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The Italian stage

Book examines the legacy of directors Ruggero Jacobbi, Adolfo Celi, Luciano Salce, Flaminio Bollini Cerri and Gianni Ratto on Brazilian theater

Les Enfants d'Édouard, by M-Gilbert Sauvajon, TBC São Paulo, 1950, directed by Ruggero Jacobbi and Cacilda Becker

personal archiveLes Enfants d’Édouard, by M-Gilbert Sauvajon, TBC São Paulo, 1950, directed by Ruggero Jacobbi and Cacilda Beckerpersonal archive

Books on the history of theater frequently refer to the now defunct TBC, or Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia [Brazilian Comedy Theater] as a stage that was essential not only for renewal of the national theater scene in the 20th century, but also as one that was basically bourgeoisie in nature. It is possible that this label is not entirely accurate however. Thus, the book A missão italiana [The Italian Mission], by Alessandra Vannucci, becomes a crucial work for this review.

At the start of its activities in the 1940s in the Bixiga district, the TBC brought together a small group of Italian professionals who had left their recession-struck post-war homeland in Italy behind to conquer new stages in America. It is the path of these Italians that Vannucci’s book examines. “The TBC was the theater of  São Paulo’s intellectual elites. However, this is not what the Italians wanted to do when they came from Italy, and not what they were really working for,” the author says about directors Ruggero Jacobbi (1920-1981), Adolfo Celi (1922-1986), Luciano Salce (1922-1989), Bollini Cerri (1924-1978) and Gianni Ratto (1916-2005).

According to Vannucci, the fact that director Ruggero Jacobbi was linked to Marxist thought and had been persecuted in both Brazil and Fascist Italy contributes to the scope of this correction, as does the fact that businessman and investor Franco Zampari, producer and principal financier of the TBC, struggled to find ways to open the field of culture so it could be consumed by the broadest possible public, and later, even by the masses.

Vannucci recognizes that there was a “certain elitism” in the path of the TBC. Nonetheless, there was also an attempt to attract audiences from all social classes. This led to variability in the repertoire, which included plays considered to be cultured alongside others deemed to be “products for popular consumption” she says, referring to comedians like Otello Zeloni. This alternating style of theater brought together two publics that had until then been disassociated from each other, and “there was an attempt to create this audience in the TBC.”

Luciano Salce and Cacilda Becker working on the adaptation of Summer and Smoke, by Tennessee Williams, TBC São Paulo, 1950

personal archiveLuciano Salce and Cacilda Becker working on the adaptation of Summer and Smoke, by Tennessee Williams, TBC São Paulo, 1950personal archive

This is but one of the many historical revisions that the book sets out to make. For the first time, a work that seeks to understand the  heritage and activities of the Italians, as well as the context in which they worked and created, referring to them as a group rather than individually has now been made available to the public.

In a fictional style, the book begins back in Italy (where Vannucci was also born), and presents the difficult task of what it was like to be an artist during the World War II. Fascism promoted a more individualistic type of theater, which focused its attention on leading actors. It ignored the ideas of a generation that was being molded in an anti-fascist cultural territory, which sought to reconstruct democratic culture and turned to the epic theater of German director Bertolt Brecht as one of its guides.

Art in the post-war period
Italy’s post-war recession also dumped a bucket of cold water on this group, and many directors began to view America as someplace where audiences were open to new proposals. “When they immigrated here, they brought with them their dreams and expectations, as well as their frustrations,” says Vannucci. Besides, São Paulo had already become accustomed to international tours by Italian companies and had witnessed the growth of entertainment aimed at immigrants, whose numbers had been increasing since the end of the 21st century. “In Italy, there are bakeries, churches and theaters everywhere you turn. The Italians were good consumers of shows. And it was also possible to present shows in Italian because many people understood the language here,” Vannucci notes.

One of the greatest contributions made by the Italians to the São Paulo artistic scene was the calcification in the Brazilian mind of the figure of the director. Until that time, the focus of the theater had been on famous actors; at most, the author of the play was mentioned, but credit for those who directed the shows remained well out of the limelight. In the book, Vannucci describes these Italian artists as “apostles of directing as an instrument of civil conscience,” also attributing to them a social role, one which grew stronger based on their visions of the different processes of re-democratization in the world.

The Italians also contributed by creating a repertoire with a viewpoint that sought to value the dramaturgy of the new century. As a result, the plays produced by Adolfo Celi were Our town (1938), by Thorthon Wilder, and Huis clos (1944), the famous text by Jean-Paul Sartre. There was also room for the flourishing Brazilian dramaturgy, especially the work of Gianni Ratto, which produced A moratoria [The Moratorium], by Jorge Andrade, and O mambembe [The itinerant theater group], by Arthur de Azevedo, both starring Fernanda Montenegro.

For Vannucci, in the 1940s and 1950s, the general public wanted to be allowed into the circle of culture, and the promoter Zampari “was willing to hatch another egg” to meet this demand. For this purpose, he founded the Vera Cruz studio, which favored the production of national film to compete against the major distributors. The Italians began to divide their activities between the theater and movies, but there were several internal conflicts. “They wanted to do a type of authorial cinema, in the neo-realist style, an attempt that was something of a failure. Vera Cruz then began to invest in movies with a more populist twist, based on Brazilian themes, in which the director’s role was subject to popular consumption parameters. This was the case for Tico-tico no fubá [“Sparrow in the cornmeal”], which was a great success,” she notes.

Vannucci’s research began in 1997, with an Italian exchange student scholarship to research the work of director Ruggero Jacobbi. She remained interested in the presence of her fellow Italians in Brazil and returned a few years latter to work toward a doctorate at PUC-Rio and gather what was to become the material for The Italian Mission, benefiting from the rich archives left behind by the artists. “The more nomadic travelers are,” she summarizes, “the more they save everything, the more they preserve the memories of their lives, perhaps to make sense of the impulse towards a continual biographical reconstruction, even if it is only for personal use.”

The author herself had to take several transcontinental trips in order to conduct the research for this book. The letters the directors sent to friends whom they left behind in Italy, and who are there to this day, served as one of the most important sources for this unique and surprising story.