Background to Acts II and III: Act I traces the tense, stormy relationship between the principal occupants of Bernarda’s house (where all the action takes place): Bernarda, the domineering mother, her five unmarried daughters, Angustias, Magdalena, Amelia, Martirio and Adela, and the maid La Poncia. No men appear on stage, but they are constantly present in the conversation. Adela, the youngest, is the rebellious daughter and is in love with Pepe el Romano who is to marry Angustias, the oldest daughter. But Martirio, too, loves Pepe! Observing the conflicting emotions with some considerable pleasure is the long serving La Poncia. Gossip and innuendo add fuel to the volatile, unhappy atmosphere in the house.
Opens with all of Bernarda’s daughters, except Adela, sewing and embroidering. La Poncia is also there. According to her, Adela is tense and jittery (147). The same goes for all of them, says Martirio, but Angustias disagrees stating that she will soon be out of “this hell” (148). La Poncia then reveals that she saw Angustias and Pepe together at the window at 1.00 a.m and heard him leave at about 4.00. a.m. “That couldn’t be him,” (149) argues Angustias. Following questions by La Poncia, Amelia, and Martirio, Angustias reports what Pepe said to her on their first “date” at the window (150). Lightening the mood slightly, La Poncia repeats her husband first words to her on their first “date:” “Come closer so that I can feel you” (151). She follows this with unflattering description of how men behave after marriage (151): a fortnight after the wedding, they leave the bed for the table and then the table for the bar while the wife weeps in a corner (151). Nevertheless, she was able to fight back thanks to the lessons learned from Bernarda (152).
Adela’s continued absence draws speculation after Magdalena has gone to fetch her (152). Adela complains that her body is out of sorts, and Martirio slyly asks if it is because she didn’t sleep well. Feeling put upon, Adela angrily tells Martirio to keep out of her business and adds that she can do whatever she wants with her body (153). [All the innuendos in these opening pages of Act II will be clarified in time, but to give heads up: Pepe was heard leaving at about 4.00 a.m because he was with Adela after leaving Angustias at 1.00 a.m, and Martirio is annoying Adela because she, Martirio is also in love with Pepe.] Adela gets personal alluding to Martirio’s hump back and defends her attack from La Poncia’s cynical observation that Martirio loves her (154): Adela feels suffocated by Martirio’s constant surveillance over her and adds that Martirio’s pitiful body won’t belong to anyone while she will give her body to whomever she wishes. “To Pepe el Romano?” is La Poncia’s pointed question. Adela is shocked that La Poncia knows her secret, but La Poncia reveals that she had seen Adela almost nude at her window when Pepe came to court Angustias the second time (155). They argue vehemently and even when La Poncia threatens to reveal all (155-56), Adela refuses to back down.
Martirio, Amelia and Magdalena arrive discussing Angustias’s trousseau. La Poncia’s comment that the sisters will have a lot of sewing etc. to do if Angustias has children draws negative replies from Magdalena and Amelia. They are interrupted by the sound of bells signaling the return of the men to the fields. Sitting down, Adela longs for the freedom associated with the fields (159), but her sisters, also sitting down, are resigned to their fate.
La Poncia observes that she had seen a woman accompanying the men to the countryside (olive grove), having been paid to do so. She then adds that she too had paid for her son to have sex with a woman because “men need these things” (159). The men pass by singing a love song. Adela, La Poncia and Magdalena rush to the window in Adela’s room to see them (161) but Martirio remains seated with her head in her hands. Although she tells Amelia that she feels unwell, what really seems to trouble her is that she thinks she heard people in the yard the night before (162). They are interrupted by Angustias who is furious. She cannot find her picture of Pepe el Romano (163) and wants to know who has it. All deny including Adela and Magdalena who have just returned from the window with La Poncia.
The argument is cut short by Bernarda (appearing for the first time in Act II,164) whose immediate concern is that the neighbours might hear the noise. Being met only by silence when she asks which of her daughters has the picture, Bernarda sends La Poncia to search their rooms. Almost immediately La Poncia returns with the picture which she had found hidden in Martirio’s bed. Furious, Bernarda hits Martirio who reacts angrily.
Arguments ensue. Angustias tries to intervene, seizing her mother (166). Martirio claims she had taken the picture as a joke on Angustias which provokes Adela to jealously accuse Martirio of hiding her true feelings and tell Angustias that Pepe is only after her money. Martirio adds “And your land” (167). Bernarda demands silence and then dismisses her daughters.
Alone with La Poncia, Bernarda says that Angustias’s wedding has to be soon, but La Poncia accuses her of not seeing what is really going on. The fact that Martirio stole Pepe’s picture suggests that she is easily infatuated. Why didn’t Bernarda let her marry Enrique Humanas? (169). Bernarda’s reply is simple: the Humanas family is much inferior; Enrique’s father was only a labourer (170). When La Poncia reproaches Bernarda for having airs, Bernarda reminds La Poncia of her humble origin and suggests that she (La Poncia) would be happy to see Bernarda and her daughters reduced to prostitution (170). The nasty exchange continues. Bernarda tells La Poncia that since she is a servant, she should work and shut up. La Poncia insinuates that perhaps Pepe should marry Martirio or … Adela. Bernarda says no, upon which La Poncia tells her that Adela is Pepe’s real fiancée. Bernarda recognises La Poncia’s maliciousness and reminds her that her daughters will obey her. Adding fuel to fire, La Poncia reveals that her son had seen Pepe and Angustias talking at the window at 4.00 am, which scandalizes Bernarda (172).
At this point, Angustias bursts in denying being at the window with Pepe at 4.00 a.m and adding that he has always left by 1.00 a.m. Martirio then appears and confirms that Pepe did leave at 4.00 although she admits not to have seen him when questioned by Bernarda. La Poncia insists that Pepe was at one of the windows at 4.00. Adela advises her mother not to listen to La Poncia, while Bernarda insists that she will get to the bottom of all this, and until then they are not to discuss the matter.
They are momentarily distracted when the Criada enters saying that something is going on at the top of the street. All leave to find out what is happening, except Martirio who sees Adela coming into the room. They argue, Martirio indirectly threatening to reveal that she had seen Adela and Pepe together, Adela taunting her that she had been able to do what Martirio couldn’t (174). They are interrupted by La Poncia and Bernarda, with La Poncia explaining to Bernarda what was happening in the street: the daughter of a local widow, la Librada, had given birth to a child by an unknown father and killed it to cover her shame and left it buried under some stones. The body had been found by some dogs which had pulled it through the streets and left it at the door of mother. Now the villagers had dragged the mother through the street to kill her. While Adela reacts with horror, calling for the mother to be spared and allowed to escape, Bernarda and Martirio demand she pay for her sins. The act ends with Bernarda shouting “Kill her, Kill her” (176) over Adela’s protestations.
The action has moved to the inner patio of Bernarda’s house where Bernarda is seated with her daughters and a friend, Prudencia. It is nighttime. Prudencia stands up to leave, but Bernarda persuades her to stay a little longer. Conversation continues with Bernarda asking Prudencia about her husband. It transpires that he has argued with his brothers over an inheritance and has never forgiven their daughter (the reason is not revealed, but it evidently touches on family honour). Bernarda approves of Prudencia’s husband’s action in both cases and believes that a disobedient daughter is no daughter but an enemy (178). But Prudencia’s suffers the consequences and finds relief and refuge in the church.
They are interrupted by the sound of a horse kicking the wall. It is a stallion which will mate with Bernarda’s fillies next day. After this digression, Prudencia asks about Angustias’s marriage which will take place in three days. The ensuing conversation is loaded with bad omens: Magdalena spills some salt, and Prudencia points out that the pearls on Angustias’s ring signify tears, an observation which Adela quickly affirms. Rings should have diamonds (180). When Prudencia concludes that what is important is that everything ends well, Adela responds enigmatically: ”One never knows” (181). After Prudencia leaves, Adela announces that she is going to take some air rejecting Amelia and Martirio’s offer to accompany her. Nevertheless, Amelia insists, leaving Bernarda and Angustias alone (182).
Bernarda urges Angustias to forget the matter of the picture which Martirio had stolen (Act II, 163), and insists on a public display of family harmony (182). She then quizzes Angustias about Pepe’s mood the night before. After finding out from Angustias that Pepe seemed distracted and preoccupied with “men’s matters,” Bernarda advises her daughter not to question him and never let him see her crying (183).
Adela, Amelia and Martirio return (184). Adela and Martirio react differently to the starlit sky, with the former delighting in its beauty. Bernarda orders all to bed since Pepe has gone to town with his mother (184) and will not be with Angustias at the window that night.
After her daughters have left, Bernarda engages in a conversation with La Poncia who has just appeared. Bernarda boasts of being vigilant where her daughters are concerned but La Poncia hints that she shouldn’t be so sure of herself (187). Bernarda’s self-confidence blinds her to La Poncia’s words and she heads to bed feeling very sure of herself (186).
La Poncia is joined by the Criada who reveals that there is gossip about Pepe seeing Adela often to which La Poncia adds suggestively: “And there are other things” (189). Although Bernarda is hurrying the wedding along, La Poncia foresees problems with Adela being headstrong and Martirio ready to blow everything up because she is “poisonous,” knowing that Pepe will never be hers (189). At this moment they hear some dogs barking, which coincides with Adela appearing dressed in a white petticoat and bra. She is, she says, thirsty (190) as she passes through. With the dogs still barking, La Poncia and the Criada leave the patio.
In the darkness and silence, Bernarda’s mother Maria Josefa appears carrying a lamb followed by Martirio who urges her grandmother to return to her room. Martirio then heads for the yard calling for Adela, who appears with her hair somewhat tousled (193). Their rivalry explodes into the open with Martirio telling her sister to leave “that man” (193), adding that he will be marrying Angustias. Adela replies that Pepe is hers and that he loves her and not Angustias (194).
The argument becomes more intense when Martirio –under pressure from Adela– admits being in love with Pepe. She rejects Adela’s attempt to console her. Adela then reaffirms that Pepe is hers regardless of what people might say. She fans Martirio’s anger describing the taste of Pepe’s mouth adding that even if he should marry Angustias she will always be available for Pepe whenever he wants her (196). Martirio swears that that will never happen.
Their quarrels erupts into violence when Martirio tries to stop Adela rushing for the door following a whistle (presumably from Pepe). Martirio calls for Bernarda. When Bernarda arrives, Martirio accuses Adela of having been with Pepe and points to Adela’s petticoat which is full of straw. Bernarda is furious but Adela stands up to her, snatching her mother’s walking stick and breaking it in two. At the same time, she tells her mother not to take another step towards her adding that only Pepe will be able to give her orders (197).
Bernarda reacts by running in search of her shotgun while Angustias attacks Adela as a thief who has dishonoured their house. Outside a shot is heard. Bernarda enters followed by Martirio who declares that Pepe is dead. Horrified, Adela rushes out. Scarcely able to believe what has happened, La Poncia asks if Pepe is really dead to which Martirio replies that he actually escaped on horseback. A sudden bump is heard from Adela’s room. Bernarda demands that Adela open the door while the Criada announces that the neighbours have all got up and are about. They force their way into Adela’s room only to see that Adela has hanged herself.
There are no regrets on Bernarda’s part. Her only concern is that there be no scandal and that the family insist that Adela died a virgin. She commands total obedience with her last words being “Silence, silence, I said! Silence!” echoing her opening command when she first appeared on stage.
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 numbers in the Spanish text.)