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Memory as a mission

Thesis analyzes the relationship between past and present in the plays by Jorge Andrade

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At a moment when all the moderns were with their eyes on the Brazil of the future, he dared to take the past to the stage, to think through the country’s present. “Everything that there is of the best and the worst in today’s Brazil was born in yesterday’s”, wrote São Paulo playwright Jorge Andrade. History ended up agreeing with him: a new nation could not be built without taking into account that urban Brazil still lives with its rural better half. When they asked what was the source of inspiration of plays like Os ossos do barão [The baron’s bones], A moratória [The moratorium] or A escada [The stairs], the writer did not even hesitate: “I went to history to find them”. It was a good source. Proof of this lies in the doctoral thesis From the past to the present: history, texts and scenes in the theater of Jorge Andrade, by Luiz Humberto Martins Arantes, which enjoyed support from FAPESP.

“In statements, the playwright used to say that ‘the past is a monster that pursues us’. It was the discomfort with this past that prompted the writing of his plays and, when finding himself in that far-off time, in which there is a collectivity which also lived through this temporality, Jorge Andrade does an exercise that provides the subject’s landmark of identity, now in the midst of the great metropolis”, the researcher explains. In Andrade’s case, then, memory was the stuff that dreams were made of. And, often, unmade.

Yes, since a good part of his work, written between the 1950s and 1960s and gathered together in Marta, e árvore e o relógio [Martha, the tree and the clock], deals precisely with the transition that the São Paulo family made from the rural to the urban, showing the impacts of this change in the 1950s and 1960s, when this family was now adapted to the urban milieu. “What is instigating in Andrade’s personages is the feeling of lack of adaptation and discomfort in city life, such as one sees in A moratória and A escada”, the researcher explains. Based on personal memories (recollections of the ruin of his grandfather and of his childhood, spent on the family’s farm), Jorge Andrade carries out a catharsis of this elite that lost its rural roots and, with them, its point of reference for continuing to live in a sad new world. “What stands out is the melancholy before the countless losses brought about by the historical changes”, Arantes notes.

Theater is not the hustings
In a noteworthy work of theatrical carpentry, the playwright was able to gather in his work personal recollections, reworked as collective ones, and history, to try to compose a portrait of man and of Brazilian society. “In the word, the writer marks his encounter with the ‘truth’, deals with his theater like a funeral ceremony, but, at the same time, a freeing of the dead and a setting off for life in search of himself and of Brazilianness”, the researcher observes. And he would always do this reminding everyone that “theater wasn’t the hustings”.

“This distanced him from some sectors of the left, who believed they were ‘revolutionary vanguards'”, Arantes says. On the opposite path, for example, to the theater of social transformation of a Vianinha ( politically engaged playwright), he was a playwright who preferred to display on the stage the humanized blemishes of recent Brazilian history and the degraded post-1930 São Paulo family, which, by the way, included his own. “I think that have spent life trying to bury my dead (there are so many!), without managing to”, he confessed.

This past, “a monster that pursues us” (his definition), allowed him to be able to bring about the re-encounter of the individual with time and space, and, talented as he was, to select moments of individual experience that had a meaning for others, for collectivity, making them present for any audience of any time. Not without reason that Antunes Filho should have been interested in putting on Vereda da salvação [Path to salvation] both in 1964 (when, after a few sessions, it was prohibited) and in 1997. The play brings a chance in thematic focus in relation to the former ones, and talks, not of the decadence of the rural elites, but of the aggregated rural workers, who live on a farm and find themselves involved in a movement of religious messianism. Even so, although the focus is differentiated, the central question, freedom, is present, as in all his playwrighting.

“He was a man of his time. At a first moment, using metalinguistic personages that argue in favor of the freedom of creation, in order to face later the dogmas of the orthodox left that understood that the theater ought to be a mere instrument for bringing awareness for the future revolution. And finally he took a stance against the shackles imposed by the censorship instituted by the military dictatorship.

The political dimension of his work involves valuing memory, the collective need”, the researcher analyzes. “In times of globalization, Jorge Andrade beckons to the need for thinking out and valuing what is local, which may seem a bit conservative, in the light of the crisis of nationality”, Arantes argues. For the playwright, text and stage are forms of clarifying a past that is little valued and fundamental for the present to move. “The artist only has validity when he is located within a historical process that develops into a march for the freedom of man”, Jorge Andrade warned.

Conservative modernization
This valuing of the pains of the past had very clear historical bases, in particular in the writer’s dialog with Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Caio Prado Júnior and Gilberto Freyre. “In the light of the finding that “pastness” lives with the historical present, there is, both in Prado Júnior and in Andrade, the certainty that Brazilian modernization is conservative, and that it did not occur and will not occur by means of leaps and ruptures”, in Arantes’s assessment. With one detail: more than a mere backward look, the playwright is interested in the notion of passage, of the permanence of the social relationships of a slave-owning Brazil that still persists in the relationships of the present, and how much of the rural still resists in a country that in the 1950s and 1960s strives to urbanize and industrialize itself.

On the axis of this getting out of step, a primordial source of raw material for his cycle of São Paulo history, lies the theme of the Brazilian family. “The theme of the family brings out the tensions present in his historiography. He knew how to make a theme out of the wasting away, the mobility of the São Paulo families and the loss of status. Bringing a representation of the individual, he recovers the group, and inserts it into the project for constructing Brazilianness. In Jorge Andrade, the ‘Brazilian family’ conflicts with the growing acceleration of the urban world and with the production of life being run by machines and by an industrializing project, victorious after the 1930s”, he explains.

This permeates A escada, a play in which an elderly couple, now without possessions, finds itself obliged to live from month to month in the house of one of their children, with the matriarch always complaining of the “world that has become full of vulgarities”.In a tinged form, the idea is renewed in Os ossos do barão, in which the interests are intertwined of the bankrupt elites, who want money to go back to having a good life again, and of the ascendant new classes, of the Italian immigrants, who aspire to join their moneyed present to the tradition of the four century old Brazilians they served in the past.

This is what the personage of Egisto is like; he wants to marry his offspring with the offspring of the Baron of Jaraguá. At the end of the play, the Italian immigrant shows the “bambino” resulting from the marriage of the social classes and presents him to the portrait of the baron as a fruit of the future, of the union of traditions, old and new.”If the new man of the ‘revolutionary utopias’ is decided and is ready, if necessary, to take up arms, Jorge Andrade’s hesitates between the past and the present, doubting tradition and not seeing that the new is approaching, letting all his humanity bloom, which makes him think out and weigh up the losses from his decisions”, Arantes observes.

Recalling is transformed into a mission. “In this sense, to set free means to understand the dynamics of history, one of the missions of the theater of that period.” The researcher emphasizes that there is no mistake in those who see in Andrade just a backward look, as melancholic as one of his personages, for a time that will not come back. “Looking to the past did not mean a lack of understanding of or intervention in the present.”Once again, the great example is Vereda da salvação. “If, in Brazil, the debate was taking place around the peasant leagues and agrarian reform, Jorge Andrade had finished writing Vereda, in 1963, in which the theme was a community of workers involved with religious fanaticism.

This situation displeases both the right and the left, in particular the left of the PCB, which understood the rural man to be the agent of social transformation”, Arantes recalls. But the rural man of Andrade had a life history, and so the religious element had a great strength for action. Today, it is easy to see who was right. “But, in that period, the playwright already seemed to announce that it was not easy to replace one dogma by another. Accordingly, calling him a conservative depends on the perspective from which one looks, and also on what is regarded as progressive in that specific historical and ideological context.”

Born in 1922 (he died in 1984), a sui generis modernist, Andrade wanted, by investigating Brazilian history (dialoging with the three historical cycles: mining, coffee-growing, and industrialization), to give an answer to the uncertainties about the future felt by his time, which are still to be found hovering in the present-day airs. “For him, we are a country that drags a rural past, and we shall hardly get rid of it, as the times will continue to live together in this Brazil that is rapidly urbanizing and industrializing itself.”

But theater is stage, and not just reading. Those who are interested in watching the Brazilian drama in the script of Andrade can check out Vereda da salvação, at the Teatro Kaus Cia. Experimental, under the direction of Reginaldo Nascimento, on show at Espaço Galpão 5, in São Paulo (11 3159-1822), in August. If the playwright used to look for his themes in history, his playwrighting has not been converted into history. It continues alive, like the dilemmas of the Brazil he wanted to understand.

The project
From the past to the present: history, texts and scenes in the theater by Jorge Andrade (nº 99/11980-7); Modality Doctoral scholarship; Supervisor Marcia Barbosa Mansor D’Aléssio – Human and Social Sciences/PUC-São Paulo; Scholarship holder Luiz Humberto Martins Arantes – Human and Social Sciences/PUC-São Paulo