The Enduring Appeal of Federico García Lorca

By BAS editor Helen Laurenson

Federico García Lorca is one of the most widely translated, studied and performed dramatists of the twentieth century.  His drama has become the portal through which generations of aspiring hispanists have had their first glimpse into Spanish society and culture. 

All examination boards (OCR, AQA, Edexcel, WJEC, Cambridge) feature Lorca in their syllabuses, and take-up remains high: La casa de Bernarda Alba year-on-year remains the most taught literary text for the Cultural Topic component at AQA, with Edexcel offering another of the rural tragedies, Bodas de sangre.  Cambridge Pre-U, after years of purveying the rural trilogy, has turned in its final cycle to La Zapatera Prodigiosa.

There are multiple reasons for this perennial Lorcan high tide.  Plays such as La casa de Bernarda Alba and Bodas de sangre tap into a rich vein of teenage concerns – otherness, gender, freedom and, in the case of García Lorca, that indefinable ‘Spanishness’ which pupils often envision when choosing to study the language.  The modernity and relative linguistic accessibility of the dramas and the continuing relevance of the gender themes exert a strong gravitational pull.  Likewise, the plays afford all pupils the opportunity to engage at some level, whether historical, biographical, gendered or sociological, thus facilitating the desired ‘full range of pupil outcomes’ and making the texts distinctly manageable.  There is scope for sophisticated literary exegesis, within a wide range of literary frameworks (psychoanalytic, feminist, formal), as well as a more descriptive grasp of themes and historical context. 

Arguably, another factor in the high take-up of Lorca is ‘devil-you-know’ conservatism in the selection of exam texts.  Abundant critical guidebooks on Lorca for less confident teachers and learners reinforce this tendency.  More positively, the creative continuity between Lorca and his contemporary incarnation, Pedro Almodóvar, gives an extra dimension to studying both.  Lorca extracts are performed in both Todo sobre mi madre and Madres paralelas (reviewed in this edition of the Bulletin).

The historical context of Lorca’s plays also adds to the interest, coinciding with the Second Spanish Republic and the advent of the Civil War.  In addition, the focus on gender fluidity and the marginalised – women, gypsies and the gay and black communities (in Poeta en Nueva York) – has the potential to stimulate debate in the classroom which can be linked to both PHSE and to the topic areas of the broader exam syllabus. All these attractions are bolstered by the accommodating genre of drama, which can be read aloud in class, with plenty of opportunities for discussion, close linguistic analysis and intertextualisation.

Among the Generation of 1927, no other poet so consistently featured women as an intrinsic and powerful aspect of his literary ideology as did Lorca.  The reasons for this may be located in Lorca’s homosexuality: unlike Rafael Alberti, who constructs a poetic feminine to meet male heterosexual needs and criteria, Lorca, through a process of gender displacement, directly projects his inner socio-sexual conflict and frustration into the female figures. Whilst early critics such as Arturo Barea concede that much emphasis is placed on the female protagonists by Lorca, they tend to avoid the problematic issue of homosexuality, preferring veiled statements such as ‘the same [religious] atmosphere helps to breed an astonishingly great number of sexual introverts, extroverts, and perverts, of sadists and masochists, and an even greater number of people who come near to being one or the other’. Equally tentative, in 1944 Edwin Honig, whilst recognising that ‘the strength of Lorca’s folk drama lies precisely in his use of woman as bearer of all passion and earthly reality’, makes no correlation between these ‘martyrs of frustrated love’ and the poet’s private experience or sexual psyche.

Unsurprisingly, more recent critics have re-evaluated earlier views and established a correlation between private and poetic experience.  In 1985 Paul Binding asserted:

‘The homosexual writer, with singular qualification, can view women as autonomous beings; freed from the endowments of desire or acquisition, they can stand before him in all their complexity and their tragedy. Tragedy - because he, more than his heterosexual fellows perhaps, can understand just what cost to their psychic life their enforced surrender to convention so frequently entails’.

Similarly, in 1997 Beatriz Urrea stresses the parallel experiences, within a Lorcan Spanish context, between women and gay men, commenting that ‘las heroínas de Lorca son mujeres enamoradas a quienes se les censura la expresión de su deseo y que con frecuencia pierden la vida al rebelarse contra las normas que pretenden inmovilizarlas y silenciarlas’.

A selection of ballads from Romancero gitano (1928) serve as a useful pedagogical precursor to the plays of the trilogía lorquiana.  Over half the poems feature female protagonists. In addition, the defining characteristics of the romance – dialogue, tragedy, repetition and a palpable (if sometimes rather fragmented) narrative – serve as a palatable appetiser ahead of feasting on the full-length dramas. Many of the ballads explore the honor/vergüenza code, gendered spaces, transgressive women, desire thwarted by el que dirán and a punitive patriarchal presence.

Part of the charm of Lorca’s work is the abecedario de símbolos that underpin his texts.  Students using the ctrl + f function in a pdf version of the text yelp with delight as they discover the incidence of sangre, pared, agua, viento or ¡cállate!.  They also learn the essential transferable skill of textual analysis and deconstruction through the poetic vignettes of Romancero gitano, with their range of gender political issues – ‘La monja gitana’ (patriarchal religious structures), ‘La casada infiel’ (female ‘othering’), ‘Thamar y Amnón’ (rape) and ‘Martirio de Santa Olalla’ (torture).

The continuing relevance of these issues makes for lively debate in the classroom, encouraging thoughtful personal responses and the use of primary and secondary source materials.  Why, for example, did Lorca, a cosmopolitan and well-travelled man, decide to explore the archaic and patriarchal structures of rural Spain in the mid-1930s, at the time of the forward-thinking Second Republic? 

Let us leave the last word to the great poet and dramatist himself:

"El teatro es una escuela de llanto y de risa y una tribuna libre donde los hombres pueden poner en evidencia morales viejas o equívocas y explicar con ejemplos vivos normas eternas del corazón y del sentimiento del hombre"