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Performing Arts

Theatrical costumes: naturalism and invention

A researcher explores the history of costumes for the Brazilian stage since the 19th century

Lavish costume made for TBC’s Lady of the Camellias

Reproduction imagesLavish costume made for TBC’s Lady of the CamelliasReproduction images

The study of theatrical costume is recent in Brazil, and, to researcher Fausto Viana, this tardiness is understandable:  only in the 1970s did the first academic works of any importance about the theater—of interest to actors primarily—begin to circulate in the country.  Later, directing was given its due regard, with the technical aspects of theater, beginning with stage design, receiving academic attention only in the 1990s.  Enthusiasm for theatrical costume came later still, says Viana, a professor at the University of São Paulo School of Sciences, Arts and Humanities (EACH-USP) and head of the Stage Costume Research Center associated with the office of the dean of research.  “Interest has been growing a great deal in recent times,” adds Viana, who also teaches graduate level courses at the School of Communication and Arts (ECA-USP). “Research groups are being created all over the country. I hope that they continue to multiply and establish new fronts for research.”

For Viana, the newest of these fronts is his FAPESP-backed study  “O figurino teatral das renovações cênicas brasileiras” (The theatrical costume of a transformative Brazilian stage), scheduled for book release in the second half of 2016.  It is a byproduct of his doctoral thesis, O figurino teatral das renovações cênicas do século XX: Um estudo de sete encenadores (2004) (Theatrical costume and the transformations of the 20th century stage: a study of seven set designers) that included the work of the greatest names in field—Constantin Stanislavski and Bertolt Brecht—from the specific point of view of the theatrical costume.  While the list of foreign artists ends with Ariane Mnouchkine, a living French director, Viana’s study follows the careers of Brazilians only up to the 1960s. In his view, the subsequent period had been covered thoroughly; the first decades of the 20th century, on the other hand, should be studied and analyzed with utmost urgency. “I’m interested in saving what might be lost,” says Viana.

Playbill featuring Eduardo Victorino

Reproduction imagesPlaybill featuring Eduardo VictorinoReproduction images

For the Brazilian portion, Viana chose seven outstanding examples of costume design and creative vision: actor João Caetano dos Santos (1808-1863), actor/director Eduardo Victorino (1869-1949), Os Comediantes theater company (1938-1947), Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN) (Experimental Black Theater, 1944-1968), Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia (TBC) (Brazilian Comedy Theater, 1948-1964), Alfredo Mesquita (1907-1986), the School of Dramatic Arts (EAD, founded in 1948), and visual artist, architect and cinematographer Flávio de Carvalho (1899-1973). In choosing these key organizations and figures, Viana realized—among other intentions—his wish to dispel the popular notion that the world of Brazilian stage and theatrical costume design was transformed through the sole efforts of Tomás Santa Rosa Júnior (1909-1956) and his play, Vestido de noiva (Wedding dress), by Nelson Rodrigues. Rosa Junior’s production—brought to the stage by the Os Comediantes theater company from Rio de Janeiro—premiered in 1943.

The significance of the costume in theatrical performances lies its ability to bring together all of the human dimensions of a character and somehow “tell his story,” says Viana, for whom the costume and the stage are one and the same. Adding her take, Vera Império Hamburger, an art director for film and theater from ECA-USP, explains that “the costume is crucial because it is the only visual element in motion—the one that creates narratives.”

Success stories
Of João Caetano—famous in his time as an actor in Rio de Janeiro, well connected at the emperor’s Court, and a connoisseur of French theater—there survives nothing more than a photograph of him on the stage, not enough to develop analyses of his work as costume designer. Through the writings of stage designers who came later, especially Victorino, and what João Caetano himself left us in his 1861 book Lições dramáticas (Dramatic lessons), we can interpret the second half of the 20th century from the point of view of its hegemony, both in Brazil and in Europe. Indeed, a preoccupation with the aesthetics of garments that characterized this period reached such an extreme that historical and psychological accuracy were often overlooked.

Paulo Autran in the TBC’s Leonor de Mendonça

Reproduction imagesPaulo Autran in the TBC’s Leonor de MendonçaReproduction images

Elizabeth Azevedo, also of ECA-USP’s Department of Performing Arts, found modernizing tendencies in Emilio Doux (1798-1876), a Portuguese living in Brazil who, towards the end of his life, began his acting career in Rio de Janeiro.  According to Azevedo, Doux introduced more naturalism into his style than was common for the time; and, although there is no record of the costumes used in his performances, we can still infer—based on references to plays on contemporary themes called “dramas de casaca” (tailcoat dramas, after the street clothing of the time)—a sense of modernization.

It was the Portuguese Victorino, a set designer living in Rio, who introduced modern ideas along the lines of those proposed by contemporary innovators of the European stage (Adolphe Appia from Switzerland and Edward Gordon Craig from Britain, for example), while at the same time defending what he called the “truth of the stage” against the forceful style so characteristic of Brazilian performances at the time. “Thanks in part to Victorino’s influence, the great names around 1910 began to adopt character-appropriate theatrical costumes,” explains Viana. Beginning a trend that survived up to the 1970s, a number of actors of that era also designed and kept their own costumes, on and off the stage. “Having your own tailcoat meant you were an actor,” says Viana quoting an interview with Paulo Autran.

actress Maria Falcão of Victorino’s company

Reproduction imagesactress Maria Falcão of Victorino’s companyReproduction images

After facing a conviction for disobedience following his discharge from the military, Afro-Brazilian Abdias Nascimento (1914-2011) finally staged his first play in a São Paulo prison in 1943. Along with other inmates, Nascimento founded the Teatro do Sentenciado (Convict’s Playhouse), where he staged Revista penitenciária (Penitentiary review), a play in which the actors played male and female roles.  Nascimento himself took care of improvising the costumes used in the play. Two years on, one would see a similarly remarkable simplicity of costume design in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, staged by TEN.  Despite a lack of resources, the company—the first  to stage a black actor in the main role and introduce orixás [Afro-Brazilian divinities brought to the country with slaves from Southwest Africa]— in its play Sortilégio

Wealth and luxury
We see a far different experience when examining the career of Alfredo Mesquita, from São Paulo, whom Viana considers a “key figure in the thinking behind costume design in Brazil.” Well-connected and born to a wealthy family that owned O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper, Mesquita accepted many costumes donated by members of the elite to the Escola de Arte Dramática (School of Dramatic Arts) at the University of São Paulo (EAD-USP)  in an USP collection that he founded.  Mesquita also designed the costumes featured in many plays staged by the EAD; and, by hiring professional stage and costume designers, introduced a  level of professionalism to the school that was extraordinary in the world of Brazilian theater up to that time.

O sortilégio, performed by Teatro Experimental do Negro

Reproduction imagesO sortilégio, performed by Teatro Experimental do NegroReproduction images

The Brazilian Comedy Theater showed an even greater degree of refinement, making a huge technical leap for the theater scene as a whole with the arrival of a large group of professionals from Europe. Its founder, Franco Zampari (1898-1966), was a man of considerable fortune who had emigrated from Italy to work at the Matarazzo Corporation. The group he brought with him included directors Adolfo Celi and Luciano Salce, and stage and costume designer Gianni Ratto. “In the 1940s, São Paulo was already a dynamic financial center, able to support a theater that did entirely European-style productions,” explains Viana. A European practice in costume design introduced in Brazil at the time required making an initial version of the costume entirely in cotton. Only after  dressing the actor in this experimental version and studying his movements would the final costume be sewn together.  “The TBC allowed itself this luxury,” says Viana. He also mentions that costume designer Aldo Calvo “almost bankrupted TBC” when he imported 80 meters of French crystal tulle fabric to make a single garment for actress Cacilda Becker in her role in Lady of the Camellias.

Viana decided to include Flávio de Carvalho among the most important of Brazil’s 20th century scenographers—a decision prompted less by Carvalho’s lasting contributions and influence than the originality of his projects, which at times foreshadowed the ideas of visionaries like Antonin Artaud. Notoriously irreverent, Carvalho in 1933 staged O bailado do deus morto (Dance of the dead God), which he described as a laboratory “for experimenting with what emerges as essential in the world of ideas: scenes, modes of diction, mimicry, dramatic presentation of new expressive elements, and lighting and sound problems that could affect the movement of abstract forms.”  The figures on the stage would emerge as totems wearing masks and large mops of hair. Equally innovative were Carvalho’s sculptural stage and costume designs created in 1954 for the IV São Paulo Centennial Ballet.  “To understand what the IV Centennial Ballet really meant for the visual arts, dance, and theater,” explains Viana, “will require us to wait until its story is written. It may turn out to be the baptismal certificate of contemporary Brazilian stage design.”

Theatrical costume and the transformations of the Brazilian stage (nº 2013/09333-2); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Fausto Viana (ECA-USP); Investment R$31,831.12.