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The delirious staging of censorship

More than 6,100 original texts of plays are recovered from the DEOPS archive and should allow for the rewriting of the São Paulo theater's history in the 20th century

The way in which words are placed sometimes, with time, can reveal the absurdities of an era. On the 4th of January 1932, to stage the play Andaime, by Paulo Torres, the producer, Raul Soares, was obliged to follow a ritual somewhat bizarre by f the inversion of values. On sending the text to the censor of the Special Department of Social and Political Order (DEOPS), he wrote: “Respectfully, I hereby request you to order that the three act play Andaime” be censored. Producer Soares also had to pay for the service – 60,000 réis in ‘state’ stamps.

The dictatorship of the New State was a long way from its beginning, but there was at that moment a hunt for ‘subversives’ of public order and morals and his text was integrally vetoed at the first moment. In his report the censor, Antonio Romao de Souza Campos, fell back upon his supposed critical knowledge to disqualify the director: “The play is an arrangement without technique, without any literary merit, which exclusively aims subversive propaganda”. The producer appealed and the head of the censor board determined that seven censors see the play. All of them voted for its liberation.

The most enthusiastic report was that of Emiliano Di Cavalcanti (1897-1976), exponent of Brazilian fine arts, an idealist and one of the organizers of the Modern Arts Week of 1922, but who make ends meet as a censor with the DEOPS: “Nothing makes me opposed to the presentation of Andaime, a comedy by a legitimate Brazilian author. It would be ridiculous to prohibit to an artist, already recognized for his ideas, with books published in which they are affirmed, who would bring his point of view to the theater”.

Almost thirty years later, censorship had shown itself to be even more implacable. In April of 1961, the censor Benjamin Raymundo da Silva, from the same DEOPS, made the effort to show his analytical knowledge and power of understanding of what lay behind the text (of) A semente, by Gianfrancesco Guarnieri (1934): “It’s well known that, for communists, the institution that must be fought against with vehemence and intransigence is the political one because it constitutes the coercive action that impedes the propagation of the red ideal. This the author managed with great skill. It appears like Lenin resuscitated”. Next he justified the complete veto to the play: “A cultured man, who knows the subject, Gianfrancesco Guarnieri, in this play, exposes dangerous material. The representation is harmful”.

The experiences of Soares and Guarnieri are registered in a treasure of national memory that is still being given a dimension: the DEOPS archive concerning theater censorship in São Paulo between 1926 and 1968. There are 6,147 processes of plays submitted to cutting. Each one brings an annex of the original text, exactly as it was thought out by the author. The majority are unedited – 894 were partially vetoed and 43 completely prohibited, without counting that 1,519 had restrictions concerning their viewers’ age.

The piles of paper include notorious cases – with little known details – such as Roda viva, by José Celso Martinez Correia, prohibited after a year on stage; the censorship of all of the works of Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980), Dias Gomes (1922-1999), Plínio Marcos (1935-1999), Augusto Boal and Guarnieri. Or unknown and unpublished by various authors, as well as hundreds of texts of amateur theater, circus theater and foreign plays.

The archive received the name of Miroel Silveira (1914-1988), a theater professor, director, producer and author, responsible for literally ‘saving’ the processes from censorship. The documentation covers the period when censorship was state controlled – although it was submitted to the federal sphere – and today belongs to the patrimony of the Arts and Communication School (ECA) of the University of São Paulo (USP). At this moment, 25 researchers are bending over the documents, with the coordinator being professor Maria Cristina Castilho Costa.

The files bring together requests from the producer or director, censorship reports – with censors respective names – requests for revision (when there had been a veto or complete prohibition), names of theatrical companies – many forgotten or without any historical registration – cut-outs from newspapers and other annexes that make up of the most rich legacies for relating the history of the São Paulo theater.

In May the first fruit of the research is coming out: the book entitled, Arquivo Miroel da Silveira: a censura em cena [Miroel Silveira Archive: censorship on stage], by Maria Cristina, published through FAPESP, Edusp and Imprensa Oficial (Official Press). The work brings an inventory of the archive, political context and even interviews with four ex-censors from the DEOPS – only one of those remaining refused to speak –, directors and producers who were victims of the vetoes. During the second semester, the volume Palco, picadeiro e censura: ensaios sobre produção cultural em São Paulo [The Stage, Arena and Censorship: essays concerning cultural production in Sao Paulo], by Roseli Fígaro will be published. Part of that which has already been surveyed can be consulted via the website

At the moment three lines of research are being developed: ‘Prohibited words: a study on Brazilian theater censorship‘, from Mayra Rodrigues Gomes, a professor of journalism; ‘Amateur theater: a popular cultural network in the city of Sao Paulo‘, by Roseli Fígaro; and ‘Censorship and its influence on the theater, radio and television‘, by professor Maria Cristina. “Based upon the data that we created, we can perceive that many names within the theater are the same ones who built up radio and TV in Brazil”, the researcher justifies.

In her opinion, the amplitude of possibilities that the DEOPS documents allows for can well be exemplified by the fact that the theater influenced much of television during its first years of broadcasting. Not only with live tele-theater. The comedy program entitled, A praça é nossa, shown over decades, has the same structure of events tied up to a theme and a theater review presenter. Maria Cristina also highlights the importance of the circus-theater in the past. Only to have some idea, whilst the city of São Paulo maintained only three theaters, there were more than 120 companies of the same genre that traveled all over the interior and the capital.

Mayra Rodrigues’ research starts from the presupposition that censorship, while a disciplinary device, had as its prioritized strategy the exclusion of words. Consequently, she has been cataloguing the terms most often vetoed during different periods. Anyone who  imagines that everything had to do with pornography would be wrong. Based on the point of view of the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), she is analyzing the discourse of the censorship and the relations of power. This deals with a focal point that is most revealing.

Mayra has found surprises, such as the veto that was carried out on the word coffee always when it had been related to the government. For example, it happened with the play Feitiço, from 1942, written by Oduvaldo Viana (1892-1972). “As the censor had not justified the veto, on searching the social, economic and political context, it was verified that the country at that moment had been passing through a coffee policy highly complicated and controversial, when the excesses of the product had been burned in large quantities in order to guarantee a high price abroad.”

The discovery of the archive of the plays submitted to the DEOPS censorship happened by accident during 1988. Miroel Silveira knew that the organ of repression had been responsible for the prohibition of plays because he himself had become the victim on some occasions, as an author and director. As he tells it, whenever the end of censorship was announced through the Constitution of 1988, he sought out the DEOPS in order to examine the processes as a researcher. He found close to two hundred volumes with the same covers thrown in a corner of a room. On being informed that everything would shortly be burned, he asked if he could not just take them away. The employee agreed on the condition that he would remove all of them on that same day. Said and done. He managed to get a van and took all of them to his room at the ECA. However, Silveira died a few months later.

With the reform of the school in 1992, the documentation was taken to the library, where it remained for ten years, during which time a final destiny had not been defined. Nobody risked carrying out a research project. In 2002, Maria Cristina took over the presidency of the library commission and, as a graduate trained sociologist, on getting to know about the archive, immediately began its cataloguing, with the help of the librarian Barbara Júlia Leitão and the library director, Lucia Recine. During 2004, the research turned into one of FAPESP’s thematic projects, with financial support for its development.

For what has already been put into the inventory, it is known that between the 1920’s until 1960’s nothing less than 11 public organs censored the theater in São Paulo. It was discovered that, at some moments, the Ministries of Justice, Education and Culture fought amongst themselves to see who would keep the function. After the veto or liberation, the play would still have to pass through the screening of the Age Censor.

What one can perceive, adds Maria Cristina, “is that censorship, since the colonial era, when many artists were jailed, has always been treated as a police case”. In her opinion, it is incredible that Brazil ended up by making us accustomed to this form of repression. “Since the spectacle is always unique to each presentation, when the artists speak live to the audience, this  makes the theater to have been chosen as the stage of ideological controversy and of persecution towards the idealist of the left.”

For the researcher, the impact of the period under study is in the tragic consequences of the prior censorship, as was the fear that all would be lost, since the entire production of the play – renting the theater, costume and stage building, contracting of technicians, rehearsing the cast etc. – were done before any action of the censors. In the golden phase of theater review – and its stars with their legs sticking out – the repression would only be satisfied after watching a rehearsal, once the costumes, gestures and expressions could well express what was prohibited. “The censor searches for a subtext between the lines, an intentionality in the spaces of occultation.”
In some processes there are registers that the censors interfered even in the lighting as a form of minimizing the impact of some scene. If there were to be an erotic insinuation, they determined that the scene would be represented in a ‘very fast form’. Popular genres such as the circus-theater and the review theater were especially persecuted under the excuse of the defense of the Portuguese language, of education and of morals. “With this, they removed from them spontaneity, the game of words.”

On the other hand, the translated foreign text, considered more sophisticated and elitist, was  more accepted. The censors also dealt with the plays coming from other countries, brought by immigrants and staged  in their original language. In these cases, they reverted to a sworn translator who would make a synopsis. There is a collection of texts in Spanish, Arabic, German and Lithuanian. There performances had the proposal of preserving, within the colon, the immigrants’ traditions. The researchers believe that they brought subversive content and perhaps part of these plays no longer exist in their countries of origin.

The diving of Maria into the censorship’s archives has allowed her to establish four basic types of predominant censorship in the work of those who had believed that they had to act in the name of the State against subversion: religious censorship, which did not permit references to priests, the Church, Jesus Christ, Our Blessed Lady and God;  politics, which did not admit any citation to do with the Army, poverty, the government and determined politicians; moral, which vetoed scenes of eroticism, swearwords and situations involving double meanings; and that which she calls social censorship, since themes such as racism were not tolerated – Jews, Negroes etc.

Enthusiastic with the research material and indignant at the same time when speaking of censorship, Maria Cristina makes a point of underlining the damage that this form of repression caused to the arts in Brazil. She tells that she was sought out by a long ago author and director from the interior of the State who got to know of the project and came to see if the text of his play still existed. Feeling emotion, with his eyes full of tears, he blamed censorship for his disenchantment and for having left the theater while still at school. “Censorship slowed Brazilian artistic life by 30 years, impeded that talents would flourish, that cycles would be completed.”

The researcher stated that one needs to perceive that the censor retards the development of the public, patronizes the audience when it assumes a paternal role, believing that the public do not have the discernment to choose what they should see. The cutters, she added, were managed by pseudo-intellectuals, unprepared bureaucrats and favored people who had nothing else better to do but look after the dirty part in times of intolerance. This does not signify that censorship has ended. Today it continues under the name of morals, of good customs and of good business.