The arena of reason and passion

The relations between the university, the theatre and the city in the 1940's

If São Paulo, from 1940 to 1950, became, as a conceited person once said, the “locomotive of Brazil,” one must also highlight that one of its chief carriages was culture and its most illustrious passengers were the first generation of intellectuals educated at the School of Philosophy, S


ciences and Literature at the then newly-founded University of São Paulo (USP), along with the actors and directors of  TBC – Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia (the Brazilian Theatre of Comedy), established in 1948. Both reflected the new democratic modernity that was replacing the old and decadent agricultural elite and the new opportunities that arose in this process. “In the São Paulo state capital, a substantial and diverse cultural system was being implemented, one that could express itself concurrently in the theatre and in intellectual life, thanks to the changes in social structure that derived from the fact that the city was becoming a metropolis, along with the world war, which drove foreign actors and professors to move here,” explains the anthropologist Heloisa Pontes, a professor at the Department of Anthropology at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and a researcher at the Pagu Gender Research Center at Unicamp. For the past 10 years, Heloisa has focused on studying the relationship between the theatre, the university and the city. The end result of this is the book Intérpretes da metrópole [Interpreters of the Metropolis], soon to be launched by the Edusp publishing house.

The study’s touchstone was a comment made by one of her “objects of study,” the philosopher and literary critic Gilda de Mello and Souza, in her article Teatro ao Sul [Theatre toward the South], included in the book Exercícios de leitura [Exercises in reading], in which she states that São Paulo, as from the 1940’s, became a center of cultural experimentation. Here, theatre was ahead of the social studies, undertaking a task performed by the novel in the Northeast. “The surprising element is that it all happened concurrently: innovative intellectuals and a modern theatre, represented by TBC, arose in a situation that brought together, on one hand, the arrival of the French Mission and its professors (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Monbeig, Roger Bastide, etc.) at USP and on the other, foreign theatre directors such as Louis Jouvet, Adolfo Celi, Henriette Morineau and Ziembinsky. These “visitors” would become the first generation of modern interpreters and intellectuals and they created new sociability networks in the city,” analyses the researcher. From this meeting of the minds of a new contingent of students and amateur actors, largely from families of middle class immigrants, São Paulo city, with foreigners who were beginning their careers (French Mission) or that were more experienced, such as the theatre directors, who disembarked here because of World War II, implemented a complex cultural and intellectual system unprecedented in our history. “In this context, the city became the modernizing center of Brazilian theatre, outshining the Rio de Janeiro stage scene for more than a decade,” says the professor.

Moreover, this was the case not only on the stage, but also in academia. The School of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature of USP became the center of education of a new academic system of intellectual production, thanks to the work, on one hand, of the members of the journal Clima (Antonio Candido, Gilda, Décio de Almeida Prado etc.) and, on the other, of the social scientists led by Florestan Fernandes. “To get an idea of USP’s impact on the life and career of women such as Gilda, one should mention that the law and medical schools, in which the sons of the leading elite studied, were averse to the intentions of the feminine contingent, which never exceeded 5% of the student body from 1934 to 1949,” recalls Heloisa. “Compare this with the 60% of women and the 30% of immigrant children that were in the social sciences from 1936 to 1955.” The university, like a theatre scene, also set São Paulo apart from Rio de Janeiro, at that time the country’s capital, where the institution never achieved the same centrality as it attained in the São Paulo state capital. “There, for quite a while, university life coexisted with other means of access to public life, being little more than an agency to get the credentials needed to establish the salary levels of the occupants of the higher civil service jobs,” states the sociologist Sergio Miceli, from USP, author of Intelectuais à brasileira [Intellectuals, Brazilian style] (Companhia das Letras publishing house). “São Paulo was practically the only institutional arena in which something akin to what one might call an intellectual elite was established.” Nothing could be further removed from the experience of a Rio de Janeiro sociologist. “In Rio de Janeiro, these intellectuals were unfamiliar with a university career, with the encouragement of academic research along modern scientific lines, or with autonomy. They lived under the political jurisdiction of the educational authorities of the federal government, in an urban environment that, being the seat of government, caused the political bureaucracy to become the center of gravity of intellectual life,” states the sociologist Maria Alice Rezende de Carvalho, from PUC-RJ, author of the article Temas sobre a organização dos intelectuais no Brasil [Themes on the organization of intellectuals in Brazil] (Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais, 2007). Moreover, as a cosmopolitan city, Heloisa reminds us, Rio de Janeiro was home to intellectual coexistence that was different from that in São Paulo, in which bookstores, cafés, bars and the offices of newspapers and magazines were the privileged arenas for the circulation of ideas and of sociability.

ReproductionPatricia Galvão, nicknamed PaguReproduction

This modern posture was the ideal reflex of the transformation of the society of the metropolis. “São Paulo was experiencing a disbelief in its legacies and past. This attitude was expressed in the emergence of a renewed cultural tissue, produced by modernization and evident in the innovative production of intellectual and cultural language. The emphasis on the present resulted in the belief in a promising future, identified by the reality of a society of open classes and with a democratic participation regime,” analyzes the sociologist Maria Arminda do Nascimento Arruda, from USP, author of the book Metrópole e cultura [Metropolis and culture] (Edusc publishing house). “This feeling of lost roots, which for some (the former elite) was seen as negative, for others meant an opportunity for freedom in the widest of areas.” Only this enabled, as Heloisa reveals, the rise of figures such as Florestan Fernandes, who adjusted to the teachings of the French school, or the actress Cacilda Becker (merely an example, as one could say the same of Fernanda Montenegro and Maria della Costa, among other women, who, in the words of the latter, “drove the theatre scene” ), the disciple of several foreign directors. Both had humble origins and saw their lives transformed, achieving the states of ” proper names” and brilliance in their respective fields of action. These actresses all shared modest origins as the daughters of immigrants and had equally modest intellectual capital, until they joined the theatre scene, where they quickly developed in the hands of foreign directors, in an exemplary form of interpersonal chemistry that soon put the national stage, by means of TBC, on an equal footing with international theatre. “Coming from the lower but passably comfortable levels of the Brazilian social structure, the actresses inculcated the manners, diction, body language, expressiveness, charm, and signs of a social energy that reverberated on stage the geographic and social mobility of the transformation that the metropolis was undergoing,” says Heloisa.

However, there were disparities between the two groups, a fact that drove the professor’s research. “In a situation that was the opposite of the intellectual women of the time, whose most sensational examples were Gilda, Patricia Galvão (known as Pagu) and the literary critic Lucia Miguel Pereira, all of whom faced a number of embarrassing sistuations to establish and “make a name” for themselves, the actresses were elevated to the status of protagonists with the backing of their partners.” Suffice it to recall the several actresses who, after leaving the TBC “school,” set up their own companies, in which they were the leading actresses, with their partners working as impresarios or directors: Fernanda Montenegro and Fernando Torres, Cacilda Becker and Walmor Chagas, and Nydia Lícia and Sergio Cardoso. For the intellectuals that monitored this scene closely, it was necessary, as Gilda de Mello and Souza confessed, to rebel against the fate reserved for the women of that time: to become an exemplary wife or, in the case of the “nonconformists,” to focus on verse or fiction. Gilda, Pagu and Lucia chose to realize themselves “like a man” (in Gilda’s words), each in her own way. “They ventured into fiction before entering intellectual life, at the time dominated by men. Lucia, in her 1933 novel Maria Luísa, written the same year as Pagu’s pioneering socialist novel Parque industrial [Industrial complex], and Gilda, in the short stories written for the journal Clima. All were solemnly ignored, despite their high literary quality,” says the researcher. “These women writers would get the greatest praise that could be offered to women’s works at that time: ‘It even comes across as if it were by a man’,” Lucia disclosed in a 1954 article. However, occasionally, reality became overbearing, as was the case of the “invented muse of Modernism,” which is how Heloisa defines Patricia Galvão (Pagu), who would have reached her hundredth birthday this year. “Surrender and submission, due to sequestered sexuality, to broken maternity and to militancy based on self-sacrifice: these are the backbone of Pagu’s pathways, quite different from what one would expect of a woman who made her name and fame as a symbol of irreverence and of feminine emancipation.”

As for Gilda, she gave up her passion for fiction. “Her gesture was to refuse the position that her companions from the journal gave her, to rise against the socially more appropriate modes of expression of  women of that time, in what was her first act of freedom. Even so, in distributing the tasks, the men got the higher level positions and subjects: culture and the editing of the permanent sections. The women, on the other hand, were given the function of putting it all together, the function of collaborators.” Not to speak of the criticism of Florestan Fernandes regarding Gilda’s research into fashion, seen as “a woman’s thing” that supposedly did not comply with the scientific methods required to produce sociology. Hence the complete disregard with which her doctoral thesis, defended in 1950, was treated. It only came to be published three decades later, under the title A moda no século XIX [Fashion in the nineteenth century]. “With different resources and means, Lucia, Patricia and Gilda reflected on the social and psychological constraints that affected women’s lives. A quick glance at the intellectual field and at the theatre enables one to compare the career opportunities and the different ways of “making a name” for oneself of the intellectuals and of the actresses,” notes Heloisa. “More ‘feminine’ than the intellectual field at that time, the theatre casts some light, by contrast, upon the possible arenas, the resources used and the frustrations experienced by the three intellectuals in order to gain acknowledgement as writers and critics of culture.” Whether from one standpoint or the other, both of which reflect the difficulties faced by women, a modern and cultural metropolis was emerging, one that might, with deserved conceit, be labeled the “locomotive of Brazil.”