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Roberts, Stephen G.H. (2012) El retablo de Maese

Federico: Lorca’s Romancero gitano as puppet theatre.

Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies, 17 (2/3).

pp. 195-207. ISSN 1470-1847

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For more information, please contact eprints@nottingham.ac.uk 1 El retablo de Maese Federico: Lorca’s Romancero gitano as puppet theatre Stephen G. H. Roberts Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies, University of Nottingham, UK This article considers the profound influence that puppet theatre had on Federico García Lorca’s poetic vision and practice at the time that he was writing the poems that would eventually make up the Romancero gitano (1928). Taking the ‘Romance sonámbulo’ as its main example and focusing on elements such as setting, stage space, lighting and décor, characterisation, movement, choreography, and the complicit relationship between puppeteer, character and audience, it shows how Lorca draws on and plays with all the machinery and conventions of puppet theatre in this collection and, to all intents and purposes, transforms each of its poems into a mini puppet play.

The article ends by considering the wider consequences for our reading of the Romancero gitano of Lorca’s puppet aesthetic.

In a recent piece, I argued that the poems of the Romancero gitano can be seen and read as paintings, as two-dimensional canvases onto which Lorca applies images that are principally visual in nature but also tactile, auditory, olfactory and gustatory. Such an approach foregrounds the plastic and the painterly qualities of the poems and also allows them to be read in terms of the major artistic movements of the time, from Impressionism and Cubism to Expressionism and Abstraction (see Roberts 2009).

In this companion piece, I wish to claim that the romances can be seen not only as canvases but also, and at the same time, as puppet theatre. By this, I do not mean that each poem simply provides the story-line and often dialogue of what could become an individual puppet play but that it gives us the total experience of such a play, from setting to choreography, from décor to drama, from a sense of space to a sense of movement. As in the earlier piece, I shall be illustrating my thesis mainly through reference to one of the most famous poems in the collection, namely the ‘Romance sonámbulo’.

2 Lorca’s lifelong interest in puppet theatre is well-known and documented, from his early exposure to the work of travelling puppeteers in Fuente Vaqueros and the performances he put on as a child in his toy theatre at home to his largely unsuccessful attempts to have his adult puppet plays produced in the 1930s.1 But his period of greatest activity in this area was without doubt the early 1920s, which saw the composition of his first full-length puppet play, La tragicomedia de don Cristóbal y la señá Rosita (1921-22), and various puppet collaborations with Manuel de Falla and the engraver and designer Hermenegildo Lanz. The performance of three puppet plays – two with glove puppets and one with cut-out figures – in Lorca’s Granada home on 5 January 1923 has become an almost legendary event in the history of modern Spanish theatre, a moment when Lorca, Falla and Lanz pooled their literary, musical and designing talents to offer a spectacle that married traditional stories and puppeteering with avant-garde sets and music. For Falla and Lanz, the event was an opportunity to test out ideas and techniques that would then feed into their production, later that same year, of Falla’s puppet opera El retablo de Maese Pedro. For Lorca, there is no doubt that the event represented a key moment in his development as poet, dramatist and artist. For one thing, he was able to write and perform a play, La niña que riega la albahaca y el príncipe preguntón, that both drew on local folklore and paid homage to the Andalusian traditions of puppet theatre. For another, he was able to combine his writing, painting and performance skills by participating in the creation of the texts and set designs, and by manipulating some of the glove puppets themselves, including that of don Cristóbal, who supplied the entertainment during the intervals between the plays. And, finally, the event confirmed him in his passionate conviction that puppet theatre could offer an antidote to the staid and conventionally realistic drama that dominated the Spanish stage of the time. Since at least January 1922, Lorca and Falla had been exploring the idea of creating an Andalusian puppet company that could tour both locally and internationally, and the January 1923 performance encouraged Lorca to continue refining his own puppet texts for the proposed Títeres andaluces de Cachiporra.2 Although these plans did not in fact come to fruition, Lorca would never lose his enthusiasm for puppet theatre, and he managed, in March and April 1934, to oversee one-off performances of his Retablillo de don Cristóbal y doña Rosita in Buenos Aires and Madrid. More importantly, though, he would incorporate many of the ideas and techniques of puppet theatre into the drama that he started to write for human actors from the mid 1920s 3 onwards, starting most obviously with La zapatera prodigiosa, which he referred to as ‘una comedia (por el estilo de Cristobícal)’ (1997, p. 241), that is a puppet-like work;3 and he would also incorporate puppet (or puppet-like) characters into the more experimental plays that he wrote during and after his stay in New York.

This intense immersion in the world of puppet theatre in the early to mid 1920s furnished Lorca with an intimate knowledge of all aspects of puppetry: how both glove and cut-out puppets are made and manipulated, how they look, feel and move; how puppet theatres and their sets are designed, constructed and worked; how puppet movement is choreographed and how the puppets interact with their surroundings; how voice, sounds and music are used to punctuate, underscore or offset that movement and interaction; how the puppeteer relates not only to his puppets but also, through them, to his audience. And it is out of this intense and total experience of puppetry and puppet theatre, I claim, that the poems of the Romancero gitano, most of which were written at this time, emerge and take their final shape. It is the central contention of this article, in fact, that each of these poems is conceived, shaped and bodied forth with the vision and imagination of a puppet master.

The main evidence for this view of the Romancero gitano will come from the poems themselves, as we shall see in a moment. But there is also a fascinating piece of ‘external’ evidence that should be considered first, namely Lorca’s description of the collection, in his ‘Conferencia-Recital del Romancero gitano’ (probably 1933), as ‘un retablo de Andalucía con gitanos, caballos, arcángeles, planetas, con su brisa judía, con su brisa romana, con ríos, con crímenes, con la nota vulgar del contrabandista y la nota celeste de los niños desnudos de Córdoba que burlan a San Rafael’ (1986a, vol. 3, p. 340). The key word in this quotation is ‘retablo’, a term that Lorca uses again later on in the ‘Conferencia-Recital’ when introducing the character of Antoñito el Camborio (1986a, vol. 3, p. 345). Relatively little attention has been paid to this word, and most of that focuses on the idea that Lorca is likening his collection in some way or other to an altarpiece or reredos.4 No approach that stresses the painterly and compositional qualities of the Romancero gitano can in fact overlook the thematic and formal appropriateness of the view that the collection – and each poem within it – is akin to an altarpiece: thematic, because the Romancero presents us with the stories of a series of iconic figures, several of whom are in fact 4 Saints or Archangels themselves; and formal, because each of these stories is told as a series of vignettes that are juxtaposed, sometimes in the form of diptychs or triptychs, in order to create an impression both of narrative and of simultaneity of event that is directly reminiscent of Medieval, Renaissance or baroque altarpieces.5 But some altarpieces can themselves show how two-dimensional art tries to become three-dimensional, as bas-reliefs or full-blown statues emerge from the flat and colourful décor that constitutes their surroundings. Little surprise, therefore, that the word ‘retablo’ should also have come to mean a board on which the background decoration for a puppet play is painted and displayed, and, by extension, an actual puppet stage or theatre itself. Lorca’s reference to the Romancero gitano as a ‘retablo’ carries with it both the sense of a particular type of religious representation, with its own specific forms of characterisation, story-telling, composition and organisation, and the sense of a puppet play with the same rich mixture of characters who now stand proud of their backdrop and play out their dramas by interacting with it.

There is, of course, an obvious antecedent for Lorca, one which, thanks to his association with Falla and Lanz, was very present in his mind when he started to write his romances. In fact, Lorca’s reference to the gypsies, horses, archangels, smugglers and children that populate his puppet show can easily make us think of the emperor, king, lords, lady, cavalrymen and horses that Cervantes’ Maese Pedro will bring onto the stage of his own portable puppet theatre in Chapters 25 and 26 of Part 2 of Don Quijote (see Cervantes, 1998, vol. 1, pp. 839-855). Maese Pedro presents himself as the master puppeteer who transports the puppet theatre around with him, assembles it, prepares the stage and décors, and then works his puppets from within, producing appropriate music and sound effects as he does so. But he also relies on the efforts of his young assistant, the trujamán, who, standing out front and making use of a wand, acts as narrator, commentator and interpreter of the events taking place on stage, addressing the audience directly and thereby forging a direct relationship between those events and the people watching them. It is precisely the combined role of puppet master and trujamán that we shall see at work in the poems of the Romancero gitano, as each romance provides us with what can only be called a total puppet experience.

–  –  –

Verde que te quiero verde.

Verde viento. Verdes ramas.

El barco sobre la mar 4 y el caballo en la montaña.

Con la sombra en la cintura, ella sueña en su baranda, verde carne, pelo verde, 8 con ojos de fría plata.

Verde que te quiero verde.

Bajo la luna gitana, las cosas la están mirando 12 y ella no puede mirarlas.

Verde que te quiero verde.

Grandes estrellas de escarcha vienen con el pez de sombra 16 que abre el camino del alba.

La higuera frota su viento con la lija de sus ramas, y el monte, gato garduño, 20 eriza sus pitas agrias.

Pero ¿quién vendrá? ¿Y por dónde?...

Ella sigue en su baranda, verde carne, pelo verde, 24 soñando en la mar amarga.

–  –  –

audience. The poem starts with an incantatory couplet that marks the entry into a world of magic and of performance and will be repeated, in differing forms and in an ever more troubling manner, at key moments throughout. This couplet also helps to paint the backdrop of the stage and to cast an eerie green glow over the events that will unfold there. The moon and the stars will play an increasingly important role in that backdrop, controlling the shifting intensity of the light that is projected onto the stage and picking out certain key objects in turn: the eyes of the gypsy woman (v. 8), the tin lanterns on the roofs (vv. 57-60), the body of the gypsy woman on the surface of the cistern (vv. 77-78).

The stage itself has all the magical complexity and impossible perspectives of the best puppet theatre. It is made up of an interior space, where the three gypsies are to be found, and an exterior space – perhaps glimpsed through windows, arches or balconies – representing the natural world beyond the house. There is also the suggestion of a more immediate exterior space with the reference, at the end of the poem, to the Civil Guards banging on the front door. The interior space itself is divided up into a higher level, the domain of the gypsy woman, and a lower level, where the two gypsy men have their initial discussion. These levels are themselves connected by a staircase which witnesses much of the action at the heart of the poemplay. A sense of how Lorca may have imagined this space can perhaps be gleaned from a coloured drawing entitled Verde que te quiero verde that he appended to a copy of the ‘Romance sonámbulo’ in 1930 (reproduced in García Lorca, 1986b, p.

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