“By the end of the 1950’s, the traditional puppeteers wandered the Portuguese towns and villages, during festivals and pilgrimages, entertaining the common people, children and grown-ups, who gathered to watch their performances. The small wooden and cloth dolls danced whimsically to the high squawking voices of the puppeteer and everything invariably ended with the traditional fighting scene, which delighted the audience.
Today, Teatro Dom Roberto is only a happy memory of a few people’s childhood, a living feature of a precious cultural heritage which is disappearing in “modern” times.
Teatro Dom Roberto has been performed for nearly three centuries at street markets, religious festivals, beaches and streets. The repertoire of Teatro Dom Roberto is inspired on both European tradition (where it has its origins), and popular theatre plays of Teatro de Cordel (theatre plays traditionally printed in cheap pamphlets).
The main character of this glove puppet theatre, manipulated by a lonely puppeteer, has its origin, as in many other cases, in the famous Italian Pulcinella but it doesn’t have any special physical traits. His name, Roberto, possibly became popular thanks to a theatre manager called Roberto Xavier de Matos, who ran a theatre in Lisbon and later hired several theatre companies performing at street markets in Portugal. In those days, most of the puppeteers were hired to work in small theatre troupes performing in street markets. Other possible origins may be the performance of the play “Robert the Devil” (the work of a French author, published in pamphlets, which tells the story of Robert, Duque of Normandy) and this character’s name became popular.
The most important feature of the word “Roberto” is its sonority, and this is one of the fundamental elements of this theatre: the puppeteer uses a “palheta” (a device made of two strips of metal bound around a cotton tape reed equivalent to a swazzle or swatchel) in his mouth in order to amplify his voice and produce remarkable sound effects. This little “trick” considerably restricts the variety of sounds that the puppeteer is able to articulate, which therefore originated the use of a distinctive vocabulary, consisting of words with consonants formed in the palate, such as the uvular vibrant sound /R/.
Another important aspect in Teatro Dom Roberto, which justifies thoroughly Paul Claudel’s statement “The puppet is […] a word that acts”, can be found in the great visual value of the action, supported by a minimum of verbal elements but full of strange sounds and onomatopoeias. The puppets’ movements follow an impressive dynamics, mainly in the funny fighting sketches, which require perfect body coordination from the puppeteer. Master António Dias belongs to the last generation of Portuguese puppeteers and deserves a fair tribute: he showed us, through a sincere testimony, all the art and knowledge of “Robertos”, keeping this theatre alive until the last days of his life.
At his wedding day, Dom Roberto decides to go to the barber and have his beard shaved. After many incidents, the barber does his work and finally brings the bill. Dom Roberto refuses to pay. They squabble and fight. Dom Roberto kills the barber. Death comes to take the victim away and intends to take Dom Roberto as well. A life and death fight takes place. Dom Roberto wins, of course, and kills Death.
This play doesn’t have an actual plot. It presents the different stages of a Portuguese bullfight and its typical characters: the campino (a cattle herder from Ribatejo, in the centre of Portugal), the bullfighter, the horserider and, of course, the bull.