Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius has popped into my life on multiple unexpectedly pleasant occasions. This is one of those occasions; a considerably memorable and affecting one.
As a theatre kid, naturally I had heard of “The House of Bernarda Alba,” the play by Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca, but I was not familiar with it (so sue me). Being the good little student that I am I know that I just gotta be well versed in all the classics and this one looked to be preppin’ for a good tickin’ on my to-do list. The fact that Patricia Cornelius had adapted this version for the Melbourne Theatre Company sent tingles up and down my brainstem. Count me in cobber.
First, let’s start with my pal Patricia. Call it kismet. Call it our lawd almighty. Call it shut-up-with-your-new-age-bullshit-and-get-to-the-point or whatever you want because I know what it truely is and that is MEANT TO BE. My first encounter with this woman’s writing was in 2014 with Persona Collective’s staging of “Savages” in a parking lot for Tasmania’s Junction Arts Festival. Both the performances and writing were impactful but themes of male wolf-pack mentality and the peer pressure and misogyny that can come hand in hand with that was what stirred me most. She had my attention.
Turned out there was going to be an opportunity to join Patricia in conversation about her play. So of course I went. And of course she was such a delight. It being Tassie, the experience was a very relaxed, intimate discussion. No more than ten of us sat around a chipped coffee table on second-hand couches as if we were old friends catching up over a wine. Patricia talked about her career as a playwright as well as what subjects tend to draw her in. I hope I never get tired of listening to people divulge how they have established their lives as creatives.
Years later, here I am in Melbourne and one of the first auditions I manage to wrangle is for “Slut,” nothing less than a Patricia Cornelius original. Hello old friend. I read the script and in my humble opinion this play is totes the feminine counterpart of “Savages.” As a female middle-class Australian millennial, it’s devastatingly and disturbingly relatable. I could’ve sworn she’d based the characters off the girls I knew in high school. More distressingly: was I those girls in high school?
Turned out I was unable to attend the audition but a fire was well and truly sparked. I devoured most of her other plays and so much solidarity and new-found empathy was discovered along the way. Time after time Cornelius manages to hold a mirror up to our damaged collective psyche as Australians, and by doing so captures a childlike tenderness and vulnerability in our harshness.
“The House of Bernarda Alba” was no exception. By now, I could spot the familiar Cornelius twists and touches from a mile away. The word that’s hovering in my mind is Matriarch. The whole family system is a matriarchy that has inherent injustices and ginormous flaws, just like any patriarchy would. We see the violence, the mental illness, the gaping wounds of this system slowly calcify until the house comes crashing down. Any system that is based on denial, deceit, the withholding of knowledge and the concentration of power is bound to be reduced to rubble. The house, the family, the mind of Bernarda Alba is eventually swallowed by the thick dust and heat that sneaks in through the cracks.
I think that when we say “death to the patriarchy,” many people may assume we want to chant, “long live the matriarchy.” But, similar to Patricia Cornelius’ “Savages” and “Slut,” they are the masculine and feminine equivalents of the same hot mess. This may sound totes batshit, but I know full well that I’m no where near interested in having a big old hot steaming mess as my system of government. I’ll take a brand new shiny system, thanks!
We live in a world laced with toxic masculinity. What would a world of toxic femininity look like? “The House of Bernarda Alba” may have helped me have a glimpse into this realm, but mostly I’m just reminded and moved by the sacrificial and nurturing strength of women. I’m comforted by the instinctual fight I see in women at odds and that there seems to be nothing more fierce than a mother protecting her children. Bernarda’s house = power house.