Lorca as Author and Tailor: Costume Sketches for The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife

“The author has drawn the character and the tailor has dressed him. Simplicity.”

Federico García Lorca, from the script of The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife

The existence of ten previously unknown costume design sketches created by Federico García Lorca for the play The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife recently came to light when they were offered for sale through Casa Balclis, an  auction house in Barcelona. The sale announcement immediately sparked fears throughout the Spanish theater community that the lot would go to a foreign buyer. Opinions as to what institution should have final custody of work and what price it would bring were volleyed back and forth by experts in the press for weeks before the date of the auction.  A minimum opening bid of 10,000 euros was set for each work based on the sale of four Lorca drawings in Madrid in 2004. However, the seller that consigned the ten costume sketches to the Casa Balclis stipulated that all ten works be sold as a single lot, “so that they continue together, just as Lorca conceived them in his day.”

The ten colored pencil sketches, published widely in the Spanish press prior to the auction, are easily recognizable as the work of Lorca. What is more, many contain detailed annotations by the playwright, who designed the costumes for his favorite diva, Margarita Xirgu, down to the smallest details. Regarding the costume he proposed for the second act of the play, he noted, “Violent red dress and red rose. No earrings. More full-skirted than the previous dress. A bare arm. Stripe around the neck and belt of a different red.” Another sketch still bears a tiny swatch of  fabric, held in place by a rusty dressmaker’s pin.

Margarita Xirgu was one of the most versatile and distinguished stage actresses of her generation. She was a leading lady at the Teatro Español from her arrival in Madrid in 1914 until her exile to Latin America in the 1930s in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. She was reported to have had an astounding range as a performer, interpreting works as diverse as those of Valle Inclán, George Bernard Shaw, and Gabriel D’Annunzio. However, she is best known today for her interpretations of Lorca, which included roles in Mariana Pineda (1927), La Zapatera Prodigiosa (1930), Yerma (1934), Doña Rosita la soltera o El lenguage de las flores (1935), and Bodas de Sangre (1935). She introduced many of Lorca’s works to Latin American audiences in the 1940s and 50s and travelled to the United States to direct Yerma in 1967. According to the auction house, Lorca gave the costume sketches to Xirgu after the show’s opening on December 24, 1930. Some years later, the actress passed them on to her brother, Miguel Xirgu, a professor at the Institut del Teatre in Barcelona. Miguel Xirgu mounted a clandestine student production of The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife at the Institute in the early 1940s. Before he passed away in 1945, he gave them to the student in charge of the wardrobe for that clandestine production. More than six decades later, the family of this former student approached Balclis regarding the possibility of putting them on the market. If Xirgu’s main interest was preserving the drawings during a period during which the work of Lorca was banned in Spain, he was a keen judge of character. Representatives of Balcils have noted, “The family’s great love of the theater is noticeable, as the drawings are in an excellent state of preservation.”

The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife stands in the shadow of Lorca’s greater works. Nevertheless, it provides an interesting glimpse of the claustrophobic atmosphere and general intolerance that characterized Spanish rural society at the time the play was written and that would soon become factors in the tragic fate of its author and that of his country. Although Lorca described it as a farce, The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife comes across as more of a moral tale than a satire. Its characters do indulge in, and suffer the consequences of, the most grievous weaknesses of the Spanish character: mal genio (chronic bad temper), mala leche (malice) and chismorreo (gossip), but they also incarnate Spaniards’ talent for bearing up under adversity and their steadfastness in maintaining personal commitments. The play traces the unhappy relationship of a high-spirited young girl and her much older husband, a recurrent theme throughout the history of Spanish theater. In its forthright exploration of social relations and its refusal to offer the audience a definitive happy ending, the play echoes the short comic works of Cervantes’ time known as “entremés” (interludes). Despite the tenor of the plot, which walks the tightrope between comedy and social commentary,  the characters of The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife have a recognizable and universal humanity. Although his shrewish wife spends her days complaining, the long-suffering shoemaker is, in fact, a pushover for every customer who walks through the door. Facing the prospect of remaining childless and forever the victim of slanderous neighbors, it is only natural that she curses her fate and dreams about former suitors. Worn down by his wife’s endless nagging and fantasizing, the shoemaker packs his bags and leaves her to fend for herself in a village full of lecherous men and gossiping women, a feat that she carries off prodigiously, as the play’s title suggests. What forms the basis of their eventual reconciliation is a love born of the need to maintain a mutual defense against the small-mindedness of the society in which they are fated to live. The author does not offer the audience illusions of a fairy tale ending for his characters: true to their creator’s apt observation of human nature and their own innate proclivities, the newly reconciled wife is bound to revert to her shrewish behavior and the neighbors to their merciless gossip.

As the writer himself explained: “In my Shoemaker’s Wife I sought to express . . . the struggle of reality with fantasy that exists within every human being. (By fantasy I mean everything that is unrealizable.) The shoemaker’s wife fights constantly with ideas and real objects because she lives in her own world, in which every idea and object has a mysterious meaning which she herself does not know.” Patricia Donovan has noted that the play is, “less of a farce in the French or Anglo-American tradition than it is a comedic poem about the human spirit.” She quotes Lorca as saying, “That spirit is the only really important character in the play…. After all, the shoemaker’s wife is not a particular woman but all women…. The whole audience has a shoemaker’s wife within its heart.” The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife is about common people who struggle to reconcile the vast gulf between their dreams and reality. As José Monleón, author of García Lorca: vida y obra de un poeta, points out, Lorca “was also interested in education, in reaching people.” He adds that the poet’s drawings have a didactic value “as part of that popular language that he wanted to transmit . . . these drawings give us another way of transmitting his way of seeing the world and his sensibility . . .”

Unlike the play, the auction held in Barcelona on October 26 had an unequivocally happy ending for both the arts professionals who repeatedly lobbied for the collection to remain in Spain and the general public that will now have the opportunity to view them. The Spanish government exercised its right of first refusal and purchased the drawings to prevent the possibility of their sale to a foreign or private collector. It is expected that they will be housed in the National Theater Museum in Almagro.  The costumes for The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife were especially important to Lorca. He clearly saw their power to convey the dynamics of the heroine’s situation throughout the performance. In his opening comments to the audience before the curtain rises on the first act, the author-presenter chides the impatient diva, who clamors in the wings to make her entrance, and draws the audience’s attention to the actress’ wardrobe: “All right, I’m coming! Don’t be so impatient to make your entrance; you’re not decked out in a full-length evening gown, only a shabby dress. Do you hear me? The simple costume of a shoemaker’s wife!”  That the costumes were meant to play a leading role is clearly demonstrated again in this copla sung by a child who innocently repeats the insinuations of the protagonist’s prying neighbors:

Who buys, dear cobbler’s lady,
the fabric for your dresses
and these batiste blouses
trimmed with bobbin lace?