Federico Garcia Lorca is best known in the English-speaking world as the author of plays where characters struggle to express sexual love in a repressive atmosphere; an atmosphere which is unforgiving of those who reject its norms. His poems are also arguably the finest written in the Spanish language. A victim of the nationalist terror in the early days of the Spanish civil war, he was assassinated 81 years ago.
Born into a middle-class family in Granada in 1898, Lorca was, along with people such as Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, part of the generation of 1927, which breathed fresh air into the stultifying atmosphere of Spanish culture. He was drawn to the Andalucian gypsies who were seen as outsiders by mainstream Spanish society and their myths and their music inspired much of his writing in the 20s. His 1928 collection of poems, 'Romancero Gitano' ('Gypsy Ballads') earned him an international reputation and he was widely read and admired both in North and South America, as well as in Spain.
One of these poems was dedicated to the beauty of a red rose and he was not the only poet who has written movingly about such a flower.
Cuando se abre en la manana,
roja como sangre esta.
El rocio no la toca
porque se teme quemar.
When it opens in the morning
It is blood red.
The dew dares not touch it
Because it fears being burned.
He does not appear to have been a member of a political party but, when the monarchy was removed in 1931, he was drawn towards the sense of hope and optimism generated by the Second Republic. It was not long before he became involved in an ambitious enterprise to take the message of democracy out to impoverished and often totally isolated areas. Schools, which were not under the control of the church, were built in areas where there had never been any access to education.
An organisation called Misiones Pedagogicas (Teaching Missions) was set up to go around the countryside putting on plays and concerts and exhibitions to assist the process of learning about democracy. The minister in charge of this project, Fernando de los Rios Urruti, was well known for his opposition to the ways in which the church had, over centuries, stifled independent thought.
Lorca quickly became a leading figure in La Barraca, the theatre company which took plays to the villages and marketplaces of Spain. Their repertoire included classical works such as those by Cervantes, Lopez de Vega and Calderon de la Barca; there was also an opportunity for Lorca to produce some of his own plays. During this period he was particularly productive and wrote the three plays for which he is best remembered. 'Blood Wedding' focused on forbidden love, 'Yerma' on a woman's childlessness and the 'House of Bernarda Alba' on family honour. In all of them a young person is facing some kind of conflict between their own personal desires and the strictly imposed authority of their own community. These are passionately portrayed dramas but there are no happy endings. Within the erotic life, the risk of death is always present; love, very definitely, does not conquer all.
Such plays now are a spectacle in which 99% of the audience identifies with the 'young lovers.' In 1930s Spain they were much more dangerous and the conflicts on the stage would reflect many of the conflicts which were ongoing in the families and communities of the members of the audience. The fact that these plays were being performed by La Barraca in rural areas meant that the audiences were exposed to ideas which they had never encountered before; they were seen as a threat to the values and norms of the existing order. They exemplified the cultural and revolutionary potential of theatre and they aroused enormous hostility among conservative forces in Spain.
Leading members of the Spanish right made clear their opposition to the freedom of thought which was being encouraged by the Second Republic. CEDA, the leading right-wing Catholic party, provided most of the parliamentary opposition to the activities of the Second Republic and it summed up its values in the slogan, 'Religion, Fatherland, Order, Work, Property.' Gil Robles, one of the leaders of CEDA, spoke frequently about the need to 're-conquer' Spain from republican values. General Mola, one of the most outspoken of the anti-republican generals, went even further and called for the elimination of 'those who do not think as we do.'
When the nationalists in the army rebelled against the democratically-elected government in July 1936, Lorca was aware of the risks that he and other republicans faced; he moved back to his home town Granada where he thought he would be safer. The situation proved to be chaotic and even his family connections could not guarantee his safety. He was arrested by men connected with the local civil government on 16 August and shot along with three others on the 19th.
Among the group who killed him was a local landowner and prominent right-wing politician, Juan Luis Trecastro; he was heard to boast the following day: 'I put two bullets in Lorca's arse for being a queer.' Whatever the truth of that statement, it was the case that the military rebellion against the republic had given some people permission to express their hatreds and longstanding resentments in the most violent ways possible. It was not the case, however, that the murders of Lorca and his companions were isolated incidents. Rather, it was the case that they marked the early stages of what the historian, Paul Preston, has called a holocaust.
The military rebels and their allies were particularly vicious in that part of Spain. The rebel commander in Andalucia was General Queipo de Llano and he organised a total reign of terror. His radio broadcasts were designed to incite violence against republicans; he wanted to purge Andalucia of all traces of republicanism, no matter how many years it took. Tens of thousands were killed and one day of fighting in Puente Genil, a medium sized town, saw 500 die. People were often picked arbitrarily for execution because they had some loose connection with the republic; sometimes family members of a republican were shot; republican women were raped and systematically humiliated; professionals such as teachers were also targets of this regime.
The work of Lorca was anathema to the nationalist regime and it was totally banned in Spain between 1936 and 1953; it was only after Franco's death in 1975 that it became possible in Spain for his poems and plays to be discussed publicly. When we mourn the death of Lorca, we mourn not only the loss of a fine poet and playwright. We also mourn the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others who were murdered directly, or through neglect, as part of an attempt to re-conquer Spain from the democratic aspirations of the Second Republic. Remembering Lorca, whose resting place is still unknown, is also a way of remembering those many others whose bodies still lie in ditches across Spain.