The House of Bernarada Alba

Written: 1989

Lorca, Royal Lyceum Theatre

Lorca believed that the state of a nation's theatre is an all important measure of the state of its culture. A nation with a healthy theatre, he argued, is a state with a healthy culture.

He had a fundamental sense of the importance of theatre for a nation's essential well-being - a sense that we have subsequently all but lost. And in losing it, he would argue, he are causing ourselves immense damage.

For he also believed that if you deprived people of the possibility of seeing theatre they would suffer as a result: because seeing theatre is something essential for everyone's happiness.

And for him, the kind of theatre that really counts is poetic theatre. He hated theatre that was trivial, and that dealt with only the material surface of things.

He completely rejected the notion that poetry is something refined and remote from every day life. That it was something accessible only to a highly trained elite. "Poetry", he said, "is something that just walks along the street". Poetry, for him, was the most direct and effective way of communicating what really matters about life: its tragedy and its mystery. He believed actors on the stage have the task of communicating these poetic insights, of giving them the form of flesh and blood. "Theatre is poetry that gets up from the pages of books and becomes human. Then it shouts and speaks, cries and despairs".

So theatre, even more than poetry, should speak directly to people's hearts and minds. He said he had started to dedicate his energies to theatre solely in order to put himself in a position to communicate more directly with the public. And what he wanted to communicate, more than anything else, was a sense of protest: "Sometimes, when I think of what is going on in the world, I wonder: "Why am I writing?" The answer is one simply has to work. Work and go on working. Work and help everyone who deserves it. Work even though at times it feels like so much wasted effort. Work as a form of protest. For one's impulse has to be when one wakes up and is confronted with misery and injustice of every kind: I protest! I protest! I protest!"

He also said: "I will always be on the side of those who have nothing".

So theatre, for him, was part of a lifelong struggle against cruelty, injustice, and inhumanity: part of a life long struggle for a better world.

Lorca put these principles into practice in his work in the theatre - as actor, director, designer, and playwright.

His passion for acting began when he was a little boy. He created a little shrine in the courtyard of the family home, and every now and again would dress up in finery borrowed from the attic and pretend to say mass for his family. But then one day a travelling puppet company came and performed in the village square: and puppets supplanted both the shrine and the pretend masses.

His mother noticed his interest and bought him a puppet theatre from the toyshop in Granada. He began to put on shows for family and friends; and it was said of him that for the rest of his life he took the puppet theatre with him wherever he went.

His first plays - staged in Madrid in the twenties - were mostly failures. With one notable exception, they were either rejected by the public or by the censors ; it was only with the coming of the Spanish Republic in the early thirties - when he was already famous as a poet - that he really came into his own as a theatre artist.

He was the founder and first director of 'La Barraca' - a travelling theatre company that was funded by the government to perform the then neglected classics of the Spanish classical theatre in the theatre-starved towns and villages of rural Spain.

They set off in a couple of lorries - one for the actors and stage crew, another for the scenery - set up the stage in the open air and confounded the critics who said such a venture was a waste of government money and that the impact of the plays would be lost on their (largely illiterate) audiences.

Lorca chose the plays, directed and designed them, and sometimes acted in them. They had an extraordinary effect on their audiences; and the experience taught him the value of theatre as a means of education and, more importantly, of imaginative emotional and intellectual enrichment. It is something that bears repeating: because it is a lesson we seem to have utterly forgotten.

As a director, he laid great emphasis on clarity, on timing and emotional power; he seems to have conceived of a theatrical event as something that would combine beautiful language, great physicality, strong visual images with music and song. The ludicrous distinctions that bedevil our theatre practice - divisions between 'physical' and 'verbal' theatre, or between 'highbrow' and 'popular' theatre - to him made no sense at all. What mattered to him was effective communication.

This was truly pioneering work that predates our small scale touring by about forty years; it also gave him the foundations in practical stagecraft that he was to use to incredible effect in the creation of his most celebrated plays - the so-called rural trilogy of BLOOD WEDDING, YERMA, and THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA.

Each of these astonishingly beautiful and powerful plays expresses, in its own way, the agonising dilemma of those caught in the conflict between their powerful sexual desires and an unforgiving and hypocritical society hell bent on denying them.

Lorca was far ahead of his time, and far ahead of most writers working today, in turning his back on a male centred culture that ignores, marginalises or denies female experience. Women are the centre of his plays; in THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA exclusively so. He understood that patriarchal attitudes are no longer an adequate guide to making sense of the world; that women's experience is central if we are to understand our lives - and work to change them.

We still have so much to learn from these plays - in terms of their immaculate construction, their emotional and intellectual power, their use of the poetic, their expression of the power of the unconscious in the shaping of our lives.

They're also only a part of his extraordinary theatrical output; an output that includes plays like THAT'S HOW FIVE YEARS PASS and THE PUBLIC which are wonderfully courageous, brave and powerful in their experimentalism.

Lorca was a homosexual man in an age which universally loathed and despised homosexuality; someone whose experience of the world was despised and marginalised, and yet who managed to find his true voice in spite of it. As such, he remains an extraordinary source of strength and inspiration to those of us who, because of our sexuality or sense of gender, find it intensely difficult to make our true voices heard.

I, personally, owe him an immense debt. But all of us, living through this profoundly destructive and negative time - where money is valued above people, product valued more than inspiration, and theatre is gradually and inexorably being destroyed... all of us need to hear him. He has something of immense importance in a banal and dehumanised world: the gift of poetry. Of a poetry that sets minds free.