This year marks the 70th anniversary of the brutal assassination of Federico Garcia Lorca, widely proclaimed to be Spain’s finest writer. He was murdered at the age of 38 by a fascist militia and thrown into an unmarked grave.
It is unsurprising that Lorca died at the hands of General Franco’s supporters. He stood in defiance of everything that Spain’s fascist dictator represented.
Lorca was gay. He was a celebrated poet and playwright, as well as a noted artist, pianist and composer.
He used his artistic ability to explore modernity, what it meant to be human, and to desire, and he raged against the injustices inflicted on ordinary people by wealth and power.
Lorca was born in the southern province of Granada in 1898. He studied at universities in both Granada and the capital, Madrid, where he was heavily involved in the Spanish avant?garde. In 1929-30 Lorca lived in New York. His journey to the US was in part an attempt to escape his growing depression - made worse by his increasingly unsuccessful concealment of his homosexuality from his friends and family.
The more famous he became as a writer, the more painful his life’s contradiction - the public successful writer and the tortured self that could only be revealed in private.
Lorca’s series of poems from the period, published as the collection Poet in New York, are among the most powerful and political of his career. He described his time in New York as “one of the most useful experiences” of his life. It was there that his vision of himself, his art and indeed the world itself, changed.
Lorca saw much that was wrong with New York. He condemned the white, urban civilisation because it represented the most immediate and powerful image of the spiritual poverty of the 20th century. The “sleepless city” with its bright lights became the site of the modern person’s vigil for meaning in a world consumed by suffering.
It was in his New York collection that Lorca’s unique voice first began to emerge. He was a writer who looked at what was and always thought of what it was not. He looked beyond the circumstance to the precipice of the unknown, seeking an explanation, fearful that all the suffering around him did not seem to have any social or moral explanation.
In the poem Blind Panorama of New York he wrote:
The genuine pain that keeps everything awake
is a tiny, infinite burn
on the innocent eyes of other systems.
The only moral explanation that made sense to Lorca was the indifference of human beings to the “other”, and his work was characterised by his refusal to ignore the “other”.
Lorca condemned capitalist society and everything that it entails - its indifference to suffering, the alienation, poverty and racism. He particularly despised the way that capitalism materially corrupts everything that is precious and human.
Lorca was outraged by the degradation of black Americans he saw in New York - and wrote poems in protest.
He would later write that he wanted to write a black tragedy, but was unable to do so until he fully understood “a world shameless and cruel enough to divide people by colour”.
Mingling the private with the public he warned in The King of Harlem that the blood raging under black peoples’ skin “will flow / on rooftops everywhere / and burn the blond women’s chlorophyll / and groan at the foot of the beds near the washstands’ insomnia / and burst into an aurora of tobacco and low yellow”.
Lorca’s return to Spain in 1930 coincided with the collapse of Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship and the establishment of the Spanish Republic by left wing forces. In 1931 he was appointed as a director of the university student theatre company known as The Shack. This group was funded by the Republic’s ministry of education and was charged with bringing theatre to Spain’s most remote rural areas.
It was during this period that Lorca began to write some of his most important theatrical work including his “rural trilogy” - Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba.
During his time in New York Lorca had immersed himself in the world of New York theatre.
He saw New York as an opportunity to distance himself psychologically from the Spanish theatre of his day. “One must think of the theatre of the future,” he wrote to his family. “Everything that now exists in Spain is dead. Either the theatre changes radically, or it dies away. There is no other solution.”
In New York Lorca discovered in theatre a powerful means of connecting with and challenging the public. Theatre, he wrote, “is poetry that lifts itself from the book and becomes human.
And in becoming human, it speaks and shouts, cries and despairs. The theatrical characters need to appear on stage wearing a poetic coat but their bones and blood need to shine through.”
Lorca’s plays, like his poems, sought the ideal, the “murmur of perfect of beauty”. His work sings not of love but of desire, a desire in which there is always more absence than presence.
For instance, in the play Yerma the characters yearn for one another, but become victims of their own emotional inarticulacy - trapped by the expectations of their family and society.
The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, and shortly after this Lorca returned to Granada. He must have known that he was heading towards almost certain death. While Lorca never formally joined the Socialist Party, his social and political commitment was always evident, and to Franco and his supporters he was nothing short of a Communist.
He could have easily escaped Granada when it fell to Franco’s forces, but he chose to stay with his sister and his brother in law, Granada’s socialist mayor. He was arrested and two days later shot.
He became one of an estimated 20,000-30,000 Spaniards executed in the Granada area because they were thought to be supporters of democracy or the left, members of trade unions, teachers or journalists, or like Lorca, writers.
Lorca’s work was banned in Spain until 1953, when it appeared in a heavily censored form. Only after Franco’s death in 1975 could his work and his death be openly discussed.
Today Lorca is honoured by a statue in Madrid’s Plaza de Santa Ana, where he stands as a reminder of Spain’s contested history. The philosopher David Crocker has written that every day the left puts a red kerchief on the neck of the statue and someone from the right comes and later to take it off.
Sinead Kennedy is a lecturer at Dublin City University.