“I don’t like hitting them,” Clemência told her guests when she returned to the living room, after whipping and beating two female slaves who had broken some dishes in the kitchen. The scene is from Os dois ou o inglês maquinista, a comedy written by Brazilian playwright Martins Pena (1815–1848) and performed in Rio de Janeiro in 1845. “With this passage, Martins Pena confirms something all of his audience at the time already knew: physical violence against enslaved people was habitual and routine. This is clearly a critique of slavery and not just a record of customs,” says historian João Roberto Faria, author of the recently released Teatro e escravidão no Brasil (Theater and slavery in Brazil; Editora Perspectiva, 2022).
In the book, the result of five years of research, the scholar investigates a 50-year period of theatrical activities in the country, from 1838 until the May 13, 1888, enactment of Lei Áurea, the law that abolished slavery in Brazil. The sources used by Faria include material published in the media at the time and texts from from nineteenth-century Brazilian theater—20 of which are available on the website “Rare and Unpublished,” a project by the Center for Theater Documentation at the School of Communications and Arts of the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP) led by Faria and Elizabeth Ribeiro Azevedo, a professor at the same school. “I wanted to show that Brazilian theater contributed intensely to the formation of an antislavery sentiment among audiences, as well as acting on the front line of abolitionism in the 1880s through more than a hundred plays written, published, and staged across Brazil,” explains Faria, a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP’s School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH).
The book’s starting point is Juiz de paz da roça (Justice of the Peace on the farm), written in 1833 and considered Brazilian theater’s first comedy of manners. The play also marked Martins Pena’s debut as a playwright and was performed on stage in Rio in 1838. “The plot has nothing to do with slavery, but the subject is addressed in the opening scene when one of the characters complains about her husband having to work so hard, as a poor farmer with just one slave,” says Faria.
“In the 1830s and 1840s, when Martins Pena produced his work, it was taboo to talk about slavery, an institution accepted by most of the Brazilian population at the time,” explains historian Antonio Herculano Lopes of Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa (FCRB). “Martins Pena’s main focus was the free white and mestizo society, but the issue of slavery appears sporadically in his plots. Even though the subject was approached subtly, this was still unusual for the time,” continues Lopes, who specializes in the history of Brazilian theater.
According to the book, several plays that were critical of slavery were banned by the Brazilian Dramatic Conservatory (CDB), created in Rio de Janeiro in 1843 by a group of intellectuals, writers, and journalists, including the poet Gonçalves de Magalhães (1811–1882 ). “Intended as an association that would bring together men interested in the performing arts, the CDB was soon taken over by the imperial government as an official censorship body,” reports Silvia Cristina Martins de Souza, a historian from the State University of Londrina (UEL).
The intellectuals censored by the institution included Martins Pena and the writer Machado de Assis (1839–1908). One of the prohibited texts was O marujo virtuoso ou os horrores do tráfico da escravatura (The virtuous sailor or the horrors of the slave trade), by French-Brazilian writer João Julião Federado Gonnet. Banned from the stages of Rio de Janeiro in 1844 but published in 1851, the play was a compilation of slave trader testimonials collected by the author. “Two censors were designated to give their opinions and both denied the play a license [to be performed in Rio de Janeiro]. One of them stated that the play presented ‘a fabric of evil without any contrast,’ that it was written in ‘terrible language,’ and that ‘the subject of the play does not seem admissible in the circumstances of the country,’” said Faria in the book, proceeding: “The short opinion, which does not discuss the play and says nothing about its plot and characters, only vaguely indicates the reason for the censorship. The ‘circumstances of the country’ were actually that the authorities and the public were colluding in the illegal trafficking of African people.”
O demônio familiar (The familiar demon) by José de Alencar (1829–1877) featured a black protagonist for the first time in Brazilian theater. The comedy, which premiered at the Teatro Ginásio Dramático theater in Rio de Janeiro in 1857, was about a young slave called Pedro who worked in a house and caused a series of problems for his owner. “The play has a moralistic tone: Alencar portrayed men and women as corrupted by living with enslaved people and argued that the only way to eradicate this evil would be to eliminate slavery from within the Brazilian family,” says Souza, author of the book O palco como tribuna: Uma interpretação de O demônio familiar de José de Alencar (The stage as a tribune: An interpretation of The familiar demon by José de Alencar; Aos quatro ventos, 2003). “In the end, Pedro is punished by being freed, so that he has to take care of his own life by himself. Alencar does not show empathy for the slave, but for the owner.”
Faria agrees. The historian recalls that Alencar wrote the play at the age of 28, before becoming a conservative politician who would later stand against the abrupt abolition of slavery and the 1871 Law of Free Birth. “The familiar demon opened the door to discussions on the inconveniences of domestic slavery and how to end it. For Alencar’s contemporaries, it was enough to elicit antislavery interpretations of the play’s content,” he says.
The show attracted critical praise and was performed in several Brazilian cities until the 1880s. “It was a resounding success, the highlight of Alencar’s career in theater,” says Souza. According to the historian, the play was adapted in Portugal in 1860, where the role of Pedro was played by actress Emília Adelaide (1836–1905). In Brazil, the character was played by child actresses Julieta dos Santos and Gemma Cuniberti—the latter in Italian—among others. “Since the character is Black and the theater company casts were mestizo and white, everything leads us to believe that actors portraying Pedro wore blackface makeup,” says the researcher.
“Over time, the way of talking about slavery in Brazilian theater changed,” notes Souza. “As the abolitionist campaign gained momentum, the change became clearer.” In 1879, theaters in Rio hosted the first emancipatory conferences, later known as abolitionist matinees. Headed by abolitionist leaders Vicente de Souza (1853–1908), José do Patrocínio (1853–1905), and André Rebouças (1838–1898), the programs included concerts, poetry recitals, presentations of short comedies, and excerpts from plays. “The theater was packed, sometimes even overflowing,” said Angela Alonso, from FFLCH-USP, author of the book Flores, votos e balas – O movimento abolicionista brasileiro 1868-88 (Flowers, votes, and bullets – The Brazilian abolitionist movement 1868–88), published by Companhia das Letras in 2015.
Shows from the period include A emancipadora (The emancipator) by José de Lima Penante (1840–1892), which premiered at Teatro São José in Fortaleza in 1881 and was inspired by a famous strike at the Fortaleza port in January of that year, where workers refused to allow slaves to be boarded onto ships to be delivered to plantations around Brazil. “Even at plays that did not address the topic, star actors would make pro-abolition announcements at the end of the show or the theater company would even buy the freedom of a number of enslaved people,” says Lopes, from FCRB.
The shows were far-reaching, especially in a society that was not highly literate, like Brazilian society at the time, according to the historian. “Brazilian theaters attracted a wide variety of audiences, from the elite to the very poorest. It was a place not only to watch a show, but also to see and be seen. And the reviews published in the press spread the word about the content of the plays for those who had not actually seen them,” reports Lopes.
The maestro of abolition
“In the 1880s, the abolitionist movement received strong support from musicians, many of them of African descent,” says Manuela Areias Costa, a historian from the State University of Mato Grosso do Sul (UEMS). This was true of conductor, instrumentalist, and composer Manoel Tranquilino Bastos (1850–1935), known as the “maestro of abolition.”
The son of a Portuguese immigrant and a freed slave woman, Bastos founded the band Sociedade Euterpe Ceciliana in his hometown of Cachoeira in 1870 with other musicians from the lower classes. A supporter of the monarchy, Bastos became involved in the abolitionist movement in 1884 when he joined the Cachoeira Liberation Society, created the same year. “O hino abolicionista (The abolitionist anthem) , one of several songs he wrote, was played at festivities and public meetings promoted by the society to raise funds for freeing slaves. He also composed other songs with similar content,” says Costa, who studied Bastos during his doctorate, defended at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) in 2016.
According to the researcher, Bastos was not the only musician endeavoring to end slavery. In 1881, for example, a concert was held in São Paulo, organized by maestro João Pedro Gomes Cardim (1832–1918), to support the Luís Gama Emancipation Fund, created earlier in the year. Cardim wrote Hino da Abolição (Abolition anthem) especially for the show, with lyrics by Brazil Silvado. “These initiatives played a fundamental role in ensuring that the campaign against slavery left the political sphere and influenced the general public, including the lower classes,” concludes Costa.
SOUZA, S. C. M. de. O demônio familiar, de José de Alencar, no Teatro D. Maria II (Lisboa, 1860). Topoi. Vol. 22, no. 46. 2021.