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The enchanting soul of the stages

Thesis revisits the theatrical militancy of João do Rio and his "reports from the aisles"

He would exalt the “Enchanting Soul of the Streets” with the same force that he would adore the aisles and foyers of the theaters. So, he joined together the two worlds in his writings, and the alleys and chic salons of the belle époque of Rio de Janeiro turned into scenarios, and their inhabitants, personages. When he died, in 1921, of a heart attack, in the middle of Pedro Americo street (a scene worthy of a melodrama, since he had just written a chronicle in which he said: “I bet my life – a couple of years yet, if I am very careful”), his cortège attracted over one hundred thousand spectators: even in death, João do Rio was not able to dispense with the public.

A restless writer with multiple concerns, João Paulo Emílio Cristóvão dos Santos Coelho Barreto, or João do Rio (or also Claude, Caran d’Ache, Joe, José Antonio José, some of his many pseudonyms), dedicated much ink from his pen to discuss the decadence through which the Brazilian prose theater was passing at the beginning of the 20th century. “His texts for newspapers give a fantastic vision of the theater of the age. It was in them that João do Rio would discuss the plays, talk about what went on in the wings, the authors, the public, and, in particular, would attack the theater critics of the time, who, for him, were making it difficult for an advance for our stage, by preventing the entry of new ideas”, says researcher Níobe Abreu Peixoto, whose thesis for a doctorate João do Rio and the Stage redeems the chronicler as a “reporter from the aisles” and a good analyst and playwright.

Delicious record
After researching in periodicals of the time (amongst which O País [The Country], Revista da Semana [Review of the Week], A Cidade do Rio [The City of Rio], O Correio Mercantil [The Mercantile Post]), Níobe outlined the chronological evolution of the theatrical ideas of João do Rio, bringing to light an interesting set of opinions about plays and playwrights, Brazilian and European. There is, for good measure, a delicious record of what the theatrical life was like in his time, with a description of rehearsals, stagings, wings, interviews with actors, artists and impresarios, in a noteworthy blend of fiction and reality.

“But he always held a very practical vision of how the theater ought to be, almost with the eyes of a theatrical impresario. Hence, for example, his participation in the controversy over the inauguration of the Municipal Theater of Rio: while many advocated that there ought to be room just for Brazilian authors, he used to argue that, in the light of the incipient nature of our playwriting, one had to learn from what was coming from abroad, until our authors developed”, the researcher explains. Incidentally, the example pointed out shows how important the theater was in the daily life of the people of Rio de Janeiro, before the arrival of the cinema. For good or for ill, everything revolved around the stages. Not always, though, in the direction preferred by João do Rio.

“A play to please just needs to have a lot of intercalated dancing, a couple of dozens of current puns, a dirty joke once in a while to bring the heat to the surface, like a sinapism to indifference. When you try to clutch two personages towards a decent end and take it to the third act, the public doesn?t watch the effort twice”, he wrote in 1908 in A Notícia [The News]. A precise comment: the public of those times liked only vaudeville, theater without any cerebral commitments, or, to put on an appearance of European culture, opera brought by foreign companies. Both hated by João do Rio.

“This city of musicographers is way behind the times in the musical movement. The impresarios do not run the risk of bringing novelties. A veritable terror takes hold of the companies when there is talk of new works”, he observed, to needle the lyrical genre, seen by him as a “disease”, an “esthetic whooping cough”. “What can one do if all the folks you know leave Duse deserted and throng to the ticket office of the Lyric, to hear La Traviata”. The public’s fault, no doubt, but even more so the critics. “Our critics, taking mouthwashes from the official pedantry, goes into the field with the pedantic solemnity of a bourgeois bundled into his Sunday best, tossing a compliment to the friend on the right, a smile to the left, and with the despair of comparative erudition, makes some foolish observations, adulterating the thinking of others with inappropriate cuts, and growls it out, full of a conviction characteristic of the archaic.”

“João do Rio used to accuse the critics of rejecting what was ours, preventing the reinvigoration of the theatrical milieu, and of acting like a godfather to artists and companies. Well, he was right, but in his writings he often took the same path of taking the side of his favorites”, the researcher observes. He was equally irritated by those who preached “regeneration of the theater”, in the light of the growing number of spectacles on the billboards of the city.

“Here, when the thing has no remedy and is lost, all the lasses think it splendid, and all the boy critics talk seriously about the “plays” (melodramas and vaudevilles) and everyone, with the greatest of calm, assure us: ‘A heartening movement! The National Theater is being reborn!'” Actually, the national authors, put off by the general lack of interest of the public, were leaving aside the production of plays for the theater. Serious plays, João do Rio tells us, only if they are in French or Italian, and by foreign companies with Eleonora Duse or Sarah Bernhardt. “This was the way that a perverse division of labor was created: the Brazilian authors would only write for companies that aimed at the public at large, and were thereby restricted to producing works of an inferior level and out of date. The more intellectualized and contemporary plays were a privilege of European companies”, notes Professor João Roberto Faria, who supervised the thesis.

To make life for the Brazilian stage even worse, there was the competition from a novelty: the cinematograph. “Besides robbing the public from the theaters, the arrival of the cinema obliged theater producers to lower the prices of the tickets, to try to recover the lost public”, Faria recalls. “In this movement, they created the so-called theater by sessions, in which a play was presented in a series of sessions, one after the other. The plays were cut into snippets and commercialism ruled, denounced by João do Rio”, he adds.”And our authors, seeing that they could not face the sacrifice of dying of hunger, kept on joining the cinematographs, at first as intermediaries, then as voices from behind the screen, and finally expelling the apparatus and playing unspeakable botched jobs at the speed of an express train.

Getting plays from dead or absent authors and squashing them into one hour gobbets and not asking who the copyright should be paid to is a punishable crime”, he attacked in a text from 1911. The results are soon visible.”The public compares, the public is cruel, the public goes to the foreign one. The national actors of value, seeing themselves in the tough situation of not being able to struggle against the current, run to the transatlantic ships. Rare are those who still resist heroically. The foreign companies, which used to be rare, started to come in heaps, began staying for longer, almost the whole year”, notes the writer. The inflection point of this decadence seemed to many to lie in the construction, polemical, of the new Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theater by mayor Pereira Passos.

House of spectacles
“Many people censured the expenditure incurred with the construction of this marvelous building. Certainly, with the sum spent one could erect a fine comedy theater, make a model abattoir, or build a few dozen buildings for schools. A lot was spent, but it was well spent. Peoples, like individuals, do not live just on practical utilities, they want something that lends enchantment to their existence, that elevates them and delights the soul”, observed João do Rio in his chronicle in Ilustração [Illustration]. In the meantime, the debate was heating up in Rio society one what should be presented in the new and sumptuous house of spectacles. But it was not always possible to be serious.To cool down the high spirits, the chronicler, advocating variety on the stage in the light of the incipiency of national playwriting, also commented on the theater’s cooling system. “The Municipal Theater has an device for distributing cool air, which tumbles down from the heights. The result: cold after cold. Just the other day, right in front of me, a lady had, with all these changes, a veritable attack of flu: her teeth were chattering as if she were crossing the Baltic in December”. Equally good humored is his forecast of the cultural axis from the Federal Capital to São Paulo, based on a comment made by the French actress Sarah Bernhardt in 1893.

At that time, the famous diva, in her farewell to the citizens of São Paulo, praised the city as “the artistic capital of Brazil”, a curious observation in the light of the scant cultural development of São Paulo. But João do Rio recalls the actress’s compliment to fustigate his fellow citizens. “We are pretending that we have deceived ourselves, appearing to believe that the public in Rio frequents and appreciates theater or any other manifestation of artistic pleasure, or it is a pure mistake. São Paulo continues to be the artistic capital of Brazil. We are so much like those families from the bourgeois mediocrity who want to give a ball without being able to do so, inviting the whole neighborhood, plus their acquaintances who live afar, and afterwards get in a mess to give supper to so many people. So many theaters open and so much disillusionment…”

Light genre
“In these chronicles, João do Rio comes close to the criticisms made formerly by Machado de Assis, José Veríssimo and Artur de Azevedo about the continuity in the Brazilian theater of the 20th century of the vices of the 19th century, with its preference for the light genre. They thought that the drawing away of theater from literature had to be overcome, something that was only to happen later, with the arrival of a new generation of playwrights, who worked on more serious themes”, says Roberto Faria. Serious themes, and ones that talk about Brazil, as João do Rio preconizes in some of his texts. “Brazilians do not understand that their first quality ought to be to love their own things. This happens with the products of intelligence, with everything. We are a poor country. And we will have to be so indefinitely, so long as we judge what is ours as inferior.”

One of his last battles was for copyright. In 1917, after having preached for years for the need to create a society of authors for the theater, João do Rio becomes the first elected president of the Brazilian Society of Authors for the Theater, the SBAT. After all, he was an author as well. “But, in his plays, we do not find the decadent, heavy and morbid climate that surrounds the personages of his tales. His most commented dramatic composition extols the perfume, the polish and the artificiality of refined environments”, says Níobe. In plays like Eva [Eve] or A Bela Madame Vargas [The Beautiful Madam Vargas], we note the great influence of the English writer Oscar Wilde, whose Salomé he translated.

Dandy style
“He brings the upper crust universe of the belle époque to the stages, capturing how it must have been to live in Brazil, wanting to breathe the air of Paris. It is a good criticism of social customs, which dialogs with the French boulevard and with Wilde, by means of the great phrases and witty tirades from personages like Baron Belfort”, says João Roberto Faria. “He cultivated the dandy style, but his work went far beyond this. This mix-up of life and work is a pity, as it loves to focus on the fringe, homosexual element. João do Rio portrayed as few did a slice of society, and he did so in a critical manner, even though at first sight it seems hallucinated. But it is all a caricature in which the chronicler and critic puts on the mask of an attentive observer”, adds Níobe.

The project
João do Rio and the Stage (nº 99/07631-7); Modality Scholarship for a Doctorate; Supervisor João Roberto Gomes de Faria – FLCH/USP; Scholarship Holder Níobe Abreu Peixoto – FLCH/USP