Catalina de la Cotera París Bárcena was a Spanish actress who, along with Margarita Xirgu and María Guerrero, formed part of the most important group of performers in the history of Spanish theater in the first half of the 20th century. After the Civil War she went into exile in several countries and did not return to Madrid until 1947.
She was born in Cuba in 1890 and made her debut on stage in María Guerrero’s Company. Her professional relationship with Gregorio Martínez Sierra, playwright and stage director with whom she lived a long extramarital relationship, made her the most important actress of the time, renewed the Spanish scene and conquered the stages of Europe and the United States. She starred in seven films in Hollywood, all in Spanish.
The actress was one of those responsible for Lorca’s first dramatic work, The Butterfly’s Evil Spell, which was performed for only four days and was a failure, so much so that it was never revived during the poet’s lifetime.
Martínez Sierra’s company, of which she was the leading actress, introduced Henrik Ibsen and Bernard Shaw to Spain and incorporated musicians such as Turina and Falla. But the great renovation of the Eslava Art Theater lay in its innovative scenography.
She and Martínez Sierra were responsible for Lorca’s first dramatic work, The Butterfly’s Evil Spell. The play, which was performed for only four days, between March 22 and 25, 1920, was a failure, so much so that it was never revived during the poet’s lifetime. Lorca devised it for puppet theater but Martínez Sierra convinced him to change it to a conventional cast of actors. It is a fable about a butterfly that falls into a field of curianas. There he falls in love with Curianito, the baby, an imaginative character and half-poet. Lorca, who sensed failure, summoned several of his friends from El Rinconcillo who lived in Madrid to form the claque. Santiago Ontañón remembers the premiere: “They all behaved very…, but the premiere was disastrous. It was one of those Madrid premieres in which the ceilings collapsed from the stamping feet[…]. So that the evil spell announced in the title was fulfilled to the letter and to its ultimate consequences. Federico always told me about it, laughing his head off, and I even think he exaggerated the proportions”.
When the Civil War broke out, Bárcena fled Spain aboard a ship thanks to the fact that her sister was married to a corvette captain. The family landed in Oran and from there moved to Tetouan. Bárcena did not remain in Africa for long and from there she toured Marseilles, Paris and Buenos Aires until in 1947 she decided to return to Madrid where, after forming the Spanish Comedy/Drama Company, she premiered in 1948 in the Comedy Play Pigmalion by George Bernard Shaw.
Lorca dedicated a poem to her entitled To Catalina Bárcena: “Tu voz es sombra de sueño. [“Your voice is the shadow of sleep] / Tus palabras [Your words] / son, en el aire dormido, [are, in the sleeping air,] / pétalos de rosas blancas. [petals of white roses.] / Tienen tus ojos la niebla [Your eyes have the mist] / de las mañanas antiguas. [of ancient mornings.] / ¡Dulces ojos soñolientos, [Sweet sleepy eyes,] / preñados de lejanías!”. [pregnant with distances!”.]
She died on August 3, 1978 at the age of ninety.