Blood Wedding
Prof. Dr. Matei Chihaia / Romance Studies
Photo: Sebastian Jarych

When the splendor of the ceremonial leads to unleashed cruelty

Novelist Matei Chihaia on the origins and background of Federico Gracía Lorca's drama "Blood Wedding," the premiere at the Theater am Engelsgarten, and what the fantasy series "Game of Thrones" has to do with it.

This coming Saturday, Federico García Lorca's drama "Blood Wedding" will have its premiere at the Theater am Engelsgarten. What is this play about?

Chihaia: In the countryside, in Andalusia, a wedding is being prepared. The groom has gained a vineyard in three years of hard work and thanks to this dowry he can marry the young woman he loves. But a shadow lies over their engagement: the woman was previously involved with another. And this one, Leonardo, belonged to the Félix family, of all people, who murdered the father and brother of the groom. The former lover has married and is even a father, the murderers have been judged and are serving their sentence in the penitentiary. Now the question, typical of the tragedy: are these institutions, i.e. marriage and criminal law, enough to purify the poisoned situation? In the second act, the plot complicates a bit more. For the former lovers still have feelings for each other. How pale that sounds when I say it like that, "have feelings for each other"... Lorca's language, on the other hand, is so incredibly rich in its portrayal of love and hate, and not just among the main characters. One of the characters in this drama that I like best is Leonardo's wife, who sings a long lullaby to her newborn, putting into its verses all the forebodings and sorrows that stir her soul. At these points, the play is pure musical theater, inspired by Lorca's enthusiasm for flamenco and Andalusian folklore. In the third act, blood flows. I won't tell you more.

The drama, along with the works Yerma and Bernarda Albas House, belongs to the so-called Peasant Trilogy and has a real background that inspired the author. What had happened?

Chihaia: Yes, there must have been a bride kidnapping with a similar tragic ending that brought the author to the subject. But he avoids in the play the references to the topicality and to the genre of the press news: the characters have no names, only such general designations as "groom", "bride", "mother", etc., as if each position was occupied only once. The woodcutters, of which there are two, are numbered consecutively. Only Leonardo, the kidnapper, is given a first name and a family name. Why is this so? I have a guess: this poor man, who against all reason desires and is desired, is the real hero of this story. Only with a name can he become such a myth as Don Quixote, Don Juan, or Hamlet... Incidentally, it is exciting how much the abstract naming reveals about this world: the family clans fit into each other like pieces of a puzzle because they are reduced to fragments by blood feuds and misery - in one the father is missing, in another the mother, in the third the servant, and so on. These fragments could all together form a harmonious whole, a "mosaic family," as they say today, but no: instead they chafe at their sharp edges.

You wrote a contribution to the program of the Wuppertal production. How did you come to do it and what was important to you?

Chihaia: We have been working with the dramaturgy and theater pedagogy of the Wuppertaler Bühnen for a long time, which is a great enrichment for literary studies. I really missed that during the Corona period, when everything suddenly became so disembodied: Texts, read digitally, for people who only exist from the chest up.... that's not my ideal. The director Peter Wallgram had told me earlier about his enthusiasm for Lorca, and when he reported that he was now staging the play, I suggested to the dramaturge Barbara Noth that she write a short text for the program booklet.

García Lorca's drama was banned in Spain during the Franco dictatorship. Why?

Chihaia: Yes, these are the absurdities of censorship under Franco. One imagines that mainly political works were banned, but the eagle eyes of the censors were mainly focused on the morally offensive, and especially on adultery. This went so far that in some foreign films, extramarital affairs were simply "written out" in the Spanish version during dubbing. The characters then told something completely different. Under these conditions, it was out of the question to perform Lorca's plays. Well, Bodas de sangre is not exactly a hymn of praise to the sacrament of marriage; rather the opposite. I'm interested in the concept of literature on which this kind of censorship rests: The idea that people want to perform the actions they see on stage. That they take the characters of a play as models, and that these characters convey certain role models... You see that here lies a spectrum of positions that leads from the Church Fathers to censorship in Franco's Spain to today's critical discourses. Leonardo, the hero of the play, is a representation of toxic masculinity, a penniless Don Juan. Can we say, then, that the play normalizes bride robbery? No, strictly speaking, it problematizes more than it normalizes, especially through the replicas of the bride herself, who is at the center of the tragic explosion and deliberately endures it to the end. Two fields of force collide, to which the poet has given their full charge: on one side, the village, marriage, religion - on the other, the forces of nature, passions, doubts....

García Lorca works with symbols: Blood, marriage, the knife, the horse and the moon are some of them. Can symbols bypass prohibitions when words are not allowed?

Chihaia: The voice of blood is a very classic tragedy theme, traditionally associated with the notion of a natural identity that makes a person's true personality recognizable through all social roles. In Lorca's work, a dramatic arc of tension spans from the symbolic world into social reality. Thus, blood is a tragic omen in the dialogue of the two woodcutters and the beggar woman...and, of course, the substance of the blood feud. The horse is central to the lullaby, but it is also the means by which Leonardo can approach the bride, who lives four hours from the village. And the image of the two of them riding off on horseback, tightly embraced, is permanently imprinted. The knife is used not only to cut grapes for breakfast, but also to stab other men. The mother accuses it of being a symbol of the toxic masculinity already spoken of. The most commented in this piece is the moon. The moon is one of the characters, takes the form of a young woodcutter, and speaks some of the most beautiful verses. We know through the beggar woman, embodiment of tragic fate like the witches of Macbeth, that his light is responsible for the bad outcome. This young man, "la luna" because the moon is feminine in Spanish, stands so obviously between the sexes, between the sphere of men and the powers of nature, that he forms perhaps the greatest provocation of the play.

Historically, we encounter the theme of the blood wedding in various variants much earlier. In 1572, for example, the Parisian Blood Wedding took place, better known as the Bartholomew's Night of the Huguenot Wars, which Alexandre Dumas also describes in his novel "La Reine Margot" in 1845. This confessional struggle ended bloody by the power of the strongest. Is this a never-ending theme of humanity?

Chihaia: Yes, there is also similar material in ancient mythology, and of course the bride robbery is also a cultural phenomenon that gives the piece a certain timelessness. In the program booklet, I talk about linking certain themes to literary genres: The title "Blood Wedding" brings together two elements that are strictly separated in the classical tradition of theater. The wedding is the outcome of every comedy, such as Le nozze di Figaro. In the end, everyone has to get hitched. The blood, on the other hand, characterizes tragedy. In the end, there is death. Lorca's title thus sums up in a short formula what breaks through the expectation of the conservative audience: that an action heading for marriage ends in death. It is the structure of tragicomedy that is even more familiar in Spain than in France or Germany. El burlador de Sevilla, the comic-tragic story of Don Juan, is one of Lorca's models: there, on the one hand, there is the wedding in the countryside, and on the other, a macabre wedding invitation that leads the hero straight to hell.

Fantasy fans love the series "Game of Thrones", and here, too, there is the so-called Red Wedding in two episodes of the third season. This fantasy massacre is by no means a figment of the imagination of eager screenwriters. However, the real event is known under the title "Black Dinner" in Scottish history. Both historical events and fictional accounts are always about rigid traditions, injustice, power and vigilante justice. Is this the stuff of success stories?

Chihaia: Yes, the title of the episode, "The Red Wedding," is a very similar shorthand for tragicomedy as Blood Wedding. So the success of this type of material does not have the same reasons as that of tragedies and comedies: betrayal is a poor basis for literary empathy, because we do not want to stand by the bad guys, nor can we accept the blind trust of the betrayed. For that we enjoy first the splendor of the ceremonial, and then the unleashed cruelty, and of course the abyss that lies between order and destruction. Game of Thrones uses the same trick at least one more time, namely when Loras and Cersei are to be judged in the Great Sept....

García Lorca's "Blood Wedding" has continued to challenge new generations of directors. Why is that?

Chihaia: It is one of the great plays of world theater, has an exciting plot and incredibly beautiful language, and it deals with quite timeless themes such as love and marriage in a very original way. Incidentally, during the summer semester, a guest lecturer, Dr. Luquin Calvo, is organizing a cinema series on women filmmakers from Spain - as part of the Spanish Media Center at our university library - and as part of that we are showing The Bride (2015) by Paula Ortiz, a wedding drama loosely based on Lorca. But first I am looking forward to the premiere of the play at the Theater am Engelsgarten!

Blood Wedding by Federico García Lorca: premieres Jan. 21-23 at 7:30 p.m. at Theater am Engelsgarten. Direction: Peter Wallgram

Uwe Blass

Prof. Dr. Matei Chihaia studied Comparative Literature, Romance Studies and Philosophy at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich and at the University of Oxford. He has been teaching French and Spanish Literature at Bergische Universität since 2010.

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