Canadian Poetry Online top banner link to Canadian Poetry Online home page link to University of Toronto Libraries home page

Janis Rapoport. LORCA'S WOMEN Copyright © 1998 by Janis Rapoport [unpublished] prepared for Encuento Hispanoamerico de Poesia en Mexico, Noviembre de 1998 - centenario de la Generacion del '98 y de Federico Garcia Lorca

LORCA'S WOMEN : "Mirror: Prism: Kaleidoscope"
in Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba

                 Theatre is the poetry that arises from the page and becomes human.
                                —Federico Garcia Lorca

As part of the introduction to my ponencia I would like to point out that I am neither literary critic nor theoretician but a practising poet and playwright, and it is from a creative writer's point of view that I am approaching my meditation on Lorca's women - those in the three plays that have come to be considered together as his tragedies.

Let me first set the scene in the context of my own introduction to Lorca's women, which took place many years ago.

Between the two World Wars (before I was born) women were actively discouraged - primarily by religious leaders - from appearing on the commercial stage in Canada. Few, if any, Canadian women were writing for the theatre and the roles that were being created by what Canadian male playwrights there were at that time did not feature particularly strong, complex or memorable female characters.

During the Second World War, theatre in Toronto (which now, ironically, considers itself to be one of the entertainment capitals of the world) continued to consist of mainstream, commercial touring shows from the United States. Local theatre companies, both amateur and professional, became involved in productions that ranged from Shakespearean drama to topical revues for the purpose of raising money for the war effort or as entertainment for the military.

After the War, those interested in pursuing careers in theatre found they did not have the necessary professional training. Although there were a few low-key indigenous theatre groups these did not attract a paying audience in numbers sufficient for their long-term survival.

Thus, in Toronto, the American touring system continued to be the source of both mainstream and commercial entertainment. There was also a strong British presence in productions of the work of William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. Post-war Toronto audiences seemed content to attend whatever happened to be offered.

As for the amateur companies, they wanted to emulate their professional counterparts in London and New York in terms of what was being featured there. These companies sincerely wanted to reflect in style and in content the performances of the day in other large metropolitan centres. Generally speaking, this status quo was to remain in effect for the next twenty-five years, until the 1970s.

There were a few exceptions, however, even by the early '60s. In 1961, at the edge of Toronto's original artists' colony, a small alternative theatre company by the name of Village Playhouse began performing plays that reflected twentieth-century political protest and social change. In Canadian theatre history the Village Playhouse, though much more short lived, has been compared retrospectively with London, England's cutting-edge Royal Court Theatre.

During November 1962 in its tiny eighty-one seat hall on Laplante Street, the Village Playhouse mounted the first Toronto production of The House of Bernarda Alba. In the opening night audience sat a sixteen-year-old aspiring poet and actress - totally transfixed by the raw passion of the drama unfolding before her. She - I - left the theatre glowingly inspired, albeit against the gloomy backdrop of conservative, if not reactionary and unimaginative Toronto, an environment with an atmosphere in mentality and outlook not unlike the pervading moral order in the villages of Lorca's plays.

Only earlier this month, thirty-six years later, my search for anything extant from that seminal production led to a box in the Metro Toronto Reference library. Inside that box was filed a slim archival envelope containing a program proclaiming "the Village Playhouse presents". . . . Printed on the program was the name of a young actress who had the role of Beggar Woman, the same actress who - sixteen years later - took part in the first public performance in Toronto of my play Dreamgirls, a play whose cast, like The House of Bernarda Alba's, is comprised entirely of female characters.

"Lorca himself was quite insistent upon the evolutionary character of his theatre", according to C. Christopher Soufas in his 1996 book Audience and Authority in the Modernist Theater of Federico Garcia Lorca. Soufas quotes the poet-playwright himself in this regard: "In the theatre I have followed a well-defined trajectory."

In The Theatre of Garcia Lorca, a text published earlier this year, Paul Julian Smith agrees on the "increasing order of conceptual complexity . . . while "formulating some controversial interpretations . . . which [he] takes in reverse order of composition."

The evolution that I have discovered in Lorca's women through a consideration of Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernardo Alba is different yet again when taken in the order in which the plays were written. The progression I see as a spiral that embodies a thesis in Blood Wedding, an antithesis or anti-thesis in Yerma and a synthesis in The House of Bernarda Alba. When the spirals of history and creativity repeat their circular shapes further on, they progress to a higher level of understanding in terms of time, space, energy and knowledge; so do these plays in terms of themes and characters.

In more concrete terminology I consider the prototypical characters in Blood Wedding - archetypes if you will - as highly symbolic. As such these characters are moulds into which we may, through identification with an underlying mythology, pour elements of our own personalities whether as readers, observers or projectionists in a participatory sense. We can identify, and bond, intuitively on an emotional level. If I had to choose an object to represent such an interpretation, it would be a mirror that captures images and throws them back. As well as archetypal moulds, the women in Blood Wedding are our mirrors.

Yerma - in the meaning of the name itself - implies negation and all that is barren, unable to bear fruit in any sense. The barriers are both internal and external, later internalized by the title character as well as externalized by the society in which she lives. The objective representation of Yerma I see as a prism, a self-contained entity that refracts - some might say distorts - the qualities of light and image.

In The House of Bernarda Alba each of the characters has a dominant personality trait. Taken as aspects of a whole, the women are ultimately separate selves of a unified being who share a single dwelling, their casing, the physical embodiment of disparate emotional and psychological manifestations within. These fragments of psyche and spirit I envisage as the individual elements in a kaleidoscope - a mosaic of miniature mirrors - that nonetheless merge, converge, diverge into a variety of patterns illuminated from without as well as from within, changing shape and energy often also rhythmically, even musically.

The expression of this type of energy - that is present to varying degrees in these three plays - is based primarily on sensory symbols that are culturally specific while at the same time imbued with a universality that both crosses and penetrates cultures and in doing so resonates on deeper and more primitive levels, even evoking a kind of collective memory.

The context for Blood Wedding is a society contained by and reflected initially in pronouncements made by a neighbour who speculates negatively on the unknown, namely the Bride who is of course the natural central figure of attention at a wedding. The gossiping Neighbour Woman appears well informed in the present with information connective to a past that also has implications for the future. Later it is the Servant Woman who reinforces the conventional rules of morality as well as the traditional rites of passage in the prevailing social order which close in on the Bride in an imprisoning ideology through her pre-arranged marriage to a Groom about whom she is ambivalent.

Their marriage, though marking a preservation and perpetuation of social convention, has nothing less than a fatal impact. In the instinctual pursuit of sexual fulfilment, unsanctioned desire results in tragic destruction, in Blood Wedding for three entire families. There is a negative affirmation in the knowledge that desire denied is death.

The characters, perhaps because they are archetypal, remain somewhat flat in terms of dimensions. Nevertheless, the Bride, the Mother (the Bride's mother-in-law) and the elderly Beggar Woman, are worth examining as generational examples for what they mirror back to us from their world. Their light reaches into the present not unlike the rays of stars born long ago and now already extinct.

Sincere but somewhat confused at the outset, the Bride is still a protagonist of considerable intensity. Somewhat moody in a growing reluctance to follow a proscribed course of action, her repressed passion eventually explodes in a declaration of love for Leonardo. The Bride's conflict is a torment that threatens to drown her rationality; yet she can still articulate their destiny as a couple as well as her own ultimate fate.

Each new generation's arrival is confined by the parameters set by the preceding one. And rebellion against those standards as personified by Lorca's Bride remains a prerogative of the young, the disenchanted, the disenfranchised and, more understandably, the persecuted.

The repressed Mother's opinions of men seem fixed, derived from the fabric of the patriarchy in which she was raised and now lives. Her definition of marriage - a man, children and a thick wall - is minimalist. She is affected more than affecting. Her outrage ranges from righteous to vengeful; her mourning is anguished. The Mother may be a victim of circumstance when her own past becomes her future; yet, in some way, she herself must bear partial responsibility for the deaths of her own sons.

The female antecedent of the Mother is the Old Beggar Woman whose essence is the knowledge and facilitation of death. She is rejected despite her oracular powers. Her messages are primordial and they reach their targets on a trajectory that is unconscious. Her mirrors are of the mysteries of life and death, invisible to all but those whose own perceptions can read the often deceptive surfaces that, void of characters, are smooth, silvery and serene.

Parallelling Blood Wedding's Old Beggar Woman and Mother are Yerma's Pagan Crone and sorceress/healer Dolores respectively. The Pagan Crone speaks from deep within a matrilineal ancestral belief system that operates on instincts long repressed by requirements of honour and a strict morality. She speaks of lives and destinies, the secrets of happiness, fertility and desire. By an invocation of the past she inadvertently foretells a future death, also because of barrenness.

The mother figure of Dolores, cautionary but confident, relies on a repertoire of prayer and magic, systems possessing potentially contradictory values. However kind and genuine in her ambitions to help Yerma escape the humiliating state of infertility, Dolores is sensitive to the world outside her doors and beyond the cemetery where she practices her fertility rituals. Dolores does not want to be considered disruptive to the larger society that is either unaware or would disapprove of her alternative values.

In my view of the spiral movement of the plays under consideration, the Pagan Crone and Dolores share characteristics of their counterparts in Blood Wedding but are more fully realized as dramatic characters and are more far reaching in both the range and depth of the perceptions they apply to the plight of a younger woman, the Bride equivalent, Yerma.

An attractive and graceful young woman, initially comfortable in her own body, Yerma's longing for motherhood is linked to a confirmation of feminine identity. Sexual activity with her husband Juan - who seems either unable or unwilling to participate - does not stem from passion but from the desire for the conception of a child.

Yerma consciously attempts to understand the forces at work in the community around her, in the marital relationship with Juan and in platonic association with Victor. However, it is the dream at the beginning of the play that indicates Victor as the true potential father of Yerma's child. But both Child and Shepherd recede from conscious view as Yerma wakes up. In a later dream state of incantation, Yerma grasps the essence of motherhood denied - through a contrast of the earth in maternal roles as guardian and provider. With the earth's material abundance Yerma , in marked contrast to her own infertility, is intimately connected.

Yerma's barrenness, (psycho) symptomatic of a deeper lack, can be related metaphorically to all her unfulfilled longings which are emotional and spiritual as well as physical.

The seeking of advice and participation in fertility rituals accentuate Yerma's intensifying anguish and advancing desperation in an ultimately futile mission. Yerma ends up a prisoner not in her own house under the watchful eyes of sisters-in-law but of her own despair in the failure to achieve a goal upon which she has focussed so much of her energy. In the relentless pursuit of conception she becomes that which she most loathes.

Ultimately, the multifaceted aspects of her personality converge into a single inwardly corrosive and outwardly destructive force fuelled by frustration and rage that, ironically, can also be seen as a form of victorious deliverance. Nonetheless, in strangling Juan, Yerma - like the mother of Blood Wedding - is in a way responsible for the death of her own as yet unconceived and possibly forever inconceivable son. Archetypally Yerma is transformed into a death goddess who represents both the womb of (pro) creativity or sterility and the tomb of memory or oblivion.

Yerma is a complex character who incarnates aspects of the personalities of those around her: the solemnity of the sisters-in-law, the sensuality of Dolores and the wisdom of the Pagan Crone, to list but a few. Furthermore, she is a receptacle, in the theatrical sense, that encompasses and refracts so many aspects of the essence and significance of womanhood. Through identification with Yerma's passions we ourselves become trapped in the prism of her awareness.

Yerma maintains her integrity within a social order whose approval of marital union is based on economic security and material comfort. Conversely, that social order opposes a relationship that has as its basis sexual and spiritual fulfilment. Yerma has internalized such a convention and cannot conceive of breaching its restrictive confines. Thus Yerma is in the end the victim of an inflexible moral code actualized through the gossip of a society where roles are regulated by gender and not by ability and/or choice.

Thematically, as an embodiment of a struggle that risks total loss, Yerma echoes Blood Wedding but also implies its opposite: an obsessive search that illuminates the framework of its own tragedy whose reverse perspective is liberation, perhaps from patriarchy itself.

In The House of Bernarda Alba the theme, further along on the imaginary connective spiral, blurs the division between love and death, both of which are at the centre of ontology. Therein lies the thematic synthesis linking all three plays. Imagination, intuition and passion are defeated by tradition, morality and a double standard of honour. What is desired and sought after as freedom from crushing oppression is frustrated and then denied in the unquestionable dissolution that is death.

Surrounded by gossiping vengeful villagers, Bernarda and her daughters cannot remain untouched in the seclusion of their family dwelling. Bernarda herself has absorbed so many of the entrenched patriarchal values that she provokes discord and eventually generates violence. Her daughters cheat, dissemble and speak in half truths. They are their own prisoners held hostage by envy, malice and fixation on a traditional perception of honour.

Bernarda Alba's house is both space and symbol. Metaphorically it is the body and soul of a single woman whose characteristics are drawn from and reflected by its inhabitants. Unlike the mother and daughter figures in Blood Wedding and Yerma, their counterparts in The House of Bernarda Alba do not undergo significant change on an individual basis. Considered as dimensions of a single being, however, their dramatic shape forms, shifts, struggles, re-forms, and sometimes lurches towards a tragic conclusion.

Of all the daughters, Adela is the one who most cherishes the freedom of personal autonomy and is prepared to follow the call of her heart, rebellious and fantasy driven as that may seem. She resists Bernarda's tyrannical rules and regulation through often spirited protests. Though the most optimistic of them all, Adela does not realize that her flight to liberty could well lead to imprisonment: instead of under her mother's suffocating regime, under the male sexual authority of Pepe el Romano, who would be equally as repressive of her intuition, creativity and sensuality.

Bernarda Alba herself is the repository of the negative. Devoid of any spirituality, she is an arrogant despot, given to writing and rewriting her own version of the truth. Desolate and inflexible, even in bereavement, Bernarda would much prefer to remain secluded behind the walls of her own house. Frustrated by continual attempts to achieve total control over her daughters, she is volcanic in the expression of her possessiveness. Intolerant, destructive and manipulative, she is sanctimoniously obsessed with appearances whether they be physical, social and/or moral. Furthermore, by adherence to an attitude of superiority that renders no young man suitable husband-material for any of her daughters, she robs them of their potential motherhood. Bernarda's extreme harshness contributes to the sacrificial death of her daughter Adela, and her repression extends to the locking up of her own mother Maria Josefa.

Maria Josefa is the antithesis of her daughter Bernarda. She renders prophetic voice to the unconscious and has uncommon knowledge of love and life, hope and reality, which she expresses poetically, enigmatically and sometimes through song. Having escaped the artificial borders imposed by the patriarchy, Maria Josefa is able to interpret a more natural order while in a trance-like state wherein she articulates Adela's and Martiriro's dreams of liberty as well as the exotic longings of all her granddaughters. Like the Pagan Crone in Yerma, Maria Josefa's wisdom emanates from matrilineage. Through symbolic equations her utterances also foreshadow a death, tragically that of her own granddaughter Adela.

Along with the other inhabitants of the house that can be seen as their shared embodiment, Maria Josefa, Bernarda and Adela are the miniature kaleidoscope mirror fragments that scintillate . . . darkly.

The women in Lorca's plays, by grace of his transcendent vision, reach across the entire range of our emotional spectrum. Some are rooted in their repressive past; others wait at the threshold of freedom. Writing half a century after Lorca's death, American cultural historian William Irwin Thompson concluded: ". . . one often sees in history that a radical shift is preceded by an intensification of the old."

One hundred years after Lorca's birth, in The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light we read Thompson's words explaining that "at the edge, we see familiar things end and something else begin, something which makes us try to recall another state of being." He also notes: "If history is the sentence of our imprisonment then history, recorded, can become the password for our release."

"However cultivated, orderly and rational we act, a part of the brain stalks in the shadows like a poisonous, hissing forktongued snake," American microbiologist Lynn Margulis and her son, science writer Dorian Sagan, observe in Mystery Dance. Lorca knew this.

Somehow Lorca must have been attuned to the Navaho sense of history as well. As Margulis and Sagan have also said: "History, in the spatial metaphor of the Navaho language, is in front of you. This makes sense: we can see where we have been; it is the future, not the past that remains opaque, impossible to see. The Navajos back into the future with the panorama of the past before them."

"Writers are not commonly supposed to deal with facts," the late Canadian novelist Adele Wiseman has written, "but with what often hides behind the facts, and sometimes is obscured by them, namely the truth, which has been known, paradoxically, to be most comfortable in works of the imagination."

Though they are indeed works of the imagination, Lorca's women still speak to us across space and through time. They live on in the memories of those they have touched as audience members and/or as readers. Long may Lorca's women continue to illuminate the darkest shadows of the human condition for, as Canadian novelist and playwright Timothy Findley has said, "Memory is a form of hope."

Janis Rapoport's works copyright © to the author.

Canadian Poetry Online bottom banner link to University of Toronto Libraries home page link to Digital Collections home page link to University of Toronto Library catalogue link to Canadian Poetry Online home page link to University of Toronto Libraries home page