Set in rural Spain, Yerma, written by Federico García Lorca in 1934, tells the story of a young wife, who yearns to have children but cannot have them. She sings to her unborn son and implores her husband Juan to give her a child but the years pass and Yerma grows more and more desperate in her desire. From the very beginning, Yerma is a figure that embodies life itself: she comes from a big family and is in tune with nature, often going out to feel the earth. On the other hand, Yerma becomes frustrated with the rules of a society that manages knowledge to the disadvantage of the individual:
All doors are closed to girls like me, who grow up in the country. Everything is half said, hushed up, because they say we're not supposed to know about such things. And you, too - you, too, keep silent and walk off with the air of a doctor - knowing everything, but denying it to someone who is dying of thirst.
Yerma is subtitled "a tragic poem", and indeed Lorca's language is dense with images, metaphors, and symbols woven together in a specific rhythm and working together in a poetic system of different perspectives to construe a complex, at times difficult, and open whole. A challenging example is Yerma's song, in which she invokes natural forces to which she feels she belongs but which also seem to work against her. Where at times Yerma is very specific about her wishes for a child, her language is also embedded in poetic meanderings including nature imagery which add physical force to her expression but also emphasize her co-existence with nature:
(as if in a dream)
Oh, what a pasture of pain!
Oh, the gate barred against beauty!
I crave to carry a child, but the breeze
Offers dahlias made of the dreaming moon.
Deep in my flesh I have two warm springs,
Throbbing fountainheads of milk -
Two pulsing hoofbeats of a horse,
Which agitate the branches of my anguish.
O blind breasts under my clothing!
O doves without eyes, doves without whiteness!
The stinging pain of imprisoned blood
Nails hornets to the nape of my neck!
But surely you'll come, my love, my son!
As the sea gives salt, and the earth bears grain,
Our womb will swell with a tender child,
Like a cloud which brings the sweet, fresh rain.
Lorca's use of music intensifies the poetic quality of his work, most notably in the scene with washerwomen who appear like a Greek chorus, discussing Yerma's life and her fate and becoming more and more lyrical until they enter into song, not only anchoring Yerma in Western theatre tradition but also establishing the heroine as a symbolic figure. In the last scenes of the play, Yerma's desire for a child has become a metaphysical quest, a longing for balance through something new, a child, for which the patriarchy (Juan) has no desire. Yerma's struggle is also a struggle against the status quo, which she changes by killing her husband, even if that means killing off her future children:
Barren. Barren, but sure. Now I know it for certain. And alone.
I will sleep without suddenly waking up to see if my blood is proclaiming new blood. With my body dry forever. What do you want to know? Don't come near me, for I have killed my son! I myself have killed my son!
Being barren, once a fate put on to Yerma by her husband, now is the fate she chooses and enables herself, thereby reaching an agency that had been denied to her before, despite all her attempts to change her situation.
Some things don't change! There are things locked up behind walls that can never change, because nobody hears them!
Yerma, eventually, makes herself heard.