García Lorca and His Concept of Theatre

Enrique Gallud Jardiel 
Hispanic Horizon, Universidad Jawaharlal Nehru, núm. 3, 1986

          Lorca’s theatre has aroused great interest and ample attention has been paid to it. The reasons are many and obvious for those who know his works. However, although much has been written to analyse what Lorca actually produced in the sphere of theatre, not much attention has been paid to what he wanted to carry out. While his works have been the object of full attention of critics, little has been said or written on his literary projects and his theoretical concept of the scenic art, an aspect which is also interesting especially because it refers to an author who, in spite of his position in the big ones of the Spanish theatre in this century, is the least prolific of all and also the one who has produced the least number of plays amongst the significant playwrights in the history of Spanish literature. This is not to diminish his glory nor to fail from acknowledging the quality of the works that his pen produced. Our statement aims at focusing on one aspect that hopefully will make the present study interesting, as the less the number of works written by an author, the more important is the knowledge of the “potentially realisable” labour of the author. García Lorca could not carry out all his projects due to his early and unexpected death. But in various interviews, statements and writings he abundantly left an idea of his future plans and his personal comprehension of theatre. We would go into these aspects here without unnecessarily entering into any discussion of his plays, which are known to all.

         The first paradox we come across refers to the fact that at times his theoretical concept of theatre does not coincide with what has been said about him and even with the way his works have so far been staged. But we will come to this point later. Many a times, critics evaluate more the work than its author and analyse it without caring for what the author himself says or thinks about it. In other words, the critic does not think that the author has the sufficient critical capacity to evaluate correctly his productions with all their virtues and defects. After a schematic analysis the critic tells us “there the writer wanted to communicate this particular idea”. The author is almost never in a position to refute or corroborate such a statement. In this vein it has repeatedly been said of Lorca that his theatre is radically different from the rest of the Spanish stage productions, that introduced new moulds never used before and that his concept of theatre was extremely vanguardist and revolutionary and all other similar premises which do not withstand a systematic analysis nor can it, in the least, con­form to what the author says in his statements during various phases of his artistic life.

         If Lorca were to find himself in the need of a self-definition in the field of theatre according to preconceived models, he would have included himself as an integral part of the Calderonian group of writers, without denying a certain influence of Lope. This apparently anachronic fusion can perhaps be observed more clearly in what he himself said, as we would see later, but at the outset let us point out that it is the classical theatre of the Golden Age which Lorca considers as the most perfect and always a model for himself. The allusions to the “Poet of Heaven” (to Calderón) and his time as “authorities on theatre” appear abundantly again and again. In this way he rejects the forced intellectualism of the theatre of the vanguard which Alberti and other young writers of his generation had started conceptualising at that time and he clearly inclines towards the Baroque passion and sentiments which were revitalised under Romanticism and somewhat forgotten at the beginning of the 20th century. He tells us that “theatre is the poetry that rises from the book and becomes human. As such it speaks, shouts, cries and despairs. Theatre needs that the charac­ters who appear on stage carry their costume of poetry, and at the same time, their bones and blood be also visible.” Lorca opposes the realism advo­cated by the Generation of 98 which still influenced the young intellectuals. Thus he regrets the prosaic tendencies of the moment and affirms in an interview given in 1935 to the theatre magazine Escena that the big misfortune of the Spanish stage was the huge reaction against Romanticism. According to him poetry never dies, and in the same interview, he held that the work of José Zorrilla Don Juan Tenorio (1848) was the newest thing that one could find. For Lorca a theatre bereft of poetic atmosphere and invention is no theatre. “Theatre which has always lived”, he said, this the theatre of the poets and the bigger the poet, better the theatre.” It is certainly true that the big names in theatre came from among poets, from Lope to Zorrilla and the prose writers as Gracián or Quevedo did not write plays. This idea of putting poetry on to the stage is undoubtedly a very correct one and what in Lorca is intuition was going to become an integrated formulation in Ortega y Gasset who, in his book Idea del teatro (Idea on the Theatre) tells us that the stage and the author are the universal corporeal metaphor. For Ortega theatre is the visible metaphor. That is why, as per this definition, for our dramatist poet from Granada, what exists is pure theatre and there is no need to talk of the old or the new theatre; instead it is either good or bad theatre. This is what leads our author to proclaim the relevance of the classics and the Romantics, opposing many with great courage in the process.

         García Lorca in his Charla sobre teatro (Talk on Theatre) delivered in 1935 states that it is one of the most expressive and useful instruments for the edification of a country and is a barometer which registers the latter’s greatness or decadence. The theatre of the Golden Age, which according to him was the sign and symbol of the Spanish preponderance of that time, can positively influence the present, given the validity of its content. In another interview he had said that “the august greatness of the Spanish classical theatre is the most secure vehicle for the cultural elevation of all the people and inhabitants of Spain.” His efforts in the university theatre La Barraca, which we will mention later, were the practical applica­tion of this idea. In so far as the prevailing theatre of his time is concerned, Lorca does not believe that it was in decadence but affirms that it had lost authority owing to the imbalance between art and commercialism. And it is this authority that the author has to exercise on the public in a decisive manner if he desires positive results. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the public does not generally bestow this authority upon the author. For example, according to him New York is the only place where the pulse of theatrical art could be felt due to its respectful public which ac­cepts works that would have been violently rejected and even booed on the Spanish stage. The tremendous success which the Spanish plays have had on Broadway during this century, plays which were considered to be of average quality in the Peninsula, supports this impression of Lorca.

         In so far as the audience is concerned the author’s opinion is interesting for those of us who study theatre. Lorca, under the classicist prism, does not rely upon the bourgeoisie which he finds unable to appreciate theatre. He tells us: “Our audience, the true recipients of the art of theatre, is divided into two extremes: the educated class, the university going section and those having spontaneous intellectual or artistic formation on the one hand, and the common folk, on the other, who are a virgin ground for all the tremors of pain and all the subtleties of elegance.” Naturally there exists in the audience two levels of appreciation and, to understand for example La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream), he says, we need all the luminosity of theology; nevertheless, to feel it, the play demands as much of the presumptuous lady as of the housemaid. Therefore, Molière was not wrong when he read his works to his female cook and considered her judgement as valid. Thus one of the fundamental objectives of Lorca is to raise the level of appreciation of the audience. In 1934 he said in an interview: “For theatre I expect the arrival of light from above, from the paradise. In as much as those in the higher rungs come down to the patio for commoners, everything will be solved.” The simple people, although lacking in knowledge at times, do not lack in intuition and, therefore, go emotion-charged to watch the shows which they consider something superior to their self, where they learn and find authority. The poet always reminds us that theatre is superior to the public. This he says in a talk during a function while paying homage to the actress Lola Membrives in 1934 and adds that it is imperative to banish once for all the same old inept song which negates theatre as art or literature. Theatre is neither more nor less than literature and not a popular literature, but an aristocratic one. Theatre should not come down to the level of audience but has to lift the latter to its own. In his Talk on Theatre mentioned before he says: “The audience can be taught. Authors rejected by a common public were imposed on it by a higher criterion with better authority than its own, as happened in case of Wadekind in Germany and Pirandello in Italy.” This is the labour he foresees for the modern author.

         It is precisely to this task of educating the public through a betterment of the literary taste that García Lorca devotes himself intensely for some years, directing the famous university theatre group La Barraca, whose object was to make known to the Spanish audience the monumental works of Spanish classical theatre underrated most often and even ignored in Spain but highly esteemed outside, specially in Germany where, to our great surprise, they admired our classics. Talking about La Barraca it is pertinent to mention the mono­graph written by Mildred Adams entitled Theatre in the Spanish Republic where she cites abundant data on the activities of this group directed by Lorca. The activities of La Barraca were accepted by the Second Republic as an integral part of its education plan and the group received a State subsidy of 300,000 pesetas for its operations. Its mobile structure similar to the one for which Lope de Rueda is known for centuries in Spain carried out an interesting task of popularising the classics, the principal selections being Cervantes, Calderón, Lope and Tirso. Lorca tells us enthusiastically about his activities which left him very little time for other things: “That we are doing at present is to return to the verses of Calderón, Cervantes and Lope de Rueda. We are retracing them from the depths of our libraries. And freeing them from the holds of the erudites, restituting them to the sunshine and the airiness of the common people.” And for the present minds, which are at times intransigent, it seems shocking and peculiar that La Barraca gave to the audience of a secular Republic a stage representation which was full of theological problems and so well receiv­ed which only reiterated the permanence of the profound. During the course of these theatre tours other experiments were also carried out such as the holding of free shows for the working class, and for the rich sections by invitation, as well as the holding of two successive night-shows of Calderón’s great work El mágico prodigioso (The Prodigious Magician), the first night-show being on the traditional and realistic lines and the second night’s following a modern and stylised form in order to observe the reaction and the degree of acceptance of the same audience for the two different versions of the play.

         Apart from the activities of the said group García Lorca wanted to invest his future works with an orientation that was different from the earlier one as far as his personal artistic aims were concerned. He wanted to do other kinds of things including the plays usually staged in the modern times and also deal with themes and problems which people were at times scared to include. As far as style went, in an interview given to Francisco Ayala in 1927, he said that while writing one had to keep in mind two levels, one that was profound and significance-wise conceptual which only a part of the audience can understand and also another wider and more synthetic which would easily engage the attention of the people in general without of course ever divesting the poetic and fantastic content from reality. That is why, talking of genres, he underlines the use of the tragic element: “One has to go back to tragedy”, he said. “We are bound to it by our dramatic tradi­tion.” And within this frame he says that each genre needs a different treatment, whereby the form is not important, but must become subser­vient to the content. It is the theme which must determine the external structure of a play. This concept is very ancient and only shows once again how Lorca draws from the past while formulating the characteristics of his theatre.

         Lastly, it is interesting to indicate another curi­ous aspect in sharp contrast to the treatment given so far by modern directors to the plays of the playwright from Granada: it relates to the theory on the stage-setting. Lorca considers this aspect as of decisive importance for the success of any play. In 1935 he wrote: “The problem about the newness of theatre is related to a great extent to its plastic aspect. Half the show depends on the rhythm and the colour of the stage-setting.” Here is a taxative affirmation as it appears. It almost seems to be an exaggeration. The work in itself is limited to half its fullness, the other half consis­ting of stage design, the staging itself and the stage-craft. Here Lorca clearly and unequivocally proves himself to be a disciple of the Calderonian School on the question of stage-setting which postulates the use in theatre of all possible means to enhance and embellish the play. The lights, the decorative props, the attire, the costumes, the music, on all these elements depends the success, according to Lorca. Funny paradox if one takes into account that Lorca is the least “stage-crafted” author, if one were permitted to use such a word, and that the theatre a le moderne and its followers tend to stage not only his plays but of all other Spanish authors, irrespective of his style and epoch, with actors dressed in the most modern fashion, acting in front of a black and badly lit curtain, thus calling “modern and vanguardist” this concept of stage-setting which dates back to the prehistoric age of theatre, a moment of total imperfection when a character would go towards the audience and, pointing towards the black curtain on the trembling stage, would tell them: “This is now a forest full of splendorous trees with a beautiful palace in the background!”

         Lorca's preoccupation with stage-setting was well registered in his activities undertaken in La Barraca. Talking about his meticulousness, Dámaso Alonso tells us: “Federico attends to all aspects: to the voice tone, to the stage placement, to the total effect...” This does not mean that he reshapes modern art, but while endowing his production with a scenic presentation that draws from all the necessary resources of the classical concept he also assures the tacit participation of the Picasso School in his stage-setting. Lorca himself drew and designed the period costumes for his plays mixing the historical verisimilitude with the elegance of the “fantastic” in order to create the effect of form and colour appropriate for each scene. As far as music is concerned he introduced it at all the possible places which is reminiscent of the tendency of the l7th century theatre. Lorca also proclaimed himself to be a fan of the Zarzuela form and of the lyric genre in general.

         The above observations have been made with the sole intention of highlighting more systemati­cally rather than critically some elements of interest which have perhaps not been studied adequately, such as the prevalence till date of the classical concept, the essential nature of poetry and fantasy, the anti-realism, audience education, importance of tragedy, role of stage sets and such other facets which taken together constitute the nucleus of Lorca’s concept of ideal theatre. All these elements may help to understand the idea that the framework of theatre should exhale gusts of dream and simmers of legend, which Ortega considers to be the primary objective and the end-product of stage art.