Lorca. The House of Bernarda Alba. Bernarda’s Daughters.
The Alba household is made up entirely of women, nine in all. Bernarda, five daughters –Angustias, Magdalena, Amelia, Martirio and Adela–, her deranged mother (María Josefa), and two servants, La Poncia and the other called simply Criada (i. e. Maid).
Bernarda rules the household with an iron hand. Her main preoccupation is with family honour, status and appearance. The main danger to family honour, etc. is the men of the village who are studiously refused entry into the house. The problem for Bernarda is that her daughters –unmarried and sexually repressed– are to varying degrees preoccupied with men. She attempts to impose strict control over what they do, hear and see, but the outside world has its way of penetrating the thick walls of the family house, principally through the maid, La Poncia, and the windows to which the daughters run to see and hear what is going on outside and at which they can converse with their suitors (e. g. Angustias with her boyfriend Pepe el Romano, or Adela clandestinely with Pepe).
The daughters are constantly vigilant over what each is doing and their conversation is dominated largely by their unattached condition. Their relationship offers little positive to balance the unhappiness they experience under their mother’s despotic control.
Angustias –half sister to the others– is the only one betrothed (to Pepe el Romano), and is anxious to marry since she is 39 years old. Magdalena (30 years old) is resigned to spinsterhood (Act I, 129), Amelia (27 years old) is ambivalent about whether it is worth having a boyfriend (Act I, 135), and Martirio (24 years old) describes herself as ugly (because of her humpback, Act II, 154) and weak (Act I, 136). Only Adela (20 years old) has a positive –and rebellious—disposition. She is young and is carrying on a secret love affair. Even during the period of mourning following her father’s death, she carries a red and green flowered fan (Act I, 128) and she puts on a green dress (Act I, 138) while her sisters are dressed in black. The trouble is that her clandestine love affair is with Pepe el Romano. To complicate matters further, Martirio also loves Pepe, but she tries to keep her feelings hidden until finally prodded and taunted by Adela to reveal them openly (Act III, 196).
All this leads to an unhealthy and tense relationship between the sisters. Amelia is gossipy but least involved. Magdalena has a mean streak and is especially unpleasant towards Angustias, calling attention to her older sister’s age, her sickly constitution and further suggesting that it would be more appropriate for Pepe to marry Amelia or Adela (Act I, 139-40). Later, she makes it clear that she will not sew for Angustias’s baby should her sister have a child (Act II, 158), and fully supports Adela and Martirio when they tell Angustias to her face that Pepe is only marrying her for her money and land she will inherit from her father (Bernarda’s first husband, Act II, 167).
Martirio is perhaps the most disadvantaged and unfortunate of the sisters as her name suggests (martyr). Sickly (she requires medicine, Act I, 135), burdened by her hunchback (Act II, 153-54), and unlucky in love she has developed an embittered attitude towards others. Not surprising, perhaps. She was betrayed by an admirer, Enrique Humanas, for a wealthier woman (Act I, 137), and is especially frustrated by the knowledge that her love for Pepe el Romano is destined to be unfulfilled because he is not interested in her. Her only compensation is to steal Angustias’s picture of Pepe and hide it in her bed (Act II, 164). When La Poncia finds it following a search ordered by Bernarda, Martirio defends her action, claiming that it was a joke on Angustias (Act II, 166).
He perception of herself as weak and ugly (Act I, 136) weighs upon her. On the one hand she claims to fear men (Act II, 136), but has had an admirer (Enrique Humanas) and is in love with Pepe el Romano. Blaming God (Act I, 136) for her condition, as she does, is a way of rationalising the unlikelihood that she will ever marry and have children. This unlikelihood may also explain her lack of compassion when she supports Bernarda’s call, at the very end of Act II, for the death of La Librada’s daughter, an unmarried mother who has killed her baby out of shame.
Adela, the youngest, maintains a stubborn resistance to her mother’s despotic and obsessive control, and from the beginning shows signs of disregarding social conventions. For example, when she first appears, she is carrying a fan decorated with red and green flowers despite being in mourning (this infuriates Bernarda who hurls the fan to the ground, Act I, 128). Furthermore, she puts on a green dress (Act I,138) to feed the chickens in the yard, a place of forbidden encounters. The colour green is clearly associated by Adela with freedom: “I cannot be shut up like you,” she tells her sisters angrily, “tomorrow I’m going to put on my green dress and go for a walk in the street. I want to go out” (Act I, 142). Spied upon by Martirio and La Poncia, she reacts passionately to their insinuations (Act II, 153, 155) insisting to both that she will do as she wants with her body (Act II, 153-55).
Unlike her sisters, Adela has a romantic streak. She is enchanted by the star-filled sky where e. g. Amelia closes her eyes to avoid seeing the stars and sees only darkness, Martirio dourly comments that anything above the roof is of no interest to her (Act III, 184-85), Magdalens is asleep and Angustias retires for the night since Pepe will not be courting her that evening.
Adela also has a very compassionate attitude towards those women who have broken social mores, opposing her mother and Martirio whose condemnation of La Librada’s unmarried daughter at the very end of Act II is merciless. “Don’t kill her,” Adela cries out, clutching her belly (pregnant or in anticipation of having a child?). To no avail. “Let her pay for what she’s done,” Martirio says, looking at Adela. “Kill her! Kill her,” are Bernarda’s last words as the curtain goes down.
The most contentious sisterly relationship is that between Adela and Martirio. Both are in love with Pepe, with their rivalry eventually erupting into verbal taunts on Adela’s part and Martirio’s suppressed anger finding an outlet in her dramatic confession that she too loves Pepe (Act III, 195). She rejects Adela’s impulsive attempt to embrace her out of compassion, which then prompts Adela to react emphatically, claiming that Pepe is hers. She then further goads her sister saying that she has experienced the taste of Pepe’s mouth (Act III, 195) and that she is his even if the whole village is against her.
When Martirio attempts to stop Adela responding to a whistle from outside (presumably Pepe), they end up fighting and only stop when Bernarda enters after Martirio has called out for her. Bernarda’s advances furiously on Adela after Martirio points out the straw on Adela’s petticoat. Adela then confronts her mother in her most decisive act of rebellion: She grabs Bernarda’s cane (a symbol of Bernarda’s authority) and snaps it in two, at the same time ordering her mother not to take another step and finishing “No one but Pepe can order me around” (Act III, 197). Adela’s final act of self determination and expression of freedom is to hang herself. But that decision is precipitated by Martirio’s malicious statement that Bernarda has killed Pepe, when in fact he escaped. When questioned by Magdalena as to why she had said that Pepe was dead, Martirio’s reply reveals the depth of hate that she feels for her younger sister: “Because of her! I would have poured a river of blood over her head” (Act III, 198).
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.)
For a general study of plot and characters, see https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/house-bernarda-alba