The friendship between Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dali was particularly intense. For a period they were almost inseparable, with Lorca a frequent guest of Dali’s parents. Lorca appears in many of Dali’s paintings and drawings during this time: in several cases, Lorca’s face casts a shadow of Dali’s profile. Dali ended the friendship abruptly when he moved to France. There is still no confirmed reason why he did so, but several of Lorca’s biographers believe Dali, who may well have been Lorca’s lover, was frightened by Lorca’s public reputation as a gay man. (Dali was always very careful to pitch his outrageous persona within the frame of public acceptance.) Luis Buñuel also broke off his friendship with Lorca over the poet’s sexuality: the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) is widely considered to be a veiled attack on Lorca.
Lorca and Dali briefly reconciled when Dali returned to Spain in the year before Lorca’s murder. Dali by this time was praising both Hitler and Franco, and, perhaps because he wanted to appease Franco’s government, Dali did not condemn the murder for decades. His initial response was horrifying: “The moment of learned of his death . . . I cried ‘Ole!’ That’s what a Spaniard says in the presence of a bullfighter who has just executed a particularly successful move before a bleeding beast. I thought that for Lorca, it was the most beautiful way of dying: killed by the Civil War.”
Federico Garcia Lorca was perhaps the most important Spanish-language writer of the first half of the 20th century, known both for his poetry and his plays. During his short life, he wrote thirteen plays, the best-known of which are Blood Wedding (1932), Yerma (1934), and The House of Bernarda Alba (1936).
Garcia Lorca was born in 1898, the son of a well-to-do Andalusian landowner. He studied music from a young age, becoming a talented pianist: his love and knowledge of music would profoundly shape his writing and his stage direction in later years.
Lorca’s birthplace, Asquerosa (now Valderrubio), was a town with many similarities to the setting of Blood Wedding. His father was known for treating his workers well, but the young Lorca, seeing the harsh conditions in which the peasants worked and the equally harsh restrictions placed on women in a conservative, rural, Catholic setting, had a keen sense of his privilege from a young age. From a young age, he seems to have has a tragic vision of life. His biographer Leslie Stainton says that “Lorca learned early on that life and death were two halves of an indecipherable whole.”
Lorca left home for university in Madrid, where he studied and lived in La Residencia, an intellectual and artistic hotbed of the period. There he became known as a leader of the group of young writers and artists there, many influenced by Symbolism and Surrealism, who were re-invigorating Spanish literature. Among his friends at the time were the young artists Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel.
Lorca achieved fame in Spain at a young age with his first volume of poems. He also became a friend and collaborator of the composer Manuel de Falla, through whom he developed a strong interest in traditional Spanish music and dance, particularly the cante jondo (or “deep song”), a particularly old relative of flamenco. “Deep song is imbued with the mysterious color of primordial ages,” Lorca said in a lecture on the subject. It “is akin to the trilling of birds, the crowing of the rooster, and the natural music of forest and fountain” and “comes from the first sob and the first kiss.” His volume Poem of the Deep Song, written in 1921 but not published until 1931, reflects this interest. Many of these poems anticipate images and themes that reappear in Blood Wedding. Here are two:
He lay dead in the street
With a knife in the heart
No one knew him.
How the street-lamp trembled!
How the little street-lamp
It was early morning. No one
Could look at his eyes
Open to the harsh air.
For he lay dead in the street
With a knife in the heart
And no one knew him.
(trans, Gwynne Edwards)
The Six Strings
cries out to dreams.
The sobs of the lost
escape from its round
And like a tarantula
it weaves a great star
to catch sighs,
floating in their black
cistern of wood.
A week ago or so, I had a realization in rehearsal: Fate is almost an invisible character in Blood Wedding, but we weren’t acknowledging its presence. The concept is almost alien to American popular culture, with its emphasis on individualism, self-help and self-improvement, but the action of Blood Wedding barely makes sense without recognizing its power. (Questions about these assumptions seem to be emerging as a recurrent theme in this year’s plays. I’ll be talking more about this with both Passing Strange and Passage.) Fate, as it appears in Blood Wedding, is something ultimately beyond individual choice, moral or otherwise.
The word appears multiple times in Blood Wedding. In a completely traditional production of the play, Fate is even represented onstage, in a ball of red thread children play with. The classical world saw a human life as a thread cut off by impersonal, outside forces. The length and shape of a life was pre-determined. The individual’s responsibility was to live the best life within this pre-determined shape: attempting to resist or evade it was a cause of tragedy. Sophocles’ Oedipus is a prime example. His parents’, and then his own attempts to avoid the prophesied curse places him in the path of his father and the bed of his mother, with disastrous results not only for the three of them but for Thebes as well. In the same way, Leonardo and the Bride attempt to resist their fate and cause greater damage to their community.
Lorca adds a twist to this in Blood Wedding. One sort of fate seems to hang upon the dryland village where the play takes place, the same sort that hung upon the peasants Lorca had seen as a child – an endless cycle of struggle, loveless marriages, violence, and social convention. Against this is a different sort of fate hanging over the Bride and Leonardo, an individual fate thwarted because of Leonardo’s poverty. Many biographers see echoes of Lorca’s life as a gay man in a conservative, patriarchal society in Blood Wedding. Lorca scholar Gwynne Edwards sees “Lorca’s growing belief that one should be true to one’s nature, whatever one’s sexuality” as an important theme of the play. As director Csaba Horvath has pointed out in rehearsals, all of the play’s characters want to conform to their society’s demands: it is the tension between that and the red thread of Fate which creates tragedy for the entire community.
Director Csaba Horváth began his career as a dancer, performing Hungarian folk dance before moving on to contemporary styles. He later became a choreographer and finally a theater director, developing a unique style. “The folk dance, especially when you encounter it as young as I did, when one is susceptible to all things, lives for a lifetime,” he says. “It gives you ammunition from which you can move and transform everywhere movement, choreography, dance, and some kind of way of thinking.” This background also carries on in his long collaboration with composer Csaba Ökrös, who (following the inspiration of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly) draws upon Hungarian folk music as inspiration for his melodies.
As a director, Horváth says “the most exciting thing in this game is to handle the proportion of language and movement.” He begins his preparations with some general ideas for a gestural system inspired by his reading of the piece. “I’m looking for solutions, decodings, which bring forth the essence of the work, the essence inherent in the piece.” But the performance is shaped in rehearsal, through working with the specific actors he has in the room with him. “I’m always looking for the physical toolbox and trying to use it in the most exciting way. But it all depends on how much the material needs. Getting to know this is like stepping on a minefield. But that makes me excited, perhaps because working with the body is more subtle than the traditional acting actor, and requires theatricality. It’s harder to lie with your body.”
Horváth’s productions always live music (usually original), often played and sung by the actors. This will be true with the Wilma’s Blood Wedding as well. In the hands of his actors, musical instruments can also become objects and persons, such as a tree or a baby. Props are rare in Horváth’s staging: they are usually absent or indicated by gesture, but when they do appear they are likely to be used in unusual fashion: like musical instruments, they can sometimes become characters as well.
In shaping his production of Blood Wedding, Horváth remarks that the play “takes place in a closed and strict environment, where traditions define the life. The story is a sweeping love story that turns against these traditions, and culminates in death. The passionate poetry that characterizes Lorca’s drama is very close to the theater language I like to do. This language builds on a physical presence and the music of the actors outside the text. In my work, I always strive to make the gestural system that I compose bring the audience close to the poetic depths of the text.”
With his sensitivity to movement, gesture, music, and rhythm, Horváth’s work on Blood Wedding is very much in the spirit of the play, and of the approach Lorca himself took when he directed its premiere. Describing Lorca’s work as a director, his biographer Leslie Stainton writes: “He brought to the task a painter’s sense of composition and a musician’s understanding of timing. Rhythm—the tempo of the performance—was crucial.” From the accounts of the actors and observers, Lorca treated Blood Wedding like a musical score in rehearsal: Stainton says “he focused on rhythm, timing, and sound.” This is also an accurate description of Csaba Horváth in rehearsal for the Wilma’s production.