Federico Garcia Lorca (Text for a Multi-Media Performance at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art on the Centenary of Lorca’s Birth)


Federico Garcia Lorca was born on June 5, 1898, in this house in Fuente Vaqueros, a village in the province of Grenada, in an area known as Andalusia, in southeast Spain. At the age of two Lorca was something of a mascot at the local grammar school where this photo was taken. That’s Lorca in the white sombrero. When he was ten, Lorca’s family moved to nearby Grenada, which Lorca would later describe as a “City of mist and sorrow / a City of cinnamon towers.”

For 800 years, until 1492, Grenada was a Moorish town. Even today that influence remains in Grenada’s Moorish wall and its most famous feature, the Alhambra, which Lorca would draw several times in his life. And it didn’t take long for the young Lorca to discover the Gypsies living in the foothills nearby. Every evening the Gypsies would gather in caves on the side of the so-called Sacred Mountain above Grenada to sing, dance, love, and drink. It was here, listening to the Gypsy Cante Jondo musicians and dancers, that Lorca first became aware of something known to the Gypsies as Duende, which supposedly animates their best performances. The Duende is a spirit which rises up from the earth through the soles of the feet, to fill the living host with a “black wind.” Having at times personally experienced this possession, Lorca later wrote that “All the arts are capable of Duende, but it naturally achieves its widest play in the fields of music, dance, and the spoken poem, since these require a living presence to interpret them.” He also came to believe that it was essential to live in accordance with one’s deepest instincts and desires or else life remains essentially unlived. His plays are almost wholly concerned with frustrated desires and passions. This and Lorca’s identification with society’s outcasts was undoubtedly intensified by his being a gay man subject to “forbidden desires” completely unacceptable in Spain’s macho culture.

His early genius and training were primarily as a musician, beginning with classical music and later an interest in the local Gypsy folk tradition. In 1918, at the age of 20, he published his first book, a collection of prose pieces written about a trip to Castile while a music student. The next year he moved to Madrid to study law and lived in the university’s dormitories, where he met and became friends with the painter Salvador Dali and the future filmmaker Luis Bunuel, shown here in the center of the back row with his arm around Lorca.

In 1922, Lorca collaborated with the famous Spanish composer Manuel de Falla on a festival of Cante Jondo, or Deep Song. The powerfully suggestive Gypsy ballads and passionate performances gave Lorca a glimpse of what was possible in the combination of music, spirituality, passion, and poetry. Even at this time, before his first real book of poetry was published, Lorca was already relatively famous for his passionate readings, which would include not only poetry but Spanish folk songs. “Verse,” he wrote, “is made to be recited. In a book it is dead.”

Lorca’s early poems often used musical titles, metaphors, and images. Lorca’s first three collections of poetry (Poems of the Deep Song, Suites, and Gypsy Ballads) were more or less based on adapting the Spanish musical forms and filling them with startlingly new images. In this he was influenced by the powerful, almost subliminal, surrealist imagery of his friend Salvador Dali, who often included portraits of the poet in his paintings at this time. By 1930, the musical references in Lorca’s poetry were no longer merely ornamental but had extended into the structures of the poems themselves. For instance, he described the book A Poet in New York as “symphonic, like the noise and complexity” of the city itself. And later, while writing “Blood Wedding,” he compulsively listened to the same records over and over, literally driving his other family members from the house, in this case the recordings of Cante Jondo singer Tomas Pavon and a Bach cantata. He claimed the contrapuntal structure of the third act was inspired and directly modeled on the technique of imitative entry used in the Bach cantata. And poems like “Two Waltzes Toward Civilization” are appropriately written in ¾ time. In essence he was a 20th century jongeleur, and he traveled from town to town, singing a little at the piano, reciting some poems, and giving lectures on Spanish folk music.

Another obvious influence in Lorca’s poetry are the dramatic situations and monologues of theater. An early play, “The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife,” had been a complete disaster, closing on opening night. But in 1927, Dali constructed the sets for Lorca’s first successful play, “Mariana Pineda.” Lorca’s friendship with Dali at this time also encouraged Lorca’s interest in drawing and painting, and he  had his first public art exhibition at a gallery in Barcelona later that same year.

In 1928, Lorca suddenly became internationally famous with a collection of poems modeled on traditional Gypsy ballads. Unfortunately, his success coincided with his greatest depression. First there was a love affair gone bad. In addition, Lorca felt that his fame was for all the wrong reasons—he felt he was being sold as a primitive Gypsy poet, which he felt was inaccurate and condescending. Then Bunuel, who hated homosexuals and was jealous of Lorca’s friendship with Dali, drove them apart. Lorca believed that the title of Bunuel and Dali’s film “An Andalusian Dog” and its impotent lead character (known as “The Personage”) were intended to mock the poet, his depression, his success, his love of the past, and his homosexuality.

In 1929, Lorca sailed for New York, where, despite a warm welcome from old friends, his depression continued. During his stay he traveled to New Hampshire, visited with friends, lectured, wrote the poems collected and published posthumously as A Poet in New York, read “The Wasteland” in translation, visited the poet Hart Crane (who was then completing “The Bridge”) at one of Crane’s “sailor parties,” and drew this self-portrait. In January, 1930, he sailed for Cuba, where he arrived as a hero and stayed for several months. When he returned to Spain, he began composing two very melancholy puppet plays, including “The Billy Club Puppets.” In the last five years of life he turned almost completely to theater, where he attempted to overthrow the current trend of modernism by returning to the essence of classical Greek tragedy. He wrote “Theatre is poetry which rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair.”

These were the days of the Spanish Republic, and Lorca joined a publicly supported theater company which for three years brought classical Spanish theater to mountain peasant communities. The company traveled and lived as equals, wearing identical workers’ blue overalls, performing free of charge, and setting up their portable theater in the public square in towns too small or too poor to support a theater. During this time, Lorca wrote his famous trilogy of frustrated female desire—“Blood Wedding,” “Yerma,” and “The House of Bernarada Alba.” These plays were immensely popular and Lorca traveled to Argentina to assist in their productions there, where he was once again welcomed as a hero. There he met Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who can be seen standing, fifth from the left in the back row, with Lorca standing second from the left. The two poets would meet and collaborate again in Spain in the last year of Lorca’s life.

Lorca wanted to use theater to challenge societal norms. In 1936, shortly before he died, he told an interviewer: “As long as there is economic injustice in the world, the world will be unable to think clearly. Two men are walking along a river bank. One of them is rich, the other poor. One has a full belly and the other yawns. And the rich man says: “What a lovely little boat on the water! Look at that lily blooming on the bank!” and the poor man wails: “I’m hungry, so hungry!” The day when hunger is eradicated there is going to be the greatest spiritual explosion the world has ever seen. We’ll never be able to imagine the joy that will erupt when the Great Revolution comes.”

It was sentiments like this which made Lorca unpopular with the fascists. But it is still surprising that a man of his international fame and local popularity was arrested in his home town of Grenada and was among the first one hundred citizens to be executed by the Spanish fascists. In July, 1936, Lorca knew that the police were looking to arrest him. He managed to avoid capture in the home of a friend for almost a month. But in the early days of August he was denounced, arrested by this man, Ramon Alonzo, and jailed. After a couple of days, he was taken away after dark to this house in the foothills outside of Grenada. He was told that he would be assigned to a work detail in the morning. At the time, this lie was considered a kindness. In the morning, Lorca was told he was going to be executed and a priest was brought in to hear his last confession. Lorca was then put into a car beside three other prisoners—two small-time bullfighters who were arrested because they supported the wrong side in a political debate, and a schoolteacher with a wooden leg who, it was felt, may have had socialist sympathies. They were driven a short distance to this olive grove and were told to begin walking. About twenty paces into the trees they were shot in the back. Unfortunately, the man assigned to Lorca turned out to be a bad shot and Lorca was wounded but not killed. He later bragged that he walked up to the body and fired two shots into his ass because he was a queer. Then he placed the warm barrel of his revolver against the poet’s still conscious temple and blew his head into pieces. In the afternoon a gravedigger covered the bodies where they lay and poured lime on the mounds. Lorca’s body, of course, has never been identified.

Seven years earlier, Lorca had predicted that he would be assassinated and his body never found. In 1931, he wrote an autobiographical play which was largely obsessed with the idea of his own rapidly approaching violent and painful death. When he finished the play—entitled “When Five Years Pass”—he dated the final page—August 18th, 1931. His execution took place exactly five years later, on August 18th, 1936.

Lorca himself warned that translation stole the “spirit of language.” Even so, Lorca is currently the most translated Spanish poet and playwright of all time. His Gypsy Ballads is the most popular and translated book ever published in the Spanish language. Roger Tinnel has indexed over 1200 artistic compositions based on his works. Not counting popular versions, over 80% of his poems have been set to music. In a large extent Lorca’s continued popularity is because his poetry, even though a large amount of it is structured as music for oral recitation in his native Andalusian dialect, still communicates the elemental passions which concerned him. These are expressed largely in voluptuous but concrete images, sometimes surrealistically rendered or juxtaposed in startling ways. And perhaps it’s because, as Lorca wrote in his essay “Duende,” “In every country, death comes as a finality. It comes, and the curtain comes down. But not in Spain! In Spain the curtain goes up. Many people live out their lives between walls till the day they die and are brought out into the sun. In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country of the world: their profile wounds like the edge of a barber’s razor.”

                Still in his twenties, Lorca wrote a poem entitled simply “Death”:

How hard they try!

How hard the horse tries

to become a dog!

How hard the dog tries to become a swallow!

How hard the swallow tries to become a bee!

How hard the bee tries to become a horse!

And the horse,

what a sharp arrow it presses from the rose,

what a pale rose rising from its lips!

And the rose,

what a flock of lights and cries

knotted in the living sugar of its trunk!

And the sugar,

what daggers it dreams in its vigils!

And the daggers,

what a moon without stables, what nakedness,

eternal and blushing flesh they seek out!

And I, on the roof’s edge,

eternal and blushing angel I look for and am!

But the plaster arch,

how vast, how invisible, how minute,

without even trying!

2 people have left comments

  • Maria Elena - Gravatar Maria Elena July 3, 2014

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog, aimed at Federico Garcia Lorca.

  • randyr - Gravatar randyr July 3, 2014

    Thank you so much Maria Elena. (What a perfect name for a Lorca fan!) I was so lucky to produce the poetry part of a 3-night celebration of Lorca’s birth at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art in 1998–one night for the poetry (much of it in Spanish and English with projected images of his artwork), one night for the music (with flamenco dancing as well!), one for theater (a performance, in Spanish, of “Blood Wedding”). We couldn’t fit all of it into one night. This formed the script for an introduction to Lorca at the Festival. On opening night, while I read, a friend projected slides of his artwork. Even today, when I look up from typing, the first thing I see is a poster from Lorca’s house and museum in Spain. He’s sitting in a chair, chin in his hand, staring at me, slightly bemused. It’s like having a drinking buddy, only this is a writing buddy. Thanks for writing!

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