Federico García Lorca
The House of Bernarda Alba (La casa de Bernarda Alba): Act I
A drama of women in the villages of Spain - 1936
John Singer Sargent (American, 1856 - 1925)
The National Gallery of Art
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright, All Rights Reserved. Made available as an individual, open-access work in the United Kingdom, 2007, via the Poetry in Translation website. Published as part of the collection ‘Four Final Plays’, ISBN-10: 1986116565, March 2018.
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Please note that Federico García Lorca's original, Spanish works may not be in the public domain in all jurisdictions, notably the United States of America. Where the original works are not in the public domain, permissions should be sought from the representatives of the Lorca estate, Casanovas & Lynch Agencia Literaria.
Bernarda, aged sixty
María Josefa, (Bernarda’s mother), aged eighty
Angustias, (Bernarda’s daughter), aged thirty-nine
Magdalena, (Bernarda’s daughter), aged thirty
Amelia, (Bernarda’s daughter), aged twenty-seven
Martirio, (Bernarda’s daughter), aged twenty-four
Adela, (Bernarda’s daughter), aged twenty
Servant, aged fifty
La Poncia (a servant), aged sixty
Prudencia, aged fifty
Beggar woman with little girl
The poet declares that these three acts are intended as a photographic record.
(The bright white interior of Bernarda’s house. Thick walls. Arched doorways with canvas curtains edged with tassels and ruffles. Rush chairs. Paintings of non-realistic landscapes with nymphs and legendary kings. It is summer. A vast shadowy silence fills the scene. When the curtain rises the stage is empty. The tolling of bells is heard. The Servant enters.)
Servant I can feel the tolling of those bells right between my temples.
La Poncia (She enters eating bread and sausage) They’ve been making that row for more than two hours now. There are priests here from all the villages. The church looks lovely. During the first response Magdalena fainted.
Servant She’s the one who’ll be most bereft.
La Poncia She was the only one who loved her father. Ay! Thank God we’re alone for a while! I was hungry.
Servant If Bernarda could see you…!
La Poncia Now she’s not eating, she wants us all to die of hunger! So strict! So domineering! But hard luck! I’ve opened the sausage jar.
Servant (Sadly, with longing) Poncia, won’t you give me some for my little girl?
La Poncia Go on, and take a handful of chick-peas too. She won’t notice it, today!
Voice (From within) Bernarda!
La Poncia The old woman. Is she locked in?
Servant Two turns of the key.
La Poncia You should use the bolt too. She’s got fingers like picklocks.
La Poncia (Shouting) She’s coming! (To the Servant) Make sure the whole place is clean. If Bernarda doesn’t find everything gleaming she’ll pull out the little hair I have left.
Servant What a woman!
La Poncia Tyrant of all she surveys. She could squat on your chest for a year and watch you die slowly without wiping that cold smile from her cursed face! Clean those pots: go on!
Servant My hands are red raw from endless cleaning.
La Poncia She’s the cleanest; she’s the most decent; she’s the loftiest of beings. Her poor husband deserves a good rest.
(The bells cease ringing.)
Servant Are all the relatives here?
La Poncia On her side. His family detests her. They came to make sure he was dead, and make the sign of the cross.
Servant Are there enough chairs?
La Poncia Plenty. Let them sit on the floor. Since Bernarda’s father died no one has set foot inside these walls. She doesn’t want them to see her in her stronghold! Curse her!
Servant She’s always been good to you.
La Poncia For thirty years I’ve laundered her sheets; for thirty years I’ve eaten her leftovers; spent nights awake when she had a cough; whole days peering through the cracks to spy on the neighbours and bring her the news; there are no secrets between us, and yet I curse her! May needles prick out her eyes!
La Poncia But I’m a good bitch and bark when I’m told, and bite the heels of the beggars when she whips me on; my sons work her fields and they’re both married too, but one day I’ll have had enough.
Servant And then…
La Poncia Then I’ll lock myself in a room with her, and spit on for her a year. ‘Bernarda, here’s for this, and that, and the other,’ until she looks like a lizard the children squashed, because that’s what she is, and all her family. But I don’t envy her life, that’s for sure. She’s five women on her hands, five ugly daughters. Except for Angustias, the eldest, who’s the first husband’s daughter and has some money, the rest of them have lots of fine lace, and linen camisoles, but their only inheritance is bread and water.
Servant I wouldn’t mind having what they have!
La Poncia We have our hands, and we’ll have a hole in God’s earth.
Servant That’s the only earth they’ll give us, who have nothing.
La Poncia (By the cupboard) This glass has marks on it.
Servant They won’t come off even with soap and water.
(The bells sound.)
La Poncia The final prayers. I’m off to hear them. I love the priest’s singing. In the paternoster his voice rose up, and up, and up like a pitcher slowly filling with water. Of course at the end he gave a screech, but it was a glory to hear him! There’s no one these days to match the old sexton, Tronchapinos. He sang at the Mass for my mother, who is in glory. The walls would shake, and when he said Amen it was if a wolf was in church. (Imitating him) Ameeeen! (She begins coughing)
Servant You’ll strain your windpipe.
La Poncia I may have strained something else! (She goes out laughing)
(The servant goes on cleaning. The bells ring)
Servant (Picking up the sound) Ding, ding, dong. Ding, ding, dong. May God grant him forgiveness!
Beggarwoman (With her little girl) Praise be to God!
Servant Ding, ding. dong. May he wait long years for us. Ding, ding, dong.
Beggarwoman (Loudly with annoyance) Praise be to God!
Servant (Annoyed) Forever!
Beggarwoman I’ve come for the leavings.
(The bells cease ringing.)
Servant The street’s that way. Today’s leavings are for me.
Beggarwoman You’ve someone to feed you, woman. My child and I are on our own!
Servant The dogs are on their own too, but they survive.
Beggarwoman They always give me the scraps.
Servant Get out of here. Who said you could enter? You’ve left dirty footmarks already. (The woman leaves. The Servant goes on cleaning.) Polished floors, cupboards, pedestals, iron bed-frames, while those of us who live in a mud hut with only a plate and a spoon have a bitter pill to swallow. I pray for the day when there’s none of us left to tell the tale! (The bells ring out again) Yes, yes, go on ringing! Bring on the box with its gold trimmings and the silk straps to lift it by! We’ll both end up the same! Rot then, Antonio María Benavides, stiff in your wool suit and your tall boots. Rot! You’ll not be lifting my skirts again behind the stable door!
(At the back of the stage the Women Mourners enter in pairs. They wear voluminous black skirts and shawls and carry black fans. They enter slowly until they have filled the stage.)
Servant (Beginning to wail) Ay, Antonio María Benavides, never will you see these walls again or eat bread in this house! I was the one of all your servants who loved you most. (Pulling at her hair) Must I live on when you are gone? Must I live on?
(The crowd of women have now entered, and Bernarda appears with her five daughters.)
Bernarda (To the Servant) Be silent!
Servant (Weeping) Bernarda!
Bernarda Less wailing and more work. You should have made sure this house was clean for the mourners. Go. This isn’t your place. (The Servant exits sobbing.) The poor are like animals. It’s as if they’re made of some other substance.
First woman The poor have their sorrows too.
Bernarda But they forget them faced with a plate of chickpeas.
Young girl (Timidly) You have to eat to live.
Bernarda At your age you shouldn’t speak in front of your elders.
First woman Hush, child.
Bernarda I never let anyone lecture me. Be seated. (They sit. Pause.) (Firmly) Magdalena, stop crying. If you want to weep, get under your bed. Do you hear me?
Second woman (To Bernarda) Have you started harvesting?
Third woman The sun feels as heavy as lead.
First woman I’ve not known heat like this for years!
(Pause. They fan themselves.)
Bernarda Is the lemonade ready?
La Poncia (Entering with a large tray, full of small white jars which she hands around.) Yes, Bernarda.
Bernarda Give some to the men.
La Poncia They’ve already have theirs in the yard.
Bernarda Let them leave the way they entered. I don’t want them coming through here.
Young girl (To Angustias) Pepe el Romano was with the mourners.
Angustias He was there.
Bernarda It was his mother. She saw his mother. No one saw Pepe, neither she nor I.
Young girl I thought…
Bernarda The widower from Darajali was there. By your aunt. We all saw him.
Second woman (Aside, in a low voice) Evil, worse than evil!
Third woman (To the Servant) A tongue like a knife!
Bernarda Women shouldn’t look at any man in church except the priest, and only because he wears a skirt. Gazing around is for those seeking the warmth of a pair of trousers.
First woman (In a low voice) Dried up old lizard!
La Poncia (Muttering) A crooked vine to be looking for a man’s heat!
Bernarda (Striking the floor with her stick) Praise be to God!
All (Crossing themselves) May He be blessed and praised forever!
Bernarda Rest in peace, with the host
of saints above your head!
All Rest in peace!
Bernarda With St Michael the Archangel
armed with his sword of justice.
All Rest in peace!
Bernarda With the key that opens all gates
and the hand that closes them.
All Rest in peace!
Bernarda With all those who are blessed
and the little lights of the field.
All Rest in peace!
Bernarda With holy charity
and the souls of earth and sea.
All Rest in peace!
Bernarda Grant rest to your servant Antonio María Benavides, and the crown of your sacred glory.
Bernarda (Rises and chants) ‘Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine’.
All (Rising and chanting in Gregorian mode) ‘Et lux perpetua luceat eis’. (They cross themselves.)
First woman May you have health to pray for his soul.
(They begin to file out.)
Third woman You shall never want for a loaf of warm bread.
Second woman Nor a roof over your daughters’ heads.
(They file out past Bernarda. Angustias exits through the door leading to the courtyard.)
Fourth woman May you enjoy the true harvest of your marriage.
La Poncia (Entering with a bag) This money is from the men, for prayers.
Young girl (To Magdalena) Magdalena.
Bernarda (To Magdalena who is starting to cry) Shhh! (She strikes the floor with her stick. They all leave.) (Towards those who have left) Go on, back to your caves and criticise everything you’ve witnessed! I hope it will be long before you darken my door again.
La Poncia You’ve no room for complaint. The whole village was there.
Bernarda Yes, to fill my house with the sweat from their clothing and the venom of their tongues.
Amelia Mother, don’t speak like that!
Bernarda It’s the only way to speak when you live in a cursed village without a river, without wells, where one drinks the water fearing always that it’s poisoned.
La Poncia Look what they’ve done to the floor!
Bernarda As if a flock of goats had trampled over it. (La Poncia scrubs at the floor.) Child, pass me a fan.
Aamelia Take this one. (She hands her a circular fan decorated with flowers in red and green.)
Bernarda (Throwing the fan on the ground) Is this the fan to hand to a widow? Give me a black one, and learn to respect your father’s memory.
Martirio Take mine.
Bernarda And you?
Martirio I don’t feel hot.
Bernarda Find another one, you’ll need it. Through the eight years of mourning not a breeze shall enter this house. Consider the doors and windows as sealed with bricks. That’s how it was in my father’s house and my grandfather’s. Meanwhile, you can embroider your trousseaux. In the chest I’ve twenty pieces of cloth from which you can cut sheets and covers. Magdalena can embroider them.
Magdalena It’s all the same to me.
Adela (Sourly) If you don’t want to embroider them, leave them plain. Yours will look better that way.
Magdalena Yours and mine. I know I’ll never be married. I’d rather hump sacks to the mill. Anything but sit here day after day in this dark room.
Bernarda That’s what it is to be a woman.
Magdalena Then curses on all women.
Bernarda Here, you do what I say. You can’t go telling tales to your father. A needle and thread for women. A whip and a mule for men. That’s how it is for people born without wealth.
A voice Bernarda! Let me out!
Bernarda (In a loud voice.) Let her out, now!
(The servant enters.)
Servant It was an effort to hold her down. She may be eighty years old but your mother is tough as an oak tree.
Bernarda It runs in the family. My grandmother was the same.
Servant While the mourners were here I had to gag her several times with an empty sack because she wanted to shout for you to bring her a drink of dishwater, and the dog meat she says you give her.
Martirio She’s a troublemaker!
Bernarda (To the Servant) She can let off steam in the yard.
Servant She’s taken the rings and amethyst earrings from her box, and put them on, and she tells me she wants to get married.
(The daughters laugh.)
Bernarda Go with her and take care she doesn’t go near the well.
Servant I doubt she’ll throw herself in.
Bernarda No, not that…but if she’s there the neighbours can see her from their windows.
(The Servant exits)
Martirio We’ll go and change our clothes.
Bernarda Very well, but keep your headscarves on. (Adela enters.) And where’s Angustias?
Adela (Pointedly) I saw her peeping through a crack in the gate. The men have just left.
Bernarda And why were you at the gate, yourself?
Adela I went to see if the hens had laid.
Bernarda But the male mourners should already have left!
Adela (Deliberately) There was a group of them still standing outside.
Bernarda (Angrily) Angustias! Angustias!
Angustias (Entering) What is it?
Bernarda What were you gazing at, and whom?
Angustias No one.
Bernarda Is it proper for a woman of your class to be trying to attract a man on the day of your father’s funeral? Answer me! Who were you gazing at?
Angustias No one!
Bernarda (Advancing with her stick) Spineless, sickly creature! (She hits her.)
La Poncia (Rushing over) Bernarda, be calm! (She holds her: Angustia weeps.)
Bernarda All of you, leave! (They exit)
La Poncia She did it without thinking what she was doing, and that is was wrong of course. I was shocked to see her sneaking towards the courtyard! Then she stood by the window listening to the men’s conversation, which as always was not fit to hear.
Bernarda That’s what they come to funerals for! (With curiosity) What were they saying?
Servant They were talking about Paca la Roseta. Last night they tied her husband to the manger, and carried her off on horseback to the heights of the olive grove.
Bernarda And she…?
La Poncia She was willing enough. They said she went with her breasts exposed and Maximiliano held her tight as if he were gripping a guitar. Disgraceful!
Bernarda And what happened?
La Poncia What was bound to happen. They came back at daybreak. Paca la Roseta had her hair down, and a garland of flowers on her head.
Bernarda She’s the only loose woman in the village.
La Poncia Because she’s not from here. She’s from far off. And those who went with her are sons of foreigners too. Men from here aren’t up to such things.
Bernarda No, but they like to look on, and gossip, and smack their lips over what occurred.
La Poncia They said other things too.
Bernarda (Looking round with some apprehension.) What sort of things?
La Poncia I’m ashamed to mention them.
Bernarda And my daughter heard them.
La Poncia She must have done?
Bernarda She takes after her aunts; white and sickly and making sheep’s eyes at any old flatterer’s compliments. How we have to suffer and struggle to make sure people act decently and don’t slide downhill!
La Poncia Your daughters are of an age to receive compliments! They scarcely oppose you. Angustias must be over thirty by now.
Bernarda Thirty nine to be exact.
La Poncia Imagine. And she’s never had a suitor…
Bernarda (Angrily) No, none of them has, and they don’t need them! They’re fine as they are.
La Poncia I didn’t mean to offend you.
Bernarda There’s no one who can compare to them for miles around. The men here are not of their class. Would you have me give them up to any beggar who asks?
La Poncia You should have moved to some other village.
Bernarda Indeed, to sell them off!
La Poncia No, Bernarda, for a change…Of course anywhere else they’d be poor!
Bernarda Hold your spiteful tongue!
La Poncia There’s no talking to you. Are we not friends?
Bernarda No, we’re not. You serve me, and I pay you. Nothing more!
Servant (Entering) Don Arturo is here, he’s come to discuss the will.
Bernarda I’m coming. (To the Servant) Start whitewashing the courtyard. (To Poncia) And you: go and put all the dead one’s clothes in the big chest.
La Poncia We could give some of the things….
Bernarda Nothing. Not a button! Not even the handkerchief we covered his face with! (She goes out slowly, leaning on her stick and looks back at her servants as she goes. The servants leave. Amelia and Martirio enter.)
Amelia Have you taken your medicine?
Martirio For all the good it will do!
Amelia But you’ve taken it.
Martirio I do things without any faith in them, like a piece of clockwork.
Amelia You seem better since the new doctor arrived.
Martirio I feel the same.
Amelia Did you notice? Adelaida wasn’t there at the funeral.
Martirio I knew she wouldn’t be. Her fiancé won’t let her walk in the streets. She used to be happy: now she doesn’t even powder her face.
Amelia I no longer know if it’s better to have a fiancé or not.
Martirio It makes no difference.
Amelia It’s all the gossip that’s to blame, they won’t let you live. Adelaida must have had a bad time of it.
Martirio They’re afraid of mother. She’s the only one who knows the truth about Adelaida’s father and how he got his land. Whenever she comes here, mother sticks the knife in. Her father killed his first wife’s husband, in Cuba, in order to marry the wife. Then he abandoned her here, and went off with another woman who had a daughter, and then had an affair with the daughter, Adelaida’s mother, and married her when the second wife died insane.
Amelia And why is the wretch not in jail?
Martirio Because men cover up things of that nature among themselves, and no one’s willing to speak out.
Amelia But Adelaida’s not to blame for all that.
Martirio No, but tales are repeated. And to me it all seems one dreadful repetition. Her fate is the same as her mother’s and her grandmother’s, both wives of the man who engendered her.
Amelia What a terrible thing!
Martirio It’s preferable never to see a man. Since childhood they make me afraid. I’d see them in the yard yoking the oxen and lifting the sacks of wheat, shouting and stamping, and I was always afraid of growing older and suddenly finding myself in their arms. God has made me feeble and ugly and has always kept them away from me.
Amelia Don’t say such things! Enrique Humanes was after you and he liked you.
Martirio People invent things! Once I stood by the window in my nightgown till dawn, because his farmhand’s daughter told me he was going to stop by, but he never came. It was all talk. Then he married another girl with more money than I.
Amelia And she, as ugly as the devil!
Martirio What does beauty mater to them? What matters are land, oxen, and a submissive bitch to fetch them their food.
Magdalena What are you doing?
Martirio Standing here.
Amelia And you?
Magdalena I’m walking about, to stretch my legs a while. I’ve been looking at the pictures grandmother embroidered, the little poodle and the Negro fighting a lion that we loved so much when we were children. That was a happier time. A wedding lasted ten days and there was no malicious gossip. Today they’re more refined. Brides wear white veils as they do in the towns, and we drink bottled wine, but we waste away because of their chatter.
Martirio God only knows what used to go on!
Amelia (To Magdalena) One of your shoelaces is undone.
Magdalena What of it!
Amelia You’ll step on it and fall!
Magdalena One less…
Martirio Where’s Adela?
Magdalena Oh, she put on the green dress that she first wore on her birthday, and went into the yard and shouted: ‘Hen, hens, look at me!’ I had to laugh!
Amelia If mother had seen her!
Magdalena Poor thing! She’s the youngest of us and full of illusions. I’d give anything to see her happy.
(Pause. Angustias crosses the stage with some towels in her hands.)
Angustias What time is it?
Magdalena It must be twelve.
Angustias That late?
Amelia It’s about to strike!
Magdalena (Pointedly) Have you heard…? (Indicating Angustias)
Magdalena Come on!
Martirio I don’t know what you’re referring to!
Magdalena You know more about it than I. You always have your heads together, like little sheep, but you never tell anyone anything. This business about Pepe el Romano!
Martirio Oh that!
Magdalena (Imitating her) Oh that! It’s talked about all over the place. Pepe el Romano is to marry Angustias. He was round the house last night, and I think he’ll soon send someone to ask for her.
Martirio I’m pleased! He’s a good man.
Amelia And I. Angustias has fine qualities.
Magdalena Neither of you are pleased.
Magdalena If he wanted Angustias for herself, for Angustias the woman, I’d be pleased, but he’s after the money. Angustias is our sister but we’re family and know she’s ageing and unwell, and of us all she has always had the least to offer. If she looked like a broomstick with clothes on at twenty, what is she now at forty!
Martirio Don’t talk like that. Good fortune comes to those who least expect it.
Amelia She speaks the truth though! Angustias has her father’s money, she’s the only wealthy one in this house and now that our father is dead and they’re sharing out his estate, they’re after her!
Magdalena Pepe el Romano is twenty-five years old and the handsomest man in the whole neighbourhood. The natural thing would be for him to court you, Amelia, or Adela, who is only twenty, but not go after the least attractive one in this house, a woman who, like her father, talks through her nose.
Martirio Perhaps he likes her!
Magdalena I’ve never been able to stand your hypocrisy!
Martirio Heaven preserve us!
Magdalena Have the chickens seen you in that yet?
Adela And what would you have me do with it?
Amelia If mother sees you she’ll drag you about by the hair!
Adela I’m so pleased with this dress. I thought I’d wear it if we were to go and eat melons by the mill. There’d be nothing to equal it.
Martirio It’s a lovely dress!
Adela And it suits me. It’s the best Magdalena ever made.
Magdalena And what did the chickens say to it?
Adela They passed on some of their fleas, and my legs got bitten. (They laugh.)
Martirio You could dye it black.
Magdalena The best she can do is pass it on to Angustias when she weds Pepe el Romano.
Adela (With suppressed emotion) Pepe el Romano!
Amelia Haven’t you heard the talk?
Magdalena Well now you know!
Adela But it’s not possible!
Magdalena Money makes everything possible!
Adela Is that why she followed the mourners and looked through the door. (Pause) And that man is capable of…
Magdalena He’s capable of anything.
Martirio What are you thinking of, Adela?
Adela I’m thinking that this mourning period has come at the worst possible time in my life.
Magdalena You’ll get used to it.
Adela (Bursting into angry tears) No, no I won’t get used to it! I don’t want to be shut in. I don’t want my skin to become like yours. I don’t want to lose my bloom in these rooms! Tomorrow I’ll put on my green dress and I’ll go for a walk in the street! I want to go out!
(The Servant enters.)
Magdalena (Authoritatively) Adela!
Servant Poor child! She misses her father so! (She exits.)
Amelia It will be the same for all of us.
(Adela calms down.)
Magdalena The servant almost overheard you.
Servant (Appearing) Pepe el Romano’s at the top of the street.
Magdalena Let’s go and look!
(They exit swiftly)
Servant (To Adela) Aren’t you going with them?
Adela No, I’m not interested.
Servant When he turns the corner you can see him best, from the window in your room. (She exits.)
(Adela remains there, in two minds. After a moment she too rushes out, to her room. Bernarda and La Poncia enter.)
Bernarda Cursed will!
La Poncia What a lot of money for Angustias!
La Poncia And for the others, quite a lot less.
Bernarda You’ve said it three times already and I chose not to answer. Quite a lot less: much less. Don’t remind me again.
(Angustias enters, her face made up.)
Bernarda How dare you powder your face? How dare you even wash it, on the day of your father’s funeral?
Angustias He wasn’t my father. Mine died years ago. Have you forgotten about him?
Bernarda You owe more to this man, your sisters’ father, than your own! Thanks to this one you’ve inherited a fortune.
Angustias That remains to be seen!
Bernarda If only out of decency! Out of respect!
Angustias Mother, let me go out.
Bernarda Out! After you’ve cleaned that powder from your face! Cunning little hypocrite! Just like your aunts! (She rubs the powder off vigorously with her handkerchief.) Now, go out!
La Poncia Bernarda, don’t meddle so much!
Bernarda Even if my mother’s crazy I have my five senses intact, and I know exactly what I’m doing.
(The other daughters enter.)
Magdalena What’s going on?
Bernarda Nothing’s going on.
Magdalena (To Angustias) If you’re arguing about the inheritance, you, the richest of us anyway, you can stick the lot of it.
Angustias Watch your foul tongue!
Bernarda (Banging on the floor with her stick) Don’t think it will give you any power over me! Till I leave this house, feet first, I’ll manage your business and mine!
(Voices are heard and María Josefa, Bernarda’s mother, appears, very old and with hair and breast decked with flowers.)
María Josefa Bernarda, where’s my shawl? You don’t need anything of mine, not my rings, and not my black moiré dress, because none of you will ever be married. Not one! Bernarda, give me my pearl necklace!
Bernarda (To the Servant) Why did you let her in here?
Servant (Trembling) She escaped me!
María Josefa I escaped her because I want to get married, because I wish to marry a handsome young man from the seashore: here the men run away from women.
Bernarda Be quiet, mother!
María Josefa No, I won’t be quiet. I don’t want to see these single women, foaming at the mouth for marriage, their hearts turning to dust, and I want to go back to my village. Bernarda, I want a man to marry and be happy with!
Bernarda Lock her up!
María Josefa Let me go out, Bernarda!
(The Servant takes hold of María Josefa.)
Bernarda Help, all of you!
(They all help to drag the old woman away.)
María Josefa I want to go! Bernarda! I want to be married by the seashore, by the seashore!