By Joe Lopes
February 24, 2009
The Play’s the Thing!
Nostalgia and the fog of remembrance often blind us to the reality of what life was like for the poor of the poet’s time. So let’s not mince words: it was exceedingly rough. The unrelieved harshness of their hand-to-mouth existence, so close in proximity to Sin City’s Mount Olympus-like natural wonders, compelled many of Rio’s neediest to huddle for shelter alongside its hilltop communities.
Finding misery as well as comfort in each other’s company, they were nonetheless sandwiched in like sardines in makeshift corrugated shacks. Sadly, the horrendous living conditions frequently mimicked the horrendous behavior of some of the favela’s residents, including the local constabulary charged with providing for their well-being.
Poverty and hunger, rampant corruption and out-of-control crime, child abuse, drugs, prostitution, broken homes, and juvenile delinquency – problems we deal with daily whether they be on the streets of Philadelphia and in the slums of Mumbai – were the unfortunate outgrowth of this dysfunction and neglect.
Vinicius was not unmindful of such matters, as we know, nor was he at all ignorant of the turbulence endemic to the warlike ethos of Orpheus’ era. With a firm nod in the direction of Euripides, the best of the Athenian playwrights, he was able to transpose many of the starkest elements of Greek drama – repositioning them against everyday Brazilian slum life – whole scale into his Tragdia carioca em trs atos.
This is an important distinction, as elaborated on by Professor Thais Flores Nogueira Diniz of the Federal University of Ouro Preto, in her essay, O Mito como traduão, em Vinicius de Moraes” (“Myth as Translation in Vinicius de Moraes”). The play, she writes, is a celebration of Rio de Janeiro culture, not Greek culture; and Orfeu, an individual with so-called “special qualities,” is both an un-godlike non-hero and quasi-immortal with his own tragic story to tell.
Oscar Niemeyer, the original set designer (who incidentally marked his stage debut with this piece), and a master of curvilinear shapes and forms, was himself strongly influenced by classical antiquity, as was Lila Bscoli de Moraes and her designs for the beautifully captivating gowns. Beyond this, Niemeyer’s plans for Brazil’s futuristic new capital city – by filling its “vast empty space” with “sensuous white curves in glass and concrete” – were the visible manifestation of what Jobim and de Moraes aurally tried to provide with their epicurean taste in tunes.
Orfeu da Conceião is dedicated to Vinicius’ daughter, Susana de Moraes, and prefaced by two literary quotations referencing the mythological poet-minstrel and his lyre: the first from John Dryden’s “Ode in Honour of St. Cecilia’s Day,” and the second from “La Crema” by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
There next comes a series of directives, the most informative of which stress that, “All the personages of this tragedy should be played by black actors. The popular slang employed throughout, which fluctuates with the times, can be adapted to fit these new conditions. The music and lyrics should be used as is, although the play can be altered in the same manner as the slang.” Carlos Diegues later took Vinicius’ injunction to update his story “to fit these new conditions” literally, and to its ultimate extreme.
A recapitulation of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, excerpted from The Golden Legend of Gods and Heroes by Mario Meunier – apparently the inspirational source for the Carioca’s imagination – follows a listing of the play’s dramatis personae. Orpheus, the offspring of Apollo, the god of clarity, reason and light, represents the duality present in all artists and their art. A serious figure, as well as an adventurer and inveterate skirt-chaser – until he meets up with the lovely tree-nymph Eurydice – he is a musician and a poet of surpassing skill and grace whose melodic inventions caused the very birds of the air to give pause before taking flight.
Musician and poet Vinicius de Moraes knew the type only too well. As we have seen, he telegraphed those qualities he found within himself by expressing (as Caetano Veloso, in a brush with purple prose, once cleverly put it) his soul’s “sweetly tragic aspects through music” and verse. Nine times married, as opposed to his songwriting partner’s lowly two, and a sensualist right down to the marrow in his bones, he successfully transitioned to the theater platform via an extraordinary leap of faith in the untested Tom Jobim, who with a thin veneer of confidence at his disposal had the wherewithal to make it all happen.
While it’s tempting, I admit, to equate an artist’s past or present experiences with his completed projects, or to read too much into them (that, of course, would be too simplistic for anyone to do), there are many instances in Vinicius’ “Carioca tragedy in three acts” where one gets the uneasy feeling the actual events of his sybaritic existence were being staged for our amusement and gratification – an uncomfortable reenactment of the poet-musician’s life as a voluptuary, i.e. a person “given over to luxury and the pursuit of sensual appetites.”
Hot-blooded Latin temperaments blend flawlessly with Aegean passion and lust in the play’s lengthy first act, which takes place in a hillside slum. After the opening speech by the leader of the chorus, and an expository sequence between Clio and Apolo, Orfeu’s parents, the title character wanders in with Eurdice’s name on his lips. There’s a scene for mother and son, in which Clio begs him to forget about marriage (“You can have any girl”), along with a passage wherein she warns Orfeu not to provoke the jealousy of other women – advice unheeded by our hero.
The object of his affection soon arrives. The lovers trade terms of endearment, while Eurdice half-jokingly confides that she is dead from love of Orfeu (prophetic words indeed). He in turn calls her the “beauty of life,” among other amorous declarations, in the famous monologue that follows (with its gorgeous guitar and flute accompaniment, it is the closest thing in the play to an aria). His poetic ruminations provoke the ire of Mira, his jealous ex-girlfriend. In their angry exchange, Orfeu reveals heretofore-untapped levels of macho posturing: he’s notorious, among other things, for his uncontrollable temper towards his women.
In addition to the above incidents, there are numerous references to the plight of the impoverished (“Poor folk don’t marry,” his mother implores him, “they just live together”), Eurdice’s premeditated stabbing by the envious Aristeu (soon after Orfeu’s deflowering of her maidenhood), and the infernal ravings of Dama Negra, a terrifying harbinger of death, who at the curtain claims Eurdice’s lifeless form with her huge mantle.
Act Two occurs in the nether-regions of the city, here depicted as a combination dance palace and single’s bar called Os Maiorais do Inferno, or “The Big Shots from Hell,” where the biggest shots of all, Plutão (“Pluto”) and his obese queen Prosrpina (“Persephone”), preside over an all-out Bacchanalian orgy of wine, women and samba. The act is primarily taken up with Orfeu’s crashing of the Carnival revelers’ party, his drowning of his own sorrows, and his pathetic cries of “Eurdice, I want my Eurdice,” first evidenced in Act One and now duly mocked (“We are Eurdice”) by the taunting denizens of the club.
Act Three is in two scenes. In the first, which is reminiscent of the communal outpouring of grief in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, we are back at the slum. Orfeu’s parents and friends are in mourning for the dead Eurdice. Individual voices recite an irreverent form of the Roman Catholic Creed (a hint of Orfeu’s “divine” nature), with the hero curiously at its epicenter. One by one, the slum dwellers recall the couple’s sad tale of woe. Several of the townspeople take the inconsolable Clio away to a waiting ambulance, the drivers of which stubbornly refuse to come up the hill (for fear of their lives). The delirious Clio blames Eurdice for all the trouble she has brought to her son and their once “happy” community.
The scene now shifts outside to a house of ill repute on the outskirts of town. Mira is seen drinking and picking a fight with a patron. A bewildered Orfeu appears. He walks around in a perpetual daze and speaks to his departed Eurdice as if she were still with him. His attitude and behavior rekindle the drunken Mira’s wrath, as she and the other enraged women fall upon their hapless prey. They attack with all the fury of females scorned, slicing and dicing him up with their knives and switchblades.
Relief comes in the ghostly apparition of Dama Negra, who entices Orfeu to join her in death by imitating Eurdice’s love call. Orfeu resigns himself to his fate, as the women pounce upon him one last time. Emerging from the bloodletting with the hero’s guitar in hand, Mira flings it over the cement wall. The violence comes to an end in the same manner as before, with Dama Negra claiming Orfeu’s corpse with her cape amid the soft sounds of his guitar, mysteriously playing on its own in the background. The curtain falls on the chorus’ spoken apotheosis.
The most striking thing about these episodes is how little they have in common with Marcel Camus’ rosy-eyed vistas of Rio, circa 1959: no streetcar-conducting lead; no enchanting ferryboat ride; no colorful costume pageant, as such; no return and parting of Orfeu’s lost love; and no voodoo mumbo-jumbo, either. Dama Negra does get to perform a bit of macumba during portions of Act One; oh, and Cerberus, the guardian canine of the realm, puts in a guest howl at the second-act dance club.
Otherwise in Camus’ “grand illusion of Carnival,” Orfeu is not torn to shreds by an angry mob of whores but instead falls off a steep cliff holding on to his expired love, after being knocked on the head with a rock by Mira.
In this respect, Diegues’ 1999 re-filming comes closest to the poet’s original intentions, capturing the systemic violence of the hilltop slum that was markedly absent from Camus’ sanitized concept. That said, neither picture even remotely approaches Orfeu da Conceião’s lyric foundation, its soul-stirring poetic imagery, or its refinement and classical construct. If the piece intermittently betrays melodramatic overtones, seriously over-playing its hand when it comes to the emotional and physical state of the title character’s suffering and distress – think Milton’s Samson Agonistes – Jobim’s perfectly-limned musical responses keep it from wallowing in its own excess.
Factor in a whopping Fat Tuesday celebration and a healthy dollop of Afro-Brazilian dance sequences, choreographed by the debuting Lina de Luca, and voil: you have the makings of a total work of art, a stunning realization encompassing a veritable periodic table of theatrical elements – “music, poetry, drama, scenic and lighting design, and dance” – with all the pomp and majesty (as well as the flaws) inherent in that much-maligned term “opera,” or, in this case, “drama with music,” which is probably a more accurate description.
All the World’s a Stage.No, Really It Is
Should we continue to hold out hope, then, that Orfeu might one day be restored to his proper place on the world stage? Anything is possible, if the opportunity were ever to arise. (Broadway producers, take note.) But, as we have tirelessly strived to point out to readers, de Moraes was catastrophically put in the awkward position of having to bear witness to the cinematic “decimation” of his most-prized work.
The record clearly shows that Vinicius walked out on the premiere of Camus’ Black Orpheus, the first of two film adaptations. Perhaps the poet was stunned by the palantir-like glimpse he was afforded of the future misdirection of his country; where it was headed, and how those in the public trust conspired to have it so – that’s an awfully big maybe, however. Of one thing we are certain: the vision sickened him right down to his gut, so that he lashed out in the only way an artist of his standing could lash out: by taking the “law” into his hands (or his feet, as the situation demanded).
In defense of his own modern take on the tale, director Diegues took care not to offend the easily disturbed ghost of the playwright’s past: “In the original play there’s a poem in which Vinicius says that everything in the world dies except for Orpheus’ art, which is forever – and I tried to visualize that.” The actual lines, which are given to the members of the chorus and form the play’s philosophical conclusion, vary somewhat from his recollection but are no less inspiring:
Para matar Orfeu não basta a Morte.
Tudo morre que nasce e que viveu
Só não morre no mundo a voz de Orfeu.
To kill Orfeu, Death is not enough.
Everything that is born and lives must die
In the world only Orfeu’s voice lives on.
– Vinicius de Moraes, in the Conclusion to Orfeu da Conceião, 1956
It is incumbent upon us to insist that, even if the country itself were to fall off a cliff – which it very nearly did at key moments in its recent history – Orfeu’s voice (and, by implication, Brazil’s music) would continue to live on in the world as well.
One of Vinicius’ closest friends and allies, contemporary writer and poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, offered this discerning opinion of the artist: he was “the only Brazilian poet,” Drummond maintained, “who dared to live under the sign of passion. That is, of poetry in its natural state.” Orfeu da Conceião, de Moraes’ most ambitious literary creation, was the fulfillment of this sign of passion, his poetic and unvarnished imitation of slum life in its natural state. God help the person who came between him and that vision.
In Lucia Nagib’s Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia, the learned author goes into excruciating detail on the “natural state” of writer-filmmaker Carlos Diegues’ vision for Orfeu. One scene, in particular, has special significance for us:
“As the film draws to a close, the favela hill returns to its everyday violence after the ‘great illusion of carnival’ [sic] is over, as sung in ‘Felicidade,’ a song by Jobim and Vinicius, delivered with innocent simplicity by Jobim’s adolescent daughter, Maria Luiza Jobim, who plays a minor role in the film.”
The opening line of that song, which happens to fit in perfectly with this chapter’s main heading – and which is also the first to be heard in the French-made Black Orpheus – is simplicity itself yet speaks volumes of the illusory effect the annual ritual of Carnival has on the lives of the poor:
Tristeza não tem fim
A felicidade do pobre parece
A grande ilusão do carnaval
A gente trabalha o ano inteiro
Por um momento de sonho
Pra fazer a fantasia
De rei ou de pirata ou jardineira
Pra tudo se acabar na quarta-feira
Sadness has no end
A poor man’s happiness is like
The great illusion of Carnival
You work all year long
For a brief fulfillment of a dream
To play the part of
A gardener, a pirate or a king
Only to have it end on Wednesday morning
What can’t be deemed an “illusion” is Carnival’s restorative power; how its raw, incessant energy seems to electrify every one of the participants gathered, in spite of four solid days of nonstop action and fun. After a highly favored Samba School falls to a lesser parade rival, the drums quickly go silent as the crowds begin to disperse. You’re awakened from “a brief fulfillment” of the dream that was Carnival to the reality at hand.
It’s not a pretty sight: all those drained and disappointed bodies and faces. But hey, there’s always next year, which is another way of saying that “happiness” will return to them – in some way, shape or form – se Deus quiser (“God willing”), a common Brazilian expression, along with the other assorted rituals of one’s life: birth, death, anniversaries, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and what have you.
Life has a continuous ebb and flow – a beginning and an end – and “sadness” is just an orderly part of that flow, catalogued and classified, for all time, by the movie Black Orpheus, the music of bossa nova, and the fortuitous teaming of Jobim with de Moraes, the incomparable partnership that started it all.
Here’s one ritual, though, we might want to set by the wayside: if there is anyone out there who winds up in the same, awkward position a certain temperamental Brazilian poet once found himself in, let him declare, here and now, he will not run out of the theater.no matter what happens inside.
Copyright 2009 by Josmar F. Lopes
A naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, Joe Lopes was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.
To read previous articles by Joe Lopes click below:
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 16
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 15
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 14
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 13
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 12
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 11
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 10
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 9
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 8
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 7
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 6
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 5
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 4
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 3
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 2
Brazil: “Tristeza Não Tem Fim” (“Sadness Has No End”) Part 1
Brecht, Weill & Buarque: The Brazilian Play’s the Thing! Part 3
Brazil: “Opera” in the Amazon – Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, or The Madness of Foreign Men Part 4
Brazil: “Opera” in the Amazon – Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, or The Madness of Foreign Men Part 3
Brazil: “Opera” in the Amazon – Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, or The Madness of Foreign Men Part 2
Brazil: “Opera” in the Amazon – Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, or The Madness of Foreign Men Part 1
The Brazilian Beat Goes On: My Own “Best-Of” List of Present-Day Bossa Nova Classics Part 5
The Brazilian Beat Goes On: My Own “Best-Of” List of Present-Day Bossa Nova Classics Part 4
The Brazilian Beat Goes On: My Own “Best-Of” List of Present-Day Bossa Nova Classics Part 3
The Brazilian Beat Goes On: My Own “Best-Of” List of Present-Day Bossa Nova Classics Part 2
The Brazilian Beat Goes On: My Own “Best-Of” List of Present-Day Bossa Nova Classics Part 1
Brazil: The “Italian” Composer from Campinas Part 4
Brazil: The “Italian” Composer from Campinas Part 3
Brazil: The “Italian” Composer from Campinas Part 2
Brazil: The “Italian” Composer from Campinas Part 1
Bringing People Together: Electronic Voyages to Brazil Part 6
Bringing People Together: Electronic Voyages to Brazil Part 5
Bringing People Together: Electronic Voyages to Brazil Part 4
Bringing People Together: Electronic Voyages to Brazil Part 3
Bringing People Together: Electronic Voyages to Brazil Part 2
Bringing People Together: Electronic Voyages to Brazil Part 1
Brecht, Weill & Buarque: The Brazilian Play’s the Thing! Part 2
Misunderstanding Brazil’s National Anthem: A Crash-Course in the Hymn of the Nation
Brecht, Weill & Buarque: The Brazilian Play’s the Thing! Part 1
Theater, the Brecht of Life: The Influences on Chico’s “Modern” Street Opera, Part II
A Walk on the Weill Side: The Influences on Chico’s “Modern” Street Opera Part 2
A Walk on the Weill Side: The Influences on Chico’s “Modern” Street Opera Part 1
Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 5
Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 4
Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 3
Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 2
Heitor Villa-Lobos: The Brazilian Bach Part 1
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 11
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 10
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 9
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 8
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 7
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 6
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 5
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 4
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 3
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 2
Two Brazilian Charmers Part 1
Teaching English In Brazil Part 21
Teaching English In Brazil Part 20
Teaching English In Brazil Part 19
Teaching English In Brazil Part 18
Teaching English In Brazil Part 17
Teaching English In Brazil Part 16
Teaching English In Brazil Part 15
Teaching English In Brazil Part 14
Teaching English In Brazil Part 13
Teaching English In Brazil Part 12
Teaching English In Brazil Part 11
Brazil: Thrills, Spills, and… Oh Yes, No Ifs, Ands or Head-Butts, Please
Teaching English In Brazil Part 10
Teaching English In Brazil Part 9
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 4
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 4
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 3
Brazilian World Cup Debacle: Just Wait Till 2010! Part 2
Brazilian World Cup Debacle: Just Wait Till 2010! Part 1
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 3
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 2
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 2
Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians Part 1
Brazil: Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings Part 1
Teaching English In Brazil Part 8
Teaching English In Brazil Part 7
Teaching English In Brazil Part 6
Teaching English In Brazil Part 5
Teaching English In Brazil Part 4
Teaching English In Brazil Part 3
Teaching English In Brazil Part 2
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 4
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 3
Teaching English In Brazil – Part I
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 2
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest Part 1
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 3
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 2
“Down in Brazil,” with Michael Franks Part 1
Brazil: A Candid Talk with Gerald Thomas
Getting to the “bottom” of Brazil’s Gerald Thomas
A Brazilian Diva Torn Between Europe and Brazil
The Enraged Genius of Brazil’s Maestro Neschling
A German Ring in the Brazilian Rainforest
Brazil’s Musical Polyglots: What Was That You Were Singing?
Did Bossa Nova Kill Opera in Brazil?