History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Spanish Pre-WWII
Federico García Lorca
Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) was the dominant figure of early 20th century Spanish theatre for such intensely poetic dramas as "Bodas de sangre" (Blood wedding, 1933), "Yerma" (1934), and "La casa de Bernarda Alba" (The house of Bernarda Alba, 1936).
In "Blood wedding", "Lorca employed lyricism in a highly dramatic manner. He made powerful use of a wild and heart-breaking lullaby, of wedding songs that are intensely ironic since the bride loves another man, and of a choral dirge at the end that surpasses anything of its kind in dramatic literature after Euripides. These poems are written with the poignant simplicity of folk art. In intense situations, the dialogue becomes formal poetry; and even the prose passages are poetically charged. The variable atmosphere is always evocative and expresses the situation and the mood of the characters. In the forest scene, the lyricism of the hidden lovers attains the ecstasy of a “love-death,” a Liebestod. In the same scene, while they are expecting the vengeance-bent bridegroom, the fateful atmosphere is intensified by the appearance of two allegorical figures: the Moon, which conceals them when it disappears and betrays them when it reappears, and a Beggar Woman who represents Death. Blood Wedding is a work of poetic and theatrical genius, and its poetry and formalism dignify human passion... Lorca, here, as elsewhere, achieved a unique synthesis of folk art and highly sophisticated art" (Gassner, 1954 p 704). The bridegroom's mother consoles herself that “other mothers can stand by the window with the rain beating down and look for their sons"; we are reminded of Synge’s “Riders to the sea” (1904) when the mother consoles herself in contemplating that she need not worry over life’s events any more: “It’s a great rest I’ll be having now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do for me.” (Lamm, 1952 p 347).
Time: 1930s. Place: Spain.
A bridegroom's mother asks her neighbor about a rumor ciculating on the bride at a time when she was courted by another man than her son. The neighbor confirms the rumor, specifying that the man's name is Leonardo Felix. The mother is abashed at this bit of news, as the Felix family has long been feuding with hers, because of whose enmity she lost a husband and a son. The bridegroom's mother and the bride's father agree on the favorable financial aspects of the wedding match. A woman servant asks the bride about a man heard talking to her at her window the previous night, knowing it was Leonardo, but the bride denies there was anyone. During the wedding preparation at the mother's house, the bride is seen throwing her wreath down in frustration. The first invited guest to arrive at the wedding is Leonardo. The servant sternly reproaches the bride for appearing in front of him in her petticoat. "Today is a day of forgiveness," the bride's father points out, to which the bridegroom's mother responds: "I'll put up with it, but I don't forgive." The bride looks sullen. When the bridegroom embraces her, she requests him to let go. The mother takes her son apart to advise him during the course of his married life. "If she's acting foolish or touchy, caress her in a way that will hurt her a little," she counsels. As more guests arrive, the bride's father cannot find her, at which point Leonardo's wife rushes in with awful news. "They've run away," she announces. In the bridgroom mother's view, the "hour of blood" has struck. Surrounded by his friends, the bridegroom swears this oath: "Do you see this arm? Well, it's not my arm. It's my brother's arm, and my father's arm, and that of all the dead in my family." Soon afterwards, the bridegroom catches up to Leonardo. They fight and kill each other. When Leonardo's wife wants to learn more about the matter, her mother seethes in anger. "Back to your house," she commands. "Brave and alone to your house, to grow old and to weep, but behind closed doors." On seeing the bride return alone, the bridegroom's mother wishes never to recognize her again, "so that I won't sink my teeth in her throat," she adds.
Time: 1930s. Place: Spain.
Yerma has been married for two years to Juan but yearning in vain for a child. When a neighbor arrives to announce her pregnancy, Yerma exclaims in wonder: "In just five months!" One year later, Yerma consults an old woman, who asks her whether she trembles with desire when her husband's near. "No," Yerma answers, "I have never noticed it." Once she did, but that was with Victor, a neighbor. After five years of marriage, still nothing! Juan complains she goes out too much. "The sheep in the fold and women in the house!" he exclaims. After receiving a good price from Juan for his possessions, Victor goes away to another village. Yerma is all the more inclined to stay out of the house longer than Juan wishes. In answer to her husband's continued complaints, she says: "You and your people imagine you're the only ones who look out for honor, and don't realize my people have nothing to conceal. Come on now. Come near and smell my clothes. Come close. See if you can find an odor that's not yours, not from your body." Things fail to improve with the passing time so that Juan becomes distraught in the extreme. "This is the last time I'll put up with your continual lament for dark things, outside of life, for things in the air, for things that haven't happened and that neither you nor I can control, for things that don't matter to me," he warns. Yerma is outraged at these words. One day, she surprises Juan by grabbing him by the throat and strangling him to death.
"The house of Bernarda Alba"
Time: 1930s. Place: Spain.
Since her husband's recent death, Bernarda Alba has tightened the reins over her five daughters. She asks daughter #3, Adela, to give her a fan, then throws it down because it is too bright for the occasion. She keeps her demented mother locked in her room. She strikes her eldest, Angustias, after learning she peeped about looking at men on the day of her father's funeral. She permits none of her daughters to have suitors. Magdalena and hump-backed Martirio, daughters #2 and 4, respectively, discuss Pepe's courting of Angustias. Although Martirio pretends to be glad of this, Magdalena knows that neither she nor Adela, the youngest, are happy about it and that Pepe's real objective is money. The four eldest seem resigned to their condition, but Adela is not, rather enraged. "I don't want my skin to be like yours," she says to Magdalena. As austere as ever, when Bernarda sees Angustias wearing powder, she roughly wipes it off her face. Late one night, Martirio hears Angustias speak to Pepe at her bedroom window. A servant reports this event to Adela, who does not believe it. "Too bad that body of yours will go to waste!" the servant comments. One day, Bernarda learns that someone has stolen Pepe's picture from Angustias and she intends to find out who. Martirio is discovered to be the culprit, pretending it was just a joke. Martirio accuses Adela of speaking with Pepe even later than he does with Angustias. Bernarda begins to entertain the possibility of marrying her eldest, expecting negotiations to begin in a few days. Martirio warns Adela to keep away from Pepe, more for herself than for Angustias, but Adela defies her. "I can't stand this horrible house after tasting his mouth," she says. One night, Pepe's whistling is heard inside the house. Martirio cries out at the sound. In a rage, Bernarda takes out a shotgun and leaves the house in quest of Pepe. A shot is heard. She comes back to say he is dead, at which Adela rushes out of the room. In fact, Bernarda knows she missed her shot. Hearing a strange noise, the entire family enter Adela's room and discover her hanging from a rope.
Almost as intense as Lorca is Jacinto Benavente (1866-1954) with "La malquerida" (The passion flower, 1913), marked by strong social commentary amid the lower social classes and peasantry, though more in the realistic style of Gerhart Hauptmann. Early American critics such as Hamilton (1920) were taken aback by the theme and style, concluding that the play "deals with primitive passions; but these passions are analyzed by the author with a scientific insight that removes the drama from the bull-ring to the laboratory. It requires acting that shall be both powerful and subtle, both primordial and delicate. It is full of sound and fury, blood and sand. It offers a welcome contrast to the anasmic exhibitions that are customary in the current theatre of this country." (p 137)
In the view of Wilson (1937), the play "illustrates Benavente’s interest in the duality, the mingled good and evil, of human nature, which figures in so many of his pieces. Society is either a partner or a hostile force in nearly all his plays and he chooses for his starting point the moment when an individual under the stress of some emotion ceases to be conventional. He gives a large place in his work to women whom he sees by their sacrifice and readiness to forgive as far nobler than men. He is a realist but, as with other Spaniards, his realism is tinged with romance and local colour." (pp 218-219)
"The passion flower"
Time: 1910s. Place: Rural Spain.
Acacia has rejected her intended and cousin, Norbert, and no one understands why. She is now engaged to be married with Faustino, son to Tio Eusebio, a friend of Esteban, her stepfather. Acacia's mother, Raimunda, notices a strangeness in the relation between her daughter of a previous marriage and her present husband. "He never comes nor goes without bringing her a present," Raimunda observes, but yet "she would never let him kiss her even as a child, much less now." After the two had spent all day together, Raimunda informs Acacia that Faustino has been shot to death. Although no one saw the murder, many in the village suspect Norbert as the culprit, from spite at losing Acacia. He is accused of murder and put on trial but is judged to be innocent. Nevertheless, Tio Eusebio has a hard time preventing his four sons from avenging Faustino's death on Norbert's head. Tio Eusebio tells Raimunda and Esteban that he believes Norbert hired someone to kill his son, based on comments of a servant in Esteban's house, Rubio, who has been blurting out suspicious matters at a tavern while in a drunken state. Wishing to settle the matter in her own mind, Raimunda sends for Norbert, who reveals he knows who the culprit is but refuses to say anything out of fear of retaliation from the murderer. She puts pressure on him by mentioning Rubio's suspicion of someone being hired to do it. He confesses that Rubio bragged he was now "master of the house" after murdering on his master's behalf. Raimunda is stunned. She had heard her daughter called the passion flower; now she wants to know why he left her. "They told me to leave her because she was promised to Faustino," he answers. They threatened to kill him if he refused, then killed Faustino so that Norbert could be blamed. "The passion flower!" exclaims Raimunda when next she sees Acacia. "Your honor is a scorn and a byword, bandied about in men's mouths." Her daughter denies having done anything wrong. "Why was it you never called him father?" Raymond asks her. "Because a child has only one father," Acacia retorts, swearing that she hated her stepfather as soon as he first entered the house for following her around "like a cat", though she has always successfully defended herself. When Tio Eusebio's boys arrive with guns to kill Norbert, Raimunda calls for Esteban to accuse him of murder. When Norbert denies the charge, she takes out a gun to defend him, but the boys nevertheless succeed in wounding him. Because of Esteban's interference, they are unable to kill him. Esteban is willing to give up, but his wife reminds him that such a decision will ruin the honor of the house. Instead, she wants to send Acacia away to her sister-in-law. Acacia overhears this and refuses to go, threatening to denounce her stepfather, but when he offers to surrender, she calls him back and kisses him. "He is the only man I ever loved," she finally admits. Hearing Raimunda call aloud "murderer", he takes Acacia by the hand. When his wife gets in his way, he shoots her. In the throes of death, she confidently says to her daughter: "This man cannot harm you now."
Gregorio Martinez Sierra
Also worthy of note is the more quiet drama, "Cancion de cuna" (The cradle song, 1911) by Gregorio Martinez Sierra (1881-1948).
"The cradle song"
Time: 1910s. Place: Madrid, Spain.
On the prioress' birthday in a convent of enclosed Dominican nuns, a cradle is left bearing a baby girl. An attached letter from the mother begs the prioress to keep the baby instead of sending her to an orphanage. The nuns' attending physician proposes to adopt her, but the prioress consents to have the gardener's wife care for the infant's wants. Although happy in their midst for eighteen years, Teresa decides to leave the nuns and marry Antonio, an architect. To Sister Joanna of the Cross, her favorite surrogate mother, Teresa confesses she was first seduced by his voice, "a voice that seems as if it had been talking to one ever since one's birth." Sister Joanna is frightened for her, having always thought of earthy love "as a flower that one finds at the side of the road" sure to pass away. Antonio arrives to speak to the assembly of nuns behind a grille and curtain. He hears Sister Joanna speak for the first time, thankful of what she has done to Teresa. "It is impossible to know Teresa and not love you," he declares. Alone with Teresa, he says that she has changed his entire outlook on life. "In the innermost chamber of my soul was stored the love I have for you, and, if you had not come and opened the door yourself and helped me find it, I would have passed all my life in ignorance without knowing anything was there," he affirms. "One day I heard your voice, and, summoned by you, I searched through the castle and in the other courts began to find- ah! under how many cobwebs all covered up with dust- humility and devotion, warmth of heart, pity and faith in so many holy things." When all the sisters arrive, he is ready to take her away. "See, we give her to you with a great love and may you make her happy," the prioress declares. "I answer her happiness with my life," he answers. Before going, Teresa embraces Sister Joanna with passion. Left alone, Sister Joanna collapses on her knees beside an empty chair.
Ramón del Valle-Inclán
More modern in approach is Ramón del Valle-Inclán (1866-1936) with "Divinas palabras" (Divine words, 1933).
Time: 1920s. Place: Spain.
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Juana La Reina, a beggar on fairgrounds, sometimes draws good money thanks to the pitiable sight of her hydrocephalic dwarf, Laureano. After her death, a family quarrel breaks out between Mari-Gaila, wife to Juana's brother, Pedro, a sexton, and Marica, Juana's sister, as both consider Laureano worth a goodly amount of money in their begging activities. The dispute is settled by the mayor, who proposes that the two women alternate each week their taking possesion of him. However, Mari-Gaila treacherously takes off with the dwarf. Marica is incensed. Laureano likes to drink brandy, and is served only too well by Miguelin, a pot mender, who one day out of carelessness gives him a too heavy dose of it. After convulsing, the dwarf dies. This does not prevent Mari-Gaila from continuing her trek across villages, often accompanied by unsavory characters. Jealous of her suspicious relations with men, Pedro threatens to kill her. This attitude does not prevent him from attempting to seduce his own daughter in a drunken stupor, but she succeeds in defending herself. As Mari-Gaila arrives for the dwarf's funeral, she is soon in trouble with the villagers, who find her in a field with Septimo Miau, a suspicious character in her entourage. She is harassed by the villagers back to her house, to Pedro's shame, who throws himself from the roof but without harming himself. To the threatening villagers, he cites in Spanish Christ's words to the men accusing a whore: "He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone," but without effect. In desperation, he repeats the same sentence in Latin. The people, though understanding little of the words, are yet sensitive to the divine words, and at last decide to move away and leave them in peace.
Alejandro Casona (1903-1965) scored an artistic success with "La barca sin perscador" (The boat without a fisherman, 1945).
"The boat without a fisherman"
Time: 1940s. Place: USA and Sweden.
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Richard Jordan, a financier, is assailed by news of plummeting stocks, nervous investors, and friends who betray him. To help him out, a gentleman in black enters while time stands still. Since murder is the only commandment Richard has not yet broken, the gentleman proposes this to complete his damnation. Richard refuses. The gentleman counters by saying Richard's business dealings have indirectly killed many people. Richard acknowledges this to be true. "I can't be ruled by sentimentality," Richard says. "The heart is a business adviser." At random, the gentleman proposes a fisherman in a far-off village who has just bought a boat. Should Richard be willing to accept his offer, the tipsy fisherman will be blown by the wind off a cliff. "Why do you hesitate? A simple effort of the will, and all your fortune and power will return to you immediately," the gentleman insinuates. He offers him in addition the ruin of his worst enemy. Richard signs a paper and it is already over. To his surprise, he hears a woman cry out the dead man's name. "If only I hadn't heard that scream!" Richard exclaims. His company shares rise dramatically. Two years later in the humble fisherman's cottage, Frida is forced to pay the land-rent of her widowed sister, Estela, so that she may keep the boat. Estela suspects her sister's husband, Christian, killed her husband, appearing in her dream, "like a black bolt of lightning against red blood on a cliff," she says. "You haven't regained your own peace of mind while destroying mine," says Frida while sobbing on her way out. Their grandmother bemoans the loss of a man in the house. "When you have him near, even the walls seem more secure." she says. "If they don't look at you, you don't even realize you're not a woman." On these scenes of poverty, Richard appears one day. He is instantly befriended by Estela and her grandmother. "What did you come seeking? A friend? Well, here you have two. Do you believe you owe us something? Well, you've more than paid us just by having come," says the grandmother. At table, Estela interrupts her reciting of the Lord's prayer. "It's a lie. I have not forgiven. I cannot forgive," she declares. Two weeks later, as Richard is about to head back home, Frida bursts in, crying out that Christian has had an accident. "When passing near the cliffs, he was caught in a squall and a great wave threw him against a jagged rock that tore into his chest," she announces. In his final hour, he asks for Estela's forgiveness. Richard is stunned, at which time the black gentleman returns to remind him of their contract. "I have promised to kill and I shall kill," Richard affirms. "Who?" he asks, surprised. "The very one who signed that paper," he answers. When Estela returns, Richard, having lost his entire fortune, decides to remain with her. She starts the fire by burning the contract.