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Monday, October 13, 2014

Fourth Section

Plays devoted to Lorca (of which I have found several) depict scenes from his life and death while quoting amply from his own words, and thus provide abundant examples of the four most common ingredients of American Lorquismo: (1) the sacralization and political exploitation of the author’s biography and execution; (2) the folkloric or Spanish Lorca (3); the exaltation of his genius, and in particular his own theory of the romantic genius exemplified by the duende lecture; (4) the evocation of surrealism, often linked to Lorca’s frienship with Salvador Dalí. Of course, these same elements also pervade Lorca’s legacy within Spain and elsewhere.

These four elements are found in different measures in different plays. Norman Rosten’s radio play Prometheus in Granada (1940) is the earliest example I have located. Rosten, a new obscure left-wing poet, treats Lorca as neo-popularist kitsch. His prologue describes Lorca’s work in well-intentioned but highly inaccurate terms:
Federico Garcia Lorca was loved with a pride and intensity of adoration typical of the Spanish people. He was their great citizen, singer and musician, the troubadour whose poems and songs were spread by word of mouth; gypsies danced to his colorful music, singers improvised upon his more simple metrical ballads. Often they were unaware as to the actual identity of the author; more often than not they could not read his lines but their poems were written in their hearts. He gave the people songs to sing in the fields, and fine stories for the evening, he gave them a hatred for their enemies.
This is to confuse Lorca’s sophisticated poetry with some of the sources of his inspiration and to misstate his relationship to the reading public. A few strands of his legacy large and complex legacy—the popularity he gained from Romancero gitano, his musical setting of popular songs—come to stand in for his entire work.

Rosten has Lorca reciting iconic lines from Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías as he is about to be exectuted: “At five in the afternoon.” A subsequent playwright, the poet Kenneth Koch, also uses this poem in his play “El nacimiento de Federico García Lorca in Seville.” In this one-page piece, part of a book published in the late 80s, 1,000 Avant-Garde Plays, Baby Lorca is born in Seville and rises to his feet to recite his most famous elegy. Men and women dressed in horse costumes recite other poems by Lorca. Koch’s play relies on a stereotypical image of Lorca (Andalusia, horses, bullfighting, neopopularism, elegy) but repurposes these motifs toward a comic purpose. He presents a nativity scene (rather than a passion and crucification) and indulges in anachronism and misdirection. Needless to say, Lorca was not born in Seville, but in the province of Granada.
Koch introduces a comic element, perhaps saving himself from kitsch. A more recent play by Pulitzer-prize winning Nilo Cruz, Lorca in a Green Dress, presents Lorca from multiple angles, evoking familiar elements like Lorca’s death and execution, his connection to Dalí, and his homosexuality. The multiple characters in the play are mostly versions of Lorca himself (Lorca in Bicycle Pants, Lorca as a Woman, Lorca in a Green Dress), or, more accurately, actors hired in a kind of purgatory (the Lorca room) to act out scenes from the author’s life. Cruz follows the example of Carlos Rojas, who in his 1980 novel El ingenioso hidalgo y poeta Federico García Lorca asciende a los infiernos also situates Lorca in a metatheatrical purgatory where he watches scenes from his life. I don’t know whether Cruz has read Rojas’s novel, but the similarities are striking.
Cruz’s metatheatrical homage to Lorca is multi-layered, avoiding easy reductions of Lorca to a unitary image. We might call it a performative version of Lorca, in which the identity of the author is fragmented into multiple selves. Lorca with Blood represents his tragic execution, the Flamenco Dancer represents the cante jondo and the duende, Lorca in Bicycle Pants represents his childhood, Lorca as a Woman and Lorca in a Green Dress represents his gender and sexuality, and Lorca in a White Suit represents his mature artistry. In a way Cruz has found the perfect balance between centripetal and centrifugal impulses: he evokes the central tropes of Lorca’s legacy while avoiding any easy resolution.

The eminent dramatist Edward Albee, the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, has also written a Lorca play, with the title The Lorca Play. Since the title of this conference is an hommage to Albee’s play, I would be remiss in not mentioning it. I have been unable to locate a complete copy of the script, which does not figure in Albee’s Complete Plays. First produced in 1992 at the University of Houston, this play was then withdrawn by the author. In 2002 it was announced that the play would be produced off-broadway, but this production failed to take place. According to a new report: “Lorca has been looming just off the Off-Broadway horizon for some time now. Previous reports had it arriving in 2001, 2002 and 2003” Albee himself has confessed to some misgivings about his work in this genre: “It’s not the sort of play I should write [...] Other people are better at that kind of docu-drama.” Albee’s usually laudatory biographer, Gussow, describes the play as “long and rambling” and quotes some lines that make Albee’s Lorca sound like a contemporary American adolescent with narcissistic tendencies: “Do you know what it’s like to fall in love with people who don’t want you? Do you know what it’s like to be completely misunderstood? Do you know what it’s like to know how special and dangerous your talent is?” In Bloomian terms, Albee is a weak misreader of Lorca. Strikingly, he does not share the Lorquian lineage of other American dramatists like Tennessee Williams or Adrienne Kennedy.

Sam Creely’s Barbarous Nights is unique among these Lorca plays in that it does not depict Lorca himself, substituting Buster Keaton—the protagonist of a short play by Lorca—for the author. Creely, a great-nephew of the poet Robert Creeley, read my own book Apocryphal Lorca in college and hence is conscious of the multi-faceted American reception of the Spanish poet and dramatist. Creely quotes amply from Lorca’s poetry and plays and seems mostly interested in the “surrealist” Lorca. His play, with the subtitle “a play in four shades and a prologue, grapefruit tumbleweed & the great green moon,” explores issues of “iconic” identity, using Buster Keaton’s face as an example of an identity frozen into a mask, thus joining Cruz in exploring the vicissitudes of selfhood in a postmodern context.

My final example is the opera Ainadamar by the Argentine composer Oswaldo Golijov, with a libretto by the Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang, the author of the gender-bending play M. Butterfly. In this opera Lorca is “trouser role,” sung by a female singer dressed and made up to look like Lorca [image]. Golijov’s opera makes frequent use of flamenco, with allusions to Latin American popular music as well. In this respect he is following the tradition of Lorca’s close friend and collaborator, Manuel de Falla, and other modern composers interested in folk traditions. The part of Ruiz Alonso, Lorca’s executioner, is played a flamenco cantaor rather than by an opera singer. Ainadamar, then, forms part of the rich musical legacy of Lorca’s afterlife, alongside of Billy Strayhorn’s setting of Don Perlimplín and Enrique Morente’s interpretations of Lorca poems.

These five plays (and one opera) contain several overlapping elements, including an emphasis Lorca’s death and legacy and the use Flamenco music on the stage. Yet stylistically and emotionally, these versions of Lorca on the stage, ranging from the 1940s to the early twenty-first century, are dissimilar to one another in multiple ways, with very few points of contact aside from references to Lorca’s tragic execution. Both Rosten and Golijov / Hwang present Lorca as a political martyr to the Spanish Republic, but the similarities end there: Rosten’s Lorca is a simple folk poet, while Golijov’s is the dramatist of Mariana Pineda and a gay man killed for his sexuality. Cruz and Creely share elements common to a twenty-first century sensibility, like a performative view of identity and an adaptation of Lorquian metatheater, but their plays take divergent approaches. Edward Albee opts for a realist theatrical language at odds with Lorca’s poetic sensibility and risks banality. Koch evokes Lorquian stereotypes in a comic mode. Is the centrifugal force stronger in these dramatic homages to Lorca, then? Perhaps. But standing behind them all is the romantic myth of Lorca himself. Only this myth explains the persistent attraction of other creators, over so many decades, to Lorca’s legacy.


el curioso impertinente said...

Have you read the reviews of Nicholas de Jongh's play that just opened in London(The Unquiet Grave of Garcia Lorca)?

Jonathan said...

Not yet. That's the second Lorca play I've discovered today.