The House of Bernarda Alba. The House.
Where the subtitle A Drama about Women in the Villages of Spain, generalises the action: women, village and Spain, the title proper —The House of Bernarda Alba–restricts the action to the Bernarda’s house in an unidentified village in Andalusia, and the women to Bernarda’s family and her servants.
Although the village is unnamed, there are numerous details that anchor the action to a realistic setting: e. g. the servant, La Poncia, first appears eating bread and chorizo, there are comments about the heat, a beggar asks for alms, there’s plenty of gossip about village scandals, dogs bark in the background, there is the kicking sound of a horse’s hooves, and there are popular songs sung by the reapers (Act II, 160-1).
The house is central to the action. Physically, we know from the stage directions that the living room is extremely white (“blanquísima”) with unrealistic paintings of nymphs and legendary kings (Act I) hanging on the walls, not uncommon in Andalusian village houses. The walls are thick, to protect against the summer heat, again common in Andalusia.
Bernarda’s house, however, is no ordinary house. Notably, it is governed by a strong-willed woman whose prime concern is her and her family’s honour and status in the village, issues traditionally the concern of men (as seen, for example, in Spanish Golden Age Drama e. g. El Burlador de Sevilla, Fuenteovejuna). The house’s function, then, is to serve as a physical barrier to protect the family’s honour.
The restrictions imposed by honour don’t sit well with Magdalena who complains that she and her sisters are rotting in the house out of fear of “what people will say: el qué dirán” (Act I, 137). Still, Angustias uses family honour to attack Adela at the end of the play, accusing her of being the “disgrace of our house: deshonra de nuestra casa!” Act III, 197)
If the house is Bernarda’s domain, for her daughters and maids it is an enclosed and inhospitable space where they are expected to submit to her in all matters. For Angustias it is “hell,” (Act II, 148), La Poncia describes it as a “convent,” (Act II, 158), a “house of war,” (Act III, 189), and Adela —the most rebellious of the daughters– sees it as a “prison” (Act III, 197). Magdalena describes their living room as “dark” (Act I, 129) despite the fact that the stage instructions emphasise the whiteness of the interior.
This bleak view of the house is heightened by the sounds of life and freedom coming from the outside: the songs of the reapers, the barking of dogs, the whistling of Pepe el Romano, the kicking of the horse etc. But contact with that world is severely restricted by Bernarda.
News of the outside world enters the house primarily via La Poncia, who brings the latest gossip or scandal, e. g. Paca la Roseta, a willing sexual participant with one of the village men while her husband was tied up to a manger (Act I, 132), or the daughter of a local widow who had given birth to a child by an unknown father and killed it to cover her shame and left it buried under some stones (Act II, 175).
The other principal source of access to the outside is the window, more so than the door. [Although it is only mentioned in passing (Act II, 149, 150), readers should remember that windows in Andalusia are regularly covered by a reja -iron grille—and that it was customary for courting couples to communicate though the reja and so maintain proper decorum.] It is to the window that the women rush when Pepe el Romano or the reapers are passing by (Act I, 142, Act II, 161), and it is via the grille that Angustias and Pepe converse (and Pepe and Adela clandestinely). Outside conversations can also be overheard (Act I, 132) through the grille, much to Bernarda’s consternation if they touch on delicate issues, e. g. Paca la Roseta’s scandalous behaviour overheard by Angustias (Act I, 133) .
However, the window/ grill because of its proximity to the outside world is dangerous for Bernarda. She fears, for example, that neighbours will see her demented mother (Act I, 130) and it is there that Adela appears almost nude so that Pepe can see her (Act II, 155), and where La Poncia’s husband wanted to fondle her when he came to her window for the first time (Act II, 151). However, at the same time that the window gives the women a channel to the outside world, the grille also prevents them exiting or restricts their suitors contact with them. At the window, they are so near to freedom but yet, frustratingly, so far.
Immediately outside the house but part of the property is the yard (“corral”), a place of erotic encounters condemned by social norms. It is from there that Adela returns with her hair disheveled (Act II, 193) and her petticoat covered in straw (Act III, 197) after meeting Pepe. It is there, too, that Bernarda’s second husband lifted the Criada’s petticoat (Act I, 123), and it is there that the stud stallion will mate with Bernarda’s fillies (Act III, 178).
Since the house is vital for the protection of family honour, Bernarda does not welcome men inside, not even those who attended her husband’s funeral. They were welcome to lemonade, but “I don’t want them to pass through here” she tells La Poncia (Act I, 125). And no man appears at all on stage (i. e. in the house)!
García Lorca, Federico La Casa de Bernarda Alba eds. Josephs, Allen and Caballero, Juan Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra. (For those who read Spanish, the numerals in brackets refer to page numbers in the Spanish text.)