Most high school theater is of a type that relies on popular American playwrights and light comedy. Once in a while schools take on drama, typically something like Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” or if more daring and ambitious, then Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” about the Salem witch trials.
When I first saw the flier advertising Carson High’s performance of “The House of Bernarda Alba” by Federico Garcia Lorca posted on several bulletin boards at the Carson City Community Center in late September, I did a double take. Nothing could have been more thrilling or exciting to me, and I walked around in a glow thinking what a perfect play for the high school to perform.
Federico Garcia Lorca was born in 1898 near Granada, Spain. His father was a wealthy farmer and his mother a teacher. His talents were extraordinary. He was a pianist, a painter, a poet and a playwright. As a student at university he wrote his first play in 1920. By 1927 he had his first real success with “Mariana Pineda,” sets designed by Salvador Dali, his good friend. In 1929 he was in New York, attending Columbia University when he wrote “The Poet in New York,” but those poems were not published until 1940, four years after his death.
His death, generally characterized as murder or assassination by a Fascist firing squad, occurred in 1936. Although he was not political, he became a political martyr, and his last play, “The House of Bernarda Alba,” written in 1936 was banned in Spain for decades by Franco’s government. In fact, its first production occurred in 1945 in Buenos Aires.
The play, featuring only women and one man who’s never seen but is the object of desire for two of the women, is about the repression of absolute authority. Bernarda, the mother, tyrannizes her five daughters. Her second husband has just died. She announces there will be a mourning period of eight years. This means confinement for the daughters which her youngest daughter refuses to tolerate because she loves Pepe el Romano and visits him secretly which ultimately results in her death.
Presented at the Community Center’s Black Box Theater, it was difficult to believe this beautiful, atmospheric, symbolically rich play was a high school production. The set design was spare, yet sophisticated and evocative. Pepe el Romano, the “unseen” young man, is cleverly silhouetted against the exterior white “walls” of the Alba house. His absence makes his presence all the more felt because the melancholy music emanating from his guitar conveys not only his longing, but all of the daughters’ and even our own.
The stark, black dresses of the mother and daughters; the black veils of respect and tradition we watch the women don at the beginning, reflect not only the ritualistic mourning, but mirror the daughters’ submissve posture.
In many ways, this play as presented, struck me as an elegy. More typically a poem, an elegy is often a meditation on death, love, or war. In “The House of Bernarda Alba” we see how elegy highlights what the young women want (life and freedom) by showing us its absence. It compares how things are with how they might have been.
I was intensely moved by the young women actors, by their enthusiasm, commitment and joyous pride. I applaud Carson High School for recognizing we live in a country that’s not restrictive, that we embrace and appreciate cultures other than the familiar American.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.