The play opens in "a very white room" in the house of Bernarda Alba, in the midst of summer. On the walls are paintings of "unlikely landscapes full of nymphs or legendary kings." When the curtain rises, nobody is onstage, though bells can be heard from offstage.
La Poncia, the head maid, enters with another servant. They talk together about the funeral service of Bernarda's husband, from which they have just come. La Poncia complains that the service was long ("two hours of mumbo jumbo") and mentions how Magdalena, one of Bernarda's daughters, fainted. Though the other servant is worried about eating any of the food lest Bernarda catch them, La Poncia is hungry and says they have time to eat before Bernarda, that "domineering old tyrant," returns. As they start to eat, they hear Maria Josefa, Bernarda's 80-year old mother, screaming for Bernarda from offstage and they lament how Bernarda keeps Maria Josefa locked up.
La Poncia warns the servant to make sure everything is immaculately cleaned, since Bernarda will be quick to punish them and is certain to keep a grudge. La Poncia ironically remarks that Bernarda is the "cleanest," the "decentest," and "the highest everything," and thus her husband is lucky to have died.
The bells outside stop. The servant asks whether they are prepared to welcome all the guests soon to arrive, and La Poncia brushes the concern off, recalling how people stopped visiting after Bernarda's father died. Thinking of how Bernarda has kept her under her thumb for so many years and forced her to spy on neighbors, La Poncia daydreams aloud of the day when she will have enough money to "spit in her face [for] a whole year." La Poncia also considers that Bernarda's life is not perfect, since the latter must look after her "five ugly daughters," only one of whom, the eldest Angustias from an earlier marriage, has any money.
The bells start again, marking the final prayer. La Poncia decides to go hear the priest's last song and then imitates him until it makes her cough. She leaves.
The servant, alone, imitates the bells as a Beggar Woman and her young daughter come to beg for scraps from the kitchen. The servant shoos them away, saying that she is going to take the scraps for herself today. The beggar leaves, and the servant speaks to herself as she scrubs, complaining about Bernarda's dead husband. She makes an implication that he used to "lift [her] skirts" when nobody was looking. Her spite quickly turns to great despair as she laments the passing of the man, believing she loved him more than any other.
As she speaks, women dressed in mourning begin to enter. Two hundred of them enter and fill the stage, each carrying a fan. Last of all, Bernarda and her five daughters enter. Bernarda reprimands the servant for crying and for not having cleaned adequately. The servant leaves.
One woman suggests Bernarda show pity to the servant, but Bernarda blows the woman off as impertinent. She likewise criticizes Magdalena (who had fainted in church) for crying. The only subject she deigns to discuss is the fieldwork, and all agree that it is hotter now than it has been in years. Bernarda then instructs La Poncia to bring lemonade to the men who are congregated on the patio and not to let them drag mud through the house.
One girl mentions to Angustias that Pepe el Romano was at the funeral, but Bernarda corrects the girl, saying they only saw Pepe's mother and assumed Pepe was there. She then makes a suggestion that the girl's aunt was sitting inappropriately close to another man, and some of the women privately criticize her for her cruelty. Bernarda follows that "women in church shouldn't look at any man but the priest." Again, the women, La Poncia now included, speak ill of Bernarda, with La Poncia suggesting her sanctimony derives from her own lack of sexual fulfillment. Their criticisms are interrupted when Bernarda leads a call-and-response prayer, in which all the women participate.
The women start to file out as Bernarda bangs her cane on the ground to frighten them away. The men have sent some money in to Bernarda, in exchange for which Bernarda instructs La Poncia to send them out some brandy. Finally, Bernarda chases away a girl who tries to show some sympathy for Magdalena.
To understand any of Lorca's major plays requires an understanding of his aesthetic of the theater. Scholars have debated whether he was primarily a poet whose lyrical sense worked against dramatic structure in his plays, or a playwright whose poetry was always seeking a narrative form. It seems that Lorca's plays are a marvelous synthesis of his interest in lyrical language and dramatic archetypes.
Lorca wanted to confront an audience with resonant and evocative symbols and metaphor through plays grounded in reality but interested in transcendence. The House of Bernarda Alba, the last play produced in his lifetime, in some ways seems to confound this understanding, since it has a more 'realistic' scenario than most of his major tragedies. But an analysis of even this first half of Act I shows that Lorca has simply cut down on lyrical excess while still exploring grand themes. While the writing has its lyrical moments, it is remarkably dense in that almost every single line delves into one of the play's primary themes – nothing is superfluous or sounds like banter, but either reinforces or contradicts one of the major questions the play seeks to explore.
The first section of Act I establishes the atmosphere and major themes that the play seeks to explore. Some of the theatrical tools Lorca uses to establish this atmosphere are color, silence, and thick symbolism. As in his later plays, each act begins with a description of the room's color – in this case, white, which sets up a creepy, domineering aesthetic that is convoluted when the legions of women dressed in black enter. Also, the play begins with a prolonged silence, interrupted by bells chiming from offstage throughout the act, establishing a mood of deep longing and dread. Lastly, Lorca's symbolism is incessant. The overbearing heat and the white color of the room represent Bernarda's ironic attempts to enforce purity upon her home. The paintings on the walls of "unlikely… nymphs or legendary kings" provide a great contrast to the limited life Bernarda espouses.
The opening also establishes that this is a house rife with suffering. In some ways, the suffering is explicitly related, particularly by La Poncia in her many tirades about Bernarda. Magdalena is crying throughout the entire scene in which the mourners fill the house. This is an element easily lost on the page but which in performance creates an eerie sense of dread. Considering that the play is named not for a character but for the house, we leave this first section of the play with the sense that the house itself stands as metaphor for a worldview that sees suffering as the human condition.
All of Lorca's particular fascinations are present almost immediately in this act. Most important is sexuality. Throughout the entire play, a man is never seen on stage. When men are present, it is always offstage and in the words of others. The pains Bernarda takes to keep her house "clean" and the whiteness of the set are ironic given the characters' unfulfilled desire. Bernarda squashes any attempt at emotion, lambasting Magdalena for crying over her father's death, demanding the servant show "less shrieking," and refusing to let the visitors show emotional sympathy for the family's suffering. Her cane is a symbol of her tyrannical control, as she uses it violently to quash emotion. She won't let the men walk into the house, fearful of what they might "drag in" (more than mud, we're to assume). Worst of all, Bernarda's strict sexual attitudes manifest themselves in cruelty towards others. She sees sexuality in the way women look at men in church and talk about Pepe, and accuses the aunt of one of her visitors of acting inappropriately by sitting too close to a man. The other women find this sanctimony shocking, and La Poncia believes Bernarda's problem is that she herself needs to have sex. Bernarda's recently deceased husband practiced his own lust upon the unnamed servant, who not only recalls having her skirts lifted by him, but also laments his passing, since she loved him. It is this extreme repression of sexual feeling that will provide much of the play's tragic thrust.
While Bernarda's vicious comments about the visitor's aunt are shocking to guests, the sense of provincial villages as full of cruel gossip that refuses to allow individual privacy pervades the play, and in fact sanctimony is not unique to Bernarda. Even in this opening, the oppressive nature of communities too tightly knit is created by the "200 women" (a theatrical impossibility) who crowd into the house.
But we should not understand Bernarda solely in terms of sexuality. There is a larger theme in her repressive attitudes, that of individual identity versus the constraints of conformity. Bernarda approaches problems by locking them away preemptively; Maria Josefa is the best example. She does not allow people to live and make mistakes, but rather forces them into constraints so that they cannot attempt anything. The only individual whose life has been explicitly stifled in this section is La Poncia, but in the next section of the act, when the sisters are introduced, the theme will grow more prevalent.
Another of the preoccupations that the play explores is death. Again, Lorca's symbolism is intentionally unsubtle, and so too is his dread of death. The first line of the play – "the tolling of those bells hits me right between the eyes" – is telling in that the servant is confronting her realization that death will come to us all. Indeed, she will later speak aloud that all die the same way regardless of class, a comment on mortality more than economy.
Religion is also pervasive in this section. While La Poncia does complain over the "two hours of mumbo jumbo" involved in the funeral rites, it is unquestionable that the characters accept the rituals of Catholicism as ingrained. The theme of religion is merged with that of sexuality when the servant's speech about the dead man morphs from a tirade on class and death into a lament of longing for her sexual mate, and when Bernarda ends this section with a call-and-response religious ritual immediately after La Poncia suggests she is "itching for a man's warmth." Lorca confuses the themes by suggesting that sex, death, and religion are interdependent forces. In a way, this hybrid reflects the way Lorca exemplifies the Spanish character. It makes sense he, a poet considered to represent the Spanish identiy, would be drawn towards this strange mixture of forces that one can see reflected throughout Spanish history.
The theme of class division is also present right from the beginning of the play. La Poncia's resentment is unquestionably grounded in her poverty, as is the servant's lament that even Bernarda's poor daughters have more than a servant. Bernarda thinks of the poor as "animals" and seems to be passionate only about material things. She only offers the men brandy once they offer her money. Lorca posits materialism as antithetical to more poetic, transcendent pursuits, which include love, and by extension, lust and sexuality.
While Lorca is not explicitly attempting to write in the vein of classical tragedy, his plays are titled as tragedies. Tragedy can be understood as a dramatic form wherein an individual's desires are counteracted by immutable forces, at the hands of which the individual inevitably perishes. At this point in the play, there are several forces to consider as the tragic force – repression, small-town life, death, even class – and Lorca's firm command of the tragic sense is unmistakable even if we can't pinpoint exactly from what angle the eventual doom will come.