A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Federico Garcia Lorca

The greatest Spanish poet and playwright of the twentieth century, Federico Garcia Lorca was executed at the age of 38 by Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Two months earlier, he had finished a first draft of his best play, "The House of Bernarda Alba," telling a journalist that "my work has just begun."

The precocious son of a liberal landowner, Lorca was born June 5, 1898.
As a teenager, he studied music and wrote poems, reciting them in local cafes. He attended the University of Granada, majoring in philosophy and law, but gave them up for art, literature, and drama. In 1919 he transferred to the University of Madrid, and the following year his first play opened in Madrid, "The Butterfly’s Evil Spell." It closed after one performance. At the age of 23, he published his first volume of poetry, and seven years later "The Gypsy Ballads," which made him famous. In 1929 he studied English at Columbia University in New York, where he continued his interest in drama in association with local theater groups. His book of poetry about his experiences there, "Poet in New York," was not published until after his death.

Returning to Spain in 1931, he started his own theater company composed mostly of students, "La Barraca," touring the country with free performances of Spanish classics by such writers as Cervantes, Calderon, and Lope de Vega. They also performed "rural tragedies," by Lorca, including "Blood Wedding" (1933) and "Yerma," (1934). "The House of Bernarda Alba" was completed in draft in 1936.

"Blood Wedding" is a lyrical work that concerns a woman who, on the night of her wedding, elopes with her lover, whose family is engaged with hers in a blood feud. "Yerma" is another poetic tragedy, about a woman who yearns for a child, but whose husband is sterile. She cannot leave him because of the strict moral code of her rural society that also prevents her from turning to another man. The only course left for her is to murder her husband. Both plays were produced in New York in the fifties, at Circle in the Square Theatre, directed by Jose Quintero.

"The House of Bernarda Alba," revived most recently at the National Theatre in London, starred Penelope Wilton in the title role. A moralistic, domineering mother of five daughters, she keeps them confined within the house, each sexually frustrated and yearning to escape the mother’s tyranny. Most tragic is the fate of the youngest daughter, who sneaks out at night to meet her lover. When their illicit love is discovered by Bernarda, the daughter commits suicide, believing her mother caused the death of her lover.

In an earlier revival in London, Joan Plowright appeared as Bernarda, a role Lorca wrote for Spanish tragic actress Margarita Xirgu.

"La Barraca," his touring company, also performed two farces by Lorca, "The Prodigious Cobbler’s Wife" (1930) and "The Love of Don Perlimplin with Belisa in her Garden" (1933). His devotion to surrealism, which he shared with such friends as filmmaker Luis Bunel and artist Salvadore Dali, is illustrated by two of his plays, "When Five Years Pass" and "The Audience." Dali created the set for Lorca’s historical verse drama, "Mariana Pineda " (1929), which treated Granada’s 19th century martyr, executed for conspiring against tyrant Ferdinand VII.

His plays’ political implications, his liberal leanings, his being a homosexual, and his anti-Franco activities all contributed to Lorca’s books being burned and to his own execution. In the early morning of August 19, 1936, Franco’s men shot him in a field at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and threw him into an unmarked grave.

Although Lorca’s writings were banned during his lifetime, and burned in Granada, where even speaking his name was forbidden, his works have grown steadily in popularity since his death. The plays are performed in Spain and in translation throughout the world. A recent production at the Arcola Theatre in 2008 in London by the Baraca group celebrated Lorca with a surrealistic play that incorporated segments of his works. The group of young performers takes its name from the theater company founded by Lorca in 1931.