AuthorSteuernagel, Marcos


In August 2017, during the first year of his short-lived term as mayor of Sao Paulo, Joao Doria mediated an arbitration between billionaire media mogul Silvio Santos and legendary theater director Ze Celso. The footage of this meeting was later made available by Folha de Sao Paulo journalist Monica Bergamo (1) and went on to become the most-watched TV Folha video of that year. (2) The stated purpose of the meeting was to settle a decades-long dispute over the property that surrounds Ze Celso's historic Teatro Oficina, yet the popularity of the video underscores the importance of the characters involved in this very particular scene. A populist TV presenter, Silvio Santos has been a constant presence in Brazilian culture for the last six decades, simultaneously personifying the desire for overnight fortune and the capacity of capital to remain in power regardless of radical changes in the political environment. Ze Celso has served as the director of Teatro Oficina for over six decades; he is one of the very few theater practitioners to have played a prominent role in the counterculture of the 1960s, the resistance to the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985, and the vibrant Brazilian theater scene of the twenty-first century. The arbitrator, Joao Doria, is one of the politicians who most perfectly embodies the perilous alliance between far-right social conservatism and neoliberal business interests so central to the current turn toward the far right, in Brazil and beyond.

Each in his own way, the three characters gathered around this table are particularly enmeshed with the history and the present of the city of Sao Paulo, a metropolis that lives in constant tension between the aesthetic experimentalism of its artists and the conservatism of its financial elites. A dispute centered on the right to property versus the right to radical aesthetics epitomizes the complex layers of the rabid development and gentrification that has marked the city of Sao Paulo for over a century now. Furthermore, the fact that the dispute was being mediated by a politician who had been propelled to prominence by the anti-left movements that have come to define the political landscape not only of Sao Paulo but of the country at large raised the stakes of the meeting. Much more than the fate of one block in the largest city in the Americas, a close reading of the epistemological clash that this meeting represents allows us to better grasp not only over half a century of Sao Paulo history, but also the tensions inherent in Brazil's own version of the global turn toward the far right.


Silvio Santos was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1930, the son of Sephardic Jews who migrated to Brazil in the context of the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. Santos moved to Sao Paulo in the 1950s and began a career in Brazilian television, which was in its very early days. In 1963 he started his own show, the Programa Silvio Santos, the longest-running broadcast television program in Brazil. As he was establishing himself as a TV presenter, Santos also purchased a company called Bau da Felicidade (which literally translates to Happiness Chest), a system through which participants made monthly payments in order to be eligible for prize lotteries. The combination of a populist TV show with a lottery program that quite literally promised happiness was extremely successful. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, thanks to his good relationship with the military government, Santos was finally able to secure the rights to operate his own TV channel, SBT, the second-largest broadcaster in Brazil. Throughout the years, Silvio Santos became famous for segments such as the "Porta da Esperanca" (The Door of Hope), in which he fulfilled the dreams of audience members who would write to his program with requests, and for his iconic catchphrase, "Quem quer dinheiro?" (Who wants money?), which he would repeat before throwing cash paper airplanes to his all-female audiences. Throughout the decades, Grupo Silvio Santos continued to diversify its portfolio, expanding its business into furniture, cosmetics, a financial bank, and real estate.

While Silvio Santos was writing the history of popular televised entertainment, Ze Celso's Teatro Oficina was changing the trajectory of Brazilian theater. Jose Celso Martinez Correa was born in Araraquara in 1937 and started practicing theater while a law school student at the Universidade de Sao Paulo. In the late 1950s, Ze Celso was part of a wave of young people who were striving to find alternative models for theater within the intense nationalism that influenced all genres of artistic practice in Brazil. Influenced by the Teatro Brasileiro de Comedia (TBC)--the first truly professional modern theater company in Brazil--and a contemporary of Augusto Boal's Teatro de Arena, Teatro Oficina was founded in 1958.

Oficina's first production, Vento Forte Para Um Papagaio Subir (Strong Wind to Fly a Kite) opened in the Teatro Novos Comediantes, at Rua Jaceguai 520, in the Sao Paulo neighborhood of Bixiga. In 1961, when they became a professional theater company, Oficina took on a long-term lease of the very same theater, two blocks down from TBC, and just a little further from Arena. As Carila Matzenbacher (3) argues in her thesis on the several stages of the architecture of Teatro Oficina, the history of Brazilian theater is ingrained with the history of Bixiga. A former quilombo of African slaves, Bixiga was later populated by hand laboring immigrants, mostly Italians, who lived and worked there, resulting in a large number of townhouses that doubled as storefronts. The cheap real estate in what was then "the periphery of the center of Sao Paulo" (4) lent itself particularly well to spaces being converted into theaters. (5) Today, Bixiga is home to over 900 historical buildings, at least a third of all the preserved sites of historical interest, (6) and the largest number of theater spaces (7) in the city of Sao Paulo.

Although Teatro Oficina has been in the same location for over sixty years now, the internal architecture of the space has gone through three distinct configurations, all implemented by prestigious Brazilian architects and scenic designers. The first Teatro Oficina was designed by Joaquim Guedes. (8) Given the restrictions of the narrow building, Guedes developed a stage flanked by two bleachers, facing each other. Thus, regardless of the scene being played out, half of the audience always served as a background to the other half, subverting the conventional separation between stage and audience. Teatro Oficina enjoyed significant success in its early years, in the context of a vigorous period for Brazilian theater, until the inside of the building was completely destroyed by a fire in 1966.

The second Teatro Oficina was built by Flavio Imperio, one of the founders of the Arquitetura Nova group who was later involved with the Tropicalia movement. Inspired by Brecht's Berliner Ensemble, which Ze Celso had visited in 1965, Imperio replaced the double bleachers with a frontal theater, yet stripped of the structures that traditionally create the illusion of the fourth wall. The struggle to rebuild Oficina, however, was about much more than the fire. The force with which the Brazilian middle class had supported the 1964 military coup had a profound effect on Ze Celso. While construction was underway, Oficina was looking for a play that would not only reopen the theater but in a sense mark the rebirth of the group itself. This is when Ze Celso came across Oswald de Andrade's O Rei da Vela (9) (The Candle King) which, thirty years after its publication, had never been staged.

At the time, Andrade was best known for his 1928 Manifesto Antropofago (10) (Anthropophagic Manifesto), in which he declared that the only thing that unites Brazilians is cannibalism. In line with the aesthetic brashness of the early twentieth century avant-gardes, Andrade claimed the anthropophagous for Brazil, playfully inverting the position the cannibal had occupied in the European imaginary as the ultimate symbol of barbaric violence and backwardness. Andrade proposed a rehabilitation of the primitive, yet one that emphasized not the good but the bad savage, the one who devours the foreigner, thus digestively dismantling binary oppositions between colonizer and colonized. As Maria Candida Ferreira de Almeida argues, by making the cannibal the transforming subject, both social and collective, Andrade produced a rereading not only of Brazilian history but of Western tradition itself." Oficinas O Rei da Vela opened in 1967, amid a radical resurgence of Andrade's anthropophagy in Brazilian culture, a movement that reached across diverse artistic genres and that was broadly categorized under the umbrella of Tropicalia. The year of 1967 saw the premiere of Glauber Rochas highly influential Terra em Transe, the Nova Objetividade Brasileira exhibit--featuring Helio Oiticicas environmental installation Tropicalia as well as Lygia Clark's sensorial masks--and the performances of Caetano Veloso's "Alegria, Alegria" and Gilberto Gil's "Domingo no Parque" at the TV Record Musical Festival. (12) Yet the most thorough effort to embody Andrade's anthropophagic metaphors in performance was Teatro Oficinas production. (13)

Ze Celso later argued that Oficinas earlier work already carried within it a desire to break with a feature of Brazilian art he identified as "a well-behaved aspect, a metric, a quality of being a colony, being submissive, being a servant." (14) Yet it was only in O Rei da Vela that they were able to fully break with the bourgeoise conventions that had dominated the first phase of Teatro Oficina. In his seminal essay "Culture and Politics in Brazil, 1964-1969," Roberto Schwarz contrasts two of the most potent theatrical responses to the...

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