La Casa de Bernarda Alba (1936)
Federico Garcia Lorca
A Drama About the Women in Spain
Lorca described his play as a photographic essay. To our ears that might sound like a dry PBS documentary, but in the 1930’s the photo essay was an avant-garde form suggesting hyper realism: naturalism with a leftist political purpose. So think in terms of stage pictures (tableaux) at key moments in the action.
From reading Lorca’s gypsy ballads, we know that he had been influenced by surrealism: his poems feature wild conceits, the juxtaposition of images which evoke associations from deep within the psyche, beneath the level of discursive thought.
So we can describe the form of the play as a combination of naturalism, political allegory, and surrealism. It works on several levels simultaneously.
The play is about repression (the Superego’s contest with the Id), but it is also about oppression (the aristocracy vs. the peasantry). It would be easy to generate a thesis about Lorca’s political intention if we just look at the play as agit/prop theatre seeking to provoke audiences to support the demands for political freedom expressed by the political parties in Republican Spain, particularly the anarchists whose goal was an overthrow of the government’s central authority.
Yet great art rarely evokes such a one sided, ‘monistic’ interpretation. It would be easy to paint Bernarda Alba as the villain of the piece: the tyrant whose will to power drives the action of the play towards its final catastrophe. However, it is possible to see things from her point of view. Is her repression (the traditional institutions of the church, aristocracy and monarchy….lent a hand by a dictator or two) necessary to hold in check the natural Spanish tendency towards anarchy, moral chaos and violence. Left to their own devices, what would Bernarda’s daughters do to each other in their contest for Pepe el Romano’s affections?
In Freud’s psychological model the liberated Id would wreak havoc on society. The superego is necessary to maintain civilization. The price we pay for order is repression and unhappiness.
Lorca’s own attitude towards sexual liberation can best be described as ambivalent. How provocation of the right wing can be understood as a deliberate courting of death.
So the meaning of La Casa de Bernarda Alba may be deeply ambiguous, containing that hallmark of great dramatic art: tragic irony.
The Time: the day of Don Antonio’s funeral (the catalyst of the action)
Conditioning Forces: summer heat, dry silence, distant toll of church bell, whimpering cries of madwoman locked in the shed
The day of the funeral of Don Antonio Maria Benevides. Pepe el Romano has been visiting the house each night since the master’s death, yet secretly, he has been visiting two windows: Angustias’ (the heiress) and Adela’s (the beauty).
Bernarda maintains her family’s position atop the town’s social pyramid only by asserting her moral right to rule. Her financial position is tenuous, so she must concentrate all of her money in her eldest daughter’s dowry. Angustias will then be able to marry well and provide a secure (if unsatisfying) life for her sisters.
The aristocracy rules only because Bernarda and those of her class possess the discipline to control the natural tendency towards anarchy and moral corruption. To maintain power Bernarda must preserve the family’s spotless reputation: the justification of their superiority. Notice how in Spain the symbol of honor, the linchpin of the aristocracy’s hold on power, is the idealized female body: the pure, holy, immaculate power of the Virgin’s perfect honor. The Virgin Mary, not Jesus, is the primary deity in Catholic Spain. This goddess worship runs deeper and predates Christianity in Spain.
And the tragic aspect of this myth is that it is patently false. Look at the action of Act I:
What is the reality of Bernarda’s situation?
1. How rich is she? What is the only real way for her to maintain her family’s position?
2. How did she and her mother obtain their position to begin with? (Remember they come from a village by the sea.) Any hints?
3. How did Adelade’s father attain his position in the aristocracy? Through brutal and amoral action.
The path to aristocratic power is brutal and amoral. It has nothing to do with breeding or culture or class. Men can and must do anything to achieve power. It is the woman’s job to preserve the illusion of family honor. Only it can make palatable the brutal truth of how the aristocracy maintains its hold on power.
So the action of the play has the shape of tragedy:
Bernarda’s objective is to maintain the family’s honor and reputation, but the real obstacle to achieving her goal is the TRUTH, submerged, unconscious, yet relentlessly seeking to obtrude into consciousness.
For Lorca the most revolutionary act is to reveal the destructive, un-natural, tragic, ultimately mad nature of this quest to keep the myth alive, to turn flesh and blood into immortal stuff. (This is the ancient theme of tragedy.) But the flesh cries out for liberty, to express itself naturally: the desires of Adela and all of her sisters are as normal and beautiful as the song of the reapers headed for the fields, as the vision of domestic happiness in a village by the sea that the mad Maria Josepha dreams of.
But is the worker’s song powerful enough to replace the myth of the virgin in the Spanish imagination?