Federico García Lorca and Greek Tragedy: La Casa de Bernarda Alba as a case study

 by Pau Guinart


The Second Spanish Republic was an exceptional period of six years (1931-36) between the dictatorships of Primo de Rivera and of Franco. Both authoritarian regimes defended the traditional conception of Spain that invoked the ultra conservative moral values of Catholicism as the official credo. The previous Republican period in Spain dates from 1873-74 and it dissolved because the traditional social and political agents were too powerful to allow any progressive reforms to take place in Madrid. After that, decades of dull bipartisanship were to follow, and Spain seemed to be in a permanent expectation of a social change that never really took place.

Federico García Lorca was born in Fuente Vaqueros, Granada, on June 5th 1898, the traumatic year in which Spain lost the last remains of its empire and that would scar a whole generation of intellectuals, politicians and writers. Lorca was a young poet with a special sensitivity and a sexual orientation that conflicted with the traditional values of the sleepy old Spain, when in 1929 he traveled to New York and spent a year at Columbia University. That time in such a cosmopolitan and stimulating city opened Lorca’s eyes and charged him with enough energy to take on great cultural projects back in Spain.

After writing Poeta en Nueva York, Lorca got rid of his interior ghosts and felt liberated, but when he returned home he reencountered a backwards society that still needed to go through profound changes. As a homosexual, he experienced a strong contrast with the rural society of Andalusia, where not only same sex relationships were repressed, but also the whole female sex lived under the yoke of ancient conventions. His project from then on would be to change the sensibility of the Spanish society, and the Republican period was the right moment to do so. He was determined to write theater of social action.

In order to write such kind of theater, Lorca drew inspiration from the Spanish theater of the Siglo de Oro, mainly Calderón de la Barca and Lope de Vega, as well as from Greek tragedy. In this essay I would like to identify the parallelisms between Garcia Lorca’s work and Greek tragedy, in a similar manner as how Luís González del Valle did with Bodas de Sangre[1], but in this occasion with La Casa de Bernarda Alba[2]. Even though there has been research doneabout the relation between Yerma or Bodas de Sangre and Greek Tragedy[3], the relation of tragedy with La Casa de Bernarda Alba[4] has been much less studied, probably because that play is stylistically more purified and therefore that relation is less obvious.

Along with Bodas de Sangre, Lorca had projected a trilogy, as in Greek drama. In 1933 he was calling it “the trilogy of the Spanish earth”, and at that point it included an unknown play called La destrucción de Sodoma. However, only one year later the trilogy was expanded with Yerma, and the third work was then called El drama de las hijas de Lot[5]. La casa de Bernarda Alba was completed on June 19th, 1936, just before Lorca’s death, and it opened in Buenos Aires in 1945, performed by Margarita Xirgu and her company. In Spain it wouldn’t be represented until 1964. Although it wasn’t meant to be part of the trilogy, “The House of Bernarda Alba bears an important relationship to Blood Wedding and Yerma in as much as they all belong to the last three years, the most productive period of Lorca’s work for the theatre, and they are linked by what we may characterize as the progressive refinement of this poetic-realistic drama. Lorca’s special concern was to forge a synthesis between realism and poetry in his dramas.”[6] However, in La casa de Bernarda Alba there is almost no poetry, since Lorca intended to work with the utmost realism and was determined to purify his art. As Aristotle remarks in the Poetics, in Athens tragedy achieved its formal perfection through trial and error[7], and by his last play Lorca had written enough tragedies to go through that process himself. Furthermore, Aristotle affirms that it is not necessarily knowing theory what makes a great tragedian, but rather innate intuition for metaphor: finding similarities and being able to represent life[8]. As he had proved in his Romancero Gitano and Poeta en Nueva York, Lorca definitively had that innate capacity for metaphor, although he would not use it directly in La casa de Bernarda Alba for the sake of maintaining formal purity. Through trial and error Lorca had learned that in tragedy many times “less is more”, and he was paying more attention to structure and rhythm. He applied his innate capacity for perceiving similarities to imitate life without any ornaments.

Theater of social action

Before talking about the relation of Lorca’s rural tragedies and Greek tragedy it is important to delve into the issue of his political involvement in the context of the Spanish Republic. In his work Lorca, el poeta y su pueblo, Arturo Barea starts by stating that:

“En la obra de Lorca no se encuentra doctrina política determinada. Él mismo recalcó infinitas veces, y con razón, que él no era político. Más aún: cuando sus escritos contienen un mensaje social, es -al menos aparentemente- todo menos revolucionario y mas bien de tipo conservador (…) Las fuerzas emocionales que él liberó pasaron a formar parte, aún sin forma concreta, del vago movimiento revolucionario de España, aunque ésta no fuera su intención”[9]

On the first year of the Republic, 1931, Lorca had the intention of bringing the great classical plays to the rural peasants and the working class. With that in mind, he proposed to his friend and minister of education Fernando de los Ríos the creation of an ambulant theater company formed by university students, which he named “La Barraca.” As Barea points out, this company soon became a political weapon and “aquellos espectadores movidos por primera vez en su vida por la pasión filtrada a través del arte, eran la misma gente que tenía sus esperanzas puestas en la República (…) Las palabras del drama clásico se mezclaban con sus esperanzas presentes.”[10] Among all the plays that “La Barraca” popularized, one became particularly symbolic and inspiring: Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna. One of Lorca’s earlier plays, Mariana Pineda (1925), also worked as Fuenteovejuna, both based on a historical fact and with the capacity of becoming exemplary dramas for the present.

The question of Lorca’s political involvement has been a motive of debate since his death in August of 1936, but it can be clarified with the speech he gave in 1935, on the occasion of a representation of Yerma at the “Teatro Español” in Madrid. That day Lorca uttered the following words:

“Yo no hablo esta noche como autor ni como poeta, ni como estudiante sencillo del rico panorama de la vida del hombre, sino como ardiente apasionado del teatro de acción social. El teatro es uno de los más expresivos instrumentos para la edificación de un país, y el barómetro que marca su grandeza o su descenso. Un teatro sensible y bien orientado en todas las ramas, desde la tragedia al vodevil, puede cambiar en pocos años la sensibilidad del pueblo; y un teatro destrozado, donde las pezuñas sustituyen a las alas, puede achabacanar y adormecer a una nación entera (…) El teatro es una escuela de llanto y de risa, y una tribuna libre donde los hombres pueden poner en evidencia morales viejas o equivocadas y explicar con ejemplos vivos, normas enteras del corazón y del sentimiento del hombre”[11].

The quality of drama is, indeed, a proxy of the level of sophistication, civilization and mental health of a country. Even though he didn’t see himself as a political agent, only with his intentions Lorca had an enormous political impact in the Republican Spain. Through his plays he revealed and denounced the conservative Catholic morality that had been oppressing the feelings and emotions of the Spanish people for decades. Lorca looked upon feelings and emotions as perhaps the most important aspect of the human experience; therefore their repression represented an unbearable burden for him. Lorca’s intention was to influence the sensitivity of his country and with that eventually overcome the tyranny of a conservative morality based on appearances. In relation to the capacity that poets have to modify citizens’ sensitivities, the polemic between Plato and Aristotle regarding the function of the poets in the polis can be illuminating:

“One of Plato’s complaints is that poetry arouses emotion, and in so doing increases our tendency to be emotional; but in his view we should be bringing our emotions under control, not strengthening them in this way (Republic, 605e-6d). Aristotle has a more sophisticated and reasonable view of emotions. They are not irrational impulses. (…) So for Aristotle the crucial point is not, as it is with Plato, to suppress your emotions; it is to feel the right degree of emotion in the right circumstances.”[12]

This, of course, deals with the affirmation by Plato in the Republic (Book X) that the poets should be banished from the polis because they appeal to people’s emotions and make them act irrationally. However, Plato’s view is very limited to a certain kind of poetry, or drama, whereas Aristotle talks in quasi-medical terms, and he mainly refers to people with disordered emotional susceptibilities that tend to feel the wrong emotion for the wrong reason at the wrong moment. He argues that by stimulating the right emotions at the right time (mainly pity and fear), tragedy discharges the tendency to excess and balances people’s emotional state. That is what Aristotle calls catharsis, and in order for it to happen tragedy has to meet certain quality standards.

As seen in the speech Lorca gave at the “Teatro Español”, he would side with Aristotle inasmuch as his intention is to train the sensitivity of the whole nation through the representation of plays that question “morales viejas o equivocadas” and explain, through lively examples, the rules of the heart and the feelings of humankind. The social weapon incarnated by “La Barraca”, and the representation of plays like Fuenteovejuna, Maria Pineda, Yerma or Bodas de Sangre is an example of that. Lorca was fighting in two fronts, first to make people aware of their circumstance living in a repressive morality, and second, to incite them to action through examples of how united people succeed in their endeavors. He was aware that the task of renewing Spain was more social than political, and that the first objective was to transform the population, and then the political system. As in ancient Athens, drama had an impact on training people to fully exercise their citizenship, and Lorca followed Aristotle’s precepts by trying to equilibrate the emotional state of a society living under too much repression, as well as showing examples of united people overcoming tyrannical regimes.

Greek tragedy

The reference to the seminal argument between Plato and Aristotle leads us to the actual relation between Greek tragedy and Lorca’s work. Before turning to the play itself, it would be interesting to shed some light on the evidence that Lorca was indeed inspired by Greek tragedy and tried to emulate it:

“El 28 de octubre de 1920 escribió a su familia informándoles sobre sus inicios en el estudio del griego. Cinco años después prometió enviar a Ana María Dalí un fragmento de una Ifigenia, recién acabada, un texto perdido basado con toda probabilidad en la consideración de ésta como víctima sacrificial, asunto desarrollado en Mariana Pineda. En la Biblioteca de la Fundación Federico García Lorca se conserva una traducción castellana, publicada en 1913 por Eduardo Mier, de las Tragedias, de Eurípides, que debió consultar.”[13]

This proves that Lorca was committed to the study of Greek tragedy and that Euripides, with his special attention to women’s emotions and psychological dynamics, was his first choice among the three tragedians. But, as has been seen with the project of “La Barraca”, Lorca’s intention was not only to recuperate the ancient classics, but also the baroque, and through them be part of the delicate cultural thread of tragedy that, as George Steiner has shown[14], tends to appear only in very specific moments in history. In Steiner’s terms, Lorca’s intention was to write “pure tragedy”[15]:

“Ahora voy a terminar Yerma, una segunda tragedia mía. La primera fue Bodas de sangre… Hay que volver a la tragedia. Nos obliga a ello la tradición de nuestro teatro dramático. Tiempo habrá de hacer comedias. Mientras tanto, yo quiero dar al teatro tragedias”…

…. “Yerma es una tragedia. He procurado guardar fidelidad a los cánones… Yo he querido hacer eso: una tragedia, pura y simplemente”

“El teatro fue siempre mi vocación. Tengo un concepto del teatro en cierta forma personal y resistente. El teatro es la poesía que se levanta del libro y se hace humana. Y al hacerse, habla y grita, llora y se desespera. El teatro necesita que los personajes que aparezcan en escena lleven un traje de poesía y al mismo tiempo que se les vea los huesos, la sangre. Han de ser tan humanos, tan horrorosamente trágicos y ligados a la vida y al día con una fuerza tal, que muestren sus traiciones, que se aprecien sus olores y que salga de los labios toda la valentía de sus palabras llenas de amor o de ascos”[16].

Such description of characters could perfectly fit with Euripides’ female protagonists. In Lorca’s inclusive game of contraries, in which day and night, love and disgust, black and white, merge together, tragedy is the perfect medium for him; tragedy that acknowledges fate and incorporates it in the human experience, no matter how painful, how high the price to pay. As in Euripides (and Nietzsche[17]), the main preoccupation for Lorca was the Dionysian dimension of tragedy, that is, the irrational instincts: “Federico García Lorca, que nunca quiso enfrentarse con problemas políticos, se enfrentó abiertamente con los problemas del sexo.”[18] Lorca was more worried about incorporating uncontrollable erotic instincts within society than in how to run it from a strictly political standpoint. His female characters could often be seen as a middle ground between Phaedra and Antigone:

“Federico García Lorca defiende la primacía de los instintos amorosos sobre los criterios de la razón, de las opciones personales frente a las convenciones sociales, a pesar del trágico fin que provocan. Los imperativos morales convencionales actúan con la misma fuerza que los hados que guían la acción de los personajes clásicos. Es precisamente en esta búsqueda de la libertad donde radica la tragedia protagonizada por las mujeres lorquianas”[19]

Like the Homeric heroes, Lorca’s women do not understand the forces that operate around them and are condemned by a kind of fatality. In the three rural tragedies there is a sense of inescapable fate that the characters can’t escape, making the plays more centered on life than on people.[20] In fact, as in Oedipus Rex, many times trying to escape fate turns out to be counterproductive:

“Lo trágico de las mujeres en la obra de Lorca es que, queriendo huir de su destino de sometidas buscando la libertad, acuden a la llamada poderosa de sus fuerzas ciegas que las hunden en la tragedia y en la muerte: es la derrota de la libertad. Los amantes de Bodas de sangre se rebelan y huyen en un acto heroico de defensa del amor, pero son derrotados por el destino de muerte que les estaba asignado. La maternidad le pondría alas al espíritu de Yerma, pero de nuevo la muerte esgrime sus armas y frustra el ansia de genuina y trascendente liberación. Adela, en La casa de Bernarda Alba, rebelde y decidida, se atreve a desafiar a la sociedad, pero su valentía deja una secuela de dolor y muerte”[21]

Many of Lorca’s characters, as he himself, are in dire need to fulfill their spirituality through love, a love that will also bring about the satisfaction of their sensual needs, and will eventually set them free. However, a rigid conservative system of values perfectly designed to inhibit passion, and a tyrannical figure enforcing it, brings about “frustración sensual que provoca la tragedia: presa del vértigo del vacío, del alma enajenada se abalanza, en un supremo ímpetu de amor, hacia donde el Amor la arrastra: hacia la muerte.”[22] La Casa de Bernarda Alba is a clear example of that, where extreme coercive attitudes lead to extreme liberating actions.

Carlos Feal has insisted on the aforementioned fact that Lorca was strongly influenced by Euripides, and particularly by The Bacchae, a play that deals with the importance of worshipping Dionysus (and worshipping it right). Both in The Bachae and in La Casa de Bernarda Alba, passion and instincts (Dionysus) end up imposing their logic and leaving a trace of desolation behind:

“Dioniso triunfa. Pero su triunfo es sólo aceptable como respuesta a quienes, extremosamente, tapan sus oídos a las llamadas del dios. Quienes sin discriminación siguen esas llamadas no tendrían mejor suerte. En realidad, un extremo conduce al otro, ambos detestables. Si la superación o conciliación de los opuestos resulta (en las Bacantes) dramáticamente imposible, podría, sin embargo, decirse que, tanto Eurípides como Lorca, siembran los gérmenes de una armonía –o una anagnórisis– que debe producirse en la mente del receptor de la tragedia, una vez concluida ésta”[23].

In this occasion Carlos Feal reaffirms, once again, Aristotle’s argument according to which tragedy, by showing extremes and appealing to deep emotions, helps create an equilibrium in the spectator’s psyche.

Tragic error

In La Casa de Bernarda Alba, we find an interesting circular plot where by trying to protect honor with extreme measures Bernarda achieves the exact opposite effect. “A concern with honor, blinding Bernarda to the reality of her daughters’ needs yet simultaneously sharpening those needs in the process of denying them, is, much more than in other plays, the spring of tragedy.”[24] It is also the desperation caused by a tyranny without limits that leads Adela to give herself to Pepe el Romano.

We know from the beginning, through the symbolism of her green dress for example, that Adela needs to be dealt with differently than her sisters, but Bernarda is absolutely insensitive to her needs and applies the same draconian law to all her daughters. “Furthermore, in terms of Aristotle’s recipe for tragedy, the tragic ‘error’ in Bernarda is her pride and obsessive concern with honor, and in Adela an over-passionate defiance of her mother’s will. The Greek ‘reversal of intention’ lies, clearly, in Bernarda’s seeking to avert dishonor and cause for scandal yet, through her methods, bringing it about.”[25] This tragic mistake (hamartia) is, according to Aristotle, more effective when is not made on purpose. The hamartia can either be understood as a character flaw, fate, or, a part of the social set up, but in this play, it is a little bit of each. This way Lorca can both denounce the kind of character that Bernarda represents and the whole society she is ultimately a product of.

The general weltanschauung that Lorca projected through his plays was rather bleak, knowing that, despite the Republic, the old Spain was still present in great part of the country. As has been shown, he knew that changing the old mentality was more a matter of educating sensitivities through a new aesthetic than establishing a new political regime. Like his friend of youth Salvador Dalí, Lorca seemed to have portrayed a premonition of the Civil War through his work. Spain was a morally bankrupt society in which the lack of critical thought oftentimes ended up in absurdly evil situations that questioned human existence as a whole:

“If Bernarda were, like Calderón’s villains, merely evil, it would be easy to agree that Lorca “no toma partido; presenta”. But Lorca reveals his villain to be absurd as well as evil. Bernarda’s exaggerated behavior produces a grim comic effect (…) Because of its distorted protagonist and its static characters, La casa de Bernarda Alba not only reflects the honor tragedies of Calderón but also foreshadows the Theater of the Absurd. Like the dramatists of the Absurd, Lorca suggests that there is no such thing as human dignity in a depraved society.”[26]

In relation to the foreshadowing of the Theater of the Absurd, a lot could be said about the connection between Lorca’s tragedies and his “teatro imposible”, as well as the surrealist movement. Questioning the arbitrary moral values governing a society can set up a mechanism that, expanded de facto to a wider framework can easily question the nature of existence itself and even the medium through which it is represented.

Before starting a close reading of the text, it would be useful to describe the dynamics at play in the Alba’s household. As in a sort of ruthless natural selection, once the hierarchies are established, the sisters, the mother, and even the servants are caught up in a system of reciprocal harm in which nobody can ever win or have a final say; passion is always there moving characters to action at the same time as it is being repressed: “Bernarda’s tyranny becomes inevitably her daughter’s tyranny of each other and passion’s tyranny of each of them.”[27] She seems to control her household and win little victories that will eventually make her lose the whole battle, turning herself into a victim of that vicious cycle. The play effectively presents a combination of tyranny, honor and egocentrism in which Bernarda epitomizes the three of them in a personality that, above all is one-sided, and unable to open herself to others’ sensitivities.

The play

The text of La Casa de Bernarda Alba is segmented with the multiple occasions in which the matriarch demands silence. “Silencio!” is the first word she utters and also the last one. That represents the incapacity of the old values for creating a new discourse or adapting to the needs of human instincts. Silence is sterile and unproductive, as Bernarda’s household, and it allows no questioning.

The struggle that Bernarda is going through has to do with the maintenance of the traditional morality, but always under her own puritan and orthodox interpretation of it. “¡Cuánto hay que sufrir y luchar para hacer que las personas sean decentes y no tiren al monte demasiado!”[28] These are the words of reaction to the episode of Paca la Roseta, in which this woman was raped by a few men of the town, although, of course, non-natives. It is followed by Poncia’s comment regarding the age of Bernarda’s daughters who, according to her, should already be getting married. In Spanish, the common saying partially used by Bernarda: “la cabra tira al monte” is referred to the goats that tend to go to the mountain, as a way of showing how people tend to behave according to their instincts if they are not controlled.

Etymologically, tragedy comes from tragos and oidia, which means song of the goat. It has been argued that it had to do with the fact that the winner of the tragic competition received a goat’s fleece as a prize, but it is also worth pointing out that the goat, as Dionysus, is a creature that lives on the limits, between civilization and the wilderness, usually leaning towards the second. For this reason, in Athens, the festivities were dedicated to Dionysus, because it was a ritual celebration for the coming of spring (elaphebolion) in which the instincts were reawakened after the winter period and, progressively, that ancient ritual was reconverted into a dramatic representation in the polis.

In Lorca’s world, the difference between men and women is crucial. By showing this situation he denounces the hypocrisy reigning in Spanish society of his time, in which men were forgiven for unleashing their sexual instinct while women were thoroughly repressed:

“Poncia: Hace años vino otra de éstas y yo misma di dinero a mi hijo mayor para que fuera. Los hombres necesitan estas cosas.

Adela: Se les perdona todo.

Amelia: Nacer mujer es el mayor castigo.”[29]

This last sentence reminds us of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, a playin which the chorus affirms that not to be born is best, and to die young second best. The same concept can be found in Calderon’s La Vida es Sueño, where Segismundo talks about the sin of being born and the high prize to pay for merely existing. In a similar manner, in Lorca’s case the victims are women and their condition, since they are unable to let go their passions and are condemned to live against their own nature.

Notwithstanding, what we find here is not only a conflict of passion, but also a class conflict, in which the main reason why Bernarda doesn’t allow her daughters to marry is because there are no appropriate suitors in the village. That, of course, dignifies her, and she would never move to another village because that would make her lose her position of dominance.

“Poncia (Siempre con crueldad): No, Bernarda: aquí pasa una cosa muy grande. Yo no te quiero echar la culpa, pero tú no has dejado a tus hijas libres, Martirio es enamoradiza, digas tú lo que quieras. ¿Por qué no la dejaste casar con Enrique Humanes? ¿Por qué el mismo día que iba a venir a la ventana le mandaste recado que no viniera?

Bernarda (Fuerte.): ¿Y lo haría mil veces! ¿Mi sangre no se junta con la de los Humanes mientras yo viva!”[30]

But beyond such recalcitrant class elitism, Bernarda’s main obsession is to keep a clean household façade, regardless of what happens inside her daughters’ hearts: “Cada uno sabe lo que piensa por dentro. Yo no me meto en los corazones, pero quiero buena fachada y armonía familiar. ¿Lo entiendes?”[31] The old Spanish puritan morality that only cares about image and follows the conventions without ever breaking or even questioning them, the “España que duerme” that Machado denounced, has been fixated on honor for centuries. However, Poncia, the servant, reminds Bernarda that she can’t control what is happening inside her daughter’s hearts, and that functions as a premonition of disaster: “Poncia: No pasa nada por fuera. Eso es verdad. Tus hijas están y viven como metidas en alacenas. Pero ni tú ni nadie puede vigilar por el interior de los pechos.”[32] In relation to that, E. R. Dodds’ distinction between guilt and shame cultures can be helpful to understand the conflict at stake:

“Any guilt-culture will, I suppose, provide a soil favorable to the growth of puritanism, since it creates an unconscious need for self-punishment which puritanism gratifies. But in Greece it was, apparently the impact of shamanistic beliefs which set the process going. By Greek minds these beliefs were reinterpreted in a moral sense; and when that was done, the world of bodily experience inevitably appeared as a place of darkness and penance, the flesh became an ‘alien tunic’. ‘Pleasure’ says the old Pythagorean catechism, ‘is in all circumstances bad’; for we came here to be punished and we ought to be punished.”[33]

The Pythagorean dictum is an anticipation of the Christian morality that would come afterwards and that condemned the pleasures of the flesh. Dodds shows that when the dominant morality is puritan, as in Bernarda’s case, these pleasures provoke guilt. But Bernarda’s tragic flaw (hamartia) is pretending to impose both a guilt and shame morality at once. She wants her daughters to feel guilt in their interior as well as project the right image towards the exterior. That is the perfect set up for tragedy, and the outcome is a disaster provoked by the motifs of the heart (guilt), but automatically silenced towards the exterior world (shame). The final question here is whether Bernarda herself feels any guilt at all, and the answer is probably negative, since over all, her character represents one-sided amoral and tyrannical domination.

Adela, who wants to walk the streets in her green dress during the mourning period, questions such an unfair and oppressive model throughout the whole play. Not only that, but she ends up challenging the hierarchical system by trying to “steal” Pepe el Romano from her sister Angustias and then symbolically breaking her mother’s cane in two: ¡Aquí se acabaron las voces de presidio! (Adela arrebata el bastón a su madre y lo parte en dos.) Esto hago yo con la vara de la dominadora. No dé usted un paso más. ¡En mí no manda nadie más que Pepe!”[34] At the end Adela takes her own life after understanding that her mother killed Pepe el Romano. This can be interpreted both as a passion suicide and as an exemplary gesture, just like Ajax’s suicide in Sophocles’ play. She protests against a system that she can’t fight anymore and by committing suicide she appeals to her mother and sisters’ guilt. However, by what happens after her death, it is clear that there is no guilt in Bernarda’s heart, but rather shame towards the public opinion:

“Bernarda: Y no quiero llantos. La muerte hay que mirarla cara a cara. ¡Silencio! (A otra hija.) ¡A callar he dicho! (A otra hija.) ¡Las lágrimas cuando estés sola! ¡Nos hundiremos todas en un mar de luto! Ella, la hija menor de Bernarda Alba, ha muerto virgen. ¿Me habéis oído? Silencio, silencio he dicho. ¡Silencio!”[35].

In such stifling atmosphere, Bernarda keeps repressing her daughters’ instincts and refrains them from even crying. Lorca makes her say that “¡Nos hundiremos en un mar de luto!”, when the actual common expression in Spanish would be “¡Nos hundiremos en un mar de lágrimas!”. This sea of tears is what Bernarda is trying to repress, since she is interested in keeping the image of decency and purity towards the exterior; hence the obsession for hiding the fact that Adela didn’t die a virgin. And not only that but, in fact, she died pregnant. Such incapacity for dealing with the inner conflicts and only focusing on honor (shame) has brought about a situation in which the accumulation of instinct and passion in the house made it so “pregnant” that it was impossible to repress, and ended up in an abortion by death. Bernarda is finally exposed as a total tyrant, and not the traditional honorable matriarch she fashions herself as.

Finally, before concluding, it is interesting to note the figure of Maria Josefa, the grandmother that functions as a chorus for the play. “Blood Wedding and Yerma both have choral sections which perform the same elucidative function that that they did in classical tragedy” [36] whereas in La casa de Bernarda Alba the function of the chorus is performed by an old woman whose appearances are like windows in the thick oppressive walls of the house: “Pepe el Romano es un gigante. Todas lo queréis. Pero él os va a devorar, porque vosotras sois granos de trigo. ¿No, granos de trigo, no! ¿Ranas sin lengua!”[37] Her appearances are in part comical, expressing her will to get married and travel to the sea, but at the same time she expresses the truth that nobody dares to say. As a Dionysian character, she is full of life and craziness; she is beyond good and evil, although she did belong to the oppressive regime in the past. It is only when she became insane and powerless that she got to tell the truth.


The intention of this study was not only to show Lorca’s relation to Greek tragedy, but also to trace the parallelisms that exist between his work and ancient drama, regardless of Lorca’s original intention to do so. The Andalusian poet was aware that the family of tragedians in western culture is very small and exclusive, and that not even the great tragedians have been able to produce many “pure” tragedies. Following Steiner’s cannon, we could barely include in that family the three Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Racine, Calderón, Buchner and just a few more. Aside from the fact that, as Lorca knew very well, it is necessary to study the formal aspects of classical tragedy in order to reproduce it, tragedy is a genre that tends to appear in moments of paradigm shifting. The Second Spanish Republic, with its inner conflict between progress and tradition (that eventually led to a civil war) was also one of these moments of irreconcilable contraries, and that permeated La Casa de Bernarda Alba.

In order to recreate the atmosphere of vacuum that many tragedies have, Lorca isolates his characters in a house with thick walls and sucks the air of the rooms through the silences that Bernarda is constantly imposing. Such simplicity and emptiness combined with the clever profiling of the archetypal characters allows Lorca to generate a microcosm in which everything is determined and fate is inescapable, which is an exceptional achievement in a world devoid of gods (unlike Greek tragedy).

As Hegel formalized from a philosophical perspective, tragedy is nourished by the clash of irreconcilable ways of understanding the world. In Athens 5th century b. c. there was a conflict between mythos and logos that tragedy problematized, as well as the conflict epitomized by Antigone between the individual and the state. As has been shown, in La Casa de Bernarda Alba the conflict at stake is closer to Euripides’ The Bacchae or Hippolytus in which what is problematized is the incapacity to deal with instinct and passion. If a dichotomy could be drawn between Nietzsche and Hegel’s interpretations of Greek tragedy, Lorca would fall more on the nietzschean side in relation to the characters’ personal conflict, but the general framework and his larger political function would bring him closer to Hegel. It is very difficult to classify Lorca’s dramatic work in general, but the highly purified and even schematized nature of La Casa de Bernarda Alba made it even more vulnerable to misinterpretations:

The House of Bernarda Alba, with this relentless examination of the dynamics of oppression and the tragic consequences of a systematic suffocation of the human spirit, is Lorca’s most highly developed response to his own call for a theatre committed to the exposure of the struggles and conflicts of his times. During the Franco Regime in Spain, a great deal was made of Lorca’s non-involvement in politics; the non-political nature of his writings was asserted again and again. In some cases, this constituted a well-intentioned effort to ‘rehabilitate’ Lorca by ‘neutralizing’ him in such a way that he could not continue to be attacked and censored for political reasons by the dictatorship (…) Moreover, there is now ample evidence that Lorca intended to move his theatre experimentally in the direction of the portrayal of political and ideological struggle when his life was so abruptly ended”[38]

The speech Lorca gave on occasion of the representation of Yerma that has been previously reproduced[39] is an evidence of such political and ideological struggle. Lorca was a poet of the people and tried to intervene in society through his drama. Even though it had its origins in ritual (which has been studied by the Cambridge school), Greek theater had an important political function that has recently been studied by Simon Goldhill. According to his structuralist analysis[40], tragedy was a powerful social agent in ancient Athens and it was used to unify and attune the polis in a certain state of mind. When Lorca took the lead of “La Barraca” and performed his plays all over the country, he was also trying to educate people through the assumption that there are basic emotions and instincts that need to be attuned and included within society, but the Spanish context of the epoch was too atavistically repressive for such endeavor.

After his homecoming from New York, Lorca had the dream of opening people’s eyes and liberating the Spanish youth from the burden of prejudice, but precisely because of that he was detained (as was Socrates) for “corrupting the youth”. Lorca was particularly interested in scapegoat figures in his tragedies, and, like one of his characters, he ended up being one himself.


– Anderson, Reed.  Federico García Lorca.  MacMillan Press. London. 1984.

– Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. and intro. by Malcolm Heath.Penguin Books. London. 1996.

– Barea, Arturo. Lorca, el poeta y su pueblo. Editorial Losada. Buenos Aires. 1956.

– Boscán de Lombardi, Lilia. “El fracaso de la libertad: García Lorca y la tragedia griega”. AIH. Actas XII (1995). Centro Virtual Cervantes.

– Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1951.

– Edwards, Gwynne. Lorca: The Theater Beneath the Sand. Marion Boyars. London. 1980.

– Feal, Carlos. “Eurípides y Lorca: Yerma”. Centro Virtual Cervantes. 1986

– Fernandez Cifuentes, Luis. “Garcia Lorca y el teatro convencional”. Iberoromanía. nº 17. 1983. pp. 66-99

– Frenández Galiano, Manuel. “Los dioses de Federico” CH, enero de 1968, pags 31-34

– García Lorca, Federico. La Casa de Bernarda Alba. Cátedra. Madrid. 2013.

– Goldhill, Simon. “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology” in Winkler, J. and Zeitlin, F. (Eds.) Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Princeton, 1990. pp. 97-129

– Gonzalez del Valle, Luis. Tragedia en Unamuno, Valle-Inclan y Lorca. E. Torres. New York. 1975

González del Valle, Luís. “Bodas de sangre y sus elementos trágicos”. AO. XXI

– Halliburton, Charles Lloyd. “García Lorca, the Tragedian: An Aristotelian Analysis of Bodas de sangre”. Revista de Estudios Hispánicos, 2 (1968), 35-40.

– Higginbotham, Virginia. The Comic Spirit of Federico García Lorca. University of Texas Press. Austin. 1976

– Hogan, Robert. Drama; the Major Genres; an Introductory Critical Anthology. Dodd, Mead. New York. 1962.

– Krynen, Jean. “Lorca y la tragedia”. Cahiers du monde hispanique et luso-brésilien, Nº 9. Presses Universitaires du Midi. 1967. pp. 85-95.

– Martínez Nadal, Rafael. “Ecos clásicos en las obras de Federico García Lorca y Luís Cernuda” en Rodríguez y Bravo. 1986.

– Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Trans. into English by Shaun Whiteside. Michael Tanner (Ed.) London. 2003.

– Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. London: Faber and Faber. 1961.

– Steiner, George. “Tragedy, Pure and Simple” in Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond edited by Silk, M. S. New York: Claredon Press. 1998. pp. 534-546.

– Vilches de Frutos, Mª Francisca. “Introducción a La casa de Bernarda Alba”. Cátedra. Madrid. 2013.


[1]“Bodas de sangre y sus elementos trágicos”. Luís González del Valle. AO XXI

[2]As did Jean Krynen in “Lorca y la tragedia” Cahiers du monde hispanique et luso-brésilien, Nº 9 (1967), pp. 85-95. Presses Universitaires du Midi.

[3] Feal, Carlos. “Eurípides y Lorca: Observaciones sobre el cuadro final de Yerma”. Centro Virtual Cervantes and “Bodas de sangre y sus elementos trágicos”

[4]An example would be Robert Hogan with Drama; the Major Genres; an Introductory Critical Anthology. Dodd, Mead. New York. 1962.

[5]Anderson, Reed.  Federico García Lorca.  London: MacMillan Press, 1984. p. 87

[6]Ibid. p. 88

[7]Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. and intro. by Malcolm Heath.Penguin Books. London. 1996.p. 8

[8]Ibid. p 28. “The art of poetry belongs to people who are naturally gifted or mad”.

[9]Barea, Arturo. Lorca, el poeta y su pueblo. Editorial Losada. Buenos Aires. 1956 p. 10

[10]Ibid. p. 35

[11]Barea, p. 37

[12] Aristotle, p. 38

[13] “Introducción a La casa de Bernarda Alba” por Vilches de Frutos, Mª Francisca. Cátedra. Madrid. 2013. p. 69

[14]Steiner, George. The Death of Tragedy. London: Faber and Faber, 1961. In his early work, George Steiner had a very restricted ideal of tragedy, according to which only a few plays could genuinely be considered as such. From his point of view, it was not possible to write tragedy anymore because the contemporary world is without arbitrary gods or any sense of higher power that give characters the possibility to curse their own destiny.

[15]Steiner, George. “Tragedy, Pure and Simple” in Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond edited by Silk, M. S. Claredon Press. New York. 1996. pp. 534-546.

[16]Obras Completas, 4ª edición, Aguilar, Madrid, 1960, pp. 1709, 1731, 1757 (statements made in 1934, 1935 y 1936)

[17] Although Nietzsche would abominate of seeing his name attached to Euripides, since he argued that with Euripides tragedy started its decay. Paradoxically though, Euripides was considered “the most tragic of the tragedians”.

[18]Barea, p. 38

[19]Vilches de Frutos, Mª Francisca. p. 70

[20]Again, in accordance with Aristotle’s precepts: “Tragedy is not an imitation of persons, but of actions and of life”. p. 11

[21]Boscán de Lombardi, Lilia. “El fracaso de la libertad: García Lorca y la tragedia griega”. AIH. Actas XII (1995). Centro Virtual Cervantes. p. 107

[22]Krynen, Jean. “Lorca y la tragedia”. Cahiers du monde hispanique et luso-brésilien, Nº 9 (1967), pp. 85-95. Presses Universitaires du Midi.

[23]Feal, Carlos. “Eurípides y Lorca: Observaciones sobre el cuadro final de Yerma”. Centro Virtual Cervantes.

[24]Edwards, Gwynne. Lorca: The Theater Beneath the Sand. Marion Boyars. London. 1980. p. 238

[25]Ibid. p. 241

[26] Higginbotham, Virginia. The Comic Spirit of Federico García Lorca. University of Texas Press. Austin. 1976. p.118

[27]Edwards. p. 252

[28] García Lorca, Federico. La Casa de Bernarda Alba. Cátedra. Madrid. 2013. p. 164

[29] García Lorca. p. 212

[30] Ibid. p. 229

[31] García Lorca. p. 250

[32] Ibid. p. 257

[33] Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1951.     p. 152

[34] García Lorca. p. 275

[35] García Lorca. p. 280

[36]Anderson, p. 126

[37] Ibid. p. 267

[38]Anderson, p. 132

[39] Barea, p. 37

[40]Goldhill, Simon. “The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology” in Winkler, J. and Zeitlin, F. (Eds.) Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Princeton, 1990. pp. 97-129

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