Sympathising with the marginalised, Lorca wrote spirited plays featuring aspirational but oppressed women who sought freedom, pleasure and solace under the cover of night. Here, in the first essay of her mini series, Toni Roberts explores Lorca’s rural trilogy, reflecting on his heroines’ relationship to the night – and day.
It was towards the end of his life that the Spanish poet, playwright and artist, Federico García Lorca (1898 – 1936), wrote what scholars call the “rural trilogy”. The first play in the trilogy, Blood Wedding (1932), centres on the marriage of the Bride and Bridegroom and the aftermath of the event when the Bide runs away into the night with her former lover. Yerma (1934), the second in the trilogy, focuses on the titular character of a woman who longs for a child and is driven to engage in various night-time rites in her pursuit of offspring. The final play is The House of Bernarda Alba (1936), which is about a family of women forced into an eight-year mourning period after the death of their father and how the night-time activities of the youngest daughter affect the whole family.
At the time of writing the plays, Lorca was director of a university theatre company called La Barraca, which toured Spain bringing theatre to rural villages. It was his work with the theatre company that influenced his later dramas, including the rural trilogy, where he became interested in creating a dialogue with the public through his theatre. This is something that hadn’t worked well with his earlier experimental work and it was at this time, during the later stages of his career, that he turned to tragedy, which enabled him to create a shared reality with the audience on stage. Yet throughout his work, he was always interested in the lives of those who were marginalised and felt a connection to them. In 1931, he said: ‘I think being from Granada, I’m inclined to have a sympathetic compassion for the persecuted. The Gypsy people, black people, Jewish people …, the Moorish people that we all have inside ourselves.’ This sympathy for society’s alienated groups is evident in much of his poetry as well as in his empathetic portrayal of female characters. All three plays focus on the lives of women who struggle against societal norms; his female characters find themselves in a world where they’re expected to be modest, honourable and obedient. This world is impossibly hellish for these women, a sentiment vocalised by Angustias, the oldest daughter in the Alba family: ‘Fortunately, I’m soon going to leave this hell’, she exclaims.
In The House of the Bernarda Alba, the daughters are trapped in a sparkling, clinical white house where they are expected to dress in mourning black and spend their days doing needlework, restless and irritable with the suffocating heat of the Andalusian sun. It is evocative of an asylum, exacerbated by the appearance of Bernarda’s own mother, María Josefa, who appears mad and is literally locked away in the house with ‘two turns of the key’. Yerma’s living hell is being unable to have a child and being married to a man who doesn’t want one: ‘I have more and more desires and less hope,’ she laments. In Blood Wedding, the Mother has lost her husband and son, and lives in constant fear for the life of her last surviving son. The Bride, also, has to resign herself to a life with the Bridegroom when, in fact, she loves her former lover, Leonardo. These heroines lack the freedoms many women in the Western world enjoy today – being able to go out wherever and whenever they want, being able to have a job and earn their own money, being able to live independently.
However, the characters in these plays exist in a world where fascism is spreading across the continent and political polarization continues to develop, ultimately leading to the Spanish Civil War in 1936 (which broke out as Lorca was working on The House of Bernarda Alba) and the consequent dictatorship that lasted a devastating forty years. This historical context puts the sense of isolation and imprisonment the female characters experience into perspective. At the beginning of Blood Wedding, the Mother hasn’t been up the street in twenty years, Yerma’s husband, Juan, doesn’t like her going out – something he mentions continuously throughout the play – and the Alba household seems to be connected to the outside world at a distance, having gossip relayed to them by the maid, Poncia. They all live in the rural towns and countryside of Andalusia where the landowners are likely nationalists and the agricultural labourers, republicans. Yet, rural areas typically remain politically and culturally conservative, stuck in the past while the bigger towns and cities advance.
But we start to see a generational gap also. The search for freedom is a theme that spans the entire trilogy and is particularly connected to the younger female characters of the Bride, Yerma and Adela. All three women actively seek to gain some autonomy over their lives so that they may reach a place where they can be happy and fulfilled. In the case of the Bride, this means running away from her wedding party with Leonardo; for Yerma it’s attending fertility ceremonies and for Adela, it is attempting to run away so that she can be with her lover, Pepe el Romano. And we see that these young women, who act as a voice for a generation heading towards a more liberal way of thinking, must struggle and fight against the older female characters, Bernarda and the Mother, who represent conservative tradition.
The notion of struggle and suffering can be understood through Lorca’s theory of duende, which he elaborated in his 1933 lecture entitled Play and the Theory of Duende. The duende is a kind of internal force often associated with the flamenco dancers and singers of southern Spain. It’s like the physical emotion a person feels in response to art that moves them, gives them chills and makes them smile. It is powerful. In his lecture, Lorca defines duende as a ‘force not a labour, a struggle not a thought.’ The words ‘force’ and ‘struggle’ suggest action, a process. The women in the plays actively fight against a culture that seeks to render them dependant. But how do these women find freedom of expression and desire, and attempt to take control of their lives in such a stifling world? The key to their rebellion lies in the lightless folds of night.
In quality, the night is dark, it makes things difficult to see, makes people cautious. The night is when most people sleep, meaning they are absent and unaware. It is this time and space, then, that provides a welcome break from the black uniforms the Alba sisters must wear during the day and allows them to seek refreshment from the cooler night air. Likewise, Yerma chooses the night as her time for tranquillity: ‘Many nights I go out barefoot on the patio to tread the earth, I don’t know why,’ she tells María, a woman from the village. From this, we get an idea of how the lives of men and women are in opposition: men go out to work in the fields every day to earn money for the family, while women stay at home. But, come the cover of darkness, women make their escape and, in the case of the Bride, this is a literal escape from her wedding on horseback.
Escapism can come in different forms. This is a community where women are sexually repressed and, as such, it’s unsurprising that they choose night as the time to express themselves emotionally and explore their sexuality. In The House of Bernarda Alba, we hear the story of Paca la Roseta, a woman from the village who ties her husband to a trough one night and goes off with a group of men into the olive grove. She does this willingly ‘with her breasts exposed and carried under the arm of Maximiliano as if he were playing a guitar’. She returns the next day with her hair out and a crown of flowers on her head. Bernarda and Poncia are scandalised by this story: Bernarda calls her the ‘only bad woman in the village’ and Poncia claims that it’s because she comes from far away and is not from their village. Paca la Roseta knows what her conservative neighbours’ thoughts are regarding promiscuity; yet, she goes with the men anyway, taking hold of the night in all its sensual mysticism and connecting to the femininity of nature as a way to sexually liberate herself from the constraints of married life. In much the same way, the young Adela uses the opportunities gifted to her by the night to develop a relationship with Pepe el Romano. With her mother ruling over her by day, she can only meet Pepe by moonlight and the farmyard forms the setting of their sexual relationship. The cover of darkness and sleep allow her to deliberately defy her mother and, by extension, the society in which she lives. There is something primal about engaging in sexual activity outside the confines of the house. The idea of going back to nature, tuning into your base instincts and becoming one with the body and earth is a feminine poetry. The night facilitates this poetry, allowing it to come to fruition.
In Yerma, the night has a magical, spiritual and mystical quality to it. It’s the time when fertility rites and ceremonies take place in graveyards and mountains. As Yerma struggles against her husband’s lack of paternal instinct, her desperation and pain build, reaching a climax in the latter part of the play. It’s during this time that she visits a pagan woman, Dolores, to take part in a ritualistic, graveside ceremony which promises to result in pregnancy. Once again, Yerma opposes her husband, audacious in her pursuit of fulfilment. The night-time fertility ceremony has an air of secrecy and witchcraft about it. Dolores acts as a witch-like figure who uses a magical ritual to help the seed of unfulfilled women to grow. But then the night comes to an end as the sun starts to rise, bringing with it Juan and his demands for Yerma to return home. Yerma’s plight still resonates with many women today. In the 2016 adaptation of the play for the Young Vic, Simon Stone alters the time and setting of the play (transporting it to modern-day London), but still maintains the core conflict that remains universal.
The three principle heroines, Adela, Yerma and the Bride, all possess an internal force, a fire that burns deep within them. So, then, we can say that these women have duende in the sense that they struggle, have deep and meaningful emotions as the source of their struggle and connect with the earth (the Bride with the forest, Yerma with her barefooted, nocturnal walks and her graveyard ritual, and Adela with the farmyard) as a means of finding authenticity. Lorca describes duende as ‘the spirit of the earth’ and says ‘it’s no accident that all Spanish art is rooted in our soil.’ The rural settings of the plays enable the dramas to be anchored in the earthiness of the spirit that is at the heart of duende. This earthiness and force are part of Spanish culture, particularly the culture of southern Spain where flamenco has its origins. The women’s internal fire stirs, sparks and erupts in the dimness of the night like the stamp of the flamenco dancer’s feet and the vibration of the guitarist’s strings. The night strengthens the passion, the struggle and the drive of duende, allowing it to come into its full force.
The night is not static: it shifts and changes and becomes different things for different women. For Adela and Paca la Roseta it is a sexually charged zone for exploration, empowerment and desire; for Yerma it is an opportunity to attempt to fulfil her deepest desire and pave her own path and for the Bride it offers the chance to be with the man she loves. However, for others, the night is a space for the concealment of shame. At the end of the second act of The House of Bernarda Alba, the villagers are all riled up because a single woman is found to have given birth to a child with an unknown man. In an attempt to hide her shame at giving birth out of wedlock, she kills the child and hides it under some rocks in the dead of night. The veiled-quality of darkness enables her to cover up the things she doesn’t want others to know. The darkness conceals, erases, abstracts. However, just like in Yerma, the quality of the day is to reveal and the baby’s corpse appears on the woman’s doorstep the next day, dragged there by dogs. The villagers are running and shouting for her to be killed – it’s a bloodthirsty riot.
The periodic temporality of the night has not fallen in the woman’s favour. Its cause makes available the evidence (the infant’s corpse), which the day takes full advantage of unearthing. Adela, Paca la Roseta, Yerma, the Bride unite with the bodies of those they love in the secrecy of night while leaving nothing behind of the union for day to reveal. They are able to return to a more socially acceptable version of themselves during the day. However, panic and fear appear to have gone against the woman who commits infanticide. Contraceptives and abortions wouldn’t have been readily available to her and these remain contentious subjects even today. Although I am fortunate to have access to these services in the UK, I think back to the time when, not so long ago, abortion was illegal in nations not so far away and remains illegal, still, in others, today. Because of this, many desperate women took great risks. In this way, the darkness and the night-time become a figurative state. Women travelling to other counties to have abortions or performing unauthorised terminations are events that are figuratively nocturnal. The secrecy and illicitness of these acts are encompassed by the night’s darkness.
All three plays are tragedies and, thus, it’s inevitable that blood will be spilt. It is also no surprise that all the deaths happen is the latter, climactic halves of the plays. But there is something else that links all four deaths (two in Blood Wedding and one each in Yerma andThe House of Bernarda Alba); they all take place during the night. It is curious how these deaths affect the women in the plays. The deaths that take place in Blood Wedding are those of the two central male characters: the Bridegroom and Leonardo. Although it’s the men who lose their lives, it is the women who are affected. Leonardo’s wife has lost her husband and must face bringing up a child alone. The Bride has lost the two men in her life: her husband and her lover. She can’t bear to be without them. Returning to the Mother’s house in the final scene she cries: ‘I’ve come so that you’ll kill me and so they’d take me with them.’ In this case, the night has left her in despair (a shift from the escape it granted her beforehand). Interestingly, though, the night brings a type of relief for the Mother. After the tragedy, she has no one left. Although now alone, she no longer needs to be afraid as all of her loved ones are dead. No longer does she have to go to sleep in fear of a shotgun or a knife.
In the final act of The House of Bernarda Alba, the night no longer remains a source of security for the vivacious and strong-willed Adela. She has a plan to run away and be with Pepe. Of course, when someone wishes to run away they rarely do it in broad daylight. Again, the night is her refuge as her mother has gone to bed and Pepe is waiting for her in the usual place. When attempting to escape, her sister Martirio, who also has feelings for Pepe and is jealous of Adela’s relationship with him, confronts her. But Adela is defiant and Martirio resorts to what seems like her only option: to call for her mother, Bernarda. Finally, right at the end of the play, Bernarda becomes privy to the secrets of her household. Furious, she goes out and shoots at Pepe, who escapes alive. The bitter Martirio lies to Adela, telling her that Pepe is dead. This is the end for Adela. Her mother will never let her leave and Martirio is determined to make her suffer the same as the rest of them. But Adela seizes the very last chance she has left at freedom and hangs herself. The infinite darkness of death engulfs her, turning her into a goddess of the night. The parallel between the darkness of night and the darkness of death unite and intertwine, weaving into the fabric of freedom’s open embrace. Here, death is not sadness, fear or despair. Here, death is hope, release and self-determination. If life is the tight, vice-like grip of the day, death is the fluidity and emancipation offered by the night.
The inevitability of death and the act of coming face-to-face with it hangs like a black cloud over the three dramas. It is said that duende ‘won’t appear if he [the artist] can’t see the possibility of death’. The awareness of death resides in the women of these tragic poems, growing and manifesting itself through their struggle for self-expression and a means of communication. The Bride is well aware that she faces death if she runs away with Leonardo, but still, she does it. So too does the Mother acknowledge death, when she allows her last living son to marry a woman who was once involved with a man belonging to the family that murdered her husband and son. Yerma, as her agony grows, can barely face life without a child. She comes head-to-head with death and ultimately takes the life of her husband, fully aware of the consequences. Adela wilfully dances with death and treads down a narrow road to destruction. The single woman at the end of act two of The House of Bernarda Alba also treads this path, aware of its dangers.
These women are bullfighters, playing with their lives in pursuit of something more. Their earthliness, diabolical behaviour (in the eyes of their community), strength of will and awareness of death all come together to form duende. Lorca masterfully and elegantly sews the fabric of themes that transcend time and space. As a woman, there are many times I’ve felt defiant for the sake of my gender and although the women in these plays exist in a time I have never experienced, I recognise them in myself, in other women around me and in women I do not know. In these three plays, Lorca has articulated suffering with a lyricism that speaks to the soul and the lives of women everywhere; women who harness the powers of the night, literally and figuratively, and embrace the tragedy this may entail.
About Toni Roberts
Toni Roberts is a writer from and based in London. She primarily writes plays and had a short play performed as part of The Platform at The Bread & Roses Theatre, which ran on 23rd and 24th February 2020. She studied English Language and Spanish at the University of Westminster where she first got into playwriting and has recently expanded her writing range to include poetry and essays. Follow Toni on Twitter @tonihroberts and on Instagram @toniroberts
This piece has been commissioned as part of a mini series, Women of the Night, conceived and written by Toni Roberts
Night has many associations: death, darkness, horror, the supernatural, secrecy, discos, drunkenness, dancing, disorder and dreams. But it is also a time and space associated with women; throughout history, in myth, legend and the everyday, women have looked to night for liberation, even at the risk of incurring violence towards themselves. From nocturnal revels to sex work to Wiccan rituals in a moon-lit forest, women have worked, suffered, triumphed and plotted well into the dead hours of the night. In this mini-series, I will explore women’s relationship to the shifts and changes, turns and oscillations of night, as depicted in film, theatre, visual art, literature and music. Including works by the likes of the playwright Federico García Lorca, the photographer Ana Casa Broda, the poet Muriel Rukeyser and many more, my personal essays will reflect on the role night plays in women’s lives and how, in turn, their lives shape and inform our conception of what night is and could be.
This mini-series is part of our theme Night / Shift, which will be open for submissions until the end of November.
Feature image of Billier Piper in Yerma in a version of the play by Simon Stone for the Young Vic. Photograph by Johan Persson.