History tell us Brazilians that we were discovered by the Portuguese in 1500. It tells us, too, that our first playhouse was
to appear only after two more centuries, in 1770.
In the 270 years which separate the discovery of Brazil from the opening of the Opera House at Vila Rica, State of Minas Gerais, theatrical performances were a constant in daily life. But they took place on the beaches, in the convents and the churches, in the palaces. The actors, in accordance with the needs and circumstances of the community, were at first found among the indigenous natives, the churchmen, the merchants and the slaves. The establishment of regular theatre groups was made possible by the construction of purpose-built theatres, and later on by the arrival of the Portuguese Court in Brazil.
Yet all was not flowers and applause. Actors, dancers, and above all comedians were regarded as socially inferior, and came up against the prejudices of the ordinary citizen. According to Cavalheiro de Oliveira, this was an inheritance acquired from our colonizing ancestors. "The Portuguese, like the Romans, hold actors in great scorn. Most shameful of all is the profession of comedian, considered lower even than the truly criminal and infamous. Should we need to be convinced of this, it is enough to say that actors were denied burial in consecrated ground, perfectly permissible for high-waymen and crooks".
Early in the 20th century, the slow social ascent of actors came face to face with increasingly empty theatres. Henrique Marinho remarked on this in 1904: "Brazilian theatre is going through a most distressing crisis. The decadence of the theatre is nothing few; it goes back to the second Empire (...). So why do we not offer protection for the theatre; it is the best form of entertainment, and perhaps a powerful aid in the education of the people? Does the Republic favour the Arts less than the Monarchy did? Will the indifference of the Republic allow the theatre to die?
Brazilian theatre has never died. Yet its decline was hastened by the First World War, by the end of the gold rush, the rubber boom, the coffee boom and, above all, the unexpected competition of the cinema.
As cine-theatres multiplied and increased, so playhouses of every sort have multiplied and increased in Brazil. This book limits itself to a restricted period: from the opening of the Opera House in Vila Rica, in 1770, to the opening of the Municipal Theatre of São Paulo, in 1911. Within this period, it tells the story of fourteen of Brazil's great theatres.
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