Kissing Barren Earth: Yerma, Then & Now

“El andaluz o grita a las estrellas o besa el polvo rojizo de sus caminos.”
— Federico García Lorca [translated below]


When Federico García Lorca was 23, he wrote Poema del Cante Jondo, a book of poems that would make him famous throughout all of Spain, and later, the world. Drawing upon the tradition of the cante jondo (deep song), the collection of poetry marked a turning point in Lorca’s writing. Up until Poema, Lorca was influenced by surrealism — his first play El Maleficio de la Mariposa was a symbolist play about insects in love — but after Poema, his dramatic interests shifted to the tragedy of the everyday found in the cante jondo.

Born in a rural village in the south of Spain, Lorca first heard the folk, not quite-flamenco sounds of the cante jondo sung from the throats of workers on his family’s farm. He fell in love with the ways in which the songs depicted unfathomable emotions truthfully, and he worked to replicate the effect in his work. “My whole childhood was centered on the village. Shepherds, fields, sky, solitude. Total simplicity,” Lorca once said, about the truth at his writing’s core, “I’m often surprised when people think that the things in my work are daring improvisations of my own. Not at all. They’re authentic details and seem strange to a lot of people because it’s not often that we approach life in such a simple, straightforward fashion: looking and listening.”

Lorca had an instinctual understanding of the ways in which the cante jondo rejected middling feeling, dealing instead in strong emotion: “the Andalusian either cries to the stars or kisses the reddish dust of his roads” — life is deeply painful or deeply joyous, and there’s no in between. Similarly, Lorca’s greatest plays were lived in the extremes. Written in 1934, Yerma coincided with the rise of Francisco Franco’s tyrannical star. Civil war loomed, and the earth was about to be wetted with the blood of half a million people, but Lorca, well aware of the danger looming, chose to stay in the Spain he loved. He was murdered by nationalists in 1936.

Yerma is a play about a woman who wants to be a mother, but — for some inexplicable reason — can’t be. It’s a play about extremes: of love, obsession, desire, joy, pain. Extremes that make us consider the human need for hope, forseeing a future, for finding answers as disaster looms; but as Lorca said about the cante jondo, we can say about Yerma, “in the depths of all this a question beatslike a heart, but it’s a terrible question that has no answer.” So, what now?


85 years since Lorca’s Yerma, this translation and adaptation of the play marks Melinda Lopez’s fourth production at the Huntington. A critically acclaimed playwright, actress, and the Huntington’s playwright-in-residence, Lopez worked not only to retain Lorca’s genius by uplifting and preserving the story, mystery, and poetry of the play (translation), but also to approach the play with the questions and techniques of a contemporary playwright (adaptation). In doing double the work, Lopez conserved the truthful, extremely emotional influences of Lorca’s beloved cante jondo, while also finding ways to deepen an already deep song.

“There are parts of the original text that I felt were going to hinder the audience’s experience and, in those moments, I’ve made different choices. One example of this is that Lorca wrote many of his characters as symbols instead of characters. He wrote ‘Woman 1,’ ‘Woman 2,’ etc.; I’ve given names to every single woman in the play and in doing so created specific characters with back stories that are important to Yerma’s arc.” By deepening the relationships between Yerma and her world, the emotions of the play vibrate at a higher frequency, and, ultimately, have the power to affect the audience more—a continuation of Lorca’s cante jondo.

“Our people, the Andalusians,” Lorca said, continuing his lecture on the cantejondo, “cross their arms in prayer, gaze at the stars, and await, in vain, a sign ofsalvation. It is a gesture filled with pathos, but a true one. The cante jondo eitherposes a profound and unanswerable emotional question, or resolves it in death,the question of questions.” And as to how to resolve the questions at the heart of Yerma, Lopez adds, “the play resists neat interpretations. It’s Lorca’s way of askingus to welcome the mysteries of the unknowable.”

Approach Yerma how Federico García Lorca, and now Melinda Lopez, each firstapproached it: by looking and listening. And surrender to the deep song.

— J. Sebastián Alberdi

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