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Tropical comedy

Research recovers the entertaining and critical satirical epic by Manuel de Araújo Porto-Alegre, in [The Magic Lantern]

Reproduction / "A COMÉDIA URBANA: DE DAUMIER A PORTO-ALEGRE"Daumier and a scene from Macaire: a swine who inspired virtue with his crimes and coupsReproduction / "A COMÉDIA URBANA: DE DAUMIER A PORTO-ALEGRE"

Laughter is the best remedy, particularly for those things that seem to have no remedy. This mixture of idealistic hope and pessimistic cynicism fueled an experiment as pioneering as it was little known to the alternative press in Brazil in the19th century; it was the magazine A Lanterna Mágica [The Magic Lantern], published in Rio de Janeiro between 1844 and 1845, written solitarily and anonymously by Manuel de Araújo Porto-Alegre (1806-1879), a writer, painter, architect, set designer, poet, playwright, essayist and (whew) caricaturist. In 23 numbers (the idea was for it to last 366 “acts”), the magazine, along the lines of the works of acid social criticism of French lithographer and caricaturist Honoré Daumier (1808-79), showed the adventures of a pair of unscrupulous rogues whose purpose in life was to get rich as quickly as possible.

“The critical purpose of the periodical was to denounce the society of his time, scorning the vices of character that he used to observe, and which we may unfortunately regard as timeless: speculation, corruption, graft”, says Heliana Angotti Salgueiro, the curator of the display (and of the recently-launched catalog of the exhibition) A Comédia Urbana: de Daumier a Porto-Alegre [Urban Comedy: from Daumier to Porto-Alegre], presented from April to June at the FAAP’s Brazilian Art Museum ( FAAP is private university in São Paulo). The interest in Porto-Alegre was the subject for her postgraduate study, in 1995, História da Arte, História da Cidade: Atores e Leituras no Brasil do Século 19 [History of Art, History of the City: Actors and Readings in the Brazil of the 19th Century], which received the support of FAPESP. For the exhibition, over 240 works were gathered together, coming from 13 museums and libraries in Paris, São Paulo, Rio and Porto Alegre.

In A Lanterna Mágica, Porto-Alegre was a pioneer for including caricatures to illustrate his texts, dialogs between the two central personages, Laverno and Belchior dos Passos. The pair, ancestors of the amoral heroism of Macunaíma (character of Mário de Andrade), does everything to “do all right” in the Rio capital: from novelists to doctors, passing through politics and the opera, the two pretend to understand everything, in order to wrestle some loose change from the suckers of the city.

“Porto-Alegre wanted to show, under the light of his magic lantern, the standard personages of his time, the Lavernos who used to gravitate towards the society of Rio de Janeiro. In this sense, he is modern, in his clairvoyance of the problems of his country, and he engaged in a series of combats, not always understood by his contemporaries”, the researcher says. “After all, having lived seven years in the Paris of Balzac, Hugo, Sue, Daumier, amongst others, in a universe in which the illustrated press, the novel on customs, the industrialization and desacralization of the image, by lithography and caricature and, in particular, by the theater, produced portraits of a new time of communication that was affirming itself in the urban space. Accordingly, when he went back to Brazil, he was ahead of him contemporaries”, she notes.

Steam reading
A disciple of Debret, the abdication of Pedro I took Porto-Alegre by surprise and obliged him to set off, in 1831, for Paris, with the help of his former master. Life in the French capital was not easy for the Brazilian, but it was there that he was able to experience the explosion of the illustrated press and visual “modernity”, in which the image was undergoing, accompanying the transformations that the metropolis, dirty and insalubrious, desacralizing itself, industrializing itself, replacing “pure and lofty art” by the market, by the “steam reading” of the street posters, the magazines of caricatures that showed the new types of the new times. In the same spirit of the flâneurs who would wander aimlessly along the streets of the metropolis, the text also start bringing the marks of fast reading, of casting one’s eyes over the text and the images, and they gain a new status: the capacity for synthesizing the real and, to boot, criticizing this reality in an incisive fashion.

Among the much that he saw, Porto-Alegre was impressed with the literary and theatrical personage Robert Macaire, a thief, assassin and impostor, accompanied by his faithful and stupid accomplice Bertrand, a version in negative form of Quixote and Sancho. The success of the pair was immense, and Daumier illustrated the albums Les Cent-et-un Robert Macaire, around texts by Alhoy and Huart. The curious detail is that the fame of being a swine was the moralist reverse of his allurement. “The central personage, in spite of his crimes and cynicism, did a violent criticism of the corruption, the cupidity, the dishonesty that raged amongst the powerful, under the mask of philanthropy and respectability. More than that, he showed the whole time enormous skill in taking on various false identities, fooling the unwary and escaping from the law. All this perhaps may have impressed Porto-Alegre a lot in the Robert Macaire play”, is the analysis of João Roberto Faria.

“Between Daumier and Porto-Alegre, there is an obvious abyss, but both meet in the theater of the experience of the human condition, in recording the types and the vices of the modern urban comedy: in the task of drawing the first and writing the second, from Macaire to Laverno, there emerges the awareness of the tragic scene of the city”, Heliana observes. “In their difference, both descry the experience of the encounter with modernity, as solitary, eccentric heroes, whose experiences do not slot into the social mediatization of human relations.” To do so, Porto-Alegre used a curious and complex metaphor: the magic lantern.

An antecedent of the cinema, this apparatus projects images by means of lenses and glass slides on which figures were drawn that, when lit up, would be projected onto a white screen. At the same time, it was symptomatic that in the 19th century the term came to applied equally to the illustrated press that would shows “pictures” of reality to their readers. “But Porto-Alegre would stress that his desire was to project the image of Rio de Janeiro that stood before his eyes, not with the intent of  making illusions for this or that individual, but, on the contrary, conceiving his work as the theater where the main scenes of our epoch will be represented”, observes Roberto Faria.

At the bottom of every cynic dwells an idealist. Returning to Brazil in 1837, with his head full of what he had seen in a Paris in transformation, Porto-Alegre believed that Brazil also could be drawn up again, and that he could give his contribution, with the new medium that he had discovered in the city of light. “He uses the magic lantern as an instrument that exhibits the truth, with all its colors?”, says Heliana. And with all its laughter. “We came into the world to represent a vast comedy: it is better to take your seat at the front, the petty-minded can go to the back”, writes the anonymous editor of A Lanterna Mágica. After all, he goes on, with Machadian cynicism, going even further, “what is the world but a comedy. The scoundrels are the acrobats, the numskulls, then clowns, youth, the beaus; old age, the bamboozled, the people, the extras. The orchestra is all this movement, this buzzing of horseflies that suck each other. The hardest sting is the one that wins”.

Gathered together there, in an informal way, are all the passions and vices of the epoch: the theater, cynicism, the new, competition and the end of values, before the era of capital. But as no one is made of steel, Porto-Alegre soon makes a correction, with a notable warning: “A man with a glass eye does not sneeze hard”. It is laughter castigating customs. “A Lanterna Mágica shows the other side of Porto-Alegre, who like any other man of the eighteen hundreds, brought together realism, the spleen of daily life, and the dream of progress, the idealization of technique, associating history and art, as elements in the transformation of this daily life”, Heliana reckons. “He is a romantic marked by a nationalism that is rhetorical, but at the same time critical and aware of the problems of his country. And, above all, a typical Saint-Simonian, expressing himself thus in his projects for Brazil. His literate and unquiet messianism will prolong itself in later generations.”

Just as the banditism of Macaire could be an inspirer of virtues, the vulgarity of Laverno and Belchior was a way of using laughter to show what there was wrong with Brazil and to try to put right the general humbug. “Porto-Alegre’s attitude is surprising for several reasons. Generally speaking, Brazilian romantic writers distanced themselves from reality, creating in their works an ideal Brazil, portrayed in a superlative manner. This sentiment of love of the fatherland did not bring with it any concern in addressing the social sores of daily life”, Roberto Faria reminds us. The exceptions were on account of the plays by Martins Pena, of Memórias de um Sargento de Milícias [Memories of a Sergeant of Militias], by Manuel Antônio de Almeida and, amongst few others, the brief A Lanterna Mágica.

To do so, a protagonist on a level with the country. “He will always be the immortal Laverno, this prodigious man, a kind of Mephistopheles, a wandering Jew who walks amongst us in the squares, in the temples, in the gilded halls, in parliament, in the inns, in the shops and in the roadside shelters; now to be found at sea, now on land, or even sometimes on these breezes”, writes Porto-Alegre. The settings are varied. To start with, Laverno presents himself as a homeopathic doctor, a conceiver of a Homeopathic Pantheon, prescribing for all the ills the same potion made of water and sugar.

The following target of the writer, by means of his fearful Laverno, are the foreign travelers: “They take the shirt of their backs to slot themselves there afar, which is a race discovered by them, then they give it right away a strange name, write three hundred tomes about the beast and put the whole naturalist world into a revolution”, the satirist notes. “Foreign lands are the best known panacea in this country: arriving from them, you can do with impunity whatever you want.” Brazil’s febrile love for what comes from outside was not born today, then. For that reason, Laverno turns into Sr. Lavernoff.

“Here in this land, nobody is what he is, but what he proclaims to be”, is the moral of the story, since “the man who listens to his conscience is taken for a fool” and “there are only two decent men in this world: one is my crony, and my crony will say who the other one is”. His vision of Brazil is a bad-natured Caminha’s letter. “This is a land of huge promise for entrepreneurs and the brash; and I want it to be so, so as not to stay waiting for the signal. Just between us, healing is done by people who are neither a doctor nor a surgeon; teaching by people who know nothing of the subject; schools are founded by those who fled here from their fatherland for thievery”.

“A Lanterna Mágica is a founding work of tropical satire, a synthesis of the urban comedy. Intended by its author to be a patriotic epic of its day, it ends up being timeless, by the up-to-dateness of its heroes without any character, whose attitudes, gestures and phrases are not the slightest dated, but which reveal themselves as transhistoric portraits of modern life”, the researcher observes. “In clothes of its epoch, the personages are from all epochs, above all in this land in which, as Porto-Alegre writes, over a thousand harlequins walk, dressed with patches of all colors and shapes, passing themselves off as superior men.”

Thence, of course, a rapid passage by the pair through politics, the lesson being to sustain who is in power, until perceiving that he is about to fall, at which moment taking to one’s heels, since, “a soon as we sense the smell of a corpse, we will give him a tremendous shove, which throws him headlong into the abyss”. Since “the world is the biggest pillager, and the moral of the century, the moral of all centuries, is to acquire, not to worry about the means”. And this as well: “In politics, everything is proved by both sides: if the employee is intelligent, upright, active one goes by the article from the Quran: he does not enjoy my confidence; if he is worthless, but has a godfather, one says that he enjoys my confidence; and one proves that he is the author of a Sanskrit grammar that is there on sale”.

After passing himself off as an opera singer, Mrs. Lavernelli, an educator and, amongst other types, a novelist, the saga of Laverno and Belchior is interrupted, and the swindler goes off to be a prima donna in the theaters of the north of Brazil. “Porto-Alegre had a polemical temperament, faced up to disregard for his works, and was often treated as a foreigner in his own country, for his frank postures, innovative proposals and ideas, then impossible to be accepted or put into practice”, says Heliana. “He made enemies and, when doors were closed to him, from the academic world to other places, he leaves the country for good in 1859, like a wandering diplomat and without a cent.”

Oddly enough, he and Daumier die in 1879, both poor and forgotten, one in Paris, the other in Lisbon. They had a nose as few had, sufficiently gifted to smell out what was rotten in the air in the metropolises undergoing modernization, each in his own way, but in an analogous fashion. Or, in the wise words of Laverno: “A great comic writer was accused of literary theft. These accusations the man replied to, saying that wherever he found a good scene, he held it right away as his own. I too say that wherever I come across a good idea, I hold it right away as mine”.