By the 1930s she was one of the most revered Catalan actresses in history, playing long-suffering characters like Salomé, Joan of Arc and Medea onstage.
She also gained notoriety for playing the Virgin Mary in Rafael Alberti’s “Fermín Galán,” a 1931 leftist and Republican production in which she delivered the line “¡Abajo la monarquía!” (“Down with the monarchy!”).
By then the authoritarian regime of Miguel Primo de Rivera had fallen, in 1930, and a window of freedom had opened briefly under the Second Republic, as it was known, giving women the right to work, vote, divorce and obtain an abortion. During this time the country was led by a chaotic coalition government of leftists who opposed the rigid Catholicism of the Spanish ruling classes. Then the pendulum swung right, then left again in February 1936, when the Popular Front came to power. Five months later, the Spanish Civil War erupted, when fascist forces led by General Franco revolted against the democratically elected Republican government.
Xirgu was in Latin America when the war broke out, acting in and producing Lorca’s plays. He planned to join her in Mexico, but he was in the middle of writing “La Casa de Bernarda Alba,” his tragic masterwork, and he was pining over his lover Rafael Rodríguez Rapún. So he decided to stay in Spain. That month, Franco’s soldiers found him in Granada, dragged him into a field and shot him to death.
Xirgu learned of Lorca’s death before a staging of “Yerma” (“Barren”), his play about a woman who is so desperate to have children that she kills her husband in anger. Grief-stricken, Xirgu changed the woman’s lament from “I myself have killed my son” to “They have murdered my son.”
Xirgu was living in Argentina when Franco took power in 1939. As a leftist and a lesbian, she could not return home and expect to survive the dictatorship. While in exile, she created theater companies in Uruguay, Argentina and Chile.
“She left everything in Spain and forged a different life where she had political agency,” said Maria Delgado, a theater and film scholar in London.