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Nelson Rodrigues and the Invention of Brazilian Drama (review)

From: Latin American Theatre Review
Volume 45, Number 2, Spring 2012
pp. 212-213 | 10.1353/ltr.2012.0000

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David George’s book Nelson Rodrigues and the Invention of Brazilian Drama is a sound contribution to the study and divulgation of Rodrigues’s plays in the U.S. and for non-Portuguese speakers at large. With only one main predecessor in English, Fred M. Clark’s Impermanent Structures: Semiotic Readings of Nelson Rodrigues’ Vestido de noiva, Álbum de família, and Anjo negro (1991), a volume devoted solely to Rodrigues’s theater is long overdue. Rodrigues undoubtedly is the most important twentieth-century Brazilian playwright, and George’s main contribution is not only in terms of outlining Rodrigues’s career and situating his theatrical production within historical context and the renowned revolution he represented for the Brazilian stage. Most importantly, George punctuates his narrative with descriptions and analyses of productions of the plays, which range from the groundbreaking 1943 staging of Vestido de noiva by the company Os comediantes to more recent productions, such as Teatro do Pequeno Gesto’s 1998 rendering of A serpente. What the analyses of these productions provide us, as readers, is a window into the diverse appropriations and re-appropriations of Rodrigues’s plays, oftentimes depending on historical moment, as well as the aesthetic solutions directors and companies had to devise in order to convey their message and, in many cases, update Rodrigues’s works.

A controversial figure, Rodrigues was personally quite conservative but extremely unconventional on stage, and his own life story was marked by tragic events, which seemed to be doubled by the difficulties he found in producing his works. Given the taboos that abound in the texts, his plays were often censored and had to wait years for their staging, the worst case being Álbum de família, published in 1946 but only produced for the first time in 1967. Chapter 1—the second longest in the book—inserts Rodrigues’s playwriting into the context of his biography, his multifaceted cultural endeavors (for he also wrote crônicas, novels, and newspaper articles on crime, soccer, and opera, among other subjects), the historical and cultural contexts and, last but not least, the different efforts to avoid letting Rodrigues’s œuvre fade into oblivion. As such, chapter 1 serves as a panoramic springboard from which readers may delve into the readings of specific plays, the first one being Vestido de noiva, the focus for chapter 2, which is followed by Senhora dos Afogados in chapter 3, A falecida in chapter 4, and, by way of conclusion, A serpente, Rodrigues’s last play, in the last chapter.

Yet, Rodrigues’s biography, rather than being a mere general contextualization so that readers may understand where the playwright is coming from, appears to function in a ghostly manner, reappearing when it is least expected. That, given Rodrigues’s topics, such as incest or a tight relationship between sex and death, becomes a natural tendency of sorts. Where do all these—oftentimes considered sordid—themes come from? And the natural answer seems to lie in the biography, and George himself will at times recur to it. In analyzing Vestido de noiva, the author states that the hallucinatory point of view “may also be explained in terms of [the playwright’s] own experience” (37), and when, in chapter 3, he attempts to compare Rodrigues’s and Eugene O’Neill’s life stories, he feels compelled to sketch in a paragraph the vicissitudes of biography in literary criticism. That does not mean to say, however, that recourse to biography constitutes a weakness in George’s study. On the contrary, it allows for a performance of Rodrigues’s own theatricality. When, amid the author’s detailed reading of the plays and their productions, Rodrigues’s figure seems to pop up, what is at play is one of the key elements in Rodrigues’s theater: spectrality.

Such an aspect of George’s book is certainly a plus to the analyses of the chosen plays, and, if one may criticize the author, it is only for outdoing himself, which is particularly evident in chapter 3. Comprising a long and detailed comparison of Rodrigues’s Senhora dos Afogados and O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, chapter 3 is, by far, the weakest one...

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