The House of Bernarda Alba Is ‘Photographic Documentary’

Federico García Lorca bragged that, with The House of Bernarda Alba, he had finally managed to write a play without a word of poetry in it. But while he was writing Bernarda Alba, he was also starting work on a metaphorically dense sequence of poems inspired by the holy sonnets of the 17th century Spanish mystic San Juan de la Cruz. San Juan’s Dark Night of the Soul records a spiritual crisis with the writer’s relationship with God. Lorca’s interest in Catholicism was more artistic than religious, and although his sonnets express the same degree of agony and uncertainty as San Juan’s, Lorca took erotic frustration and fulfillment as his themes.

The poems were inspired in part by Lorca’s new love affair with a young athlete and artist named Juan Ramírez de Lucas. Ramírez de Lucas and Lorca were making plans for a romantic escape to Latin America when the poet was brutally assassinated by fascist soldiers in the early stages of the Spanish Civil War, just two months after writing Bernarda Alba. He left the Sonnets of Dark Love unfinished.

Many love poets write straightforwardly about their feelings, but Lorca believed in the vitality of imagery. He wanted his reader to see, in their mind’s eye, the metaphorical symbol of the emotion before feeling anything. This poem, with its blunt title, is as straightforward as Lorca gets.

“The Poet Speaks the Truth”

I want to cry and tell you of my pain

So you will want, so you will cry for me

When evening comes, flooded with nightingales,

With a knife, with kisses, and, my love, with you.

I want to slay this solitary witness

For the brute assassination of my flowers,

And then convert my tears and feverish sweats

To an everlasting bale of hearty wheat.


The thread of ‘I love you love me’ unspools

But never finds an end, forever blazing

With the decrepit sun and aging moon.


What you don’t share and I will never ask–

Well, let’s leave that for Death, the Absolute.

She casts no shadow over shaking flesh.


(trans. Josh Platt)


To venture an interpretation:

To be with the one I want is not enough. To say “I love you” and be told “I love you too” is not enough. And, although it’s a forceful distraction, even sex with the one I want is not enough. I want to know that the one I want suffers as much in his desire for me as I do in my desire for him. Why? Because only that certainty can give me the feeling that my love will last.

As torturous as this psychological logic can be in the erotic realm, how much more powerful it becomes within families. Even the most loving relationships between parents and children and between siblings revolve around need and rejection, control and disregard. There are times when we feel that, in order to measure the significance of our love for parents, siblings, or even our children, we find a way to demand that they suffer for us, just a little, as a test. We steal a favorite toy, we deliberately disobey a rule, we give advice which we know will wound more than it will console. The family in The House of Bernarda Alba is addicted to these little tests of love, little cruelties. Cramped under the same roof for decades with little prospect of change, the malice accumulates until the last drop of unadulterated love evaporates. Offered by Lorca as a ‘photographic documentary’ of the lives of rural women in early 20th century Spain, The House of Bernarda Alba is a parable about erotic desire and family love in dangerous times.

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