“We’ll drown ourselves in a sea of mourning”: Women and Greek tragedy in the plays of Federico Garcia Lorca

The phrase “moral luck” seems a contradiction in terms. Our intuitions tell us that our actions can be evaluated as moral or immoral only insofar as we choose to act thus-and-so, actions for which we are, in a sense, responsible. A person who always chooses correctly, therefore, cannot ever do the wrong thing, can never be immoral.

Much of Greek tragedy is spun out of this very question. In her book, The Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum locates the basis of Greek tragedy in a belief in the irreconcilable conflict of values: if Orestes kills his mother, he is guilty of the crime of matricide. If Orestes doesn’t kill his mother, he is guilty of failing in his son’s duty to avenge his father’s murder. So while Orestes ostensibly has a choice between killing or sparing his mother, in another sense, he has no choice at all – whichever way he chooses, he will commit a grave moral crime – and this, precisely, is the tragedy (reflected in the Athenian jurors voting to a tie when judging him for finally killing his mother). Often, in life, situations will arise, entirely beyond our control, in which we are obliged to choose between two options, both of which involve us in committing wrongful actions. These are the tragedies of our everyday, quotidian lives.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s Rural Trilogy – the three tragic plays, Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, called so because they are all set in rural Spain, and written in the 1930s – subvert the ideas of tragedy and choice in interesting ways. Each of these plays have their principal characters act in ways that we would normally tend to view as quintessentially motivated by free choice – but each time, Lorca demonstrates how, for individuals existing within oppressive social structures, freedom loses its meaning, and every choice is as compelled and constrained as the song of a caged bird.

Blood Wedding, the first of these plays, is the most striking, because the language of choice runs explicitly through it. Blood Wedding deals with the explosive clash between conventional, clan-orchestrated marriage alliances on the one hand, and individual passion on the other. On the morning of her wedding, the bride’s old lover – himself now a married man – visits her, and she realizes that:

I can’t listen to you. I can’t listen to your voice. It’s as though I’d drunk a bottle of anise and fallen asleep wrapped in a quilt of roses. It pulls me along – and I know I’m drowning – but I do on down.

Apart from the stark imagery, this speech is notable because it sums up the ambiguity that is latent in the play – the question of whether the bride is truly responsible for her actions, or whether she is being driven by forces beyond her power to control or master. The speech has hints of both. The scene plays out further when the two decide to run away on the night of the wedding, setting the stage for the tragedy:

Bride: Oh what lamenting, what fire/ sweeps upward through my head!/ What glass splinters are stuck in my tongue?

Leonardo: What glass splinters are stuck in my tongue!/ Because I tried to forte you/ and put a wall of stone/ between your house and mine./ It’s true. You remember?/ And when I saw you in the distance/ I threw sand in my eyes./ But I was riding a horse/ and the horse went straight to your door./ And the silver pins of your wedding/ turned my red blood black./ And in me our dream was choking/ my flesh with its poisoned weeds./ Oh, it isn’t my fault – / the fault is the earth’s -/ and this fragrance that you exhale/ from your breasts and your braids. 

I too would want to leave you/ if I thought as men should./ But wherever you go, I go./ You’re the same. Take a step. Try./ Nails of moonlight have fused/ my waist and your chains.

It would be simple, at one level, to view this merely as a standard instance of blind-love-overriding-better judgment. But that is not the tone of the play, and that is evidently not how Lorca looks at it: the overwhelming sense one gets is that a culture or society that ceaselessly denies passion the chance to express itself, only makes it inevitable that it will burst out in violence. The bride and Leonardo’s flight, then, is not so much as an individual choice, than the inevitable culmination of human emotion and human need breaking through the dam of conformity.

How culture dictates consciousness forms a central part of the second play, Yerma, which is about a wife who remains childless just because her husband – an ambitious farmer – couldn’t be bothered with it. But Yerma has been trained to believe that a childless mother is, just by existing, a revolt against the very order of things. How she could be so brutally socialized is revealed at various points in the play, perhaps rather eloquently in this para:

Girls like me who grow up in the country have all doors closed to them. Everything becomes half-words, gestures, because all these things, they say, must not be talked about.

And:

Men get other things out of life: their cattle, trees, conversations, but women have only their children and the care of their children.

And once again, we are left with the feeling that the choice to have a child, something that we would all consider to be essentially a matter of free choice, here has acquired the imperative of a command. At a later point in the play, one of the characters says: “the ditch in its place, the sheep in fold, the moon in the sky, the man with his plough”; and that, indeed, I think is the overarching theme of these plays – a society that loves to classify, categorize  and fix places for every individual. Lorca’s plays are precisely when people refuse to accept the place in the hierarchy that has been fixed for them; not because they rebel consciously, but because logically, their suppressed passions and emotions will seek an outlet; and through those actions is tragedy generated.

The last play in the trilogy, The House of Bernarda Alba, is somewhat different. In his portrait of the stifling atmosphere of a cloistered house, ruled over by an iron-willed matriarch, it is oddly reminiscent of Naguib Mahfouz’ Palace Walk (only, the matriarch replaces the patriarch – a point I shall come to later). The House of Bernarda Alba is probably that play of the trilogy in which not only is the suppression of natural passions the most intense (and thus, the eventual tragedy seemingly the most inevitable), but it is also the one in which social structures and cultural hegemony are given their most express treatment. Bernarda pulls no punches, therefore, when she says, “Needle and thread for women. Whiplash and mules for men. That’s the way it has to be for people who have certain obligations.” She is even more intransigent when it comes to denying the passions, claiming that among all her daughters, “none of them has ever had a beau, and they’ve never needed one! They get along very well.” Such extreme suppression must necessarily meet with extreme reaction – in Adela’s passionate protest, “My body will be for whomever I choose,“, and in the eventual unfolding of the tragedy. When Adela says of Pepe el Romano, “Looking into his eyes, I seem to drink his blood in slowly”, it is excess matching excess, in an almost Newtonian-esque connection of inevitability between action and reaction. 

The ambiguity over what, precisely, counts as choice, and whether it really is free, is played out in the form of oppressive social structures placing individual actions in a mirror-image of themselves. So, for instance, the fundamental lack of control that women have over their destinies because of the social system into which they are born is reflected in the exchange between Amelia and Magdalena: “To be born a woman’s the worst possible punishment.” “Even our eyes aren’t our own.” And it’s this precise rhetoric of the absence of control that is then reflected in the individual act of rebellion: “I didn’t want him to [embrace me],” says Adela. “It’s as if I were dragged by a rope.” Coercive social structures compel – nay, force – an equally agency-devoid act of revolt – the latter, in a sense, determined by the former as reaction by action. Where, then, do choice and responsibility and fault and blame come into this? Lorca wisely seeks to provide no answer, but only leaves us – as the best writers invariably do – with a haunting sense of doubt, incompleteness and mistrust of our firmly held convictions. The last, climactic scene of the tragedy, in particular, is of special dramatic brilliance.

A different point. Two out of three plays in the trilogy bear the names of their female protagonists – Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. That, in itself, is not rare enough to command much surprise: Antigone, Clytemnsestra, Hecuba, Medea, Dido, Salome, Hedda Gabler – are all examples. But what is striking about Lorca’s rural trilogy is that in each of these plays, the climactic act of the drama – the one that sets up the tragedy, so to speak – has been performed by women, and not by women acting as proxies for men (Henry VI, Macbeth), or women acting out of some compulsion that reinforces the patriarchal paradigm overall (e.g., Antigone and Dido); Lorca’s women, however, categorically act as themselves and for themselves; that is not to say that men are barred, but their role in the decision-making process is negligible. In this, Lorca is by no means unique (think of Medea and A Doll’s House), but I think what he is unique in is portraying both the social structures that are designed to destroy women’s freedom, and the struggle of individual women to rebel against those structures by consciously breaking the deepest and most preciously held societal convictions of this sort. Whether they do it entirely freely or not is another question, but Lorca’s women exist in themselves, and not in relation to men. For that, for striking imagery and great atmosphere building, and for an unusually complex exploration of the ideas of choice, freedom and autonomy – may Lorca be continued to be read for many years to come. 

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2 Comments

Filed under European Writing, Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain

2 responses to ““We’ll drown ourselves in a sea of mourning”: Women and Greek tragedy in the plays of Federico Garcia Lorca

  1. Sounds like a really different and really good book. Lately it seems that stories with magical realism as part of their themes have gotten a bad rap. I do not agree as I really like it as a plot element.

    I really want to read Kadare.

  2. Pingback: 2013: The Year in Books | anenduringromantic

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