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Is it really ‘guaranteed’?

Study analyzes the language in the plays of Nelson Rodrigues

LEWY MORAES/FOLHA IMAGEMPlaywright and chronicler Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980) often said that he and his plays would not be the way they are if he had not suffered “in his body and his soul, if he had not mourned until his tears had dried up” the murder of his brother – murdered in 1929 in the editorial room of his family’s newspaper. This is how Nelson justified the intensely dramatic structure of his tragedies, which he transported to the popular universe of Rio de Janeiro, thus revolutionizing Brazilian theater. This approach, however, would not have achieved the scope that it did if Nelson had not sought inspiration from the language spoken on the streets to write dialogues rich in slang and swear words – a form of expression that hurt the purists as much as it did the moralists and resulted in public insults, calling him a pornographer.

However, more than fifty years later, it is appropriate to discuss the following issue: do his plays run the risk of becoming outdated, because of language innovations, as expressions and slang change from one generation to the next, tending to be forgotten and disappear? With unshaken conviction, researcher Wilma Terezinha Liberato Gerab says that the answer to this question is no. Her doctoral thesis, O discurso como ele é… nas tragédias cariocas de Nelson Rodrigues [Speech such as it is? in the Rio de Janeiro tragedies of Nelson Rodrigues], prepared under the guidance of Marli Quadros Leite and presented at USP, evaluates that the word outdated is inappropriate to discuss this topic. “The point is that language evolves naturally.” In her opinion, the colloquial language that Nelson used for his characters showed that he did not espouse a puristic view of language. “The dialogues in the Rio de Janeiro tragedies show characters that relate to real language and not idealized language.”

Wilma states that the innovation, or modernity, of the playwright’s language is based on something more than simply taking advantage of the stylistic and grammatical characteristics of ordinary or common language. The words of the characters of the Rio tragedies, she goes on, were considered innovative in their time because they were not based only on the use of the typical vocabulary of currently spoken language, but also on discursive and conversational strategies and on the grammatical resources of real dialogues. “In other words, we can say that the playwright constructed his dialogues by imitating/representing the language that results in enunciations within a discursive reality, the basis of which is natural conversation.”

An example of how discourse strategy is used in a real situation, that was used by Rodrigues widely, said the researcher in an interview to Pesquisa Fapesp, took place during the 2008 campaign for mayor of the City of São Paulo. “We witnessed the then candidate Marta Suplicy resorting to meta language in her TV campaign; this language consists in enunciating something without stating it explicitly.” The campaign spokesman asks the TV viewers: “Do you know if Kassab is single or married?” She says that these words insinuate the candidate’s homosexuality. “This represents a discourse strategy widely used by Rodrigues’ characters who say things without committing themselves to what they said, thus conferring verisimilitude on the playwright?s dialogues and to the dialogues produced in natural interactions.”

In the paper, this aspect appears specifically in theatrical dialogue in a kind of discourse, specifically in Nelson’s tragedies, the language of which is analyzed in an attempt to understand how the production of meaning is processed in the texts. The author emphasizes how the playwright solves the problem of transforming natural conversation into literary conversation, taking into account the characters’ sociolinguistic profile, especially as regards interaction-related problems. To this end, Wilma analyzed the plays A falecida, Perdoa-me por me traíres, Os sete gatinhos, Boca de Ouro, O beijo no asfalto, Otto Lara Resende ou Bonitinha, mas ordinária, Toda nudez será castigada and A serpente. “My research emphasized the dialogues written by Nelson Rodrigues, which sound as if they had actually been created at the moment of interaction. These dialogues are re-creations of natural conversations, produced in spontaneous interactions.”

She concludes that the playwright’s tragedies are full of dialogues with incomplete syntax and discursive semantics. In her opinion, this is a characteristic of spontaneous conversations. “The characters talk to each other in concise dialogues, full of ellipses, implied meanings, using meta-messages and assumptions, which re-create the agility of natural dialogues.” Wilma points out that this agile and concise dialogue was not a common feature in Brazilian theater prior to Nelson Rodrigues, as the characters tended to conduct more artificial dialogues, because  other playwrights often idealized complicated dialogues, which tended to be closer to written language and sound less like speech.

The language used by Rodrigues was different from standard theater language. “There is a general consensus that this was due to using vocabulary typical of everyday language and of everyday grammatical structure, characterized by the use of structures with grammatical flaws.” Wilma points out that the playwright began to write plays in a context in which Brazilians were used to watching plays generally written with the purpose of amusing the theatergoers. Thus, when they were not straightforward comedies, these plays were dramas written by foreign playwrights, which had been translated into very highbrow Portuguese, disconnected from linguistic reality. “Nelson’s language was innovative because he constructed something based on current language, in lexical and syntax terms, and on the imitation of discourse, that results in the enunciations made.”

Wilma states that this means that the playwright’s major effort focused on the representation of discourse strategies and the lexicon and the syntax were the result of this work. “Such creative use of language caused Nelson Rodrigues to be labeled as an innovative playwright, because in his time, the theater – and literature in general – were considered as being the realms of ‘proper’ language. Readers, critics, and spectators in general did not have any expectations of finding the linguistic use of the language of their times in books or plays. Their expectation was to find a language in accordance with grammatical tradition.” Wilma has studied the effect of the feeling of naturalness of the theater language used by Nelson Rodrigues, which is comprised of agile and dynamic dialogues that represent live speech.

The style of the language in Nelson’s plays was not something that he   immediately established. The researcher points out that the plays written before the Rio de Janeiro tragedies – namely, A mulher sem pecado, Vestido de noiva, Valsa nº 6, Viúva, porém honesta, Anti-Nelson Rodrigues, Álbum de família, Anjo negro, Dorotéia and Senhora dos afogados – portrayed characters immersed in complex situations, far from being real; therefore, they talked to each other using a more elaborate discourse. “In the next phase, that of the Rio de Janeiro tragedies, which began with the play A falecida, Nelson inserted characters, ordinary people, living a reality that closely resembled daily life in Rio de Janeiro. The playwright did not limit himself to imitating real life, and re-created ‘life as it really is'”, this is why his characters’ dialogues are quick and crisp.”

The fact that Nelson Rodrigues started working when he was very young at his father’s newspaper, A Manhã, influenced his work as a playwright. He transformed daily life into creative stories. “Back then, journalism tended towards news subjectivity. Thus, Nelson created stories based on life’s simple facts, without focusing only on the commitment to the truth itself. This journalistic experience, coupled with the tragic events in his life, such as the murder of his brother Roberto, had a huge influence on his work. His experience as a speaker of Portuguese intuitively led him to prepare the words used by his characters and to produce dialogues that conveyed the idea of the natural characteristic of spontaneous speech. In general, the discourse of the characters was distended, full of slang words, popular expressions, idioms and some swear words.”

Adriano de Paula Rabelo, another researcher who is studying the work of Nelson Rodrigues, also disagrees with the notion that Rodrigues’ plays have lost the virtue of their language revolution, because daily language is re-created aesthetically in them. “The wasted language is what we speak in our daily lives, that is outside literature. We don’t speak like the characters of Machado de Assis, but the language these characters use is still very much alive and is very expressive in his stories. None of us – urban Brazilian citizens – and certainly no one living in the hinterland of the State of Minas Gerais nowadays – talks like the characters of Guimarães Rosa do; but there is so much linguistic virtue in the works of Rosa.”

On the other hand, says Rabelo, Nelson was so intimate with the Portuguese language spoken in Brazil that a lot of the slang and colloquial words he used in his plays, short stories, novels and essays were incorporated into current language and are very much alive in our daily language. “Even the slang and colloquialisms that have become outdated are understood, because they are part of the linguistic memory, including that of the younger generations.” This is the case, he exemplifies, in such expressions as “é batata” (it’s guaranteed); “carambolas” (good heavens!); “papagaio” (exclamation: you don’t say!); “uma pinóia” (this is nonsense); “é o golpe” (tit for tat); “ih, meu filho” (hey, man); “sossega, leão” (cool it, man); “gaita”/”erva” (money: dough), “chispa” (scoot out of here).

Rabelo focused on Nelson Rodrigues’s plays in his thesis Formas do trágico moderno nas obras teatrais de Eugene O’Neill e de Nelson Rodrigues [Forms of the modern tragic element in the theatre work of Eugene O’Neill and Nelson Rodrigues], under the guidance of João Roberto Gomes de Faria. The thesis was presented at USP last year. In his opinion, studies of Nelson Rodrigues’s plays undoubtedly place a much greater emphasis on the subject matter of the plays than on the playwright’s use of language. “There is a huge gap that is about to be filled by more extensive work done by literary critics. The language used by Nelson Rodrigues, not only in the dialogues of his plays, but also in other literary genres, is as important as the topics he focused on. These topics were always highlighted because of their highly controversial content, of the political stance embraced by the playwright in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and of the public persona that he built up for himself. Nelson’s language in his plays cannot be dissociated from the subject matter of his texts.”

In regard to the importance of the language used in the dialogues of Nelson’s plays as part of the modernization of Brazilian theater, Rabelo says that evidently this is one of the fundamental aspects of the true revolution he promoted in the world of Brazilian theater. “Before the success of his early plays, Brazilian theater – especially popular theater – was dominated by vaudeville, plays written solely to extract gales of easy laughter from the audience, and by musical revues, full of music and humor, both of which were easy and superficial.” The elite side of Brazilian theater was comprised of “serious theater,” focused on classical theatrical plays written by foreign playwrights. “The Portuguese language spoken in Brazil was demeaned in this world; in addition, our theater was filled with Portuguese actors and Portuguese diction was considered more appropriate than the Brazilian one for our stages.”

Was Nelson aware that his hidden intent was to implement innovations in Brazilian theater by substituting theater’s elaborate language with the living form of everyday speech? Rabelo believes there is a midway point between something conscious and something instinctive. The researcher points out that, in the early 1940’s, Nelson was a latent literary talent waiting for direction. “Maybe writing novels was his great vocation. He was not only a voracious reader of all kinds of novels – from those by classical writers such as Dostoyevsky and Flaubert to the sub-literature of pamphleteers such as Ponson du Terrail and Eugène Sue – but was also cut out for deep psychological analyses.” However, adds Rabelo, life led Nelson to explore his potential as a playwright. “This happened because during one of the periods in which he faced extreme poverty, Nelson walked past a theater entrance and saw throngs waiting to see a play. So he thought he could earn money by writing plays.”