History of Western Theatre: 17th Century to Now/Spanish Pre-WWII
Federico García Lorca
Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) is 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).
Lorca has been described as "the one Greek voice in twentieth-century tragedy" perhaps because "of the very backwardness of his Spain" giving access to "that mythological, symbolic and ritual frame of reference that modernity dispels...'Blood wedding' is profoundly familiar from Greek drama: it is one in which the circularity of the blood-feud has never been arrested, and no one wants anything better. It is the world of...Sophocles' ‘Electra’, where submission to the revenge ethic produces strange excitements and peculiar satisfactions" (Rosslyn pp 215-218). "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). "In each of the plays, there is an old woman who has known much grief...As in 'Riders', the two dead men in 'Wedding' are carried back by mourners, and the dead are wrapped in sheets" (Ajala, 1985 pp 318-319). “Both works are set in a rural world of rigid expectations where mothers lose their sons to forces they judge beyond their control; both chronicle a world where men are expected to follow the fate of their fathers, women that of their mothers; both close with lamentations conducted within the confines of an environment conceived as a place of worship” (Delgado, 2008 p 74). "The symbolism of the play develops from the concept of the earth as both the source of life and the recipient of the dead. The wheat that grows in the field symbolizes the fertility so ardently sought by the mother; and the earth, the source of all new life, is also the source of the deep-rooted passion that exists between Leonardo and the bride. Guilt cannot be attributed on a human plane, for it is inherent in life and is much larger than the characters themselves. Passion or sexual desire, the source of life, becomes an instrument of death as well; it is presented in its purest form, attaining cosmic proportions in the bride, whose response to it is as inevitable as the tragic conclusion of the drama itself. All concern for honor is transcended by these forces, which seem to flow through the blood of Lorca's characters; they both draw Leonardo and the bride together and impel the bridegroom to exact his revenge. As he undertakes his pursuit of his wife and Leonardo, the bridegroom is driven by a desire to avenge the dead of his family who were victims of a feud with Leonardo's kin, and not by any external pressure to avenge his own dishonor and regain social reputation" (Podol, 1972 p 67). "Whereas the son’s mother sees marriage as being composed of 'a man, some children and a wall two inches thick for everything else', her future daughter-in-law only pretends to acquiesce. In the maidservant’s presence, she bites her hand in frustration. On the morning of the wedding day, she expresses only hostile and tense reactions...The illicit nature of the lovers’ relationship is dramatized by...Leonardo’s bold intrusion...and the bride’s defiant appearance...in her petticoat...the scene...filled with bitter accusations...and at the same time...charged with an erotic energy that makes their separation seem unbearable and unnatural...[The ‘blood’ in the title] refers to that which relates individuals as groups of kin...Blood also refers to the inevitable violence of the conventions of honour and revenge in this society where clan justice still prevails” (Anderson, 1984 pp 93-100). “The title of the play contains a striking element of paradox...The wedding is suggestive of everything creative and harmonious...Blood, on the other hand, evokes...violence, death” (Edwards, 1980 p 133). “The contrast between the bridegroom and Leonardo illustrates how the male characters in Lorca fall into two broad categories: they are either weak and emotionally ineffectual or strong and sensual...The bridegroom is a woman-dominated man. When he outgrows the control of his mother, it is replaced by the manipulation of his bride, to whom he is little more than a pawn...Leonardo is as irresponsible (especially as a husband) as the bridegroom is reliable“ (Klein, 1991 pp 53-54).
The name "Yerma" derives from "yermo", meaning "uninhabited, deserted, uncultivated, not productive," and is applied principally to sterile land. It may also be used as a noun meaning uncultivated grounds- yermos...The Spanish woman of that time "possesses what we might call an exclusivist or exaggerated idea of maternity. The cradlesong is her obsession from childhood on. She not only wants to have a child, but several, lots of them. She knows that only in this way can she accomplish her mission in the world. To be childless constitutes a kind of ostracism which has no remedy. Not only is it a private tragedy, but social too- that is, imposed from without by society, as evidenced by the remarks of the laundresses, who consider childless Yerma a most unfortunate woman...If its only problem were that of maternity at any cost, Yerma could easily have sought the love of a man other than Juan. But this is impossible precisely because society has assigned her fixed and immutable relations with men. Illicit love is out of the question" (Correa, 1962 p 96-99). "The relationship which exists between the peasant farmer and his land is strictly material; Juan owns and exploits his land for its products, nothing more. But in his subtle drawing of the details surrounding the life of Juan and Yerma, Lorca represents the profound spiritual poverty that accompanies such a mechanical and materialistic relationship between man and the earth, the source of his life and livelihood...Although consciously Juan can only see himself and behave as the master of what he owns, it is at the same time clear that his property constitutes an alien power that paradoxically, but in fact, enslaves its owner...A symbolic parallel between Yerma and the earth itself has been frequently observed in this play, and it has led to the conclusion that the work's major ironies consists in the fact that Juan is able to make his land bear fruit, but cannot or will not do the same with his wife...Yerma's error, in fact, is precisely in conceiving the relationship between man and woman as being the same as that between man and earth...She erroneously believes that she, like the earth itself, can be made to flourish by an act of positive will in harmony with her husband's, and that her barrenness must therefore be the result of an act of negative will on the part of Juan...It is Victor who represents the most hopeful possibility for Yerma insofar as she admits that she has felt something spontaneous toward him that she has never felt for her husband. Yerma dreams of a shepherd with a child at the opening of the play; hers is a family of shepherds, and it is also Victor's way of life. As the symbol of Yerma's ideal counterpart, Victor intensifies her longing and suggests the possibility of fulfillment. By contrast, his presence, and Yerma's memory of him from earlier days, emphasize the distortion and disharmony that characterize her relationship with Juan. But, even in purely dramatic terms, Victor never becomes more than a lyrical, dream-like suggestion, and his disappearance signifies Yerma's loss of even that fantasized dimension" (Anderson, 1982 pp 43-54). “Victor, perhaps more than Juan, represents the value of a society that defines and confines Yerma” (Delgado, 2008 p 86). The play "presents two conflicting concepts of honor. For Juan, Yerma's husband, it is based on social reputation which, in turn, depends on his wife; when he finds that she is not at home one day, he tells his sisters (whom he has brought to live with him so they can keep watch over Yerma) that their honor, as well as his, is in danger...What makes his accusations so cruel and unjust is the fact that Yerma's honor, in contrast with his own, is based on personal virtue; it is an integral part of her life; one might say that it is in her blood" (Podol, 1972 p 68). "Given her fierce determination to maintain her husband’s as well as her own honour, there was never any possibility that Yerma and Victor could have been joined...When the old woman offers her young son...[Yerma reacts] with violent rage...Juan is the materialist, bound to the land in a relationship of work and duty, with no thought of anything beyond what he can see and touch and consume. For her, there can be no existence that does not seek constantly to transform its own material strictures through the creation and perpetuation of new life” (Anderson, 1984 pp 114-118). “If Yerma’s problem is that she is married to the wrong man, Juan’s problem is that he is married to the wrong woman. While she wants maternity, he want tranquillity. As she agonizes over the absence of children in the house, he revels in the fact that he does not have to spend his hard-earned cash to support them. It is clear that until Juan wants children, Yerma will not be able to have them” (Klein, 1991 p 63).
"The house of Bernarda Alba" "is the conflict between Bernarda's concept of honor and her daughters' natural sex drives. Honor, for Bernarda, is equivalent to public opinion. But this play differs from other dramas which present honor as opinion in that Bernarda has some control over her social reputation because she has chosen her public, consciously selecting as her place of residence a town in which she can occupy a position of social superiority. Because Bernarda is the dominant figure in the town, she considers her daughters to be superior to all the men that live there and refuses to allow them to be courted or eventually to marry anyone in the town. Thus, her self-structured sense of honor is inherently suppressive for her children" (Podol, 1972 p 69). “Bernarda is dominated by her fatalistic view of life and her stoic philosophy. She has no illusion of what it is to be a woman, whose role she believes is to suffer...Bernarda is motivated by two obsessions: social class and decency. Now that there is no man in the house, she must be mercilessly vigilant to see that her family not be involved in a scandal and that the names of her daughters not find the way to the tongues of her neighbors” (Edwards, 1980 p 67). A total of 15 men are mentioned in "The house of Bernarda Alba", but the women attempt to compensate for their absence. From the start, there are many sources of clashes. "Angustias is Bernarda's child by a previous marriage, which automatically establishes a potentially antagonistic atmosphere; this is certainly not alleviated by the fact that she is the only daughter with a respectable dowry to offer...Moreover, the competition for husbands among the five unwed daughters is passionate, especially between the bitter, deformed Martirio and the young, unblemished Adela...This distortion of the structure is the basis for Bernarda's refusal to allow anyone else into the family...The antagonistic relation between Bernarda and her society is even more strikingly depicted in the restrictions she imposes on speech...The reactions this produces vary from character to character. Bernarda's mother...persists in her desire to escape...Angustias...reacts with fearful pleasure to her upcoming marriage to Pepe...Magdalena resignedly accepts her locked-in destiny, while Amelia rationalizes her hopeless situation by citing monetary considerations. In the two youngest daughters, the reaction is much more intense. Martirio's resentment has turned into poison...but the strength of Adela's rebellious instincts impels to her suicidal escape. Stunningly, Bernarda even prohibits Adela's escape through death" (Cappuccio, 1993 pp 37-44). "At the rise of the curtain on act 3, the family of Bernarda Alba is interrupted at the supper table by something striking violently against the walls of the house. Despite her blindness to the presence of Pepe el Romano in the impassioned hearts of virtually all her daughters, Bernarda ironically recognizes without hesitation that the noise is caused by her stallion which is locked up in the barn and is impatient to be mated with the mares...the image of a male archetype...denied entrance to the house...The passion of the young women is further intensified by...a chorus of male voices...marching to the fields to reap the harvest...Bernarda Alba's first word and last word in the play is an imperious 'isilencio!' Implicit in the connotation and the position of the word is the assertion and re-assertion of the invincible domination of the sterile norms of conformity and regimentation over individualistic self-expression" (Greenfield, 1955 pp 458-461). “The sisters...derive some perverse sense of comfort in the known routine of tyranny. They may talk of being free and yet continuously prevent each other from escaping the house” (Delgado, 2008 p 107). "A troublesome point...is the will left by...Bernarda's late husband...to favor his stepdaughter Angustias at the expense of his four natural daughters...One explanation...[is that] Antonio Maria Benavides would have had reason to favor Angustias if she had once favored him...if, sometime in the last twenty years or so, there had been something sexual between them"(Havard, 1985 pp 102-103). “Bernarda is something of a monster, a titanic figure all of a piece...She shows no development of character at all. The daughters are even more rigid- Adela, for example, revealing an erotic fixation amounting to mania” (Cobb, 1967 pp 139-140). “As a matriarch, she must zealously guard the reputation of her family. Bernarda knows that she is being watched constantly by those below her; not only must she guard her own secrets but she must know the secrets of others in order to maintain her authority...Bernarda is driven...to perpetuate the mores of her class...and...must ignore all considerations of an emotional or subjective nature. The fanaticism with which she imposes and enforces these conventional strictures on conduct and expression is extreme in direct proportion to the extremity of Adela’s rebellion against them. Adela’s struggle quickly becomes one of a clash of wills, as all members in the family conspire to prevent her from escaping” (Anderson, 1984 pp 122-128). “In terms of Aristotle’s recipe for tragedy, the tragic error in Bernarda is her pride and obsessive concern with honour, and in Adela an over-passionate defiance of her mother’s will” (Edwards, 1980 p 241).
“Of Lorca’s rural tragedies...the trivia of human lives, the ordinary events and the desultory conversations that are the stuff of many dramatists, are almost entirely absent. Instead, Lorca goes to the heart of the matter, stripping away the commonplaces of experience in favour of all that is heightened” (Edwards, 1980 p 156). "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, 1954a p 704).
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, born from a previous marriage. after learning she peeped about looking at men on the day of the 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.
As intense as Lorca is Jacinto Benavente (1866-1954) with "La malquerida" (The passion flower, 1913, more precisely The ill-beloved), 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 anaemic exhibitions that are customary in the current theatre of this country" (p 137). "La Malquerida is a tragedy poignant and profound. The baring of souls, the realizations of unguessed motives, follow one upon another until the tragedy reaches Strindbergian blackness. The motif is the tender love between a mother and daughter, both of whom love the same man, the one consciously, the other, till near the end, unconsciously. He is the girl's stepfather. Only after he has put two of the daughter's suitors out of the way does the truth come to the mother and, more terribly, to the girl. Protecting the man, she turns against her mother, only to be overwhelmed by that greatest of loves which, as the woman, shot by her husband, Ues dying in her daughter's arms, cries out: "this man cannot harm you now- blessed be the blood that saves" (O'Shea, 1917 p 632).
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" (Wilson, 1937 pp 218-219). “The ending has the aura of Greek tragedy about it in the sacrifice of the innocent to uncontrollable forces of life, to destiny...Of the three main characters, the most complex and interesting is Acacia, with her mixture of hate and love toward Esteban. Esteban’s character is gray and shadowy, as always happens to men in Benavente’s plays, where without exception, feminine characters are the more sharply defined...The first two acts are much more superior than the last, which is too exclusively oriented toward the explosive effect of the last scene” (Penuclas, 1968 p 123).
In Zdenek's (1978) Freudian interpretation, "Acacia...resents the love Esteban shows Raimunda. She feels it belongs to her. Her pleasure of receiving love is denied her. Her id, that 'dark inaccessible part' of the personality', that 'chaos, a cauldron of seething excitations', manifests itself, demanding gratification of the individual needs subject to the pleasure principle...Esteban, seeking to win Acacia's affection, brings her gifts. Her id keeps her from responding with affection because it seeks to maintain the pleasure principle and therefore she continues, apparently, to hate him. If she were to respond as he intended, then he would no longer need to pay her much attention...Acacia knows with unconscious pleasure that Esteban is noticing her as a woman, not as a stepdaughter...Her ego...lays down an accurate picture...replaces the pleasure principle with a reality principle...Her ego stands for reason, stands for her good sense while the id stands for her untamed passions...The super-ego is the representative in the traditional values of society...Acacia's superego insists that her feelings are wrong and she continues to hate her stepfather...In a scene with Juliana, the old servant, Acacia confesses that Esteban has caused her to hate her own mother...In a moment of crisis...however, Acacia under pressure cannot keep her feelings repressed. Her superego has lost control of the ego and the id. Forced into Esteban's arms by her mother in an attempt to make her call him father, Acacia gives him a sensuous kiss" (pp 185-188).
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 him a murderer, he takes Acacia by the hand to lead her away with him. When Ramunda gets in his way to prevent him, he shoots her. In the throes of death, she confidently declares to her daughter: "This man cannot harm you now."
Gregorio Martinez Sierra
Also worthy of note in early 20th century Spanish theatre is the quiet drama, "Cancion de cuna" (The cradle song, 1911), by Gregorio Martinez Sierra (1881-1948), whose works often bear the unacknowledged mark of his wife, María Lejárraga (1874-1974). Indeed, The Cradle Song "has about it something half feminine in the delicacy of its portraiture of convent life" (Fitzmaurice-Kelly, 1922 p 123).
"The cradle song" "is really a very profound study of the strongest human emotions, wrought with all the skill and tempered suspense of the most stirring drama. Only the story itself is simple; the theme is as varied as any a dramatist could choose...For each of these intensely individual nuns becomes in the finest spiritual sense a mother to the abandoned child. To one she is a bright song trilling in the convent garden; to another, a soul to be nourished before God; and to Sister Joanna of the Cross, who is still a novice the day the child is found, she becomes a child to be cherished, warmed, guarded, scolded, loved, even as this same Sister Joanna had had to care for her small brothers and sisters in the days before she entered the convent door. And in the strained moments of that last scene of parting, with the nuns trying to be cheerful in spite of their heartaches, a life story is revealed in the faces and in the least actions of each of them. Yes, it is a human, cheerful, strong story, shot through with pathos that never becomes sentimentality and with a love that knows how to say farewell bravely" (Skinner, 1931 pp 260-261).
The play constitutes "a short story, but with a great deal in it, because it has been told by a poet-dramatist who contrasts in it the life of religious renunciation with the things that shine and smile outside that life, and have power to satisfy without eternity; contrasts them— this is the admirable singularity of the play without putting them one against the other. It is the work of a man to whom the religious life has always seemed as natural and 'human' as the life of the world; and yet whose view of other human realities besides the religious is free of contemptible Manichaeism...Thus, the novice who has no vocation is to the end thirsty for absent freedom, but who dreads more than suffering, failure; the rigid disciplinarian, fault-finding, loveless type; the born nurse and mother nun, for whom the child is the closest bond with life, the serene gentle prioress, are all seen in relation to the end to which they look. The mistress of the novices, who first appears odiously, comically harsh, is seen, before the end, to have a spring of tenderness in her which her domineering asceticism towards even good emotions has not choked; and in time even the gentle little nun, who has been moved, by we know not what force, to expect her joys to come from beyond the world, will doubtless cease to sigh. Perhaps the prioress had once been like her" (MacCarthy, 1940 pp 335-336).
"The cradle song"
Time: 1910s. Place: Madrid, Spain.
Text at https://archive.org/details/TheCradleSong https://archive.org/details/cradlesongotherp00martiala https://archive.org/details/playsgmartnezsi00grangoog https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.151773/page/n13
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).
"Valle-Inclan shows that greed is a vital part of the peasants' make-up. They live on a materialistic level and seldom preoccupy themselves with things that transcend their immediate bodily needs, but they are too human and too vital to allow their material interest to get the better of their humanity. Although they may be opportunistic and at times callous and grotesque, they are always guided by their natural good sense, by their 'life force', and resolve their differences before they become minor catastrophes. Just as Miguelin and Compadre Miau agree to share the sack of money, Mari-Gaila and Marica del Reino agree to share the idiot...The peasants are not given to grand passions and self-denying love. Since they live close to the soil, they act according to the dictates of nature. Thus lust, the animalistic, instinctual impulse, not love, a spiritual quality, is their dominant motivating force...Mari-Gaila...is totally uninhibited by conventions or morals..., she does not allow the bonds of marriage to interfere...does not give herself out of interest...and material advantage...but gives herself freely to Septimo Miau" (Ling, 1972b pp 331-333).
Podol (1972) expressed a more negative view of the dramatic characters. "All affirmations of honor and morality expressed by the principal characters are revealed as hypocritical. Pedro Gailo's sister, Marica, urges him to avenge his honor by punishing his adulterous wife, Mari-Gaila. She strongly condemns Mari-Gaila's immorality, but would be equally sinful herself if she had the opportunity. Although Pedro does pardon his wife, his motive for doing so is neither noble nor humane; he is simply hiding his fear of the hangman behind his 'divinas palabras' of pardon. His avowed piety is revealed as totally insincere when he later displays his incestuous desire for his daughter. In the concluding act, the hypocrisy and cruelty of the entire town is demonstrated when they bring a naked Mari-Gaila to the church in a cart and prepare to stone her...But when Pedro intones those same 'divinas palabras' in Latin, the people, in their religious awe and incomprehension, allow Pedro to lead his wife into the church. Honor, as presented in Divinas Palabras, has some of the characteristics of the traditional code, but these are consistently used in a hypocritical fashion to camouflage baser instincts which are seemingly inherent in all of Valle-Inclan's characters" (pp 63-64). Likewise, Lonsdale (2011) finds it "surprising that the play has been regarded as an affirmation of natural vitality and a positive rejection of social and moral codes, given the extreme and troubling degree of indifference— which easily and quickly turns to cruelty— manifested by the characters" (p 454).
Bretz (1994) noted that "the language used to describe the hydrocephalic infant also participates in two distinct and oppositional codes. The child's name, Laureano, evokes the related Spanish words of 'laurear- to honor, reward' and 'laurel' which connotes sweet smells and conquering heroes, all of which contrast sharply with the mentally retarded child that Mari-Gaila is said to change so infrequently that he is covered with sores. The scatological element is, however, co-present in the name, suggested in the final syllables- 'ano' (anus)...Words and sentences acquire meaning by juxtaposing antithetical codes...Mari-Gaila and her daughter, Simoniña, appear...in traditional Galician fashion...Mari-Gaila echoing an idealized...version of peasant women...Simoniña...the disfiguration of the preceding scenes...In later scenes, the confrontation of contrasting codes increases in frequency and in degree...The play shifts abruptly from scenes of violence and revenge, with Mari-Gaila as victim...to...her triumphant return to the church atop the cart of fragrant hay" (pp 206-211).
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" affords a picture of temptation whereby, unlike Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" (1593), the protagonist is neither damned nor saved by divine intervention but achieves his own salvation (Lima, 1995). The devil "appears dressed in a cutaway coat and carrying a briefcase looking every inch the successful denizen of Wall Street. Richard argues like a rationalist against the possibility of his appearance and the devil parries with a series of [witty] replies" (Leighton, 1965 p 33). "After the fisherman's death, the devil dressed in black, the dim lights, the sound of the wind, the song, the music of the accordion, the grief-stricken cry of the woman, the sudden blackness, and the seductive words of the devil all seem to be segments of a bad dream. And after the awakening, the wondering of whether this was a dream or has Richard really killed a man thousands of miles away just by wishing it? The audience is kept in doubt until the final moments of the drama" (Toms, 1961 p 230).
"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.