Lorca: The House of Bernarda Alba. Summary Act I.

Lorca: The House of Bernarda Alba.

Poet, dramatist, pianist, artist and theatre director, Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) is arguably the most famous Spanish literary figure of the 20th century. He either knew or was friends with virtually all the major artistic celebrities of the first third of the 20th century in Spain, including the eccentric surrealist painter, Salvador Dalí, the radical film director Luis Buñuel and the composer Manuel de Falla. Lorca was also a leading light of the Group of ’27, a circle of remarkable poets which included Rafael Alberti, Pedro Salinas, Jorge Guillén, Dámaso Alonso and Vicente Aleixandre (Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1977).

Although not actively political, he was socially progressive/ liberal and sympathised with the marginalised and the underdog e. g. gypsies, people of colour, women. He was also gay, and his homosexuality together with his sympathy for Republican causes made him a target of conservatives. In August 1936, he was executed by a firing squad outside his native city of Granada, shortly after the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (July 1936-April 1939). Despite several attempts after the Civil War to locate his burial place, his body has never been found, a fate he shares with thousands killed during the war. Lorca is probably the most prominent of these disappeared victims, and represents for his biographer, Ian Gibson, “all the dead of the Spanish civil war and all the horror of the war and the dictatorship.” https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/nov/10/spain-gay-lorca-graphic-novel

The House of Bernarda Alba (La Casa de Bernarda Alba) (THBA) is a three-act play and Lorca’s last drama. It was completed in June 1936, a couple of months before his death. First staged in Buenos Aires in 1945, it was not allowed to be shown in Francoist Spain until 1964.

THBA is frequently classified as a tragedy together with his other best-known plays, Bodas de sangre (Blood Wedding, 1933) and Yerma (Barren Woman, 1934. The Spanish title Yerma is regularly used in English translations). That classification is not universally accepted since 1. Lorca calls THBA simply a “Drama” and not a “Poema trágico” as was the case with the other two works, and 2. he did not include it in his planned “trilogy of the Spanish earth,” alongside Blood Wedding and Yerma.

The action takes place entirely in Bernarda Alba’s house in an unidentified village in Andalusia. Over a few days, we witness the tense relationship between the nine individuals who live in the house: the domineering matriarch and owner, Bernarda, her five unmarried daughters –Angustias, Magdalena, Amelia, Martirio, and Adela—, Bernarda’s unstable mother María Josefa, and the two maids, La Poncia and the other called simply Criada (i. e. Maid). Other women enter the house briefly but only one is given a name, Prudencia. No men appear on stage, but they are constantly “present” (especially Pepe el Romano) through the conversations of the women.

Although the action is reduced to a very limited space and the cast is made up only of women, it is a powerful play anchored around Bernarda’s obsession with family honour, their status within the village and the importance of keeping up appearance against anything –especially gossip– that might destroy their reputation (the “el que dirán”: “what will people say,” as Magdalena points out in Act I, 137).

The honour theme has a long tradition in Spanish drama, and was a major element of the theatre of the Golden Age (approx. 1500-1700). Lope de Vega, the most popular and influential dramatist of the period, claimed that honour conflicts moved all people powerfully.

Protection of honour was traditionally the responsibility of the father (or brother/ son) of the family, but honour itself was customarily embodied in the female members (especially daughters, but also wives and fiancées). The seduction or rape of daughter, wife, fiancée dishonored the family and destroyed its social standing. Lost honour required redress, usually by killing the offender. [For examples of honour in Golden Age plays, see Fuenteovejuna (The Sheepwell) and El Burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville.]

Lorca overturns the traditional male protector role, allowing a woman to adopt the same preoccupation and to seek the same kind of solution (she tries to shoot Pepe el Romano -Angustias’s betrothed and Adela’s seducer–, but he succeeds in escaping). In this sense, Bernarda is ironically herself a victim of society’s demands, but so determined is she to control her daughters’ lives that she does not see that she is blind to women’s asphyxiated social condition. Instead of channeling her iron will into rejecting society’s demands, she has been co-opted to imprison her daughters in her house until they are married. Honour, social status and appearance are her guiding principles.

For women, freedom is a constant and unwinnable battle. Society allows men liberty to leave the house and experience sexual freedom it denies women. When La Poncia tells Bernarda’s daughters that she had paid for her son to have his first sexual experience (Act II 159) because “men need these things,” Adela and Amelia’s reply sums up their frustration as they see it. Adela: “Men are forgiven everything,” Amelia; “to be born a woman is the greatest punishment.

Men are free, women are punished if they break society’s norms. Compare La Poncia observation regarding men after marriage and the fate of La Librada’s daughter at the end of Act II. La Poncia: “Two weeks after marriage, the husband leaves his bed for the table and then the table for the bar and the woman who doesn’t accept that is left weeping in a corner” (Act II, 151). The fate of La Librada’s daughter: she is dragged to the countryside to be punished. “Kill her! Kill her!” shouts Bernarda as the curtain falls. Ironically, Bernarda is in a way victim of society’s demands but her daughters’ freedom is prevented, not by a man, but by a woman, their mother.

As far as Bernarda is concerned her unmarried daughters are a weak link where her family’s honour is concerned, which explains her obsessive control over their lives. At the same time, her authoritarianism also allows Lorca to insert other universal preoccupations into the play: the role of authority, the search for independence, the consequences of confinement, the tensions created by envy, hate, greed, love, jealousy, sex, hypocrisy …

Act I.
The play opens in a “very white-walled room” with a conversation between La Poncia and Criada against a background of church bells celebrating the burial service of Bernarda’s second husband, Antonio María Benavides (125). Although she has served Bernarda for 30 years (120), La Poncia has no love for her mistress whom she describes as cold, domineering, tyrannical (119) and hated by everyone (120). In La Poncia opinion, Bernarda’s husband is better off dead (120), and her daughters are all ugly (121). She reveals, too, that the oldest, Angustias, is the daughter of Bernarda’s first husband and is wealthy through him whereas her half sisters will have to work (121). After La Poncia has left to listen to the end of the service, Criada fends off a beggar woman’s pleas for leftovers. While cleaning up, Criada reveals in a short monologue that Antonio Benavides will no longer be able to lift up her petticoats behind the door leading to the yard (123).

At this point (123), Bernarda arrives accompanied by her five daughters and several women mourners, all dressed in black. Bernarda dominates the conversation.  Her first word, “Silence,” addressed to the Criada, is followed by further commands to a child (“Be quiet”) and to Magdalena (“Stop crying,” 124). Another order ensues: that the men awaiting some lemonade in the patio are not to be allowed into the house (125). (One of them is Pepe el Romano who, we learn later -139-, is courting Angustias). Some uncomplimentary comments about Bernarda whispered by three of the women present (125) are followed by a ritualistic prayer and response led by Bernarda, after which the mourners depart leaving Bernarda, La Poncia and her daughters alone (127).

As soon as the mourners leave, Bernarda launches into an attack on their “poisonous tongues” and on the “cursed village” where even drinking the water from the well runs the risk of being poisoned (128). The suffocating heat prompts Bernarda to ask for a fan. Adela hands her one decorated with red and green flowers, which Bernarda immediately hurls to the ground as inappropriate to give to a widow. She demands a black one, at the same time impressing on her daughters that the house will go into mourning for eight years and that it is she who orders in the house. In the meantime, they are to start embroidering Angustias’s trousseau and bed sheets.

The conversation is interrupted by shouts from Bernarda’s unstable mother, María Josefa, who is locked up in her room (129-130). Bernarda tells the Criada to let her mother out into patio before she turns her attention to Angustias who has disappeared. Adela rather maliciously informs Bernarda that she has seen Angustias peeping through the cracks in the door. Bernarda shouts for Angustias, berates her for going after men and demands to know who she was looking at. When Angustias replies “No-one,” Bernarda hits her (131) and dismisses all her daughters (132).

Left alone with La Poncia, Bernarda engages in a gossipy dialogue about a village scandal discussed by the men and overheard through the window. It is a titillating event. According to La Poncia, a married woman –Paca la Roseta- was a willing sexual participant with one of the village men while her husband was tied up to a manger (132). Bernarda is intrigued at the same time that she condemns Paca, and is horrified that Angustias has heard about it and many other shameful things according to La Poncia (133). La Poncia slyly muses that Angustias has never had a boyfriend although she is over thirty, which elicits an angry reply from Bernarda that there is no man in the village of a high enough class for her daughters. La Poncia’s familiarity annoys Bernarda who reminds her that she is only a servant and nothing more (134).

Bernarda’s attention turns to disposing of her husband’s clothes after the Criada appears (134). After the Criada suggests that some might be given to the poor, Bernarda cuts her short: “Not even a button” (134) and orders La Poncia and the Criada to follow her.

They are replaced onstage by Amelia and Martirio. From their dialogue, it transpires that women’s reputation is quickly lost while men cover for each other (136). Furthermore, having a fiancé is no guarantee of happiness if the unhappy experience of a neighbour, Adelaida, is anything to go by (she is not allowed out (135). Martirio admits to being afraid of men and considers herself weak and ugly. When Amelia recalls that one of the village men, Enrique Humanas, had once fancied her, Martirio informs her that it was all hearsay and that he had married someone wealthier than her (137).

At this point, they are joined by Magdalena who has just seen Adela heading to the yard dressed in green and calling out to the chickens (138). Their attention quickly turns to Angustias who swiftly passes through asking only what the time is. Magdalena explains why to Amelia and Martirio: Pepe el Romano is smitten by Angustias and is going to ask for her hand (139). Amelia and Martirio are happy for their half sister, but Magdalena questions their sincerity: “Neither of you is happy” (139). Furthermore, Magdalena adds, Pepe is only after the money and Angustias is old (39 years old) and sickly (139). Pepe on the other hand is 25 and the best looking fellow around and more suited to Amelia or Adela.

Adela enters from the yard delighted with her green dress. Magdalena suggests she should give it to Angustias (141) for her wedding to Pepe. The wedding is news to Adela who blurts out “But that can’t be” (141). She tearfully and angrily rejects Magdalena’s view that she will get accustomed to the situation (142), and resolves that she will not be shut indoors and will put on her green dress and go for a walk in the street the next day.

They are interrupted by the Criada who informs them that Pepe el Romano is coming along the street. Amelia, Martirio and Magdalena rush out, but Adela –following the suggestion of the Criada—goes to her bedroom window where she will get a better look at Pepe.

Bernarda and La Poncia appear followed by Angustias who has put make-up on her face. Angry, Bernarda wipes the make-up off Angustias’s face and reminds everyone that she rules in her house. Act I ends with the sudden appearance (145) of Bernarda’s mother, María Josefa, who has managed to escape from her room. She wants to get married and be happy. Rebelliously she refuses to shut up when ordered by Bernarda and is finally dragged away shouting “I want to get away from here and get married on the shores of the sea” (146).

For a summary of Acts II and III, click here

Edition used:
García Lorca, Federico  La Casa de Bernarda Alba eds. Josephs, Allen and Caballero, Juan Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra. (For those who read Spanish, numerals in the summary refer to page number in the Spanish text.)