The Mask of El Publico

Federico Garcia Lorca titled his “un-performable” play that “belonged to the future” El Publico. This name could mean two things: el publico, the audience, or el publico, he who is public. Both meanings are two sides of the same coin, the beating heart of Lorca’s play– and in naming this work, Lorca points to the connection between the audience and the creator, and the theater that looms in between them. The play itself draws on very personal themes in Lorca’s life, such as gay love and the hypocrisy of pretending, but is written very obscurely, in a style and tone that none of his other works carry. In this way, the form itself plays on this theme of el publico and el publico– Lorca steps on stage to reveal his naked soul, yet covers his meanings with translucent words to shield his art from the criticizing eyes of the public.The mask is also a common motif that is presented throughout the play. In the third scene, the character of the Director speaks on the use of masks, saying that “In the middle of the street, the mask buttons us up and lets us avoid that indiscreet blush which sometimes rises to our cheeks. In the bedroom, when we stick our fingers in our nose or delicately explore our rear, the plaster of the mask presses down so heavily on our flesh that we’re barely able to lie down on the bed” (26). Here Lorca talks about how the mask is used even more frequently in life than in the theater; in the theater, however, at least people know that what they are seeing is something crafted. The mask, though it conveniently allows us to protect ourselves from the judgments of others, becomes an oppressive shell, in which we are all trapped by the layers of our own hypocrisies. Also, in the first scene, the Director speaks again on the motif of the mask, reacting to the idea of presenting the audience with real, uncensored theater. He cries, “What would I do with the audience? What would I do with the audience if I removed the handrails from the bridge? The mask would come and devour me. I once saw a man devoured by the mask. The strongest youths in the city rammed large balls of thrown-away newspaper up his rear with bloodied pickaxes; and once in America there was a boy whom the mask hung by his own intestines” (4). Here Lorca again talks about the dual nature of the mask, and its volatile power to guard or overwhelm. The mask serves as a protective barrier between the artist and the audience members, who, blinded by spectacle, see without seeing. The public cannot handle the presentation of the theater in its rawest form, without the cover of illusion– perhaps because such a revelation of truth would penetrate through their own masks, casting aside pretense and fusing the darkest parts of their souls with the darkest parts of others, so that all is known amongst all.Lorca also places special significance in the costumes of his characters, sometimes even using them to serve as entities in themselves. In the third scene, Juliet (of the infamous Romeo and Juliet duo) defends herself in her tomb, against four horses and men who want to have sex with her. Tired of her resistance, one of the men “undresses her violently, pulling off her pajamas [and] her wig” (29). In the original Shakespearean play, Juliet plays at death by sleeping a sleep like death– which foreshadows her own death to come. In this play, the character of Juliet (sporting, very notably, pajamas for sleeping) dies as well, killed by the disapproving public for bringing her very real pain into the theater by “moaning like a cat under the seats.” The horses want to “pass through her” in order to resurrect themselves, and here Lorca hints at the connection between life and death, and the way it is enacted and carried out in the theater. A few moments later in the same scene, a “Pajamas costume with poppies appears. The face of this character is smooth, white and curved like an ostrich egg… [it] sits down on the steps and slowly hits his smooth face with his hands, until the end of the scene” (29-30). In Greek mythology, Morpheus, the god of dreams, is said to sleep in a dimly-lit cave of poppies, which put humans to sleep– thus, the costume and its decoration of poppies support Lorca’s theme on sleep and death. As a flower, the poppy also serves as a symbol of nature, effervescent life, and beauty. By imbuing the costume with representations of both sleep/death and life, Lorca contrasts the two while showing the connection between the natural cycle of life and death. The Pajamas costume also has a smooth, blank, expressionless face, which signifies its lack of emotions and identity. By being like an egg, the mask carries with it the connotation of the possibilities of a yet-unborn life, yet also mimics the hard surface of a shell that protects and divides. The costume beats its face, an action that expresses inner torment–here Lorca provides a contrast between the character’s unexpressive, identity-less face and the emotions it seems to carry, and by relating the costume to the poppy, death, and the egg, he suggests that being without identity and wearing masks is another form of silent death. In El Publico there are also several instances of characters changing forms, for example passing by folding screens to become of a different gender, or removing their costumes to become other characters entirely. In the second scene, at a Roman ruin, an Emperor and two characters dressed in bells and vine leaves argue about the existence of two, and one always being one and nothing more. The Character in Vine Leaves “strips off the vine leaves, and a plaster white nude appears” (15). The Emperor then chooses this character and embraces him for being always one. Lorca provides a humorous contrast between what is said–that one is always one–and what is done, as when the Character in Vine Leaves strips himself he becomes another figure entirely. The revealing of the plaster white nude signifies a move from the natural (the vines) to the unnatural (plaster), and as he embodies both, he represents the connection between both sides that is created in the illusion and art of theater. The setting of the Roman ruins, the Emperor, and the plaster nude themselves connote ties to old Greek and Roman tradition of plays, in which parts for women were always played by men– another duality of one. In the first scene, Man 1 goes opens a door at the back of the stage, inviting the public to come in and saying that all have a part in the drama. Two other men push the Director behind a folding screen and “appearing on the other side is a boy dressed in white satin with a white ruff. He should be played by an actress. She is carrying a little black guitar” (7). Man 1, opening the door at the back of the stage, is symbolically inviting the audience to enter onto the stage, breaking down the barrier that holds the mask up between the artists and the audience. Being on stage, the public would literally be part of the drama, presented as if they were actors themselves– and who is to say that they are not? The door being at the back of the stage hints at something clandestine and secretive, suggesting that this is a move that is forbidden or not abiding with the norm. The Director changes into a boy/girl duality, an identity characterized by androgyny and sexual ambiguity. S/he moves from being an older man to a much younger boy, and wears the colors of white and black, classic markers of good and evil– thus, the character in one entity embodies many contrasts. In doing so, Lorca discusses the fluidity of illusion and presentation in the theater, perhaps suggesting that the raw emotions that theater inspires is instead at the core of its experience.Finally, Lorca explores the nature of performance and the experience of the stage versus reality. In the fifth scene, several characters discuss the revolution of the theater and the murder of Juliet. One boy reflects on the prior scene in the play in Juliet’s tomb, saying that it was “prodigiously developed,” and two students then argue over the rioting, and one says that “People forget about the costumes during performances, and the revolution broke out when they found the true Juliet underneath the seats and covered with cotton balls so she wouldn’t scream” (35). By having such characters reflect on the tomb scene, Lorca represents the audience members symbolically, as characters, onstage. He comments about the public’s desire for reality, but not reality that is too real– denouncing their preference of the comfort of the mask. But by making the public characters onstage, he reveals them to be actors in the theater of life, and tears down the walls about proper notions of what theater really is. Further, the beginning and end of El Publico are the same, ending the play on a cyclical note– in the beginning, a Servant tells the Director that “there is the public,” and the Director instructs the servant to “show them in”–four horses enter. At the very end, these lines are repeated, but as voices offstage, and on the set, there is a “large horse’s head placed on the floor.” The horses serve as a connection to the potent natural and are said to be responsible for the revolution of the theater that occurs within the play. With the death of these horses, Lorca suggests that the natural in theater is dead and that it consists only of artifice– the horse’s head almost serves as a warning to others who would attempt to try the same. The characters’ voices being offstage show that after the putting down of the revolution, theater has become even less real– it is a mere echo of what it used to be. With the cyclical ending and beginning, Lorca shows that in spite of the attempted revolution things are still the same as they were.In El Publico Federico Garcia Lorca explores the relationship between the audience, the theater, and those who breathe life into the theater. He draws connections between the theater, life, and love, playing between showing and telling, hiding and revealing. And in doing so, he raises a multitude of questions– who is most important, the artist, the audience, the theater itself? And who is the theater really for? Can the thin illusion of theater ever be sliced away to reveal what is true, or is it what is onstage that is the only reality of the entire experience? Lorca urges the public to drop their masks and liberate themselves by freeing themselves of conformed, false identity– yet in his own play, teases and confuses with words that form circles instead of direct lines from A to B. In this way, it can be seen that the constant struggle to find truth and rip away illusion is just that– an unending war against others and oneself in the hope of discovering, is it better to be el publico, the passive-aggressive audience, or el publico, he who is stripped bare for the judgments of others’ eyes?