Pepe el Romano.
Let’s begin with a paradox: Pepe el Romano plays an important role in the drama but he neither appears onstage nor do we hear him speak at all! He is invisible and silent, because the action takes place entirely in Bernarda’s house, a space which men are strictly prohibited from entering. Indeed, all we know about Pepe, we learn from the Alba family and their two servants, La Poncia and Criada.
[The Alba household is made up entirely of women, nine in all. Bernarda, her five unmarried daughters –Angustias, Magdalena, Amelia, Martirio and Adela–, her deranged mother (Maria Josefa), and two servants, La Poncia and the other called simply Criada (i. e. Maid).]
So why is Pepe el Romano important and why are men prohibited from entering the house? To address Pepe’s importance first: It is around him that Lorca creates a drama based on his relationship with two of Bernarda’s daughters, the oldest, Angustias, and the youngest, Adela.
Pepe, Angustias and Honour.
But why does Bernarda ban men from her house? Simply put, men are a threat to family honour, and Bernarda is obsessed with her family honour, with the importance attached to appearances, and with the status or esteem her family enjoys in the village.
Pepe pays proper court to Angustias, visiting her at her window. This is socially acceptable because her modesty and family honour are protected by the wrought-iron grille that covers the window. [In Andalusia, it is normal to see street-level windows protected by wrought-iron grills (rejas) through which it was customary for courting couples to communicate and so maintain proper decorum.] However, Pepe also has a clandestine affair at the same time with Adela and this is a grave threat to the honour etc. of the Alba family; it is improper, scandalous.
Bernarda’s obsession with honour obeys a social attitude that stretches back centuries and finds fertile ground in Spain’s Golden Age (approx. 16th and 17th centuries), where it played a major role (see, for example, Fuenteovejuna, El Burlador de Sevilla). Traditionally, the defence of honour and status fell to the men of the family, but Bernarda is twice widowed and has no sons or other male members to take on that responsibility.
Traditionally, too, family honour was embodied in the women … especially wives and daughters, and with five unmarried daughters, Bernarda has her work cut out! Determined, nevertheless, to defend her family’s honour, Bernarda predictably prohibits men entering her house, even those who have attended her second husband’s funeral: “I don’t want them passing through here,” she informs La Poncia (Act I, 125). [In case we think that family honour is passé, it’s worth remembering that it is still very much alive nowadays, with honour killings frequently reported in some conservative societies. And in these societies, women are often seen to be as determined as men in advocating severe punishment on other women.]
Men may not enter Bernarda’s house, but she cannot prevent them passing by her house, including Pepe. But we know Pepe has a legitimate reason: he is set to marry Angustias. However, she is thirty-nine-years-old, sickly (Act I, 139), and unattractive (Act I, 121) whereas Pepe is a handsome twenty-five-year-old (Act I, 140). Given the age difference and Angustias’s health, it is hardly surprising that Pepe’s interest in Angustias lies in her wealth (as Magdalena points out, Act I, 139): Angustias is rich having inherited all the money from her father, Bernarda’s first husband (Act I, 121, 140).
Pepe, Adela and the Consequences of Dishonour.
We know that Pepe is authorized to court Angustias at her window, but where does he meet Adela? No doubt they do see each other at her window, but it is clear too that they both have access to the house’s “corral” (enclosed yard), a place of erotic encounters to judge from what we learn in the play. For example, it is from the “corral” 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 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).
The point is that despite Bernarda’s draconian restrictions imposed on her daughters (they will spend eight years in mourning following her second husband’s death Act I, 129), Pepe has penetrated the protective wall erected by her. But Adela also breaks her mother’s rules by being a willing participant and in doing so has actively betrayed the honour of the family. Angustias accuses Adela of being the “Deshonra de nuestra familia” “the dishonour/ shame of our family” (Act III, 197), and Magdalena has no wish to see her any more (Act III, 198).
Pepe escapes retribution fleeing on his horse, but Adela commits suicide, not however out of shame, but because her envious sister Martirio (who also loves Pepe) misleads her into believing that Pepe has been killed by Bernarda (Act III, 198). Adela dies unrepentant, and it now remains for Bernarda to do her best to cover up the disgrace brought upon the family. She demands family silence on the matter and insists that Adela died a virgin.
This is an urgent matter for Bernarda, because otherwise Adela’s behaviour will become the object of village gossip very much like the disgraceful conduct of 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, 132), which Bernarda had listened to avidly as La Poncia described it. Or the scandal of the daughter of La Librada (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). In this case, Bernarda is vociferous in clamouring for her death.
With family honour threatened by Adela’s shameful behaviour and suicide, Bernarda now finds herself in a situation that she condemned in others and hastens to mount “damage control.” She demands silence claiming at the same time that Adela died a virgin. Bernarda’s last words (and the last of the play) are “Silence! Silence, I’ve said! Silence” but given village life we are left with the impression that Adela will ironically have the last word, her death/suicide speaking volumes in village circles.
Pepe: Example of Male Behaviour and Freedom.
Pepe el Romano’s escape without any apparent consequences for him confirms Adela’s earlier observation that men get away with their transgressions (“They are forgiven everything” Act II, 159) and Amelia’s reflection that “To be born a woman is the greatest punishment” Act II, 159).
Pepe’s misbehavior is the most obvious since he is involved directly with the Alba family, courting Angustias and having an affair with Adela at the same time. Nevertheless, there are three other men, mentioned briefly, whose behavior is hardly exemplary: Bernarda’s second husband Antonio Maria Benavides (Act I, 123, 127), who has pursued Criada, lifting her petticoat (Act I, 123), La Poncia’s husband Evaristo el Colin’s whose first words to her are bluntly sexual: “Come here. Let me feel you” (Act II, 151) and Enrique Humanas (Act I, 136, III, 170) who gives the ugly Martirio hope of marriage before abandoning her for a richer girl (according to Martirio, Act I, 136, although later it becomes clear that Bernarda intervened Act III, 170).
The point is that men are not punished for their transgressions. They have freedom of movement and are free from punishment for their misbehavior. The most egregious example can be seen in the brief family history of Adelaida, a neighbour. It’s a very complicated picture. Her unnamed father had murdered his first wife’s husband, then abandoned her for another who had a daughter. He then had an affair with the daughter (who was Adelaida’s mother) … all of this without consequences for him because, as Martirio puts it succinctly, men cover for each other (Act I, 136)!
Women, on the other hand are trapped. For example, Adelaida’s fiancé would not let her as far as the doorstep let alone attend the funeral of Bernarda’s second husband (Act I, 135).
The freedom men enjoy without consequences is conveyed symbolically by their access to the outside world, especially the countryside. Adela expresses her frustration clearly when she and her sisters and La Poncia hear the harvesters singing on their way back to work: “Ay, I wish that I could also go out to the fields!” (Act II, 159). Her feelings are underscored by an air of romantic mystery and adventure added by La Poncia: the harvesters come from the mountains and are carefree (“Alegres” Act II, 159), and –adding more spice– some of them had paid an exotic young woman from afar to accompany them to an olive grove.
La Poncia does not elaborate but the implications are clear to the sexually repressed and housebound sisters. They are shocked, but there is envy and frustration in Adela’s observation and Amelia’s reflection: “They [men] are forgiven everything” (Act II, 159), and Amelia’s reflection that “To be born a woman is the greatest punishment” (Act II. 159).
The treatment of Pepe el Romano in the play is in fact an example of all men’s behaviour. He wants a docile, demure wife (according to Angustias, Act I, 150) while at the same time carrying on an affair. La Poncia gives it a slight twist: “after fifteen days of marriage, a man leaves his bed for the table and then proceeds from the table to the bar and the wife who doesn’t go along with it is left rotting and weeping in a corner” (Act II, 151). Which is the same as saying that men do what they want.
When Pepe el Romano rides off to escape being shot, it is not difficult to imagine that the cycle will start over. As Martirio says after hearing about Adelaida’s father’s scandalous behavior, for which he was not punished: “Men cover for each other regarding things of this kind … these things are repeated” (Act I, 136). So it will likely be with Pepe.
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.)