Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1059

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By the time of his death, Lorca was widely considered one of the greatest poets of the modern era, perhaps of all time. Since The House of Bernarda Alba differs from Lorca's other works in his attempt to employ a more realistic style, critics have differed in their assessment of the play's value in Lorca's canon. Most have found it a work of real theatrical power, demonstrating Lorca's versatility as a writer. A minority, however, have suggested that the work pales in comparison to Lorca's more lyric poetry and drama.

Lorca's assassination was a shocking tragedy, not only to his Spanish audience, but to lovers of his writing all over the world. Some critics were particularly indignant about the circumstances surrounding Lorca's death. "Lorca was assassinated, and his books burned," wrote William Rose Benet in a 1937 review of Lorca's Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter, "but his burning words live on in the present book, beyond the reach of the bloody ape [i.e., Franco]." Benet praised the "fierceness" in Lorca's poetry, calling some of his images "staking and beautiful." Eulogizing Lorca a year after "his criminal and stupid murder," Rolfe Humphries praised Lorca's versatility and his ability "to write both simply and subtly at the same time." While dwelling on the lasting value of Lorca's poems, Humphries also praised Lorca as a total artist, saying that "in achieving a synthesis of all that...he had received from the world of dance and painting, music and theater, he abandoned nothing of value, and was able to work his erudition down into the substance of his art." The American poet William Carlos Williams observed in the Kenyon Review that Lorca "belonged to the people and when they were attacked he was attacked by the same forces." Williams praised the reality and immediacy of Lorca's verse, his skill at "invoking the mind to start awake."

At the time of Lorca's death, Humphries and other critics have noted, Lorca's work was not widely available in English. This fact has certainly been remedied in subsequent decades, but translation of Lorca's writing continues to be a tricky issue. Some critics have claimed that qualities of Lorca's style, especially his feel for the sound of language, are impossible to capture in translation. These critics suggest that the strength of Lorca's plays, meanwhile, is limited to their language. Others, however, have pointed out the quality of Lorca's stagecraft, suggesting the plays remain dramatically viable in translation (This is especially true for a prose work like The House of Bernardo Alba). There is merit to both perspectives, and unsurprisingly, while Lorca's plays are respected by the English-speaking public, they retain their greatest impact in their original language.

The House of Bernarda Alba finally premiered in Argentina nearly a decade after Lorca's death. Critics there hailed the work, comparing Lorca's drama to the works of the great Golden Age playwrights of Spain. A reviewer in La Nation identified Lorca's work with that of Calderon de la Barca, who also focuses intensely on issues of honor. This same critic, according to Dennis Klein, observed that in the present play, Lorca as strong realist dominates over Lorca the poet. Another critic, writing in the publication Blanco y Negro, traced patterns throughout the trilogy of plays about the lives of Spanish women. While praising both Blood Wedding and Yerma, this critic, according to Dennis Klein, concluded that "the tragic inspiration of Garcia Lorca reaches its summit in this work."

Not all critics have been as enthusiastic about Lorca's last play, however. Reviewing the 1960 production for the American television series "The Play of the Week," John P. Shanley noted in the New York Times that Lorca's "talent for poetic imagery" was demonstrated in selections from his poetry read as an afterpiece to the telecast. The play itself, however, Shanley thought was "better dismissed as an experimental diversion of limited appeal." While the play "abounds with sounds of grief and anguish" in a manner suggestive of the later works of Tennessee Williams, it "lacks the range and compassion of Mr. Williams' better efforts." Edwin Honig commented in his 1963 study of Lorca that "the personal dilemma...prevents Lorca's folk dramas as well as his other plays from rising so often out of pathos to real tragedy." Other American critics have found much wider appeal in Lorca's last play. Reviewing a production by the Actors' Workshop of San Francisco, Stanley Eichelbaum, as quoted by Dennis Klein, wrote that the play was "superbly atmospheric to the eye and gloriously affecting to the ear."

The House of Bernarda Alba has continued to be produced and read extensively, both in Spanish and in translation. Literary critics, meanwhile, have found much of interest in the complex themes of the play. Given the transition in Lorca's style at the time he wrote The House of Bernarda Alba (moving to a more prosaic and realistic style of drama), many critics have sought to contextualize the play in terms of Lorca's poetry. Warren Carrier, for example, concludes that The House of Bernarda Alba "is so stark as prose, it is so essential in language and feeling, it stares so directly into the heart of the characters, that it may be said to be more poetic than many of the more patently poetic plays." In The Contemporary Theatre: The Signigicant Playwrights of Our Time, Allan Lewis shows himself to be among critics who have focused on the elements of folklore both in The House of Bernarda Alba and other plays of Lorca. Lewis observed, "Lorca's plays are atnbal theatre of primitive power, ancient in form but shaped by a sophisticated modern mind." John Gilmour in Religion in the Rural Tragedies has surveyed the importance of religion and religious imagery in the three plays of Lorca's trilogy. "Lorca's principal characters," Gilmour commented, "are tormented souls who, despite their strict Catholic upbringing and proud sense of honour, are incapable of displaying the Christian virtues of love and forgiveness." Of course, given the theme of Lorca's last plays, many critics have studied his complex portrayal of gender roles in Andalusian society. Julianne Burton, in Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols, has grounded Lorca's rural trilogy in a social and historical context, suggesting that his depiction of the lives of Spanish women demonstrates "Lorca's commitment to a more egalitarian, humane, and personally fulfilling society."

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