In Spain, as Pedro Almodóvar was getting ready to leave home, no young man argued with his father about politics, no one wanted to discuss or refight the Civil War. Instead, the argument was about the length of your hair, the cut of your clothes, the music you listened to, the movies you watched, the posters on your bedroom wall.
By the time Franco, the old dictator, died in 1975, most people had already shrugged him off. There were more important things to think about. The newspapers reported the changes that took place in the political realm—the creation of democratic systems. But other changes were going on unnoticed in areas that were almost private, including the sexual realm and dress and interior décor.
Out of the silence of a dictatorship that had lasted almost forty years came speech. But no artist had yet registered what this speech sounded like. Out of this silence, also, new images were needed. The old pre–Civil War images of women, for example, had been essentially tragic. If you listened to the voice of the Spanish soprano Victoria de los Ángeles, for example, you heard a plaintive sound. She registered suffering, regret, solitude. There was always in her voice a sense of deep yearning, of something lost that could be recovered and must be mourned or glorified.
The beauty of her voice played with innate ideas of power and powerlessness; the lyric impulse itself combined with a desperate sadness; the very act of description and praise and wonder took on a strange tenderness and wistfulness. For women and for gay men listening, the sound she made seemed to sum up the undercurrent of sadness, powerlessness, in our lives.
This undercurrent had become a dominant mode for the gay Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca, murdered by the Fascists in 1936. “Granada’s very purest voice,” he wrote, “was her elegiac voice.” As an artist, Lorca was interested in simple freedoms in a time when nothing was simple. Lorca knew with an almost whimsical certainty that in Spain in 1936 the personal was political, and that the body itself, especially the body of a woman or a homosexual man, was as much the territory of conflict and destiny as the ownership of land or factories.
Lorca wrote plays for women’s voices full of heartrending expression but surrounded by a savage sense of restriction and cruelty. He knew that this had political implications, but he was too subtle in his artistry to make this obvious, and too interested in the plight of his characters, in the pure excitement and depth of the conflict between them, to be concerned to make them smaller than the world outside. He was ambitious enough to make his women actually become and embody the wider conflict between freedom and restriction in Spain rather than stand in for it. Almodóvar, as a gay filmmaker, would learn a great deal from him.
Lorca wrote his young women in The House of Bernarda Alba with that same strange tenderness that George Eliot, as a female novelist, used to create her idealistic men, such as Will Ladislaw or Daniel Deronda, or that other homosexual writers, from Henry James to Tennessee Williams, used to imagine their women trapped by convention.
After Lorca’s death came emptiness. The task of artists, once the dictator had died, was to work out ways of filling a vacuum that censorship had created.
“What he saw around him was too interesting for him to be bothered with repression; he saw Madrid on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”
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