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A Genesis for García Lorca's Bodas de sangre

John K. Walsh10

University of California-Berkeley

Some fifty-odd years have now passed since García Lorca’s Bodas de sangre was first produced on March 8, 1933, at the Teatro Beatriz in Madrid. In the interim, this work, and the two back-country dramas that followed in its mold -Yerma and La casa de Bernarda Alba- have taken hold among the most celebrated pieces in contemporary Hispanic theater, and perhaps as the only Spanish works of the century to be settled in an international repertoire of modern drama.

The moderately long commercial run of Bodas de sangre in Madrid and Barcelona in 1933, followed by its blazing success six or seven months later in Buenos Aires, must have struck Lorca as a surprise. We tend to think of Bodas de Sangre as one play in a string of works Lorca had written since the early 1920s. And yet in terms of its impact it is clearly a new turn in Lorca’s art and his fortune. All of his earlier works had been staged so fleetingly that they could barely be counted as anything more than curiosity or preview productions. In fact, if we make a tally of all Lorca’s plays before Bodas, the total running time would barely stretch beyond a few weeks.11 With their marginal record of production, these early works offered glimpses of the promise. But at the same time they were greeted by the kind of bland response that would almost indicate a permanent flaw in the playwright, or the inability to bring about a grand success on the level of Bodas de sangre. Even Dámaso Alonso and others who knew Lorca well were declaring in the early 1930s that Lorca’s gifts as a playwright were not his stock, and that his indelible mark would be as a poet (Crow 18).

Yet Bodas de sangre did soar and shock and stay permanently on the Spanish stage. It had an initial run of two months in Madrid (through the end of May, 1933), then another with the same company in Barcelona (opening May 31, and running through June) at the Poliorama Theater. That summer Lola Membrives -who had seen the work in Spain- opened a trial production in Buenos Aires (which she took to Montevideo, Rosario, and Córdoba). Noting its effect and commercial prospects, she invited Lorca to supervise a new version in Buenos Aires, which opened on 25 October and ran for more than a hundred performances.12 In February of 1935, la Membrives brought her production of the work to Madrid; then in November of that year, Lorca supervised an entirely new staging with the company of Margarita Xirgu at the Teatro Principal in Barcelona (opening 22 November, for 37 performances). By January of 1936, the play was published in Madrid by the press of Cruz y Raya, under José Bergamín. In the interim it had been translated into French by Jean Prevost, and into English by José Weisberger (whose version was staged in New York by the Neighborhood Playhouse, in a production sponsored by the heiress Irene Lewisohn).13 This record of multiple stagings and wide circulation is unique. For Lorca it meant his first solid economic success, at the age of thirty-five, and financial independence from his family -the end of a kind of extended adolescence. It also gave him a place of his own in the commercial theater.

Not only was Bodas de sangre a change in the commercial prospects of Lorca’s art, it was also a radical turn in his artistic fixations. We might venture that the work should not have been expected from one with Lorca’s obsessions at the time. For between the New York period and the writing of Bodas -in a series of pieces never produced or published in his lifetime- Lorca’s nearly exclusive theatrical interest was in works that would explain sexualities (principally, homosexualities), and genders overlapping or falling

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out of focus. The plays El público and Así que pasen cinco años, the filmscript Viaje a la luna (which apparently grew into El público), as well as the plan to write a play called Sansón (ca. 1930), show the set of preoccupations he wanted to make into theater in the period just before Bodas de sangre. And Bodas would reverse the patterns of sexualities Lorca was suggesting: instead of the diffusion of genders or the discovery of hidden sexual affinities as nub of the theatrical thesis (Público, Así que pasen, Viaje a la luna, etc.), the new mode in Bodas and the rural folk-dramas that followed is of a singular and spiraling sexual obsession.

How did Bodas de sangre come to be? The standard legend we read in literary histories is of a protracted genesis, of a great theme incubating as idea over the years and then coming to written form in a flash. Yet I do not believe the creation of Bodas was a project drawn-out; rather, I propose that the entire drama fell completely into place in less than two weeks in late summer of 1932 -probably just beyond September 9, while Lorca was on a break from his work with La Barraca. (In this sense, it is different from his «sexualist» works, with their composition spread over years without ever getting set in full finished shape; but it is akin to La casa de Bernarda Alba and Yerma14 which struck like visions and were completed in extremely short periods.)

The anecdotal history of the drama’s inception is this: while in Granada in the summer of 1928, Lorca apparently learned from newspapers of the bizarre crime in the town of Níjar (province of Almería) -an outrage on the wedding night, and a resulting tragedy. (In the historical crime, some of the details differed from those of Lorca’s drama: hours before her wedding, the young woman ran off with her cousin, later found dead. It was discovered that her sister’s husband had killed him, and that the young woman had been attacked by her sister and sister’s husband. In spite of this knotty dénouement, the impulses and the outrage would be the same in Lorca’s play.) Lorca’s brother Francisco recalls that Federico remarked about the crime, and probably saved a newspaper clipping.15 And Lorca himself made us think the work was long in the making: «Me paso tres y cuatro años pensando una obra de teatro y luego la escribo en quince días... Cinco años tardé en hacer Bodas de sangre» (interview of 1935, in ed. of Hernández 19). We are led to believe that at this point (the summer of 1928) the project was cast, the theme was filed and recorded, that the work stirred and worked its way out in Lorca’s mind for nearly a lustrum, and then coalesced in those few days of intensive writing in 1932. But the lack of any mention of the project by Lorca before the late summer of 1932 (when his other plays were usually announced long before they were ever set down in writing, or parts read to friends long before the text was finished) leads us to suspect it did not occur to him as a feasible play before that time.16 Lorca may have been affected by news of the eccentric crime in Almería, but there is nothing to show that between 1928 and 1932 (precisely, September 7 of that year) he had made more than a remote place for it as possible theme for drama.

In trying to imagine how this play came to be written and why it rose so far above any theater Lorca had created before -at least as playable drama- we could invoke the changes in the poet’s art and experience that would have changed his writing. For one thing, the experience of a full season as co-director of La Barraca taught him what worked and played well -principles of timing and spacing that the Classical Spanish dramatists had used in putting their pieces together (Sáenz de la Calzada 166). Also, he had been exposed in 1930-31 to experimental theater of a new order when he saw the Moscow Art Theater on tour in Madrid. That disciplined school made Lorca view the Spanish commercial theater as something sloppy, insufficiently rehearsed, and unimaginatively staged; and perhaps it influenced Lorca’s new obsessions with mathematical movement and spectacle, which would stay strong in every stage of the conception of Bodas de sangre (Rodrigo 183-4; Morla Lynch 199-200). These new experiences gave Lorca an aura of one converted, and it is upon these new obsessions that we draw a hypothetical chronology of the text of Bodas taking form.

At the beginning of September, 1932, Lorca was finishing the late-summer tour with La Barraca. On September 7, the troupe was in Santillana del Mar; when the weather turned bad and the evening performance had been canceled, Lorca entertained his student-players with a reading, in front of the fireplace of the Hotel Pereda, of his unproduced drama Así que pasen cinco años (Sáenz de la Calzada 166). Apparently, the text and even the notion of Bodas de sangre had not yet occurred to Lorca After the stay in Santillana del Mar, Lorca returned to Madrid with his troupe, arriving on September 9. In our fanciful chronology, we might project that the trip on the rough roads through the back-country of León and Castile could have been the essential germ

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-that the start of Bodas came in the meditation of the poet as he absorbed the landscape and a sense of the toil and isolation of rural Spain.

It was during the hiatus before the great autumn productions of La Barraca in 1932 -and probably the week or ten days after September 9- that the entire concept and text of Bodas de sangre took form. In the momentum of these few days, Bodas moved from the recollection of a crime to a full, compacted drama, a creative surge in which every sense and word was put in final form. On September 17 (if Carlos Morla Lynch’s date is correct) Morla invited a small group to his home for the trial reading of Bodas. The circle of friends was used to disappointment: Lorca’s earlier readings of El público and Así que pasen had befuddled them. But this time the new drama was read by Lorca not with the voice of one sinking into apology and hoping the imprecisions would slip by, but with the confidence of one now (as Morla put it) «surrounded by an aureola». All agreed that Bodas de sangre was ready for production (Morla Lynch 205-6).

Perhaps the precise impetus in the creation of Bodas de sangre -the move from a stored anecdote of a crime to a full and compacted tragedy came from one of Lorca’s functions as co-director of La Barraca. One of his tasks during late summer and autumn of 1932 was the selection of plays or dramatic pieces for the 1933 season of La Barraca. In his early declarations about the functions of La Barraca, Lorca had made the point that the troupe would present the work of modern writers. Here, for example, is the plan he revealed to his friend Mildred Adams in December of 1931:

I myself will be writing new things and helping with the old ones. So will Vicente Aleixandre, our critic, all serenity and sense of balance. So will Manolo Alto[la]guirre, the angel of La Barraca, who is going to the Amazon to write a poem. And Luis Cernuda, and many others...

(Adams 238)                

In essence, of course, the selections would nearly always be from the Golden Age. Lorca never employed the work of Aleixandre, Altolaguirre, or Cernuda; and he decided not to use La Barraca to experiment with productions of his own writings. But one of the projects he now had in mind for La Barraca that would come close to fulfilling his original prospectus was a dramatic «festival of the romancero». It would include a performance-version of Antonio Machado’s Tierra de Alvargonzález (from Campos de Castilla). (In fact, the piece was performed by La Barraca in 1933, with Lorca narrating.)17 Ever since Lorca first met Machado in 1916 during a student excursion to Extremadura and had heard him recite passages from Campos de Castilla, he had held him above all other Spanish poets.18 And one of Lorca’s first poems was written inside his copy of Machado’s work.

Our speculation is that the essence of Bodas de sangre -the precise tone and plot Lorca set down in writing during no more than two frenzied weeks- took shape as an immediate result of having re-read Machado’s Tierra de Alvargonzález. Bodas was conceived and executed very much under the spell of Alvargonzález, with echoes of Machado’s work in every phase. Moreover, Bodas de sangre came to be in Lorca’s special reading of Tierra as drama -as something he would stage and must envision as playable, with symmetry of space as well as speech.

Now the obvious common starting point for both works is one of the plot as crime19 -as rural murder that is narrated as legend or myth, with punishment and vengeance. In the hypothetical moment at which the new play began in Lorca’s mind, it was probably the crime in Alvargonzález that turned his attention to the local crime he remembered from 1928, its details now blurred. (Indeed, the plot as crime, with its simple apex of escape and inevitable tragedy, is a radical change in Lorca’s work at the time; he shuns the kind of unplotted or multiplotted structuring of El público [1930] or Así que pasen [1931] and moves toward a single action.) The significant aura in Machado’ s poem that will be followed in Lorca’s drama is one of a powerful, concentrated force leading toward an inevitable impulse or crime and inevitable consequences.

As in Machado’s Tierra de Alvargonzález, the voices in Bodas de sangre suggest that impulses are directed by the land, and that its burdens breed a rigid ethic approaching myth, with inescapable reactions. This is the frame-mythology that Machado designed for his rural Castile; Lorca adds to the myth the element of inherited rivalries, of generations reviving the grudges. While the two tragedies seem distant in terms of the central act, their motivation is set in the same anthropologic landscape, and Lorca’s plot is sealed on the plane of Machado’s system: sparse metaphors in a sparsely-populated landscape that can flourish or wither, with tensions rising in a pact with the land.

It would also appear that the principal imagistic system Lorca set for Bodas de sangre was formed or awakened in his re-reading of

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Machado’s Alvargonzález. Lorca’s voice for Bodas (and the subsequent back-country tragedies) would be fixed in the poetic rhetoric of Machado’s poem in which the speakers (and audience or readers, as part of the fictional pact they must enter) are believers in the myths; the similes and metaphors in their voices lead into these myths.20 The central action for both works is not an isolated act of will, but part of a myth (for those within the work) or thesis (for the authors) of the land and of generations. Behind both works is the belief within Machado’s mythology that the land -particularly in rural Castile- breeds envy inevitably, that hatred and rancor are generated and compressed in the rural setting:

Mucha sangre de Caín tiene la gente labriega, y en el hogar campesino armó la envidia pelea.

(Tierra, 77)                

In Bodas, too, the action is almost backdrop to the powerful sense of the land flowering and withering. We might even suggest that the poetical geography of Bodas de sangre is not that of the original crime at Almería, but essentially that of the sullen land of Machado’s Tierra de Alvargonzález. (The anthropologic studies point out that Lorca’s specifics of place and custom in Bodas -e. g., the type of cave-house of the father- are characteristic of Almería or of Andalusia in general; but the se details are minor within a general geography that is undoubtedly Machado’s.21 The land behaves in response to the sins or virtues of its tiller, and will punish or reward; the spite and grievances build in the closed or complete world of this geography.

The echo of Machado is found, perhaps, in the way Lorca frames the prime act or impulse of his drama (the Bride’s flight with Leonardo on her wedding night, and the resulting violence). Lorca here goes beyond the anecdote of the crime at Almería and the realistic vision we anticipate. The scene, when they enter the forest, is suddenly set in the unreal; the curse is repeated rhythmically, and symbolic figures call out to warn or rebuke. In Machado’s work, there is a suggestive parallel in the way the curse is told (Terry 46). One notices that the moon is present (80) as if to illuminate and to remember the crime (the murder of the father by the greedy sons):

Sobre los campos desnudos,
la luna llena, manchada,
de un arrebol purpurino,
enorme globo, asomaba.
Los hijos de Alvargonzález
silenciosos caminaban...

And years later when the land draws its vengeance, the moon looms again above the place of the crime (98):

La luna llena brillaba
y era la huerta un milagro.

In Bodas de sangre the moon will appear (III:i) to illuminate and provoke the inevitable death, and then to proclaim and confirm the tragedy.22 Just before the double murder at the end of the scene, it casts a compelling light:

Aparece la luna muy despacio. La escena adquiere una fuerte luz azul. Se oyen los dos violines. Bruscamente se oyen dos largos gritos desgarrados, y se corta la música.23

Even the strange, dense forest in which the victims in the last act of Bodas stalk one other seems part of the world of Machado. In Tierra (84) the remembrance of the crime in the forest will haunt the sons:

Allá en lo espeso del bosque
otra vez la copla suena:
«La tierra de Alvargonzález
se colmará de riqueza,
y el que la tierra ha labrado
no duerme bajo la tierra.


Years later, the brothers return inevitably to the scene of the crime, with the hint that the moon leads them; there, they are drawn to their death.

In the rural anthropology of both Tierra and Bodas, wealth is defined in terms of male sons (Tierra «Naciéronle tres varones, / que en el campo son riqueza»; Bodas I:iii «Si yo hubiera tenido hijos hubiera comprado todo este monte hasta la parte del arroyo. Porque no es buena tierra; pero con brazos se la hace buena...»). Marriage in Bodas is described as «roturación de las tierras, la plantación de árboles nuevos» (II: ii). The similes in both works are kept on this plane of agricultural figuration (see Ramsden xxi-xxlv; Smoot 70-91). The old Alvargonzález has a lace now parched and burrowed like the land he has tilled during a lifetime («la adusta frente arrugada»); the Madre en Bodas remarks that «los varones son del viento» (II:iii). The vision of espigas spreading everywhere and corrupting is common in both works. In Tierra the espigas extend through the land as a visible part of the curse (86); in Bodas (III:i), an image of futile scourge tells how «la misma llama pequeña / mata dos espigas juntas». Even the incidental opening glimpse of the rural wedding feast in Tierrahubo gaitas, tamboriles, / flautas, bandurria, vihuela; / fuegos a la valenciana / y danza a la aragonesa»), might contain a suggestion for Lorca’s «Bach-like» wedding-songs and wedding-dances

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in Bodas.

La tierra de Alvargonzález, like Bodas de sangre, is a crucial turn in the creative way of a poet. Tierra was Machado’s obvious move toward what Arthur Terry calls «a more public kind of poetry» (43). Bodas can be taken as Lorca’s renewal of the broad folkloric scope of his earlier work (e. g., Cante jondo, Romancero gitano), and a break from the surrealist projects of the period between 1929 and 1932 (which were often attempts to analyze sexualities, sometimes mixed with experiments in the matter of time or that of theater versus reality). The poses in Romancero and Bodas are akin: the speakers have a rural and «natural» timbre, and the listener or spectator must take on the fiction of being a part of this world and a believer in all its myths and values and country metaphors.

Also, the creation of Bodas as a work so distant from the recent dramas (Público in 1930 and Así que pasen in 1931) may be a response to the practical axioms of the Spanish theater of the 1930s in which the great roles in a play were those of women, and in which each of the great actresses controlled her own company and required that the script for a play have a part for each of her thirty-odd players. In outline, we may perceive the male roles in Bodas as equally prominent; but in the text it is obvious that the weight has been given to the women (the Bride and the Mother). We are familiar with explanations of why Lorca’s later theater (the rural tragedies, Doña Rosita, the unfinished Poema del café cantante or Sueños de mi prima Aurelia) is a theater of women -almost a composite thesis for the frustrations they bear in Spain. But the impetus for Lorca’s move toward a theater of women was probably this simple sociology of the stage in the 1930s. By 1932, after having two of his scripts turned down, he had learned that drama had to serve as a vehicle for one of the great actresses. It is possible, too, that in creating Bodas de sangre he infused the lines with phrases and cadenzas that would favor one or another of the actresses he envisioned in the roles.

We stress that the essence of the text of Bodas de sangre probably arose from Lorca’s recent contact with Machado’s ballad, and that the drama -the spectacle- was arranged in Lorca’s own newly formed and rigorous perception of theater. Much has been made, also, of Lorca’s recent contact with the Spanish classical theater as the bridge to elements in Bodas de sangre. The case can be made that Lorca, at the time he wrote Bodas de sangre, was full of the texts of the Golden Age -not only from the pieces he was producing for La Barraca, but also from the plays he was reading in the effort to find new materials for next season’s tour. He was in regular contact with his great friend José Fernández Montesinos -the leading expert in the theater and lyric of Lope- so that traces of Lope would adhere naturally to Lorca’s theater. For example, some elements of Bodas appear to follow El caballero de Olmedo. Both make drama of historical events-sensational local crimes that have become local legends; both have symbolic figures who appear as characters in the narration (e. g., Luna, Mendiga, Leñadores in Bodas and Sombra in Caballero); both have a scene of pursuit and murder in the night. And Lorca’s brother (341) claims that «el cuadro de Bodas de sangre [en el segundo acto] a que me refiero se origina en las bodas de Fuenteovejuna». Since Fuenteovejuna was the selection for the 1933 season of La Barraca, the mark of certain of its scenes can almost be anticipated.

Other influences upon Bodas have been proposed, and it is feasible that each left its trace. Lorca had been familiar with the work of Synge since early in the 1920s, when Miguel Cerón (a friend in Granada) translated sections for him. I do not sense the same echoes of Synge (especially, of his Riders to the Sea) that lead other critics to make his work primary in the development of Bodas (Smoot 63-97; Sainero Sánchez 291-94); but some recollection of Synge may have been there. It has also been suggested that Bodas would have been unthinkable without El amor brujo by Falla and Gregorio Martínez Sierra.

But I believe the influence of Machado was even more fundamental. We can look outside Bodas de sangre, at the author as he created -at Lorca obsessed by Machado and the project of transforming Machado’s ballad to drama late in the summer of 1932; and we can peer within the play- at a system and language akin to the balladic voice of Machado. From both angles, the spell of Tierra de Alvargonzález seems very much upon Lorca as his Bodas de sangre came to be created.

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Adams, Mildred. «The Theatre in the Spanish Republic». Theatre Arts Monthly (New York) 16.3 (Match 1932):

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