Balance and rigor

Shakespearean expert Barbara Heliodora was recognized for her controversial toughness as a theater critic and her dedication to the art of teaching

Arte_BarbaraGustavo Miranda / Agência O Globo In the early 1990s, a well-known theater director was preparing for opening night of his version of Macbeth in Campinas when he noticed a woman seated in the lobby well before show time. When he found out she was waiting for the show to begin, he offered her a more comfortable seat.  She refused, preferring to stay put.  Neither her large glasses nor her white hair tipped him off to the fact that she was one of Brazil’s most respected theater critics.  A few days later, he realized who it was as he read the harsh reviews she had given the show – as well as other shows that would later be staged by him.  It was at that moment that Ulysses Cruz launched his legendary rivalry with Barbara Heliodora, which got to the point where he barred her from future productions.

That episode is not the only controversy in the career of the studious carioca who specialized in William Shakespeare, to whom she devoted such commitment that she would take a bus from Rio de Janeiro to inland São Paulo just to evaluate the quality of an adaptation. Heliodora Carneiro de Mendonça, better known by her pseudonym Barbara Heliodora, died April 10, 2015 at age 91, more than two decades after what you might call another episode of controversy. Gerald Thomas would repent and seek forgiveness from the critic but other notables in the theater world never change their minds and never came to accept what they saw as Heliodora’s excessive rigor, expressed over a career in the press that spanned 25 years.

Such aversion was compensated by those who admired her to the same or greater degree, and perhaps with the same exaggerated fervor.  All of this is a result of the profession she commanded with the authority of one who deeply understood  the works of the English playwright and the theater of Chekhov and Ibsen, among many others. Heliodora  began her work as a critic with short stints at Tribuna da Imprensa and Jornal do Brasil in the late 1950s. At that time, she was already a decade removed from earning her Bachelor of Arts degree at Connecticut College, in the United States, a certification later revalidated by the School of Languages and Literature at what would come to be known as the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, (UNIRIO). There, after gaining experience directing the National Theater Service and giving classes at the Brazilian Drama Conservatory, she was admitted to the Theater School in 1971. Her formal academic relationship would end with her 1985 retirement, by which time she had earned the titles of professor emeritus and dean of the institution, but her love of teaching never faded. Classes given from her home in the Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Cosme Velho became famous and were attended by actors such as Pedro Paulo Rangel and Marco Nanini.

Tonico Pereira and Vera Holtz in Timon de Atenas (2014), a Shakespearean work translated by Heliodora

Dalton ValérioTonico Pereira and Vera Holtz in Timon de Atenas (2014), a Shakespearean work translated by HeliodoraDalton Valério

The accumulation of tasks in which she engaged to supplement her income, or for the love of theater, would be a characteristic of this author of essays, books and translations, with Shakespeare always at the forefront.  Her work as a translator is always remembered when some new staging of the playwright’s work would use Heliodora’s translations on the stage, such as last year’s Timon de Atenas (Timon of Athens) an updated adaptation starring Vera Holtz in the role of male protagonist, the millionaire patron.

Less public were the university activities she discreetly carried out.  While to the despair of many, she continued to write her criticism for Visão magazine or O Globo newspaper, where she served from 1990 – 2014, Heliodora also trained a generation of actors, directors and technicians at UNIRIO where she taught theater history, including to one of her three daughters, the actress Patrícia Bueno. “She was as strict with me as she was to the others, never making it easy for anyone, much less for me,” she recalls.  “But everyone loved her.”

Remarkable knowledge
Another student became a dear and appreciative figure. Claudia Braga swears she was the only student advised by Heliodora while pursuing her master’s degree at UNIRIO, where she wrote a thesis on Brazilian theater during the time of the First Republic.  “People were afraid of her and would not choose her,” she says.  “At first, she resisted me, saying she wasn’t familiar with the topic, but I won her over with my persistence; she knew everything, but was modest and whenever she wasn’t sure of something, she had me seek out Décio de Almeida Prado.” Braga, now a professor at the Federal University of São João del Rey, in Minas Gerais State, recalls that her advisor simply changed the direction of the proposed topic.  “She had me read the scripts from that time period; she always said that if you couldn’t understand the scenes, you should go to the scripts to find the truth.”  Braga returned the kindness of the past by editing an extensive collection of papers by the carioca author.

One of the few times when the critic actually left Rio de Janeiro was to pursue her doctorate at the University of São Paulo in 1975, partly because the program did not exist in Rio de Janeiro and partly out of affinity with her advisor, the American professor Fredric Litto, who was based there. “I referred her for her remarkable knowledge and she ended up coming here to defend her thesis,” recalls Litto. The thesis, A expressão dramática do homem político em Shakespeare (The dramatic expression of the male politician in Shakespeare) was later made into a reference book. Heliodora remained at USP for seven years as full professor and also taught some extension courses.  Litto recalls her peculiarities. “She was a pragmatist above all else, inspired by the American rather than the French school, the latter followed by Décio de Almeida Prado and Sábato Magaldi.” He went on to say that this attitude, along with the fact that she did not adopt the popular viewpoint of the time when determining good theater, made all the difference. “She was committed to dramatic quality and was not unnecessarily moved; she had the balance and the rigor of not dispensing criticism that changes as the wind blows.”