The House of Bernarda Alba

by Federico Garcia Lorca

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618

Spain, at the time of Lorca's youth, was experiencing a lengthy crisis of confidence, spurred by the country's defeat by the United States in the War of 1898, during which Spain lost its remaining colonies. Political life was torn between a desire, on one hand, to strengthen traditional values and revive past glory, and the need, on the other, to move progressively forward, to foster intellectual inquiry and learn from the example of modernized nations. The split between these positions grew more acute in the 1930s. Lorca resisted efforts to recruit him for the communist party, but at the same time his social conscience caused him to be outspoken in his criticism of Spanish conservatives.

In 1936, civil war broke out as conservative army officers under General Francisco Franco revolted against the liberal Spanish government. Lorca was living in Madrid at the time and decided to wait out the conflict at his parents' home in Granada. His decision turned out to be disastrous, as Granada was filled with coup sympathizers, and quickly fell to rebel forces. Many liberal politicians and intellectuals in the area were executed, including Lorca. In the years of civil conflict which followed (in many ways a prelude to the war that was soon to rock all of Europe), the attention of the world was focused on Spain. Men and women of many nations traveled there to fight against fascism in international brigades. Franco's forces were victorious, however, and by 1939 he controlled all of Spain. Franco's regime never accepted responsibility for Lorca's death, but Lorca remained a forbidden subject for years.

Franco's victory stalled the flowering of the arts in Spain, which had been ongoing for several decades. Previously, Spain's Golden Age in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the highpoint of its creativity in the theatre and the other arts. Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Felix Lope de Vega, and others created a dramatic canon that has stood as a standard for centuries. Lorca was born in the year of, but too young to be a part of, the literary Generation of 1898, which examined Spain's past and the problems that caused the country to fall from international power. Lorca was part of the second Spanish literary movement of the twentieth century, the Generation of 1927, an erudite group using cerebral imagery and believing in a code of "Art for Art's sake."

Lorca's generation challenged audiences with its daring techniques and often controversial subject matter. This was a period of artistic liberation and the development of new artistic forms. Surrealism and Dadaism exerted influence over a number of arts, inspiring works that sought through imagery to pierce the human subconscious. Spain, at the time, was moved by the films of Luis Bunuel and the painting of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. Lorca's work is similarly sophisticated and shares a complex awareness of human psychology. While other artistic innovators appealed primarily to the intellect, however, Lorca was concerned with addressing basic human emotions and needs. Lorca championed the plight of the Andalusian gypsies, who were accorded the worst possible social position in the region. He was also passionate about the injustices done to Spanish women: the personal stigma associated with not being married, and a woman's inability to marry the man she loves.

The House of Bernarda Alba finally had its stage premiere nearly a decade after Lorca's death. It was produced in Buenos Aries in 1945, near the end of World War II, during which Argentina had maintained an uneasy neutrality. The play was published the same year, also in Argentina. Given the repression of artistic expression during Franco's regime, it was not until 1964 that Lorca's last play was finally produced in his native Spain, at Madrid's Goya Theatre.

Literary Style

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Realism and Surrealism
Lorca was a great experimenter with poetic and dramatic form, and was certainly influenced by the variety of new artistic forms developed in his day. Although the term surrealism is specific to the work of a handful of artists at a particular time, it is often used to describe a variety of techniques that seek to express the human subconscious directly, rather than revealing it through external actions, as is the case in realist drama. In writing his last play, Lorca worked against such a technique, trying to reach a more "objective" tragedy by stripping away the overtly poetic elements that had characterized his style before this. His friend Adolfo Salazar noted that as Lorca finished reading each scene he would exclaim, "Not a drop of poetry! Reality! Realism!" The House of Bernardo Alba lacks the stylized elements of the other two plays in the trilogy, but never approaches unadulterated realism. Lorca asserted that the play was a "photographic record," suggesting an attempt to capture rural Spanish life in a naturalistic manner. The language of the play is carefully shaped to expose elements of character, however; it is poetic without overtly sounding like poetry. Similarly, while the play's settings appear naturalistic, evocative of a real house in the Spanish countryside, they are also stylized, with the white walls evoking purity, but also the sterility and monotony of life in Bernarda's house.

Classical Tragedy
As Dennis Klein noted, Lorca wanted his theater to "capture the drama of contemporary life and inspire passion as classical drama did." Lorca stated that his purpose in writing his tragic trilogy was to follow the Aristotelian canon for tragedy. He departed widely from this goal, however. The House of Bernarda Alba moves closer to the structure of classical tragedy than the other two plays, but still differs significantly. Lorca is true to the spirit of classical tragedy without rigorously applying the rules, such as the unities of time, place, and action. The breaking of the unities is consistent with the history of the Spanish theater, and indeed Lorca's drama was rooted as much in the traditions of the Spanish Golden Age, and those of European puppet farce as in classical precedent. The plays of Lorca's trilogy are all structured as dramatic crescendos, with a key event around which the rest of the action revolves. In this respect The House of Bernarda Alba has a classical structure. The play is also reminiscent of Greek tragedy in its focus on a household or lineage, its powerful sense of fatalism, and the cathartic quality of the final scenes. Additionally, Lorca did make subtle use of the classical technique of the chorus that comments on the action of the play. Each of the plays in the trilogy has a chorus; in The House of Bernarda Alba the function of the chorus is served both by the neighbors in Act I, and the other daughters, besides Adela.

Dramatic Structure
Eliminating most of the details of telling a story, Lorca designed his plays to be skeletal so he could concentrate on other theatrical elements. The House of Bemarda Alba is episodic in structure, and almost perfectly circular. The play starts with Bernarda returning from one funeral and ends with her arranging another. She appears to have learned nothing from the experience of losing her youngest daughter, for she exerts the same repressive control against which Adela rebelled with such tragic results. With the repetition of Bernarda's "Silence!" the command has an authoritarian ring at the beginning of the play, but a hollow one at the conclusion.

Known primarily for his works about peasants and gypsies, Lorca drew extensively on his familiarity with rural Spanish life. Edward Honig observes that "Lorca was rebelling against the realistic middle-class drama, which in Spain had succeeded in shutting off from the stage the rich atmosphere of folk speech and imagination." Lorca's work succeeds as a blend of surrealistic imagery and popular folklore. Lorca achieved a very personal style by relating with a modern sensibility and a variety of techniques, his understanding of a folk world. Folk elements are crucial to a play like The House of Bernarda Alba, but Lorca does not romanticize rural life as did many of his contemporaries.

Among folk elements, the lullabies of Andalusia were especially important to Lorca; he once gave a lengthy lecture on these songs. Singing is employed throughout the trilogy, although the other two plays employ more poetry than does The House of Bernarda Alba. Maria Josefa's lullaby to the lamb, for example, allows her to express her maternal instincts and her feelings about her daughter.

Poetic Devices
Lorca is usually treated as a poet who happened to turn to theatre because he found lyric poetry inadequate. His brother argues against this interpretation, explaining how theatre and theatricality were important to Lorca as a child, and thus throughout his entire life. "I would say that, just as someone called him 'poet by the grace of God,' he was dramatist by the same grace. We need to say, then, that his dramatic expression was as pressing in him as the need for lyric expression.'' While writing The House of Bernarda Alba Lorca was intent on keeping it free of poetry, to eliminate the special effects and metaphorical characters that he used in the other two plays. Yet the touch of the poet is present, there is poetry even if there is no verse.

Symbolic elements such as one associates with poetic verse abound in the play. The characters are all fully-realized individuals, with specific names, a transition from the allegorical characters of Lorca's other plays. Yet the characters also function symbolically through the use of onomastic imagery (attributing character traits through the names). Angustias suggests anguish, for example; Martirio, martyrdom; and Prudencia, prudence. Water is another important symbol for Lorca, suggesting sexual potency. Bernarda's daughters drink water not just to quench their thirst but to lessen their sexual frustration. At the same tune, however, water can come down in torrents; the trouble in Bernarda's house is referred to metaphorically as a storm. Weather in general is symbolic, the heat suggesting intense sexual frustration. Since the men are outside, they are cooler on the patio (i.e., they do not suffer from sexual repression). By using these and other symbolic images (animals are especially important referents), Lorca retains a poetic quality to his writing in this otherwise prosaic play.

Compare and Contrast

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1936: The values and traditions of rural society remain strong in Spain, despite the influence of various modernizing forces.

Today: While rural communities survive in Spain and elsewhere, traditional ways of life have largely disappeared. As populations migrate to urban areas to seek work, television and other media bring urban issues back to rural areas in ways that were not possible before.

1936: The rights of women are highly circumscribed, and their economic dependence upon men holds them in traditionally subordinate gender roles.

Today: Women, in Spain and elsewhere, have achieved important rights, but many still continue to struggle against perceptions of their "proper" role in society, which often does not include success in a professional realm.

1936: Spain is in the throes of a civil conflict brought about by economic inequalities which are felt more acutely in a depressed economy.

Today: Spain has diversified and strengthened its economy to some extent, but the country continues to struggle with high levels of unemployment and is one of the poorest member nations of the European Union. Assassinations and other actions by rebel groups, like the ETA in the Basque region, suggest that many social and political issues remain unresolved.

1936: Lorca is arrested and executed by rebels who support General Francisco Franco's fascist coup. Lorca and his works will be a forbidden subject in Spain for years to come.

Today: Since Franco's death in 1975, Lorca is understood and appreciated on his own terms. He is openly admired in his homeland as one of the century's greatest poets, a status he never lost elsewhere.

1936: Believing in a communist ideal of shared ownership of the land and other resources, brigades of Spanish Republicans and international sympathizers fight passionately against Franco's military forces.

Today: Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the effectiveness of the American embargo against Cuba, communism is widely viewed as a failed political experiment. Support for the concept of shared ownership is not considered a valid political position in the United States.

Media Adaptations

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The House of Bernarda Alba was produced on American television in 1960 for the "Play of the Week" series, translated and adapted by James Graham-Lujan and Richard O'Connell. Anne Revere starred as Bernarda Alba, with Eileen Heckart as La Poncia, and Suzanne Pleshette as Adela.

In 1990, the play was adapted as a Spanish film, directed by Mario Camus (Gala).

A British television production of the play premiered in 1992, directed by Nuria Espert and Stuart Burge (Channel 4).

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bentley, Eric, "The Poet in Dublin'' in In Search of Theatre, Knopf (New York City), 1953.

Benet, William Rose, "Singing Spain" in the Saturday Review, October 2,1937, p 18.

Bianco-Gonzalez, Manuel, "Lorca The Tragic Trilogy" in Drama Critique, September 2,1966, pp. 91-97.

Burton, Juhanne, "The Greatest Punishment: Female and Male in Lorca's Tragedies" in Women in Hispanic Literature Icons and Fallen Idols, edited by Beth Miller, University of California Press (Berkeley), 1983, pp 259-79.

Carrier, Warren "Poetry in the Drama of Lorca" in Drama Survey, February 3, 1963, pp. 297-304.

Cobb, Carl, "Fedenco Garcia Lorca" in Twayne's World Author Series, Volume 23, Twayne (New York City), 1967.

Garcia Lorca, Francisco Prologue to Three Tragedies by Federico Garcia Lorca, New Directions Publishing Corporation (New York City), 1955, pp. 1-29.

Gilmour, John "The Cross of Pain and Death: Religion in the Rural Tragedies" in Lorca; Poet and Playwright, edited by Robert Havard, St. Martin's Press (New York City), 1992, pp. 133-55.

Honig, Edwin Garcia Lorca, New Directions (Norfolk, CT), 1963.

Humphries, Rolfe "The Life and Death of Garcia Lorca'' in the Nation, September 18,1937, pp. 293-94.

Lewis, Allan "The Folklore Theatre—Garcia Lorca" in The Contemporary Theatre; The Significant Playwrights of Our Time, Crown (New York City), 1971, pp. 242-58.

Shanley, John P., "Garcia Lorca Work on 'Play of the Week'" in New York Times, June 7,1960.

Williams, William Carlos. "Federico Garcia Lorca" in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams, Random House (New York City), 1954, pp 219-30.

Colecchia, Francesca, Editor Garcia Lorca: A Selectively Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, Garland (New York City), 1979, Garcia Lorca- An Annotated Primary Bibliography Garland, 1982.
Extensive bibliographies with many useful listings for researchers. One volume covers scholarship on Lorca's plays, the other Lorca's works in Spanish and in translation.

Klein, Dennis A Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bemarda Alba: Garcia Lorca's Tragic Trilogy, G.K Hall& Co (Boston), 1991.
The first full-length critical study devoted to Lorca's tragic trilogy, which the author calls "the most accomplished and mature efforts of the finest Spanish playwright of the twentieth century," Klein works through the original Spanish texts (providing quotations in his own English translations), examining the trilogy both in the larger context of Lorca's career as a poet, playwright, director, and visual artist, and in the social context of Spain in Lorca's era.

Lima, Robert, The Theater of Garcia Lorca, Las Americas (New York City), 1963.
A critical study surveying all the plays of Lorca's available in print at the time of its publication.

Londre, Felicia Hardison, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ungar (New York City), 1984.
Examines Lorca's artistry by emphasizing a synthesis of approach to his poetry, drama, music, visual art, and stage direction. Includes a full chapter devoted to what Lorca called his "unperformable plays." The House of Bernardo Alba is treated in detail, pp 172-180, and discussed elsewhere in the work.

Newton, Candelas Understanding Federico Garcia Lorca, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia), 1995.
Newton provides her audience with an understanding of the Andalusian region where he was born as a basis for appreciating his writing. She establishes connections between Lorca's works to illustrate the variety of approaches that Lorca employed. Contains an annotated bibliography and other resources for the student researcher.

Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Vols 1, 7, 49, Gale (Detroit), 1978,1982,1994.
This resource compiles selections of criticism; it is an excellent beginning point for a research paper about Lorca. The selections in these three volumes span Lorca's entire career. Also see Volume 2 of Gale's Drama Criticism. For an overview of Lorca's life, see the entry on him in Volume 108 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

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