Days of National Festivity in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1823-1889

By Hendrik Kraay | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
The Empire on Stage, 1820s–1864

Theater galas were central to the celebration of days of national festivity. No such day was complete without a gathering of several hundred or more men, a few elite women, the emperor and the empress, members of the cabinet, and other officials to see and to be seen, to cheer the monarch and the objects of the festival, to hear patriotic poetry, and to see an opera or a drama and perhaps a prologue or an afterpiece. Historians of Brazilian theater have tended to dismiss the “suffocating predictability” of these “official celebrations,”1 as one puts it, but a close reading of gala programs and the press discussion about them reveals significant changes over the course of the empire. Some of these changes reflected larger developments in Brazilian theater, such as the rise and fall of subsidized grand opera from the 1840s to the 1860s; other aspects of theater galas offer insights both into the state-supported nationalist and Romantic project of Brazil’s cultural elite and that midcentury project’s reception in the capital.

Back in the 1810s, the theater had emerged as a key locus of political activity; although its importance diminished in the 1820s as parliament and a free press emerged, the theater gala remained a key barometer of the political mood.2 While two historians of Brazilian theater have lamented that “the Corte’s theaters seemed to serve less for gatherings of opera and comedy fans than for manifestations of politics or social relationships,”3 this chapter focuses specifically on these political aspects and on the culture of theatergoing on days of national festivity. In this respect, it contributes to recent Brazilian scholarship on theater and music, which pays more attention to audience reception than did traditional literary or musical scholarship. Audiences were far from passive observers or auditors; rather, they actively engaged with what they saw and heard, interpreting it in their own ways. The ultimate failure of the midcentury cultural elite’s didactic and nationalist projects reflects

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