Producing a play by Eliot for a general audience has become a rare and risky venture. Dramatising his best-known poem has proved more feasible in recent years: Deborah Warner’s production of The Waste Land with Fiona Shaw was successfully staged, from the late 1990s, for over a decade. In 2013, Francesc Cerro-Ferran created and directed La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau), a stage production based on Eliot’s poem (translated into Catalan by Agustí Bartra as La terra eixorca) and on La pell de brau ([The Bull’s Hide], 1960), by Salvador Espriu (1913-1985).
We may distinguish two main facets in Espriu’s poetic work: meditation on death / transcendence influenced by negative theology and mysticism, and vindication of Catalan culture (or Spanish cultural diversity) in a context of postwar political repression. The first of these concerns connects with Eliot’s poetic vision; in a less obvious way, so too does the second. Espriu’s most popular poem (or poetic sequence) is precisely La pell de brau, the finest example of his “civil” poetry. As with Eliot’s The Waste Land, critics and readers felt that it expressed “the disillusion of a generation.”
Although La pell de brau envisages national reconciliation, the trauma of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) is at the heart of the poem. Espriu calls Spain “Sepharad,” imaging the hard times of the war and the dictatorship as a wandering in the desert (a symbolic wasteland). The poem’s title translates as “the bull’s hide,” the ancient geographer Strabo’s metaphor for a delineation of the Iberian peninsula’s coastline. La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau) combines Espriu’s and Eliot’s titles, as well as drawing on their common sense of hopelessness and prophetic tone.
Cerro-Ferran causes both poets to engage in dialogue, as extracts from their works are dramatised by the actress Txe Arana – who impersonates various voices and characters, including Eliot’s Tiresias – and the actor Jaume Comas, whose recorded voice is identified with the bull’s head seen onstage, symbolising Espriu’s concerns as expressed in La pell de brau. The stage is flanked by gnarled trees, with video projections reinforcing the wasteland atmosphere. Among these, Picasso’s Guernica and Goyas’s Disasters of War evoke tragic episodes of Spanish history.
La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau) commemorated the centenary of Espriu’s death, associating him with Eliot, the poet who – despite himself – gave poetic expression to the zeitgeist of the interwar years. Cerro-Ferran’s production also confirms that The Waste Land, characteristically fragmentary and polyphonic, can still inspire a contemporary dramatist.