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D. João de Portugal, scene from Frei Luís de Sousa de Almeida Garrett, painting by Miguel Lupi

Poster by João Vieira for the play Auto da Índia by Gil Vicente, performed at the Évora Cultural Centre, 1982/84

Front view of the head of the tomb of D. Pedro I.
Mosteiro de Alcobaça

Any discussion of Portuguese theatre depends on two previous considerations:

1.  Reflecting upon the nature of the relationship between theatre and literature (because traditionally drama studies are part of literature, given the insistence on the text as a dramaturgic material that pre-exists the performance or, in those many cases where performance precedes publication, given its material perpetuity resulting from the various performances that it supports);

2. Bearing in mind that many historians consider that theatrical activity is not a major aspect of Portuguese culture (neither at the level of the text nor at the level of the performance).

Front cover of an edition of the play Frei Luiz de Sousa by Almeida Garrett, facsimile of the Quinta do Pinheiro edition

Front cover of Primeiro Volume de 
by José Régio, 1940, 
drawing by Júlio

This probably explains why the leading figures in Portuguese theatre are either inaugural or programmatic: Gil Vicente, the creator of Portuguese theatre in the sixteenth century, after the notable increase in liturgical dramatisations in mediaeval literature, and Garrett, who reformed it along romantic lines and founded the National Theatre. This represented a space that was suited for putting on performances in front of larger audiences and led to the production of a “corpus”, with Um Auto de Vicente, O Alfageme de Santarém and, above all, the romantic drama Frei Luís de Sousa (1843) - plays of a historical nature, drawn from popular feelings and patriotic sentiments, conveying emotional conflicts acted out against the backdrop of the socio-historical everyday life in Portugal.

Inspired by the success of Gil Vicente, other playwrights (e.g. Chiado and Baltasar Dias) established reputations for themselves in the sixteenth century, yet at the same time there was a powerful movement in favour of a return to ancient classical theatre, based on the Renaissance doctrine. This led to the emergence of another group centred around the poet Sá de Miranda, who became a fundamental figure in Portuguese classicism through his introduction of the “new measure” (classical metrification in decasyllables and genres cultivated by the classical authors) and his promotion of the first classical comedies, Estrangeiros and Villhalpandos.

Comedy, which was also written by Camões (e.g. Anfitriões, El-rei Seleuco), was to find a major exponent in the eighteenth century, António José da Silva, the Jew (e.g. Guerras do Alecrim and Manjerona), as well as some writers from the “Arcádia Lusitana”, such as Correia Garção (Assembleia ou Partida).

António Ferreira was responsible for the masterpiece of classical tragedy in Portugal, Castro (c. 1558), based on the love of D. Inês de Castro for D. Pedro I, which was opposed for political reasons. Castro and Frei Luís de Sousa are the two most important tragic texts in Portuguese theatre, noted for the perfection of their composition and the sober development of their conflicts, which are divided between the freedom of feelings, the demands for justice (whether political, civil or family justice) and the intensity of the fate which befalls the characters.

It was not until the twentieth century that we were to find dramatic atmospheres of similar tension and intensity in plays by José Régio (Benilde ou a Virgem-Mãe, 1947) or, shortly before this, in the work of Raul Brandão (O Gebo e a Sombra, 1923). This latter play expresses the passivity and static quality of the symbolist problematics, centred on the resonance of the lyrical word and the investigation of the absolute (António Patrício, D. João e a Máscara, 1924). Such concepts were differently understood by the conventionalism of situations and customs that had been introduced by the copious works of Marcelino Mesquita (Peraltas e Sécias, 1899) and Júlio Dantas (A Ceia dos Cardeais, 1902), or by the irregular and ambiguous innovations, of both a social and textual nature, introduced by Alfredo Cortês (Tá-Mar, 1936).

The appearance of interventionist literature in the nineteen fifties breathed new life into the theatre, especially with the works of Bernardo Santareno (A Promessa, 1957, and O Crime de Aldeia Velha, 1959), Luiz Francisco Rebello (Os Pássaros de Asas Cortadas, 1959, this same writer also producing important work as a theatre critic and historian) and José Cardoso Pires whose O Render dos Heróis (1960) was first performed shortly before another play that had a major public impact, Felizmente, Há Luar (1961), by Luís de Sttau Monteiro. All these works brought great intensity to Portuguese theatre in the middle of the century through their creation of a definite interplay between text, performance, audience and critics, which has not been seen since.

© Instituto Camões, 2001