Lorca was a victim of the first, very violent days of the Spanish Civil War, which began when the fascists, led by Gen. Francisco Franco, rose up against the democratically elected Republican government. The revolt of the army garrison in Granada, one of the first uprisings in the country, led to scenes of intense savagery as the fascists tightened their control of the city.
"Two thousand people were executed in one month," Lippa said. "There was such violence, such inhumanity. Neighbors turned on each other. (Fascist) squads went into homes and hospitals and dragged people out. . . . That this figure, this poet, found himself trapped in all this is to me drama."
Although Lorca was not politically active, he had made anti-fascist statements and had expressed support for the Republic. What is more, he was an artist associated with the avant- garde; some of his writings had been condemned as anti-traditional and anti-Catholic; and he was a homosexual in a country whose men prided themselves on their machismo. In the bloody, reactionary atmosphere that prevailed in Granada, this was more than enough to condemn him.
Sign of the Lizard again pairs a play by Lippa, People's Light's playwright-in-residence, with director Ken Marini, who, like Lippa, is a longtime member of the People's Light company. (He also is artistic director of the theater at Cheltenham Center for the Arts.) A few years ago, the pair collaborated on the highly praised adaptation of the Theodore Dreiser novel Sister Carrie, perhaps the most ambitious production in the company's 20-year history.
Like Sister Carrie, Sign of the Lizard is a People's Light phased- development project. The program permits a play to develop at an unhurried pace from writing through production, and Sign of the Lizard has been developing for more than a decade.
Lippa said he had been interested in the Spanish Civil War since he was a boy and had heard, while the war was being fought, the Republican cause discussed sympathetically by his father and his leftist political friends. Lippa also has long admired Lorca as a poet and playwright, but he didn't get the idea for a play about the poet's death until he read The Assassination of Garcia Lorca by Ian Gibson.
The first version of Sign of the Lizard centered not as much on the poet as it did on Ruiz Alonzo, who arrested Lorca but afterward fervently denied any responsibility for the poet's death. A reading of the play in that form was held at People's Light 10 years ago, but, Lippa recalled, "I gave it up
because it seemed it was a one-note piece. It was just Ruiz Alonzo and his sense of guilt. The full story of the poet in an environment of violence, which was one of the major points, was not coming through."
Lizard took its present form after one of Lippa's two visits to Spain to research the play. In Madrid, he talked with Gibson, whose 1989 book Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life is considered the definitive biography of the poet, about Lorca's belief that he possessed what the Spanish call duende. Gibson defines this as "a form of Dionysian inspiration always related to anguish, mystery and death." To Lippa, Lorca's duende became his creative spirit. In the play, this inner Lorca, the tormented poet turning reality into artistic metaphor, is represented by one actor; another portrays the outer Lorca, a fearful man caught in the harsh, immutable reality of Granada's reign of terror.
Director Marini said the play, which employs puppetry and the surrealist imagery that typified Lorca's highly regarded drawings, opens and closes with Lorca facing execution. It then expands its scope to cover in flashback the events of the last days of his life and the struggle between the two Lorcas, who engage in dialogue, as he approaches his death.
The House of Bernarda Alba is a drama about a domineering widow and her four daughters living in rural Spain. Since it was completed a couple of months before Lorca's death and deals metaphorically with fascistic authoritarianism and the tyranny of tradition, Bernarda Alba, of all Lorca's plays, seems particularly suited to be presented with Sign of the Lizard. However, the primary reason for staging Bernarda Alba, according to Marini, is that, with a strong female cast, it contrasts nicely with the almost entirely male Sign of the Lizard. Also, Bernarda Alba is the theater company's fall play in its Project Discovery program for schoolchildren, and, with its theme of child-parent conflict, it provides a pertinent focus for student discussions.
Sign of the Lizard takes its name from Andalusian folklore, which regards the lizard as the mortal enemy of the snake. "When you see a mortal enemy, you're supposed to make the sign of the lizard and say 'Lizard. Lizard. Lizard.' three times," Lippa explained. As he spoke, he made the sign of the lizard by extending the thumb and little finger of his right hand while folding the three middle fingers into the palm.
Lippa said that Gibson, in his book on the assassination of Lorca, related an incident in which Lorca reportedly made the sign of the lizard. While the poet was waiting at a station to catch a train to Granada, he saw his enemy, Ruiz Alonzo. He was terrified, according to a friend waiting with him, made the sign of the lizard, and repeated "lizard" three times.
Gibson subsequently found out that the incident could not have happened, Lippa continued. He learned that Alonzo had been injured in a car accident and could not have been in the station that day. Lippa nevertheless decided to retain the lizard-snake imagery, but don't expect to see the actor playing the poet make the sign and say, "Lizard. Lizard. Lizard."
"It's not quite as obvious as that," said Lippa." It doesn't say, 'This is the title. Get it, get it, get it.' "