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Nelson Rodrigues: High Melodrama and The Snickering Neighbors

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The Drummonds: Tropical kings of the Corinthians.

“Senhora dos Afogados, by Antunes Filho”Digestivo Cultural (São Paulo) reviews the play we saw the other evening, “Our Lady of the Drowned,” by Nelson Rodrigues, produced and directed by Antunes Filho of Teatro Macunaíma.

Teatro Macunaima being one of the redeeming signs of intelligent life in the southeastern megalopolitan Tupiverse.

The fascinating possibility raised by the reviewer is that Antunes has chosen an extremely bad play from an inexplicably revered Brazilian author and recast its hysterical melodrama as snickering theater of cruelty replete with Brechtian alienation effects.

Não é uma obra-prima a montagem de Senhora dos Afogados, de Nélson Rodrigues, por Antunes Filho — mas é, como diria Paulo Francis, provavelmente o melhor Nélson disponível, sendo, talvez, Antunes Filho, quase octogenário, a última reserva do teatro brasileiro.

This Antunes Filho production of “Our Lady of the Drowned,” by Nelson Rodrigues, is not a masterpiece — but it is, as Paulo Francis might say, the best one available, and Antunes Filho, who is now nearly 80, the last best hope of Brazilian theater.

I have to confess it: I loathe Nelson Rodrigues and his fervid, turgid, endless rewriting of the endless configurations of Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, as cribbed from the Cliff’s Notes.

But this is an inconvenient fact to mention at cocktail parties people who have been brought up to think of the guy as some sort of Brazilian Ibsen or Tennessee Williams (from both of whom he cribs, badly, constantly, left and right) or something.

Como afirmava e reafirmava o mesmo Francis, o texto é de grande poesia — para ele, a maior em Nélson (mas, possivelmente, não maior do que em Álbum de Família) —, Antunes Filho e o Grupo Macunaíma, porém, acrescentaram trechos, criando seqüências inteiras, às vezes alongando cenas, já que o público da televisão (majoritário, ainda hoje) talvez não suporte a tragicidade plena, os desvios comportamentais incuráveis e o destino impiedoso na história da família Drummond.

As Francis said again and again, the piece is great poetry — in his view, the greatest in the Rodrigues oeuvre (but possibly equaled by Family Album) — but Antunes and the Teatro Macuaima add passages to it, creating entire new scenes or extending others, given that the television audience (most of them, even today) may not be able to handle the full-blown tragedy, the incurable misbehavior or the pitiless destiny of the Drummond family.

Whose paterfamilias in this production is transformed into something of a Pére Ubu figure: grotesque, clownish, shuffling, and prone to break out into an astonishing, drawn-out, ribald snicker, rising from the depths of his rotten guts, at exactly the wrong moment.

Ler Senhora dos Afogados — como ler as maiores obras-primas de Nélson Rodrigues para teatro — é uma experiência brutal, para quem justamente tem sensibilidade literária — mas, hoje, os espectadores, mesmo no cinema, não suportam a tragédia sem concessões, guardando um riso de canto de boca, para o momento da abertura à comédia, transformando o sério em ridículo e suspendendo toda a gravidade. Nos estertores do pós-modernismo, “tudo é relativo” e nada poder ser completamente “sem saída” — mesmo Nélson Rodrigues; e Antunes Filho, nesta montagem, não foge disso.

Reading “Our Lady of the Drowned” — like reading most of Nelson Rodrigues’ major works for the theater — is a brutal experience …

Amen to that.

… for those who come to it from a purely literary perspective. But nowadays, audiences, even film audiences, cannot support tragedy without concessions, a snicker out of the corner of one’s mouth, a moment of opening to comic possibilities, of transforming the serious into the ridiculous and suspending all sense of gravitas. In the wake of postmodernism, “everything is relative,” and nothing can be left with “no exit” — not even Rodrigues, and Antunes Filho, in this production, does not shrink from that fact.

I see it very differently: What you have added to the play is this figure of “the neighbors,” taking the place of the classical Greek chorus but behaving like the mob, the canaille, the hell that is other people.

A Greek chorus of mourners who have caught a bad case of schadenfreude like the clap, and who have a hard time keeping a straight face and observing the niceties during the funeral and wake that frame the action.

It is only against this backdrop that the play manages to achieve some tragic catharsis in spite of the cartoonish absurdity of its text, I think.

Because the text of the play as written simply IS brutally unbearable, from a literary point of view.

It reminds you of the plot of a Jack Chick comic book or the cheaper variety of Jacobean revenger’s tragedy.

To some extent, the audience’s proxy up there on the stage, “the neighbors” in Greek chorus, is simply inviting you to give in to what you were already feeling but were afraid to say.

My wife was remarking about this: That you find yourself laughing guiltily at moments of high melodrama in the play because this troop of clowns is up there, vying for your attention and engaged in low hijinks.

Such was her response, anyway. Neuza grew up on this stuff.

My response at certain moments — I came to the play blind, without having read it first — was, “Jesus god, what heinously boring, sophomoric Freudian dreck this is!”

The Mob (“And who are you again?” [In chorus]: We’re the neighbors!”) is the play’s most interesting character, which makes sense: the Ensemble seems to be the heart of the Teatro Macunaima approach to theater.

O núcleo da família Drummond, obviamente, está bem representado, com destaque para a filha remanescente, entre uma mãe corretamente hipnotizada (por vezes, um pouco sonsa) e um pai distante (em algumas situações, um pouco robótico). Rindo na hora errada (é para rir em alguma hora?) e jamais relacionando o que acontece com o seu próprio inconsciente (Nélson tem soado apenas exótico, ultimamente), o público deve ter sustentado a temporada mas não está à altura de um clássico Antunes Filho. Ainda há tempo, contudo, para revisitar Nélson Rodrigues, segundo um de seus mais ardentes representantes.

The nucleus of the Drummond family, obviously, is well played, with the spotlight going to the surviving daughter, caught between a properly mesmerized (almost robotic) mother and a distant father. Laughing at the wrong moment (and should we be laughing at any moment?) and never relating to its own unconscious ….

This reviewer should stick to relating to what is in his own unconscious and leave mine to me.

… the play seems to have found an audience, but is not up to the standards of a classic Antunes Filho production. But there is still time for a man who should be one of his most ardent interpreters to revisit Rodrigues.

And restore his literary mediocrity to the delusions of grandeur it thinks it deserves.

According to this review, then, the house was packed to the rafters the other evening because its MTV-generation audience has no taste, and so has managed to blackmail the director into indulging its desire to snicker at the hysterical pretentiousness of the Greek tragedy according to Nelson Rodrigues.

Contempt for the groundling — the help should not even be allowed into the auditorium — is the trademark of a certain sort of Brazilian intellectual.

No wonder most of the theater here is still state-subsidized.

The Teatro Macunaima, on the other hand, is the real deal: Its production of A Pedra do Reino was full of those Aristotelian moments of suspension of disbelief where you unfold your arms and find yourself thoroughly engrossed in the spectacle.