house of bernarda alba

The House of Bernarda Alba (play)

The House of Bernarda Alba (La casa de Bernarda Alba) is a play by the Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca. Along with Blood Wedding and Yerma it forms Lorca's 'Rural Trilogy'. Lorca's last play, it was completed on June 19, 1936, several months before Lorca's execution, and first performed in 1945. The play centers on the events of an Andalusian house during a period of mourning, in which the title character (age 60) wields total control over her five daughters Angustias (39 years old), Magdalena (30), Amelia (27), Martirio, (24), and Adela (20). The housekeeper (La Poncia) and Bernarda's mother (María Josefa) also live there. The deliberate exclusion of any male character from the action is highly significant as it helps to build up the high level of sexual tension that is present throughout the play. Pepe "el Romano", the love interest of Bernarda's daughters and suitor of Angustias, never actually appears on stage.

The play explores themes of repression, passion, and conformity, and inspects the effects of men upon women. Bernarda's cruel tyranny over her daughters foreshadows the stifling nature of Franco's fascist regime, which was to arrive just a few weeks after Lorca finished writing his play. Lorca's association with a number of intellectuals who belonged to the Communist Party of Spain such as Rafael Alberti was to result in his assassination shortly after the outbreak of Civil War in July 1936.

Two adaptations to film are worth mentioning: "La casa de Bernarda Alba" (1987) and its English made-for-TV movie counterpart, "The House of Bernarda Alba" (1991).

In 2006, the play was adapted into musical form by Michael John LaChiusa. Under the title Bernarda Alba, it opened at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse theatre on March 6, 2006, starring Phylicia Rashad in the title role, with a cast that also included Daphne Rubin-Vega. The play was also adapted into an Indian movie Rukmavati ki Haveli by Govind Nihlani in 1991.

Summary

After the death of her second husband, Bernarda Alba, an unpleasant and dominating woman, imposes a period of mourning on her household that is to last eight years, as has been traditional in her family. Bernarda has five daughters, aged between 20 and 39, whom she has shielded and controlled to an excessive degree and prohibited from any form of relationship. The mourning period further isolates the daughters, and tension mounts within the household.

Angustias, the eldest daughter, inherited a large sum of money from the death of her father, Bernarda's first husband, while the other four sisters inherited much less from their father, Bernarda's second husband. Angustias' wealth attracts a suitor, the young and attractive Pepe el Romano from the village. Passion and jealousy between the daughters increases, as they feel it is unfair that Angustias, the oldest and most sickly of the sisters, should receive both the majority of the money and freedom to marry, leaving the constraints of the house.

It transpires that Adela, the youngest daughter, has been conducting an illicit affair with Pepe el Romano and she becomes increasingly passionate, refusing to submit to her mother's will and arguing with her sisters, particularly Martirio, who is revealed to also be in love with Pepe.

The tension in the story comes to a head as the family confronts one another and Bernarda chases Pepe with a gun. A gunshot is heard from outside, implying that Pepe el Romano has been killed. Adela slips into another room while the family anticipates the outcome. As Martirio and Bernarda re-enter the home, Martirio states that Pepe el Romano got away with his life and Bernarda remarks that as a woman she cannot be blamed for not knowing how to aim. With Pepe el Romano dealt with, Bernarda turns her attention to calling out Adela, who has locked herself in a room. Bernarda and Poncia work at bringing down the door through force after being met with silence from Adela, and upon gaining entrance to the room, Poncia shrieks. Returning with her hands clasped about her neck, she warns the family to not enter the room--Adela has hanged herself. The closing lines of the play show Bernarda characteristically preoccupied with the family's reputation, as she calls for it to be made known that Adela died a virgin and that no one is to cry.

Characters in the play

  • Bernarda - An elderly widow who exerts excessive will over her daughters. She is preoccupied with ideas of honour and tradition, in particular relating to the role of women in society, and is too proud to see the truth about her own daughters. Portrayed dictatorially within the household, her walking stick is a symbol of the power she holds over the household.
  • Angustias - The eldest and sickliest daughter. She inherited a fortune from her father, Bernarda's first husband, making her the richest of the daughters. Her stepfather's fortune is split between the daughters. Angustias becomes engaged to Pepe el Romano, who is interested not in her, but in her money. Aware that he is interested only in her money, she continues, desperate to marry and be free of her oppressive mother. She is described by her sisters as the ugliest, and Poncia comments that she is unlikely to survive childbirth.
  • Magdalena and Amelia - The two middle sisters. Magdalena feels a deep sorrow at the loss of her father and cries frequently and Amelia is gossipy but submissive to Bernarda.
  • Martirio - Her name is Spanish for 'Martyr', and this subtle allusion goes some way to explaining her complexity. She is in love with Pepe and has had a previous relationship that failed due to the destructive intervention of her mother. Her upbringing and negative experiences with men in the past lead to what she describes as a feeling of weakness and inferiority when in the presence of men.
  • Adela - The youngest of the daughters and the only to defy Bernarda. She is in love with Pepe el Romano and carries on a secret rendezvous with him, until her sister Martirio intervenes and they have a scuffle, drawing the attention of the sleeping household. Adela's guilt is revealed by the discovery of straw on her skirt. She then freely admits that she has been with Pepe el Romano. At the climax of the play, she hangs herself.
  • Pepe el Romano - Angustias' suitor and the lover of Adela. Although he never appears within the play, his actions create most of the drama within it.

Themes

  • Tragedy - Adela rebels against the tyranny of her mother and pays with her life. There is also tragic irony in the fact that her suicide is out of grief for Pepe's death, who is then revealed as being alive.
  • Oppression of women - Bernarda represents the Francoist view that 'a woman's place is home'.
  • Tradition - Bernarda is desperate to uphold tradition, both in her observance of the funeral rites, and the differences between men and women.
  • Class prejudice - Bernarda uses money as a means of making herself superior, and views the villagers as unworthy of her daughters.
  • Reputation - Bernarda is preoccupied with the reputation of her family and is horrified by the idea of scandal and gossip, shown at the end of the play, when she demands it be known that Adela died a virgin.
  • Authoritarianism - Bernarda exercises a tyrant's will over the household.

Symbols

  • Water/Thirst - is normally a reference to sexual desire. At one point, Adela rushes downstairs to meet her lover when she is spotted by Poncia. She explains by saying that she is thirsty and needs a drink of water. The horse (pinned up) kicks when it is thirsty. The town doesn't have rivers, only wells. The wells are a symbol of death since their water is still while river water and the sea are seen as pure.
  • Black and white - The common Western connotations. Black represents everything bad (death, mourn, oppression, being closed in...) while white represents all things good (the truth, life, freedom). Black is mainly associated with Bernarda and all the daughters who wear black throughout the play, except Adela. White is mainly shown through María Josefa who appears dressed in a wedding gown. As is already said above, in her craziness she says what all the girls won't dare to say. Another possible interpretation is that white represents sterility and black represents oppression.
  • Green - The symbol of future death and, in Hispanic culture, hope: it is worn by Adela when she confesses her love for Pepe el Romano. Also represents the jealousy between the sisters as they find Adela is the lover of Pepe el Romano, and over Angustias' engagement with Pepe. The passionate personality of Adela as well.
  • The cane - Symbolizes the power and sovereignty of Bernarda over her daughters. Adela finally breaks it near the end of the play.
  • The characters' names -
    • Amelia - From Latin and Old German for 'industrious'
    • Martirio - Means 'martyrdom'
    • Angustias - Means 'anguish' or 'torment'
    • Adela -
    • Magdalena - It is another name of anguish, because it has the connotations given by the Spanish saying "llorar como una Magdalena" ("to weep like Magdalene").
    • María Josefa - From the names of Jesus' parents, Mary and Joseph

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