Out of the Wings

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Yerma (1930-1934), Federico García Lorca

English title: Yerma
Notable variations on Spanish title: Yerma: poema trágico en tres actos y seis cuadros
Date written: from 1930 to 1934
First publication date: 1938
First production date: December 1934
Keywords: family, family > marriage, family > patriarchy, women, women > marginalisation of, identity, identity > sexuality, love, love > relationships, morality > honour
Genre and type: tragedy
Title information

The name Yerma means ‘barren’ in Spanish.


Young couples have everything to look forward to. A few years enjoying each other’s company before finally bringing a new life into the world. This is all that Yerma desires. But she has not been blessed with a child and, as years of childless marriage turn into decades, her obsession with motherhood grows. Yerma explores the plight of a young wife desperate to conceive, and the bitterness that mounts when desires are thwarted and dreams are slowly crushed by the passing of time.


Yerma and Juan have been married for several years. Despite their efforts, they have yet to be blessed with a child. All around them young brides radiantly expect their first child and old women boast of their large families. Juan is a shepherd who frequently spends his nights away from home tending his beloved flock. He is satisfied with healthy sheep in the fields and a wife at home. Yerma, however, is obsessed with having a child. She watches as her friends fall pregnant after only months of marriage while, for her, motherhood remains a distant dream. Juan is well aware of his wife’s desire for children; she reminds him of it every chance she gets. Even as the play begins, the couple’s relationship is already strained because of Yerma’s preoccupation with pregnancy. She spends her time wandering the olive groves and the fields, finding some solace in the abundance of nature. Juan disapproves greatly of his wife’s love of the outdoors. In his mind, she should be at home, cooking and cleaning like a decent woman.

As she walks through the olive groves, Yerma meets women with different perspectives on her situation. Young girls cannot understand her preoccupation with children. An Old Pagan Woman with plenty of experience lends a more sympathetic ear. She suggests to Yerma that her inability to conceive may stem from a lack of desire for her husband. And indeed, when pushed, Yerma admits that Juan does not excite her. But there is another shepherd, their neighbour Victor, who once carried her over a stream, many years ago. Yerma still remembers how this innocent experience made her feel inside. But Yerma has no intention of cheating on her husband, despite being charmed by Victor’s beautiful singing voice and his kindness towards her. Indeed, Victor himself urges Yerma to try harder for a baby with Juan, seemingly uninterested in breaking up the couple.

The years go by. Yerma has still not conceived. Increasingly displeased by Yerma’s country walks, Juan has arranged for his two sisters to come and live with them. Hopefully, their presence will rein in Yerma’s restless spirit. Juan is also worried because of rumours about Yerma and Victor. The two have been seen talking in the fields, and this innocent act has been turned into something much more sinister by the village gossips. Juan arranges for his perceived love rival to leave town. He buys up Victor’s flock and, with no sheep left to tend, the shepherd visits Yerma and Juan to say farewell before he moves on to pastures new. Victor and Yerma share a quiet moment, reflecting on what might have been had things been different. Yerma has not, however, given up hope of having a child with Juan. In fact, ignoring her husband’s wish for her to stay indoors, Yerma slips out one night to say prayers with Dolores, a local wise woman. This is where Juan finds her the next morning. It is the last straw for him, and he verbally attacks his wife for being ungrateful and dishonourable. From his perspective, she has hated him since the day they were married for not providing her with a child. An argument ensues, filled with recriminations and bitterness. It seems that the Old Pagan Woman was right: there is little chance of such a miserable couple producing a child.

More years pass and Yerma has become a regular visitor of the annual fertility fair. Drunken young men and women sing songs and copulate in fields as the strict moral code of the countryside is temporarily abandoned. Even uptight Juan has let his hair down and has gone off drinking with his companions. Yerma, however, refuses to join in the debauchery. The Old Pagan Woman tries to encourage her to reconsider the ways in which she is dealing with her desire to have children. She suggests that Juan might be infertile, and offers Yerma her son as an alternative husband with whom to try for a baby. As honourable as ever, Yerma refuses the Old Pagan Woman’s offer. Frustrated with Yerma’s stubborn and futile loyalty to a husband she does not love, the Old Pagan Woman accuses Yerma of being barren. Yerma accepts the accusation, and finally it appears that she is resigned to her fate as a childless wife. Secretly, Juan has been listening to the women’s conversation. Perhaps fuelled by drink, he finally feels able to speak openly to his wife about how he feels about children. He tells Yerma that he is content with never having children and that she should now accept what is. He promises that they will live a happy life together … just the two of them. Hearing her husband state clearly that it is time for them to forget about having children, something is triggered in Yerma. She grips Juan round the neck and squeezes until he is dead. With his death, Yerma kills off any chance of ever having children.

Critical response

Yerma was very well received in Lorca’s lifetime. John Edmunds argues, however, that Yerma was at the time his ‘most politically controversial play’, despite the fact that its subject matter was not overtly political (Lorca 1997: xvii). The controversy came in part through the Old Pagan Woman’s explicit dismissal of God (which in 1930s Spain would have been shocking), as well as her attempts to encourage Yerma to leave or cheat on Juan (Lorca 1997: xvii).

Given the importance many scholars place on Lorca’s homosexuality, the play – and the character of Yerma in particular – is often considered a reflection of the playwright’s own situation as an outsider in society, unable to comply fully with social norms.

Critics and scholars often highlight the richness of the imagery in the play and the way it has captured the imagination of various directors , rather than the plot. Calvin Cannon goes as far as to say that ‘if at the dramatic level Yerma seems slender and weak, at the level of imagery it is one of the great tragedies of Spanish theater’ (1960: 122).

Writing about the 2011 production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, fertility expert Adam Balen called attention to the play’s continuing relevance as a piece that deftly explores the pain of being unable to conceive. He acknowledges that the pressure on women to conceive nowadays is less than at the time and in the context of Lorca’s play. Nevertheless, he writes, ‘I do have patients coming through from the south Asian community in Bradford, where I would say similar social expectations around fertility can still apply’ (Balen and Barnett 2011). John Edmunds however, questions just how much of Yerma’s plight is her own fault, wondering whether she might be ‘author of her own dilemma’ by refusing to leave her husband and focusing on an idealistic vision of motherhood that she can never achieve (Lorca 1997: xxxii).

  • Balen, Adam and Barnett, Laura. 2011. ‘Another View on Yerma’, The Guardian, 20 March, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/mar/20/adam-balen-yerma [accessed March 2011] (Online Publication)

  • Cannon, Calvin. 1960. ‘The Imagery of Lorca’s Yerma’, Modern Language Quarterly, 21.2, 122-30

  • García Lorca, Federico. 1997. Yerma. In Federico García Lorca: Four Major Plays, trans. John Edmunds. Oxford, Oxford University Press

Further information

There have been a number of film and television versions of the play, as well as an opera.

  • An online version of the play is available at http://usuaris.tinet.cat/picl/libros/glorca/gl003a00.htm. (Online Publication)

  • García Lorca, Federico. 1938. Yerma. La zapatera prodigiosa. Buenos Aires, Editorial Losada

  • García Lorca, Federico. 1976. Yerma: poema trágico en tres actos y seis cuadros, ed. Ildefonso-Manuel Gil. Madrid, Cátedra

  • García Lorca, Federico. 1981. Yerma, ed. Mario Hernández. Madrid, Alianza

  • García Lorca, Federico. 1994. Yerma, ed. Robin Warner (introduction in English). Manchester, Manchester University Press (in Spanish and English)

Useful readings and websites
  • Allen, Rupert C. 1974. Psyche and Symbol in the Theater of Federico García Lorca: Perlimplín. Yerma. Blood Wedding. Austin and London, University of Texas Press

  • Anderson, Andrew A. 2003. Yerma. Critical Guides to Spanish Texts 69. London, Grant & Cutler

  • Balen, Adam and Barnett, Laura. 2011. ‘Another View on Yerma’, The Guardian, 20 March, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/mar/20/adam-balen-yerma [accessed March 2011] (Online Publication)

  • Cannon, Calvin. 1960. ‘The Imagery of Lorca’s Yerma’, Modern Language Quarterly, 21.2, 122-30

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Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 6 April 2011.

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