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The great family

Vianinha's father, actor, director, producer and impresario Oduvaldo Vianna, resurges in a thesis

The boy is the father of the man: distort the Machadian adage a little and you will have a good description of how, contrary to what one expects, the creations of the genial son can, even unwittingly, put in the shade the work of his talented father, Oduvaldo Vianna Filho, or Vianinha? Who does not know him? But few remember Odvaldo Vianna (1892-1982), who, like his son (who was feted by the critics), was a prolific author for the theater, besides being, from the age of 16 to 80, a translator, an adapter, a director, a producer, an impresario, a professor and a journalist. This is the Vianna the critics slighted and the public forgot. His crime? Making people laugh. But always in the spirit of Castigat, ridendo mores (laughing, he castigates manners): “His theater is set in gold and wealth, as a mirror of human degradation”, is Vianinha’s definition.

“He was a watershed, he laid a bridge between the comedy theater of the 19th century (Martins Pena, Artur Azevedo, França Júnior) and modern dramaturgy, to influence generations of actors, playwrights, directors and producers”, explains Wagner Martins Madeira, the author of Forms of the comedy theater: the work of Oduvaldo Vianna, a doctoral thesis supervised by João Roberto Faria. “Oduvaldo circulated in several media – journalism, radio, theater, television – and had a direct ascendancy over Mário Lago, Lima Duarte, Dias Gomes and Walter Avancini, among others.” In the thesis, besides revealing Vianna’s artistic value and his importance for professionalizing and modernizing the Brazilian stage, Wagner Madeira redeems the playwright’s work, including several of his texts, unknown today.

Oddly enough, Vianna was “massacred” by those who ought to be his allies. The modernist critics, who assessed his work as a “collection of little comedies of morals”, slighted his effort (perhaps for its practical and pragmatic side) for nationalizing the scenario of the Brazilian theater. “My father brought to Brazil the first company to speak with a Brazilian prosody and to do a theater directed precisely to the petite bourgeoisie that is beginning to disappear, to the families that took the shocks”, recalls Vianinha in a text of 1960. “During the 1920’s, he fought against the Portuguese prosody on Brazilian stages. He knew as nobodyhow to make use of colloquial language, the basis for his excellent dialogs. He believed in Brazilian theater, for as a producer he encouraged the emergence of new playwrights. Fearless, he took onto the stage texts by Brazilian authors, even if they were unknown. He did not therefore have a colonized posture, with the understanding that only European theater had quality”, Madeira maintains.

Comic wrapping
His little “revolution” was carried out with laughter. “Oduvaldo found in comedy the proper vehicle for expressing his dissatisfactions and his desires for change in Brazilian society. Diminishing the ambit of activity of the comedies of manners is to connive with a prejudiced view, sometimes in the name of a Eurocentric view of the world theater”, the researcher goes on. Vianna was sufficiently wise to perceive that the Brazilian public would pay more attention to his digs at society if they came in a comic wrapping, more true to life than drama, for being closer to our reality. “The national passion for comedy exists, since, historically, it is as if the Brazilian, disinherited of his citizenship, were to discover himself as a citizen, by experiencing a comic situation, as a protagonist or spectator. So then an adjustment takes place, in which the ‘out of place’ of politics and manners gains a space for a subversive representation of our peculiar reality”, Madeira explains.

A small excerpt of his best work, Amor [Love], from 1933 (praised by the severe critics of the O Estado de S. Paulo [The State of São Paulo] newspaper as capable of causing “a certain revolution in comedy’s old scenic processes and the greatest success so far seen in the national theater”), gives Vianna’s drift. In the scene, the personage Catão talks to his nephew Artur, who asks him to lend him some money. “I’ll lend you the twenty grand. As collateral, your word is enough?”, says Catão. “Thank you, sir…”, replied Artur, relieved, only to hear his uncle’s finishing touch: “And a mortgage on your house”. The play, incidentally, is one of the polemical topics of Madeira’s thesis and a proof of Vianna’s pioneering on the stage. Written for his old friend and stage companion, Dulcina de Moraes, Amor was pure daring in its theme and in the acting. “One notes in the play a concern with making the theater accompany the mobility of the cinema, with the uninterrupted sequence of plots, and it presents us with something new: the setting divided into five stages. On the central platform, a very human and present drama, with lively brushstrokes to hurt the retina of the public, and on the four small stages that encircle it, details and comments on the action keep on appearing”, the Estado’s critic observed.

You do not have to ransack your memory much to think about another play, from 1943, which was considered as the landmark for the entry of modernity onto the Brazilian stage: Vestido de noiva, by Nelson Rodrigues. “Nelson always said that he had not inspired himself to write his work, but I regard the influence of Amor on Vestido de noiva as unequivocal. In the Rio de Janeiro of the 1930’s and 1940’s not to know Vianna’s work. Nelson was a journalist and circulated in cultural circles. He invented this story that he had not taken inspiration from anything”, Madeira claims. “To say that Vestido de noiva owes nothing to Amor is to issue a certificate of ingenuousness. The critics, when they sucked Nelson’s popsicle, oozed an elastic and bovine slobber”, the researcher jokes.

And it was not Vianna’s only invention. “Oduvaldo was pragmatic. If he understood that some resource could add something to a staging, he would not balk at using it”, Madeira comments. Actress Laura Cardoso, for example, in a statement, recognizes one of Oduvaldo?s inventions: “Before he began a work, there was a whole lot of research, a search and toil, because the laboratory is not something nice and modern, something present-day. It comes from Mister Oduvaldo Vianna”. And really, back in 1919, made the cast of Flor da noite [Flower of the Night] frequent the Rio underworld, so as to impart greater authenticity to the acting of the cast. He was also, at the cost of a certain authoritarianism, a director of actors who was attentive to the details in the acting of all those on stage, and not, as was the custom of the time, just of the leading actor. Each one would be given his attention, and the final overall picture was one of a professional production with the greatest possible naturalism, Vianna’s ideal on stage.

Theatrical carpentry
Another fascinating detail of his theater, and one that gives the measure of his care, are the marginal notes of his plays (the indications made in the text for the actors and directors). Just read, for example, the note from Ele chegará amanhã [He will arrive tomorrow], of 1949: “The shepherd’s flute from Debussy’s L’après midi d’un faune is heard. Nocturnal noises seem like shots of lead rolling in empty bottles. From the right, dry leaves are heard crackling under nervous steps”. These indications, to which the public does not have access, denote Vianna’s notable knowledge of theatrical carpentry and overturn the modernist thesis of a mediocre and commercial creator. “Oduvaldo would not just content himself with the action on the stage done by a rehearser, as was the habit of the times. He was first rate in staging, and would not tolerate amateurism. And, at the same time, he had an amazing capacity for drawing up dialogs that were feasible for the incredibly natural acting on stage, which close up touches on something tangible, albeit difficult to define, which is the Brazilian’s way of recognizing himself by means of humor”, says Madeira.

As an impresario, Vianna repeated the talent of the artist. He was the first to realize the commercial possibilities of the theater in São Paulo, and, beginning in 1923, brought several companies from Rio de Janeiro, to tour through the interior, something unthinkable until then, even though today this is the biggest breadwinner for actors of success in the theater. He even went so far as to do tours through Brazil’s neighbor countries, like Argentina and Uruguay. Furthermore, before many of his colleagues, he understood how one could win the competition with the craze of the day, the cinema. “He cast an unprecedented mold for theater, where quickness and synthesis, grace and conscientious rehearsals are translated into a nimble spectacle, full of refinement, and worthy of the most seductive and fine emotion”, wrote a critic of the time. In short: the settings were good, funny and cheap, standing up to the competition from the new medium, which provided entertainment for all pockets and stole the publicfrom the theaters. Vianna managed to keep his audience stuck in their seats. Or with their ears on the radio.

“The radio, by the way, was the great culprit for Oduvaldo having practically abandoned the theater. He had legions of admirers all over Brazil. Piolim, the genial clown, wrote to Vianna, with a mixture of resentment and humor, asking him to change the times of his radio soap operas, as they were taking the public away from the circus”, Madeira recounts. There were over 250 plays for the radio, a genre in which he was also a pioneer, written, to start with, in the 1940’s, for São Paulo Radio. He only failed to leave his Midas touch on the cinema, although he had traveled to the United Statesin1935 in order to study cinema directing, interpreting and film editing. He made only three films: Bonequinha de seda [Little silk doll], Alegria [Gayety] and Quase no céu [Almost in heaven]. His ventures in the new vehicle were aborted for lack of money.

But nobody is called Oduvaldo Vianna without a good dose of politics. In this, the father taught the boy. “He contributed towards the consolidation of the Brazilian Communist Party, in the 1930’s and 1940’s. His house was the base for clandestine meetings of the party. Vianinha, to be sure, was influenced by the militancy of his father, although, to start with, he hated the idea of his son doing theater like him. Vianinha took forward his father’s propositions, in the direction of a more direct political engagement, but he owed a lot to Vianna”, Madeira says. In 1964, having already suffered from the censorship and repression of the government of Eurico Gaspar Dutra (1946-1950), Oduvaldo Vianna was dismissed from the National Radio for his political convictions. He drooled with pride, though, of his restless son. “Today, at the age of 75, I can see my son doing all that I always wanted to do: to live for the theater, in the eternal quest for a popular art, very Brazil, very people”, Vianão declared about Vianinha. The generations-old dilemma of Rasga coração [Heart breaker] was solved.

The Project
Forms of the Comedy Theater: The Work of Oduvaldo Vianna (nº 99/08172-6); Modality Doctoral Scholarship; Coordinator João Roberto Gomes de Faria – FFLCH/USP; Scholarship Holder Wagner Martins Madeira – FFLCH/USP