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The theater and the invention of the star

A researcher investigates how and why the modernization of the Brazilian stage, starting from the decade of the 1940's, opened up space for the consecration of great actresses

REPRODUCTION BRASIL: PALCO E PAIXÃOCleide Yaconis as Jocasta in the play Edipus Rex, by Sophocles, 1967REPRODUCTION BRASIL: PALCO E PAIXÃO

When remembering the major personalities of Brazilian theater over the last fifty years, one mainly reverts back to the names of great actresses – Cacilda Becker, Fernanda Montenegro, Maria Della Costa, Tônia Carrero, Bibi Ferreira, Cleyde Yaconis and Marília Pêra, among others. Up until the decade of the 1940’s, however, the stage belonged to men, who did not steal away from wearing women’s clothes in order to represent the opposite sex. Until then the woman would have played a secondary role both on stage and in the wings. Nor was there the function of director and any national theater dealt more with popular comedy spectacles, anchored to the “prompter” who helped the actors remember their lines.

Two apparently isolated facts became fundamental for changing this context, and consequently, leading to the modernization of the Brazilian theater and to refining the presence of women in its representation. First, the tour by the French acting company, led by Louis Jouvet (1887-1951) through South America in 1941. During these seven months, he and the other 25 members of his crew – as well as the 35 tons of equipment – enchanted 11 countries with the same luxurious Parisian scenes. In Brazil they played to audiences in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Jouvet even lived for four months in Rio.

Added to this was the process of the “metropolization” of Sao Paulo city in cultural and intellectual aspects. Or that is to say, by way of the consolidation of the University of Sao Paulo (USP), with the arrival of European professors – among them Jean Maugué, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Monbeig and Roger Bastide -, the construction of the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo (MASP), the movement of the cultural magazine Clima, the founding of the Vera Cruz Cinematographic Company and the arrival of television in 1950. The most representative event for the stage, however, was the founding, in 1948, of the Brazilian Comedy Theater (TBC), then considered a Brazilian dramaturgy mark because of its professionalism and thematic modernization.

Nevertheless, what did these events have to do with Louis Jouvet, the TBC and the praise that actresses gained? The reply comes in the investigation by Heloísa Pontes, a professor at the Anthropology Department of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and a researcher of Pagu, Unicamp’s Style Studies Center. “Presenças marcantes – História social e etnográfica das relações de gênero no teatro brasileiro, 1940-1968″ [Outstanding presence – the social and ethnological history of the relations of style in Brazilian theater, 1940-1968] is an associate professorship study that is in its final stage and should be concluded next year, when it will be published.

Anchored in ample research, Heloísa is near to closing a puzzle that is going to assist us to have a scientific vision of everything that happened within the Brazilian theater during the second half of the 20th century. Her proposal is to show the fundamental transformation in the national scene starting from the decade of the 1940s – whose symbolic mark was the staging of Vestido de noiva [The bride’s dress], by Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980), in 1943. The theater and the social classes then had a proximity in terms of the construction of a modern language of the social, intellectual and cultural profile of its practitioners.

This story began to be told in an essay entitled, Louis Jouvet e o nascimento da crítica e do teatro brasileiro modernos [Louis Jouvet and the birth of criticism within the modern Brazilian theater], published in the magazine Novos Estudos CEBRAP, in November 2000. Afterwards the research was widened to include the case of the French actress, who settled in Brazil, Henriette Morineau (1908-1990), who also participated in the Jouvet’s second tour of Latin America. Heloísa says that she established as backdrop “the examination of displacements, of sociability and of the relations of men and women that had traveled across national frontiers and that of genre”. Thus she looked to trace out the impact and the presence of the two French artists in the Brazilian theatrical scene of the last century.

Jouvet is described not just as a great actor and director, but as an observer and essayist attentive to theatrical experiences. He left behind various writings about play writing, set designing, directing and contributed decisively towards the renovation of the French theatrical scene. His uncommon coming to South America – which was prolonged for four years due to the war – put him in connection with Brazil. It fell to him to bring (with him) some of the most up-to-date theatrical spectacles in Europe and even to directly influence in the mounting of the play Vestido de noiva, considered the zero mark for modern Brazilian theater.

Directed by the Pole Ziembinski and acted by Os Comediantes, the play was mounted, according to testimony of various ex-members of the cast and crew, also thanks to the influence that Jouvet exercised upon them at that time. In contact with young Brazilian talent, the Frenchman had suggested that they break with the naturalist tradition of the theater and adopt the idea that the text is central, fundamental, and almost sacred. It was up to the director to make the call, which would establish its need and importance. It is also said that, even at that, the play only attained an international level when written by a playwright of talent. Nelson Rodrigues filled this bill.

Henriette Morineau, instead of returning to France with Jouvet, decided to settle in Brazil. “She played an important part in the Carioca Theater, contributing directly in the formation of various actors and actresses.” An example is Fernanda Montenegro, considered to be the greatest actress alive in the country. During 1953, in the acting company of ?Madame?, as Morineau was called, Fernanda got the necessary lift to her professionalism as an actress, thanks to the decisive influence that she would receive. “She made me feel that I’d found a qualified profession, disciplined, worthy.” For Fernanda, “Madame’ Morineau always maintained her distance as the leading lady of the group, not permitting intimacies but always forged a theatrical character.

The arrival of the French mission, whose professors went on to make up part of USP, contributed decisively to a capital transformation in intellectual habits. “They showed the non-dissociation between theory, method and research and they insisted that modern methods of investigation, by way of the human sciences, had to be applied to studies of the varied dimensions of culture and of Brazilian society”, says Heloísa. Whilst this was happening, foreign directors – such as Adolfo Celi, Gianni Ratto, Ruggero Jaccobbi – revolutionized the scenic arts, by implanting new procedures in a culturally diverse and complex system, without precedence in Brazilian history.

This investigation led to the conclusion that “there had been a clear demarcation line of symbolic frontiers between the directors” work, all of them men, and that of the actresses. In spite of this, she adds, one must not lose sight of the fact that sooner than in other spheres of cultural activity, the women who followed an on stage career conquered the symbolic asset sooner in this domain: “an appropriate name” and all that came with it – notoriety, prestige and authority. “A vigorous example of the importance of women inside a field of cultural production, the case of the (opened up) theatre egged on clues for us to accumulate an ethnography of genre relations starting from new analytical keys.”

The Brazilian Comedy Theater became a diffusion center of a new theatrical age because, as well as giving importance to text and direction, the role changed for women. They would go on to be the leading role in plays, whilst the actors would become entrepreneurs. How can this be explained? “In order to understand the social, intellectual, institutional conditions and the relations of genre that are at the base of the formation and consolidation of modern theater, one needs to highlight as well the central role of the actresses who came out of the TBC and formed their own companies, almost always with their love companions.”

In this process elements that make one consider the social history of culture in Brazil came to the fore. One of the most important aspects is that the theater began to attract a new and influential public, the São Paulo elite – whilst in Rio, there would be a continuation of programs directed towards more popular audiences. At this moment two renovating names appeared ? besides Nelson Rodrigues, Jorge Andrade (1922-1984). “As they were a very important activity on the intellectual and cultural agenda, plays began to be discussed, repertory theater was made, highly disciplined, with author concern and the presence of foreign directors began to happen.”

The efforts of  Heloísa point towards some questioning and exclusions in order to explain the phenomenon. “For example, if one were to consider the need to adopt a woman for feminine roles, is to leave to the side that one of the essences of theater is to get around conventions.” That is to say, during centuries, it had been up to the man to represent female roles with the complicity and license of the audience. “The anthropologists always showed that there is a strong relationship between, bodies, body marks, renovation process and the acquisition of prestige. Leaving this science to the side, the sociology of culture has revealed a correlation between body, prestige and the acquisition of its own name.”

This is the way it happened with actresses. They began to represent the new theater that was springing up and that reached its climax in the middle of the 1960’s. Indeed, beauty was not a central element in this consecration of the female sex. On the contrary, it could well have served as an impediment. This is what Tônia Carrero and Maria Della Costa say, as they had to prove that they had talent and not just a pretty face. In Tônia’s case, the eulogy of the critic only came two decades afterwards in 1965, when she played the role of a prostitute in A navalha na carne (The Blade in the Flesh), by Plínio Marcos. In order to confirm this rule, Cacilda and Fernanda were both a long way from the standard of beauty in fashion.

Currently Heloísa is developing the final part of the research: to dimension the importance of television in the consecration of this new theater that had sprung up. Yes, because during the first decade to have a television was a luxury only allowed to rich families, and elitist programs established themselves in which the so called tele-theaters – plays written for the television and transmitted from the stage – occupied the prime time. She is also going to compare the trajectory of major stars, their social origin and insertion into the theatrical scene before and after the TBC, their presence on television and their relationships with foreign directors.