Monday, October 4, 2010

the representation of unpleasantness


An introduction to the representation of unpleasantness

Marcelo Bolshaw Gomes1

I always considered myself to be a progressive person. And I always considered embarrassing my intellectual passion for three northeastern reactionary journalists: Câmara Cascudo, Gilberto Freire and Nelson Rodrigues.

I struggled a lot with Cascudo, um to the point when I accepted and recognized in him the storyteller as a dimension that embraces anthropology and journalism. He is not a folklorist! Technically, he is a multiple ethnographer (of food, gestures, costumes), but above all a thinker with narrative conscience, that is, he knows he is a storyteller and this simplicity is what makes him great and really important as a thinker because he makes a reading of what is erudite from popular culture.

With Gilberto Freire, who I got to know only very late due to my own prejudice, I discovered the sociological critique of behaviors in a genealogical methodology that is nothing behind Michel Foucault and contemporary historians. Freire is fascinating, especially because it builds a social criticism perspective different then Marxism and almost all social thinking of his time.

Both Freire and Cascudo are examples of journalists who built social sciences in Brazil before the upcoming of the social communications. And, due to the fact of being Northeastern (and never had left their homelands) and standing for right-wing positions on the national political scenario, they were always neglected and hidden by the academy.

Nelson Rodrigues, however, is a special case. He was not elitist. Also he was not a 'social scientist', although his work is devastating as a critique of behaviors. Nor could he be hidden by the left-wing prejudice, once his texts not only revolutionized and popularized national theatre but also helped build mass media in Brazil, both on cinema and television.

 .He is the author of the first Brazilian soap opera, A morta sem espelho [dead woman without a mirror] (1963) (2) and his work continues to be adapted with large audience (3) up to this day. Besides he was also known to the general public for being an active and intelligent sportswriter. His work is recognized by its torn eroticism, by showing violence in all its dimensions, and by the moral cynicism that unmasks the hypocrisy - everyone knows that, even those who don´t know his work. Nelson Rodrigues, still became widely known for its controversial and synthetic sentences, quoting delightfully outrageous expressions such as "Every woman likes to be beat up" or "People from Minas (4) are supportive only in cancer" – which he attributed to his friend Otto Lara Resende. He amused himself scandalizing both Greeks and Trojans, even calling his dramaturgy "theater of unpleasantness." His text brings a way to tell the truth that lies underneath the representation of reality through a meta-representation that reveals us desire.

Caco Coelho (4) (incorporating Sábato Magaldi´s (5) classification and the biography of Ray Castro's (6)) sets five stages of development of Nelson Rodrigues´ intellectual work, each one with its peculiar aesthetic characteristics: a) reporter and critic (1927-35) b ) critic and lyrical reporter, Globo Juvenil and psychological plays (1936-43), c) mythical period (1944-52), d) Rio de Janeiro´s tragedies period (1953-66), and e) memorialist period (1967-80). Curiosamente, todas as cinco fases estéticas na evolução do trabalho de Nelson Rodrigues correspondem a mudanças na sua vida profissional como jornalista. Interestingly, all five aesthetic stages in the evolution of Nelson Rodrigues´ work correspond to changes in his professional life as a journalist.

The first stage is the reporter and critic, lived in the newsrooms of his father´s papers, A manhã and Crítica. Nelson began writing at the age of fifteen, when A manhã headed to a new headquarter in late 1927. Thence up to the beginning of 1935, its main activity was making police news, along with art critique, mostly literary. In 1935 he starts working in the newspaper of his friend Roberto Marinho, O Globo.

In the next stage, until 1946, Nelson continued in O Globo as an opera critic of the section "O Globo in lyrical arts" and also worked in Globo Juvenil. Being a lyrical reporter, Nelson watched and wrote on about 300 operas in many seasons of the Rio de Janeiro´s Municipal Theater. In 1941, he wrote his first play, A mulher sem pecado [A woman without sin], which debuted in theaters the following year, with no greater success. Vestido de noiva [Wedding dress] came up in 1943, after the success of the play; Nelson left the O Globo and went to the Diários Associados, owned by his former political adversary Assis Chateaubriand.

It is the Beginning of the third phase of the writer, called 'Mythical' by Sábato Magaldi, which goes on until the birth of the Rio de Janeiro´s tragedies in 1953, the fourth phase. During nine years, besides his to contributions to many various communication channels from Diários Associados, he wrote six novels and five plays.

Again, changing journal brings an aesthetic transformation. Nelson was hired as a columnist for the newspaper Última Hora, which Samuel Wainer “gained" from Getulio Vargas. [Life as it is ...] appear. And in 1953, writing the play A falecida [the dead woman] and the novel A mentira [The Lie], Nelson initiates the fourth period, of Rio de Janeiro´s tragedies. At this stage, which goes until 1967, he wrote eight plays and three novels. The first sports chronics are also from this period, published in the newspaper Jornal dos Sports and in the magazine Manchete Esportiva.

When he was 54, moving to another newspaper is accompanied by the fifth and last phase of the author: Nelson is invited to write his memoirs in the newspaper Correio da Manhã – from there several books on memories and sports chronics are published. This period, which begins in 1967, ends with the death of Nelson, out of cardio respiratory failure in December 1980. This period is important because Nelson then rethinks his work; he sees new film directors rethinking his work (Neville D'Almeida, JB Tanko, Arnaldo Jabor - to name the main ones), because then a broad understanding of the meaning of his work in Brazilian culture and to theater in the international point of view arise. Nelson Rodrigues is much superior to the major playwrights of his time (Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee) and a milestone in the performing arts worldwide.

Summing it up, Nelson Rodrigues wrote 17 plays8 27 books ( 9 novels9, 5 short stories10 books and 13 books of chronicles11 23 movies12 were made based on his writings so far, but only Beijo no Asfalto [Kiss on the Asphalt13was adapted and published as comic book up to this today, although there are several unpublished works.

The first adaptation of Nelson Rodrigues to the cinema – Meu Destino é pecar [My Fate is to sin] (1952) - was not felicitous. The highlight of the film - the photography of Mario Pagés, in B&W, that gave an expressionistic and gothic character to the work - contrasted with the naturalistic attitude of the director and screenwriter Manuel Pelufo, who greatly simplified the text – reducing the original entanglement of desire, betrayal and misunderstandings and adding a happy ending to the plot.

On the other hand, the adaptation - Boca de Ouro [Golden Mouth] (1962), directed by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, and starring Jece Valadão and Odette Lara, in memorable performances - was a great success of public and reviews, triggering the first period of adaptations of Rodriguean plays to the cinema. The plot - influenced by the police journalism of the '50s – talks about contravention lottery in Rio de Janeiro and the relationship between the elite of Rio and criminality. The movie's structure is influenced by Kurosawa's Rashomon, in which one character tells the same story in different ways, according to its emotional circumstances. A perfect marriage between a filmmaker and a right-right author.

Almost thirty years later, the producer Joffre Rodrigues, son of Nelson, decided to reshoot Boca de Ouro, in color, changing the contravention environment of the 50s to the criminality and drug trafficking of the 80´s. It was directed by Walter Avancini, director of soap operas and TV shows, but with no experience with the language of cinema. Perhaps this is why this second version of Boca de Ouro [Golden Mouth] (1990) is shallow and artificial, with superficial dialogues disconnected from the reality of the characters being much inferior than the first film14.

The second success of this first generation of adaptations, still in B&W - Bonitinha, mas ordinária [Pretty, but ordinary] (1963), directed by J.P. de Carvalho, again with Jesse Valadão and Odette Lara - also gained two remakes: Bonitinha, mas Ordinária ou Otto Lara Resende [Pretty, but ordinary or Otto Lara Resende (1980) by Braz Chediak, in color, with Lucélia Santos and Vera Fischer, and Pretty, but Ordinary (2010), by Moacyr Goes. The adaptation of Braz Chediak has great merits and demerits regarding the versions before and after it. He also uses the Rashomon strategy, present in the first Golden Mouth, trying to discuss the idea of truth and its different interpretations of cultural structure, opposed to successive flashbacks that bring details to the narrative so there is a comprehension of what really happened. The other versions have a more linear script, more interesting and closer to the original play.

Another Rodriguean text that had versions from different generations of cinema directors in Brazil was the novel Asfalto Selvagem [Wild Asphalt]. First there was the movie Asfalto Selvagem - Engraçadinha from 12 to 18 years [Wild Asphalt –Witty Girl from 12 to 18] (1964), in B&W, about the first part of the novel, and, next, Engraçadinha depois dos trinta [Witty Girl after thirty] (1966), also in B & W - both by J.B. Tanko.  In 1981, Haroldo Marinho Barbosa makes Engraçadinha [Witty Girl] a melodramatic remake of the whole novel, emphasizing its tragic aspects. And, finally, in 1995-96, Globo television broadcasted the short series Engraçadinha seus amores e seus pecados[ Witty Girl, loves and sins], directed by Denise Saraceni and supervised by Carlos Manga.

On the first generation of Nelson´s movie adaptations, in B&W, there are still four films: A Falecida [The Deceased Woman] and O Beijo [The Kiss].

The Deceased woman (1965) by Leon Hirszman with Fernanda Montenegro in the leading role and script by Eduardo Coutinho, reminds the first ‘Boca de Ouro’ in several respects. It is a ‘revolutionary filmmaker' with a ‘reactionary text', it is the ‘Cinema novo’ [new cinema], which is about the people but not for the people, there is a certain constraint, it tries to remove the brutality of the original text and keep only its tragic aspects. It is a film with beautiful images and large silences, and despite changing the story and the narrative style, remains faithful to the original intent of the author.

On its turn O beijo [ the Kiss] (1966), expressionist film by Flávio Tambellini was publicly condemned by Nelson Rodrigues himself, who called Tambellini "Kafka of the Democratic Circus". This happened, because, Tambellini not only changed the story and the narrative context of the Rio de Janeiro´s suburban scenario, the director also decided for a dark universalism, far from the popular pornography as much as from the realistic aesthetic of the Cinema Novo.

The second generation of rodriguean adaptations begins with Toda nudez será Castigada [All Nudity Shall Be Punished ](1973) by Arnaldo Jabor. Not only it was in colorful, but especially it was faithfulness to the original text and intention of the writer. Jabor intends to make a movie that is popular (about and for the common people) and at the same time 'Tropicalist' ( that incorporates various narrative genres) and no more the realist avant-garde cinema novo. Indeed, for many this film is the most brilliant translation of Nelson Rodrigues and an important milestone for the national cinema, with emphasis to the performance of Darlene Gloria as Geni. Arnaldo Jabor, like any other, knew how to display the multiple meanings of Nelson Rodrigues´ apparently colloquial dialogues: the interruptions, sighs, unfinished sentences, he stays one millimeter from comedy and melodrama. In 1975, O Casamento [the Marriage] continues this happy aesthetic encounter between Jabor and Rodrigues, this time having the modern tango of Astor Piazzolla as soundtrack.

Contrasting with the intelligent and tropicalists adaptations of Arnaldo Jabor, there are the impolite and semi-pornographic movies of Neville D'Almeida: A Dama da Lotação [The Lady on the streetcar] (1978) and Os Sete Gatinhos [The Seven Kittens] (1980).

A dama do Lotação was a great success for national cinema, boosted by the presence of the actress Sonia Braga, nationally known to the general public because of her participation in the soap opera Gabriela, Cravo e Canela, inspired on the novel by Jorge Amado. Actually A dama is somehow from Bahia, the group A cor do som deconstructs a song of Caetano Veloso, with an arrangement / tempo for each scene, and the plot of the film itself, with several scenes of gratuitous explicit sex, goes far away from the Nelson Rodrigues standards and recalls the author from Ilheus. Solange, a shy virgin and later frigid wife, becomes an insatiable woman, who will devour strangers on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Solange returns to marriage not as a repentant prostitute, how as the patriarchal society would approve, as a relatively liberal woman reconciled with her desire. It's a 'feminist’ movie, where even the dissimulation of women is justified by the character situation. The screenplay was not based on plays or novels, but in the column of chronicles Life as it is ...and Nelson himself collaborated in the construction of the dialogues.

On The Seven Kittens, Neville continues his quizzical interpretation of dramatic situations, now following strictly the theatrical text of Rodrigues and exposing what appears to be the essential: the unfading passions of the flesh against the codes of social and familiar conduct. This feature - paradox behind the burlesque - gives a tragicomic tone to the apparently inelegant narrative form.

Another important work of this second round of Nelson Rodrigues adaptations to the movies is the work of Braz Chediak. Besides second version of Pretty, but ordinary or Otto Lara Rezende (1980) and other important adaptations of other playwrights inspired by the work of Nelson15Chediak filmed: Álbum de Família [Family Album](1981) and Perdoa-me por me traíres (1983) [forgive me for cheating me] (1983).

Perdoa-me (1983) is another "feminist" text of Rodrigues, since it advocates the female pleasure freedom over social conventions, however, we still have the usual universe of moral dilemmas, death, madness and betrayal. Produced by the sons Nelson Rodrigues, the film features musical direction by Robert and Radamés Gnattali, a beautiful song performed by Gal Costa, and Vera Fischer and Lydia Brondi in the leading roles.

There still also two movies in this second cycle of adaptations: Beijo no Asfalto [Kiss on Asphalt] (1980) by Bruno Barreto and A serpente [The Serpent] (1980-82), by Alberto Magno. The Serpent, adapted from a "psychological" play (and not a Rio´s tragedy like most other adaptations), resemble the movies of Ingmar Bergman: symbolic, hermetic, prolix, presenting the situations narrated in repeated archetypal patterns. All the distancing effects are used: theatrical interpretation, strong anti-naturalism of the scenic space, use of props as a commentary over the performances, etc.. Jece Valadão, the actor that is the symbol of the Rodriguean 'macho', surrounded by women, is the epicenter of the narrative. It is a dense and tiring film. Already Kiss on the Asphalt is an action movie, where we see the crossing between the family universe typical in the 'Rio´s tragedy' with the journalistic world and its ethical dilemmas. There is a naturalistic treatment, without major visual elaborations, the dialogues are adapted by Nelson Rodrigues himself.

The third and final round of adaptations for the screen is still ongoing and is composed (so far) by four films – Traição [Betrayal] (1998), Gêmeas [Twins] (1999), Vestido de Noiva [Wedding Dress] (2006), the third version of Pretty, but ordinary (2010) – The short series Life as it is… (1996) - perhaps the best work of Nelson Rodrigues adaptation until today, capable of giving an overview and detailed perspective of his way of thinking, directed by Daniel Filho and Denise Saraceni and produced by TV Globo. The short series - with the curious composition of 39 sketches of eight minutes each- is what initiates this third cycle adaptations for the cinema together with television production.The Rodriguean obsessions emerge from it: the unfaithful husband, the provocative sister-in-law, the suburban husband who is cheated, the obsessive wife, the old pervert, the domineering mother, the woman who likes be beaten up, the spoiled boy, the voyeur journalist.

On the other hand, in this adaptation the perversions and the morals weaken, becoming 'folkloric'. Thanks to the adaptations of the second and third cycles, today, when speaking of Nelson Rodrigues, everyone soon associate him to the erotic and dramatic narratives or pornographic psychoanalysis of the middle class in Rio. But surely he is much more than that. His stories, more than simply cynical narratives of the decadent patriarchal eroticism, prize the obsessive love for truth, the narrator's intent to state a fictional narrative that accounts for the actual lived experience, that reveals the final purposes and explain the hidden intentions of each one. It's easier to see this more philosophical side in two of his earlier plays when he was less 'popular': Vestido de Noiva [Wedding Dress] (1943); Álbum de Família [Family Album] (1946); and Doroteia [Dorothy] (1949).

Wedding dress

Despite the plays written by Oswald de Andrade, there is a consensus among the critics that modern theater in Brazil begins in 1943 with the play Wedding Dress. In the play, narrative takes place simultaneously in three dimensions of space / time - memory, reality and hallucination - in which scenes follow one another. The different plans set side by side were defined through different lighting effects. Thus the narrative was discontinuous and fragmented. Moreover, the protagonist - Alaíde – is with confounded with the narrator several times. The narrative is subjective, not only because sometimes it is memory and sometimes hallucinations, but mainly because it guides the audience towards organizing the puzzle of events. The piece had popular dialogues and featured sound effects, such as using microphones to express the thoughts of the characters (opposing to non-amplified voice expressing speech) or the use of music or recordings (such as the war news on radio or sounds of phones ringing or ambulances). All this was new in 1943. It was as if the language of film entered the theater scene, reinventing the dramatic code - which ensured an unprecedented and consensual success with the public and the critics. However, this very way to make a theater reading of film language - the discontinuous narrative and the subjective narrator - is the main obstacle to the adaptation of the play to audiovisual language, once these bring continuity and display narrative from the public and not from the protagonist.

In the original dramatic narrative, Alaíde could clearly not remember her sister Lucy, who appeared in memory and hallucination covered by a veil. Although theatrical artifices are compared to the 'Freudian censorship' - association which Nelson certainly disapproved - when transposed to the visual languages, the 'woman with the veil' becomes a meaningless allegory, losing its effect of dramatic 'suspense'. In the visual narratives, there is only suspense if there is a common secret between the protagonist and the public. A narrative in which the public knows the secret before the characters is always more complex and difficult to understand. It is the opposite of what happens in Family Album, in which the surprise element was eliminated in the movie adaptation.

Family Album

Family album (1946) was Nelson´s third play, written after the success of Wedding Dress (1943) and it was censored for 19 years. The play represents the beginning of the mythical phase that proceeds the period of the 'Rio´s tragedies'. There is the influence of American playwright Eugene O'Neill and the confrontation with Freudian psychoanalysis. Sabato Magaldi points the play Family Album as a key text, the transition from the psychological to the mythic period:

The dramatic evolution of Nelson inevitably led to diving into the primitive unconsciousness of mankind. A woman without sin was already loaded with psychological objects, just about breaking the barriers of the inner censorship. Wedding Dress pierced the veil of consciousness, to give free rein to fantasies of the subconscious. In the exploration of the deep individual truths, the next step would head towards the establishment of archetypes, myths that lie at the root of our "vital". Teatro Completo , introdução do vol. forces. Unless he betrayed his true vocation, Nelson would really have to write Family Album. Teatro Completo, introduction of vol. 2, peças míticas, p. 2, mythical plays, p.114.

As this text is the most incestuous of the mythical pieces, from which Nelson would be considered an abomination and his theater unpleasant, it is possible to say that it represents an early stage of the Rio de Janeiro´s tragedies in several respects. Family Album is a central text of Rodriguean production, which combines elements of several periods. And it is where Nelson comes closest and at the same time gets the most distant from Freud. The characters are family archetypes: the domineering father, the seductive mother, the perverted children, the straight sister-in-law, the spinster aunt etc.

The subject is incest. Between the daughter and the father, and the sons and the mother. One of the sons, Nono, which realized the act, went crazy, ranway and lives menacingly prowling his parents' home. He never appears on stage, we only hear his cries, and this absence is one of the dramatic forces of the play. In the end, when family collapses, he is the one with which the mother will be in an unexpected happy ending between Oedipus and Jocasta. There is a 'matriarchal solution' to Freudian Oedipus complex!

In Braz Chediak´s adaptation, Nono was materialized, destroying the main axis of the narrative in the theatrical text: the unseen danger haunting the family. Being present, Nono is far less menacing. This mistake has already been repeated in another adaptation of the same group: the movie Pretty but ordinary starts with the protagonist rape, situation that is only mentioned in the play, and only in the middle of the plot. Again, the issue of suspense and language exchange.


Titled an ‘irresponsible farce', Dorothea was adapted here as a Greek tragedy, making the symbolic elements even more archetypal in the most mythical of mythical parts of Nelson Rodrigues.  Dorothea also summarized and updated the plot and the dialogue, maintaining the three fundamental elements of the original idea:

a) female hysteria and the difficulty separating lie and imagination;

b) female resentment pact against patriarchal power and, finally,

c) The structural anatomy of the feminine unconsciousness, constrained between the gruesome goddess and the sensual witch.

Elements such as 'the Jar' were replaced by 'image of the god Apollo', once the author's original intention was to use the idea of 'Jesus Christ', dropped in order to avoid religious protests not directly related to the content expressed by the piece. Some elements remained intact - such as the unbuttoned gaiters; others such as Eusebius earache, were eliminated.

However the most important change, the basis upon which the text is re-interpreted so universal, is the replacement of three cousins by the myth of the Greek Fates16.As the original text does not present much action, all happening in just one place, in the adaptation to comics short stories were added parallel to the narrative backbone proposed by Nelson Rodrigues, that occur in the plane of reality, opposing the main narrative, which takes place in a timeless, mythical dimension. Such additions, changes and deletions of elements and dialogues intent to strengthen the author's original intention, more than to change or reform it by adapting. And, Most importantly, to popularize among the younger audience this which was one of the most resounding theatrical failures of Nelson Rodrigues, but one of his most profound and important texts on the feminine soul in the patriarchal universe.


Today, we may distance to distinguish with the lens of history the similarities between Nelson Rodrigues and the work of Câmara Cascudo e Gilberto Freire. With Freire proximity is more evident and studies about it were done17on the admiration and mutual influence of these authors. Regarding Cascudo, however, the resemblance is less visible and more profound: the use of narrative as explanation of reality.

It is important to be aware of the great innovation in terms of dramatic language introduced by Nelson Rodrigues in different media and that his great contribution to the art of storytelling is showing that we are complicated, ambiguous, and paradoxical beings and that the characters in our stories also should be – in order to better portray us. Falamos uma coisa e fazemos outra. We say one thing and do another. We must recognize. We hide our deepest desires, we fall for what we fear and hate the most.

And that is what we would like to point out with this very brief introduction to the Theatre of unpleasantness and the three comics (or graphic novels - as they say now) you'll read next.