If there is one thing that is certain, it is that men are unpredictable, and the world belongs to them. They can come and go freely, their desires are always met, and the women are left to live with the consequences and pick up the pieces of their broken hearts. As the play opens, Bernarda has lost her second husband, he has left her a bit above the socio economic level of destitution, and while not completely faithful to her, having a tryst here or there with the servants, at least he conducted himself semi-discreetly. Despite their poor pecuniary status, Bernarda is part of the highest social echelon; her father built her house with his bare hands and their family name is one of honor and respect.
If Bernarda rules her house with an iron fist, it is only because the honor of their family is precariously balancing on the cusp of catastrophe. Her mother is crazy and her five daughters are chomping at the bit of madness themselves, a situation perhaps made worse by her constant domineering and sociopathic level of control.
As the curtain rises, the atmosphere is filled with hot frustration. Poncia, the maid, is cleaning the house while the family is at the funeral. There are spots she can't seem to remove from the glasses. Despite her persistence the world in which she lives, the world of the Benavides family, will not be tamed. And as she grumbles about how the man of the house will no longer be able to "lift up her skirts behind the back corral," her frustration at always cleaning up the family messes, whether physical or moral, begins to pour out and she day dreams about the moment when she snaps and finally gives Bernarda a piece of her mind:
Poncia: ”On that day I will lock myself in a room with her, and spit on her for a whole year! 'For this, Bernarda!' 'And for that!' 'And for the other!' Until she's like a lizard that the children have smashed to pieces. That's what she is! And so is her whole family. I certainly don't envy the way she lives. She has five girls on her hands, five ugly daughters, but except for Angustias, the oldest- who is her first husband's child and has some money- the rest? Lots of fine lace, lots of linen shifts, but bread and grapes is all they have to inherit!"
As the maid finishes her cleaning, Bernarda and her daughters return from the funeral. In about a nanosecond it is clear that Bernarda wears the pants and that she means business. She is described as leaning on a cane…I don't picture her as feeble, but rather feeling more comfortable within easy access to a weapon. With one quick glance she assess the quality of work done, dismisses the maid for her performance piece on mourning and tells her the house should be cleaner and no one’s here to appreciate her theatrical grief.
Bernarda is an upbraider. She upbraids the maid for basically everything, she upbraids the men that have come to show their respect for leaving footprints on the steps and lastly, she upbraids her daughters for their lack of reverence and dutiful excitement about the prospect of house arrest while they compulsorily mourn for the next 8 years.
It seems strange, the lack of emotion regarding the death of the girls father, but the second line of the play mentions that the father only loved Magdalena, the somewhat well behaved middle child (age 30), who perhaps is too overcome with grief to get into any immediate boy trouble.
It seems like the girls don't have much of a social life, considering the funeral becomes an outlet for making eyes at boys and hoping beyond hope they can communicate with a furtive glance "All this can be yours!! Please rescue me and take me away from this hell hole!" The biggest culprit, or maybe just the most obvious, is Angustias, the oldest sister (age 39). Her father has passed away many years before, and being a man of substance has left her a considerable inheritance, which now after the death of Benavides, becomes accessible. She is sickly and unattractive, but she finds her coquetry met with approving reciprocation from the town’s most eligible young bachelor, Pepe el Romano. Money has a way of making even the most undesirable of women attractive.
In Angustias' defense, the flirting that Bernarda attacks her for (with her cane) is little more than hiding behind a door and listening to the men’s conversation on the porch. In Bernarda's house that counts and she beats Angustias for desecrating the day with her brazen immorality. Bernarda is horrified by the implication that the girls would ever want to leave, and refuses to acknowledge that there are any men within a 100 mile radius that are socially acceptable.
Somehow Pepe makes the cut as dating material…even though just last fall he was obviously making a play for the youngest sister Adela. Now that Angustias is known to have quite a fortune, he has dropped Adela and begun the courting ritual which involves coming to Angustias' window at night and chatting. The charade beguiles no one:
Amelia: ...Angustias has all her father's money. She is the only rich one in the house. That's why now that our father is dead and the estate is being settled, they're coming after her.
Magdelena: Pepe el Romano is twenty-five years old, and the best looking man around. It would be natural for him to be interested in you Amelia, or in Adela, who is twenty years old, but not to come looking for the gloomiest person in this house...
Despite his obvious intentions, and his extreme lack of romance, (his proposal being "You know why I'm here. I need a good woman, well-behaved, and that's you, if you agree,") Angustias says 'yes! yes! a thousand times yes' (my interpretation) for reasons that seem better to her than reciprocated love, ie. major jealousy inducing points from her sisters and an opportunity to escape.
But in a world where you essentially live in a cage with your crazy grandmother, who is also trying to convince someone to marry her so she can escape, playing fair isn't exactly in the rule book. Or rather there is no rule book and it's a no holds barred situation. The jealousy inducing weights the scales to Angustias’ disadvanatage, making life as it has been, unsustainable for the two youngest sisters, who have their own preferred ways of playing dirty.
Adela, the youngest, waits for Pepe to come to have his evening chat with Angustias, and then she gets naked and backlights herself in her bedroom so that her silhouette will be irresistible. Her plan works! And after the appropriate amount of chaperoned chatting with Angustias, Pepe walks around the side of the house to get some real action with Adela. Her plot is easily discovered though when the maid hears Pepe leave the house around 4am, three hours after he's said goodnight to Angustias. The maid confronts Adela:
Poncia: Don't be childish. Leave your sister alone; and if you want Pepe el Romano, control yourself! Besides, who says you can't marry him? Your sister Angustias is sickly, she won't survive even her first childbirth. She's narrow in the hips, old and from what I know, I can tell she'll die. Then Pepe will do what all widowers do in this country: he'll marry the youngest, the most beautiful, and that will be you. Live on that hope or forget him, whatever you want- just don't go against the laws of God.
But Poncia's speech of "hey girl keep it in your pants and hope your sister dies" has little effect. Adela is young and impatient and can see her life literally wasting away before her eyes. She’s too young to be cooped up with all these crazies, and besides she wants to wear green and live a little. She plays the fate card - what will be will be, only, since this is a Lorca play the verbiage is a little more intense:
Poncia: Don’t defy me, Adela, don’t defy me! Because I can raise my voice, light the lamps and make the bells ring!
Adela: Bring out four thousand yellow flares and set them on the walls of the corral. No one can keep what is to happen from happening!
Poncia: You care about him that much!
Adela: That much! When I look into his eyes, I feel as if I am slowly drinking in his blood!
The second youngest sister, Martirio, has a more complicated and methodical way of playing dirty, that involves sneaking Pepe’s picture from under Angustias’ pillow, ostensibly for some voodoo magic and basically doing a lot of spying. She’s constantly sneaking around and making accusatory statements. She has caught on to Adela’s tryst and while not having a plan to stop it does have a plan for making everyone awkward and uncomfortable. Eventually Angustias realizes her special picture has been stolen and makes a big whiney scene, she’s aware that her sisters are being slowly poisoned to death by their jealousy and enjoys taking every opportunity to up the ante.
As usual, Bernarda comes running in frothing at the mouth and hitting everyone with her cane. She demands to know what’s wrong and when it is discovered that Martirio has snuck a picture of Angustias’ fiancé, she flips out:
Bernarda: (coming at Martirio and hitting her with her cane): May God strike you dead, you two-faced scorpion! You thorn in my flesh!
One can only imagine what the response will be when Bernarda finds out that Adela has been carrying on her own little illustrious affair with the living breathing Pepe…and just as we close our eyes and begin to imagine the scene, a crowd is heard murmuring and shouting in the distance. The girls rush off to see what is happening. Librada’s unmarried daughter has had a baby and to hide her shame, she killed it and hid its body under some rocks, but a pack of local dogs found it and returned it, putting the body on Librada’s doorstep. Now the whole town wants to kill the daughter and they are dragging her down the street and into the olive grove, “shouting so loud the fields are trembling.’”
Bernarda: Yes! Let them all bring whips made from olive branches and the handles of their hoes! Let them all come and kill her!
Adela: No! No! Not to kill her!
Bernarda: Any woman who tramples on decency should pay for it!
(Outside, a woman screams and there is a great uproar.)
Adela: They should let her go! Don’t go out there!
Martirio: (looking at Adela): She should pay for what she did.
Bernarda: Finish her off before the police get here! Burning coals in the place where she sinned!
Adela: (clutching her womb): No! No!
Bernarda: Kill her! Kill her!
End of Act Two.
As the last Act opens, it is evening, the air is hot and still and the stallion in the corral is restless and in heat.
Bernarda and Angustias have the closest thing to a heart to heart of which they’re capable. Angustias thinks Pepe is hiding something from her. Bernarda’s advice is not to pry, never ask questions and above all never to let him see her cry. Pepe supposedly is away for the evening so Angustias and Bernarda make their way to bed, while simultaneously Adela slips out to meet Pepe in the corral out back. Martirio, spying as ever, watches Adela sneak out and quickly runs to the door to confront her, but is intercepted by the crazy grandmother, who is doing a late night perambulation of her own, while carrying a baby ewe like an infant. Martirio is basically like ‘Gram? How did you get out of your room and where did you get a baby lamb?’
The grandmother: It’s true. Everything is very dark. Just because I have white hair you think I can’t have babies. And - yes! Babies and babies and babies! This child will have white hair, and have another child, and that one, another, and all of us with hair of snow will be like waves, one after another after another. Then we’ll all settle down, and we’ll all have white hair, and we’ll be foam on the sea. Why isn’t there any white foam here? Here, there’s nothing but black mourning shawls.
Martitio is like ‘Gram- wish I could stay and talk crazy with you, but I have to go catch Adela doing it in the corral with Pepe…’
She runs to the door and calls Adela, who after a minute comes to the door annoyed and a bit tussled. Martirio confronts her sister and Adela basically says she doesn’t care if Pepe only wants her as his whore, she doesn't care if she is an outcast and branded with a scarlet letter. She paints a picture of an idyllic little shack by the water where Pepe will come to her whenever he wants to…at least he wants her! At least she has a chance to escape and she’s not going to lose it.
As the argument escalates the whole family assembles and Bernarda demands to know what’s going on, her cane ready and waiting to give the appropriate beating. But not this time:
Adela:(confronting Bernarda): The shouting in this prison in over! (She seizes her mother’s cane and breaks it in two): This is what I do with the tyrant’s rod! Don’t take one more step. No one gives me orders but Pepe!
Bernarda, apoplectic and without her beloved cane, runs off looking for her gun, while the four sisters begin to circle Adela frothing at the mouth for their own individual reasons: Angustias preparing to avenge her honor, Magdelena demanding honor for their family, Martirio enraged that Adela has had Pepe all this time…when a shot is fired and Bernarda comes back into the room triumphant. Bernarda, tauntingly dares Adela to find Pepe now! And Adela runs to her room, a maelstrom of confused emotion.
The sisters ask Bernarda if she really killed Pepe and she slyly tells them he just ran off on his horse, but she doubts he’ll be back anytime soon, when they hear a thud…Adela, depressed and without hope or a reason to live has hung herself.
Bernarda jumps into action demanding they quickly dress her in white and tell everyone she was a virgin:
Bernarda: I want no weeping. We must look death in the face. Silence! (To another daughter) Be quiet, I said! (To another daughter) Tears, when you’re alone. We will all drown ourselves in a sea of mourning. The youngest daughter of Bernarda Alba has died a virgin. Did you hear me? Silence! Silence, I said! Silence!
And so the play ends, bookended between two deaths. The father’s death covers his impropriety with the servants, and Adela’s death covers up her infidelity with Pepe el Romano. And the substance in-between, the frustrations, the futile desires and moral decay are of little consequence if appropriately white washed and hidden away within the confines of the house of Bernarda Alba.