The expansion of the Commedia dell’Arte beyond the frontiers of Italy and the subsequent diffusion of itinerant comedians and puppeteers throughout Europe has been the determinant factor for the emergence of popular heroes. Puppet theatre from popular roots will evolve in Portugal in this context.
During the Middle Ages, puppets had a major role in liturgical plays, and therefore it was in churches, convents and monasteries that the puppeteers took steady refuge and found a safe livelihood.
This “honeymoon period” lasted for several centuries. But the irreverence of puppets, their critical spirit and natural tendency towards the burlesque – which would certainly cause laughter in passionate crowds – would later lead to their definitive eradication from places of worship, in accordance with the spirit of the Counter-Reformation.
This was particularly felt in Portugal. The presence of puppets in religious ceremonies is so strong, and their speech is so punctuated by sermons, through which the “puppet-friars” glorified the lives of Christ and the saints, that they began to be called Bonifrates (bonnus + frater) and for several centuries the performances were popularly known as presépios (cribs).
After the Council of Trent (1545) and particularly after the Synod of Orihuela (1600), which reiterated the prohibition to perform “the actions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the life of the saints through movable characters”, the preponderance of religion in puppetry came to an end. Small theatre companies appear then, performing religious autos (plays) of delightful popular flavour, as well as the lonely puppeteers wandering the Portuguese streets and localities, searching for a new way to earn a living.
In the mid-17th century, foreign itinerant artists begin arriving in great numbers, mainly French and Italian, finding a steady and generous audience in big cities. This way comes also Pulcinella, a distinguished immigrant, conquering the people´s hearts with his mischiefs. The appetence of the Portuguese for that which is foreign is well-known, so it’s not strange that the hero Pulcinella easily established himself, as it already had in great part of the European territory. On the other hand, the Portuguese character has the tendency to assimilate things coming from abroad. This symbiosis between theatrical performances coming from the outside and those already existing has resulted in a process of acculturation, which is common in the history of Portuguese culture, originating the rise of a new character, a true popular hero: Dom Roberto.
Surely this wasn’t his first name. Roberto is just one of the many designations known in the 18th century, which would establish itself and later become generalized. There are two hypothesis for the origin of this name. One of these seems to have been the great success achieved with the performance of a Teatro de Cordel comedy titled Roberto do Diabo, which according to research is an important play from the European classical repertory for puppets; another origin is linked to a famous Puppet Theatre businessman, called Roberto Xavier de Matos, whose name is forever associated with the performances of robertos. But, beyond these hypothesis, there is a certainty that the phonetic characteristics of the word Roberto are ideal to be produced by the voice of the puppeteer that uses the reed, a technique that considerably limits the number of sounds that can be clearly articulated – we must not forget that one of the peculiar features of Teatro Dom Roberto is the fact that all characters speak with a “reed voice”, unlike all other traditional European theatres. That is why its vocabulary is based on a set of “keywords” which contain the magical sound of the robertos’ voice, “rrr”: porra, rapaz, carolada, touro, trucla-trucla, arroz, bruto, besides all the woman’s names, Rosa, Rata and Rita and a large number of strange onomatopoeia: brrr, prrriu, turrrututu, quirrri…
The influences which determined the appearance of Teatro Dom Roberto are more easily detected at the repertoire level. Analysing it gives us precious information about the socio-historical contexts which marked its evolution through time, in which the puppet always has been a means of expression of popular feelings.
Among the well-known plays, we can find reinvented “classical” histories of the European repertoire; others that appeared from collective impetuses determined by political-social or even religious events, from popular wisdom tales, from manifestations of traditional culture and also the Teatro de Cordel (comedy or drama very popular in the 18th century, whose name comes from the texts sold on the street, printed in big sheets hung from a string).
The most popular play that has lasted up to the present time, passing from generation to generation of puppeteers, is “The Barber”. In this play the symbiosis between European tradition and Portuguese culture is evident. At the beginning the plot seems very naif: on his wedding day, Dom Roberto goes to the barber for a shave. The action develops through a series of funny events along which the action rhythm keeps growing. In the end, our hero refuses to pay, because he thinks it’s too expensive (10 tostões) and he gets involved in a big fight with the barber, who eventually dies. Until this moment, the plot is evidently inspired in the burlesque performances of the trades (the Barber) which were part of the famous Corpus Christi processions. In these processions there were charts exhibiting religious allegories, followed by groups of people representing the various professions, almost always as a caricature, much to the delight of the people watching. Even today this situation is a classic of clowns’ humour, and curiously we also find it in the repertoire of Bonecos de Santo Aleixo, the picaresque rod puppets from the South of Portugal.
With the death of the barber – death being an element which activates a new dramaturgical order – the performance follows the steps of European tradition closely, still visible today in several countries. And the characters, we could almost say “archetypes”, representing the powers and the fears that dominate human existence: the priest who comes to preside at the funeral of the poor barber, the policeman who wants to arrest Dom Roberto, the Devil who tries to take his soul to Hell, and finally Death, the maximum “punishment” for man. Naturally our hero turns out to be the winner in all confrontations and finishes in a frenzy, shouting: “I’ve killed Death! Death is dead!”
In front of the booth, the audience applauds and goes away happy because their hero embodied some of their deepest desires.
Other, quite meaningful plays integrate the known repertoire of Teatro Dom Roberto: The Bullfight, a graceful recreation of a Portuguese tradition; Rosa and the Three Boyfriends, originated from a Teatro de Cordel comedy; The Ghosts’ Castle, adapting the folk tale of João-Sem-Medo, in which Dom Roberto, in love, tries to save a princess imprisoned in the tower of a castle, and therefore has to win over the whole gallery of monsters representing fears (the ghost, the giant, the dragon and, of course, the Devil); and also, undoubtedly, a large set of plays more customised or circumscribed to a regional scope which, for that motive, didn’t become so popular, having been lost during the long way to the present day.
A curious play, quite representative of the way popular genius knew how to make a satire of a tragic period of our history, is a comedy entitled The Marquee of Pombal and the Jesuits. Through this play, the people showed their profound hatred for the merciless Portuguese Inquisition, and once again it’s the magical hands of the puppeteer that give shape to popular feeling: at the end of the play, the Inquisitors, preparing to escape to Brazil, are thrown of a boat to the sea infested with sharks, which devour them one by one. Every time this happens, Dom Roberto exclaims: “There goes another priest!”, and the audience rejoices and asks for more…
The most western of all descendants of the great hero Pulcinella doesn’t have a distinctive physical type, unlike his European counterparts. Sometimes the character tends to dilute with his plot companions – which explains the popularly used designation of robertos for this type of theatre. The relevant feature that remains in Dom Roberto as inherited from his great family is the soul, the personality, not the physical aspect. Therefore, the few known ancient depictions of the character Dom Roberto are different among themselves, without any coherence of shape. Each puppeteer built his own “hero”, one might say.
The face is always carved with great “sculptural naivety”, with big and bright eyes, a smiling mouth, all the other features being sober and discrete. In this simplicity of form, the puppet never loses his tricky expression, the cunningness of popular heroes. The colour is usually very distinctive: bright pink, doubtlessly the general colour tone of the traditional ceramic of Northern Portugal, the famous “clay dolls”.
The clothes are as simple as the puppet face, and in very bright colours. As for the pattern, just enough to hide the puppeteer’s hand, allowing, at the same time, extreme agility of movements. In this case, also, one might say, the building of the roberto concentrates more on the possibilities of frantic movements than in the “nobility” of gestures and attitudes, coming from more elaborate dresses.
Dom Roberto frequently uses props which, although very simple, are a fundamental element of the action. His weapon is, as usual, a grotesque and robust club, carved lengthwise, allowing to make much more noise in the frequent brawl scenes. Incidentally, all props are a sort of percussion instrument which rhythmically punctuate the action, turning it into a wonderful symphony of movements and strange sounds. Other important props in the performance are: the frying-pot, the broom, the razor-blade, the cloth, the bullfighter’s cloak, the jug.
The simplicity of Teatro Dom Roberto, in the several features mentioned, finds a particular expression in the scenic devices, which are the simplest of all known.
The booth is open above, having only four sides that form a square with about one meter each size, the maximum measure to allow a single puppeteer to move two puppets all around the performing space. This type of booth also makes it possible for the audience to place themselves all around the booth, not only in front of it.
The booth is built in a light wooden frame, traditionally enveloped in chita, a very popular and cheap cloth, printed in bright colours and beautiful patterns. There is no scenery, or, shall we say, thanks to this type of booth, the décor around it becomes the landscape itself: the blue sky, the trees in a park or the façade of a house – this is quite frequent in the performances which take place in towns. Sometimes there are loose elements of scenery, not with a decorative purpose but because the plots need those elements: a castle, a trunk, a wardrobe, the sea waves, a boat… and even circus apparatus, which in ancient performances were used to show the abilities of domesticated mice, with the purpose of attracting audience for the performance.
Two depictions representing typical Lisbon scenes in the 19th century show us different forms of performance: in one of them the booth is a simple cloth hanging in the door of a house, behind which the puppeteer performs; in the other one there is a show by the most peculiar Títeres de Capote, quite popular in Portugal and Brazil, where a man/musician uses his own cloak to hide a young puppeteer.
We hardly know anything about the ancient puppets performances and about the men responsible for them.
Heroes of the artistic marginality, they were considered poor as a church mouse, and their only virtue was to amuse the people. Historians of theatre didn’t record their history.
From the beginning of the 20th century, it has become possible to make a more detailed history of the puppeteers’ life. Unfortunately, this human chain of several centuries which constitutes the successive generations of puppeteers vanished in our time, around the sixties, with the advent of new forms of communication and mass entertainment.
During this last period of time, street markets are one of the privileged places of performance for puppeteers. Street market theatre companies are created, attaining great fame and bringing fortune to their businessmen. These theatres were installed in big wooden pavilions, easily dismantled, offering the audience a popular repertory based on classical plays, but with greater sophistication thanks to the introduction of scenarios, eye-catching scene effects and even private orchestras. Mestre Faustino is the most famous businessman of this century related to the street market theatre companies, and he influenced every generation of puppeteers after him.
With the decline of the street market theatre companies, the puppeteers once again carry the booth on their backs and endeavour the lone adventure of survival, incarnating the true spirit of Teatro Dom Roberto. It’s not difficult to retrace their steps a few decades ago. They return to the route of the markets and religious feasts of Portugal, where they find a steady audience. In the summer, they travel along the sea coast from north to south, presenting their shows in the beach, and in the winter, when the weather allows it, they perform in the parks and streets of cities, or in the squares of towns and villages.
From the last generation of popular puppeteers, Mestre António Dias deserves a special mention. Born into a humble family, in Rossio-ao-Sul-do-Tejo, a small village north of Lisbon, he runs away from his parents’ house at 16 and tries his luck at the street market in Setúbal, where he finds a job in Mestre Faustino’s theatre. He works there for a few years, learning the art and knowledge of robertos. When the businessman Mestre Faustino goes bankrupt, António Dias establishes his own itinerant theatre and performs in the streets of Lisbon, and, later, all over the country. In spite of the increasing difficulties to survive that he faced in his life, because of which most puppeteers abandoned their activity for other occupations, Mestre António Dias kept his theatre alive until the last days of his life, and died in the summer of 1986.
A few years before, he had legated all his knowledge and art of robertos to João Paulo Cardoso, in a gesture of gift and humility that prevented the Teatro Dom Roberto from being lost forever in the memory of the Portuguese.
“ História do Teatro Português”,
Luís Francisco Rebelo, Lisboa, 1968.
“História do Theatro Portuguez”,
Teófilo Braga, Porto, 1871.
“Teatro de Outros Tempos”,
Gustavo de Matos Sequeira, Lisboa, 1933.
“Feiras e Outros Divertimentos Populares de Lisboa”,
Mário Costa, Lisboa, 1950.
“A Arte Popular em Portugal”,
“Lisboa dos Nossos Avós”,
Júlio Dantas, Lisboa, 1962.
“Artes, Usos e Costumes Portugueses”,
“Teatro Popular Português”,
Azinhal Abelho, Braga, 1973.
** The works mentioned, although being generical, include some references to the puppet popular theatre. There are no printed works exclusively dedicated to this subject.
Presentation of Teatro Dom Roberto at Serralves, by João Paulo Seara Cardoso (1956-2010) | Marionetas do Porto’ archive