Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) belongs to that class of Spanish poets and artists (e. g. , Dali, Picasso) that came to prominence in the inter-war period. If their antecedents in the latter years of the 19th century retain a sometimes wry perspective of the human condition - Ibsen plays, even in their darkest moments, retain an element of whimsy - Lorca's so-called "rural" trilogy most assuredly do not.
Arguably, the massive number of military and civilian casualties incurred during World War I, combined with the social and political upheavals such a disaster fosters, can produce a type of self-destructive nihilism within the human psyche. 3 Unlike Ibsen, in Lorca that destructive impulse does not so much arise out of the actions - however innocent - of others, but rather, manifests itself sui generis, an implacable, chthonic urge to reorder the human condition into something it naturally is not.
In Lorca's grimly claustrophobic drama, The House of Bernarda Alba, for example, the protagonist is determined to organize her progeny into an enclosed society at variance from normative social behavior and, equally important, immunized against any "taint" from the outside world. It is a world in which the values of society at large are distorted into a parody of themselves. Here, premarital chastity ceases to be a virtue and becomes an end in itself. The Alba household is the world of the ideological tyrant in a microcosm; in many ways, it reflects Lorca's resistance to the conservative values of the Spain in which he lived.
It must be understood that Lorca was first and foremost a poet, albeit a poet who had a life-long relationship with the stage. As a playwright, Lorca relies on visual and aural cues that assuredly would have appeared as apposite phases in a work meant to be read rather than seen and heard. 5 These unspoken references are a subtext to the spoken word and associated action, giving the latter both special context and added meaning. From the opening act in the play, imagery propels drama.
The desire to escape - a desire so strong that it ends in tragic consequences - emerges as a leitmotif against which Lorca employs a continuity of metaphorical imagery to shape dialogue, foresee action, accentuate vital information, and advance narrative. The House of Bernarda Alba is the summit of Lorquian poetic drama - for in this dark and lyrical tragedy, intense imagery and operatic passions seamlessly align with dramatic reality. Background Lorca's rural trilogy follows a number of the conventions of classical Greek theater.
The love triangle, blending drama and poetry, closely resembles a Greek tragedy, in which death hovers over the whole play. Central themes of love, pride, passion and violent death also mark Lorca's own life. Like Greek tragedy, only a few characters - who gain their definition through their interaction with the protagonist - are present at any one time. Bernarda herself has all the qualities of the forceful Greek tragic heroines Clytemnestra and Medea, characters that dramatically embody the Grimm Brother's Wicked Queen in action.
The equivalent of a Greek chorus appears: at the outset, represented by the townspeople who mourn the recent death of Bernarda Alba's husband (the inciting event that sets in motion the rising action events that will end in so much personal destruction); and throughout the plot, in the form of a senile and closeted grandmother, Bernarda's eighty-year-old mother, Maria Josefa, who is the only perceptive being in this stultified, stifled family that intuitively sees into the situation and predicts the outcome.
As such she voices all the fears and desires which the younger women feel but are afraid to disclose in the presence of Bernarda. Her shouts are their innermost secrets. Further, her escape from the guarded room and her subsequent re-incarceration are previews of what will occur later in the drama. The Mise en Sci?? ne Thirties Spain is a provoking place; the simmering hostility and mood of impending tragedy are captured by Lorca in the opening setting of the play. Calling his work a "photographic documentary", Lorca positions the drama, and in particular Bernarda's house, as analogous to Spain on the threshold of a rightist invasion.
Twice-widowed Bernarda Alba lives with her five daughters in a poverty-stricken village what was once the Moorish kingdom of Granada. In absolute terms, the Alba family's condition is modest; at best, in the relative terms of the village, the family is quite substantial. Granada, of course, was, in its tenth-century heyday, one of the crown jewels of expansionist Islam; now, a millennium later, it is no more than a backwater. Its descent into insignificance is mirrored in the condition of the Alba household, once perhaps substantial, but now only a shell of its former self.
And, just as the towns of Granada show the physical remnants of past glory, so Bernarda Alba is intent on preserving at least the outward appearance (if not the inner reality) of what was perhaps once a family of substance. Sex is in the air, but Bernarda Alba does not catch a hint of it. With the death of her husband, the matriarch is determined to protect the public image of her family through, among other things, assuring the unchallenged virginity of her daughters, aged from twenty to thirty-nine years.
The women in the house live in isolation from the life of the community that surrounds them, essentially cut off from contact with the outside world, and with men specifically, who Bernarda believes might defile them. Accordingly, their house - submerged in silence, heat, and loneliness - is a breeding ground for internalized frustrations and repressed emotions rather than a home where relatedness and affection are advanced. The house of Bernarda Alba is a paradigm of an attempt to force a static condition on others.
The matriarch requires that her daughters remain sexually undeveloped, encouraging in this way a degenerative and insalubrious climate to fester. In alchemical terms, putrefactio may be said to be operational here. It is not surprising that in Bernarda Alba's house, along with this stifling, stultifying atmosphere, incidents of voyeurism and sadomasochism multiply. (Knapp 86) In order to assure the ostensible purity of her offspring, Bernarda decrees that the House of Alba will enter an eight year period of mourning and seclusion.
It is under these conditions that the inhabitants make their descent into darkness. Visual, Aural and Sensory Cues in The House of Bernarda Alba There are a number of visual and aural cues that run as subtexts through the play. Sometimes, non-textual clues are abrupt. For example, the stallion trying to knock down the doors of the barn is a facile, yet startling image symbolizing innate urges clashing to escape from a tightly-controlled environment. Others are more pervasive: the constant efforts at a cleansing that is really sterilization or the suffocating heat that denotes unrelenting sexual oppression .
Above all, coloration - and especially, its contrast - is used to point to both meaning and mood, to subvert and destroy the seeming harmony that exists. The Casa: Bernarda is the warden, her house is the prison, and her captives long for freedom. The image of the house as a prison is clear - the opening stage direction frames its thick jail-like walls and few windows and doors leading to the outside world. Unsparingly, in Act I, Bernarda decrees the sentence which will be the physical cause of the play's complications: We've eight years of mourning ahead of us, and while it lasts no breath of air from the street is going to get in this house. It's going to be as if we'd bricked up the doors and windows.
That's how it was in my father's house and in my grandfather's before him. " (Lorca 126) Metaphorically, Bernarda Alba is her house; escape from her dominion becomes the foundation of the external and internal conflict (Knapp 85). Adela, the youngest inhabitant (and perhaps a projection of Lorca himself), and Mari?? Josefa, the oldest (and an impressive symbol of the future), personify the theme of escape from the restrictive, corrosive environment controlled by Bernarda Alba. Constant Scrubbing: "Scrub, scrub," La Poncia tells the servant; dishes, cupboards, floors, pedestals, and everything else in the house must be immaculate. Numerous allusions are made to water, washing, and cleanliness throughout the drama. "The idea of washing, of cleansing, to safeguard a person from sin is understood in Bernarda Alba's house in the same way as it is implicit in the benedictio fontis, or baptismal ritual that absolves the [new] Christian" (90).
However, for Bernarda constant scrubbing is sterilizing rather than life-giving. The effect of baptism, in theological terms, is both grace and an ongoing receptivity to grace - the cleansing is spiritual, whatever the externalities may indicate. For Bernarda this is inverted: externalities are what matter and interior life is no consequence. 8 Searing Heat: Like many desert regions, Southeastern Spain is dry and very hot during the summer months. Such aridity can be alleviated by hydration: either natural (rainfall) or artificial (irrigation); in either case, mythology links watering the land with insemination. For Bernarda, insemination is hateful - even after bearing five children she affects a hatred of sexuality - and, in its absence, life shrivels. As the summer sun burns, parching the earth, the world outside has become as hot as an arid desert, a sign that life is withering even as it withers in Bernarda's house. Inside, too, a suffocating atmosphere prevails. Heat, along with its consequences of sweating (wetness), acquires a symbolic value linked to the sexual tension that produces a central conflict in the drama.
Effort Devoid of Meaning: Domestically, Bernarda sets her daughters to sewing items for a trousseau. "The phallic piercing action of the needle, and the touching, palpitating, feeling process of their work," serves to awaken erotic thoughts in the girls (94). In the context of the Alba household, this is meaningless. Bernarda has put them to a task that is intended to prepare them for chaste, yet fulfilling, marriages. Ironically, underneath this image of female harmony (as the sisters embroider, they, in effect, are sewing their own lives together) lurks repression and approaching violence (94).
Thus, the ultimate goal - and the purpose of the effort - has been effectively precluded by Bernarda's enforced isolation of her daughters from prospective suitors. Visions of Sexuality: The archways (characteristic of the architecture of southern Spain) leading to her daughters' rooms are silent, visual reminders of the latent sexuality of their inhabitants. 10 In effect, Bernarda cannot efface the emotions and desires of her daughters, but she can do whatever is possible to keep them repressed. If the visual imagery points to an ongoing subtext, it is an aural cue that announces Bernarda's efforts have been thwarted.
Pepe (who, being male, is not seen by the audience - all of the characters are female), although in the process of wooing Angustia (likely for her money), he has insinuated himself with Adela, the youngest daughter and has seduced her. His success with Adela is announced by the sound of the stallion seeking to exit his barn. (It is Pepe's act which precipitates the denouement). The Stallion: The introduction of the stallion into the drama is remarkable because it continues a tradition very evident in Lorquian drama - the embodiment of man's headlong journey through life into death.
However, in The House of Bernarda Alba the horse represents the bridled passions which torment Bernarda's daughters. Because the horse is prevented from mating, he tries to break down the walls of his corral; likewise, the women, prevented from fulfilling their natural desires, try to break out of their prison. The symbol is clear. But its second purpose, the ironic, is not as obvious. The stallion will have satisfaction in the morning while its human analogues, particularly Adela, will remain frustrated.
The Resort to Color and Hue: For much of the play, black and white predominate. If black is the absence of color (and, by extension, life), white is the spectral collection of all colors (and, by extension, precluding any singular emphasis). An absolute emphasis on whiteness is apparent in the stark and straightforward stage sets. In the context of Lorca's play, the setting for Act I, "A whiter-than-white inner room of Bernarda's house," is a metaphor for the home's oppressive sterility. In fact, the very name Alba (white) is evocative of life, purity, and virginity.
Their diametric opposition constructs an uncompromising environment: no progression, only extremes (88). The horde of grieving women returning from Antonio's funeral, all dressed in black, makes a dramatic contrast with the "whiter-than-white" gleaming inner room of The House of Alba. Lorca uses color as both prop and backdrop to make a point and to establish a prevailing mood. For example, as the heat grows oppressive, Bernarda asks for a fan. Adela hands her a green one with red flowers, which Bernarda angrily rejects in favor of a black one, suitable to a mourning widow.
At this juncture in the play, the full implications of Bernarda's rejection are only dimly perceived by the audience. In Catholic tradition, green is the color associated with hope. And red is commonly used as a metaphor for life. As the play ends, of course, Adela's hope for life is dashed just as surely as her colorful fan was thrown to the floor in an earlier scene. Throughout the rural trilogy, Lorca uses the color blue to point to the threatening and the ominous. In Blood Wedding, the moon (in the form of a woodcutter) has a harsh blue aura.
It is the moon, of course, that leads to protagonists toward each other and to their mutual destruction. In the third Act of The House of Bernarda Alba, the white walls of the house are suffused in light blue, pointing to the horrendous events about to unfold. Aural Cues: Bernarda's despotic voice stands out as she orders, "! Silencio! " at the opening and ending of the play, closely related in each case to the death of one member of the family and the spiritual death of those living.
Despite her call for silence, other sounds succeed in piercing the thick walls and add to characterize the nature of society and the dichotomy between being a man and a woman, between life inside the house and outside in the village: the distant tolling of the bells and funeral chants reminds of the presence of the church (authority); the mob that wants to lynch the unwed mother represents public opinion (morality); the songs of the harvesters points to freedom that men enjoy in the open fields (self-determination); the tapping of Bernarda's cane, her bullwhip signifies authority (judgment); and the most determined of them all, the kicking, sex-starved stallion - a symbol of virility - betrays the unseen existence of Pepe el Romano, who is evocative if the gypsy, the antithesis of Bernarda Alba. Conclusion Context provides definition and, perhaps, adds explanation to the spoken word on stage. In The House of Bernarda Alba, Lorca has largely abandoned subtlety and, instead, has presented the play's issues in stark relief.
In this respect his work reflects classical Greek tragedy, in which the challenges facing protagonists were likewise readily visible. While Lorca adapts the Greek chorus (the townspeople) at the outset, what follows is entirely contained within the Alba household. In many respects, the ostensibly one-dimensional staging performs the function of the classical chorus: color blue - imminent tragedy; color white - purity or its distorted mirror image, sterility; kicking stallion - nascent sexuality. It was the chorus that maintained or "continued" the story, giving added perspective to the words of the actors. With Lorca, sight and sound perform much the same function.