The House of Bernarda Alba

by Federico Garcia Lorca

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Why are there no male characters in The House of Bernarda Alba?

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Garcia Lorca's intention is arguably, in this play and in other works, to show that the demands of a patriarchal society can cause women to victimize each other. Men are a kind of background entity responsible ultimately for the conflicts that result in tragic consequences for women. This is why, in La casa de Bernarda Alba, the male character of Pepe is an offstage presence, a kind of mystical force manipulating the women. The fact that he is unseen makes the power he wields over them seem stronger but more inexplicable than it would otherwise be. The visible power is only that of the cruel mother-figure, who is herself a victim of the dysfunctional dynamic of the time and place.

The oldest daughter, Angustias, is the one slated to marry Pepe, but at least two of the others are in love with him, and one of them is having an affair with him. Bernarda's iron-fisted control over the girls has backfired, but the reasons for that control are probably ones Bernarda herself is not even conscious of. The possibility that one of them will "bring shame upon" the house is a typical old-world notion by which women traditionally were "guilted," forced to conform to rules ultimately imposed upon them by men. Bernarda's failed attempt to kill Pepe is like a subconscious revolt against male dominance, but all it does is result in the tragedy of Adela's suicide. With Pepe not even appearing, whatever responsibility he might come to feel for her death is invisible to us, as if he is escaping from the situation that he's caused without any consequences to himself.

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A good starting point here would be to interrogate the question itself and ask why a viewer might ask that. It seems to imply that a play in which only women but not men are seen is somehow problematic. Thus, in answering such a question on a test or essay, a student might begin by saying that an important element of the experience of the play is the way it foregrounds women's voices without needing to validate them by male presence.

The play is brilliantly crafted to shine a spotlight on the theme evoked from the title—namely, that it is Bernarda Alba's house. In the house, she is attempting to create a female society, safe from male intrusion. In part, the exclusion of men, given the patriarchal nature of the culture, serves as a way to wield authority uncontested, but both the emphasis on virginity and the exclusion of men can also be seen as acts of resistance and empowerment. For Lorca, who himself was gay, the oppressive and destructive nature of patriarchy was a common theme. Despite the tragic ending caused by the intrusive sexualized figure of Pepe, Lorca permits his characters their own space and their own voices. By keeping Pepe offstage, Lorca makes the play about the women, rather than about Pepe.

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Lorca is more focused on depicting the restrictive and oppressive lives of Spanish women than their actual interactions with men.  The men merely evoke the women's emotions, actions, and reactions; and so from a technical viewpoint, just their mere mention can serve the function of creating the necessary conflict/tension needed to serve the play.  From a literary standpoint, men become virtually symbolic as opposed to realistic characters.  Lorca often points out the evident hypocrisy in Spanish culture (and, indeed, in most cultures) where men are allowed free sexual expression and women are punished and even condemned for it.  By not introducing the male characters into the scene, the audience is allowed to experience the full range of what sexual repression can effect in women--in this case--a family of women.  Pepe el Romano becomes symbolic of freedom from the restrictive environment the matriarch, Bernarda, has created within her own home as well as the sexual repression within the culture itself.  Is it no wonder the sisters are willing to betray one another for this promise of freedom?

As a dramatic device, not including Pepe el Romano as an actor on stage adds to the allure all the women feel for him.  The audience can create any visual image they have of this paragon of masculinity who has caused so much angst among the sisters--so much so that tragedy becomes inevitable.

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