles everywhere, and the public should not be surprised if she appears violent or assumes a bitter tone, for she is continually in conflict, she struggles against the reality which surrounds her and she...

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