Monday, April 20, 2015

Lorca's Comedies

If you ask dramatists about the plays of Federico Garcia Lorca, they frequently can rattle off three titles: The House of Bernarda Alba (the one everyone's seen), Blood Wedding (the one everyone's read), and Yerma (the one everyone means to get around to reading one day).

However, Lorca actually wrote a number of other plays in addition to these tragedies. His first play to be produced, in fact, was a comedy called The Butterfly's Evil Spell. Madrid's respected Teatro Eslava performed the piece in 1920, when Lorca was only 21 years old. Nothing like the realistic Bernard Alba, Lora's first play was a Symbolist fantasy particularly influenced by the work of Maurice Maeterlinck.

The play tells the story of a group of insects whose lives are turned upside down when a beautiful but unattainable butterfly is injured and comes to live among them. At the end of the first act, the character of Boybeetle passionately exclaims:

What skein of loves has the wind knit here for me?
Why fades now the flower of my innocence,
while another flower is born within my imaginings?
Who can she be, who comes to rob me of good venture
with shaken wings, as white as ermine?

(translated by James Graham-Lujan and Richard L. O'Connell)

Throughout the second act, he progressively falls into a spiral of hopeless love, leading at last to his demise. The butterfly claims she does not even know what love is, nor ever will know. Boybeetle loves, but loves with a love that can never be requited.

In 1923, Lorca premiered a very different play, and under very different circumstances. Critics had blasted The Butterfly's Evil Spell, but Lorca wrote The Billy-Club Puppets for a potentially even harsher critic: his little sister.

Lorca and his friends and family performed to play (featuring music by the composer Don Manuel de Falla) on the Feast of the Epiphany to follow up a play about the Three Wise Men. The characters are taken from stock commedia dell'arte types that had migrated to puppet booths.

The main character is Don Cristobita, who goes around with a club, intimidating and beating all those who oppose him. He makes his commedia dell'arte roots clear when he claims: "as a child I lived in France and Italy, serving a certain Monsieur Pantaloon." Of course, commedia began in Italy, but it also continued to develop in France at the Comedie-Italienne. The Pantaloon, or Pantelone, was a greedy old man in commedia.

At the end of the play, one of the young lovers stabs Don Cristobita. He cannot be charged with murder, however, since instead of blood, the puppet bleeds sawdust. Not being a real person, his death remains unpunished, and the audience is invited to mock at a death that is not a death.

In spite of the play's humble premiere, Lorca's script was later published, and critics credit The Billy-Club Puppets with helping to revive puppet plays in Spain. The delightful piece should serve as a reminder that Lorca was not all doom and gloom, in spite of the popularity of his late tragedies.