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The House of Bernarda Alba – Footnotes

Jan 22, 2024 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our episode on Federico Garcia Lorca’s tragedy The House of Bernarda Alba include observations on the opening scenes of the play, the limited opportunities for women in the villages of Spain, and the character of the madwoman in the attic, Bernarda’s mother, Maria Josef.
Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

Setting the Scene
The two opening scenes of The House of Bernarda Alba tell us a lot about both the inside and the outside of this house. It is interesting that Lorca chooses to open the play with secondary characters, the servants of the house, rather than the matriarch or the daughters of the family. In so doing the playwright is able to provide useful exposition, and we learn some plain truths about this household. The servants talk bitterly about Bernarda Alba, for example, her meanness and coldness, the “tyrant of all she surveys” according to the senior servant Poncia. Poncia has worked for her for thirty years, and yet she’d “like to stick a red-hot nail in her eyes.” This is not a happy household.

We learn that the eldest daughter Angustias is the daughter of Bernarda Alba’s first husband, not of the patriarch of the house who has just died, Antonio Maria Benavides. The junior servant curses the dead master of the house, swearing “Never again will you lift my skirt behind the stable door”. We will later associate this knowledge of Antonio’s promiscuity with the reason that Angustias is the only daughter that he left money to.

Poncia also tells us that no one has been allowed to set foot in the house since Bernarda Alba’s own father died – she evidently does not want the locals to see inside her home – although Poncia also reveals that Bernarda Alba requires her to spy on the neighbours to bring her all of the gossip. Bernarda’s haughty contempt for the local community is apparent in the scene that follows when the mourners from the village invade the house.

This scene is a wonderfully powerful theatrical image. The mourners stream into the house, all wearing black skirts and shawls and carrying black fans. In fact, the stage direction specifies that 200 women arrive on the stage, which of course cannot be practical, but it suggests the effect that Lorca wanted to achieve. We have an immediate sense of the collective power of the community outside the walls of the house.

Bernarda Alba then leads the villagers in religious chanting, which reminds us of how powerful the church is in this society. She is putting on a show of public piety. As soon as she can, she is pushing the mourners out of the house, and we see the hypocrisy of her social performance in her snobbish jibes at the departing villagers.

These opening scenes effectively establish the location of the house in the village community, as well as Bernarda Alba’s waspish nature, and her paradoxical disdain and obsession with social reputation.

 

Women in black – premiere of The House of Bernarda Alba Spain, 1950.

“Women in the Villages of Spain.”
We talked in the podcast about Lorca’s interest in highlighting the restricted position of women in rural Spain, and the play is a powerful representation of the limits imposed on women. Bernarda Alba’s daughters are literally locked up, which stands as a metaphor for their general social oppression. “To be born a woman is the greatest punishment” declares AmeliaThere are very few options available to them, and even marriage, which they all hope for, may not offer any more freedom or fulfilment. Bernarda Alba counsels Angustias, for example, not to question her prospective husband: “Speak if he speaks, and look at him when he looks at you. Do that and you won’t have disagreements.”

And Poncia warns the girls that “two weeks after the wedding a man leaves the bed for the table, and then the table for the tavern. And the woman who doesn’t accept it wastes away crying in the corner.”  The men’s sexual freedom is particularly contrasted with the moral constraints the women live under. Poncia describes how the previous night fifteen of the men who arrived in the village to work in the fields, hired a woman who “arrived in the village dressed in sequins” and took her with them to the olive-grove. She adds that she herself gave her own son money to go with such a woman, to which Adela exclaims “They are forgiven everything!”, which of course they would not be, as we will see in the terrifying scene that closes Act 2 where the angry mob from the village are hunting down to kill the unmarried woman who has had a child and then killed it herself and buried it under stones to hide her shame.

By contrast to the men’s freedom, the daughters’ sexual desire is locked up in this house, “gnawing away at us” as Adela observes. Adela is the most explicit embodiment of desire – she deliberately stands “almost naked with the lamp lit and the window open, when Pepe passed by the second time.” A desire that is so powerful she says she will leap over her mother, “anything to put out this fire that rises up through my legs and my mouth”…Looking into his eyes is just like slowly drinking his blood.” She is passionately determined to escape to him: “I can’t stand the horror of this house anymore, not after knowing the taste of his mouth. I will be whatever he wants me to be. The whole village against me…”  Whatever the consequences, what compels her cannot be contained: “What will be will be” she intones.

The white stallion that kicks against the stable door is a potent symbol of sexual desire, particularly one might imagine Pepe Romano’s for Adela. Adela is aware of her power, claiming to Martirio: “I can bring a wild stallion to its knees with the strength of my little finger”. The metaphor goes further, because Bernarda Alba does in fact keep a stable of mares, which she locks away from the stallion. She manages her daughters like she manages her horses: the matchmaking is transactional, arranged for financial and social gain. Poncia understands the analogy, commenting sarcastically “She’s got the best stable in the whole region. A pity the prices are so low”. The tragedy for the daughters is that it isn’t actually a seller’s market here in their village.

The mad woman in the attic
The character of Maria Josef, Bernarda Alba’s eighty-old mother, injects another element of symbolism in the play, with her disruptive presence and apparently demented ravings. But like those suffering from dementia, or the Fool or ancient seer in classical drama, she displays moments of lucidity, speaking truths that no one else dare to admit or say. For example, she poignantly perceives how unhappy the daughters are, trapped with their vain hopes for a man and marriage: ““I don’t want to see these women, aching for marriage, eating their hearts out”, she laments, and rightly foresees that “None of you will get married”. She also foresees the danger that Pepe Romano promises: “Pepe Romano is a giant. You all want him. But he will devour you all”. 

Her own impressionistic dream “to marry a beautiful man from the seashore” could stand for any of their desires for escape from their arid village prison. She roams the house like a mad Lear, ill-treated by her daughter, and anguished by her own knowledge of the painful truths of life for women in this village in Spain.

Eileen Nicholls as Maria Josef National Theatre, December 2023 Photo by Marc Brenner
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