What is Play and the Theory of the Duende?
In 1933, Lorca gave a lecture in Buenos Aires entitled “Play and the Theory of the Duende” in which he described this elusive concept of artistic inspiration that is just one facet of Lorca’s profound fascination with the mystery of art and life. Composed after his time spent in New York City in 1929, Cuba in 1930, and when he had been immersed in the work of the traveling theatre troupe La Barraca since 1931, a group that brought classic plays to the uneducated people of rural Spain, Lorca turned once again to folk tradition in order to think about what gave life to the great art and culture of Spain. The word duende comes from “duen de casa,” a phrase meaning “master of the house” that refers to a “playful hobgoblin” from Spanish popular culture who haunts the house causing trouble (ix). Lorca was also thinking about another popular usage of the term to describe a performer with an “inextricable power of attatraction” who can “send waves of emotion through the audience” (ix). It is this earthy spirit that Lorca chose to embody the sense of inspiration that “climbs up inside” the artist to bring passion and power to the site of artistic creation (57, 59).
What is the duende?
Neither Muse nor Angel, the duende is a struggle that happens within the individual artist to give life to their creative work. A force that comes from within “the remotest mansions of the blood,” the duende is not something that can be found like other exterior influences on art but rather must be fought with inside of the artist at the moment of creation, bringing with it a kind of purity of emotion that “shakes the body” (62). The four elements associated with duende are earthiness, irrationality, a heightened awareness of death, and the diabolical (ix).
For example, Lorca describes a performance given by the revolutionary flamenco singer Pastora Pavón in which she did not exhibit just talent but “[robbed] herself of skill and security” in a kind of helpless struggle with the song and the duende inside of her (62). Vulnerability, such as that which is symbolized by St. Sebastian, is a central part of the experience of duende, and Lorca describes duende as a force that “changes a girl into a lunar paralytic” (xi, 69). The duende however is not limited to the performer and affects both the artist and her audience (x).
The duende is transient, fleeting, never to repeat itself, and it also relies on risk taking. Lorca tells us that “duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible,” and that the duende is fought “on the edge of the well” and inside the “open wounds where creation happens” (67). This is why duende is connected to the bullfight, an art that relies on the possibility of death and thus the duende comes at “the point of danger” where “artistic truth” can be achieved (69). The connection between the duende and the bullfight offers an interesting insight into the way death functions in Spanish culture, highlighting the way in which death is associated with celebration and feeling alive. Lorca’s suggestion that in Spain death is the “national spectacle” takes on another macabre layer of meaning when one thinks ahead to the gruesome Civil War that would take this poet’s life along with thousands of others.
Lorca makes several other explicitly Spanish cultural connections with the duende, suggesting that this artistic struggle is particular to the collective Spanish psyche and performance tradition. For example, Lorca assigns the duende a regional representation in Castille, while the muse rests in Catalonia and the angel in Galicia (71). He also explains that while “each art has a duende different in form and style,…their roots meet in the place where the black sounds…come from—the essential, uncontrollable, quivering, common base of wood, sound, canvas and word” (71).
“Where is the duende,” Lorca asks? His answer: “through the empty arch [representing the duende] comes a wind, a mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents…announcing the constant baptism of newly created things” (72).
Maurer, Christopher. In Search of Duende. New York, NY: New Directions Books. 1998. Print.