Maria Helena Serôdio* (Portugal)


À propos de trois pièces de théâtre portugaises mises en scène à Lisbonne – de Fernando Dacosta (Une jeep d’occasion, 1979), Mário de Carvalho (Le sens de l’épopée, 1989) et João Santos Lopes (Parfois il neige en avril, 1998) –, voici une tentative de digression théorique autour de la problématique de la guerre coloniale dans les années 1960 et 1970. On y souligne la place de cette question sur la politique du régime Salazar & Caetano – à la défense de l’empire – et ses conséquences dramatiques sur la vie sociale et psychologique des Portugais.

When I published The Judas Kiss / South of Nowhere (Os cus de Judas) (…) it was a big scandal here in 1979, because after the Revolution everybody wanted to forget.
Conversas com António Lobo Antunes (2002)

Evidence of a prevailing fear was the softness of the “revolutionary process”, its complacence regarding the dignitaries and henchmen of the former regime, the way it obliterated the colonial war…
José Gil, Portugal Today: The Fear of Existing (2005: 123)

For a long period of time we have been brought up in the illusion of a specific Portuguese identity as an elected people that “opened worlds to the world” through the sea saga in the 16th century, and was – for that matter – a long standing legitimate coloniser. Some of the most important arguments (besides the sea discoveries) were sought in literary texts and spiritual beliefs, as was the case of the great epic poem by Camões in the 16th century – Os Lusíadas (1572) – and its modernist reconfiguration by Fernando Pessoa in the 20th century – Mensagem (1934). The latter poem integrated also and amplified 17th century messianic belief by Padre António Vieira[1] in a 5th Empire as being Portuguese (after the Assyrian, Persian, Greek and Roman ones).

Map of Portugal in Europe drawn by Henrique Galvão in 1934 for the “Colonial Exhibition in Oporto.”
Map of Portugal in Europe drawn by Henrique Galvão in 1934 for the “Colonial Exhibition in Oporto.”

As we can se in the map, “drawn” by Henrique Galvão in 1934 for the “Colonial Exhibition in Oporto” , Portugal and its colonies seem to match the size of Europe, therefore the claim that “Portugal is not a small country” seemed to host and legitimate the possession of a colonial empire.

That was conveniently explored by the regime imposed by Oliveira Salazar and Marcelo Caetano (1926-1974) through an ideological framework that has silenced internal discordance and denied the existence of a colonial war. There were three main reasons for this denial: 1. Portugal was considered “unified and indivisible” from 1953 (June 27th) onwards; 2. Had no longer colonies, rather, overseas provinces; and 3. Everyone being born in Portugal or in these provinces was equally considered a Portuguese citizen[2].

As Salazar once wrote: “There are no Portuguese possessions, rather pieces of Portugal disseminated throughout the world” (in Ribeiro 1999: 13).

Therefore, when in 1961 the first signs of an armed conflict erupted in Angola, that was regarded as a “terrorist insurrection” from alien forces allegedly incited and funded by Soviet communism. So, in the official version, it was not a movement for national liberation that resorted to anti-colonial guerrilla warfare. Evidence of that can be found in the comments of censors:

“’Casualties of the Armed Forces in Angola’: Cut everything. There were no casualties” (10.12.1971, Lieutenant Teixeira.
“’Massacre in Mozambique’: Totally banned” (03.09.1973)
(in Ribeiro 1999: 7)

During this Salazar and Caetano’s regime, a tough censorship was indeed imposed on newspapers, books, films and theatre, and there was a total control of radio and TV. Formation of political parties was strictly forbidden and there was a political police (PIDE that with Marcelo Caetano changed its name to DGS, but not its nature nor its methods) and special courts and prisons for democrats. Even after having served a sentence, these democrats could arbitrarily be subjected to administrative “security measures” that could retain them incarcerated indefinitely. This situation was, however, distorted by misapplying an image of a Disneyland (Lourenço 2000; 33, 34) and of the acclaimed “soft habits” (“brandos costumes”) of the Portuguese.

But, obviously, social movements, clandestine political forces, the stirring up of ideas and subversive art forms were paving the way for political transformations. The acute contradictions in this political situation gained a new force with the colonial wars, which mobilised thousands of young men annually (in fact, it mounted up to more than a million and a half along the 13 years it has lasted). However, many young men chose desertion, exile or a clandestine life to skip that destiny. Indeed that war proved to be an anachronism, showing no perspective as how to get out of it. And also: quite from its outcome it began undermining the cohesion of the regime and contributed to its international isolation. And that is why – against much of what was happening in the wide world by that time – it was the army (through the MFA – Movement of the Armed Forces that assembled the younger officials) that ignited the Revolution itself, although supported and immediately amplified by a broad social and political movement.

Still, essayist Eduardo Lourenço, on writing a preface to a play by José Cardoso Pires (1925-1998) – Corpo-delito na casa de espelhos (Body-delict in the house of mirrors), 1980 (2nd edition: 1999) – that focused the action of the political police (PIDE – DGS), commented how the play could be read as a brutal revelation of a general connivance of the country with the repression. This kind of implied consent could, in his opinion, be spotted not only in the silent acceptance of the situation before the democratic and progressive “Carnations revolution” was set off (April 25th, 1974), but also in the euphoria after the revolution that, in his words, seemed to forget (if not to forgive) the ignominious action of those “forces of the law”.

On a single day the kindness of our habits had extinguished the strangled outcries of half a century, the snatched corpses, nights without lids, the shame of having a human face in a landscape deserted of eyes to accept the naturalness of the sunrise and the light of the day” (1999: 15)

In order to explain this bewildering behaviour, philosopher and essayist José Gil, in Portugal, Today: The Fear of Existing (2004), ascertains that indeed the long-term fear, that determined the non inscription of those 50 years of authoritarianism in our reality zone has prevented mourning, therefore the dead and death itself will/would persistently haunt the living (p. 16). In line with Sandor Ferenczi (1932: 78), Gil argues that trauma, brought about by that engraved fear, produced a kind of “psychic blank”, a pain with no content of representation, thereby excluding the perception of its causes (p. 118), and, consequently, its possible healing.

A conceivable hauntology is indeed referred to by Jacques Derrida (in Labanyi 2003:61) when he mentions “the state of debt, the work of mourning” and argues that spectres are produced when, for some reason, mourning was not done properly, as was the case of King Hamlet himself. And Labanyi stresses the argument that spectres are the defeated of History, those who have a potential that was tragically interrupted (Ibidem) and are for evermore “revenants”. They exist in the virtual space of “spectrality” and theirs is the elusive and incomprehensible visibility of invisibility”, which means that it totally evades empirical evidence (Derrida, apud Labanyi 2003:66).

This haunting condition is used by Paulo de Medeiros (2006) for the great metaphor he advances for all imperial nations as haunting houses filled with ghosts, as, incidentally, several Portuguese novelists have used in order to write about our colonial war[3]. In fact, more than 200 novels have been written after 1974 around that major theme, most of them expressing guilt and adopting an anti-heroic attitude. It should, however, be emphasized the importance of some of the books published by writers of those former colonies, especially Luuanda, by Luandino Vieira, in 1963. It attracted much attention not only because the author was – at the date of its release – in prison, for terrorist activities (serving a sentence of 14 years), but also because it was awarded the prize by the Portuguese Writers Society in 1965, a fact that caused the immediate ransack and illegalisation of that society and the persecution of the members of the jury.

Writers – like psychiatrist and novelist António Lobo Antunes – as well as historians keep complaining that the colonial wars have not been studied, discussed and evaluated as deeply as they should. They denounce the open wound in the amnesia of that traumatic action and write about the “conspiracy of silence” (quoted by Ferraz 1994: 13), a “war kept off the stage” (therefore obscene), simply because it was fought far away in the “Judas’s arse”, the literal translation for Antunes’s first novel (that, apparently, has received two different titles in English: The Judas Kiss, and South of Nowhere).

Therefore, writing about colonial wars turned to be left to the veterans, who had lived through that horror, and should try to exorcize their “painful apprentice of agony” by themselves, in a most uncomfortable role of both a victim and an image of the former regime they so desperately want(ed) to forget (Ribeiro 2004: 44).
Sociologist Boaventura Sousa Santos explains why only 30 years after those wars had been fought (and lost) it is possible to speak more openly on that, stressing the fact that the Portuguese soldiers were not Prospero, rather Caliban of the Calibans in that empire, that, incidentally, has been for historian Charles Boxer “one of the greatest riddles of history” (1977: 17), when comparing it to the size of the metropolis itself.

Or, using Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of the Angelus Novus, it may point out to a future that is not wanted and a present full of ruins, scraps of a past devoid of any functionality for the present.


The three plays I will be mentioning share some common traits:

  1. The authors did not take part in the colonial war directly as army officers (but, in a way, share that guilt and elaborate on it from their specific social involvement);
  2. The action takes place in Portugal, after the return from Africa, focusing on the spiritual and social consequences of that traumatic experience;
  3. The style is broadly realistic, but there is a hint of hallucination exploding at a certain moment in each of the plays.

A Second Hand Jeep (1979), by journalist and novelist Fernando Dacosta, The sense of an epopee (1989) by novelist Mário de Carvalho, and Sometimes it Snows in April (1998) by sociologist João Santos Lopes.

Mário de Carvalho, in The sense of an epopee, starting from that worn out label of an epic action, focuses on two women (one is economist and the other one is a novelist in her spare time) who during their University years (back in the sixties) had been involved in students’ rebellions, together with Octavio, whom they both admired and loved. They both know he came from the colonial war terribly depressed and deranged, and that he is now an alcoholic, living with his sister in the southern part of Portugal (Alentejo). As many others who came from that war, he keeps apart from society, mesmerising on a terrible massacre and the murder of a small child he engaged with, and that haunting nightmare leaves him no second of relief. The two women had decided to leave Lisbon and take a week off precisely in Alentejo. So, they drive near Octavio’s house, but don’t stop, heading to a modest boarding house in a small town nearby. There they engage in exchanging memories of their youth, they repeatedly promise to call Octavio and visit him, but are taken by surprise on the 3rd day of their stay there by a telephone call informing them of his suicide.

When director João Brites, with his theatre company O Bando, staged this play he resorted to his favourite kind of scenic device by building a gripping set with an obvious symbolic functioning that was also a challenge for the actors involved in the performance: the two women were set on a kind of small island full of telephones (but no cables), with splinters of glass around, and a man was hanging from the ceiling with his head down. While the women engaged in their dialogue, the man was slowly coming down until he reached the floor when the telephone brought the news of his death .

Maria Emília Correia and Márcia Breia in Estilhaços (Splinsters), Teatro O Bando, 1989@ O bando
Maria Emília Correia and Márcia Breia in Estilhaços (Splinsters), Teatro O Bando, 1989@ O bando

Fernando Dacosta’s play (indeed a TV script that was also staged) focuses on four ex-combatants who had met and became friends in the colonial war: of different social backgrounds, but having lived through difficult experiences, they had become partners, sharing fears, memories and deep regrets. Several years after the 25th of April, they decide to spend a weekend together in a derelict shelter – that belongs to one of them – in the outskirts of Lisbon, in a rural and abandoned place. They exchange memories, they comment on their lives after the return (one of them had lost a leg), but as night falls, laughter mingles with recollections of the dangerous and merciless events they had lived through. Around the fire and while they grill chicken and pork, they drink heavily and smoke grass, and little by little are driven to that haunting memory and believe they are back in the war zone in Africa. A blazing hallucination drive them to a frantic excitement, one of them jumps onto a jeep and starts shooting at a group of gipsies (with a child) that are camping not far from there. Some hours before they had met and even helped the gipsies, now, totally encapsulated in that frantic suggestion, they take the gipsies as “terrorists” and only when the shooting is over they realise the monstrosity they had done. Theatre company Teatro Maizum staged the play, with a spacious and impressive set design by José Manuel Castanheira, and with fine actors built up a moving performance around those desperate and painful remains of a guilty past .

Cover of Second Hand Jeep, by Fernando Dacosta
Cover of Second Hand Jeep, by Fernando Dacosta

João Santos Lopes focuses on the consequences of a colonial past in a broader and more updated frame: in the suburbs of Lisbon, a gang of four white young men decide to kidnap an African young woman and bring her to an abandoned railway station, apparently to use her as a lamb to be sacrificed as a form of historical revenge. The leader of the gang – Gabriel – uses his rhetoric to convince the others of their personal reasons to be against the blacks and accept being “soldiers” of that secret organisation: Rafael’s father was wounded in Africa and has a deep trauma associated with terrible pains, Peter’s sister was molested on a train by a black gang, and Paul’s girlfriend had dated a black. This aggressive imposition is associated to violent discussions and fights, and they all end up by raping the girl who keeps a bewildering silence all through the action. The play ends with two baffling revelations: (1) this action – as so many other episodic acts in today’s society – was presided over by a powerful and secret organisation based on racist grounds, that works in the shade and has ramifications in the mass media, corporations, police and political right wing parties; and (2) only in the end the young woman – with a sober but awe-inspiring dignity – reveals she is infected with AIDS .

The play was awarded an important prize by the Portuguese Authors’ Society in 1997 and the next year it was staged by director João Lourenço (New Group / Open Theatre). He invested the scene with a realistic set and costumes, and directed the actors in a most energetic and disturbing performance. It turned out to be an impressive declaration on our present day society, still struggling with its identity.

José Jorge Duarte and Catarina Matos, in Às vezes neva em Abril (Sometimes it snows in April), dir. João Lourenço, Teatro Aberto, 1998 @ João Lourenço.
José Jorge Duarte and Catarina Matos, in Às vezes neva em Abril (Sometimes it snows in April), dir. João Lourenço, Teatro Aberto, 1998 @ João Lourenço.

We may draw some conclusions from these theatrical events (both in print and on stage) that are so strongly linked to the traumatic memory of a long and painful colonial war:

Each of these authors is elaborating on the theme of colonial war from his personal experience and expertise:

  1. Novelist Mário de Carvalho, politically engaged in a partisan resistance during the fascist regime, speaks about the students’ rebellions in the sixties and early seventies and questions how much of that utopianism and its ideals of solidarity are still operating in those that were formerly so much committed to them;
  2. Fernando Dacosta, himself an anti-fascist too and born in Angola (although coming very young to Portugal), is writing as a journalist, who, not incidentally, has been a war correspondent to report on Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam and other war zones;
  3. João Santos Lopes writes as a sociologist, belonging to the second generation and aware of present day suburban racial conflicts.

But perhaps, besides this personal commitment, we could elaborate on a second argument that has to do with theatre specificity.

Indeed, while novels on the colonial wars are prone to revive actions that took place far away and may be brought to light as memories that voice events in the past, theatre demands a more committed approach. It is the present day; it is the proximity of those actions that spurs the imagination and emotional involvement of the audience; it is something that at the same time that it is haunting us from the past, it also infects the atmosphere of our present-day life. Its consequence is, therefore, more abiding and more frightening because it proves it is still among us and can be set off anytime.

Quoting Richard Schechner’s “restored behaviour”, Elin Diamond’s “negotiations with memory”, or Herbert Blau’s images of “ghostliness” and “uncanny” when referring to theatre, Marvin Carlson in The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine confirms that “Theatre, as a simulacrum of the cultural and historical process itself, seeking to depict the full range of human actions within their physical context, has always provided society with the most tangible records of its attempts to understand its own operations” (Carlson 2006: 2).


[1] In Vieira’s opinion the other four were: Assyrian, Persian, Greek and Roman. The Fifth would be the Portuguese. The sequence by Pessoa would be slightly different: Greek, Roman, Christian and European.
[2] It would be, however, illuminating to question the consequence of this acknowledgement in post-colonial Portugal (cf. Inocência Mata 2006).
[3] Cf. Lídia Jorge (Costa dos murmúrios), Wanda Ramos (Percursos: de Luachimo ao Luena), António Lobo Antunes (O esplendor de Portugal, 1997).

Bibliographical references


CARVALHO, Mário de. 1989. O sentido da epopeia (in Água em pena de pato: Teatro do quotidiano). Lisboa: Caminho.

DACOSTA; Fernando. 1979. Um jipe em segunda mão. Lisboa.

LOPES, João Santos. 1998. Às vezes neva em Abril. Lisboa: D. Quixote & SPA.


BOXER, Charles.1977. O império colonial português (1415-1825). [The Portuguese Seaborne Empire]. Lisboa: Edições 70 (1.ª ed. 1969).

BLANCO, Maria Luísa (Org.).2002. Conversas com António Lobo Antunes. Trad. do original Conversaciones com António Lobo Antunes. Lisboa: D. Quixote.

CARLSON, Marvin .2006. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

FERENCZI, Sandor .1932. Journal Clinique, Jan-Oct, Payot.

FERRAZ, Carlos Vale.1994. “Guerra colonial e expressão literária: Falta de memória? Falta de talento? Ou nós somos mesmo assim?”, in Vértice, II série, n.º 58, Janeiro-Fevreiro, pp.13-16.

LABANYI, Jo.2003. “O reconhecimento dos fantasmas no passado: História, ética e representação”, inFantasmas e fantasias imperiais no imaginário português (Org. Margarida Calafate Ribeiro / Ana Paula Ferreira). Porto: Campo das Letras, pp. 59-81.

LOURENÇO, Eduardo.2000. O labirinto da saudade: Psicanálise mítica do destino português. Lisboa: Gradiva (1.ª ed. 1978)

MEDEIROS, Paulo de.2006. “Apontamentos para conceptualizar uma Europa pós-colonial”, in Portugal não é um país pequeno: contar o “Império” na pós-colonialidade. Org. Manuela Ribeiro Sanches. Lisboa: Cotovia.

MATA, Inocência.2006. “Estranhos em permanência: A negociação da identidade portuguesa na pós-colonialidade”, Portugal não é um país pequeno: contar o “Império” na pós-colonialidade (Org. Manuela Ribeiro Sanches), Lisboa: Cotovia, pp. 285-316.

RIBEIRO, Jorge.1999. Marcas da guerra colonial. Porto: Campo das Letras.

RIBEIRO, Margarida Calafate.2004. Uma história de regressos: Império, Guerra Colonial e Pós-Colonialismo. Porto: Afrontamento.

SANTOS, Boaventura Sousa.2001. “Entre Próspero e Caliban: Colonialismo, pós-colonialismo e inter-identidade” in Entre ser e estar: Raízes, percursos e discursos da identidade. Org. Maria Irene Ramalho/ António Sousa Ribeiro (Eds.) Porto: Afrontamento.


*Maria Helena Serodio is Professor at the University of Lisbon (UL), Director of the Postgraduate Program in Theatre Studies in that University, and responsible for two research projects at the Centre for Theatre Studies: a database on theatre in Portugal – and HTP- online – Transcription of 18th century documents on theatre in Portugal. She is the President of the Portuguese Association of Theatre Critics and of the theatre journal Sinais de Cena. Among the books she published are: William Shakespeare: A sedução dos sentidos (Wiiliam Shakespeare: Seducing the Senses, Lisboa: Cosmos, 1996), and Questionar apaixonadamente: O teatro na vida de Luís Miguel Cintra(Passionately questioning: The theatre in Luis Miguel Cintra’s Life, Lisboa: Cotovia, 2001).

Copyright © 2009 Maria Helena Serodio
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Disturbing silence (and outcries) over memories of a colonial war (1961-1974)