The play, written in 1936, takes place in (surprise!) the house of Bernarda Alba, an elderly woman with five aging, unmarried daughters. After the death of her second husband, Bernarda declares that her family's mourning period will last eight years. This plot point is sort of forgotten in favor of a love hexagon between Pepe el Romano, the handsomest man in the village, and all five of Bernarda's daughters. Twenty-five year old Pepe is engaged to the eldest daughter, thirty-nine year old Angustias, because she is the only daughter with money; her dowry was left to her by her father, Bernarda's first husband. The middle three daughters lust after Pepe, but twenty-year-old Adela, the youngest, becomes his lover, sullies the family honor, and sends the family into a tailspin of crazy.
There are a number of interesting things about the play, and the first one of note is that there's not a single male character. No man is ever on stage at any point, not even Pepe, who seems to be at the center of the drama in Acts Two and Three. This brings up an intriguing point about the tagline: it's a "drama about women" in that all the characters we see are female, but it's a male character who forms the epicenter of the drama itself. So is it really about women, or about what men do to women? What women do to each other?
Whatever perspective you choose, it's clear that for Lorca, female behavior is inextricably linked to men. "Good" female behavior means staying away from men, and "bad" female behavior means fornicating with men. This isn't just Lorca's idea, though. It's an age-old mentality that persists today in the "prude or slut" dichotomy that inspired this independent study. Why is it that we can't observe a woman without relating her back to men? A female CEO: "She does/doesn't do this job as good as a man," etc. Even when we compare two women and say that one is more beautiful than the other, why is that something we notice? Because more beautiful women get more attention from men.
It's difficult to combat because it's difficult to notice. In the play, the women would rather tear each other apart than recognize that they are more than virgins who don't sleep with men and whores who do. Bernarda is obsessed with the honor of her house and her daughters. The family is a big fish in a little pond financially, which is why the daughters weren't married sooner; Bernarda didn't think there were any men in the village of their status. So, rather than marry her daughters down, she shut them up and kept them virgins. Part of this is the time period and the culture, sure; but the same thing happens today to lesser degrees.
Another main point of the play is the theme that sexuality is subversive. For the first half of the play, it's not clear what's happening. Pepe's engagement to Angustias is revealed fairly early, but is immediately followed by the explanation that it's purely financial. There's tension from the unnaturalness off the union, along with extremely subtle quips among the sisters that reveal the atmosphere of jealousy. The one who participates the least is Adela. As one sister says, "Because [Adela's] the youngest, she still has dreams" (15). She seems aloof, above the quibbling; probably because, as is later revealed, she's been with Pepe the whole time. By the end of the play, she's manic in her dedication to her idealistic romance, planning to elope rather than wait for Angustias to make a widower out of Pepe.
The tension builds, each woman in the house like a rubber band being slowly stretched to its limit. Bernarda feels it, but stubbornly ignores it, her obsession with honor making her blind to the sinkhole she's created in her house. Her maid, La Poncia (whose name apparently means Pontius, possibly a reference to Pontius Pilate, who ordered Jesus' crucifixion--puts an interesting spin on her role) attempts several times to force awareness on Bernarda and fails each time. Meanwhile, the daughters' un-channeled sexuality courses through the house, tearing down the order of the family. "They're women without men, that's all," Poncia says on page 42. Bernarda has intentionally suppressed the sexuality of her daughters, and that built-up energy is now threatening to overthrow her.
While it's certainly possible to read the play didactically, it's a slippery slope because Lorca doesn't show or seem to believe in a balance between virgin and whore. Again, this seems to be cultural. In the Mann translation, at least, there's no strong commentary on Adela's behavior; it's too subtle, and comes from the mouths of her jealous sisters. However, it does seem clear that nine women living together in celibacy for extended periods of time is sometimes unhealthy.