Lorca said once that the only hope for happiness lies in “living one’s instinctual life to the full.” Blood Wedding can be understood as a gloss on that belief. In it the poet succeeded in creating a medium that allowed him to express the deepest elements in his personality while at the same time to deploy his multiple talents.
—Ian Gibson, Federico García Lorca: A Life In His Poetry and Plays
Federico García Lorca opened up Spanish literature to accommodate elements of European modernism without losing any of the forces of tradition and place from which his works derive so much strength. Through his intense analysis of himself and his world García Lorca contributed to a redefinition of Spanish identity and consciousness while grappling with issues that transcend national borders and strictly contemporary issues. As a poet his artistry grew from his earliest poetry of adolescent longing to the more mature achievement of the Romancero gitano (Gypsy Ballads) in which a highly personal style emerges with a fusion of traditional poetic elements and striking modern images. In his breathtaking sequence Poeta en Nueva York (Poet in New York), García Lorca abandoned traditional poetic forms for a succession of surreal images capturing the chaotic nightmare of modern urban life and the poet’s anguish as he confronts it. García Lorca’s plays are filled with the same intensity, daring imagery, and preoccupations that mark his poetry. His plays appeal to a large popular audience yet resonate with a poetic intensity and lyricism that much modern drama has jettisoned or failed to realize. His best plays explore psychological and social forces in which human instincts collide with society’s restraints and are meant to be instructive. “The theatre is a school of weeping and of laughter,” García Lorca observed, “a rostrum where men are free to expose old and equivocal standards of conduct, and explain with living examples the eternal norms of the heart and feelings of man.” At his best García Lorca achieves the fusion of lyric and dramatic effects that William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot struggled with mixed results to join in a revitalized poetic drama. García Lorca’s rich blend of folk tradition, contemporary social analysis, and deeply personal exploration of universal themes is simultaneously timeless, sophisticated, and authentic. As critic Francis Ferguson has asserted, García Lorca “writes the poetry of the theater as our poets would like to do.” Of all his plays Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding) is recognized as his masterpiece, his most performed play worldwide and a summation of the theatrical methods and particular genius of one of the great originals in dramatic expression in the 20th century.
García Lorca’s inspiration and artistic power originate in his background and the influence of his native Andalusia, with its rich blend of Moorish, Gypsy, and rural Spanish tradition. Born in 1898 in a small village west of Granada, García Lorca was the son of a prosperous farmer and a former schoolteacher who encouraged her precocious son in his reading and musical ability. His interest in drama was stimulated early when entertainers came to the village and performed a puppet show. Enchanted with the performance, García Lorca eventually constructed his own set of marionettes and presented original performances for the neighbors. An accomplished pianist and guitarist, García Lorca first intended to become a musician and composer; instead, yielding to the wishes of his practical father, he began to study law at the University of Granada but left for Madrid in 1919. He lived at the Student Residence of the University of Madrid for 10 years, while he read widely, wrote, and associated with a circle of young intellectuals and artists who included future film director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí. He also met such international figures as François Mauriac, H. G. Wells, and Igor Stravinsky and was exposed to the avant-garde movements of dadaism and surrealism. García Lorca incorporated modern artistic techniques into traditional poetic forms, performing his poetry like a troubadour in cafés and night clubs. In 1920 his friendship with Gregorio Martínez Sierra, director of Madrid’s Eslava Theater, led to the production of García Lorca’s first play, El maleficio de la mariposa (The Butterfly’s Evil Spell), a symbolic fable in which a cockroach’s earthbound existence is challenged by the appearance of a butterfly. He would achieve his initial theatrical success with Mariana Pineda (1927). Set in the 1830s, the play is the first of García Lorca’s portraits of heroic, suffering women, in which the title character is executed for her revolutionary activity. Following the publication of Gypsy Ballads in 1928, García Lorca became famous. In 1929, seeking relief from severe depression and emotional distress, which may have been caused by his growing awareness of his homosexuality, he went to New York, where be studied briefly at Columbia University. His experience in a different culture, so antagonistic to his native and regional values, produced an emotional crisis and self-exploration of his identity and homosexuality in the nightmarish visions of Poet in New York, published posthumously in 1940.
García Lorca, who would say that “The theater was always my vocation,” returned to Spain in 1930 to concentrate on drama and the revitalization of the Spanish theater. Endorsing the social function of drama as a reform agent, he wrote that “a theater that is sensitive and well oriented in all of its branches, from tragedy to vaudeville, can in a few years change the sensibility of a people; and a shattered theater, in which hoofs substitute for wings, can debase and benumb an entire nation.” His initial dramatic efforts during this period were experimental pieces in the surrealist manner, although such works as Amor de don Perlimplín con Belisa en su jardín (Don Perlimplin and Belisa in the Garden), La zapatera prodigiosa (The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife), and Doña Rosita la soltera (Dona Rosita the Spinster) show him attempting to balance elements derived from the Spanish dramatic tradition with his characteristic lyricism and theatrical innovations that joined farce with serious themes and incorporated music and dance. In 1932 the fledgling Spanish Republic advanced educational and cultural reforms by funding the University Theater, popularly known as La Barraca, with García Lorca as one of its directors. Its mission was to employ university students to provide theater and other cultural opportunities for the underprivileged in the country’s isolated villages. Traveling across rural Spain in a truck loaded with props and sets, the company, under García Lorca’s direction, performed classic dramas of Félix Lope de Vega, Miguel de Cervantes, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Tirso de Molina, and others to appreciative rural audiences. The experience of adapting classic Spanish texts to entertain large, unsophisticated audiences, while reconnecting with Spain’s peasant culture, proved to be formative in García Lorca’s development as a playwright when he began his masterworks, the “rural trilogy,” initiated with Blood Wedding in 1933, followed by Yerma (1934), and La casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba), produced posthumously in 1945. In 1936 anti-Republican forces under Francisco Franco revolted, setting off the Spanish civil war. García Lorca’s connections with the Republican government made him a target in the purges mounted by Franco’s troops. He sought protection in the house of a friend near Granada but was arrested and executed by a fi ring squad at the age of 38. As Chilean poet Pablo Neruda lamented, “Those who in shooting him wanted to hit the heart of his people made the right choice.”
Blood Wedding, in which García Lorca attempted to represent that heart, originated from a newspaper account of a murder committed before a wed-ding near the Andalusian town of Níjar, in the province of Almería. The dead man was the previous lover of the bride, who, after running away with her the night before the wedding, had been killed by the groom’s cousin. This notorious case provided the basis for the themes of García Lorca’s play in its tragedy of thwarted love and passion crippled by social conventions and avarice. As García Lorca’s biographer Ian Gibson summarizes, “In the Níjar tragedy the poet found a powerful metaphor. . . . Leonardo and the Bride, like their real-life prototypes, have experienced a passionate adolescent love which lasted for three years, a love frustrated by economic considerations and almost forgotten by their neighbors. Nature had ‘made’ the two for each other, but society frustrated her designs. Tragedy is the inevitable outcome.” García Lorca would transform the facts of the case with a highly stylized, symbolic method to universalize the drama.
Set in rural Andalusia, Blood Wedding opens in the home of the Mother and her son, who informs her of his intention to marry. Her husband and other sons have been killed in a blood feud, and the Mother is sorry to lose her only surviving son, but she orders him to buy presents for the Bride as custom dictates. From a neighbor the Mother learns that the Bride was once wooed by her cousin, Leonardo, before his marriage to another three years before. Leonardo is also a member of the family who had killed her loved ones. To emphasize the social forces and representative nature of the characters only Leonardo is given a name; all the other characters are designated by their societal position or role. The second scene takes place at Leonardo’s house. As Leonardo’s Wife and Mother-in-law are rocking a baby to sleep, he is asked whether he has been riding “on the far side of the plains,” where the Bride lives. Leonardo denies it, and the conversation shifts to the news of the upcoming marriage of the Bride and Bridegroom, while Leonardo’s neglect of his wife and child is suggested. The final scene of the act takes place at the Bride’s home. The Mother of the Bridegroom and the Father of the Bride formalize the match, each praising the worthiness of their offspring and their good fortune in consolidating their property through the marriage. The Bride is quiet and respectful in company, but once alone with her Servant expresses her impatience and frustration with the wedding planning and her future life. Told that it looks as if she did not want to be married, the Bride bites her hand in anger. She denies having heard a horse late the previous night or seen its rider, but when the Servant identifies the rider as Leonardo, the Bride sees him on horseback outside her window.
The second act takes place at the Bride’s house as the Servant prepares the Bride for the ceremony. The Bride reacts to the promised bliss that will follow her marriage by throwing her wreath of orange blossoms to the ground. Leonardo, his Wife, and his Mother-in-law are the first guests to arrive, and Leonardo and the Bride manage a private meeting to speak of their past love, its betrayal by Leonardo’s marriage, and his warning about the action the Bride is taking:
To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves. What good was pride to me—and not seeing you, and letting you lie awake night after night? No good! It only served to bring the fire down on me! You think that time heals and walls hide things, but it isn’t true, it isn’t true! When things get that deep inside you there isn’t anybody can change them.
The Bride persists in her intention of marrying and forgetting Leonardo and their past, as wedding songs are heard. In the second scene the guests have returned from the wedding ceremony. Amidst the bustle of drinking and dancing the Bride resists the Bridegroom’s embrace and announces that she wishes to rest and asks to be left alone. When the Bridegroom later goes to find her, she has disappeared. It is discovered that she and Leonardo have ridden away on his horse. The humiliated Bridegroom, anxious for revenge, gathers a posse of his relatives to pursue them.
The climactic third act shows García Lorca’s brilliance in joining striking stage effects with a symbolic method that expands the plays conflict into a collision of elemental, universal forces. The act shifts from its previous interior daytime settings to a forest at night and from prose, periodically broken by verse—such as the lullaby in the second scene of act 1 and the wedding songs of act 2—to mainly verse. The act begins with a chorus made up of woodcutters, who anticipate the bloody result of the lovers’ actions while underscoring the play’s central theme:
First woodcutter: When the moon comes out they’ll see them.
Second woodcutter: They ought to let them go.
First woodcutter: The world is wide. Everybody can live in it.
Third woodcutter: But they’ll kill them.
Second woodcutter: You have to follow your passion. They did right to run away.
First woodcutter: They were deceiving themselves but at the last blood was stronger.
Third woodcutter: Blood!first woodcutter You have to follow the path of your blood.
Second woodcutter: But blood that sees the light of day is drunk up by the earth.
First woodcutter: What of it? Better dead with blood drained away than alive with it rotting.
Ironically, by properly following one’s blood—instincts and desires—a wed-ding of blood, of death, results when social conventions are violated. This blood wedding, following the actual wedding, is further orchestrated by the symbolic figure of the Moon, appearing as a young woodcutter with a white face and presaging Death, which appears in the guise of a Beggar Woman who becomes the Bridegroom’s guide in his pursuit. Leonardo and the Bride are given a final recognition scene together in which they consider what they have done and its consequences, finding themselves trapped between their destructive passions and societal retribution. The scene ends with García Lorca’s inspired stage direction, integrating sight and sound into a stunning tableau:
The Moon appears very slowly. The stage takes on a strong blue light. The two violins are heard. Suddenly two long, ear-splitting shrieks are heard, and the music of the two violins is cut short. At the second shriek the Beggar Woman appears and stands with her back to the audience. She opens her cape and stands in the center of the stage like a great bird with immense wings. The Moon halts. The curtain comes down in absolute silence.
The final scene of the play opens with two girls winding a skein of red wool, suggesting human fate. Leonardo’s Wife and Mother-in-Law and the Bridegroom’s Mother await news, and they eventually learn that the Bride-groom has died at the hands of Leonardo, who is also dead. The Bride appears seeking the vengeance of the Mother, who is inconsolable, as the bodies of Leonardo and the Bridegroom are brought in to be mourned by the bereaved women. The play concludes with a catharsis of pity and terror as stark and unmitigated as any Greek tragedy, which the power of García Lorca’s poetry and stagecraft have made possible.