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Machado de Assis on stage

More than poetry or prose, it was theater that had a great influence on the Brazilian author, new studies indicate

reproductionMachado de Assis (1839-1908) is known by readers mainly for his short stories and novels. To say that the theater was his main influence may cause surprise, but such a perspective is increasingly accepted among the main academics studying him. A theater-goer, even when he was a teenager, he wrote for the press of the time on the productions he used to see. In a short time he became a translator of French plays and started writing his own comedies for the stage. As he grew older his ties with the theater weakened, but the language can be recognized in his books from this phase.

The professor from the University of São Paulo (USP), João Roberto Faria, an historian and critic of Brazilian theater, who organized the recent “Machado de Assis: on the theater – Critical texts and various writings”, published by Editora Perspectiva, is one of the main defenders of this argument in his research, “Machado de Assis and the theater”, supported by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). “We know, obviously, that he was a reader of poets and novelists and that in his adolescence he wrote poems. However, his literature owes more to the theater than to poetry and prose,” says Faria, who had previously already studied the theater of José de Alencar,  from the same period.

At the time, the second half of the 19th century, the staging of French plays acquired an extraordinary importance for people who lived in Rio de Janeiro. The height of fashion in Paris were the “dramas de casaca” [morning suit dramas], or realistic comedies that dealt with life and the values of the bourgeoisie, as Faria explains. In 1856, when he was 17, Machado de Assis published his first critical text on the theater, “Vague ideas”. By the time he was 20 he was already the theater critic for the newspaper O Espelho: there he wrote about the productions he saw at the São Pedro de Alcântara Theater and the Ginásio Dramático Theater. The following year he started writing for the Diário do Rio de Janeiro paper, which meant he went frequently to plays, as giving the news about new productions was one of his tasks. “He was so involved with the theater at this phase in his life that we see him writing his own comedies, translating French plays and becoming the censor at the Dramatic Conservatory. All this involvement with the theater, which lasted until 1867, would leave its marks on the novels, short stories and tales that he subsequently wrote,” explains the historian.

Machado de Assis’s admiration turns to comic dramatist, Molière, and the realistic comedies of Alexandre Dumas the younger and Émile Augier. Of the Brazilians, his preference is for the plays dedicated to Dumas the younger, written by José de Alencar and those of a certain burlesque nature, by Joaquim Manuel de Macedo and Martins Pena. When he started writing his own comedies, he particularly followed the model of the dramatic proverb of Alfred de Musset, his favorite poet, says Faria. “So, just as he didn’t like melodrama, he considered farce to be a lesser genre.” Above all, the greatest writer for Machado de Assis was Shakespeare, who is mentioned in several of his works, from his critical texts on play staging to references in his novels, like Dom Casmurro. “His admiration for the English writer became stronger and more decisive after 1871. In that year Machado saw for the first time on stage some of Shakespeare’s plays,” he adds.

Reproduction from the book "A comédia Urbana: de Daumier a Porto Alegre" (The urban comedy: from Daumier to Porto Alegre)Irony with a taste for operaReproduction from the book "A comédia Urbana: de Daumier a Porto Alegre" (The urban comedy: from Daumier to Porto Alegre)

The main Brazilian writers and intellectuals were involved with the theater at the time, as the historian explains. In newspapers there were regular theater reviews, periodicals had a column of theatrical reviews giving news of current productions, the number of translations increased considerably and the Dramatic Conservatory required the collaboration of anyone who distinguished themselves in cultural journalism. An example of the relevance of the theater is that José de Alencar interrupted his career as a novelist after publishing O Guarani [The Guarani Indian] in 1857 and started on his career as a dramatist, which lasted until 1862. Encouraged by this atmosphere, Machado de Assis translated opera scores and plays and later started writing his own comedies, which earned him prestige. “We can even say that before becoming famous as a short-storywriter and novelist, Machado had already achieved enormous intellectual prestige in Rio de Janeiro, with the range of his activities: drama columnist, theater critic, literary critic, comedy play writer, poet, translator of poems, plays and novels and even censor of the Dramatic Conservatory. There is no information about how much money Machado earned from these activities. What is known is that he lived a modest life, but was never short of money,” says Faria.

In writing for the theater, as the historian explains, Machado de Assis wrote short one act plays “that used elegant language, had a sense of humor, irony, skillful dialogue and good taste, with no appeal to low comedy.” “They do not have the critical acclaim of the novels and short stories of his maturity, which makes many people scorn them, without taking into account what they mean for the history of Brazilian theater.” The theater was for him the genre “in which he practiced his levity, conciseness, his vivacity of style and the poetry of emotion,” is how Faria defines it. His comedies can be grouped into two blocks. The first includes Desencantos [Disenchantment], O caminho da porta [The path to the door], O protocolo [The protocol], As forcas caudinas [The Caudian forces], Não consultes médico [Don’t consult a doctor] and Lição de botânica [The Botany Lesson], which are similar in the way they deal with the elegant social life of Rio de Janeiro, in their plots that involve love relationships and because of their dramatic proverb form. The second block contains plays that are different from each other: Quase ministro [Almost a minister] is a small satire of political life; Os deuses de casaca [The gods in dress-coats] is a satire of social customs; Uma ode de Anacreonte [An ode to Anacreon] takes place in Ancient Greece; and Tu só, tu, puro amor [You alone, you, pure love] is a small play about an episode in the life of Camões.

Theatrical form can be recognized in the works of Machado de Assis, because of the excellence of the dialogues that the short stories and novels contain. “Machado has a notable domination over this recourse that makes the narrative dynamic when he gives voice to the characters,” explains the historian. He remembers that in some short stories the author reduces the presence of the narrator to the minimum necessary, as in Filosofia de um par de botas [Philosophy of a pair of boots] or simply discards it altogether, as in Teoria do medalhão [Theory of the medallion], O anel de Polícrates [The ring of Polycrates], Singular ocorrência [Singular occurrence] and others. “One must believe that he preferred the dramatic form, because through it he sought to achieve certain effects that he would not have achieved using the narrative form,” he says.

This interest of literary critique in the influence of the theater in the works of Machado is not recent. One of the pioneers was Barreto Filho, who was responsible, along with Augusto Meyer, for constituting the critical fortune of Machado between the 1930’s and the 1950’s. For João Roberto Faria, Barreto Filho was the pioneer in assessing the importance of theatrical knowledge in his short stories and novels. “He observes, for example, that the theater taught the writer to simplify the scene and to concentrate interest in the ‘game of characters and in the analysis of passions’. He also taught the ‘way of arming the scenes’, with perfect timing and the moment to introduce characters and dialogues,” says Faria. More importantly, Barreto Filho points out: “By endowing him with the technique of the instantaneous, with brief and isolated scenes and a minimum of scene-setting, the theater provided him with, on the other hand, an in-depth knowledge of the human soul that he was later able to explore in every sense of the word.” Barreto Filho’s words, therefore, relate back to Shakespeare, the writer most admired by Machado, precisely because he is an extraordinary analyst of the human soul. It might be remembered that the way in which the writer sees man and society has everything to do with the theater and with Shakespeare, who wrote in one play: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.”

Reproduction from the book “A revista no Brasil” (The magazine in Brazil)Public of the AlcazarReproduction from the book “A revista no Brasil” (The magazine in Brazil)

John Gledson, a literary critic and English professor at the University of Liverpool, who carried out important studies on Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Machado de Assis, presents new angles on the author in his Por um novo Machado de Assis, [A new Machado de Assis] published by Companhia das Letras and classifies as “fascinating” the investigation into the influence of the theater on the author from Rio de Janeiro. The marks are left not only on the production from his youth, he confirms: “The theater forms a central part in the development of new forms of fiction, on the role of dialogue in fiction, etc….” The relative abandonment of the theater by Machado is probably due, according to Gledson, to two factors – first, the lack of a medium, an audience for “serious” theater, was a continuous complaint throughout the author’s career. Machado did not share the taste of Rio audiences for vaudeville, melodramas, circuses and bull fighting, which he called “prodigious.” According to Gledson, the other factor is the ironic and detached nature of the mature Machado, which, in a novel whether told in the first person or the third person, needs action and dialogue, but also someone who, whether implicitly or explicitly, comments on the action, i.e. narrated prose and not the prose of pure drama.

From Rio de Janeiro
In comparison with other authors of the time, Gledson simultaneously defines Machado de Assis as “very original and very Brazilian,” two adjectives that apparently limit the importance of contemporary foreign authors to him. “But I think this is an isolated mistake of the fictional currents of the time, even of those that he detested, like the French naturalism of Zola. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that he read and digested everything, but that he adapted it to his environment, cut it down to the ‘fluminense’ [from Rio de Janeiro] size.”

A smaller, but typical example, says Gledson, is the use he makes of a fourth rate Catholic novelist, Madame Augustus Craven, in “A Chapter of Hats”, one of his funniest stories. The importance of Craven is known, because the heroine of the short story, Mariana, read a novel by her, Le mot de l’énigme, 11 times. “There must be other examples – to identify them it is sometimes necessary to be lucky – but it’s worth it, because it they throw a lot of light on the creative process and Machado’s deep links with  ‘world’ culture, let’s say. Obviously, I’m not taking away from the importance of known influences, the English novels of the 18th century, French realism, Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, which add more fuel to the fire.” evaluates Gledson.

Literature professor from USP, Hélio de Seixas Guimarães, another specialist in Machado de Assis, whose research in “A recepção crítica da obra de Machado de Assis” [The critical reception of the work of Machado de Assis] was funded by the CNPq, and who is the author of “Os leitores de Machado de Assis – O romance machadiano e o público de literatura no século XIX” [The readers of Machado de Assis – The novel of Machado de Assis and public literature in the 19th century] (Edusp), also sees the marks of  theatrical formation in the novels, especially those from the 1870’s, in which the handling of dialogues and the construction of some scenes recall the theatrical experience, in some cases specifically to melodrama. “I think this experience is also manifested in the short stories, in the dexterity with which in just a few lines or a dialogue he manages to present a situation and place the reader in the midst of a conflict,” he adds.

Gledson says that a new version of the trajectory of Machado is slowly being prepared, one that is more coherent and that includes the minor genres, short stories, tales, etc., and that links the author and his production to the literary, social and political environment in which he wrote. For Guimarães, the classical Brazilian author became, above all, “more alive,” in as far as he tried in several studies to specify the close and, at times, even quite detailed dialogue that Machado had with the most important issues of his time and that continue to make sense even today.