Bernarda's House as the Central Image in The House of Bernarda Alba

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1435

In order to arrive at an understanding of the complex images and themes in Federico Garcia Lorca's last play, The House of Bernarda Alba, one must start with the title. Lorca did not call his play Bernarda Alba, or even The Family of Bernarda Alba (The latter would have...

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In order to arrive at an understanding of the complex images and themes in Federico Garcia Lorca's last play, The House of Bernarda Alba, one must start with the title. Lorca did not call his play Bernarda Alba, or even The Family of Bernarda Alba (The latter would have been especially appropriate given that, like many of the great tragedies of classical Greece, the play focuses on a lineage and the impact of characters' actions on subsequent generations). The title, The House of Bernarda Alba, draws attention both to Bernarda's "house" in the sense of her household or lineage, and to the physical space of the house itself, which serves as the central image of the play.

From his experience directing a production of the play, Eric Bentley discovered the paramount importance of the house, observing the significant role of windows and doors that serve as both barriers and bridges. The symbolism of what is inside the house and what is outside could not be more important to the themes of the play. To the daughters, the outside represents freedom and possibility, as well as romantic and sexual fulfillment. Throughout the play the daughters run repeatedly to the windows to observe the outside world: the crowd departing the funeral, the men going to work in the fields, and the arrivals and departures of Pepe el Romano. Bernarda upbraids Angustias for looking out through the cracks of the back door, becoming so angry that she strikes her daughter. To Bernarda, the outside of the house represents only negative possibility: corruption from which she wants to protect her daughters, and prying neighbors from whom she wants to keep her secrets.

The house is a self-contained society which Bernarda rules with an iron hand. "To Bernarda's way of thinking," wrote Dennis Klein in Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba, "virginity is decency and sex corruption." Therefore, it is understandable that when Adela commits suicide, Bernarda's first thought is to make the world believe her daughter died a virgin. Bernarda's rule also means that sexual activity always takes place outside the house: Pepe and Adela meet in the corral, and the maid speaks of Bernarda's husband lifting her skirts behind the corral. The story of Paca la Roseta, who spends a night with some local men deep in an olive grove, is to Bernarda a perfect example of the corruption which runs rampant outside her domestic space. The displacement of sexual activity to the outside is reflected in the symbolism of the weather. The daughters suffer in the heat of a house which is shut-up tight for a period of mourning, during which, Bernarda explains, "not a breath of air will get in this house from the street. We'll act as if we'd sealed up the doors and windows with bricks." The heat in the house thus serves as a symbol for the sexual frustration of the daughters. The men of the town, meanwhile, are of course free to move about outside. They are cooler on the patio and in the fields, suggesting symbolically that they do not suffer from sexual repression.

The heat inside may be what causes Angustias to describe Bernarda's house as hell, and the ongoing torment of all the characters within it suggests the accuracy of her metaphoric description (Interestingly, in her desperation at the end of the play, Angustias reverses herself and adopts her mother's proud rhetoric, cursing Adela: "Disgrace of this house!"). Bernarda's house is also referred to as a house of war, again reminiscent of the lineages of Greek tragedy. Hell is perhaps the strongest lingering image of the house, but other locations of confinement are suggested throughout the play. In his study of the religious imagery in Lorca's trilogy, John Gilmour in Religion in the Rural Tragedies, refers to Bernarda's house as "convent-like," observing that Lorca uses the funeral in the first act to establish an important theme for the remainder of the play. "A theatre audience," Gilraour wrote, "could not fail to be struck by the sheer number of women, all in mourning, filling the stage, and by their slow, processional entry in a hundred pairs. It is as though they were members of a religious house filing into chapel for their communal worship." If the house does function as a convent, it is only in the sense of deprivation and without, it seems, any genuine religious devotion. Bernarda raises a compelling point of contrast when she chastises La Poncia: "How you'd like to see me and my daughters on our way to a whorehouse!"

La Poncia highlights the dominant sense of confinement in the house when she comments to Bernarda: "Your daughters act and are as though stuck in a cupboard." If larger than a cupboard, the house does function extremely well as a prison. Maria Josefa is most explicitly a prisoner, for Bernarda keeps her locked in a room and relies on the assistance of family and servants to keep her there. Bernarda also imprisons her daughters, saying to them at one point, "I have five chains for you, and this house my father built." The house, the audience knows, has extremely thick walls and bars on the windows through which, for example, Angustias watches Pepe depart. When Adela defies Bernarda near the conclusion of the play, she highlights her mother's role as warden, saying: "There'll be an end to prison voices here." While it is Bernarda's mother, daughters, and servants who are most explicitly imprisoned in the house, the play suggests that Bernarda is herself a prisoner. Although she commands power over others, she is so confined by her own sense of honor and proper appearance that she cannot act any more freely than the rest.

In the settings of each of the three acts of The House of Bernarda Alba, there is a symbolic penetration deeper and deeper into the house, which reflects the gradual exposing of the family's secrets. The first act is set in a room near the entrance hall, appropriate for the public nature of the funeral and the visitation of neighbors, which Bernarda must endure. In the second act, the setting moves to a more intimate room near the bedrooms, bringing the audience deeper into the hearts and motives of the various characters. The final act moves to a room adjacent to the corral, which is the site of sexual liaison and the symbolic source of conflict in the play. Bernarda's desire to keep the secrets of the family deep within the house may prove impossible now that the neighbors have awakened. With her desperate cry of "Silence!" Bernarda can merely, as the old saying has it, close the bam door after the horse is out.

Lorca described the structure of the play as a "photographic document," and the imagery of the house supports this theme. Photographs in Lorca's day were of course in black and white, and the stark whiteness of the house's walls is contrasted perfectly with the black mourning clothes of the women in the first act. The uniform whiteness of the walls suggests a sense of purity which Bernarda would like to maintain. The color also suggests a whitewash of hypocrisy, which dominates the household, as well as the sterility and monotony of life for Bernarda's daughters in the house. The stark black and white patterns of the play are modified later when the walls appear tinged with blue, suggesting evening (Ironically, it is in the dark cover of night rather than in stark light of day that the secrets of the family are "brought to light."). The blue tones suggest the doubt that now tinges the purity and decency which had previously prevailed. The green dress of Adela is the only other color which appears in the play, contrasting the white walls of the house not only in hue, but also in theme, for the color is symbolically associated with nature, hope, jealousy, sex.

Bemarda's house thus functions as a central symbol in Lorca's final play, in the use of color and other elements of scenic design, in metaphoric references to prisons and convents, and in providing a physical structure to the layers of secrecy within which Bernarda wraps her family life. Since theater is an art form based on the physicality of performance, it is fitting that a great modern work of drama like The House of Bernarda Alba should make use of a setting that is both visually striking and serves so well to develop the images and themes contained in the play.

Source: Christopher G. Busiel. for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

The Morality of Passion: Lorca's Three Tragedies

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1323

With Lorca we enter an altogether different landscape in the modern drama, the landscape of passion. His three great tragedies—Blood Wedding, Yerma, The House of Bernardo Alba—are stripped nearly bare of the details of setting and time, that sense of locale we need for Ibsen, Wilde, Shaw, or O'Casey. Yet we do not leave the area of reality, as we do with some of Strindberg and of Pirandello. Lorca empties his drama of nearly all forces but passion. Even his settings always seem nearly barren, simply all whites or all blacks, so that only the colors emerge that are evoked by the action and the characters. The motivation and energy for plot are in passion; the definition of character is through passion. There is no "thought," no "idea" of any significance.

Lorca is preeminently the playwright of passion in the modern theater, although we can find elements of Lorca in Williams, Osborne, O'Neill, and Genet; but in each of these there is a significant admixture of other thematic material. Lorca's passion is not related to a program, as in D. H. Lawrence, or in Williams, or in Genet. Lorca's "blood consciousness" is a consciousness of what is, already; of what must be observed, acknowledged, assimilated, lived with, understood, and, finally, even forgiven. Lorca's passion is rooted in an established social context. The tragedy in his plays comes from the tension between passion, which is necessarily always entirely individual and personal and whimsical, and the society in which the individuals move, which defines them and also gives a particular value and shading to passion and its manifestations. In Lorca, the conflict is between passion and honor, where passion is the mark of the personal (willful and private and powerful in its needs) and honor that of the social (rigid and public and equally powerful in its rules and taboos, the denial of needs).

In The House of Bernarda Alba, we have what amounts to a nunnery and all that implies of the suppression of passion--nunneries are refuges from the usual passion of the world. Bernarda Alba is sadistically compulsive about order, pathological about cleanliness. As in Yerma, in which the two old maids spend all their time keeping their house spotless, so the barrenness, immaculateness of Bernarda Alba's establishment are related to sterility; her house is not merely a denial of passion but a denigration of it. Bernarda, loudly: "Magdalena, don't cry. If you want to cry, get under your bed."

We remember that in Blood Wedding, Leonardo lives a "disordered" life: he cannot hold down a job, he is hot-tempered and impatient, he comes from a line of murderers. He is thematically equated with a wild stallion. But none of this is pejorative, merely descriptive; Leonardo is of that world where violence alone is heroic. The Bridegroom represents order, cleanliness, and wealth. Bernarda Alba is rich and viciously opposed to irregular emotions: "Hot coals in the place where she sinned," she screams horribly about the local girl who has given herself to a number of men. As we hear the threat of the galloping stallion in Blood Wedding, threatening the orderly arrangement of events, so one hears the hoofbeats of the caged animal in Bernarda Alba, a tattoo of threatening disaster again.

Bernarda Alba is an extreme distillation of social honor; she exemplifies a passion that has gone too far in excluding the mortally impulsive, irrational, emotional, self-indulgent. It has become in its extremity antipassion. When one daughter says, "I should be happy, but I'm not," Bernarda Alba replies, "It's all the same," (Of course, it's not all the same, not even for Bernarda, as her frenzy to undo things at the end of the play testifies). In effect, Bernarda is a Satanic spirit, living in an atmosphere of death, perversion, and denial. The play starts with a funeral and ends with a suicide; between we have sadism, insanity, onanism. There are black curtains on the windows. Sexual passions are outside this territory: the stallion drumming in his stall; the village escapades. No men appear on stage. The setting is on the edge of action. The only action that occasionally can burst out in Bernarda Alba's house is the poultry-like squabbling of the sisters, a parody of life.

In The House of Bernarda Alba, then, we get an extended examination of the pathology of social passion, of an honor that is contemptuous of the individually human, that is, finally, self-defeating. Bernarda Alba did bear five children, but we are to gather that this was in the cause of social honor; that whatever private passion she might have begun with has attenuated into nothingness, been distorted into self-hatred. She hates her daughters. Bernarda Alba's passion is exercised in the extinguishing of passion: the sadist can only have definition through the masochist, his diametrical opposite. As the play opens, we see Bernarda Alba finally retiring into the "ideal" existence, waiting primly for death, her social duties done, indifferent to the suppressed but smoldering vitality of the unattached daughters. Bernarda Alba fears and hates sex in any form, for sex means only life.

The conclusion of Bernarda Alba crystallizes earlier thematic hints and motifs. Adela hangs herself on learning, mistakenly, that her lover "has been killed." In a veritable hysteria, Bernarda Alba shrieks that Adela died a virgin, forbids tears except in private, and calls for silence, silence, silence, as the curtain descends. Cleanliness, purity, silence, defining marks of death itself, envelope Bernarda Alba's house."Death must be looked at face to face," she pronounces as Adela's body is cut down.

Bernarda Alba climaxes this trilogy of the tragedy of passion by seeming to assert that it is "honor,'' passion perverted by a sense of the social that excludes the human, which somehow survives and even triumphs, however abominably, over the personal passion. We may thus read these tragedies as concluding on a pessimistic note: the world of Bernarda Alba is one in which human impulses may not range freely, must be constrained, even expunged, even at the risk of the ugliest consequences, of perversions of passion and of life, including madness, self-stimulation, torture, suicide. But the very extremity of this view suggests its own rebuttal; Bernarda Alba's mode cannot sustain itself except by a restlessly conscious, eternally remorseless exercise of death-dealing. Even as Bernarda Alba is hysterically improvising her sterile stagecraft for the future, managing the appearance of Adela's suicide ("Take her to another room and dress her as though she were a virgin.''), arranging to face death daily, another daughter, Martirio, mutters: "A thousand tunes happy she, who had him." The personal, physical passion continues to assert its independent power. Honor may finally turn to antipassion, as in Bernarda Alba, certainly with its own power, but the primal force is personal passion.

Lorca's tragedy, then, resides in the domain of passion: passion destroys itself and its possessors, the personal can ultimately only come in conflict with the social, the social enlarges itself into vengeance or into death-serving sterility. Life and fulfillment may reside in passion alone, but precariously, never without risk, not casually. Humans cannot truly be alive without passion, but with passion they must wage a running, alert, and subtle battle with those guerilla forces intent on its destruction. It is the classic opposition between life and death itself; and death, of course, as Freud not least has sadly indicated, is an expression, a wish, of life itself. But to celebrate passion is to celebrate life, living, feeling, reaching, erring: vitality, vivacity, whimsicality, impulsiveness, energy of every sort. There is a final lightness about Lorca's characters who strive toward goals that define them as they live, as there is about Oedipus, and to fail is simply—and greatly—to be human.

Source: Moms Freedman, "The Morality of Passion: Lorca's Three Tragedies" in his The Moral Impulse. Modern Drama from Ibsen to the Present, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, pp. 89-98

The Grim House of Bernarda Alba

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 636

Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish playwright who was murdered by his country's Fascists in 1936, is a figure of international literary importance, and the American National Theatre and Academy was fulfilling one of its proper functions when it offered his most famous drama, The House of Bernarda Alba, as the fourth item in its subscription season at the ANTA Playhouse last night. It must be added, however, that the production provided additional evidence that the theatre of Spain does not fit any too snugly into the American stage and presents barriers that it is not easy to cross.

The House of Bernarda Alba is a somber and brooding tragedy about a family of girls ruled over by a grim and tyrannical matriarch who seeks to suppress their natural instincts in the interest of her own stern social code. With the father dead, the mother drives the young women into a lengthy period of mourning in which they are to be cut off completely from association with men, with the not altogether surprising result that they are rilled with bitterness, hatred and general unrest, and the youngest of them commits suicide after it has been discovered that she was having a secret love affair with the eldest daughter's fiance.

The conflict between natural instincts and the forces that try to suppress them seems to be one of the dramatist's favorite themes, and there is no denying that, in The House of Bernarda Alba, he goes about his story with a single-minded intensity that is capable of engendering considerable dramatic power. Although on the English-speaking stage there appears to be a certain artificiality in the theatrical style of Garcia Lorca, it is still evident that he is a playwright of authentic tragic force. There are moments in the play that are highly impressive in their concentrated emotion.

The mood of ominous impending doom that hangs over the unhappy household of savage old Bernarda is captured in both the writing and the production with effective skill and presents the most successfull feature of the drama. But the tragedy itself, it seems to me, is made less moving and believable than its materials should make it, through a kind of artificial stylization that may be eloquent and hauntingly lyric in the original Spanish, but is a little flat and unpersuasive in its English translation. The final effect, which might have been devastating, is somehow far from overwhelming.

For me, one of the troubles with the play's effectiveness is the acting of Katma Paxinou as the matriarch. I have now seen Miss Paxinou on the stage in Hedda Gabler and on the screen in For Whom the Bell Tolls and Mourning Becomes Electra, and I must confess that her art continues to escape me. There is something about her highly mannered style that seems to me grotesque and extravagant, rather than powerful and moving, and this struck me as being all the more noticeable last night because that style happened to be contrasted with the less ornate playing of the other members of the cast

Such interesting young actresses as Ruth Ford, Helen Craig, Mary Welch and Kim Stanley are prominent in the all-woman cast, and they all play skillfully, but I couldn't escape the feeling that they were in a different play from the one in which Miss Paxinou was appearing. The set and the costumes by Stewart Chaney and the direction by Boris Tumarin are of help in creating the mood that is the most successful feature of The House of Bernarda Alba, and I certainly agree that the tragedy was worth doing. But I am also sure that Garcia Lorca must have been a finer playwright than he seems in the American theatre.

Source: Richard Watts, Jr., "The Grim House of Bernarda Alba" in the New York Post, January 8,1951.

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