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Critical Essay by Jeane Luere
SOURCE: "An Elegy for Thwarted Vision: Edward Albee's The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life," in Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 143-7.
In the following essay, Luere examines The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life, in which, he asserts, Albee presents "an elegy for an artist's thwarted vision."
For over three decades, Edward Albee's controversial drama has kept him in the critical and public consciousness. With self-assurance, Albee has disregarded commercial pressure, experimented with dramatic form, and thrust innovative theater at his audiences. How natural, now, to find Albee evolving a play on artistic freedom. His present venture, The Lorca Story: Scenes from a Life, is more than a political or social tract; it is an elegy for an artist's thwarted vision.
The play's protagonist, Federico Garcia Lorca (c. 1900–1936), was the Spanish poet-playwright executed during the Fascist reign of General Francisco Franco. With two acts, ten scenes, and pageant-like structure, Albee takes us inside the soul of a casualty. Still in progress, the play dramatizes Albee's views on the thwarting of Lorca's literary vision by state and church throughout Franco's forty-year reign. Lorca had written his "unorthodox" poetry and plays when censorship momentarily lessened with the birth of the short-lived Second Republic (proclaimed in 1931). Without being an agit-prop piece, the drama is in part a polemic on the plight of artists in a culture that restricts and censors their work. Albee gives Lorca an appeal to us to feel the pain of curbed creativity: "Do you know what it's like to be me."
Like Albee's Three Tall Women, whose script was written in 1991 but kept "in progress" until 1994, his Lorca Play will proceed to commercial venues when Albee deems it ready. The play was commissioned in 1992 by the Houston International Festival Committee for its "Centennial Celebration of Spain and the New World"; the project also entailed a trip to Spain for Albee's research on Lorca's life. Audiences applauded the Festival production for its freshness and relevance to our own culture's problems with censorship and diversity. The critics' reaction was mixed, some finding the play "timely and apt," "stirring and evocative," others hoping to view it again when Albee completes his "fleshing-out of characters and relationships."
Rather than belabor us with didactic monologues on repression, Albee uses parody to approach the parallels between Lorca's culture and our own. With Franco on stage in military uniform and the Cardinal in formal vestment, Albee's script quips, "Don't lose sight of them … it's people like that who run the world—people who define our faith, who give us our identity." Albee's lines alert us that "they" could be anywhere: "Sometimes they don't wear those uniforms; sometimes a suit and tie does them just fine; sometimes a suit and tie does them even better." Houston critics picked up on the parallels: one wrote that Franco's denunciation of Lorca's work "could have been lifted from a stump speech damning the N.E.A.'s funding of obscene and outside-the-mainstream art"; another critic echoed him, recalling "America's current art wars" in which writers had to "fend off attacks on their artistic content." Albee's action shows both Franco and the Catholic Cardinal harassing Lorca: Franco loathes his writing for its jabs at totalitarian rule, and the Cardinal threatens to excommunicate him for non-standard religious concepts.
Albee's play spans Lorca's life from childhood to sudden death. To stage the writer's hapless altercations with the church and state, a three-level set is used: the stage floor for the play's action, a mid-level with small platforms reached by stairs at either side of the stage, and, above continuing stairs, a catwalk extending across the stage. Albee places characters on levels appropriate to their relevance in the play's gruesome central conflict. General Franco and his Aide-de-Camp sit or stand on the top level Stage Left, and on the right, the Catholic Cardinal and his priest, where all sit in judgment on the thoughts, activities, and writings of the poet-playwright on the stage below. Our concentration shifts when spots go up or down on the catwalk or lower levels where Lorca, his family, and the play's ensemble actors mingle.
To give the audience a full acquaintance with his protagonist, Albee wants us "to see all of Lorca, not just the statue," to perceive him as "sad, funny, and even just plain silly," and to follow him from his youth to his death at thirty-six. For this purpose, Albee's script abandons Joseph Wood Krutch's concept of "an identifiable and continuous self" for the role of Lorca. Albee had first envisioned three actors to depict the protagonist at different ages. Even before rehearsals, the playwright's careful objectivity led him to simplify the concept to two rather than three characters—Young Lorca and Lorca-as-adult—who often must appear on stage simultaneously. At times, they appear with their family, friends and figures from Spanish culture; in other scenes, while Young Lorca remains on stage, Adult Lorca must appear to cross the world, watch the Wall Street crash, dance with Cubans, then reappear abruptly in his home environment. The dialogue Albee has written for the two Lorcas reveals the love of the earth that lies in Lorca's poems and plays. Phrases like "the taste of blood and soil in my mouth," "a rip in the skin of the earth," show Lorca's immersion in nature, his blending of "poetic imagery with primitive passions"; many lines come from the pages of Blood Wedding (1933) and Yerma (1934), dramas considered "the finest Spanish works since the Golden Age."
To acquaint us with the culture that shaped Lorca as person and artist, Albee's scenes reach toward the land and people of Spain, "the country which birthed him … and the country which killed him." In action on the set's floor level, we see Young Lorca following the plow in Granada's country side; we watch as Adult Lorca's spirited thoughts and antics upset distinguished friends and mentors like Salvador Dali and Manuel DeFalla; and we learn for ourselves that famous writers are human. Lorca meets and loses lovers, succeeds and fails with poems and plays. In the action, we also view comic and tragic scenes from Lorca's plays with actresses portraying Lola Membrives and Margarita Zirgu, famous Lorca thespians of the 1930s. Albee's dramatic choices disclose his protagonist's love of surrealism, symbolism, naturalism and his active involvement in theater and folklore.
To lift us over spans of time and space in the play's action, Albee has chosen an omniscient Narrator to stand at the set's mid-level platform and see all. With the heads of church and state high above the stage, he can get them out of our way by calling up, "You four go into limbo now," at which their space darkens until the playwright wants them back into action at an earlier (or later) chronological period. Then the Narrator will call, "You can come back now," and we move on undismayed through the years in which Franco and the Cardinal had inveighed against Lorca's artistic freedom, taken away his life, and for decades thereafter, hidden his literary legacy. At one point the Narrator may lean from his platform to point toward the boy on the first level, and reassure viewers that "The young Lorca stays with us of course … doesn't our young self always stay with us—lurk around the edges of our consciousness?" Albee's research in Spain confirmed the author's child-like nature; a Lorca letter reads, "In the depths of my being is a powerful desire to be a little child, very humble and very retiring."
Albee also uses his Narrator in droll scenes to mock the bogus ethics of the self-righteous clergy. When Act II begins, with Cardinal and Priest missing from their places near Franco and his Aide, the Narrator looks off, stage-right, and barks, "Would you two get out here, please?"; and his Aide suggests, "I think it's what they might have been doing." When the upbraided two slip in and begin to mount the stairs, we see the Cardinal "buttoning the front of his gown, followed by the Priest, pulling down the back of his gown," and we hear the Cardinal mutter, "All right! For heaven's sake." Although Albee tastefully keeps all other scenes between Cardinal and Priest (and between Lorca and his acknowledged intimates) tightly restrained rather than emotionally flamboyant, here he lets us smile very mildly at the hypocrisy of the church's ban on diversity.
To deride the states' brutal drive for conformity, Albee gives Franco and his Aide street-and-gutter-level language. When Franco offers asinine excuses for eliminating dissenters, Albee lets him brag coarsely that after he "saved the country from itself," there were "some people [who] just didn't make the cut, if you catch my drift … weren't worth talking about anymore…." When the Narrator objects, "Oh, I see … so Lorca's name vanished, eh?… his poems taken out of print," Franco replies, "Yeah, like that. He wasn't worth the trouble … Who cares? Commie faggot!"
It was Lorca's theater work that deviated most pointedly from the state's main-line precepts. Albee's script sets up inescapable parallels, albeit unlabeled by Albee, with his own plight in the 1960s when a Pulitzer committee rejected Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for supposedly offensive language and content. The criticism and publicity that Albee received at the time, though similarly unfair and damaging, proved less irrevocable, eventually, than the censorship Lorca faced for his unique dramas. In The Lorca Story, Albee has an actor refer to a news report that charged Lorca with "perverting the peasants" through staged displays "of shameful promiscuity … of free love," and with "obedience to the dictates of Jewish Marxism, free love, and communism." Albee's Franco explicitly names the actors "atheists" and "homosexuals." Historically, Lorca had become active in the group to revive the "rancid and stagnant" Spanish theater from its "dead reproductions of the classics and escapist junk"; he preferred "theater for the people, about them." His insistence that theater "should immerse itself in the problems assailing humanity" resembles Albee's own drive for fresh and useful theater in the early 1960s. From start to finish, Albee's through-line for The Lorca Play is that Lorca's haunting, idealistic vision for theater was political poison for him in a Fascist country that subordinated the individual—creative artist or not—to the combined will of church and state.
To mock the inescapable outcome of church and state collusion, Albee gives amusing scenes with the Cardinal toadying to the overbearing egoism of Franco. Albee's dialogue lets Franco boast to the Cardinal, "My mother was a saint!", to which the Cardinal mumbles only, "She was?" But Franco quickly insists, "You don't think my mother was a saint?" The fawning Cardinal replies, "I do, I do … if you say she was a saint, she was a saint!" At another spot, Albee ridicules the church's subservience to the state by forcing Franco to overhear the Narrator's jest, "There's talk of making Isabella a Saint … shows you what a few good works can do!" (In Spain's early years, Isabella is said to have ordered her country's gypsies, Jews, and Arabs, "Convert or be killed!")
To end this requiem on the thwarting of Lorca's vision by political pressures, Albee chooses as his backdrop a full-sized canvas facsimile of Goya's "Executions of the Third of May." His choice broadens the relevance of Lorca's execution. Goya's canvas displays a group of Madrilenos facing a firing squad, with one young man flinging up his arms in opposition to the soldiers. Conceivably, the man could have cried out "This isn't fair!" By creating on stage a mirror of the Goya masterpiece, Albee dramatizes Spain's tragic loss: a lifetime of productivity from a literary giant. This finale confirms Albee's grasp of art and history, and heaps philosophical weight onto artists' protests against the narrowness of political and social repression—"This isn't fair."
This section contains 1,972 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)