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Grupo Tapa's Papa Highirte: A Brazilian Masterpiece About Bolsonaro’s Fall

In São Paulo, as President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration comes to its end after four years of continuous attacks on the arts, Brazilian theatre workers have reasons to be hopeful again. Not only are they celebrating the fact that new President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva recreated the Ministry of Culture and will reestablish funding programs for the arts, but they also feel that it makes sense, in civilizational terms, to produce plays once more after the fall of the man who has been the closest thing to a fascist leader that Brazil has ever had. Bolsonaro’s tenure has been devastating for the Brazilian theatre, which is mostly an activity carried out by autonomous groups with no chances of commercial success and financial subsistence. Theatre needs governmental support in Brazil, and the former president has done everything he could to curtail it.

Nevertheless, many groups resisted and kept working and suggesting a critical view on the South American country’s politics, society, and history. One of the most meaningful plays presented this year in Brazil, Papa Highirte, is a piece written by Oduvaldo Vianna Filho (known as Vianinha) later in 1968 and tells the story of a Latin American caudillo (a military or political leader) who has many connections with Bolsonaro’s political nature. Staged by Grupo Tapa, a decades-old theatre company notorious in Brazil for its superb acting and fidelity to play scripts, the play’s full significance was seen on 30 October 2022, when Lula defeated Bolsonaro in a fierce run-off election. After two runs of Papa Highirte—the first one between May and July and the second one between August and October—Grupo Tapa is planning a new season now.

Papa Highirte was the most Latin American of the pieces written by Vianinha (1936-1974), whose work distinguished itself because of its profound dissection of the Brazilian problems. The son of a communist couple of playwrights, Oduvaldo Vianna and Deocélia Vianna, Vianinha was very young when he founded a students’ theatre group in 1955, which merged one year later with Teatro de Arena, a major modernist stage in São Paulo. Teatro de Arena was the first theatrical company in the country to stage the problems of the working masses. Eles Não Usam Black-Tie (They Don’t Wear Black Tie), written by his longtime colleague Gianfrancesco Guarnieri in 1958, marked the first depiction of the organization of a strike in theatre.

A man with glasses looks at something outside of the frame.

Papa Highirte. Photo by Ronaldo Gutierrez.

Excited about the possibility of reaching working-class audiences, Vianinha and a few actors left Arena shortly after that and moved to Rio de Janeiro, where they decided to produce a theatrical revue about the Marxist concept of surplus value. A Mais-Valia Vai Acabar, Seu Edgar (The Surplus Value Will End, Mr. Edgar) drew hundreds of university students during rehearsals. That collective would become the nucleus of the Centers of Popular Culture (known as CPCs), a massive cultural and political movement that gathered young artists and activists all over Brazil between 1961 and 1964. In those years, Vianinha wrote a number of theatrical pieces about the most urgent social issues in Brazil, including the concentration of land ownership, the lack of access to higher education, and the problems concerning the communists’ strategy of political alliances with industrialists. Most of such plays were staged on the street and other unconventional venues, like labor union halls and schools.

A military coup in 1964 put an end to the reformist administration of President João Goulart and to all that political effervescence—including the CPCs, whose headquarters were machine-gunned and set on fire on the same day of the coup. Backed by President Lyndon Johnson, the dictatorship implanted by the military had a rather anti-working-class nature and imposed wage cuts, extinguished social welfare programs, and attacked labor rights. Repression progressively grew, affecting labor leaders, peasant organizers, political activists, students, and artists. Until 1985 when it ended, the regime detained, tortured, killed, and exiled thousands of people.

With the downfall of the CPCs, Vianinha joined a few of his former colleagues and created Grupo Opinião, which made an effort to artistically address the several violations perpetrated by the military junta. At the same time, he continued to work on his plays, reflecting on the historic processes that led Brazilians to dictatorship and blocked all attempts of transforming the nation’s socioeconomic structures. Papa Highirte is a central part of such endeavor. The piece takes place in a fictional Latin American country named Montalva, where Juan Maria Guzamón Highirte, the former dictator of (also fictional) Alhambra is now exiled. Throughout the play, he machinates to resume power while, in parallel movement, a left-wing militant, Pablo Mariz, proceeds to avenge the death of one of his comrades—Manito—in the hands of Highirte’s officers.

The piece not only deals with the international and domestic political forces at play in the Brazilian coup d’état, but it also portrays the greater reality of imperialism in Latin America. The populist Highirte, whose nickname is Papa—a clear reference to Haiti’s François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc—had been backed by the armed forces and by an unnamed foreign power. He was equally ousted by both of them and now desperately seeks to attract to his conspiracy a loyal general, Menandro, and a foreign power delegate. That is how things have worked in Latin America since 1954, when the CIA and the United Fruit Company deposed reformist Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz.

Maria Sílvia Betti, an expert in Vianinha’s theatre, affirms in the preface of the new edition of Papa Highirte—released in 2019 by Editora Temporal—that the United States’ diplomatic interference was the unifying element that connected the Latin American dictatorships in the 1960s. The ideological justification for such an intrusion was the fight against communism and the defense of the so-called free world. Betti, who is also a professor of Brazilian and United States theatre at the University of São Paulo, argues, “Based on such perspective, the United States’ policies for Latin America disseminated the idea that it was an attribution of the armies, under technical guidance of the United States, to secure the social and economic order.”

A woman leans over the shoulder of a seated man as he reads a large book.

Papa Highirte. Photo by Ronaldo Gutierrez.

In Grupo Tapa’s rendition of the play, renowned actor Zécarlos Machado masterfully expresses Highirte’s personal collapse before the inevitability of his historic defeat. While he exerts his dominance on his bodyguard, his maid, and his mistress throughout the play—using the power of his voice; precise gestures of sudden irritability and violence; and his expressive, choleric face—he is also a decrepit man, whose vigor declines along with his growing perception of failure. A handsome and energetic seventy-two-year-old, Zécarlos as Highirte appears as a hobbling, hunched old man looking on the brink of exhaustion.

On the opposite side, Mariz is also bound to an inescapable fate—that of killing Highirte. Vianinha at some point seduces the audience with the possibility of a love story between Mariz and Graziela, who is Papa’s mistress. The communist militant had artfully engaged in a relationship with Graziela in order to have access to the old caudillo’s retreat. In revealing dialogue, he discloses his plan to her, exhibiting a combination of resolve to kill Papa and doubt about what to do later. At first, Mariz thought about killing himself after shooting Highirte, but now he hesitates and even thinks about setting the plan aside and moving with Graziela to Zacapa, another fictional Hispanic country.

Mariz's secrets are shared with Graziela while flashes of the past are intermingled with the dialogue. Such mechanism is activated by Vianinha all over the play and works as a Brechtian epic device. Many times, those memories deny what the characters are saying now. The intrusion of the past also functions to reveal the real reasons behind the decisions taken in the present time. The most relevant flashbacks involve Mariz’s and Manito's political discussions on the forms of ousting Highirte and assuming control of Alhambra.

Despite all the differences between Highirte and Bolsonaro, one can argue that they share part of their tragedy. They are disposable agents of bigger forces which can suddenly decide that they are not useful anymore.

Such a debate is not trivial, given that it reflects the major political transformations in Latin America introduced by the 1959 Cuban Revolution and by the establishment of right-wing military dictatorships all over the region in the 1960s. While Soviet-backed communist parties followed the strategy of engaging with the so-called national bourgeoisie and forming political fronts to radicalize democracy in order to launch the base for a workers’ revolution (which was Mariz’s stance) the Cuban-inspired guerrilla movements that began to sprout in Brazil and other Latin American countries in the 1960s advocated for immediate revolution—and that was Manito's idea.

The exchanges between actors Bruno Barchesi as Mariz and Caetano O’Maihlan as Manito (later substituted by Cassio Collares) are not as passionate in Grupo Tapa’s staging as they were in previous renditions of Vianinha’s play. That was especially the case of the version presented in 1976 by Grupo de Teatro das Ciências Sociais (Social Science Theatre Group), a students’ troupe led by director Tin Urbinatti in the 1970s with undergraduates of the University of São Paulo. Vianinha’s script had been fully censored by the military regime in 1968 so it could not be staged. But Urbinatti’s group presented a clandestine version at the university, so the piece premiered before the official permission given by the censorship department in 1979.

While the dialogue portrays the heated debate in Latin America during the 1960s between the supporters of an armed and immediate revolution and the backers of a gradual mass movement which could lead to structural social changes, the actors—particularly Barchesi—assumed a more constrained tone. Several reasons for it may be speculated, including the fact that the display of revolutionary fervor certainly could look seriously out of place during the Bolsonaro era. Another motivation may be the exhaustion of agitprop forms in Brazil over the past two decades. The political radicalization of several theatre groups in the country during that period not only resulted in obtaining political visibility and governmental policies directed to them but also led an entire theatrical segment to engage with popular movements and left-wing parties.

The legitimate project of serving radical political groups with their art has animated a great number of troupes since the beginning of the 2000s. But they failed to recognize the changing atmosphere in Brazil during the past decade and they stuck with the customary artistic and political approach, a combination of Soviet agitprop, Brechtian formulations, and Latin American popular theatre. The crystallization of such artistic platform by scholars made them canonical, among certain circles, something that is undoubtedly contradictory.

A man with glasses raises a prop above his head.

Papa Highirte. Photo by Ronaldo Gutierrez.

Grupo Tapa on the other hand kept enhancing its procedures and valuing the actors’ performance skills and adequate dialogue with play scripts. Another contradiction—of a type highly cherished by Brecht—arose from such developments. While Grupo Tapa could be accused by more radical artists of being too formal and too attached to canonical theatre, the troupe showed that it is greatly capable of identifying the most important social dilemmas of the present and of questioning them on stage through the productive relations between text and interpretation.

In a word, Grupo Tapa’s Papa Highirte is masterful exactly because of Mariz’s political countenance. The contradiction between revolutionary ideas—either connected to guerrillas or to the building of gradual mass movements—and uneasy utterance takes the spectator away from passionate identification and invites critical thinking. That is also an invitation to take caution from demagoguery, which is exactly what Papa Highirte stands for. “The piece debates populism, something that is visible not only in Latin America but in the whole world,” affirmed director Eduardo Tolentino during a talk about the play. Vianinha shows, Tolentino added, that dictators do not have all the power they imagine. “Highirte was only the armed forces’ frontman—and they were completely subjugated to the imperialist nations,” he argued.

Despite all the differences between Highirte and Bolsonaro, one can argue that they share part of their tragedy. They are disposable agents of bigger forces which can suddenly decide that they are not useful anymore. Now that Bolsonaro’s genocidal administration is ending, Papa Highirte‘s final battle between the caudillo and a betrayed revolutionary militant can be seen in a new light, as it signals the need for breaking from decades-old political illusions and pursuing new paths.

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