Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba: Visual and Aural Cues Contributing to an Appreciation of Interaction
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James S. Bowling Professor Leonard MALS 775 29 March 2005 Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba: Visual and Aural Cues Contributing to an Appreciation of Interaction "She... died a virgin. Do you hear me? !Silencio!, !Silencio!, I said. !Silencio!"-Bernarda Alba, The House of Bernarda Alba 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.¹ 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.2 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.4 It must be understood that Lorca was first and foremost a poet, albeit a poet who had a life-long relationship with the stage.
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.9 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.
6 The House of Bernarda Alba, Lorca's last play and perhaps his best, was completed shortly before the poet-playwright was arrested by Republican troops (at the outset of the Spanish Civil War) and, a few days later (and in the company of several hundred other opponents of the Falangists), dragged from his home, and tragically murdered. Whether Lorca intended to continue with classical convention, say, with some equivalent of a satyr play, is problematic. Certainly the themes that he treated in the rural trilogy--murder, betrayal, and the like--can have a perverse farcical element. 7 Lorca is generally considered not to have been overtly political (in the sense, say, that Spain's communists were). However, it is reasonable to interpret the Bernarda paradigm in terms of the Spanish anarchist movement's understanding of Franco's Falangists. Was Lorca actually attracted to anarchist thought? Possibly yes, although there is no direct evidence. Endnotes 8The Christian is not only "born" of the waters of baptism, he also "dies" to the blandishments of the world when they act to the exclusion of the good. For Bernarda, this "dying" takes on a ghastly definition, one that rejects both the good of God's creation and any prospective perversion of that good. In so doing, of course, she fosters the very evil that she wishes to prevent. 9The classical Greeks referred to rain as the semen of Zeus, giving life to the land. Interestingly, Granada's fertile vega (watered valley between hills), where Lorca's native village is located, owes its abundance of water to the irrigation systems built by the Arabs who occupied Andalusia for over eight centuries. 10The archway as birth symbol is as old as western civilization. Triumphal arches were constructed both to commemorate victories and as vehicles of purification. A victorious army marched through the arch (in effect, was reborn), there by immunizing itself - or so it was hoped - from the unwanted attentions of nemesis (the primordial force of vengeance that reestablished the harmony of the universe after is had been disturbed).
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