What sells best in commercial theater is song and dance, a popular beat and finger snapping tunes that come together in a form called “musical.” That idea could not be farther from the current production of a musical based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s final play, The House of Bernarda Alba. This version is called Bernarda Alba distinguishing it from the play and as in opera, characters sing the story. Still, the title is a bit of a misnomer in that “musical” often suggests open hearted fun,nothing at all like this script, its mood, or music. Composer, Michael John LaChiusa, set the play to a fascinating score filled with passages of lyrical darkness, yet still far brighter than Lorca’s original.
Lorca’s masterwork is austere, grave, frighteningly violent, a dark dramatic poem of sex and death in a fabric of forbidding religiosity. The “house” takes its identity from the matriarch, who assumes the role with tight lipped determination immediately after her husband’s funeral, the play’s time and place. She locks the door against the outside world imprisoning seven daughters within. They will live and die as virgins, she announces. Alba, which means “dawn,” should literally conquer death, whereas she conspires with it. Thus the play’s modernist irony. This simple symbolism in Lorca’s Catholic Spain, added to the bare action, at once both enfranchise woman, that ordinarily powerless creature, and present a terrifying result of liberation.
Insofar as Bernarda has a socialized character, howsoever minimal, she is rigid, fierce, tyrannical, an embodiment of power long, long suppressed and left to fester. She sees women, her seven daughters, as man’s creatures, not merely subservient but without independent will power or purpose. When her energy is suddenly released, she as much as causes tragedy. The shocking dramatic consequence plays out when the youngest daughter, who has a secret lover, hangs herself at the end, mercifully off stage.
Still, more compelling than in her lightly sketched social milieu, Bernarda is the bad mother of folklore, the cruel stepmother of fairy tale, a nightmare image close to Lorca’s poetic inspiration. In the vocabulary of modern drama, girls trying not to be mothers reappear again and again, sometimes as a homosexual fantasy, sometimes as an anti-feminist one, like Hedda Gabler. While Lorca’s text hovers from time to time over naturalism in the dialogue, the plot calls for a stylized, nearly ritualized, expression. Drama and theater come together. It follows that the daughters are not individualized; they give vent to energies for which there is no place in polite, middle class society. In this brilliant choreography, they move as one, while they moan, chant, keen their sexual desire, almost knowing in their song that it will erupt despite their mother’s repressiveness. To act on sexual desire, as the youngest daughter does, is to welcome death in reprisal. In Lorca’s Catholic Spain, the twentieth century refers only to chronology, in no way to theme.
Bernada’s justification for condemning the daughters to grow old and bitter in spinsterhood is the village’s lack of men of their class. But everyone is beneath their station in this rural backwater. To make matters worse, custom dictates that the family of the dead should go into eight years of mourning, so when Bernarda bolts the huge door on the last mourner she executes the prison sentence. In general, in tone and attitude, plot disappears into the more primitive subject of mourning. A strain of gypsy in the music and flamenco in the dance brilliantly convey the work’s fevered emotionalism. At the same time, in posture and costume, the young women express an image of suspended desire. It projects even in the stiff postures of the widow and daughter at the moment they are left to themselves after the house empties of funeral guests.
The motif of barrenness and unappeasable longing repeat at all levels of the production’s design. Eight armless wooden chairs, to take a minor example, line up against the white stone wall at the back with its huge door shut against the world. When Bernarda draws the bolt, an sense of airlessness immediately descends over the daughters, illogical as this seems. They stand obediently, silently, draped in black; only a patch of face shows that they possess bodies. At one point, stately in their boredom, they mime sewing their trousseaux. They sing of anticipated marriage, but this is mere convention: they have no other purpose. One daughter of a different father possess her own wealth and therefore may speak out, but her theme repeats the others’. The only true rebel among the women is an old white-haired grandmother, serving as a chorus, who wants to live again; she shouts that she wants to marry again, wants a man, but she is mad.