When cinema began, there was a worldwide prophecy: “The theater is going to die!” And later on television arose. Immediately, other prophets announced that television would be the end of theater. Notice how the theater lives upon deaths and resurrections. From time to time, someone comes along to deliver its death certificate. But the theater is alive, the theater is a most salubrious cadaver.
When it comes to the hoary claim that mass culture has sounded the death knell of theater, there are few better counter-examples than Nelson Rodrigues, the most renowned Brazilian playwright of the 20th century. Credited with having inaugurated theatrical modernism in Brazil, Rodrigues was also a popular newspaper columnist the author of schlocky romance novels and the creator of the first telenovela, or soap opera. The Nelson Rodrigues Festival, which begins September 27 with an academic symposium on his work, pays homage to the man-of-many-media with a month-long program that includes film screenings, play readings and the U.S. premiere of his “Carioca tragedy” The Asphalt Kiss, presented by the Lord Strange Company under the direction of Sarah Cameron Sunde.
When Rodrigues’s second play, The Wedding Gown, debuted in 1943, it was immediately hailed by critics as the play that would part the waters of Brazilian theater. Preceding it, (or so the now-legendary story goes), was a long tradition of provincial, naïve comedies of manners; with it came the possibility of a theater that was at the same time Brazilian and self-assuredly universal, both of the here-and-now and able to stand the test of time. Composed of a series of fragmented scenes that represent the memories of a woman dying upon an operating table, the stylistically groundbreaking play is a salacious ménage-á-trios of Greek tragedy, German Expressionism and pulp fiction. Its themes, all of which became hallmarks of Rodrigues’s drama, read like a litany of cardinal sins: sexual abuse, adultery, incest, prostitution and murder.
Rodrigues was only partly joking when he titled his memoirs The Reactionary. He had no use for the poitical left and the left had no use for him, since his fixation on the plight of the solitary individual and his conviction that “all coherence is, at the very least, suspect” offered no answers to the problem of how to mobilize the masses. But the stage has a way of transforming things, and the perverse pleasure that Rodrigues took in unearthing the dirty secrets of Rio de Janeiro’s middle and working classes frequently put him in the vanguard of artistic battles with the guardians of conservative morality. Family Album, written in 1945, was banned for 21 years because of its treatment of incest. Black Angel provoked a scandal in 1948 by portraying an interracial couple driven to infanticide by societal prejudice, and censors allowed it to be performed only under the conditions that the protagonist was to be played by a white man in blackface. Yet behind these lurid tales of dark desires and ugly hypocrisy lay a surprisingly conventional belief in the need for love and redemption. Rodrigues insisted that the human being “has a beautiful side and a hideous side. (He) will only be saved if, when running his hand across his face, he recognizes his own hideousness.”
The playwright’s life was nearly as tragic and soap operatic as his work. Born in 1912 in Recife, in the northeast of Brazil, he moved with his family to Rio in 1916 after his ire of authorities with his inflammatory articles. His father eventually founded his own newspaper and Nelson began his journalistic career at the age of 13 as a crime reporter. When he was 17 he watched his brother Roberto die after being shot by a wealthy socialite whose affair with a prominent doctor had been the topic of a front-page spread in the family’s paper. Another brother died of tuberculosis, a disease that plagued Nelson from early adulthood until his death in 1980. When the Brazilian military took control of the government in 1964, Rodrigues publicly welcomed the new regime, claiming that it had saved the country from the totalitarian horrors of Stalin’s death camps. Yet his own son would later be arrested and tortured by the dictatorship, and Rodrigues was among those who opposed declaring amnesty for human rights abusers. His stance reflected a belief that absolution should never come easily. “If we aren’t on all fours, howling in the forest,” he once said, “it is because the feeling of guilt saves us.”
Though his plays secured him a spot in the canon of Brazilian literature, they never paid the bills. During the 1950s, when his focus on private obsessions began to fall out of fashion in the theater world, most Brazilians knew him as the author of “A vida como ela é” (Life as it is), a regular feature based on fictionalized crime reports that ranks among the most famous newspaper columns in Brazilian history. Like many respected writers of the time, he supplemented his income by adopting feminine pseudonyms and composing romances do folhetim, risqué romance novels published in serial installments in newspapers. In 1963, he began writing the script for the first prime-time soap opera, a program called The Dead Woman without a Mirror that was doomed to failure when it was slotted for a late hour by programmers who were wary of the writer’s reputation. Such projects were motivated by financial necessity, not artistic interest, and Rodrigues never regarded them as sources of pride. Soccer, on the other hand, was a plebian passion he openly embraced – he often appeared as a sports commentator ot TV, and among the mildly successful motion pictures he scripted was a film biography on soccer legend Pelé.
These non-theatrical pursuits were not simply incidental to Rodrigues’s work in theater; on the contrary, they permeate all of his plays. His plots, after all, revolve around the same stories of crime and passion that filled his newspaper columns, and reporters frequently appear as minor characters. The short, episodic structure of his plays also lends them a remarkably cinematic quality. One of the factors that contributed to a resurgence of interest in Rodrigues’s work in the 1970s and ‘80s was the success of numerous film adaptations of his plays, including Arnaldo Jabor’s 1973 classic All Nudity Shall Be Punished, based on the 1965 play of the same name. Bruno Barreto, who directed a 1981 film based on The Asphalt Kiss, has said of Rodrigues that “I am certain that if he had written in English, he would be as important as Tennessee Williams, O’Neill or Pinter, such is the universal, timeless and subversive quality of his work.”
Those involved in the upcoming Nelson Rodrigues Festival hope that their efforts will bring some long overdue attention to Brazil’s “pornographic angel,” as the playwright dubbed himself. Director Sarah Cameron Sunde, who previously translated and directed the acclaimed Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s Night Sings Its Songs, says that she finds it dismaying that the work of master playwrights like Rodrigues are unknown in a city as ostensibly cosmopolitan as New York. She worries that “in general, the theater scene is kind of mirroring what are politics in this country are doing and not paying attention to what is going on in other countries.”
Festival organizer Alex Ladd explains that he decided to bring academics and actors together in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Rodrigues’s death after seeing that the event would otherwise go unnoticed in New York. He says that one advantage of offering such a multi-faceted program is that it gives a sense of what a unique figure Nelson Rodrigues is, particularly when seen alongside other playwrights of a similar stature in this country. “The other day,” he mentions, “I was watching a Brazilian soccer game and the commentator said, ‘I wish Nelson Rodrigues were here.’ I can’t imaging watching a soccer game in the U.S. and thinking, ‘Gee, I wish Tennessee Williams was here.”
The Festival’s main attraction is the U.S. premiere of The Asphalt Kiss belong to a group of his plays known as “Carioca tragedies” (“carioca” being a moniker for the people of Rio), a genre that updated the outmoded comedy of manners by darkening the tone and tackling taboo subjects such as homosexuality and suicide. The play presents the story of Amadir, a married man who witnesses the death of a stranger struck by a bus on a busy street corner. Before dying, the man asks Amadir for a kiss. Amadir complies, not knowing that a reporter will turn this selfless act into fodder for the tabloids and that his life will unravel amidst accusations that he and the victim were lovers.
The play is a scathing indictment of the market-driven media and ended up costing Rodrigues his day job at the paper (not to worry – he quickly found another). Yet its characters that are at once ordinary and larger than life and its shocking, melodramatic finale are unmistakably indebted to the tabloid sensationalism that it critiques. According to Director Sunde, what most impresses her about The Asphalt Kiss is its “heightened quality,” the possibility it offers for “telling a story through pure theatricality.” This theatricality, one might add, emerges from the play’s own Herculean struggle with the implacable, god-like forces of the media. The Asphalt Kiss plumbs the depths of its adversary and immersies itself in the very thing against which it fights in order to wrest from it something that it can call its own.
Melodrama notwithstanding, Rodrigues’s parable of one man against the machine is a tragic play. At the same time, it suggests that the old reactionary really believed that there was something beautiful underneath the hideous. Though Amadir’s chance encounter on a busy public sidewalk brings about his downfall, it also becomes the single act that redeems him and allows him to realize his humanity. It is, in other words, something similar to what mass culture was for Brazilian theater in the form of Rodrigues’s plays: the kiss of death that grants new life.
THE ASPHALT KISS by Nelson Rodrigues, translated by Alex Ladd, directed by Sarah Cameron Sunde, runs October 7 – 29, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm (plus Sunday 10/9 at 3pm and Tuesday 10/11 at 8pm), at 59E59 Theaters—Theater B, 59 East 59th Street (between Park/Madison). Tickets: $15, www.ticketcentral.com or 212.279.4200.
Sarah J. Townsend is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at New York University. She is co-editor of Stages of Conflict: A Reader of Latin American Theater & Performance. Forthcoming from University of Michigan Press.
Highlights from the Nelson Rodrigues festival:
ALL NUDITY SHALL BE PUNISHED:
10/15 at 2pm and 10/16 at 3pm
Black Angel, Classical Theater of Harlem: 10/18 at 8pm
The Wedding Gown, Repertorio Espaniol: 10/22 at 2pm
The Seven Kittens, LABrinth Theater Company: 10/29 at 2pm
on Translation in Theater, curated by
director Sarah Cameron Sunde and
dramaturg Marie Louise Miller: 10/25 at 8pm
All events at 59E59. For more info: www.nrfestival.com
ContributorSarah J Townsend
Townsend is a PhD candidate in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at NYU.