Nelson Rodrigues

Nelson Rodrigues

Nelson Falcão Rodrigues (born in Recife Northeast of Brazil August 23, 1912 – December 21, 1980) was a Brazilian playwright, journalist and novelist. In 1943, he helped usher in a new era in Brazilian theater with his play Vestido de Noiva (The Wedding Dress), considered revolutionary for the complex exploration of its characters' psychology and its use of colloquial dialog. He went on to write many other seminal plays and today is widely regarded as Brazil's greatest playwright.


Early life and work

Nelson Rodrigues was born on August 23, 1912 in Recife, the capital of the Brazilian state of Pernambuco (Northeast of Brazil), to Mario Rodrigues, a journalist, and his wife, Maria Esther Falcão. In 1916, the family moved to Rio de Janeiro after Mario ran into trouble for criticizing a powerful local politician. In Rio, Mario rose through the ranks of one of the city's major newspaper and, in 1925, launched his own newspaper, a sensationalist daily. By fourteen Nelson was covering the police beat for his father; by fifteen he had dropped out of school; and by sixteen he was writing his own column. The family's economic situation improved steadily, allowing them to move from lower-middle class Zona Norte to what was then the exclusive neighborhood of Copacabana.

In less than two years the family's fortunes would be reversed spectacularly. In 1929, older brother Roberto, a talented graphic artist, was shot and killed at the newspaper offices by a society lady who objected to the salacious coverage of her divorce. Devastated by his son's death, Mario Rodrigues died a few months later of a stroke, and shortly after that the family newspaper was closed by military forces supporting the Revolution of 1930, which the newspaper had fiercely opposed in its editorials. The ensuing years were dark ones for the Rodrigues family, and Nelson and his brothers were forced to seek work at rival newspapers for low wages. To make matters worse, in 1934 Nelson was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that plagued him, on an off, for the next ten years.

During this time Rodrigues held various jobs including comic strip editor, sports columnists and opera critic. In 1941, he wrote his first play A Mulher Sem Pecado (The Woman Without Sin), to mixed reviews. His following play, Vestido de Noiva (The Wedding Dress), was hailed as a watershed in Brazilian theater and is considered among his masterpieces. It began a fruitful collaboration with Polish émigré director Zbigniew Ziembinski, who is reported to have said on reading The Wedding Dress, "I am unaware of anything in world theater today that resembles this." In the play, set while the female chief character is hit by a car in the street and undergoes surgery, the stage is divided in three planes: one for real life action happening around the character, another for her memories, a third for her dying hallucinations. As the three planes overlap, actual reality melds with memory and delusion.[1]

Rodrigues's next play, 1946 Álbum de família (Family Album)- the chronicle of a semi-mythical family living outside society and mired in incest, rape and murder - was so controversial that it was censored and only allowed to be staged 21 years later.

In all, Rodrigues wrote 17 full-length plays. They include Toda Nudez Será Castigada (All Nudity Shall Be Punished), Dorotéia, and Beijo no Asfalto (The Asphalt Kiss, or, better, The Kiss on Asphalt[2]), all considered classics of the Brazilian stage. His plays are frequently divided in three groups: Psychological, mythical and Carioca tragedies. In his Carioca tragedies Rodrigues explored the lives of Rio’s lower-middle class, a population never deemed worthy of the stage before Rodrigues. From the beginning his plays shocked audiences and attracted the attention of censors.

In spite of his success as a playwright, Rodrigues never dedicated himself exclusively to theater. In the 1950s, besides writing the hugely successful column A Vida Como Ela É (Life As It Is), he also wrote soap operas, movie scripts, and novels. In the 1960s and 70s he became a well-known TV persona and sports commentator. During this period, Rodrigues relished his role as an iconoclast and had running feuds with major figures of the Brazilian Left and Right.

Controversies, literary and political

Much of Rodrigues's career was filled with controversy, a state of affairs he often courted and even relished. He called his theater "the theater of the unpleasant" and had an almost messianic conviction that it was his duty to hold a mirror up to society's hypocrisies and to expose the darkness in the audience's heart.[3] "We must fill the stage with murderers, adulterers, madmen; in short, we must fire a salvo of monsters at the audience," he said. "They are our monsters, which we will temporarily free ourselves from only to face another day".[4]According to the critic Paulo Francis Rodrigues' constant subject-matter was simple: "human beings are prisioners of irresistible passions, taken as shameful by society [...] and usually punished [...] Nelson was a moral conservative, with a talent for depicting emotions down the waist".[5]

Early on, conservatives labeled him as a "pervert" for his nearly obsessive exploration of sexual taboos (adultery, homosexuality, incest) in his plays, novels and columns. However, as various critics have remarked, Rodrigues' theater and narrative fiction partake of a deeply felt conservative streak shared by other Modernist Brazilian writers (Raul Pompéia, Octavio de Faria, Lúcio Cardoso, among others) a moral anguish before modern society and the menaces offered by it to traditional religiosity and morals: the flaunting of traditional sexual taboos, specially, being felt as sharply increasing an awareness of moral guilt for living in a society felt as increasingly amoral,[6] where the old hierarchies and taboos were being actively destroyed. An anguish for order that could be summarized by Rodrigues' famous quote: "all women like a beating" (Toda mulher gosta de apanhar).[7] During the 1960s, Rodrigues was to write that giving room for the young to offer opinion was to turn society upside down, and that Betty Friedan should be locked in a mental institution.[8]

It was exactly this implicit awareness of the immorality of existing social relations that didn't endear Nelson Rodrigues to fellow conservatives: after reading Album de Família, his close friend, the poet Manuel Bandeira, offered him the advice to try his hand at writing about "normal people".[9] In the early 1950s, the myth of Rodrigues as pervert bogey was already well settled: in 1953, the maverick rightist politician Carlos Lacerda compared excerpts from Rodrigues' column to the Communist Manifesto to "prove" that Rodrigues's column was part of a Communist conspiracy to subvert family values;[10] in 1957, a conservative Rio de Janeiro councilman, present at the opening night of Rodrigues' play Perdoa-me por me traíres (Forgive me for Cuckolding me) pointed a gun at the applauding audience for condoning what he regarded as an immoral play.[11] During the military dictatorship, Rodrigues' 1966 novel O Casamento, about a middle-aged businessman who gradually realizes his incestuous love towards his daughter on the eve of her wedding, was withdrawn from circulation by government censorship for alleged indecency.

As a playwright, Rodrigues is frequently considered a realist, mostly on account of the self-acknowledged influence exerted on him by the dramatic work of Eugene O'Neill.[12] Actually, in terms of style, Rodrigues' work is a kind of belatedly Expressionism, combining an appearance of empirical reality (the accurate portrayal of small everyday happenings and the use of the contemporary Brazilian vernacular) surrounding a kernel of mythologized, intense and unrealistic - to the point of "cartoonish absurdity"[13] - psychological dramatic action.[14] In it, the viewpoint is always that of the small man who acts as the writer's alter ego, with his "obtuse, fanatic, delirious obsessions"[15] - the small man of the 1950s Rio de Janeiro lower middle-class,who, as Rodrigues himself, had "a single suit, a single pair of shoes",[16] and was torn between the longing for a lost moral order - specially, when a male, to the threat posed to his authority by the incipient female emancipation fostered by the development of a urban milieu and its possibilities of unwitnessed encounters[17] and his (or hers) sexual drives.

It was this petit-bourgeois, almost lumpen viewpoint, that explained Rodrigues' antipathy towards the higher middle-cass intelligentsia that made much of the political Left of the period ("I'm not moved by marches of the ruling classes", was he to say before a march of protesters against the military dictatorship[18]).Conversely, for those Brazilian writers that equated modernism in literature with support for social change, Rodrigues' longings for a lost old order made it impossible to accept the reality of his formal innovations: for the great modernist Oswald de Andrade, Rodrigues' literature was "nothing but a wretched newspaper feuilleton", and Rodrigues himself "an ill-educated, [albeit] illustrious, pervert".[19] However, in 1962, Rodrigues' 1958 play Boca de Ouro (The Golden Mouth) - the tragedy of a mobster of the illegal Brazilian animal lottery (jogo do bicho) known for his set of gold false teeth, hence the title - was to be adapted to the screen by leftist director Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who tried to meld Rodrigues' moralizing streak with Brechtian social drama and American mob film.[20]

A fervent, spontaneous anticommunist already before the military coup d'etat of 1964, Rodrigues was generally regarded as apolitical before the dictatorship, during which he was to engage in constant clashes and running feuds with the Left. During much of the 1960s and early 1970s, he included incendiary attacks in his newspaper column against various opponents of the dictatorship—a list that ranged from leaders of leftist movements and guerrilla organizations to the bishop of Olinda Helder Câmara and the Catholic literary critic Alceu de Amoroso Lima, eventually leading charges of being an apologist for the dictatorship. One of his collections of articles - where he offered, in an almost daily basis, an exquisite mix of adulation for the dictatorship[21] and denunciation of allegedly communist plots [22]-he proudly titled O Reacionário (The Reactionary).

His support for the dictatorship, however, was by no means unconditional. In 1968, he participated in an anti-censorship rally to protest the closing of eight plays by the military censors, and undersigned a petition that formally requested that such censorship be rescinded.[23] He also successfully intervened to help release well-known leftist Helio Pellegrino from jail and testified at a military tribunal in favor of jailed student activist Wladimir Palmeira.[24] He managed to keep among his friends several people who were confirmed leftists at the time, people like theater director Augusto Boal, actor and black activist Abdias do Nascimento, and filmmaker Arnaldo Jabor.[25]

In his later years, such support for the dictatorship was tempered by the arrest and torture of his son, a militant opponent of the regime. In one of his last political interventions, he asked for a general amnesty of political prisoners.[26] Afterwards, in poor health and unable to write during most of the late 1970s, Rodrigues died in 1980 in Rio de Janeiro.

After his death, landmark productions of his plays in the 1980s and '90s as well as the publication of several collections of his writings, helped secure his reputation as a great playwright and literary figure.


  1. ^ See
  2. ^ The title refers to the action, at the beginning of the play, of the main character, a man who tries to help another male - another dying victim, as in "The Wedding Dress", of hit-and-run - who asks for a last kiss on the mouth. What follows is the wrecking of the character's life after this public display of supposedly homossexual behaviour
  3. ^ Cf. Ruy Castro, O Anjo Pornografico, São Paulo: Cia. das Letras, 1992,p 213
  4. ^ ibid, 273
  5. ^ Quoted by Vinicius da Silva Rodrigues, "Os temas fundamentais de Nelson Rodrigues em a vida como ela é e a construção do 'autor-personagem-de-si-mesmo'". BA monograph, UFRGS, Porto Alegre, 2009, available at [1]
  6. ^ Cf., e.g., Denilson Lopes e Ana Maria de Bulhões Carvalho,"Uma Problemática Gay na Literatura Brasileira: Os Séculos XIX e XX", paper for the Program for Advanced Studies in Contemporary Culture, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, available at [2]
  7. ^ For the origins of this famous tag, see [3]; for Rodrigues, "nothing can be more frustrating to women that a liberty they haven't asked for, don't want and in which they find no achievement"- quoted by Adriana Facina, Santos e canalhas: uma análise antropológica da obra de Nelson Rodrigues, Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2004, 285; ISBN 85-200-0657-4 , partially available online at [4]
  8. ^ Cf. Adriana Facina, Santos e Canalhas, 249-250
  9. ^ As told by Sabato Magaldi, quoted by José Fernando Marques de Freitas Filho, "A Comicidade da Desilusão: o humor nas tragédias cariocas de Nelson Rodrigues", M.Sc. dissertation, Brasília University, 1997, page 8, available at [5]
  10. ^ Cf. Karine Klaussen Vannuchi, "O jornalismo de Nelson Rodrigues: a crônica como espaço de intervenção no mundo social", M.Sc.Dissertation, Fluminense Federal University, available at [6], page 77
  11. ^ Paulo Francis, Diário Carioca, August the 25th. 1957, reproduced in George Moura, O Soldado Fanfarrão, Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 1997, ISBN 85-7302-089-X , page.170
  12. ^ Cf. Maria Inez Martinez de Resende, "A Vida como ela é: um fenômeno comunicacional", M.Sc dissertation, São Paulo State University, page 40 available at [7]
  13. ^ Cf. the unsympathetic comment of an American journalist: Colin Brayton, "Nelson Rodrigues: High Melodrama and the Snickering Neighbours", [8] who sums up by describing Rodrigues' text as "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"
  14. ^ Eudinyr Fraga, Nelson Rodrigues expressionista, São Paulo: Ateliê Editorial, 1998, ISBN 85-85851-53-8 , partially available at [9]; [10]
  15. ^ Rodrigues, O remador de Ben-Hur: Confissões Culturais. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1996,77 quoted by Ângela Maria Dias, "Nelson Rodrigues e o Rio de Janeiro: memórias de um passional", Alea vol.7 no.1 Rio de Janeiro Jan/June 2005 , available at [11]. The metaphor equating the writer with a "Rower from Ben Hur", was one of the obsessive similes that were to reappear again and again in Rodrigues' work
  16. ^ Rodrigues, O remador de Ben-Hur, 119
  17. ^ Beatriz Polidori Zechlinski, " 'A vida como ela é...': imagens do casamento e do amor em Nelson Rodrigues", Cadernos Pagu no. 29 Campinas July/Dec. 2007, available at [12]
  18. ^ A cabra vadia, São Paulo: Cia. das Letras, 1995, 175
  19. ^ Oswald de Andrade, "O analfabeto coroado de louros", Correio da Manhã, June 8, 1952, available at [13]
  20. ^ Cf. Ismail Xavier, O Olhar e a Cena, São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 2003, ISBN 85-7503-231-3, Chapter 8; partially available at [14]
  21. ^ His most exquisite eulogies were those for President Garrastazú Médici, which he praised as "a profile fit for a coin, a banknote, a seal[...] our first tall president" ("Nomes e Homens", chronicle, available at [15]
  22. ^ See, for instance, the chronicle available at
  23. ^ Castro, O Anjo Pornográfico, 370
  24. ^ Ibid, pages 377 and 380
  25. ^ Ibid, page 375
  26. ^ O remador de Ben-Hur, 289


  • 1941: A Mulher Sem Pecado
  • 1943: Vestido de Noiva
  • 1946: Álbum de Família
  • 1947: Anjo Negro
  • 1947: Senhora dos Afogados
  • 1949: Dorotéia
  • 1951: Valsa No. 6
  • 1953: A Falecida
  • 1957: Viúva, Porém Honesta
  • 1957: Perdoa-me por me Traíres
  • 1958: Os Sete Gatinhos
  • 1958: Boca de Ouro
  • 1960: Beijo no Asfalto
  • 1962: 'Otto Lara Resende ou Bonitinha, mas Ordinária
  • 1965: Toda Nudez Será Castigada
  • 1973: Anti-Nélson Rodrigues
  • 1978: A Serpente
  • 1944: Meu Destino é Pecar (as Suzana Flag)
  • 1946: Escravas do Amor (as Suzana Flag)
  • 1946: Minha Vida (as Suzana Flag)
  • 1947: A Mulher Que Amou de Mais (as Suzana Flag)
  • 1947: O Homem Proíbido (as Suzana Flag)
  • 1959 Asfalto Selvagem (also known as Engraçadinha)
  • 1966: O Casamento
Newspaper column collections
  • 1967: Memórias de Nélson Rodrigues
  • 1968: A Cabra Vadia
  • 1970: O Óbvio Ululante
  • 1971: A Sombra Das Chuteiras Imortais
  • 1972: A Pátria em Chuteiras
  • 1977: O Reacionário
  • 1978: O Remador de Ben-Hur

Works in English

Life as it Is, stories transl. by Alex Ladd, 2009, Host Publications, Inc. [16]

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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