September 2001

Stage Struck

Brazilian theater started to flourish in the '30s with the
production of texts by national authors. Until then,
the stages of the major theaters produced Italian and
German operas and exhibited established names, such as
Isadora Duncan, Sara Bernhardt and the lyric tenor
Enrico Caruso, among others.

Kirsten Weinoldt

Culture may be in crisis, but theater is very much alive in Brazil these days. In Rio, Cócegas (Tickles), the hit of the season, after being seen by 10,000 people is playing in a much bigger room with a full house night after night and no end in sight. The comedy written and interpreted by Heloisa Perissé and Ingrid Guimarães is made up of nine sketches. In one of them, an anorexic model tries to show she is more than a pretty face; in another one, a woman graduated in quantic physics insists on showing she's a pretty face too. Rio has been laughing shamelessly.

In São Paulo, more than 150 plays were being presented at the beginning of September, including some for children. Among them: A Ilha Desconhecida (The Unknown Island), an adaptation of Nobel winner José Saramago's story, Abaporu (the man who eats in Tupi-Guarani language), a show presented in a butcher shop: Cachorro (Dog), with four tramps talking under a bridge; Gota D'Água (Water Drop), an old musical by famous composer Chico Buarque; the Portuguese version of the Broadway show Les Misérables; Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream; and Trainspotting, baseado on Irvine Welsh's novel.

As recently as August 30, New York saw Nélson Rodrigues's (1912-1980) play Valsa N.º 6 (Valse No. 6) presented as After the Ball. The work was shown during the American Living Room Series, a theater festival intended to present the work of new artists. Rodrigues, Brazil's most important playwright, is best known in the US through the filmed version of plays like Toda Nudez Será Castigada (All Nudity Shall Be Punished) and O Casamento (The Wedding).

The Festival de Teatro de Curitiba (Curitiba's Theater Festival) just announced that registrations are open for those willing to take part in the 11th edition of that national extravaganza that happens in the capital of Paraná state. The event, which will last from March 14 to 24, 2002, is divided into four categories: contemporary theater, children's theater, fringe and special events. Rules can be found at Last year, the Curitiba Festival had full houses, in some cases in theaters with 2,000 seats. Then, 133 plays were presented in 11 days to a public of 100,000 people.

Brazzil has prepared a special series of articles to show the story and the vitality of the Brazilian theatrical scene. In the famous movie The Third Man with Orson Welles, his character looks down over Vienna from a Ferris wheel and says to his companion (and I paraphrase): "Germany has gone through wars, plagues, and pestilence, and they created Beethoven, Bach and other great art. Switzerland has had a thousand years of peace and harmony, and what have they created? The cuckoo clock!"

Great art is often created through suffering and adversity. And it is thus with Brazil, which in her relatively short existence has experienced so much turmoil. All one has to do is look at the arts of Brazil, and one will be struck by the richness in her culture, much of it borne out of torture, slavery, and wars. Complacency and happiness are not conducive to creativity—adversity is. This article will look at theater in Brazil, an ever-growing and evolving, living creature and the social and political ills that were the basis for the great, creative minds that shaped it.

In the Beginning

It is rare that a country can claim to have been founded with the existence of theater, but in the case of Brazil, this is the case. Generally, in other cultures, theater has evolved with the development of the fabric of their society, but the Portuguese brought their theater with them and made it part of their New World, unlike a country like the United States, founded by puritans to whom theater was a diversion and thus a thing of sin. And then, after it was brought to Brazil as a "finished package," it immediately started evolving with the influence of Indians and later Africans.

It is a long and interesting story, well worth looking at. Theater literally arrived in Brazil with the first ships bringing colonists, and with the new arrivals came those attributes, which depicted the baroque spirit as well as the religious conflicts of the period. Little importance was given to the literary script. The audience was partial to the staging, theatrics, special stage effects and the Faustian overtones.

The first Jesuit mission arrived in Brazil in 1549 led by Manuel da Nóbrega, at the request of Dom João III. The first step the Jesuits took was to unite the natives in permanent settlements. Once they had established villages, the priest could effect a separation of the pagan elements from Christian beliefs. The mission priests were adept at taking advantage of the Indians' natural attributes. They began by using music and little by little exchanged the native beat and instruments for more "civilized" songs and instruments.

The Jesuits, with the intuit to catechize the Indians, brought not just the new religion, Catholicism, but also a different culture, in which was included literature and theater.

Allied with the festive rituals and dances of the indigenous population, the first form of theater known by the Brazilians, was that of the Portuguese, which had a pedagogic character based on the Bible. In that era, the person primarily responsible for teaching about theater, as well as the authorship of plays, was Father Anchieta.

The truly national theater only came to establish itself halfway through the XIX century, when the romanticism had its start. Martins Pena was one of those responsible for that, through his costume comedies. Other highlighted names from that time were, the dramatist Artur Azevedo, the actor and theatrical impresario, João Caetano and, in literature, the writer Machado de Assis.

The Jesuit Theater

During the first years of colonization, the fathers of the Companhia de Jesus, the Jesuits, who came to Brazil, had as their main purpose the catechization of the Indians.

They found in the Brazilian tribes a natural inclination for music, dance, and oratory, or rather positive tendencies toward the development of theater, which went on to be used as an instrument of "civilization" and of religious education, in addition to diversion. The theater, by the fascination of the representative image, was much more effective than a sermon, for example.

The first plays, thus, were written by the Jesuits, who made use of elements of the indigenous culture, from the character of "sacred," which the Indians had already absorbed into their culture, to the Indians talking about the things they knew. Mixed into those elements were the dogmas of the Catholic Church, in order that the Jesuits not lose their objective—catechism.

The plays were written in Tupi-Guarani, Portuguese, or English, a practice that went on until 1584, when Latin "arrived." In those plays the characters were saints, demons, emperors, and from time to time, just represented symbolism, such as love or fear of God. With the catechism, the theater ended up becoming obligatory material for students of the humanities in the Jesuit colleges. In the meantime, female characters were prohibited, except for saints, to avoid certain "excitement" in the young people.

The actors of that era were domesticated Indians, the future padres (priests), the whites and those of mixed parentage. All were amateurs, who improvised in the plays presented in the churches, on the plazas, and in the schools. The name of the best known author of the time was Father Anchieta. He was the author of the Auto de Pregação Universal, Liturgical Rubric of Universal Prayer, written between 1567 and 1570 and represented in diverse locales of Brazil, for several years.

Another rubric by Anchieta is of the Feast of São Lourenço, also known as the Mystery of Jesus. The sacramental writings, which contained dramatic characteristics, were preferred to the comedies and tragedies, because it was in those that the characteristics of the catechism were included. They always had a religious, moral, and didactic basis and were replete of allegoric personages. Being thus, comedies and tragedies were poorly represented.

In addition to liturgical rubrics, another "theatrical style" introduced by the Jesuits, was the nativity scene, which went on to be incorporated in the folkloric and pastoral festivals. At this time all the plays presented had the character of catechism of the Jesuit Theater. According to J.Galante de Sousa, in his book O Teatro no Brasil, The Theater in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, 1960, first volume) "The Jesuit Theater was, in reality, theater of oratory; it sought to move in order to persuade; tried to persuade in order to educate." These are some of those "educational plays:"

Diálogo, 1573, Olinda and Bahia

Égloga Pastoril, 1574 and 1576, Olinda

História do Rico Avarento and Lázaro Pobre, 1575, Olinda

Auto, Liturgical rubric, 1578, Pernambuco

Auto do Crisma, confirmation, 1578, Rio de Janeiro

Tragicomédia, 1581, Bahia

Auto Pastoril, Pastoral Rubric, 1584, Aldeia do Espírito Santo

Diálogo, 1584, Pernambuco

Auto das Onze Mil Virgens, Rubric of Eleven Thousand Virgins, 1583 and 1584, Bahia

Diálogo da Ave-Maria, 1584, Capitania do Espírito Santo

Auto de São Sebastião, 1585, Rio de Janeiro

Auto de São Lourenço, 1586, Niterói (Village of São Lourenço). Also known as Na Festa de São Lourenço or Mistério de Jesus

Auto da Vila da Vitória, Rubric of the city of Vitória, 1586, Espírito Santo, also known as Auto de São Maurício

Diálogo de Guarapari, 1587, village of Capitania do Espírito Santo

História de Assuero, 1589, Bahia

XVII Century

In the XVII century, the representations of plays written by Jesuits—at least those with the clear finality of catechism—began to be increasingly scarce.

This period, in which the missionary work was already practically consolidated, is also called the Decline of the Theater of the Jesuits. Meanwhile, other types of theatrical activities were also scarce, that is to say that this century was a time of crisis. The stage directions existed, even if they were hindered or inspired by the struggles of the era, such as the struggle against the Dutch. But they depended on occasions like religious or secular festivals in order to be realized.

Of the plays directed during that period, the highlight should be on the comedies presented at the events of the acclamation of Dom João IV, in 1641, and the productions promoted by the Franciscans of the Convento de Santo Antônio, in Rio de Janeiro, with the objective of entertaining the community. Furthermore, theatrical representations were realized for the installation of the Província Franciscana da Imaculada Conceição, Franciscan Province of the Immaculate Conception, in 1678, in Rio.

Something one could point out in this century is the repercussion of the Spanish theater in Brazil as well as the existence of a name—connected to the theater—Manuel Botelho de Oliveira (Bahia 1636-1711). He was the first Brazilian poet to have his works published, having written two comedies in Spanish, Hay Amigo para Amigo e Amor (There is Friend for Friend and Love), and Engaños y Celos (Deceit and Jealousy). These are some of the plays presented in the XVII century:

- Drama, 1620, Bahia

- Diálogo, 1626, Maranhão, and 1688 in Bahia

- Comédia, 1641 in Rio de Janeiro, in the same year in Recife, where it was presented in French, and later in 1677, in Maranhão (as part of the commemorative events of the acclamation of Dom João IV.

- Liturgical Rubric by São Francisco Xavier, 1668, in Maranhão.

XVIII Century

It was only in the second half of the XVIII century that the theatrical plays became presented with some frequency. Stages and platforms, mounted in public town squares were the locales for the presentations. It was like that with churches and, from time to time, the palace of some governor. In that era, the educational characteristic of the theater was strong. And an activity, so instructive, ended up deserving to be presented at locales made for the plays: the so-called Casas de Ópera, Opera Houses, or Casas de Comédia, Comedy Houses, which started to spread around the country.

In Minas Gerais, during the "gold cycle," Portuguese actors visited Vila Rica. The only preserved local play is O Parnaso Obsequioso, The Obsequious Parnassus by Claudio Manuel da Costa, written in the governor's honor. Following the establishment of the houses "of theater," the first theater companies emerged. The actors were contracted to do a determined number of presentations in the Opera Houses, during a whole year, or only for a few months. Being thus, with established locations and casts, the theatrical activity of the XVIII century began being more continuous than in past eras.

In the XVIII century and beginning of the XIX, the actors were members of lower classes, the majority being mulattos. There was a prejudice against the activity, and the appearance of women in the casts ended up being prohibited. In that form, it was the men themselves, who played the feminine roles, and came to be known as "transvestites." Even when the presence of actresses was already "liberated," the bad reputation of the class of artists kept women of society away from the stages.

As for the repertoire, some of the highlights were the great foreign influences in the Brazilian theater of that era. Among the names most quoted were Molière, Voltaire, Maffei, Goldone, and Metastásio. In spite of the major foreign influence, some national names also deserve to be remembered. These are Luís Alves Pinto, who wrote the comedy in verse, Amor mal Correspondido, Love barely Requited; Alexandre de Gusmão, who translated the French comedy O Marido Confundido, The Confused Husband; Cláudio Manuel da Costa, who wrote O Parnaso Obsequioso and other poems presented in the whole country, and Inácio José de Alvarenga Peixoto, author of the drama Enéias no Lácio.

Another name worth mentioning is the dramatist Antonio José da Silva. However, since he lived in Portugal much of his life, he is not considered a truly Brazilian actor. In Rio de Janeiro, Father Ventura produced the "operas"—actually comedies intermixed with the songs of Portuguese Antonio José (the Jew) da Silva, Guerras do Alecrim, Wars of the Alecrim, and Mangerona. The Manuel Luís Theater imported Portuguese and Spanish spectacles. During festivals, amateur groups staged popular plays in the open air. After Father Ventura's theater was destroyed by fire in 1769 and Manuel Luís' Theater closed, Dom João VI in 1810 built the Teatro Real de São João, where the Portuguese actors continued acting. This theater still exists, in Rio, under the name João Caetano.

1808-1838—Time of Transition

The arrival of the royal family in Brazil in 1808 brought with it a series of improvements to the country. One of those was directed at the theater. Dom João VI, in a decree of 28th of May, 1810, recognized the necessity of the construction of "decent theaters." In truth, the decree represented a stimulus toward the inauguration of several theaters. The theatrical companies through turns of singing and/or dance, came to look after the theaters—bringing with them an audience, steadily growing. The first of these, truly Brazilian, made its debut in 1833, in Niterói, under the leadership of João Caetano, with the drama O Príncipe Amante da Liberdade, The Prince Lover of Liberty or A Independência da Escócia, The Independence of Scotland. A consequence of the stability, which the dramatic companies were gaining, was the growth, at the same time, of amateur theater.

The agitation, which preceded the Independence of Brazil, was reflected in the theater. The audiences were very aggressive, taking advantage of the productions to promote manifestations, for the right to utter cries in favor of the Republic. Meanwhile, this whole "mess" represented a preparation of the spirit of the people, and also of the theater, for the existence of a free nation. These were the origins of the foundation of the theater—and of a life—really national. Furthermore, in consequence of the nationalism exacerbated by the public, the foreign actors began to be replaced by nationals.

Contrary to this picture, respect got the better of the public when Dom Pedro was present in the theater (a fact that happened in times and places which experienced "normal" conditions, i.e., where and when there was not this kind of manifestation.) On these occasions, it was more interesting to admire the spectators, principally the ladies—richly dressed—than the actors. In addition to luxury, one might note the prejudice against the Negroes, who did not attend the theaters. Already, the actors were almost all mulattos, but covered their faces in white and red make-up.

Romantic Era—1838-1855

Since independence in 1822, an exacerbated nationalist sentiment took over the cultural manifestations. This nationalist spirit also touched the theater. In the meantime, the Brazilian dramatic literature was still lackluster and depended on isolated initiatives. Many plays, from 1838, were influenced by the Romanticism, a literary movement, en vogue at that time.

The romantic writer Joaquim Manuel de Macedo stood out with some myths of the innate feeling of nationality of that time: the myth of the territorial grandeur of Brazil, of the opulence of the nature of the country, of the equality of all Brazilians, of the hospitality of the people, among others. These myths orientated, to a great degree, the romantic artists of this period.

The tragedy Antônio José or O Poeta e a Inquisição, The Poet and the Inquisition, written by Gonçalves de Magalhães (1811-1882) and produced on stage by João Caetano (1808-1863) on March 13 1838, in the Teatro Constitucional Fluminense, was the first step toward the implantation of theater considered Brazilian. The same year, on the 4th of October, for the first time, O Juiz de Paz da Roça, The Country Justice of the Peace by Martins Pena (1815-1848) was produced. This also happened at the Teatro Constitucional Fluminense by the same company of João Caetano. The play was the initial kick toward the consolidation of comedy as the preferred genre by the public.

The plays by Martins Pena were part of Romanticism and therefore were well received by the public, tired of the classical formality of the past. The author is considered the founder of the national theater, by the quantity—in almost ten years wrote 28 plays—and the quality of his production. He produced a series of farces and comedies, happy satires of the day's society, many of them presented by actor João Caetano, responsible for abolishing the Portuguese accent in the medium of theater. His work, by the popularity it attained, was very important to the consolidation of the theater of Brazil. Other names of importance of that time were writers Machado de Assis and José de Alencar.

The following is a passage of The Country Justice of the Peace by Martins Pena:

José: Adeus, minha Aninha! (tenta abraçá-la)

Aninha: Fique quieto. Não gosto desses brinquedos. Eu quero casar-me com o Senhor, mas não quero que me abraces antes de casarmos. Ora diga-me, Concluiu a venda do bananal que seu pai lhe deixou?

José: Concluí!

Aninha: Ah! Então se o senhor agora tem dinheiro… por que não me pede a meu pai?

José: Dinheiro? Nem vintém!

Aninha: Nem vintém? Então o que fez do dinheiro? É assim que me ama?!!

José: Goodbye, my Aninha! (tries to embrace her)

Aninha: Be quiet. I don't like those games. I want to marry you, but I don't want you to embrace me before we marry. Well tell me, did you conclude the sale of the banana business that your father left you?

José: It's concluded.

Aninha: Ah! Then if you now have money…., why don't you talk to my father?

José: Money? Not even a penny!

Aninha: Not even a penny? Then what did you do with the money? Is that how you love me?!!


Realism—Second Half of XIX Century

The development of the theater happened when Brazilian slaves were liberated in Nigeria, in 1880, and founded the first Brazilian dramatic company, but it was only in 1900 that the theater was established. Although it had faced the strong political crises of the country, it succeeded in the struggle toward independence.

The Realism in the National Drama may be subdivided into two periods: the first, from 1855—when the impresario Joaquim Heliodoro established his company—until 1884 with the presentation of O Mandarim, The Mandarin, by Artur Azevedo, who consolidated the genre of revues and the serious drama. The second period goes from 1884 until the XX century, when the operetta and the revue are the preferred genres among the public.

This first phase does not end in a naturalist theater. With the exception of one or another attempt, the dramatic literature did not accompany naturalism because of the preference of the public toward "vaudeville," revue, and parody.

The renovation of the Brazilian theater, with the consolidation of comedy as the preferred genre, began when Joaquim Heliodoro Gomes dos Santos put together his theater, O Ginásio Dramático, in 1855. That new space had as rehearsal leader and director the Frenchman Emílio Doux, who brought the most modern plays of the era from France. The realist theater imported from France introduced a social theme, or rather the social questions most relevant to the moment were discussed in those dramas. It was theater of social thesis and psychological analysis.

A name of great importance to the theater of this phase is the playwright Artur Azevedo (1855-1908). According to J. Galante de Souza (O Teatro no Brasil, vol.1), Artur Azevedo "was more applauded in his scenery, in his revues written without artistic worry, as when he wrote serious drama. His talent was one of improvisation, easy, natural but without breathing space for compositions, which would demand maturity, and for artistic undertakings with a great scope."

XX Century

Brazilian theater flourished in the 30's with the production of texts by national authors. Until then, the stages of the major theaters produced Italian and German operas and exhibited established names, such as Isadora Duncan, Sara Bernhardt and the lyric tenor Enrico Caruso, among others. The splendor of the great stages coincided with the cycle of rubber in Amazônia at the beginning of the XX century. Theatrical companies from London and Paris had long seasons in the principal capitals of the region—Belém in Pará, and Manaus in Amazonas, where splendid theaters were financed by the importation of products on a large scale.

Brazilian theater went through difficult moments during the dictatorship. Between 1937 and 1945, were it not for populist ideology, which remained active by means of the genre of the revue, it would have been extinguished. Then emerged the first stable companies of the country, with names like Procópio Ferreira, Jaime Costa, Odilon de Azevedo, among others. Another important period was when Paschoal Carlos Magno founded the Teatro do Estudante do Brazil, The Student Theater of Brazil, in 1938. This was the start of an emergence of experimental theater companies, which extend for many years, marking the introduction of a foreign model for the theater of the country, establishing at that time the principle of modern theater production in Brazil.

The modern Brazilian theater arrives at the stages in the 40's with the Companhia Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia, TBC, the major school of art in the country, responsible for the professionalism of acting in the 50's and by the formation of a generation of actors, directors, stage directors and playwrights. The play Vestido de Noiva, The Wedding Dress, of 1943, revolutionized the lingo of the national theater. The author, whose works are classified as psychological and tragic, was the playwright, novelist, and journalist, Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980). The play is considered a formal and thematic break, the beginning of modern theater. Controversial, the work went on for decades dividing public and critics and confronting the official censors for rebelling against the hypocrisy of the family, of race relations, and of political subservience.

In 1948, Italian Franco Zampari founded the Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia (TBC), Brazilian Theater of Comedy, a company, which produced bourgeois theater for the bourgeoisie, importing techniques and repertoire, with tendencies toward esthetic culture. In 1957, the Teatro de Arena de São Paulo was founded, an entrance door for many amateurs into professional theater, who in the following years became true personalities in the artistic world.

With the military coup in 1964, the difficulties were augmented for directors and actors of the theater. The actions of the censors made many artists abandon the stages and seek exile in other countries. It remained for future generations to keep the established roots alive and set a course toward a new style of theater, which was about to emerge.

The military coup generated the theater of challenge, involving the engagement of expressive sections of the population, principally students. It is the so-called Arena and Workshop theaters that take the dramatic art to the people. The texts were directed under the yoke of censorship. Theatrical plays were un-shelved starting in 1985 with the slow re-democratization of the country.

The XX century was a time for Brazilian theater to mature. In the face of cultural transformations that happened since the industrial revolution, the comedies and vaudevilles, which so marked the XIX century and the first decades of the twentieth gave way to theater that returned to the cultural context of Brazil and to social denouncement and political challenge. The seed for this theater was planted by the Modernismo—artistic movement of the avant-garde, which proposed the negation of the classic model—initiated in Brazil during the Semana de Arte Moderna, Modern Art Week, of 1922, and which had at its forefront writers Oswald and Mário de Andrade.

The politically committed theater reached its peak in the 60's with the Centro Popular de Cultura and in the 70's as a trench of resistance against the military dictatorship. Outstanding in this period, among others, were Arena conta Zumbi by Gianfrancesco Guarnieri and Edu Lobo, the show Opinião, by Oduvaldo Vianna Filho and Roda Viva by Chico Buarque de Hollanda.

Those montages opened the path to similar plays such as Liberdade, Liberdade by Millôr Fernandes and Arena conta Tiradentes. Among other authors, who stood out in that era were also Dias Gomes, Antônio Callado, and Ferreira Gullar, who worked under the yoke of strong government censorship, which prohibited the production of hundreds of plays and persecuted their authors.

At the end of the 60's, a new impulse was given to drama of a realistic character, and somewhat tragic, starting with the work by Plínio Marcos, Navalha na carne, Razor in the Flesh; Dois Perdidos numa Noite Suja, Two Lost in a Nasty Night. Much censored, also, betting on popular vocabulary and on the naked and raw portrait of those who are marginalized, the author brought to the stage a world where the virtues of the romantic hero don't exist, contributing thus to the definitive defeat of hypocrisy and disengagement with the problems of the country.

To be continued on our next issue.

Kirsten Weinoldt was born in Denmark and came to the U.S. in 1969. She fell in love with Brazil after seeing Black Orpheus many years ago and has lived immersed in Brazilian culture ever since. Her e-mail:

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