This article is a compact and revised version of the text “A practical idealist,” published in Carta na Escola,
issue 37, São Paulo, Editora Confiança, June-July 2009, pp.52-55.

Sérgio de Carvalho[1]

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Augusto Boal changed the condition of theatre. He did so through a unique theoretical reflection, which enabled him to initiate a popular trans-aesthetic theatre practice. The paradox is that his project includes, simultaneously, a denial of art and the creation of an independent aesthetic which sought to achieve an egalitarian artistic praxis. Therefore, within every hopeful affirmation of the possibilities of transforming human action, Boal has also inscribed a fundamental “no,” because he has been for a long time a dialectician. I have not yet found anyone more interested in mobility, uncertainty and ambiguity.

In his “imagined memories,” which bear the curious title of Hamlet and the Baker’s Son (Record, 2000), the way he evokes his familiar and professional course highlights the confirmation of the relative unity of time, more than the struggle between being and not being. “The tragedy of Hamlet is not to be or not to be: it is to be and not to be. Hamlet is both (…) and he is only unable to be himself: I am a specialist in that dichotomy,” says Boal.

Art, according to that vision, is a human production that has a meaning when producing the unknown, when inventing a place somewhere beyond called the “other.” In this perspective, Boal created aesthetic (and extra-aesthetic) conditions that allow for exercises of critical and political autonomy.

It was probably this spiritual trend that made him, when he was still young, change his career in chemistry for that of a theatre maker (a vague expression which does not accommodate his multiple activities). Boal did a bit of everything: he was a playwright, director, teacher and essayist. Always in excess, always brilliant. And his dialectical vision emphasised the temporality of things: he awarded a special attention to the flux of life. He could perceive in the parts the dynamics of the whole. He knew that each affirmation is suppression.

Sérgio de Carvalho's company: Companhia do Latão
Sérgio de Carvalho’s company: Companhia do Latão

Laboratories and seminars

Boal chooses theatre in the 1950s, when he enters the University of Columbia, in the USA, to attend the course on dramaturgy by John Gassner, at the same time that he is studying chemistry. In his spare time he would follow workshops at the Actors’ Studio. In two years he lost interest in the metamorphoses of substances, which were more and more regulated by industrial research and subjected to the interests of commodification. He preferred the imprecision of the theatre, its precarious construction, also subject to the imposition of commodification, but always somewhat of an anachronism and handicraft when compared to cultural serialization.

In all the important works he did, Boal imprinted the scientific legacy that took him to the study of chemistry. It is not by chance that he used the form of “labs” to transmit his knowledge to the cast of Arena Theatre (Teatro de Arena), a theatre group directed by José Renato that he joined in 1956.

As soon as he began as stage director, Boal cherished the I PROPOSEprocess by which theatre practitioners skip the automatization of the product. He created a system of preparatory exercises involving a psychophysical approach to the role, based on Stanislavski. This entailed delaying the time of rehearsals and turning all the procedures into a collective exercise, thus going further than the staging of the text known by heart.

In the field of dramaturgy, after an internal course offered to the group in order to share the so-called ‘carpentry’ learned in the United States, he founds the famous Seminar of Dramaturgy, open to writers and students, aiming at stimulating the writing of national texts. By that time, he believed in classical dramatic structures: the play is born out of the conflict of individual wills striving for a reversal. However, that technique would become attenuated in the experimental practice of exchange with the young people who were most politicised by the Arena theatre; Vianinha and Guarnieri were both sons of artists related to the Communist Party and disciples of Ruggero Jacobbi, the most cultivated Italian director who ever passed through the TBC (Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia: Brazilian Comedy Theatre) from São Paulo.

Even if it is difficult to evaluate the period due to lack of documents, there is no doubt that Boal was the catalyst of an aesthetic revolution coming out of his action in the Seminar of Dramaturgy. What seems to have occurred there, relative to the pattern learned in New York, is a process of Aufheben (i.e. a dialectical surpassing, in the Hegelian sense, of the clash between synthesis and antithesis). This was the case with, among others, the success of the theme addressed in They do not use Black Tie, by Guarnieri; this production put the struggles of working class life at centre stage and brought into focus the process by which social content impacts upon the morality of the dramatic form. Thus the form of a psychological conflict was refunctionalised on behalf of a critical project of a popular and Brazilian art. The structural technique learned from Gassner, built on a Hegelian basis, was reshaped into a systematic search for dialectic in the drama, amplified by the author of Phenomenology of the Spirit. Thus he opened up the practice of political debate on a scene where the risk of ideological control was a minor evil when compared with the impressing mobilisation of the scenic senses for the acute historical moment into which the country was heading. We can guess all this based on assessments of the time, as well as by the evidence of so many people who started to write overnight. Many of the best playwrights of the country, who would afterwards migrate to TV channels – such as Lauro César Muniz and Benedito Ruy Barbosa –, owe their technical knowledge to Boal.

But the dialectical logic that Boal communicated in his courses would impose on him an attitude of denial. The best play he wrote in that period, Revolution in South America (Revolução na América do Sul), first staged in 1960, is so far from the intersubjective conflict that it reaches the point of turning into something different. The comic saga of hungry Zé da Silva, who is more and more unable to understand the functioning of the economic system, is close to circus clownery in its shredded structure. The piece entails episodes of great naiveté in the form of ironic sketches. It is impossible to see in it the self-conscious realism and the positive outcome that are so common in the social plays of that period. Boal relates, more than ever, to the technique of Brecht’s epic theatre; Brecht was an author he knew well and admired, but who could not speak to his Luso-Brazilian heart, probably on account of his too distanced and sharp materialism.

But they are both dialecticians. And even if Boal has been, from a philosophical point of view, an idealist, he knew how to subvert that tendency within a complex artistic practice, made up of critical and reflexive gestures and attitudes. Like many modern artists, Brecht and Boal wanted theatre to be something else besides “theatre,” in order that it could deconstruct the dominant social imagination, even at the cost of denying – in the Hegelian sense of deepening and surpassing its aesthetic dimension.

The actor turns into a character. The real stage engenders unreal worlds. It is common that this contradictory quality of theatre be reflected in idealistic terms: the essence of theatre residing in its constantly being ‘other’. But the brilliant work of Boal suggests that this dialectic should turn in on itself. Hence his movement to refuse theatre! It is not enough to know that theatre draws the contraries near, it is necessary to create something else besides an abstract conciliation. As an artist of mimetic fiction, he was looking for something that is not representational, but rather something that can be anticipated, you have a hunch that it will happen. Boal aimed to achieve an undefined vitality which is born out of a singular – but not absolute – concretisation, out of a capacity for a free and active traffic between stage and audience.

His differences in relation to Brecht’s project owe a lot to his interpretation of the historical situation of Brazil in the 1960s. Criticism of pre-1964 populism coming from the main artists of that time was based on a painfully obvious observation: namely, there were illusions regarding the project of an art that could be socially integrating in the luminous period between 1960 and 1963, comparable to the mythology of a ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ within the country which would fight for the socialising reforms aimed at by João Goulart’s team.

But the populist misunderstanding of the experimental theatre of political consciousness raising proved to be insignificant when compared to the enormous artistic advancements of the new labour relationship that had come about by that time. One of the most advanced examples of that experimental kind of theatre was the CPC (Centro Popular da Cultura / Popular Centre for Culture) working within UNE (União Nacional dos Estuddantes / National Students’ Union) and led by Vianinha. When that generation of artists approached the culturally dispossessed, it definitely changed. It learned to expose the frailty of a cultural production that needs to reinvent its forms and meanings. Even if on some occasions Boal shared the unjust criticism directed towards CPC, the Theatre of the Oppressed would not be possible without that previous initiative, just as CPC would not exist without Boal.

With the political toughening in post-1964, Boal sees himself in a new situation imposed by circumstances, and thus his laboratory moves into a new phase of experimentation and invention. In the performances of the sequence Arena Tells (Arena Conta) on historical Brazilian figures (Zumbi de Palmares and Tiradentes), Boal creates a form of interpretation in which the cast assumes the performance as a narrative event. Thus he created the Coringa’s system, in which the character would pass from one actor to another. This system entailed a convention of exchange, an emphatic strumming of the guitar and the repetition of this gesture by the next interpreter. Several actors would play the same character, helped by the master of the revels, the Coringa, who comments on the fiction. The idea of a social gesture that is quotable and of a narrative and musical theatre are Brechtian legacies. They serve as a support for a lyrical allegory of the country confronted by its immediate past: the imposition of a genocidal regime; the failure of the intelligentsia to understand the social situation. Whenever he would come back to this matter, Boal would comment on Brecht’s sentence “Sad is the country that needs heroes.” And he would remind us that ours is sad because it needs liberating individual acts. We could debate Boal’s insistence on the importance of a dramaturgy able to create myths (contrary to what Anatol Rosenfeld’s criticism did propose at that time); a kind of dramatic idealism that would show its sleeves inside out, it was rendered dialectical by the collective practice of the rehearsals. Boal wrote Zumbi with Guarnieri, at the same time in which Edu Lobo would create music for the lyrics. In the rehearsal that evening, the text would be corrected by the interaction with the actors. The work was both collective and non-specialised. Paradoxically, or perhaps dialectically, Boal’s acute sense of individualism required the group; and for him group theatre only exists when the project turns to be transmissible, quotable, like the gestures of the actors in the Coringa system.

Struggle in exile

The most interesting and paradigmatic artistic experiences of Boal during the existence of Arena Theatre were linked to his wish to intervene in the historic moment. But when (despite the tolerance of the previous years) the military regime decided to besiege the students’ movement, as well as cultural life in general, it was very clear that the artists were no longer in power. While it was still possible to act collectively in the field of theatre, Boal’s laboratorial imagination produced new experiments. Nucleus 2 of Arena Theatre did broadcast exercises of Newspaper Theatre, in which the day’s newsreel was staged through a critical perspective of the night before. Once more Boal stressed the methodological perspective of the exercise. It was not only the newspaper material that the audience would see, but also a transmissible technique he himself could reproduce to have access to other images of reality. Boal tried to recover agitprop (the newspaper theatre was much used by Vianinha at the CPC) together with the concept of cells multiplication. The tool would be able to adapt itself to the hand using it.

With his imprisonment in the beginning of the1970’s and his subsequent exile, in the most violent period of murders by the dictatorship, that scientific disposition, linked to a communitarian artistic practice, was severely damaged.

Isolated by exile, Boal could only try to make sense of his past experience. Just as had been the case with Brecht, who wrote his most famous plays during the years in exile from the war and the Nazism, so Boal launched the main bases of his most renowned work Theatre of the Oppressed while he was moving across Argentina, Peru, Portugal and France.

All great artists related to a collective practice will feel the tragedy of having to act at a distance, in abstract, through texts that are not confronted by an audience. Brecht thought of some of his later plays as displaying a “regressive technique,” which was, nevertheless, necessary due to the new context of their production. Some of Boal’s first works in exile indicate the change of his course: from dialectical theatre experimentation to formulae that pass over the contradictions of the project of a critical and radical popular art that seemed to have failed. “It is necessary to imprint new formulae,” Brecht had said, but the compromise which enables wider dissemination of the artwork also entails a loss of complexity.

Perhaps there is a deliberate and necessary withdrawal in Boal’s reflections in one of his most famous books, Theatre of the Oppressed and Other Political Poetics, published by Enio Silveira’s publishing house Brazilian Civilization (Civilização Brasileira) in 1974. It is a compilation of critical material linked to the years prior to Arena Theatre, reoriented by an idea that will prove to have been decisive for him from that time on: namely, the notion that the tradition of Western theatre is based on the poetical and political intimidation of the audience. It would then be necessary to literally activate the audience: “The spectator by being passive is less than a man and it is necessary to re-humanise him, give him back his ability to act in all his possibilities. In other words, it is necessary that someone say “stop” and the spectator himself go on stage and tell his own version of the story, as it happens in the technique Boal later baptised as Forum Theatre (Teatro Forum).

There is a theoretical simplification in the idea that the act of being part of an audience is necessarily passive. It is similarly simplifying to suggest that the audience, since it is seated, has always been a victim of image consumption. Being a good dialectician, Boal knows that to exercise imagination, critical sense and sensitivity are productive activities. It all depends on the way in which the theatrical relationship is established. But, as on other occasions, this idealistic limitation of theory is self-denied by the practical demonstrations that are included in later books, all of them manuals for theatrical practice:Latin-American Techniques of Popular Theatre; 200 Exercises and Plays for the Actor and the Non-Actor who is Willing to Say Something Through Theatre; Stop: C’est Magique! No other Brazilian artist has ever produced such an inventive synthesis of procedures for theatrical work aiming at a dislocated use of them.

In Stop: C’est Magique! Boal reveals the main dynamic of the various techniques that fall under the title of Theatre of the Oppressed (that of the Forum, Image, Invisible, etc.): which is to transmit to anyone the means of theatrical production as tools for a pedagogical consciousness. That search did not end until his death, as is proved by so many works in progress that Boal published throughout his productive life.

Enio Silveira was right when he baptised the famous book by Boal according to Paulo Freire’s terms.[2] The emphasis shifted from the aesthetic field to the theatrical learning process through an anti-ideological process in which there is not any longer the authorised word, only the common experience.

Reading through his writings will reveal the care Boal took, as a dialectician, to extrapolate the dualistic scheme upon which the oppressor/oppressed opposition is founded. To become free is to transgress, he kept saying. Yet, at the very point at which the formula seems to abstract from the class struggle and the political categories of social conflict, Boal demanded that cases of personal oppression discussed by his groups be exemplary according to both political and social viewpoints. The tool of theatre was being used to serve change in all levels of existence. As a Hegelian, Boal worked for a system. As an artist he maintained its inconclusiveness, waiting for the practical change.

In the ‘idea’ that we all can become actors abides the radical desire that those who are oppressed by the dynamics of exploitation become subjects of history. Hence his revolutionary inversion of the sense of theatre, hence his ascertaining that work depends always on the other, on the continuous exchanges with agents of social struggle, which includes his experience as city councillor and his beautiful work with MST (Movimento dos Sem Terra – Movement of those Without Land) in the recent past years.

Few people have loved theatre as much as Augusto Boal. He, who taught us to prove the oppressive theatricality ingrained in the cultural formations and showed us that theatre should be practised with risk, since what is at stake is indeed the struggle for life.


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[1] Sérgio de Carvalho is a playwright, dramaturge, researcher and director of the São Paulo-based theatre company Companhia do Latão (Company of Brass). He teaches dramaturgy and theatre theory at the University of São Paulo. He is also a journalist and editor-in-chief of the journal Vintém (=’Penny’). He published Introdução ao Teatro Dialético e Atuação Crítica (Introduction to Dialectical Theatre and Critical Interpretation), Expressão Popular, 2009, and Companhia do Latão 7 peças (Companhia do Latão 7 plays), Cosacnaify, 2008.
[2] As Publisher (Civilização Brasileira), Énio Silveira was responsible for the title “Theatre of the Oppressed.”

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Notes on Boal’s the Dialectical Practice