The Billy Club Puppets – a puppet play by Federico Garcia Lorca

Lorca is hard to get into for a first-timer.  I have been fortunate; I have had an education; but still I found Lorca hard to get things out of for some time before his ‘grace and flavour’ began to sensitise my taste buds.

I began with the lyric poetry he wrote. This was because poetry has always been my preference over drama – to read if not to write upon.  The first impressions one gets, if yours are going to be anything like mine, were of a lightness of touch which I initially mistook for shallowness and triviality.

Many people I believe stop here; even after putting in an investment of much more time to Lorca.  In the way Burns was hackneyed as the ‘heaven-taught plowman’ Lorca too has been dismissed as a lightweight folk poet of sweet but inconsequential lyrical delights.

Both these travesties are potent because they hold some truth.  Burns indeed was a ploughman, just as Lorca was astoundingly lyrical and light in his touch; but Burns had a solid and sound education and was by no means nature’s own production alone.

Lorca’s poetry and plays are folksy and appear to have a simple naiveté about them. He wrote sometime deliberately for children as well. But just as Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is a  book loved by children and by adults; just as Dickens is the children’s delight and the adults instruction, Lorca too is one of those artists who carry within their work something, very much, for every age.

Lorca’s poetry uses symbols and symbolism to get its effects; not exclusively; but getting a grasp on his prevalent symbols and how he uses them will help you a lot in beginning to get right into his ideas and outlook. Moons, oranges, lemons, flowers, fruits are the facilitators of a lightness of touch. They are used frequently and often repetitively in short songs or in recitatives.

Such songs and recitatives are often made solely so as to create, to conjure like magic, even in translation, a mood, an enveloping ambience, in a reader or an audience. This mood is usually so just right that it is a significant part of a dramatic action in his plays and some of his longer poems. In this way Lorca is able to consolidate a scene and so sum up what has just passed in action on stage before you.  These light and aerie songs and recitatives can point to an interpretation, or can set a contrast, or can be a chorus of lament or joy.  But he had an unerring hand in creating mood, like a true poet.

A British Anglo Saxon reader of his poems goes out with his staff in hand and ready for a hard slog seeking out meaning or interpretation of a poem.  The poems don’t respond to this bold determination. They flow; they flow into one another like Schubert song sequences or like Strauss’s Lieder, each one dependent upon and commenting on, inflecting and contextualising another, behind or before it.  Each poem although it hangs on the next poem, or else like a cloud server, Lorca’s sets of poems are in virtual subsistence together in no particular physical place; each poem with careful and patient reading will come into focus for you and will live in its own right individually once you have accepted it is part of the cloud.

Lorca can be startling.  For instance he writes of insincerity being like a poet using a poetic image of an abandoned glove.  There is some dismissal and a little scorn in his observation here, but it is his general lack of these that is more remarkable; the observation is given room to be informative as well. This is because instead of him dwelling upon what is a great image which supports a great observation, he routinely moves on very quickly as if such a jewel in the text were just an aside or a by-the-way thing.

He does the same in his dramas with the dialogue between his characters.  The observation of how people behave and speak can be excruciatingly nice; spot on; yet the action breezes amiably by and one is left astonished and amazed at the apparent careless easy way he has of casting gems in our paths as he strolls through what seems to be a gentle walk in the countryside.

The poetry also has its darknesses; as does the drama. These can be conveyed in imagery also, and this can be so in-the-face to be brutally raw. Again though like sparks flying off a grinder, they are things of a second or two of life before they pass. Like the songs the images  their usage are by Lorcas is able to hit the spot for you exactly and with serious impact and the effect is to awaken you, enliven you, to draw you on and into the action and dialogue of plot and action. In the case of Lorca’s poems written during and just after his stay in New York the darkness is persistent but not without its typically cumulative fast flashing continuities.

So the poetry takes some time to get yourself inside it. Let it grow on you; don’t chase after it.  Sit like a patient beggar waiting for the passers by who will give you something; whereas if you make a fuss and start soliciting donations you will lose in the longer term. Let the poems dictate the moods, wait to receive.

The Billy Club Puppets is a puppet play.  Lorca first wrote a version in the later 1920s. It was a play he revised several times and extensively; but how it was born is a good and an absorbing story.

Lorca was smitten with Catholicism when he was a child. He built an altar and surrounded it with the paraphernalia for celebrating Mass, all in his garden at his family home.  But one day he is said to have seen a strolling puppet theatre come by his home town and play some shows.  The story says that for Lorca suddenly Mass was out and finished forever, and puppets were in and forever favourite.  His mother it is said bought him a very expensive puppet theatre to set up in the garden in place of the altar.  This was the beginning.

The Billy Club Puppets was written when he was adult. An early performance of an early version was produced in his same back garden for his family, their children, and their friends, and their children.  Lorca was fond of children, and a lingering regret with him was that he was to have none of his own. He acknowledged early his own homosexuality and also he accepted his utter loss of religious faith.  These two deeply personal concerns were two of the most formative influences on his creative character and life.

The performance of The Billy Club Puppets in the garden was organised, created, directed, and enthused upon by him.  His family was all dragooned in to help him; and he created not only a script, he also made and painted the puppets (on strings I believe), he made the puppet theatre structure, draped it in decorative cloths painted it, carved it, costumes, sets, props; the whole shooting match – Lorca was dedicated to the finest detail and in this way he made material his love and devotion to theatre; which was his joy in life.

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