Lorca. The House of Bernarda Alba. La Poncia.
For a summary of the plot, click here.
The Alba household is made up entirely of women: Bernarda, her five daughters –Angustias, Magdalena, Amelia, Martirio, Adela–, Bernarda’s mother –María Josefa—and two servants, La Poncia and another called simply Criada (Maid). La Poncia plays a significant role as intermediary between Bernarda and her daughters and the main source of contact between the Alba family and the village where they live.
La Poncia and Bernarda. Like Bernarda, her employer, La Poncia is 60 years old, and for half her life (Act I, 120) has served in the Alba house. But their relationship is tense and antagonistic, owing to Bernarda’s abrasive, domineering character and La Poncia’s dependency on her. La Poncia’s resentment is revealed in the opening moments of the play when she sums up Bernarda’s character as cold, domineering and tyrannical (p 119) towards everyone around her, including –clearly—La Poncia herself. And stage directions further confirm the feelings La Poncia is to convey, e. g. “Siempre con crueldad: always cruelly; Con odio: with hate; con odio envuelto en suavidad: with hate wrapped in mildness” (Act III, 169-70)
She feels hard worked over the years she has served Bernarda, eating her mistress’s left overs, staying up at night whenever Bernarda was unwell, and spying on the neighbours for her (Act I, 120). “One day,” she says to the Criada, “I’ll get fed up … and on that the day I’ll shut myself in a room with her and spit all over her for a whole year” (Act I, 121). She is clearly unhappy, even describing –towards the end of play– the Alba house as “war-ridden,” a place which she would like to escape from (Act III, 189).
Why then does La Poncia remain? Very simply, she depends on Bernarda for her job and importantly her sons are employed by Bernarda to work on her estate (Act I, 120). She is reminded in no uncertain terms by Bernarda that they have no special relationship: “You serve me and I pay you. Nothing more” (Act I, 134). Later during an argument with La Poncia, Bernarda commands her to work and shut up. “That is the duty of all those who are paid” (Act II, 171). La Poncia’s “loyalty,” then, is based on need and not affection.
Predictably, La Poncia loses little opportunity to needle Bernarda, for example reminding her that Magdalena, Amelia, Martirio and Adela are poor compared to their half sister, Angustias (who is the sole inheritor of her father, Act I, 140). It doesn’t seem much, and what La Poncia says is true, but it obviously irks Bernarda who snaps back: “You’ve told me that three times and I’ve chosen not to answer you. … Don’t remind me again” (Act I, 143).
Later (Act II, 168-73), La Poncia and Bernarda exchange strong words after La Poncia senses that all is not as it seems between Angustias and her fiancé, Pepe el Romano, and pointedly asks Bernarda why Martirio would have Angustias’s picture of Pepe in her bed. The argument then becomes more personal. After being provoked by La Poncia to open her eyes (Act II, 169) and accused of not allowing her daughters any freedom (Act II, 169), Bernarda throws La Poncia’s humble origins in her face. At the same time, she accuses La Poncia of wanting to see her and her daughters end up in a brothel which, she insinuates, was where La Poncia’s mother had ended up! At this point, it appears that Bernarda has prevailed, but La Ponce comes back with: “Adela … She is (Pepe) el Romano’s real girlfriend” (Act II, 171). She then adds more fuel to the fire claiming that her oldest son had seen Angustias and Pepe still talking to each other at the window at 4.30 in the morning. (The point is that Angustias has said that Pepe always left her window at 1.00 am, so to whom was he talking at 4.30? The implication is that it was Adela, which La Poncia knows will anger Bernarda.)
La Poncia and Bernarda’s Daughters.
Besides being a thorn in Bernarda’s side, La Poncia’s close relationship with Bernarda’s daughters highlights their mother’s coldness to and obsessive control over them. In many ways, La Poncia serves as a surrogate mother. She knows what each daughter thinks, is privy to their bickering and hopes, and can rightly claim that Bernarda, in comparison, is blind to what is going on with her daughters (Act II, 169).
Certainly, conversations between La Poncia and the daughters are much more intimate than anything Bernarda holds with them. La Poncia offers advice (Act II, 155: suggesting Adela wait until Angustias –who is sickly- dies, after which she can marry Pepe), and enlightens them how men behave after marriage (Act II, 151). She recognizes their sexual repression and enjoys titillating them with a very personal description of her first encounter with her husband when he paid court to her at her window: his first words, after half an hour of silence, were: “Come on, let me feel you!” (Act II, 151). It is one of the very few moments of laughter in the play.
Nevertheless, there is in this intimacy a certain ambivalence, if not malice, on the part of La Poncia. In a moment of candour when talking with the Criada at the beginning of the play, she describes all the daughters as “ugly” (Act I, 121). Nor does she defend them or express any affection for them when the Criada labels them all “malas – bad” (Act III, 189), merely replying that they are “women without men. Nothing more” (Act III, 190).
La Poncia is not above enjoying feeding the frustration Bernarda’s daughters feel, shut up in the house. When Adela, Magdalena, Martirio and Amelia all sit down, resigned to their confinement, after hearing the reapers return to the village (Act II, 159), La Poncia extols the freedom of the countryside: “There’s no joy like that of being in the countryside at this time of the year” (Act II,159). She then continues, describing the carefree entrance of a woman entering the village the night before dressed in sequins and dancing to an accordion. Furthermore, she adds that the woman was paid by fifteen men from the village to accompany them to the olive grove! “Can that really be so? “Is that possible!” is the shocked reaction of Amelia and Adela (Act II, 159). And then La Poncia divulges that she had paid for her eldest son to have his first sexual experience, because “men need these things.” All of which reinforces for the sisters their lack of liberty, best summarized by Magdalena: “Even our eyes don’t belong to us” i. e. we aren’t even allowed to see outside.
La Poncia is also not above stirring things up between the sisters, not a difficult task given that they are constantly watching what each other is doing. For example, Act II, 148-49, during a discussion over the time Pepe left Angustias (which was 1.30 am), La Poncia pointedly says that she heard him leave around 4.00 am. She knew that revealing this would trouble Angustias (whom he had left at 1.30) and worry Adela (whose window Pepe visited after leaving Angustias and whom he left at 4.00 am!). Indeed, she and Adela engage in a heated conversation soon after when La Poncia “con intención” (stage directions, i. e. provocatively) reveals that she knows of Adela’s affair with Pepe, and further discloses that she had seen Adela almost nude at her window when Pepe was on his way to see Angustias (Act II, 155). Adela reacts angrily, accusing La Poncia of spying, which prompts La Poncia to warn Adela that she knows enough to cause a scandal. Only the arrival of Angustias (Act II, 156) cuts short the heated exchange.
La Poncia as Intermediary.
At the same time that she serves Bernarda and her daughters, La Poncia is an important link between the family and the outside world. She is in fact their main source of village gossip. One of her tasks is to spy on the neighbours for Bernarda (Act I, 120). It is she who tells the eager Bernarda about Paca la Roseta, a married woman who willingly accompanied the village men on horseback with her breasts exposed while her husband was tied up to a manger (Act I, p 132). And it is La Poncia who divulges to Bernarda the scandal of la Librada’s daughter 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).
La Poncia’s grievances against Bernarda, her true opinion of the daughters (“ugly”) and her position as intermediary between the family and the village are all introduced in the opening dialogue she has with the Criada. Knowing this, we can observe her behavior within the dynamics of the family, and perhaps recognize that it is as fascinating as that of Bernarda, and is in many ways more subtle. Bernarda character is one-dimensional: she is a bully, determined to control the lives of all those in the house. La Poncia has to navigate her way between her resentment and hate for Bernarda and the need to protect not only her job but also that of her sons. Unlike Bernarda’s daughters, she can go out into the village but like the daughters she is tied to the house, not however by birth but by her economic dependency on Bernarda. She would like to escape: “I would like to cross the sea and leave this war-ridden house” (Act III, 189), but she can’t.
García Lorca, Federico La Casa de Bernarda Alba eds. Josephs, Allen and Caballero, Juan Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 1987. (For those who read Spanish, numerals in this post refer to page numbers in the Spanish text.)