Delivered from his admirers

The Theatre of García Lorca
March 5, 1999

For nearly 40 years Spain censored Federico García Lorca and confronted his sexuality with either extravagant silence or obsessive attention. One hundred years after his birth he has been institutionalised and converted into a cult figure. In English the outlines of this veneration of Lorca's personality began to take shape in Mildred Adam's 1935 piece in The New York Times and in Herschel Brickell's rhapsodic "I have seen Shelley plain".

In order to distance himself from the "cult" and to call attention to the "author function", Paul Julian Smith pleads the need to refer to his subject throughout the book as "García Lorca". Rather than a restitution of Lorca's work to some previous state of wholeness, Smith's study is an effort to deliver the poet from his admirers, which will involve treating the theme of homosexuality not with bland tolerance, nor as a reduction to a fixed identity, but as a privileged instance of social negotiation between the private and the public, the subjective and the objective.

Smith formulates controversial readings of four major Lorca plays ( Yerma , Blood Wedding , When Five Years have Passed and The Public ) in the following manner: close examination of the text, a procedure not common in cultural criticism of which there is a fair amount in this book; juxtaposition of the Lorca text and an intertext; and submission of the whole to Freudian analysis. In an era of Freud-bashing in the academy, Smith defends the need to employ the vocabulary of passion that psychoanalysis supplies him and which he uses to produce a kind of back-light to the work of a poet whose ardent metaphors have seduced generations of readers.

To explain the character of Yerma, the barren village wife, who, in a fit of desperation, kills her husband and thereby her only chance for a child, Smith rejects the consideration of Yerma solely as a heroine struggling against paternalism. Instead, for Smith, Yerma embodies Freud's highest level of complexity: bisexuality. By killing her husband, she makes a "masculine protest" against her personal situation and the world around her. The intertexts shore up this reading. The illustrious Spanish physician, Gregorio Marañón, a friend of Lorca's, wrote The Intersexual State of the Human Species (1929) in which he discussed the muffled or dimmed presence of both sexes within one individual. "Kill the phantom of the other sex," Marañón urges his readers, and Smith believes Yerma did exactly that.

In fashioning a reading of Blood Wedding , Smith focuses on the New York City production of 1935. Translated as Bitter Oleander by José Weissberger, the play survived for less than two weeks and met with misunderstanding and cruel mockery on the part of the New York critics. "Andalusians of grandeur," punned John Mason Brown, who said Lorca's characters spoke as if they had swallowed a seed catalogue.

Made at about the same time but ignored until recently, Langston Hughes's translation, entitled Fate at the Wedding , is superior to the text used in 1935. In a brilliant move, Smith compares the translations to bring out ideological assumptions at work in the two versions. Weissberger's clumsiness may stem from his embarrassment with the physicality of Lorca's language. On the other hand, Hughes's sensitivity to the physical register of the language makes it possible to realise that tragedy for Lorca equals the lost male body. The mother's final speech in Hughes's wording glimmers with this insight: "two men in love killed each other". (One wonders what Smith would make of Ted Hughes's "faithful" translation done for the Young Vic in 1996.)

The non-reciprocal fate of heterosexual desire in When Five Years have Passed calls to mind Freud's case history of Dora with its multiple postponements, rejections, and deferrals, and for the same reason suggests as intertext Gide's Corydon (Spanish translation, 1929) with its double register of homosexuality: virile and plaintive.

Smith's final chapter "Garcia Lorca and the socialists" examines many of the culture references to Lorca in the 1980s and concludes with unstinting praise for Llu!s Pasqual, who with ironic complicity, a certain detachment and a refusal to embrace the maudlin aspects of the cult, presented The Public , the play that Lorca said could never be produced, to a rapt Madrid audience in 1989.

Closely reasoned, impressively informed, on occasion overly subtle, Smith's application of cultural intertexts plus Freud to Lorca's theatre furnishes stimulating and sometimes highly satisfactory readings of Spain's major modern dramatist.

Howard Young is professor of romance languages, Pomona College, Claremont, California.

The Theatre of García Lorca: Text, Performance, Psychoanalysis

Author - Paul Julian Smith
ISBN - 0 521 62292 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 185

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