By Brazzil Magazine
Continued from our last issue
THE CENTRAL CHARACTERS OF BRAZILIAN THEATER
DIRECTORS AND PLAYWRIGHTS AND
STORIES, LIVES, AND OPINIONS.
José Ligiéro Coelho, "Zeca Ligiéro"
Artist, director, and scholar, specializes in Afro-Brazilian culture. He is based in Rio de Janeiro. Founder of the
Graduate Theater Department of the University of Rio de Janeiro and of which he was chairman 1990-92. His publications
include Teatro e Comunidade, uma Experiência
(Theater and Community, an Experiment, 1983,
Teatro Infantil de Zeca Ligiéro (Zeca’s Theater for Children), 1986, and
Iniciação ao Candomblé
(Initiation to Candomblé), 1992. Ligiéro is also the
author of the authoritative and seminal essay "Candomblé is religion-life-art," in
Divine Inspiration by Phyllis Galembo
(University of New Mexico Press, 1993). He has successfully teamed up with the singer, performer and writer, Dandara, to develop
the Samba Project in Rio de Janeiro and, since 1991, in New York. Zeca wrote the script and directed the musical
Elegy Crossings with the choreographer Martin Zabgo from the Ivory Coast and Iris Rosa from Indianapolis for the Madame Walker
Theater Center in Indianapolis.
The Black Family on Brazilian Stage: from ritual to theater
By Zeca Ligiéro
Abstract: The Brazilian Black family has been portrayed differently in rituals and the theater. In the rituals of
religions such as Candomblé, Macumba, and sometimes, Umbanda, the African heritage is much more
ethical concerns and high moral standards are perpetuated through the African mythologies derived from ethnic groups such
as the Yoruba, Fon or Bakongo. In ritual performances, the family is important not only in the organization and the
maintenance of the tradition but in the internal relationships between worshippers, audience and the African deities and
ancestors honored. On the other hand, Brazilian "orthodox" theater has portrayed the Black Family in terms of stereotypes
forged during the Brazilian colonial times by an imported Portuguese and French theater in which blacks are portrayed as
uneducated slaves, perverted, and without any sense of family values. The best example of this theatrical tradition is the play
O Demônio Familiar, The Familiar Demon, 1858, by José de Alencar, which depicts a "devil" slave who brings the
master’s household all sorts of misunderstanding.
Abdias do Nascimento
Nascimento was born in 1914, the grandson of African slaves. He founded the Teatro Experimental do Negro, TEN,
Black Experimental Theater, in 1944 in Rio de Janeiro, thus breaking the color barrier in Brazilian theater. This was a reaction
and a part of his fight against the racial inequality in Brazil—a country that always prides itself in "not having racism." In
1968, he founded the Black Arts Museum in Rio and the Chair of African Culture in the New World at the Puerto Rican Studies
and Research Center, State University of New York in Buffalo, where he taught until 1981.
In 1990, he was elected to the Senate in Brazil and appointed State Secretary for the Defense and Promotion of
Afro-Brazilian Peoples. He later became a member of the Rio de Janeiro State Council of Culture and President of the
Zumbi memorial, an Afro-Brazilian organization of national scope. From the website
www.muse.jhu.edu, copyrighted by
Mr. Charles H. Rowell, we find an extensive coverage of Nascimento’s play
Sortilege, Black Mystery. It contains the
entire play and makes for fascinating reading.
The preface consists of Mr. Nascimento’s own thoughts and writings as well as those of other playwrights
and academics. Says Mr. do Nascimento about his play, "This play is one of the products of the Teatro Experimental do
Negro, TEN, which I founded in the city of Rio, as an exigency of the lamentable situation, in which black people found
themselves in Brazilian society and, particularly, in the Brazilian theater." He also comments that founding a black experimental
theater was a task of great complexity. He goes on to say that the "primary intentions of the company is to purge the ancient
load of pejorative connotations implicit in the word "black." "Black was always synonymous with evil, that which was ugly
and inferior was always expressed in terms of black." Abdias do Nascimento answers the question of the role of the black
man in Brazilian theater, thus:
"The same role for which everyday life had destined him: the subaltern roles. The black man in Brazilian theater
either played the grotesque caricature to divert the white audience (the black man rarely goes to the theater) or
personified sweeping and submissive Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas. He could even be seen taking the parts of folkloric types
whose sole function it was to add color to the landscape—supplying a nuance of the picturesque and exotic when one
wanted an actor for a role of really dramatic importance, the norm was to take a white man and paint him black. In Brazil, as in
all countries where there was slavery, the black man suffered brutal, physical and spiritual violence." About the
African religion, he says:
"To wipe out the values of the African culture—most of all those of its religionis an attempt of white, Christian
culture, which began when the first slaves arrived in Brazil, around 1530. But despite the dominant power, the
maintains itself in the "underground" of Brazilian culture. When the dominant culture makes an act of generosity it is to tolerate
black culture on the levels of the folkloric, the playful, the ingenuous and unimportant. Folklore, witchcraft, etc. constitute
the "ethnographic material" which for a long time fed a so-called "anthropological science," just as more recently it has
become raw material for a new tourist industry ."
Sortilege is a most important landmark in the history of black Brazilian theater. It was written in 1951, but the censors
did not allow it on stage until 1957, claiming foul language as the reason. This, however, was just a smokescreen for the
real reason, namely an interracial play, showing social interaction and racial hatred. After some changes it was finally allowed
at the Teatro Municipal in Rio and in São Paulo. Many accused the play of being racist, critics and audience alike.
Some, however, realized its true intention. Renowned playwright Nelson Rodrigues, who never minced words, had this to say:
"And what great and all but intolerable powers of life has
Sortilege! In its firm and harmonious dramatic structure, it
also constitutes a great and vital esthetic experience for the spectator."
Another of the great Brazilian dramatists, Augusto Boal, had his own comments:
"Out of the discrepancy, which exists between the theoretical truth and the practical truth in interracial relations is
born the permanent conflict of Emmanuel." It is heartening to see that the best of the other playwrights recognized Abdias
do Nascimento’s profound talent. (The piece is well worth reading in its entirety on the website). Abdias do Nascimento
spent his life fighting what he saw as the hypocrisy of a people, who denies its African heritage (50 % of the Brazilian
population is of African descent) and attempts to be white. Among other things, he says:
"The work of alienating the black man from his authenticity proceeded without interruption. Thus the hurried
conclusion that the black man is not black: he is Brazilian. But they do not add, maliciously, that which would certainly illuminate
the affirmative: yes, the black in Brazil is a Brazilian, but second-class. For being black, he is a declassified Brazilian."
Augusto Boal and the Teatro do
Oprimido—Theater of the Oppressed
Augusto Boal was born in Penha, Zona Norte of Rio de Janeiro. Son of Portuguese, Boal lived a childhood
and adolescence typical for Iberian immigrants, who came to Brazil to start a new life. Studied in the Colégio Brasileiro, in
São Cristóvão and spent part of his childhood in his father’s bakery. "Since I was little, when I worked in my father’s bakery,
I saw those working class people, the Carioca (from Rio) hardship and the miserable life. But the misery now is
getting worse," he affirms.
From the bakery to Columbia University, in New York, where he studied the theatrical methods of Stanislavski
and learned to write for the theater with John Gassner, teacher of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and experienced
many phases of indecision: was educated in industrial chemistry and tried his hand at being a pianist. Upon returning to
Brazil after the period at Columbia, at the end of the 50’s, he was invited to organize the Teatro de Arena, in São Paulo.
There begins the life of this dramatist, who had already abandoned, by and large, his Portuguese roots. He worked with actors
like Aracy Balabanian, Lima Duarte, Flávio Migliaccio, and Juca de Oliveira.
Today, his Teatro do Oprimido, in which theatrical techniques are related to psychology, is promoted in seven
favelas (shantytowns) in Rio, among others the Maré and the Pereirão. "As much here as in Europe, we work in violent
neighborhoods and put on the Teatro do Oprimido to discuss questions like the violence, AIDS, drugs, union problems, and
even psychological ones. In truth, we "theatralize" what is in the heads of people, and not just what they say."
Created in the decade of the 70’s, after the political experiences of the director with the Teatro do Arena, in São Paulo,
the Teatro do Oprimido conquered audiences and communities all over the world with the possibility of giving voice,
gesture, and body to the minorities. But there were those, who accused the method of Boal of being authoritarian and
oppressive, owing to the dogmatism of his discourse. In Europe, his method spread in all directions. As far away as Scandinavia,
there exists a festival dedicated to his technique.
In 1977 Boal published Teatro do
Oprimido, which was re-issued recently in the United States and England, in
an enlarged and revised edition. One could say that the Teatro do Oprimido is a technique much more pedagogic
than theatrical, whose principal thesis of its creator is to recover the individual subjectivity of
or victims of stigmas.
The Teatro do Oprimido is more than a theatrical method, it is a social atonement. By means of techniques of
the conventional theater, Augusto Boal applies his political and social theses in needy communities and among groups
less favored. Implanted in more than 70 countries, the method is a trademark created and signed by the director, who divides
his career in two moments—what he calls "normal" and "oppressed."
Alice Lovelace from Atlanta, Georgia, writes as part of an article called
Mediation and Theater of the Oppressed in a Process for Social
The Evolution of Theater of the Oppressed
In the opinion of Karl H. Schoeps, 1977, no one individual played a more important and fundamental role in the
modern history of the theater forms than Bertolt Brecht (1896-1956). Brecht proved to be a major influence in the modern theater
and offered a challenge to Aristotle’s approach to theater as a spectator activity.
Although he agreed with Aristotle that the theater should be, "a place of fun and pleasure," he did want to "wring
the pleasure" from his audience by draining them emotionally.
Brecht vigorously objected to the Aristotelian concept of catharsis, seeking instead to stimulate the minds of
his audience concerning the world around them, their status in that world and the conflicts that were playing out around
them. Brecht desired for the audience to respond with intellect, not emotion.
Schoeps considers Brecht "an original," capable of adapting literary heritage for his own purpose, and successful
at integrating economics and politics into his text. For Schoeps, Brecht’s contribution to theater is best illustrated in
The Caucasian Chalk Circle a play in which the singer/narrator acts as storyteller, commentator and interpreter of the
conflict. A character that demonstrates elements of a talented intervener.
Brecht’s most remarkable and innovative student to date is Augusto Boal, a Brazilian political activist and
artistic director of the Arena Theater from 1956-1971. In 1979, Boal published
Theater of the Oppressed, a book that chronicles
the influence of Brecht and education theorist, Paulo Freire, on his thinking.
Paulo Freire in 1970 asked that artists show their support of the people’s struggle by giving themselves over to
the thinking of the people. He did not encourage focusing on the actions of
man—such a focus causes confusion—but
rather focus on "the thought-language with which men refer to reality, the levels at which they perceive that reality, and their
view of the world." Do not go to the people with the objective to bring them to salvation, he cautions, but rather to
understand through dialogue, "their objective situation and their awareness of that situation."
Boal took this charge to heart, combined his activist calling with his theater experience and created a form of theater
that proved useful to Brazil’s underclass’s effort to transform their personal and social reality into political awareness
and action. Boal looked to theater as an instrument of education, rejecting the popular idea of theater as only spectacle
and entertainment. His objective was to increase the capacity to confront internal and external factors in deeply rooted
conflict by increasing the capacity to conceive of change.
One of Boal’s innovative contributions to community theater committed to social change, was
The Joker. The Joker allows the audience to see the conflict from many angles, to contemplate why a conflict occurred and what could
conceivably happen next. Boal in 1979 believes these goals are reached through a theater form operating "within the "transitoriness"
of theatrical techniques." His seven stage approach includes: Dedication, explanation, episodes, scenes, commentary,
interview, and exhortation.
– The phase of dedication is very similar to the African centered tradition of
Libations, paying honor to the ancestors before undertaking any public dialogue. For the Joker’s purposes,
dedication might be in honor of a model individual, whose personal history lends knowledge to the production at hand.
Thus education of the audience begins.
– During explanation, The Joker has the power to intervene at anytime when it is
believed more information is needed. The action is stopped and in a lecture format information is shared, maps
shown, or slides might be projected. The attempt is "to place a focus on the action from the perspective of the one who presents it."
– Episode refers to the grouping of interdependent scenes. Boal calls for two
sequences of episodes, stipulating that the first sequence must contain one scene more than the second sequence.
– Scenes are a thing of small magnitude, yet a scene is complete in itself. A scene
could be a dialogue, song, dance, poem or a speech. The objective of each scene is to demonstrate "qualitative
change in the system of conflicting forces."
– Commentary connects one scene to another, preferably in rhymed verse sung by a choir. Because each scene
can show drastic diversity, commentary advises the audience of each change.
– When the Joker believes a character needs more time to get their point across, an
interview is called. During the interview the character is allowed to speak directly to what they believe to be true and why.
– During exhortation, the Joker makes an urgent appeal to the audience in prose or song in accordance with
One of Boal’s most popular techniques to help parties visualize the conflict is Image Theater. Image Theater
was inspired by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s study in multiple perceptions. This technique deals with "how we
come to create the Other: a negatively-charged rigid perception that generates bias and hate." Image Theater provides a tool
to challenge stereotypes and promote empathy. Other Theater of the Oppressed techniques include analytical
image, kaleidoscopic image, screen image, image and counter image, image of the antagonists, cop-in-the-head, and the rainbow
Like Brecht, Boal stands in functional agreement with, but political antithesis to Aristotle. He agrees that theater
should function in the life of the receiver, resonating their values and aspirations. Boal rejects Aristotle when he declares
art independent in relation to politics.
Theater for Aristotle was one of the controls to teach and reinforce the inferior role of those deemed unequal.
Boal interprets Aristotle’s message as "happiness consists in obeying the laws." Thus, he believes, Aristotle actually
constructs a powerful political system "for intimidation of the spectator for elimination of the bad or illegal tendencies of the
audience." Published in Motion Magazine—February 15, 1996
Maria Clara Machado, The Lady of the Children
By Laís Garcia
"I don’t know how to define my work, I create from zero, it is a vocation, I was born to do this, the theories rest with
the critics. A poet doesn’t write thus because of that. We are intuitive, it is a question of the moment." Maria Clara Machado
She had 80 years behind her, more than 25 plays for children and a whole trajectory of dedication and love for
the Brazilian theater. Maria Clara Machado died on May
3rd, 2001, in Rio de Janeiro.
Daughter of writer Aníbal Machado, she was born in 1921 in the city of Belo Horizonte. In 1925, she moved to Rio
with her family. Studied in Paris and London. But it was in 1951, in Rio de Janeiro, that she founded one of the principal and
most traditional schools of amateur theater in the country, the Teatro Tablado. The school accompanied the formation of
numerous actors and also was responsible for several transformations in children’s theater in Brazil. In 1961, she directed the
Serviço de Teatro e Diversões do Estado da Guanabara. Soon after, she occupied the post of general secretary at the
Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro.
Among the principal works of the author were
O Cavalinho Azul, The Little Blue Horse;
O Rapto das Cebolinhas, The Kidnapping of the Little Onions;
A Bruxinha que Era Boa, The Little Witch who was Good, and
Pluft, o Fantasminha, Pluft, the Little Ghost, from 1955. Inarguably, her major success, the adventures of the little ghost permeated many
people’s childhood, not just in Brazil, but also in several other countries where it was presented. Her plays were included in the
book of Teatro Infantil, considered a classic of the genre.
Children’s Theater in Brazil
Two years ago, the 50th anniversary of the début of the show
O Casaco Encantado, The Enchanted Coat, was commemorated. The date is considered as a mark of the beginning of children’s theater in Brazil. Until then, there
were already manifestations of this theatrical genre, but it was in 1948, with the play by Lúcia Benedetti, that for the first time
a team of professional adults was united with the objective of realizing a spectacle meant for an audience of children.
Already in the XVI century, Father Anchieta, patron of the Brazilian theater, counted on child actors and audience.
The participation of the children was more connected with the impact the presence of the little ones would have in the
conversion of the Indians, since the character of the plays was morality and catechism.
At the end of the XVIII century and the beginning of the XIX, it was very common in Brazil to find a presentation of
the classics of the theater by child theater companies, but their audiences were still adults.
Already in the XIX century the Teatro Escola emerged, a genre, which comes quite close to what today is known
as children’s theater. The repertoire consisted of monologues of moralizing character and should have been represented
by children, in the houses and the schools.
Thus, until 1948, with the début of O Casaco Encantado,
there did not exist a concern about working on
thematic dramaturgy with a language and style dedicated to children. From then on, companies were founded for children’s
theater, which counted on directors, actors, and professional producers. In São Paulo, the Teatro da Carochinha emerged in
1948. During the same year, TESP, Teatro Escola de São Paulo, was founded.
Stories which Confound
In 1951, Maria Clara Machado founded Teatro Tablado and made her great contribution to children’s theater in
Brazil. Her play for children O Boi e o Burro a Caminho de Belém,
The Bull and the Donkey on the Road to Belém, débuted in
1953 and was the first of the great successes of the author.
In addition to dramatist, Maria Clara also was an actress. Acted for the last time in 1981, when she substituted the
actress Henriette Morineau in Ensina-me a Viver,
Teach Me to Live. Of the prizes she received, the highlight were two
Molière Prizes, in 1968 and 1981, the Machado de Assis Prize awarded by the Academia Brasileira de Letras in 1991, and the
Shell Prize in 2000, for her contribution to the national theater.
The children’s genre came to conquer its space in Brazilian theater, bound for status as work of art. The quality of
the professionals and spectacles have constantly been surpassed. Leaving behind the stigma of "staircase theater" to
reach "adult theater," works of true artistic interest and the formation of permanent companies such as Hombú,
Teatro Anônimo, Tablado, and many others, guarantee continuity of the artistic research.
An active participant in the history of Brazilian theater, Maria Clara Machado left a legacy of creativity, love and fight
in defense of art. Her characters will always be marked in the memory of children of all ages, who will have in little ghosts,
bulls, and little donkeys, a lot of fantasy and inspiration to make history, innovate and, just like she, leave an eternal mark in
the lives of many. Maria Clara Machado is synonymous with Brazilian children’s theater. It is impossible to speak of one
without bumping into the other.
Cacilda Becker, "Grande Dame" of Brazilian Theater
A censor of the military regime went to the Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia, the TBC, in São Paulo, to prohibit some of
the songs of show Tempo de Guerra, Time of War, with Maria Bethânia. Plínio Marcos, assistant director, defied the man,
and a group of officials wanted to take him to prison. The street of the theater became a battlefield. The entire theater group
tried to prevent the imprisonment, but nothing seemed to be of use. Suddenly, there was absolute silence.
A passageway opened in the middle of the crowd: it was Cacilda Becker, who had just arrived. When she approached
the police van where Plínio was being held, she said: "Let this man go!" As if he were in front of the Pope, without batting
an eye, the guard obeyed the order. Cacilda continued: "Tomorrow we will go to the police station and clear up what
happened here, and you, please, be there!" The guard responded, "Yes Ma’am, I’ll take care of it."
It was those and others who, after her death in 1969, who were the friends left behind. Cacilda Becker Yáconis
(Paulista from Pirassununga, born on April 6, 1921) was the "mother" of the world of theater, the one who protected the
colleagues from arbitrary acts by the military regime against freedom of expression. But she was, principally, one of the most
brilliant actresses of the Brazilian theater. In 30 years of career, she staged 68 plays, in which she performed passionate
interpretations, the likes of which few claimed to have seen. She had a brief stint with the company Os Comediantes, by Ziembinski,
and soon after went to TBC, where she remained for ten years. She left in 1958 to form her own company, Teatro Cacilda
Becker, which she directed until the end of her life.
She used to say that it was a miserable childhood that transformed her into a strong woman. The father abandoned
the family and the mother, an elementary school teacher, to raise the three
daughters—Cacilda, Cleyde, and Dirce—alone
with much difficulty. When she was nine, Cacilda, the oldest sister, decided that she would pull the family out of misery
by becoming president of Standard Oil in Brazil. Knowing that this would not be easy, she woke her mother one dawn:
"Mom, swear that you will take me to a big city to study in a good school to sustain our family." A year later, they moved to
Santos, on the coast of São Paulo. She succeeded in finding a good school but had to leave because they couldn’t pay the
It was a stroke of luck that she had learned to dance in Pirassununga. She gave dance recitals to pay for school.
"I danced barefoot. The first time I put shoes on my feet, I was 14," she said. This all might have been academic. Since
her family was so poor, she and some friends stole fruit from neighbors. Once, getting over an iron fence, she had an
accident and cut her foot. She got tetanus and almost died.
She was a small and thin woman who, when she stepped onto a stage, became a giant. Ziembinski, with whom
Cacilda worked, used to say that his friend "was a fragile, little woman, who didn’t weigh anything, but took on
enormous undertakings." Working, Cacilda was pure discipline, always the first to arrive and the last to leave from rehearsals.
In addition to her small physique she had the weakest voice, which caused the directors to avoid that she would have to
sing. On one of those occasions, she shouted: "I will sing, and that’s final. I’m Cacilda Becker, and when I pretend that
I’m singing, the whole world will believe it." And that is exactly what happened.
In the course of the year 1968, she was president of the Comissão Estadual de Teatro, in São Paulo, working for
the Secretary of Culture, but continued going to the demonstrations against censorship organized by the theatrical
community. Before starting a protest march, she would ask her friends: "We’re not going to have a street riot, are we, people?"
They almost always did, but she was never connected with it. In 1969, she staged the play
Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, where she worked side by side with her husband, the actor Walmor Chagas.
During the intermission of a show, Cacilda supported herself on Walmor and uttered her last words: "I think I’m
having a stroke." An aneurysm caused her to suffer for more than a month of hospitalization. A multitude of people held vigil
during the whole time in front of the hospital. She died at 48, and on that occasion, the researcher Renata Palottini wrote: "The
best Brazilian actress, the best friend of her friends, the most combative of leaders, the most sensitive of
A Celebration of 80 years of the Myth of Cacilda Becker. April 6, 2001. From Estado de São Paulo newspaper.
Dressed in a beat-up tuxedo (the demand of the role she was playing at the time, Estragon, in the play
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett), Cacilda Becker weakened unexpectedly, right on stage, in the arms of son Luiz Carlos, Cuca, who
was having his début at the theater. She collapsed later in São Paulo, on that
6th day of May, 1969, when the agony
started, caused by an aneurysm in her brain. Not even a series of operations could prevent, some 38 days later, the death of one
of the principal Brazilian actresses.
She was an actress so complete and versatile that today, when she would have turned 80, her memory is revered with
a new production of Cacilda!, play by José Celso Martinez Corrêa, and with a special show by singer Clara
Becker, daughter of the actress, in Pirassununga, the city where Cacilda was born. "The strength of my mother continues
powerful and intact," commented Clara.
The magnetism of the actress is what moves the play, which, again, occupies the space at Teatro Oficina: after a
much rewarded career in 1999, Cacilda! returns with Beth Coelho in the first act and Leona Cavalli in the second,
interpreting distinct facets of the actress. "Too human, fiery, and diva, in the acting of Beth and, subsequently, the star of Leona in
the body without organ, bubbling champagne," comments Zé Celso. The new production marks a continuation of the
project of saving the principal works of Oficina of the decade of the 90’s.
With the sponsorship of Petrobras, the plan started with a recording of
Boca de Ouro, Mouth of Gold, for
reproduction on video, DVD, and internet. The play will be available for sale in those formats in June (2001). The project continues
now, with the filming of the 3 hours and 40 minutes of
Cacilda! "We will not modify anything to adapt the stories to these
new media," comments Zé Celso. "The project will faithfully portray the work of Grupo Oficina."
The work of recovering the work of Cacilda Becker, who died at 48, continues in the director’s plans. According to
him, the first act of the play, which has its new premiere today, represents the first part of a serial and the second, the last
part. "The core, the professional life of the actress, is in three other plays, scheduled for 2003."
The multiplicity was a mark of her notable talent, well portrayed by the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade in the
poem Atriz, Actress, written soon after her death:
A morte emendou a gramática
Morreram Cacilda Becker.
Não era uma só. Era tantas.
Era uma pessoa e era um teatro.
Morrem mil Cacildas em Cacilda.
The death made amends for the grammar
Cacilda Becker have died.
She wasn’t just one. She was so many.
She was a person and a theater.
A thousand Cacildas died in Cacilda.
Physically, she was thin and small with a beauty not readily evident. She had little vocal potential, and her nasal
voice was hindered by shortness of breath, asthmatic. No difficulty, however, impeded the display of her talent in diverse
national and foreign classics. Like in Pega
Fogo by Jules Renard, in which Cacilda interprets, with perfection, a problematic boy,
of ten years.
That versatility will be celebrated today, also, by a
Paulista singer from Pirassununga, at the opening of the Festival
do Teatro. "It is the first time that I’m going to the city where my mother was born, and that leaves me very motivated,"
says Clara, daughter of Cacilda and actor Walmor Chagas. "And I’m certain that she would approve of my repertoire."
The Pornographic Angel
"Sou um menino que vê o amor pelo buraco da fechadura. Nunca fui outra coisa. Nasci menino, hei de morrer
menino. E o buraco da fechadura é, realmente, a minha ótica de ficcionista. Sou (e sempre fui) um anjo
pornográfico." Nelson Rodrigues
"I’m a boy who sees love through the keyhole. I was never anything else. I was born a boy, and I will die a boy. And
the keyhole is, really, my viewpoint as a fiction writer. I am (and always was) a pornographic angel."
Nelson Rodrigues was born in the city of Recife, in Pernambuco on the
23rd of August, 1912, fifth of fourteen
children born to Maria Esther Falcão and the journalist Mário Rodrigues. His father, who was a councilman and journalist
with Jornal do Recife, decided to move his family to Rio, because of political problems. In July of 1916, the couple moved to
Rio de Janeiro with their children. They had sold everything they owned to pay for the trip, and for a time they stayed at
a friend’s house. In August 1916, they moved into their first residence in Zona Norte of Rio.
Nelson was raised in the climate of the time: fat neighbors in the windows, checking on the other inhabitants,
resentful old maids, and sad widows with their legs wrapped in gauze because of varicose veins. Births were accomplished with
the help of midwives at home. Wakes, too, took place in the home, and spittoons were commonplace. Young Nelson
registered this scenario in his memory. It became the base of the characters in his literary work.
Early on, he earned a reputation. One neighbor, Dona Caridade, told his mother that all her children were welcome in
her house except Nelson. She had seen the 4-year-old on top of her 3-year-old daughter, kissing her. "Pervert," she called him.
When he was seven, he asked his mother to send him to school. He quickly learned to read, but he was often
reprimanded by his teacher, Dona Amália Cristófaro. In 1920, an incident happened, which later became one of his favorites: a
writing contest in his class. Each student would write on a free subject. The best piece would be read aloud in class. When the
class was over, the works were handed in. The teacher almost fell over when she read the piece by Nelson. It was a story
of adultery. The husband arrives at home to find his wife naked in bed and the shape of a man escaping through the
window. The husband gets a knife and kills her. The story astonished the whole teaching staff, and naturally, it was not read in class.
It was in 1919 that the author discovered Fluminense (a Rio soccer team). It was the first year of the
"three-peat" championship of the tricolor, although he and his brother Mário Filho, who would later become a famous sportswriter
and have his name chosen as the official name of Maracanã stadium, could not afford to go out and get themselves
to Laranjeiras to see their team play. His father got a job with
Correio da Manhã (Morning Post) and moved his family
to Tijuca, a fact which, at the time, showed an improvement in their standard of living.
Nelson felt the absence of his father, who was always involved in politics and journalism. He was frequently in
trouble in school, being expelled for rebellion, always questioning his professors, especially those of Portuguese and history.
To compensate for the lack of contact with his children, Mário Rodrigues permitted their visits to
Correio da Manhã. He said that he never dreamed of his children becoming journalists. He wanted his daughters to become doctors and his
sons lawyers. This would not be easy, however. He got involved in a political battle, which earned him a year in jail. This
caused young Nelson to sink into depression.
Nelson started his journalistic career in 1925, at the age of 13, as a police reporter, earning 30,000
réis a month.
He impressed his colleagues with his capacity for dramatizing small happenings. His specialty was to describe "death
pacts" between young lovers, so common in that era. At fourteen, he had his first sexual experience with a prostitute and
continued to frequent the ladies of the night.
Toward the end of the 20’s, he and his brothers worked at
A Manhã, a newspaper, in different capacities. Nelson
dropped out of high school and never went back. He was given a column on page 3, the principal page of the newspaper
and published a variety of articles. His father was very upset when he started "beating up" on Ruy Barbosa in his column,
and when he lambasted the Águia de Haia
(The Genius from the Hague) his punishment was swift. He was demoted to the
police blotter for five months. The newspaper, however, was deeply in debt and could not stay afloat, which caused the family
Forty three days after losing A
Manhã, Mário Rodrigues launched his new paper with great success:
A Crítica (The Critique), which would have a circulation of 130,000 copies. Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Reis sent the police to arrest
every Rodrigues they could find, under the allegation that one of them was behind the assassination of Argentine Carlos
Pinto, reporter for A Democracia. All, father and sons, were imprisoned. Nelson escaped, as he was not in Rio at the time. He
had gone to Recife to relieve his depression. Hearing about the arrest of his father and brothers, he rushed back to Rio.
On December 26, 1929, the paper printed a story on the first page about the legal separation of Sylvia and José
Thibau. It was a way for the daily to print something on a day with no news, the day after Christmas. On the
27th, in the morning, Sylvia came into the office of
A Crítica looking for Mário Rodrigues. He was not in, so she asked to speak to his
son, Roberto and shot him in the stomach. Nelson saw and heard everything. At 17 years and 4 months, it was the first scene
of brutal violence that he witnessed. His brother died on the
29th. Nobody can become familiar with the theater of
Nelson Rodrigues without understanding the tragedy of Roberto’s death. Sixty seven days after the death of his son,
Mário Rodrigues suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died a few days later. In the face of those losses, the family could no
longer live in the same house.
After the revolution, A Crítica, through errors in evaluating the situation, was closed and never allowed to
re-open. Milton and Mário Filho were imprisoned again, but soon freed. Nelson worked at
O Tempo and later was hired by O
Globo. He was given his assigned desk in 1932 at a salary of 500,000 réis a month. He gave it all to his mother and received
an allowance to buy cigarettes. He was always a ladies’ man and fell in love with several different women at this time.
However, he had other problems. A dry cough and a low grade fever along with his weight loss, caused him to seek
a doctor’s care. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, then a death sentence and the great fear of the time. He spent the
next 14 months in a sanatorium, compensating for his loneliness with letters, many of which written to the teacher, Alice,
in Copacabana. It was here that he had his first "dramatic" experience, when another patient suggested they perform a
sketch to make a little fun of themselves. While he was in the sanatorium, his brother Joffre, 21, became ill and ended up
spending the next seven months with Nelson. Joffre died at the end of 1936.
When he returned to O Globo, he found that the first woman had been hired. Her name was Elza Bretanha, and
Nelson fell in love. Nelson explained the situation of his health and financial situation to her and proposed. Elza’s mother almost
had a conniption and told Roberto Marinho from O Globo
about her feelings. He said to Elza, "She knows that you are going
to marry a guy, very intelligent and with great talent, but poor, absolutely lazy, and sick. Your mother is right!" Even so,
they planned on marrying on Elza’s birthday, May 8, 1939, even if they had to elope.
However, instead Nelson sent her a note saying, "Love, I have a soul full of sad premonition." It was the
tuberculosis, which attacked again. During this next stay in the hospital, he was filled with jealousy of imagined boyfriends, broke up
with her, but his love was stronger than his jealousy. On April 29, 1940, they finally married in front of a judge but decided
that there would be no wedding night until after the religious wedding. Elza’s brothers threatened to kill him, but
eventually, the family gave their blessing leading to the religious wedding on May 17, after Nelson was properly baptized and confirmed.
His illness was always a part of his life. One morning he woke up and informed his wife that he was blind. An
inflammation caused by the TB had taken his sight. The doctor gave him medicine, which improved the situation, but 30 % of his
vision was lost forever. And with Elza being pregnant and not working, their financial situation was shaky. One day, as he
was passing the Teatro Rival, he saw a long line waiting for tickets. Someone on line commented, "This second rate play is
raking in a lot of money." A light went on in his head: why not write for theater?
And in 1941, he wrote his first play A Mulher Sem Pecado,
The Woman Without Sin. It is a psychological study
of Olegário, an arrogant and prosperous businessman, who is married to the much younger Lídia and confined to a
wheelchair. Fearing that his wife is cheating on him, he badgers her and spies on her devising one test of her fidelity after another,
only to find when his doubts are finally satisfied and his disability revealed as a ruse, that she has run off with the family’s
black chauffeur. Now playing to full houses whenever it is performed, Nelson failed to find someone to produce it. His son,
Joffre, was born, and for medical reasons he had to keep his distance to protect the infant. But finally, after much struggle,
Woman Without Sin was finally produced at the Teatro Carlos Gomes under the direction of Rodolfo Mayer.
In January, 1943, he wrote his second play Vestido de Noiva,
The Wedding Dress, but although it received
positive mention in the press, there was hesitation to produce it "because of the complexity of staging it." But toward the end of
1945 and beginning of the following year, Os Comediantes staged both The Wedding Dress and Woman Without Sin at
the Teatro Phoenix for full houses. At this time he began writing
Álbum de Família, Family Album. Upon completion it
was submitted to the censors and promptly prohibited. The opinions were strongly divided among critics and intellectuals.
It was not freed by the censors until 1965 and finally produced in ’67.
His newest play Anjo Negro, Black Angel, débuted in 1948. As always
with Nelson Rodrigues, it caused controversy.
In this case, however, it was allowed by the censors. This enabled him for the first time to buy a house for his growing
family. One of the most frequently performed of Nelson’s plays is
Beijo no Asfalto, The Kiss on the Asphalt. As a pedestrian hit
by a bus lies dying on a Rio street, a passerby stops to cradle him in his arms and kisses him on the lips as a parting gesture
of human solidarity. But the scene is witnessed by an unscrupulous reporter, who proves so successful in convincing a
public hungry for scandal that the men were lovers, that even the wife of the Good Samaritan comes to doubt his masculinity.
Written for a now-defunct theater company, a founder of which was actress Fernanda Montenegro (great stage
actress known in the U.S. for her Oscar nominated role in Central Station), who played the mistrusting wife when the play was
first performed in 1961, The Kiss on the Asphalt confronts today’s questions of homophobia and tabloid sensationalism.
Like most of his plays, it also contains a large dose of melodrama and characters whose behavior seems so extravagant
and extreme that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether the play being performed is a tragedy or an absurdist comedy.
Says Fernanda Montenegro about Nelson Rodrigues: "Nelson always worked with characters in convulsions. He
is extraordinary that way, and for the foreigner, he must seem extremely exotic, because he is a writer who defines our
culture and our emotionality as Brazilians. A person from outside must be asking himself: `What is this? What world am I in?’"
It was at the time of Anjo Negro that he started a relationship with Eleonor Bruno, known as Nonoca, beautiful,
shy, reserved, and lyrical soprano. She was present to keep an eye on her 13-year-old daughter who was having her début as
an actress. It was not long before they were involved in a relationship. He rented a small apartment in Copacabana. All
went well until one day in 1950, when Elza pounded on the door and created a scandal. He returned home with his tail between
his legs, and the affair ended. Nelson wrote a comedy for Nonoca,
Dorotéia. It became the début of two actresses, Nonoca,
and the sister of the author, Dulcinha. Fearing that the censors would prohibit it, he submitted it as an "original by
Walter Paíno," brother-in-law of Nonoca. It was approved and premiered in 1950. Half of the audience gave a standing ovation,
and half left in silence. It played for 13 days.
He never reached a level of financial security. Thus, he wrote novels and short stories and thousands of
newspaper columns. Ruy Castro, known for such books as
Ela é Carioca, She is Carioca, and
Chega de Saudade, No More Blues, about bossa nova, is also the author of
O Anjo Pornográfico, The Pornographic Angel, a biography of Nelson
Rodrigues. Mr. Castro argues that Nelson was actually greater as a novelist than a playwright. Says Mr. Castro about his novels:
"In novels like The Wedding and Savage Asphalt
he penetrates the minds of his characters in a way that is quite startling
and simply can’t be done in the theater. In both the novels and the plays he works with the same cast of judges, doctors,
priests and others who would appear to be upstanding citizens, and treats them with the same malice. But he is better able to
show the anomalies and deviations in their hearts and souls."
American actress Amy Irving, married to Brazilian director Bruno Barreto, is planning to produce Nelson
Rodrigues’ play Toda Nudez será
Castigada, All Nudity Shall Be Punished. She says about the author: "Nelson Rodrigues was a
keen observer of life who expressed a kind of heightened realism through larger-than-life characters. This play in particular
has a provocative story, entertaining writing and a great character for me to sink my teeth into. To me, he is the
heterosexual Brazilian equivalent of Tennessee Williams, someone who writes about the lies and the hidden stories of the middle
class, and I don’t understand why he isn’t huge."
Controversy was always part of his existence. Nelson had sympathy for the UDN (União Democrática Nacional)
and horror for the intellectuals attracted by communism. His critics on the left were public and vocal, but that was not his
most serious problem. When the military dictatorship began in 1964, Nelson was very openly tolerant to the new regime,
behavior considered unacceptable as much in the artistic milieu as among the press. That tolerance only ceased when the
dramatist learned that his son, Nelsinho, nicknamed Prancha, was being tortured in prison, in 1972.
His conservatism extended to his personal life. He was very dedicated to his family to the point of never having
slapped his children or used bad language in front of them, even though his plays were full of foul dialogue. He was baptized
and confirmed in order to marry Elza and, according to his friend, Sábato Magaldi, believed in immortality of the soul and
the existence of God, though he did not go to church. "He made the profane sacred and went to Maracanã like others go
to church," says his biographer, Ruy Castro. Friends of his judged Nelson to be much more humble than reactionary.
He always dressed in the same suit to go to work and wore shoes without socks for lack of money and gave all his money
to his mother.
He was also known for his sense of humor. Writer Zuenir Ventura says about him, "Everything that happened to
Nelson took on a dramatic dimension. He grasped situations and created a joke in return, always talking with that bovine air."
Actor Renato Consorte, who played the investigator in
Beijo no Asfalto in the 1961 production, remembers Nelson Rodrigues
as "someone very funny, who didn’t accept the fact that there were people who didn’t understand his plays." Renato tells
the story of Nelson with his sons at the door of the theater threatening the spectators coming out, shocked by his plays.
"He pointed his umbrella or a walking stick at them and shouted `Well, didn’t you like it?’"
His play Perdoa-me Por Me Traíres,
Forgive Me for Having Betrayed Me, also had problems with the censors.
Another thing happened at the début. Nelson played the role of Raul. Once again, those booing and those applauding asked for
the author. This time he did not play hard to get and called the audience stupid and cattle. Suddenly there was a gunshot. In
the discussion between pros and cons, councilman Wilson Leite Passos pulled his revolver to scare someone who had
called him a clown. There was general chaos. On the following day the censors forbade the play.
From 1959-1960, hundreds of thousands of people followed the story of Engraçadinha and her family in
Asfalto Selvagem, Savage Asphalt. Two books were published
Engraçadinha—seus amores e seus pecados dos doze aos
dezoito, Engraçadinha—her loves and her sins from twelve to eighteen and
Engraçadinha—depois dos trinta,
At this time there was yet another affair with Lúcia Cruz Lima, which resulted in her leaving her husband and
kids, getting pregnant and causing Elza to attempt suicide. His appetite for women was ever strong. The pregnancy,
however, was ill fated. The daughter was deprived of oxygen in the first critical time after birth and remained helpless and blind.
Nelson Rodrigues was the author of the very first Brazilian soap opera, but with poor results.
A Morte sem Espelho, The Death without Mirror, had all the ingredients to become
successful—a great cast with Fernanda Montenegro and
Tôrres and music by Vinicius de Moraes. However, it was not allowed to air in its intended timeslot, at 8:30 but was
given 11:30a death sentence. One of the problems was his name and reputation, and consequently he used pseudonyms in
In 1973, he wrote Anti-Nelson Rodrigues. The play did well at the Serviço Nacional do Teatro. After a couple of
medical examinations, Rodrigues was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery for an aneurysm of the aorta. His doctor
forbade him to smoke, but he did, nevertheless. In April 1977, he was again hospitalized with ventricular arrhythmia and inability
to breathe. Elza returned home, and they took up living together again. They could often be seen at Joffre’s restaurant
O Bigode do Meu Tio, My Uncle’s Mustache, in Vila Isabel.
He wrote his great—and last play A Serpente,
The Serpent, in mid 1979, just before his son Nelsinho started a
hunger strike with 13 fellow prisoners, the last political prisoners of Rio in order to transform the broad amnesty into
totally unrestricted amnesty. Finally, on the 23 of August, the author’s birthday, Nelsinho wins his freedom, and on the 16
of October, he received his conditional freedom, but he is unable to see his father, who is unconscious in the cardiac unit.
Nelson Rodrigues died on the 21 of December, 1980a Sunday. Two months later, Elza fulfilled his wish that
she—still alive—engrave her name on his tombstone under the inscription:
Unidos para além da vida e da morte. É só.
United beyond life and death. That’s all.
The following is a selection of his plays:
A Mulher Sem Pecado, 1941
Vestido de Noiva, 1943
Álbum de Família, 1946
Anjo Negro, 1947
Senhora dos Afogados, Lady of the Drowned,
Valsa No. 6, 1951
A Falecida, The Deceased, 1953
Viúva, Porém Honesta, Widow, Yet Honest,
Os Sete Gatinhos, 1958
Boca de Ouro, 1958
Beijo no Asfalto, 1960
Otto Lara Resende or Bonitinha, mas Ordinária,
Cute but a Tramp, 1962
Toda Nudez Será Castigada, 1965
Anti-Nelson Rodrigues, 1973
A Serpente, 1978
In addition there was a large number of novels, chronicles, movies, soap operas, and stories, which have only
been touched upon here. For those, who might want to learn more about this great Brazilian playwright, a number of books
have been written about him and might be available at
Another rich source used here comes from
O Teatro de Nelson Rodrigues: uma realidade em
agonia, Ronaldo Lima Lins, Editora Francisco Alves/MEC, Rio, 1979
O teatro brasileiro moderno, Décio de Almeida Prado, Editora Perspective/USP, São Paulo, 1988.
Nelson Rodrigues—Dramaturgia e
Encenações, Sábato Magaldi, Editora Perspectiva/USP, São Paulo, 1987
Nelson Rodrigues—Expressionista, Eudinir Fraga, Ed. Atelier, São Paulo
Nelson Rodrigues, meu irmão, Stella Rodrigues, José Olympio Editora, Rio, 1986
Nelson Rodrigues: Flor de
Obsessão, Carlos Vogt e Berta Waldman, Editora Brasiliense, São Paulo, 1985
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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