The Relationship between Setting and Theme in Blood Wedding
Many modern playwrights seek to connect contemporary issues with ancient themes by updating the stories of mythic stories into a completely modern milieu. With Blood Wedding, Federico Garcia Lorca seeks to explore this idea of connectivity through an alternative avenue in which the lush Andalusian wine country he knew so well is engineered into a starker landscape more suitable for symbolic interpretation of mythic themes exhibited through the incorporation of stylized dramatic devices that includes singing and chanting, poetry recitation and non-realistic set design. Blood Wedding makes manifest the definition of setting as more than just geographical location and a finite time by revealing it to be a more expansive term in which political and sociological and economic dimension are also at play. Andalusia thus becomes a setting in Blood Wedding invested with the literal reality of physical and emotional isolation of its women within the historical context of contemporary 1930s life while at the same situating setting as a conceptual idea in which symbols become essential to understanding the most important themes contributing to the play’s mythic sense of timeless tragedy.
Setting can be a symbolic encapsulation of social relations that have taken place over extended periods of time where cause and effect creates generational conflict and disputes that erupt into the climax as the centerpiece of a narrative thrust and that sense of setting in Blood Wedding becomes personified in the figure of the mother of the groom. The graveyard thus becomes a symbol for those generational conflicts beyond merely being the final resting place of her dwindling cast of loved ones. When the mother asserts early on that she “can’t leave your father and your brother here on their own” is more than just a melancholy memory of personal loss. The mother’s inability to let go of the deaths of her husband and son becomes an inability to let go of the impact of a family feud grounded in the very history of the soil. The enormity of the impact of time and place is summarized in one simple, but intense reply to complaints about her obsessive mourning: “If I lived a hundred years I could speak of nothing else.” Here is a concrete example of how setting can become more figurative than literal as the mother takes on the aspect of generational seeding of conflict herself. As long as she speaks of nothing, the long history of feudal conflict between the families promises to pass like a virus into anyone to whom speaks. Even—perhaps especially—her own son. It is that son who voices the complaint against her obsessing over the loss and the inherent meaning behind that loss which points to those responsible. The mother has forged for her son a portrait of the tiny Andalusian region which he calls home which is filled with death, regret, violence, vengeance and blood. That portrait is one which he must either embrace or against which he must rebel. The symbolism that this aspect of setting has had on him is twofold: the embrace against which he ultimately rebels.
A literal realization of how setting facilitates understanding of themes in the play is provided by event upon which the plot twists: a traditional Andalusian arranged marriage where the expectations of society enjoy greater status than the desires of the individual. To the mother’s complain about “what a distance these people live” comes the son’s almost rote retort “but their land is good.” Literally, the bride is an agent of setting through geographical isolation, but symbolically she represents generational expectation and convention going back an unknown period of time. That isolation of the bride allows setting to define her as symbol. Her purity is represented by language like “a four hour journey” to get to “the dry plains” where she waits. When the father of the bride joins this conversation, the topic remains steadfastly in place; rather than speak of the individual desire of either his daughter or her betrothed, the subject stays on the value of land. Setting here directly translates the upcoming nuptials from a union of two individuals in love into an economic transaction engaged to benefit the collective entity of those with a stake in the land. The bride’s portrayal as being both physically and emotionally remote carries the implicit assumption of intact virginity, which sets the stage for the play’s thematic concerns with fertility, but also reinforces her significance as a trans-actional unit in the ritualistic continuance of societal conventions. The conservatism of staunchly Catholic Spanish life is exhibited by descriptive imagery in which the “harsh white material covers the walls” of the “interior of the cave where the Bride lives.” Such imagery situates the symbolic expectation of women in this culture to be chaste until married and then reproducing machines afterward. Individual reproduction of fertile wives become instrumental in reproducing the generational conflicts that pit families against each other.
Setting is intensely linked to the play’s highly symbolic treatment of its thematic connection of human fertility to more mythic conceptualizations of fertility. While the bride has clearly been located firmly within the context of dried, walled-up cave waiting to be explored, the groom is sexually energized through the symbolism of providing the irrigation necessary to bring on new life from that unsowed land. The economic sustenance of the Andalusians is dependent upon the fertility of the grapevines and so the father’s observation that ‘Every bunch of grapes is like a heap of silver’ carries both literal and symbolic significance that can only be fully understood by understanding the historical context of the play’s setting. Those grapes worth their weight in silver are rich with connotation of abundance and the vital importance of maintaining the fertility of the land from which they have grown for centuries. Furthermore, the simile can also be stretched to stress the vital importance of his daughter’s fertility for maintaining the balance of economic power with her marriage to the groom. Once again, the overarching and essential quality of generational conflict is made manifest through symbolic association with the literal qualities of status afforded by the land. This significance is underlined when with the bride’s assertion that her mother came from a “Fertile country. Full of water” which also ties back to the symbolic of the bridegroom being the vessel who shall water the dry plains of his betrothed.
With the movement away from the strictly realistic setting of the first two acts into the forest, the full mythic dimension and potential inherent in the setting of a play reaches fruition as the woods take on the traditional dramatic role as a place where the rules and convention of society break down and are challenged. Once the action of the play moves into the forest, the traditional storytelling structures of narrative dialogue are replaced by more figurative means of storytelling. The introduction of the woodcutters link the Modernist sensibility of the political dimension of Blood Wedding with the Greek chorus of ancient tragedy. When one of the Woodcutter proclaims that that “the bridegroom will find them, moon or no moon. I saw him leave. Like a raging meteor. His face ashen. Revealing the family destiny” the story has progressed beyond the boundaries of 1930s Spain as its setting and into the universal realm of prophecy and the machinations of Fate. It is only as the point that the story enters the forest that the story of its romantic lovers enters into the world of mythic tragedy. The ‘dark atmosphere’ creates a melancholic and somber mood since the word ‘dark’ suggests mystery, guilt and fear. Here, the setting expands to include not just the literal world external to the characters, but the interior psychological domains within them. The First Woodcutter’s pleas to the Moon to have mercy on the lovers by asking the Moon to “leave for their love a branch in shadow” links to this internal concept of setting by situating the consequences of their actions beyond their own capacity to control, thus further linking the Modernist thrust of the narrative to the Classical motifs of its tragic influences. The pleas of the woodcutters in their role as a modern Greek chorus cements the idea of the setting of Blood Wedding as one that traces all the way back to the role of oracles, prophets and the Fates in ancient Greek texts.
Lorca’s Blood Wedding forwards the notion that setting in a work of a drama incorporates literal and realistic depiction of a definite time and place while expanding to include symbolic and figurative concepts of time and place as well as a means of addressing its thematic concerns. The concrete conventions of 1930s Andalusian culture is presented as the backdrop to a discussion of how generational conflict is essential in the creation of a literal setting. That conflict can then be expounded upon to reveal how more abstract social, political and economic issue also impact characters. Finally, Lorca exhibits the way that ancient myth can be updated into a contemporary tale through seamless integration, not of literal setting, but of metaphorical settings capable of taking the audience into the minds of the characters or transporting them back into even less corporeal places in order to reveal associations of meaning and content.