In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

3 Introduction The Uneven Stage of the Avant-​ Gardes At a certain point in O banquete (The Banquet), a collection of pseudo-​ Platonic dialogues by the Brazilian writer and musicologist Mário de Andrade (1893–­ 1945), the character most closely identified with the author turns to theater to exemplify the social role modern art should play. Janjão is a composer who integrates folkloric melodies into pieces with titles such as “Antifascist Scherzo” and “Symphony of Labor.” In a conversation with a young writer, however, he argues that theater is the art “most suited to the intentionality of struggle” because it is an “open” form that allows for “the stain, the sketch, allusion, debate, advice, an invitation.” Contrasting it with sculpture, which creates fixed objects of art (or at least this is how they appear), he hints at something that many an artist and theatergoer has experienced in the flesh: because it unfolds over time, and because its realiza‑ tion requires a material stage as well as the presence of a collective audience, the “art” of theater is more difficult to disentangle from the process of its production and its sociopolitical and economic stakes. To put it in the lingo of avant-​ garde and modernist studies, theatrical “autonomy” is especially precarious and fraught, but this is also what gives it a very particular power. For this reason, along with design, Janjão classifies theater as an arte do inacabado—­ an “art of the unfinished.”1 Mário de Andrade had a little experience with theater: during the 1920s and 1930s he had drafted (or started to draft) a number of pieces, and as the director of São Paulo’s Department of Culture he oversaw programming at an opera house where he and other members of the modernista avant-​garde had made their collective debut at the Week of Modern Art in 1922. Yet like the other works I discuss in this book, his own theater remains unfinished in a sense very different from the one his fictional character would later describe. One of his pieces, which he labeled a “profane oratorio,” is both a spoof on Brazil’s foundational act of independence and an allegorical rendition of the Week of Modern Art, though with a cast of 550,000 singers and five thou‑ sand musicians it seems deliberately impossible to perform. A few years later, he started to collaborate with novice composers on a project to create a truly “national” opera by drawing together musical traditions from all the races 4 Introduction and regions of Brazil; but while the music was performed, Mário’s would-​ be libretti were archived in the form of outlines and preliminary drafts. Even the handful of plays by avant-​ garde writers that made it to publication during this era failed to find a stage: in 1933, Mário’s fellow modernista Oswald de Andrade (no relation) penned an audacious anti-​ imperialist pag‑ eant for a small theater in a club frequented by leftist artists, activists, and working-​ class immigrants, but the stage was forced to shut down during the performance of another experimental piece with a mostly black cast. Almost forty years later, during a commemoration of the Week of Modern Art, the critic Décio de Almeida Prado wistfully noted that while others were celebrat‑ ing the birth of Brazil’s modern literature, music, and art, he and other theater folks could “hardly help but feel a little on the margins, as if excluded from the party.”2 In certain respects the situation is very different in Mexico, the other geo‑ graphical pole of The Unfinished Art of Theater. In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910–­ 1920), the founding director of the Secretariat of Public Education José Vasconcelos led an unprecedented expansion of the cultural apparatus, including mass literacy campaigns and the construction of schools, libraries, and his own pet project: a “theater-​ stadium” where some sixty thousand onlookers and auditors gathered to witness thousands of per‑ formers sing, dance the jarabe tapatío, and form gigantic human pyramids. But Vasconcelos first envisioned such spectacles in the context of a never-​ performed (and unperformable?) play, and in his speech at the stadium’s inauguration he stressed that what spectators were about to see and hear was only an ensayo—an “essay,” but also a “rehearsal,” or a performance still in development and incomplete. Ensayos were everywhere in Mexico during the 1920s: the term was also used to describe the short skits...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.