The House of Bernarda Alba
The House of Bernarda Alba
FEDERICO GARCIA LORCA 1936
The House of Bernarda Alba is Federico Garcia Lorca’s last play, written the year he was killed at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The play, along with Blood Wedding and Yerma, forms a trilogy expressing what Lorca saw as the tragic life of Spanish women. These late works Dennis Klein in Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba called “the most accomplished and mature efforts of the finest Spanish playwright of the twentieth century.” If Blood Wedding is a nuptial tragedy and Yerma the tragedy of barren women, The House of Bernarda Alba might be seen as the tragedy of virginity, of rural Spanish women who will never have the opportunity to choose a husband. It is also a play expressing the costs of repressing the freedom of others.
The House of Bernarda Alba finally had its stage premiere nearly a decade after Lorca’s death. The play was produced in Buenos Aries in 1945, and was published the same year, in Argentina. The play later had important productions at the ANTA Theater, New York, in 1951 and the Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, England, in 1952. In 1960 it was adapted for American television and in 1963 produced at the Encore Theater in San Francisco. Given the repression of artistic expression in Spain during Franco’s regime, it was not until 1964 that Lorca’s last play was finally produced in his native country, at Madrid’s Goya Theatre. The House of Bernarda Alba continues to be revived and read all over the world. Its setting is specific to the values and customs of a rural Spanish people, but the play’s appeal is universal rather than national. In the United States, the play has been enjoyed in both English and Spanish productions.
Federico Garcia Lorca was born June 5, 1898 in a village near Granada, Spain, the son of Federico Garcia Rodriguez, a liberal landowner, and Vicenta Lorca, a schoolteacher. (Although by Spanish custom his surname is properly Garcia Lorca, he is more commonly known by his mother’s surname.) Lorca produced a body of work that is considered among the greatest in the Spanish language, and which has been enthusiastically embraced by audiences around the world. Although celebrated primarily for his writing about the Spanish countryside, Lorca did not wish to be labeled merely a poet of rural life. His writing is intellectual in its conception and symbolism, but nevertheless touches basic human emotions. Lorca felt acutely the suffering of oppressed people, but avoided direct involvement in politics. Hiding his homosexuality from the public, Lorca felt condemned to live as an outcast, and he frequently struggled with severe depression.
Lorca experienced traditional rural life growing up in the southern region of Andalusia, but was propelled into the modern world when his parents moved to the city of Granada in 1909. As an adolescent Lorca wrote plays which were enjoyed by his family and their servants, but his father tried to influence him to study law and pursue what he considered to be a more responsible career. Lorca attended university in Granada, and later in Madrid, but he was a poor student (although he eventually earned his law degree in 1923). At the same time, however, he was becoming known as a multi-talented artist. Already skilled as a pianist and singer, Lorca wrote his first poems in 1915 and published his first book in 1918, the prose work Impressions and Landscapes. In 1920 his first play was produced; The Butterfly’s Evil Spell, a highly personal allegory about the doomed love of a cockroach for a butterfly, was an artistic disaster. The setback was minor, however; throughout the 1920s Lorca achieved great success as a poet, writing about the traditional world of his childhood with a blend of traditional and contemporary techniques.
His collections from this period include Poem of the Deep Song and Gypsy Ballads.
Lorca continued to write for the theater, and in 1927 a production of his play Mariana Pineda was a success in Madrid. In 1929 Lorca traveled in the United States and Cuba, and from the experience of roaming the streets of foreign cities, he crafted the collection Poet in New York. Upon his return to Spain in 1930, his play The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife was produced successfully. Other plays of note followed, including Yerma and Blood Wedding. Lorca also served as director and producer of plays for a state-sponsored traveling theater group, La Barraca (“The Hut”). Lorca went on a short lecture tour of Argentina and Uruguay, and was greeted as a celebrity everywhere he went, even by other major writers like Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Lorca wrote The House of Bernarda. Alba, his last play, in 1936, and in July of the same year left Madrid for Granada. He was one of the earliest casualties of the Spanish civil war, executed by fascist rebels, his body thrown into an unmarked grave.
The action opens in a “very white room in Bernarda Alba’s house.” Bells toll for the funeral of Bernarda’s second husband. The housekeeper La Poncia speaks with a maid about Bernarda and her family. La Poncia reports that one of the daughters, Magdalena, fainted during the funeral service. Magdalena is the only one who loved her father, La Poncia explains. Maria Josefa, Bernarda’s mother, calls from within, where apparently she has been locked up against her will. La Poncia laments Bernarda’s treatment of the servants, cursing her with the “pain of the piercing nail.” After La Poncia exits, a beggar woman and a little girl appear, but the maid drives them away. The servant hears the bells tolling and curses Bernarda’s dead husband: “You’ll never again lift my skirts behind the corral door!” The mourning women begin entering until the room is full. The servants now wail, putting on a show of grief for Antonio’s passing. Bernarda and the five daughters enter, and Bernarda says a prayer for her dead husband.
The mourning women depart, and Bernarda curses what she sees as their hypocrisy: “Go back to your houses and criticize everything you’ve seen!” Bernarda explains to her daughters that they will mourn for eight years, during which “not a breath of air will get in this house from the street.” The grandmother calls again, and Bernarda orders a servant to let her out. Bernarda strikes Angustias, the oldest daughter, upon learning that she has been looking out the cracks in the door at the men departing the funeral. La Poncia comforts Angustias as Bernarda orders everyone but her maid out of the room. Bernarda questions La Poncia about the men Angustias was watching. La Poncia then expresses concern about the daughters, who are growing older and not finding husbands. Bernarda feels she’s being protective: “For a hundred miles around there’s no one good enough to come near them.” Bernarda leaves, ordering her servants to work.
Amelia and Martirio enter. They discuss Martirio’s poor health, and the fact that their neighbor Adelaida did not attend the funeral (apparently because her boyfriend will not let her out in public). After speaking more about Adelaida’s difficulties, Martirio concludes: “It’s better never to look at a man.” Magdalena enters, deep in mourning. The three sisters discuss the talk of the town, that Pepe el Romano intends to ask their sister Angustias to marry him. Martirio and Amelia are happy about this news, but Magdalena is more cynical, feeling that Pepe is only interested in Angustias for her money. Adela enters, and hearing the news of Angustias’s suitor first grows depressed, then defiant and angry. “I’m thinking,” she says, “that this mourning has caught me at the worst moment of my life for me to bear it.” Everyone exits at the announcement of Pepe’s arrival. Bernarda and La Poncia enter, discussing the division of the inheritance. When Angustias enters, she is chastised by Bernarda for having her face powdered. Bernarda violently removes the powder and sends Angustias out. The other sisters enter, arguing about the inheritance. The grandmother, Maria Josefa, enters after escaping from her room. Yelling at the daughters, “not a one of you is going to marry,” Maria Josefa expresses a desire to return to her home town and be married herself. The act ends with everyone grabbing hold of Maria Josefa to subdue her again.
The daughters are seated with La Poncia, sewing. The betrothal of Angustias has brought out bitter jealousy between them. Angustias expresses a hope that she’ll “soon be out of this hell.” She explains to her sisters how Pepe asked her to marry him. La Poncia contributes stories about her courtship, and the mood grows lighter. Magdalena goes to fetch Adela, and when they return, everyone questions the youngest daughter about what she did the night before. Adela resents this curiosity, and when she and La Poncia are left alone, she resists the maid’s insinuations that she has feelings for Pepe. The housekeeper forces the issue, however, and warns Adela, “if you like Pepe el Romano, keep it to yourself.” Gradually the other daughters enter, showing off the lace that has just been delivered for Angustias’s wedding sheets. A distant chorus is heard, the sound of men singing on their way to the wheat fields. La Poncia and some of the daughters go to watch the men from a window, leaving Amelia and Martirio alone. Martirio tells Amelia she thought she heard someone in the yard last night.
Angustias bursts in, furious that a picture of Pepe has been taken from beneath her pillow. The disturbance brings La Poncia and the other daughters, followed by Bernarda. She orders La Poncia to search the bedrooms. “This comes of not tying you up with shorter leashes,” Bernarda fumes. La Poncia returns with the picture, which she found in Martirio’s bed. While Martirio pleads that she only took the picture as a joke, Bernarda starts beating her. Further argument rages over Pepe. Bernarda, disgusted, sends the daughters away. La Poncia speaks her mind, warning her employer, “Something very grave is happening here.” La Poncia insists that Bernarda has never given her daughters enough freedom. Martirio had at one time a suitor, whom Bernarda sent away because his father was a shepherd. To La Poncia this is an example of Bernarda putting on airs, and as a result, denying her daughter a chance to be married. La Poncia tries to convince Bernarda that Adela is Pepe’s real sweetheart, the daughter he should be marrying. A servant enters, announcing there is a big crowd gathering in the street. Adela and Martirio are left alone, each accusing the other of trying to steal Pepe away from Angustias. Bernarda, the other daughters, and the servants enter, announcing that the crowd outside is calling for the death of a young woman who gave birth to an illegitimate child, and then in her shame, killed and buried it. Bernarda and her daughters join the cry, but Adela, holding her belly, cries out, “No! No!”
The act opens at night, in a room in Bernarda’s house adjacent to the corral. The family and a guest, Prudencia, are eating. Prudencia tells Bernarda that her family is feuding, that her husband has never forgiven their daughter for an indiscretion. “A daughter who’s disobedient,” Bernarda says, “stops being a daughter and becomes an enemy.” Everyone discusses Angustias’s impending betrothal, and Prudencia admires the pearl engagement ring, though she comments that in her day, “pearls signified tears.” The church bells toll, and Prudencia leaves to attend the service. Angustias goes off to bed because Pepe is not coming to visit her tonight. The daughters wonder why, and Bernarda explains he is away on a trip; Martirio, however, looks suggestively at Adela and mutters, “Ah!”
The daughters exit; La Poncia and Bernarda continue their discussion about the “very grave thing” which Bernarda insists is not happening in her house. Bernarda goes to bed, and the servants leave to investigate the sound of dogs barking in the yard. Maria Josefa passes through with a lamb in her arms, singing a lullaby. Adela passes through on her way out to the corral. Martirio enters by another door and is confronted by her grandmother. Encouraging Maria Josefa to return to bed, Martirio calls out for Adela. When she arrives, Martirio warns her, “Keep away from him.” Adela is defiant: “You know better than I he doesn’t love her.” Martirio reluctantly admits this is the truth. Pepe whistles from the yard for Adela, who runs toward the door, but Martirio blocks her way. She calls for Bernarda, who enters quickly. Adela grabs Bernarda’s cane and breaks it in two. La Poncia and some of the other daughters enter. Bernarda retrieves a gun, and shoots at Pepe waiting in the yard. Adela runs off after her lover, believing he has been shot. A thud is heard a moment later, and when La Poncia breaks open the door, she discovers that Adela has hanged herself. Bernarda orders Adela’s body cut down, insisting, “My daughter died a virgin.” The play ends with Bernarda stubbornly maintaining her illusion, ordering her daughters to be silent and defiant in the face of death.
Adela, age 20, is the youngest, most attractive, spirited, and rebellious of Bernarda’s daughters. As Magdalena says of her, Adela “still has her illusions,” and thus has difficulty submitting to the strong will of her mother, who keeps all the daughters under tight reign. As a form of rebellion, Adela puts on a green birthday dress and goes out in the yard shouting “Chickens, look at me!” She craves social interaction and cannot bear to be locked away from the world. She has a deep connection to nature, yearning to be free of the house and breathe the fresh air of the fields. As the conflict with her mother’s will intensifies, Adela’s defiance is symbolized in her breaking of the walking stick with which Bernarda has beaten her daughters. Ultimately,
Adela chooses death as a means of escape from an intolerable life when the only alternative she can envision—Pepe—is no longer available.
At age 60, she feels out of place in the village, sure that everyone in the town despises her. She feels superior to her neighbors in social station, and will not allow her daughters to be courted by the men of the area, whom she generally finds inferior. She curses “this village full of wells where you drink water always fearful it’s been poisoned.” Bernarda runs her house with an iron hand; La Poncia calls her a “domineering old tyrant.” Her husband, Antonio Maria Benavides, has recently died, and the family has gathered at her house for the funeral. Her domination of the family and servants intensifies the day of her husband’s funeral. She is hard on her own daughters out of a sense of what is proper behavior for women in a period of mourning. She plans to keep the house shut up for eight years, and requires the daughters to cover their heads in mourning. She is a vicious and manipulative person who keeps a mental record of every scandal that involves her neighbors so she can use the information as a weapon against them. Bernarda seems unmoved by her daughter Adela’s death, more concerned about the perceptions of her neighbors as she orders her daughters to uphold the lie that “She, the youngest daughter of Bernarda Alba, died a virgin.”
Of all the characters, Amelia, Bernarda’s third youngest daughter at age 27, perhaps stands out the least as an individual. She is kindhearted and hates to hear her mother speak unkindly. She is concerned about Martirio’s health even if Martirio is not. Like Martirio, she feels uncomfortable and embarrassed around men. Like Magdalena, she feels that being born a woman is life’s worst punishment. Amelia seems to be afraid of almost everything; unlike Adela who seeks the truth, Amelia would rather close her eyes to it.
The eldest daughter at age 39, Angustias is a half-sister to the others because she was born of Bernarda’s first marriage. She is therefore the only one with any inheritance worth mentioning, and thus has a suitor, Pepe el Romano. Bernarda strikes her when she learns that Angustias has been looking out the cracks in the door at the men departing the funeral. Angustias knows that Pepe only wants her for her money, but is resigned to this fact. Near the conclusion of the play, Angustias stands her ground when a hysterical Adela orders her to tell Pepe that Adela will be his. She curses her sister: “Thief! Disgrace of this house!”
She expresses bitterness about Bernarda’s treatment of her and the other servants. (Bernarda must have everything perfect, and works her servants hard to get it.) La Poncia, who is 60 years old, is perhaps the most complex character in the play. A mediator, she is all things to all people without being a hypocrite. La Poncia is torn between debt to and hatred of Bernarda. Additionally, her sons work Bernarda’s fields, so Bernarda controls the economic fate of the entire family. Nevertheless, La Poncia is extremely frank with her employer, which may be a privilege of age (Lorca is careful to indicate they are exactly the same age). La Poncia provides the daughters with friendly conversation, which they lack, and on occasion defends them to Bernarda. La Poncia persists in trying to make Bernarda recognize there are real problems brewing in the house.
Apparently the only daughter who truly loved her father, Magdalena, 30 years old, faints during his funeral. Realistic to the point of pessimism, she is convinced she is never going to get married. Like Martirio, she claims not to care if she lives or dies. She speaks out against hypocrisy when she hears it, and believes women should be strong and not tolerate poor treatment by men. She refuses to contribute a stitch to the making of clothes for the christening of Angustias’s future first child. Her form of escape is a pleasant memory of the past.
Like the other servants in Bernarda’s employ, her life consists of nothing more than cleaning the house until her fingers bleed, without ever earning Bernarda’s approval. When the maid hears the bells tolling for Bernarda’s dead husband, she curses him, “You’ll never again lift my skirts behind the corral door!” She is 50 years old.
- The House of Bernarda Alba was produced on American television in 1960 for the “Play of the Week” series, translated and adapted by James Graham-Lujan and Richard O’Connell. Anne Revere starred as Bernarda Alba, with Eileen Heckart as La Poncia, and Suzanne Pleshette as Adela.
- In 1990, the play was adapted as a Spanish film, directed by Mario Camus (Gala).
- A British television production of the play premiered in 1992, directed by Nuria Espert and Stuart Burge (Channel 4).
Bernarda’s mother, 80 years old, is the most poetic character in the play, identified closely with Adela (they share a desire to escape the house and be free). Maria Josefa is a voice of truth, painful to Bernarda who keeps her locked away. What she claims to want—marriage to a virile young man and lots of children—is irrational. But Maria Josefa is also very perceptive, more aware than Bernarda of the dire situation in the house. When she cradles the lamb she knows it is not a real baby, but accepts it as better than nothing.
Martirio, Bernarda’s second youngest daughter at 24, has been under the care of a doctor but does not express any hope of her condition improving. (Indeed, she takes her medicine more out of routine than any concern for health.) She is in many ways a younger picture of her mother, called “a poisoned well” by La Poncia. Martirio feels that God has made her weak and ugly and that all things considered, “it’s better never to look at a man.” She hypocritically says having a boyfriend does not matter to her, but she is consumed by jealousy and sexual frustration. She steals the picture of Pepe el Romano so she can at least possess the image of a man. Martirio is the one daughter who reluctantly agrees that Pepe el Romano really loves Adela and not Angustias, to whom he is engaged. Still, she does all she can to keep Adela and Pepe apart.
One of Bernarda’s few friends in the area. She is frustrated with her husband, who refuses to forgive their daughter for an incident long in the past. Prudencia is 50 years old.
Beauty—specifically the beauty of Adela, Bernarda’s youngest daughter—is a source of conflict in the play. Beauty becomes corrupted, Lorca suggests, in an environment where people are not permitted to pursue their desires and passions. Pepe el Romano is passionate for Adela, but is bound by economic necessity to court Angustias instead. “If he were coming because of Angustias’ looks, for Angustias as a woman, I’d be glad too,” Magdalena comments, “but he’s coming for her money. Even though Angustias is our sister, we’re her family here and we know she’s old and sickly, and always has been the least attractive one of us!” The daughters are all in such a state of repressed isolation that they will resent both Angustias, for having a suitor, and the beautiful Adela, for possessing Pepe as a lover.
Fate and Chance
The characters’ attempts to control their own lives bring them into contact with the inevitable and result in the tragedies that conclude not just The House of Bernarda Alba, but each of the plays in Lorca’s trilogy. Destiny is intermingled with the repetition of the life cycle; what occurred in the past is often fated to occur again. For example, all the women in Adelaida’s family suffered before her, and she is destined to suffer, too. (Martirio observes elsewhere in the play, “History repeats itself. I can see that everything is a terrible repetition.”) In the scene with Prudencia, several symbols of bad luck appear (spilled salt and an engagement ring of pearls rather than diamonds). All the bad luck predicted in this scene comes to pass. Martirio comments, “Luck comes to the one who least expects it.” But good luck does not seem to come to anyone in Bernarda’s house, whether they expect it or not. Adela, meanwhile, struggles against her fate and fails. The other sisters are resigned to their fate, lacking Adela’s faith that she can control the course of her life.
Each of the three plays in Lorca’s trilogy ends with a significant death. Death is a mounting inevitability as the frustration of the characters grows more intense. Death comes to characters in situations with no hope, who are helpless victims of their destiny. Ultimately, Adela chooses death as a means of escape from an intolerable life when the only alternative she can envision—Pepe—is no longer available. Adela seems bound by fate not to survive, but Bernarda brings about tragedy through actions that have the opposite of their desired effect. In this, she appears more like a heroine of Greek tragedy, although she survives, perhaps to make the same mistakes again.
The play is formed by Lorca’s sense of social justice, warning society at large about the tragic cost of repressing any of its members. Adela’s dilemma is Lorca’s central concern. She has more to lose than the others in the dashing of her two hopes, men and freedom. Her optimism is irrational because of the isolation in which Bernarda keeps her and her sisters, and because she should be able to see from the society around her that men and freedom are mutually exclusive possibilities for a Spanish woman. But even servitude to a husband would likely provide Bernarda’s daughters with more freedom than they have under her tyrannical authority. The land, which produces wealth, also serves as a metaphor for procreative power and other freedoms. The fields are a source of refreshment and escape for Bernarda’s daughters. They see the men who work the land as free and independent, as having everything the women who are prisoners in the house do not have.
Honor is closely related in the play with themes such as status, money, and gossip. Bernarda feels she has a social position to maintain in the town; she won’t let her daughters marry beneath this imagined station, and she won’t give up her social airs. The tyranny of Bernarda is fueled by her own sense of honor and tradition. The desire to act honorably—to mourn her husband’s death for eight years—ruins the lives of Bernarda’s daughters. Bernarda’s sense of honor is formed by her awareness of the judgmental opinions of her neighbors. However, she has only herself to blame for her fear of what the neighbors think because she has manipulated them by gossip in the past. Adelaida, for example (a character never seen), is afraid of Bernarda because the woman knows her sordid past, and throws it in Adelaida’s face every chance she gets. Part of La Poncia’s job is to keep Bernarda informed of what is going on in the town. When the neighbors awaken at the end of the play, however, it appears there will be no more controlling them (although Bernarda is desperately trying to keep up appearances).
Lorca’s primary identification was always with female characters, and all the plays in his late trilogy are about the plight of Spanish women. The House of Bernarda Alba bears the explicit subtitle “Drama about Women in the Towns of Spain,” and there are more frustrated women in it than in any other Lorca play, perhaps than in any other modern play in the world theater. In Lorca’s view, men and freedom are mutually exclusive for Spanish women. Although no male characters appear in the play, it is clear that the women’s feelings of isolation are largely the consequences of men’s actions and attitudes. In depicting sexual frustration, Lorca maintains the masculine mystique by keeping Pepe from appearing. Pepe acts only on instinct; his desires pit mother against daughter, sister against sister. Magdalena curses womanhood if it consists of nothing more than being bound by tradition. A woman has little control in achieving personal satisfaction and in determining the course of her own life, and therefore must often resort to desperate measures. The three plays of the trilogy dramatize tragic attempts by women to free themselves from impossible situations: the Bride runs off with Leonardo in Blood Wedding, Yerma kills her husband, and Adela kills herself.
Wealth and Poverty
Angustias suffers because she knows Pepe is only marrying her for her money, that even when they are together his thoughts are far from her. Land is the source of wealth throughout the three plays of the trilogy, and wealth creates stature. When Bernarda judges the men of the area as unfit for her daughters, she does so not on their individual merits, but because as shepherds and laborers they are all beneath her economic ideal. In such circumstances, wealth controls fate. Not only does Pepe become
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Following Adela’s suicide, do you think Bernarda will continue to maintain such tight control over her surviving daughters? Do you think she will be successful at keeping the circumstances of Adela’s death a secret from the town? Explain.
- Research the social status of women in Spain in the 1930s. Based on historical records, how successful does Lorca seem to have been at depicting the issues faced by women of this time?
- Examine the ways in which La Poncia serves as a mediator for the various conflicts in Bernarda’s house. Why is she ultimately unsuccessful in preventing the tragic outcome of the play?
- Research the impact of Francisco Franco’s regime on Spanish culture. Why do you think The House of Bernarda Alba did not premiere in Spain until 1964?
- Research Lorca’s poetic and dramatic technique in the last years of his life. Why was he so adamant about achieving a more realistic style in The House of Bernarda Alba (so much so that he described the play as a “photographic document”)?
engaged to Angustias because of it, but the play is rich with other symbolic battles over money. Prudencia’s family, for example, is torn apart by a struggle over money: a disputed inheritance.
Realism and Surrealism
Lorca was a great experimenter with poetic and dramatic form, and was certainly influenced by the variety of new artistic forms developed in his day. Although the term surrealism is specific to the work of a handful of artists at a particular time, it is often used to describe a variety of techniques that seek to express the human subconscious directly, rather than revealing it through external actions, as is the case in realist drama. In writing his last play, Lorca worked against such a technique, trying to reach a more “objective” tragedy by stripping away the overtly poetic elements that had characterized his style before this. His friend Adolfo Salazar noted that as Lorca finished reading each scene he would exclaim, “Not a drop of poetry! Reality! Realism!” The House of Bernarda Alba lacks the stylized elements of the other two plays in the trilogy, but never approaches unadulterated realism. Lorca asserted that the play was a “photographic record,” suggesting an attempt to capture rural Spanish life in a naturalistic manner. The language of the play is carefully shaped to expose elements of character, however; it is poetic without overtly sounding like poetry. Similarly, while the play’s settings appear naturalistic, evocative of a real house in the Spanish countryside, they are also stylized, with the white walls evoking purity but also the sterility and monotony of life in Bernarda’s house.
As Dennis Klein noted, Lorca wanted his theater to “capture the drama of contemporary life and inspire passion as classical drama did,” Lorca stated that his purpose in writing his tragic trilogy was to follow the Aristotelian canon for tragedy. He departed widely from this goal, however. The House of Bernarda Alba moves closer to the structure of classical tragedy than the other two plays, but still differs significantly. Lorca is true to the spirit of classical tragedy without rigorously applying the rules, such as the unities of time, place, and action. The breaking of the unities is consistent with the history of the Spanish theater, and indeed Lorca’s drama was rooted as much in the traditions of the Spanish Golden Age, and those of European puppet farce, as in classical precedent. The plays of Lorca’s trilogy are all structured as dramatic crescendos with a key event around which the rest of the action revolves. In this respect The House of Bernarda Alba has a classical structure. The play is also reminiscent of Greek tragedy in its focus on a household or lineage, its powerful sense of fatalism, and the cathartic quality of the final scenes. Additionally, Lorca did make subtle use of the classical technique of the chorus that comments on the action of the play. Each of the plays in the trilogy has a chorus; in The House of Bernarda Alba the function of the chorus is served both by the neighbors in act one, and the other daughters besides Adela.
Eliminating most of the details of telling a story, Lorca designed his plays to be skeletal so he could concentrate on other theatrical elements. The House of Bernarda Alba is episodic in structure, and almost perfectly circular. The play starts with Bernarda returning from one funeral and ends with her arranging another. She appears to have learned nothing from the experience of losing her youngest daughter, for she exerts the same repressive control against which Adela rebelled with such tragic results. With the repetition of Bernarda’s “Silence!” the command has an authoritarian ring at the beginning of the play, but a hollow one at the conclusion.
Known primarily for his works about peasants and gypsies, Lorca drew extensively on his familiarity with rural Spanish life. Edward Honig observes that “Lorca was rebelling against the realistic middle-class drama, which in Spain had succeeded in shutting off from the stage the rich atmosphere of folk speech and imagination.” Lorca’s work succeeds as a blend of surrealistic imagery and popular folklore. Lorca achieved a very personal style by relating with a modern sensibility and a variety of techniques his understanding of a folk world. Folk elements are crucial to a play like The House of Bernarda Alba, but Lorca does not romanticize rural life as did many of his contemporaries.
Among folk elements, the lullabies of Andalusia were especially important to Lorca; he once gave a lengthy lecture on these songs. Singing is employed throughout the trilogy, although the other two plays employ more poetry than does The House of Bernarda Alba. Maria Josefa’s lullaby to the lamb, for example, allows her to express her maternal instincts and her feelings about her daughter.
Lorca is usually treated as a poet who happened to turn to theatre because he found lyric poetry inadequate. His brother argues against this interpretation, explaining how theatre and theatricality were important to Lorca as a child, and thus throughout his entire life. “I would say that, just as someone called him ‘poet by the grace of God,’ he was dramatist by the same grace. . . . We need to say, then, that his dramatic expression was as pressing in him as the need for lyric expression.” While writing The House of Bernarda Alba Lorca was intent on keeping it free of poetry, to eliminate the special effects and metaphorical characters that he used in the other two plays. Yet the touch of the poet is present; there is poetry even if there is no verse.
Symbolic elements such as one associates with poetic verse abound in the play. The characters are all fully realized individuals, with specific names, a transition from the allegorical characters of Lorca’s other plays. Yet the characters also function symbolically through the use of onomastic imagery (attributing character traits through the names). Angustias suggests anguish, for example; Martirio, martyrdom; and Prudencia, prudence. Water is another important symbol for Lorca, suggesting sexual potency. Bernarda’s daughters drink water not just to quench their thirst but to lessen their sexual frustration. At the same time, however, water can come down in torrents; the trouble in Bernarda’s house is referred to metaphorically as a storm. Weather in general is symbolic; the heat suggesting intense sexual frustration. Since the men are outside, they are cooler on the patio (i.e., they do not suffer from sexual repression). By using these and other symbolic images (animals are especially important referents), Lorca retains a poetic quality to his writing in this otherwise prosaic play.
Spain at the time of Lorca’s youth was experiencing a lengthy crisis of confidence spurred by the country’s defeat by the United States in the War of 1898, during which Spain lost its remaining colonies. Political life was torn between a desire on one hand to strengthen traditional values and revive past glory, and the need on the other to move progressively forward, to foster intellectual inquiry and learn from the example of modernized nations. The split between these positions grew more acute in the 1930s. Lorca resisted efforts to recruit him for the communist party, but at the same time his social conscience caused him to be outspoken in his criticism of Spanish conservatives.
In 1936 civil war broke out as conservative army officers under General Francisco Franco revolted against the liberal Spanish government. Lorca was living in Madrid at the time and decided to wait out the conflict at his parents’ home in Granada. His decision turned out to be disastrous, as Granada was filled with coup sympathizers, and quickly fell to rebel forces. Many liberal politicians and intellectuals in the area were executed, including Lorca. In the years of civil conflict which followed (in many ways a prelude to the war that was soon to rock all of Europe), the attention of the world was focused on Spain. Men and women of rhany nations traveled there to fight against fascism in international brigades. Franco’s forces were victorious, however, and by 1939 he controlled all of Spain. Franco’s regime never accepted responsibility for Lorca’s death, but Lorca remained a forbidden subject for years.
Franco’s victory stalled the flowering of the arts in Spain, which had been ongoing for several decades. Previously, Spain’s Golden Age in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the highpoint of its creativity in the theatre and the other arts. Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Felix Lope de Vega, and others created a dramatic canon that has stood as a standard for centuries. Lorca was born in the year of, but too young to be a part of, the literary Generation of 1898, which examined Spain’s past and the problems that caused the country to fall from international power. Lorca was part of the second Spanish literary movement of the twentieth century, the Generation of 1927, an erudite group using cerebral imagery and believing in a code of Art for Art’s sake.
Lorca’s generation challenged audiences with its daring techniques and often controversial subject matter. This was a period of artistic liberation and the development of new artistic forms. Surrealism and Dadaism exerted influence over a number of arts, inspiring works that sought through imagery to pierce the human subconscious. Spain at the time was moved by the films of Luis Bunuel, and the painting of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Lorca’s work is similarly sophisticated and shares a complex awareness of human psychology. While other artistic innovators appealed primarily to the intellect, however, Lorca was concerned with addressing basic human emotions and needs. Lorca championed the plight of the Andalusian gypsies, who were accorded the worst possible social position in the region. He was also passionate about the injustices done to Spanish women: the personal stigma associated with not being married, and a woman’s inability to marry the man she loves.
The House of Bernarda Alba finally had its stage premiere nearly a decade after Lorca’s death. It was produced in Buenos Aries in 1945, near the end of World War II, during which Argentina had maintained an uneasy neutrality. The play was published the same year, also in Argentina. Given the repression of artistic expression during Franco’s
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1936: The values and traditions of rural society remain strong in Spain, despite the influence of various modernizing forces.
Today: While rural communities survive, in Spain and elsewhere traditional ways of life have largely disappeared. As populations migrate to urban areas to seek work, television and other media bring urban issues back to rural areas in ways that were not possible before.
- 1936: The rights of women are highly circumscribed, and their economic dependence upon men holds them in traditionally subordinate gender roles.
Today: Women, in Spain and elsewhere, have achieved important rights but many still continue to struggle against perceptions of their “proper” role in society, which often does not include success in a professional realm.
- 1936: Spain is in the throes of a civil conflict brought about by economic inequalities which are felt more acutely in a depressed economy.
Today: Spain has diversified and strengthened its economy to some extent, but the country continues to struggle with high levels of unemployment and is one of the poorest member nations of the European Union. Assassinations and other actions by rebel groups like the ETA in the Basque region suggest that many social and political issues remain unresolved.
- 1936: Lorca is arrested and executed by rebels who support General Francisco Franco’s fascist coup. Lorca and his works will be a forbidden subject in Spain for years to come.
Today: Since Franco’s death in 1975, Lorca is understood and appreciated on his own terms. He is openly admired in his homeland as one of the century’s greatest poets, a status he never lost elsewhere.
- 1936: Believing in a communist ideal of shared ownership of the land and other resources, brigades of Spanish Republicans and international sympathizers fight passionately against Franco’s military forces.
Today: Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the effectiveness of the American embargo against Cuba, communism is widely viewed as a failed political experiment. Support for the concept of shared ownership is not considered a valid political position in the United States.
regime, it was not until 1964 that Lorca’s last play was finally produced in his native Spain, at Madrid’s Goya Theatre.
By the time of his death, Lorca was widely considered one of the greatest poets of the modern era, perhaps of all time. Since The House of Bernarda. Alba differs from Lorca’s other works in his attempt to employ a more realistic style, critics have differed in their assessment of the play’s value in Lorca’s canon. Most have found it a work of real theatrical power, demonstrating Lorca’s versatility as a writer. A minority, however, have suggested that the work pales in comparison to Lorca’s more lyric poetry and drama.
Lorca’s assassination was a shocking tragedy not only to his Spanish audience, but to lovers of his writing all over the world. Some critics were particularly indignant about the circumstances surrounding Lorca’s death. “Lorca was assassinated, and his books burned,” wrote William Rose Benet in a 1937 review of Lorca’s Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter, “but his burning words live on in the present book, beyond the reach of the bloody ape [i.e., Franco].” Benet praised the “fierceness” in Lorca’s poetry, calling some of his images “striking and beautiful.” Eulogizing Lorca a year after “his criminal and stupid murder,” Rolfe Humphries praised Lorca’s versatility and his ability “to write both simply and subtly at the same time.” While dwelling on the lasting value of Lorca’s poems, Humphries also praised Lorca as a total artist, saying that “in achieving a synthesis of all that. . . he had received from the world of dance and painting, music and theater, he abandoned nothing of value, and was able to work his erudition down into the substance of his art.” The American poet William Carlos Williams observed in the Kenyon Review that Lorca “belonged to the people and when they were attacked he was attacked by the same forces.” Williams praised the reality and immediacy of Lorca’s verse, his skill at “invoking the mind to start awake.”
At the time of Lorca’s death, Humphries and other critics have noted, Lorca’s work was not widely available in English. This fact has certainly been remedied in subsequent decades, but translation of Lorca’s writing continues to be a tricky issue. Some critics have claimed that qualities of Lorca’s style, especially his feel for the sound of language, are impossible to capture in translation. These critics suggest that the strength of Lorca’s plays, meanwhile, is limited to their language. Others, however, have pointed out the quality of Lorca’s stagecraft, suggesting the plays remain dramatically viable in translation. (This is especially true for a prose work like The House of Bernarda Alba.) There is merit to both perspectives, and unsurprisingly, while Lorca’s plays are respected by the English-speaking public, they retain their greatest impact in their original language.
The House of Bernarda Alba finally premiered in Argentina nearly a decade after Lorca’s death. Critics there hailed the work, comparing Lorca’s drama to the works of the great Golden Age playwrights of Spain. A reviewer in La Nation identified Lorca’s work with that of Calderon de la Barca, who also focuses intensely on issues of honor. This same critic, according to Dennis Klein, observed that in the present play, Lorca as strong realist dominates over Lorca the poet. Another critic, writing in the publication Blanco y Negro, traced patterns throughout the trilogy of plays about the lives of Spanish women. While praising both Blood Wedding and Yerma, this critic, according to Dennis Klein, concluded that “the tragic inspiration of Garcia Lorca reaches its summit in this work.”
Not all critics have been as enthusiastic about Lorca’s last play, however. Reviewing the 1960 production for the American television series “The Play of the Week,” John P. Shanley noted in the New York Times that Lorca’s “talent for poetic imagery” was demonstrated in selections from his poetry read as an afterpiece to the telecast. The play itself, however, Shanley thought was “better dismissed as an experimental diversion of limited appeal.” While the play “abounds with sounds of grief and anguish” in a manner suggestive of the later works of Tennessee Williams, it “lacks the range and compassion of Mr. Williams’ better efforts.” Edwin Honig commented in his 1963 study of Lorca that “the personal dilemma . . . prevents Lorca’s folk dramas as well as his other plays from rising so often out of pathos to real tragedy.” Other American critics have found much wider appeal in Lorca’s last play. Reviewing a production by the Actors’ Workshop of San Francisco, Stanley Eichelbaum, as quoted by Dennis Klein, wrote that the play was “superbly atmospheric to the eye and gloriously affecting to the ear.”
The House of Bernarda Alba has continued to be produced and read extensively, both in Spanish and in translation. Literary critics, meanwhile, have found much of interest in the complex themes of the play. Given the transition in Lorca’s style at the time he wrote The House of Bernarda Alba (moving to a more prosaic and realistic style of drama), many critics have sought to contextualize the play in terms of Lorca’s poetry. Warren Carrier, for example, concludes that The House of Bernarda Alba “is so stark as prose, it is so essential in language and feeling, it stares so directly into the heart of the characters, that it may be said to be more poetic than many of the more patently poetic plays.” In The Contemporary Theatre: The Signigicant Playwrights of Our Time, Allan Lewis shows himself to be among critics who have focused on the elements of folklore both in The House of Bernarda Alba and other plays of Lorca. Lewis observed, “Lorca’s plays are a tribal theatre of primitive power, ancient in form but shaped by a sophisticated modern mind.” John Gilmour in Religion in the Rural Tragedies has surveyed the importance of religion and religious imagery in the three plays of Lorca’s trilogy. “Lorca’s principal characters,” Gilmour commented, “are tormented souls who, despite their strict Catholic upbringing and proud sense of honour, are incapable of displaying the Christian virtues of love and forgiveness.” Of course, given the theme of Lorca’s last plays, many critics have studied his complex portrayal of gender roles in Andalusian society. Julianne Burton in Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols has grounded Lorca’s rural trilogy in a social and historical context, suggesting that his depiction of the lives of Spanish women demonstrates “Lorca’s commitment to a more egalitarian, humane, and personally fulfilling society.”
Christopher G. Busiel
Intertwined with other complex images and themes, Bernarda’s house serves on a number of levels as the central image in The House of Bernarda Alba.
In order to arrive at an understanding of the complex images and themes in Federico Garcia Lorca’s last play, The House of Bernarda Alba, one must start with the title. Lorca did not call his play Bernarda Alba, or even The Family of Bernarda Alba. (The latter would have been especially appropriate given that, like many of the great tragedies of classical Greece, the play focuses on a lineage and the impact of characters’ actions on subsequent generations.) The title, The House of Bernarda Alba, draws attention both to Bernarda’s “house” in the sense of her household or lineage, and to the physical space of the house itself, which serves as the central image of the play.
From his experience directing a production of the play, Eric Bentley discovered the paramount importance of the house, observing the significant role of windows and doors that serve as both barriers and bridges. The symbolism of what is inside the house and what is outside could not be more important to the themes of the play. To the daughters, the outside represents freedom and possibility, as well as romantic and sexual fulfillment. Throughout the play the daughters run repeatedly to the windows to observe the outside world: the crowd departing the funeral, the men going to work in the fields, and the arrivals and departures of Pepe el Romano. Bernarda upbraids Angustias for looking out through the cracks of the back door, becoming so angry that she strikes her daughter. To Bernarda, the outside of the house represents only negative possibility: corruption from which she wants to protect her daughters, and prying neighbors from whom she wants to keep her secrets.
The house is a self-contained society which Bernarda rules with an iron hand. “To Bernarda’s way of thinking,” wrote Dennis Klein in Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba, “virginity is decency and sex corruption.” Therefore, it is understandable that when Adela commits suicide, Bernarda’s first thought is to make the world believe her daughter died a virgin. Bernarda’s rule also means that sexual activity always takes place outside the house: Pepe and Adela meet in the corral, and the maid speaks of Bernarda’s husband lifting her skirts behind the corral. The story of Paca la Roseta, who spends a night with some local men deep in an olive grove, is to Bernarda a perfect example of the corruption which runs rampant outside her domestic space. The displacement of sexual activity to the outside is reflected in the symbolism of the weather. The daughters suffer in the heat of a house which is shut up tight for a period of mourning, during which, Bernarda explains, “not a breath of air will get in this house from the street. We’ll act as if we’d sealed up the doors and windows with bricks.” The heat in the house thus serves as a symbol for the sexual frustration of the daughters. The men of the town, meanwhile, are of course free to move about outside. They are cooler on the patio and in the fields, suggesting symbolically that they do not suffer from sexual repression.
The heat inside may be what causes Angustias to describe Bernarda’s house as hell, and the ongoing torment of all the characters within it suggests the accuracy of her metaphoric description. (Interestingly, in her desperation at the end of the play, Angustias reverses herself and adopts her mother’s proud rhetoric, cursing Adela: “Disgrace of this house!”) Bernarda’s house is also referred to as a house of war, again reminiscent of the lineages of Greek tragedy. Hell is perhaps the strongest lingering image of the house, but other locations of confinement are suggested throughout the play. In his study of the religious imagery in Lorca’s trilogy, John Gilmour in Religion in the Rural Tragedies refers to Bernarda’s house as “convent-like,” observing that Lorca uses the funeral in the first act to establish an important theme for the remainder of the play. “A theatre audience,” Gilmour wrote, “could not fail to be struck by the sheer number of women, all in mourning, filling the stage, and by their slow, processional entry in a hundred pairs. It is as though they were members of a religious house filing into chapel for their communal worship.” If the house does function as a convent, it is only in the sense of deprivation and without, it seems, any
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Blood Wedding (1932) is the first play of Lorca’s tragic trilogy about life in rural Spain. It concerns a man and a woman who are passionately attracted to each other but enter loveless marriages out of a sense of duty to their relatives. At the woman’s wedding feast, the lovers elope. The play uses many more poetic and allegorical devices than The House of Bernarda Alba.
- Yerma (1934) is the second play of the trilogy. Yerma is a woman who dutifully allows relatives to arrange her wedding. When she discovers her husband does not want children, she is torn between her desire for a baby and her belief in the sanctity of marriage. Her frustration grows uncontrollable, with tragic results.
- The Poetical Works of Federico Garcia Lorca (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1991). Students may be interested in reading some of Lorca’s more lyrical works about rural Spain, such as the poems originally included in the collections Gypsy Ballads and Poem of the Deep Song.
- Life Is a Dream. The most famous play by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, a seventeenth-century playwright whose works, together with those of the older Lope de Vega, dominated Spain’s Golden Age. Like Lorca, Calderon saw life in terms of a symbolic formula, and he was concerned with the traditional Spanish respect for honor. This play examines the conflict between free will and predestination.
- The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Civil War by Gerald Brenan. (Cambridge UP, 1974) is a rigorous study of Spanish history from 1874 to 1936. Ian Gibson’s The Assassination of Federico Garcia Lorca (W.H. Allen, 1979) provides a comprehensive examination of the political and other circumstances surrounding Lorca’s death.
genuine religious devotion. Bernarda raises a compelling point of contrast when she chastises La Poncia: “How you’d like to see me and my daughters on our way to a whorehouse!”
La Poncia highlights the dominant sense of confinement in the house when she comments to Bernarda: “Your daughters act and are as though stuck in a cupboard.” If larger than a cupboard, the house does function extremely well as a prison. Maria Josefa is most explicitly a prisoner, for Bernarda keeps her locked in a room and relies on the assistance of family and servants to keep her there. Bernarda also imprisons her daughters, saying to them at one point, “I have five chains for you, and this house my father built.” The house, the audience knows, has extremely thick walls and bars on the windows through which, for example, Angustias watches Pepe depart. When Adela defies Bernarda near the conclusion of the play, she highlights her mother’s role as warden, saying: “There’ll be an end to prison voices here.” While it is Bernarda’s mother, daughters, and servants who are most explicitly imprisoned in the house, the play suggests that Bernarda is herself a prisoner. Although she commands power over others, she is so confined by her own sense of honor and proper appearance that she cannot act any more freely than the rest.
In the settings of each of the three acts of The House of Bernarda Alba, there is a symbolic penetration deeper and deeper into the house, which reflects the gradual exposing of the family’s secrets. The first act is set in a room near the entrance hall, appropriate for the public nature of the funeral and the visitation of neighbors, which Bernarda must endure. In the second act, the setting moves to a more intimate room near the bedrooms, bringing the audience deeper into the hearts and motives of the various characters. The final act moves to a room adjacent to the corral, which is the site of sexual liaison and the symbolic source of conflict in the play. Bernarda’s desire to keep the secrets of the
family deep within the house may prove impossible now that the neighbors have awakened. With her desperate cry of “Silence!” Bernarda can merely, as the old saying has it, close the barn door after the horse is out.
Lorca described the structure of the play as a “photographic document,” and the imagery of the house supports this theme. Photographs in Lorca’s day were of course in black and white, and the stark whiteness of the house’s walls is contrasted perfectly with the black mourning clothes of the women in the first act. The uniform whiteness of the walls suggests a sense of purity which Bernarda would like to maintain. The color also suggests a whitewash of hypocrisy, which dominates the household, as well as the sterility and monotony of life for Bernarda’s daughters in the house. The stark black and white patterns of the play are modified later when the walls appear tinged with blue, suggesting evening. (Ironically, it is in the dark cover of night rather than in stark light of day that the secrets of the family are “brought to light.”) The blue tones suggest the doubt that now tinges the purity and decency which had previously prevailed. The green dress of Adela is the only other color which appears in the play, contrasting the white walls of the house not only in hue but also in theme, for the color is symbolically associated with nature, hope, jealousy, sex.
Bernarda’s house thus functions as a central symbol in Lorca’s final play, in the use of color and other elements of scenic design, in metaphoric references to prisons and convents, and in providing a physical structure to the layers of secrecy within which Bernarda wraps her family life. Since theater is an art form based on the physicality of performance, it is fitting that a great modern work of drama like The House of Bernarda Alba should make use of a setting that is both visually striking and serves so well to develop the images and themes contained in the play.
Source: Christopher G. Busiel, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Freedman elaborates on the theme of passion in Lorca’s dramatic work, examining the conflict between individual character’s emotions and the morals of the society portrayed.
With Lorca we enter an altogether different landscape in the modern drama, the landscape of passion. His three great tragedies—Blood Wedding, Yerma, The House of Bernarda Alba—are stripped nearly bare of the details of setting and time, that sense of locale we need for Ibsen, Wilde, Shaw, or O’Casey. Yet we do not leave the area of reality, as we do with some of Strindberg and of Pirandello. Lorca empties his drama of nearly all forces but passion. Even his settings always seem nearly barren, simply all whites or all blacks, so that only the colors emerge that are evoked by the action and the characters. The motivation and energy for plot are in passion; the definition of character is through passion. There is no “thought,” no “idea” of any significance.
Lorca is preeminently the playwright of passion in the modern theater although we can find elements of Lorca in Williams, Osborne, O’Neill, and Genet; but in each of these there is a significant admixture of other thematic material. Lorca’s passion is not related to a program, as in D. H. Lawrence, or in Williams, or in Genet. Lorca’s “blood consciousness” is a consciousness of what is, already; of what must be observed, acknowledged, assimilated, lived with, understood, and, finally, even forgiven. Lorca’s passion is rooted in an established social context. The tragedy in his plays comes from the tension between passion, which is necessarily always entirely individual and personal and whimsical, and the society in which the individuals move, which defines them and also gives a particular value and shading to passion and its manifestations. In Lorca, the conflict is between passion and honor, where passion is the mark of the personal (willful and private and powerful in its needs) and honor that of the social (rigid and public and equally powerful in its rules and taboos, the denial of needs). . . .
In The House of Bernarda Alba, we have what amounts to a nunnery and all that implies of the suppression of passion: nunneries are refuges from the usual passion of the world. Bernarda Alba is sadistically compulsive about order, pathological about cleanliness. As in Yerma, in which the two old maids spend all their time keeping their house spotless, so the barrenness, immaculateness of Bernarda Alba’s establishment are related to sterility; her house is not merely a denial of passion but a denigration of it. Bernarda, loudly: “Magdalena, don’t cry. If you want to cry, get under your bed.”
We remember that in Blood Wedding, Leonardo lives a “disordered” life: he cannot hold down a job, he is hot-tempered and impatient, he comes
“THE TITLE, THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, DRAWS ATTENTION BOTH TO BERNARDA’S ‘HOUSE’ IN THE SENSE OF HER HOUSEHOLD OR LINEAGE, AND TO THE PHYSICAL SPACE OF THE HOUSE ITSELF, WHICH SERVES AS THE CENTRAL IMAGE OF THE PLAY.”
from a line of murderers. He is thematically equated with a wild stallion. But none of this is pejorative, merely descriptive; Leonardo is of that world where violence alone is heroic. The Bridegroom represents order, cleanliness, and wealth. Bernarda Alba is rich and viciously opposed to irregular emotions: “Hot coals in the place where she sinned,” she screams horribly about the local girl who has given herself to a number of men. As we hear the threat of the galloping stallion in Blood Wedding, threatening the orderly arrangement of events, so one hears the hoofbeats of the caged animal in Bernarda Alba, a tattoo of threatening disaster again.
Bernarda Alba is an extreme distillation of social honor; she exemplifies a passion that has gone too far in excluding the mortally impulsive, irrational, emotional, self-indulgent. It has become in its extremity antipassion. When one daughter says, “I should be happy, but I’m not,” Bernarda Alba replies, “It’s all the same.” (Of course, it’s not all the same, not even for Bernarda, as her frenzy to undo things at the end of the play testifies.) In effect, Bernarda is a Satanic spirit, living in an atmosphere of death, perversion, and denial. The play starts with a funeral and ends with a suicide; between we have sadism, insanity, onanism. There are black curtains on the windows. Sexual passions are outside this territory: the stallion drumming in his stall; the village escapades. No men appear on stage. The setting is on the edge of action. The only action that occasionally can burst out in Bernarda Alba’s house is the poultrylike squabbling of the sisters, a parody of life.
In The House of Bernarda Alba, then, we get an extended examination of the pathology of social
“LORCA IS PREEMINENTLY THE PLAYWRIGHT OF PASSION IN THE MODERN THEATER.”
passion, of an honor that is contemptuous of the individually human, that is, finally, self-defeating. Bernarda Alba did bear five children, but we are to gather that this was in the cause of social honor, that whatever private passion she might have begun with has attenuated into nothingness, been distorted into self-hatred. She hates her daughters. Bernarda Alba’s passion is exercised in the extinguishing of passion: the sadist can only have definition through the masochist, his diametrical opposite. As the play opens, we see Bernarda Alba finally retiring into the “ideal” existence, waiting primly for death, her social duties done, indifferent to the suppressed but smoldering vitality of the unattached daughters. Bernarda Alba fears and hates sex in any form, for sex means only life.
The conclusion of Bernarda Alba crystallizes earlier thematic hints and motifs. Adela hangs herself on learning, mistakenly, that her lover has been killed. In a veritable hysteria, Bernarda Alba shrieks that Adela died a virgin, forbids tears except in private, and calls for silence, silence, silence, as the curtain descends. Cleanliness, purity, silence, defining marks of death itself, envelope Bernarda Alba’s house. “Death must be looked at face to face,” she pronounces as Adela’s body is cut down. . . .
Bernarda Alba climaxes this trilogy of the tragedy of passion by seeming to assert that it is “honor,” passion perverted by a sense of the social that excludes the human, which somehow survives and even triumphs, however abominably, over the personal passion. We may thus read these tragedies as concluding on a pessimistic note: the world of Bernarda Alba is one in which human impulses may not range freely, must be constrained, even expunged, even at the risk of the ugliest consequences, of perversions of passion and of life, including madness, self-stimulation, torture, suicide. But the very extremity of this view suggests its own rebuttal; Bernarda Alba’s mode cannot sustain itself except by a restlessly conscious, eternally remorseless exercise of death-dealing. Even as Bernarda Alba is hysterically improvising her sterile stagecraft for the future, managing the appearance of Adela’s suicide (“Take her to another room and dress her as though she were a virgin”), arranging to face death daily, another daughter, Martirio, mutters: “A thousand times happy she, who had him.” The personal, physical passion continues to assert its independent power. Honor may finally turn to antipassion, as in Bernarda Alba, certainly with its own power, but the primal force is personal passion.
Lorca’s tragedy, then, resides in the domain of passion: passion destroys itself and its possessors, the personal can ultimately only come in conflict with the social, the social enlarges itself into vengeance or into death-serving sterility. Life and fulfillment may reside in passion alone, but precariously, never without risk, not casually. Humans cannot truly be alive without passion, but with passion they must wage a running, alert, and subtle battle with those guerilla forces intent on its destruction. It is the classic opposition between life and death itself; and death, of course, as Freud not least has sadly indicated, is an expression, a wish, of life itself. But to celebrate passion is to celebrate life, living, feeling, reaching, erring: vitality, vivacity, whimsicality, impulsiveness, energy of every sort. There is a final rightness about Lorca’s characters who strive toward goals that define them as they live, as there is about Oedipus, and to fail is simply—and greatly—to be human.
Source: Morris Freedman, “The Morality of Passion: Lorca’s Three Tragedies” in his The Moral Impulse: Modern Drama from Ibsen to the Present, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, pp. 89-98.
Richard Watts, Jr.
In this review of an English language production of Lorca’s play by the American National Theatre and Academy, Watts offers a positive critique of the material while finding the translation somewhat lacking.
Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish playwright who was murdered by his country’s Fascists in 1936, is a figure of international literary importance, and the American National Theatre and Academy was fulfilling one of its proper functions when it offered his most famous drama, The House of Bernarda Alba, as the fourth item in its subscription season at the ANTA Playhouse last night. It must be added, however, that the production provided additional evidence that the theatre of Spain does not fit any too snugly into the American stage and presents barriers that it is not easy to cross.
The House of Bernarda Alba is a somber and brooding tragedy about a family of girls ruled over by a grim and tyrannical matriarch who seeks to suppress their natural instincts in the interest of her own stern social code. With the father dead, the mother drives the young women into a lengthy period of mourning in which they are to be cut off completely from association with men, with the not altogether surprising result that they are filled with bitterness, hatred and general unrest and the youngest of them commits suicide after it had been discovered that she was having a secret love affair with the eldest daughter’s fiance.
The conflict between natural instincts and the forces that try to suppress them seems to be one of the dramatist’s favorite themes, and there is no denying that, in The House of Bernarda Alba, he goes about his story with a single-minded intensity that is capable of engendering considerable dramatic power. Although on the English-speaking stage there appears to be a certain artificiality in the theatrical style of Garcia Lorca, it is still evident that he is a playwright of authentic tragic force. There are moments in the play that are highly impressive in their concentrated emotion.
The mood of ominous impending doom that hangs over the unhappy household of savage old Bernarda is captured in both the writing and the production with effective skill and presents the most successfull feature of the drama. But the tragedy itself, it seems to me, is made less moving and believable than its materials should make it through a kind of artificial stylization that may be eloquent and hauntingly lyric in the original Spanish but is a little flat and unpersuasive in its English translation. The final effect, which might have been devastating, is somehow far from overwhelming.
For me, one of the troubles with the play’s effectiveness is the acting of Katina Paxinou as the matriarch. I have now seen Miss Paxinou on the stage in Hedda Gabler and on the screen in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Mourning Becomes Electra, and I must confess that her art continues to escape me. There is something about her highly mannered style that seems to me grotesque and extravagant, rather than powerful and moving, and this struck me as being all the more noticeable last night because that style happened to be contrasted with the less ornate playing of the other members of the cast.
“IN THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, GARCIA LORCA GOES ABOUT HIS STORY WITH A SINGLE-MINDED INTENSITY THAT IS CAPABLE OF ENGENDERING CONSIDERABLE DRAMATIC POWER.”
Such interesting young actresses as Ruth Ford, Helen Craig, Mary Welch and Kim Stanley are prominent in the all-woman cast, and they all play skillfully, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that they were in a different play from the one in which Miss Paxinou was appearing. The set and the costumes by Stewart Chaney and the direction by Boris Tumarin are of help in creating the mood that is the most successful feature of The House of Bernarda Alba, and I certainly agree that the tragedy was worth doing. But I am also sure that Garcia Lorca must have been a finer playwright than he seems in the American theatre.
Source: Richard Watts, Jr., “The Grim House of Bernarda Alba” in the New York Post, January 8, 1951.
Bentley, Eric. “The Poet in Dublin” in In Search of Theatre, Knopf (New York City), 1953.
Benet, William Rose. “Singing Spain” in the Saturday Review, October 2, 1937, p. 18.
Blanco-Gonzalez, Manuel, “Lorca: The Tragic Trilogy” in Drama Critique, September 2, 1966, pp. 91-97.
Burton, Julianne. “The Greatest Punishment: Female and Male in Lorca’s Tragedies” in Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols, edited by Beth Miller, University of California Press (Berkeley), 1983, pp. 259-79.
Carrier, Warren. “Poetry in the Drama of Lorca” in Drama Survey, February 3, 1963, pp. 297-304.
Cobb, Carl. “Federico Garcia Lorca” in Twayne’s World Author Series, Volume 23, Twayne (New York City), 1967.
Garcia Lorca, Francisco. Prologue to Three Tragedies by Federico Garcia Lorca, New Directions Publishing Corporation (New York City), 1955, pp. 1-29.
Gilmour, John. “The Cross of Pain and Death: Religion in the Rural Tragedies” in Lorca: Poet and Playwright, edited by Robert Havard, St. Martin’s Press (New York City), 1992, pp. 133-55.
Honig, Edwin. Garcia Lorca, New Directions (Norfolk, CT), 1963.
Humphries, Rolfe. “The Life and Death of Garcia Lorca” in the Nation, September 18, 1937, pp. 293-94.
Lewis, Allan. “The Folklore Theatre—Garcia Lorca” in The Contemporary Theatre: The Significant Playwrights of Our Time, Crown (New York City), 1971, pp. 242-58.
Shanley, John P. “Garcia Lorca Work on ‘Play of the Week’” in New York Times, June 7, 1960.
Williams, William Carlos. “Federico Garcia Lorca” in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, Random House (New York City), 1954, pp. 219-30.
Colecchia, Francesca, Editor. Garcia Lorca: A Selectively Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, Garland (New York City), 1979; Garcia Lorca: An Annotated Primary Bibliography Garland, 1982.
Extensive bibliographies with many useful listings for researchers. One volume covers scholarship on Lorca’s plays, the other Lorca’s works in Spanish and in translation.
Klein, Dennis A. Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba: Garcia Lorca’s Tragic Trilogy, G.K. Hall & Co. (Boston), 1991.
The first full-length critical study devoted to Lorca’s tragic trilogy, which the author calls “the most accomplished and mature efforts of the finest Spanish playwright of the twentieth century.” Klein works through the original Spanish texts (providing quotations in his own English translations), examining the trilogy both in the larger context of Lorca’s career as a poet, playwright, director, and visual artist, and in the social context of Spain in Lorca’s era.
Lima, Robert. The Theater of Garcia Lorca, Las Americas (New York City), 1963.
A critical study surveying all the plays of Lorca’s available in print at the time of its publication.
Londre, Felicia Hardison. Federico Garcia Lorca, Ungar (New York City), 1984.
Examines Lorca’s artistry by emphasizing a synthesis of approach to his poetry, drama, music, visual art, and stage direction. Includes a full chapter devoted to what Lorca called his “unperformable plays.” The House of Bernarda Alba is treated in detail, pp. 172-180, and discussed elsewhere in the work.
Newton, Candelas. Understanding Federico Garcia Lorca, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia), 1995.
Newton provides her audience with an understanding of the Andalusian region where he was born, as a basis for appreciating his writing. She establishes connections between Lorca’s works to illustrate the variety of approaches that Lorca employed. Contains an annotated bibliography and other resources for the student researcher.
Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 7, 49, Gale (Detroit), 1978, 1982, 1994.
This resource compiles selections of criticism; it is an excellent beginning point for a research paper about Lorca. The selections in these three volumes span Lorca’s entire career. Also see Volume 2 of Gale’s Drama Criticism. For an overview of Lorca’s life, see the entry on him in Volume 108 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography.