Dom Roberto Theatre
URL : https://nakala.fr/10.34847/nkl.8ebbz96l
DOI : 10.34847/nkl.8ebbz96l
The form of glove-puppet theatre known as Dom Roberto – saved from oblivion by professional artists who ensure its continued presence in Portugal’s contemporary theatrical landscape – belongs to the popular tradition of ancient, national and European marionettes. Passed down the ages by Masters who have jealously guarded the secrets of their art, this form of theatre is now viewed as an extremely valuable part of the country’s artistic heritage, not just by the new and more diverse audiences it has gradually been attracting, but by researchers of theatre and culture too. While being an important element in the cultural and artistic memory of Portuguese theatre, it presents itself as a living heritage with a creative capability evident in the repertoire and practice of the many robertists working today. Thus Dom Roberto theatre is part of the heritage of ancient puppets as a whole and firmly rooted in European tradition. It explores and extends the theatrical potential of its language by upholding tradition while at the same time demonstrating its creativity and innovation.
The historiography of theatre and puppets
Any researcher who decides to embark on a history of Dom Roberto theatre will face the same challenges as historians of puppets in general, starting with their absence from theatre’s institutional historiographical tradition. In light of the process to update theatre’s historiography and the emergence of academic and artistic interest in puppet theatre, it makes the silence on this theatrical genre, which is recognised today as being integral to knowledge of the history of theatre arts as a whole, even more incomprehensible:
The history of the puppet theatre is not a subject isolated from other phenomena. It is but one of the sections of the general history of theatre. It can neither be understood nor learnt without the knowledge of the history of the theatre arts. And vice-versa, the general history of theatre is not complete and not objective without due reference to the course of history of the playing puppets (Francis, 2012, apud Goldowski, 1994:110).
As most theatre researchers now admit, this absence is inherent in the very conception of what until recently has been meant by the term theatre, dominated by a textocentrist vision reflected in literary studies and theatre studies alike. Prioritising the canonical form of institutional theatre, promoted by an academic and erudite culture and intended for a cultivated audience, this conception materialised in a historiography of theatre based on writers and texts, in other words the theatre of actors.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that many authors and dramatists also wrote for puppets, notably the Modernists who demonstrated their preference for this type of language for performances of their works between 1890 and 1935. Indeed, for these acknowledged masters of dramatic literature who gave the theatre of actors now famous works, such as “Lorca, Maeterlinck, Büchner, Poe, Wyspianski, Jarry, Claudel, Schnitzler, Ghelderode, Benavente, Valle-Inclan [and] Capeck” (Francis 2012:97), puppets are essentially instruments at the service of a text of remarkable dramaturgy that actors would be incapable of expressing on stage:
(...) theatre artists manifested an unprecedented attachment to puppets, at the time preferred to actors who were found not only egocentric but incapable of portraying the spiritual and hieratic qualities of their characters. (...) The themes concern the spiritual, the religious, death and dark forces, magic and madness: then as now all valid vehicles for puppets.
In Portugal, however, the clearest example of this came in the 18th century, an era marked by the import of new genres such as opera. It also saw the emergence of a repertoire deliberately written for puppets and the stage by the dramatist António José da Silva, known as The Jew, (1705-1739) for audiences at the Teatro do Bairro Alto in Lisbon. After his death in an auto-da-fé ordered by the Court of the Inquisition, his works were rescued from oblivion by the printer and bookseller Francisco Luís Ameno, who published them in Lisbon in 1744 (Zurbach & Ferreira, 1997; Léglise-Costa, 2000).
Original texts for puppets began to appear again from the second half of the 20th century. This repertoire, which took the puppet’s specific nature, language and interpretative potential into account, helped redefine the concept of the contemporary art of puppetry, both in its traditional forms and its formal experimentation. In the case of Dom Roberto, this link between literature and puppets is represented in Portugal by renowned writers such as Ilse Losa (1913-2006) and Lilia da Fonseca (1916-1991) for the Teatro de Branca-Flor in the 1960s, and by the dramaturge Jaime Salazar Sampaio in collaboration with the puppeteer Francisco Esteves.
The key difficulty that has recurred throughout the history of puppets when studying this type of show is the fact that most of the textual and performative repertoire of the traditional puppet – where the term repertoire includes texts with dialogue and the manipulation and acting of the puppet on stage – was improvised and adapted to suit audience tastes without being recorded or written down and is therefore missing from the written memory of theatre. In empirical and pragmatic terms, it explains the gaps in the historiography of theatre when studying artefacts from the distant past. These were subject to cultural changes that determined whether they continued or disappeared, based on the customs and tastes of audiences and artists alike. Indeed, since the repertoire was perpetuated solely by oral transmission and practical training through imitation or copying from puppeteer to puppeteer, whether or not the plays were saved depended on their selection by artists. Any variations were due to transmission processes that paid little attention to the kind of meticulousness favoured by researchers.
The historiography of Dom Roberto theatre
Against the current backdrop of renewed academic and artistic interest in traditional puppet theatre, it is no surprise to note that specialists in the study of puppets comment fairly insistently on this silence from theatre historians, particularly in relation to puppetry in Portugal.
As explained above, this absence is due to historical accounts of theatre focusing on the conventional model of an erudite theatre, canonised by the literary and written tradition of an art form based on writers and their texts and, consequently, on the actors who lend them their bodies and voices – everything that puppet theatre does not have and is not.
In the case of theatre of the popular tradition such as Dom Roberto, a sociocultural interpretation will dismiss this omission as due to the puppet’s marginal status in the professional theatre world. This is the view of the puppeteer and researcher Ildeberto Gama who in his master’s thesis (unpublished), presented at the Escola Superior de Teatro e Cinema in Lisbon in 2011, asserts that:
(...) puppet theatre, generally speaking, has always been characterised as somewhat marginal or socially inferior and thus barely worth recording, with even less attention paid to its preservation and study (2011 :18).
Nevertheless, while this offers some explanation as to why this form of theatre has been eclipsed in the classic historiographic compilation of data, researchers can find information in other sources in various media that are sometimes alien to the field of theatre, such as newspaper articles, records or administrative documents, reports of events etc., which show the true face of an activity that has made a very considerable mark on cultural life in Portugal. It was even a fairly profitable commercial venture between the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, as will be seen later in relation to the “Masters” (Mestres).
A number of works of an academic or editorial nature produced in institutional settings have been consulted for this paper. These include the above-mentioned master’s thesis by Ildeberto Gama, co-founder of the Teatro de Marionetas company in Lisbon (1985-2000), which, although devoted to the specific case of a Portuguese puppet company created in the 20th century, offers a rigorous and detailed panoramic history of puppetry in Portugal; a collection of articles and interviews by the leading researcher of Portuguese puppets, Henrique Delgado (1938-1971), and compiled by Rute Ribeiro (2011) for a book as part of the dissemination activities of the Museu da Marioneta (Marionette Museum) in Lisbon; a master’s thesis on theatre by José Gil, also published by the museum, which combines an updating of the context of Dom Roberto theatre at the time it was presented at the University of Évora in 2012 and the re-creation of a play in the repertoire of which only the title remained (Gil, 2013); a study of the Catalan puppeteer and researcher Toni Rumbau dedicated to the puppet Pulcinella and its presence in Europe, also published in 2014 with the museum’s support; various audiovisual testimonies recorded by the museum, consisting mostly of interviews with individual puppeteers, a documentary from 2014 and a video recording of the Robertos marathon event organised by the museum in 2011; and lastly an article on Dom Roberto in the monumental World Encyclopaedia of Puppetry Arts published in 2009 by UNIMA, thus ensuring worldwide recognition for this theatrical tradition.
Origins and name
Although there has been some progress, the historiography of Dom Roberto theatre struggles with a problem frequently encountered in works about artefacts, specifically an objective difficulty in dating their origins in time and space with any certainty or shedding light on the meaning behind their names. These questions do not result in any certainty, but instead primarily in hypotheses thanks to interpretations from cross-checking data or revisions of sometimes fanciful interpretations of the origin of famous “myths” about the puppet. In the case of Dom Roberto, the answers are far from certain.
In terms of typology, the Dom Roberto puppet is a type of puppet generally associated with the character of Pulcinella. Toni Rumbau has no hesitation in describing it as the “cousin of the Neapolitan Pulcinella [primo direito do Pulcinella napolitano]” (2017:13), the grotesque figure of the valet or the Zanni from the repertoire of professional actors in 16th century Italian Commedia dell’arte.
A likely descendant of primitive figures revived by the Commedia dell’arte, the puppet Pulcinella probably comes from mask play or the role played by a Zanni of the same name, as Penny Francis explains:
Mask play is an effective route to puppet play: the masked performer acts as a self-manipulated figure, his or her normal bearing, voice and mannerisms subsumed in the dictates of the mask. (2012:35)
Brunella Eruli has formulated a hypothesis behind the creation of the Pulcinella puppet in fairground theatre in France in the 17th and 18th centuries:
Is it his obscene words and postures that result in Pulcinella’s exclusion from the farces of the Comédie-Italienne in Paris and his confinement to puppet theatre, like a naughty child made to stand in the corner? (2014:17)
Disseminated widely throughout Europe by Italian travelling companies, the popularity of the comic, mischievous and amoral anti-hero produced several descendants of Pulcinella who are alive to this day as manifestations of the same tradition, or more probably “like cousins in a large family, indeed as brothers” (Kiourtsakis, 2014:46). This is how “Pulcinella’s routes” (Rumbau 2014) came about, leading to the Punch puppets in England, Polichinelle and Guignol in France, Hanswurst and Kasperl in Germany, Jan Klaassen in the Netherlands and Don Cristobal in Spain.
It can therefore be assumed that the Dom Roberto puppet was able to emerge in this context of dissemination and reception in a recognisable form, but which continued to evolve, notably in the 19th century, either by coming into contact with new dramaturgical elements or by adapting to the conditions and means available, often very limited. This is reflected in a print reproduced in Rute Ribeiro’s anthology (2011: 236), entitled “Espectáculo de Títeres em Lisboa” by the Frenchman Delerive (1755-1818), published by the magazine Plateia in 1970. It is a rare example of the “door puppets/títeres de porta” who used a doorframe for their shows, a solution that merited a mention by Henrique Delgado who praised “the inventive spirit of the Portuguese in traditional Lusitanian puppet theatre” (ibid.).
As for an explanation for the name Dom Roberto, unlike the puppets associated with the anti-hero Pulcinella found in its English version as Punch or in French culture as Polichinelle, revealing this character’s Italian origin in Neapolitan culture, the name Dom Roberto may have a quite separate origin. In the absence of other information, two of the most common explanations are either that the name comes from the eponymous title of the play published in loose sheets A vida de Roberto do Diabo, which was successful in the 18th century, or from a puppet theatre impresario who was famous in the 19th century, Roberto Xavier de Mattos.
The work of Henrique Delgado (1938-1971)
The main sources of information about Dom Roberto theatre can be found in the archives of the Portuguese journalist Henrique Delgado. He wrote several articles on the traditional models of this form of theatre in Portugal, Dom Roberto and Bonecos de Santo Aleixo, and also on new Portuguese and foreign forms that emerged in the 1970s. Published in 1969-1970 in show business magazines such as Plateia, which hired Delgado in 1961 to coordinate the “Bonifrates” section, the name of another Portuguese puppet, the articles were put together with some previously unpublished material into a book edited by Rute Ribeiro in 2011 (see above).
The texts are the outcome of a research methodology adopted by Delgado between 1966 and 1971, the date of his premature death (Ribeiro 2011: 23-26), which mainly consisted of finding out as much information as possible before puppetry disappeared from Portugal altogether.
The result is a collection of texts of various kinds, predominantly instructions, news items about shows and interviews, with some descriptions of historical value on the conditions and circumstances of these artists’ practice, notably in the pavilions of travelling fairs: “Until just over ten years ago, there was a huge vogue for puppet pavilions in our country”, Delgado wrote in 1968 (ibid.: 112), highlighting the career of Manuel Rosado of Almeirim, the owner of the Pavilhão Mexicano, whom he met in 1967.
During interviews, Delgado was able to access inside information which he noted down with an anthropologist’s meticulousness, taking statements from several famous puppeteers (ibid.: 153-170) such as Ernesto de Abreu (id.:168-169), Clarinda de Azevedo (id.:162-163), the only female individual puppeteer identified, Augusto Sérgio (id.:164-167) who worked in the Algarve, Carlos Ferreira in Porto, Armando Ferraz and Cesário Nunes, along with all the material given to José Gil, founder of the company S.A. Marionetas de Alcobaça and one of the first heirs of this art form, as shall be seen later, and preserved at the Museu da Marioneta in Lisbon.
In his work as a journalist and researcher, Delgado was involved in defending the art form that he himself practised, showing great empathy towards the artists and the difficulties they faced at the end of the golden age of their work. For example, he describes specific reasons for the disappearance of pavilions (ibid.: 130), ranging from the cost of hiring sites to the brevity of audience attendance at fairs due to their greater mobility with modern transport – a fact confirmed by Joaquim Pinto in an interview in 1968 (ibid. :136-142) – and also audience fatigue as a result of repertoires not being refreshed.
Like other traditional forms of puppet theatre such as the theatre of the Bonecos de Santo Aleixo, Dom Roberto is an activity structured along the lines of a family, with the most famous puppeteers representing a true genealogy, if not a direct line. These include the Faustino Duarte line, with its descendants Henrique Duarte, owner of the Teatro Scalabitano, Berta Duarte and Joaquim Pinto (1899-1968) from Setúbal, who went by the name of Os Faustinos. Made famous by their Pavilhão Guignol, they are recorded as being active in the late 19th century and early 20th century. This was the training ground of António Dias (1919-1986) and Manuel Rosado (1909-1985), who owned the above-mentioned Pavilhão Mexicano: huge in scale, with 220 paying seats, this pavilion was the last still in operation in the late 1950s.
Other artists became famous and will continue to be remembered in puppet theatre thanks to Henrique Delgado: António Dias, already mentioned in relation to Dom Roberto theatre, who learned from Joaquim Pinto and was famous in part due to his involvement in Ernesto de Sousa’s film Dom Roberto (1962), as the double of the actor Raul Solnado in his role as a street puppeteer; and Domingos Moura (1921-1995) who, according to José Gil (2013:22), secretly learned from Manuel Rosado by watching the Pavilhão Mexicano artists.
Passing on the tradition to new palhetas
A new generation of performers emerged just as this form of theatre was becoming vulnerable. They were inspired by the Encontros Nacionais de Fantoches, which was run from 1977 to 1987 by the Fundação de Apoio aos Organismos Juvenis (FAOJ), now the Instituto Português do Desporto e da Juventude. Contributing to the country’s cultural transformation after the change in regime in 1974, these initiatives unquestionably played a role in saving a popular tradition, at that time on the fringes of theatre life, by retaining a vibrant place for Dom Roberto in amateur and professional theatre and giving deserved recognition to its artistic value.
True heirs of the Dom Roberto art form, the new palhetas – their name comes from the use of the palheta or swazzle, similar to that used for Pulcinella – learned their craft through direct transmission from master to student, with rare exceptions of imitation through observation without any personal contact. In some cases, the apprenticeship was replicated from student to student. The repertoire passed on and still vibrant in the 1970s was confined to a very reduced corpus of four pieces that survived the gradual decline of a theatre that, as has been seen, could not rejuvenate itself.
According to José Gil, the plays performed by António Dias, the Master from whom he learned his craft, were O Barbeiro Diabólico, A Tourada, Rosa e os três namorados and O Castelo dos Fantasmas.
This last play, composed from the traditional tale João sem Medo and more artistically and technically complex, featured a set and monsters, which was very unusual.
It was also Master Dias who in the early 1980s trained one of the first puppeteers of the new generation, João Paulo Seara Cardoso (1956-2010), who practised this form of theatre for a considerable period and was hugely important in publicising and raising the profile of this art form that had been overlooked by traditional audiences. Seara Cardoso set up the Teatro de Marionetas do Porto company whose repertoire has retained his artistic imprint, conveyed by highly inventive language in contemporary puppet and object theatre.
As a robertist, he was an innovative performer who, just like the Masters he knew and in keeping with the open nature of the plays’ themes and short fables, introduced personal dramaturgical variations, the best example of which is the number from O Barbeiro Diabólico (The Demon Barber). In his version, Dom Roberto is turned into a hero as a customer about to be married who goes to the barber. After being manhandled by the demon barber, Dom Roberto finishes by killing him and also killing Death itself.
This approach of being free with tradition and liberated from the rigid model of transmission through copying – for an authenticity that would barely have concerned the Masters – is often found among palhetas today who are writing new plays that are adapted to changes in the settings in which they are performed and in audiences. For example, the play Maria Liberdade by Manuel Dias evokes the Carnation Revolution in 1974, while O Castelo da Princesa Encantada by Nuno Correia Pinto shows the bravery of a Dom Roberto, cousin of the cartoon hero, as he in turn kills a crocodile, a giant, ghosts and the Devil. The revival of the corpus may also be the result of research into fragments or accounts of lost works that have been revived, such as O Saloio de Alcobaça, which today has been reincorporated into the repertoire of puppeteer José Gil (2013).
The routine (op. cit.: 28), the name given by robertists to a type of acting with puppets arranged into a fixed succession of movements on stage, is being enhanced by the new palhetas and the technical improvements they are making. José Gil also talks about new tricks for manipulating the stick held by the character that are developed during the creative process (op. cit.: 48).
At present, twelve puppeteers are known to perform Dom Roberto theatre, identified here based on their association with the Masters who introduced them to the world of Dom Roberto.
Master Manuel Rosado, who was still performing in the late 1950s, trained João Santa-Bárbara, who in turn trained his own son Vítor Manuel Costa who went solo in 1983. He also trained Domingos Moura, who passed on his art to Francisco Mota, founder of the Teatro de Robertos in Porto in 1994 and heir of Domingos Moura. Another influential Master, António Dias, was involved in training three marionettists of the 1980-90 generation: José Gil, one of the first new artists trained according to tradition and who revived the basic structure of the play O Saloio de Alcobaça using a process described in his above-mentioned book (2013); Manuel Costa Dias who has been active since 1987 and is the Master of Jorge Soares; João Paulo Seara Cardoso, who passed on his knowledge to the puppeteer Sara Henriques, to Raul Constante Pereira in 1986 and to Nuno Correia Pinto, a Robertist since 1999.
Other puppeteers include João Costa, who has been active since 2010 and learned how to use the palheta in a lesson at the Museu da Marioneta with Toni Rumbau and how to stage shows from José Gil; Rui Sousa, founder of Teatro de Marionetas da Feira in 2010, who was also taught by José Gil; and since 2013 Sérgio Rolo.
The most recent additions are Filipa Mesquita from the A Mandrágora company, Fernando Cunha from Valdevinos, and Ricardo Ávila, a student of José Gil, who has been performing in the Azores since 2019.
The repertoire of plays in the past is known to have been relatively large in order to meet the expectations of regular audiences and encourage variety from artists whose financial survival depended on the success of their shows.
Henrique Delgado’s account for the 20th century provides a list of works, with some revealing the importance of their title, often heralding the revival of a character or a familiar and popular theme: O Zé da Aldeia ou Zé Broa, Rosa e os três namorados, O Marquês de Pombal, Tourada à Espanhola, O Barbeiro de Sevilha os Milagres de Santo António, Carolina da Ponta da Unha/e o Esqueleto, O Milagre de Santa Isabel, José do Telhado, A expulsão dos Jesuítas etc.
The shortage of new plays and the stagnation of the repertoire from the 1970s onwards, with some titles no longer being staged, led to the gradual loss and complete disappearance of plays. However, the significant increase in new performers and appreciation of this form of theatre has had a beneficial effect, notably by the traditional pieces passed on to them by their Masters being recorded in writing.
These are now being performed regularly, notably O Barbeiro and A Tourada, which are very well received by contemporary audiences, as well as creations that seek to refresh the repertoire using the same dramaturgical model, such as by the Valdevinos company which has written the original plays O Pescador and O Moleiro e o Burro. Altogether, these activities are a dynamic defence of a theatrical heritage that is akin to a living museum.
Handed down orally, of all the known pieces, only the dialogues in Rosa e os três namorados have been written down and published in a collection of texts from this popular Portuguese tradition, compiled by the anthropologist Azinhal Abelho (1973: 239-247). This publication also contains a version of Passo do Barbeiro attributed to Bonecos de Santo Aleixo (218-224).
Performance spaces: pavilions and booths
From the late XIXth century until 1950-60, the period when it featured most prominently in Portuguese theatre life, Dom Roberto theatre used enclosed spaces, the above-mentioned pavilions, which provided an alternative to theatres and their high rents. Staged at traditional fairs held regularly around the country, they also allowed the inclusion of small orchestras to provide accompaniment to the scenes.
These pavilions, which could be taken down and moved around, had seats and were more comfortable than street venues. They allowed longer shows to be produced, comprising classic fairground turns, which could feature up to 150 glove puppets and 100 string puppets, as created by Manuel Rosado.
According to the account written by Azinhal Abelho in 1973, when the collection on Teatro Popular Português ao Sul do Tejo was published:
In the great fairs of the south, on the plains covered in dust and sunshine, (…) humble entertainment with puppets is provided. Comic interludes are performed to audiences filled with wonder. This art form, which is old as the world itself, is still alive in our country south of the Tagus. The puppets shout, sing and dance to the sound of a shrill voice, and everything ends in a violent fight scene with blows from sticks that land on the wooden heads of these actors with movable joints (1937:238).
Also worthy of mention is the Teatro de Mestre Gil of the 1940s, located in Lisbon next to the Coliseu, which presented a new repertoire written by modernist writers Afonso Lopes Vieira (1878-1946), Luís de Oliveira Guimarães (1900-1998), Augusto Santa-Rita (1888-1956) and the painter and set designer Júlio de Sousa (1906-1966).
With the decline of the pavilions, the travelling nature of robertist activity took on new forms beyond enclosed spaces, with the help of more rudimentary means better suited to performing in urban spaces and in the open air, such as squares and public parks or beaches in summer, and which continues to this day.
In this new setting, puppeteers use the familiar booth, known as a guarita or barraca, whose frame is covered in the traditional floral cretonne fabric of the Alcobaça region. Easy to transport in a suitcase or trunk, it allows the manipulator to be hidden in a small space that also has to hold the strings of puppets suspended inside, used as and when they appear in the play.
These two models of show coexist today, between traditional theatres that have replaced pavilions at fairs and other occasional enclosed places and the more frequent street theatre best suited to this kind of activity, notably at puppet theatre festivals, which from the second half of the 20th century offer new and specific spaces for puppet theatre.
Action on stage
Clearly structured around an established form devised for the purposes of trickery, with basic dialogues depending on the model of the farce or satirical sketch, the shows offer huge scope for improvisation either in verbal exchanges with audiences or in the puppet’s movements in all directions, vertical and horizontal, within the space defined by the frame of the stage, but also going against convention and taking place outside the booth itself.
The shows are outlined in broad strokes, reminiscent of the aesthetic of cartoons. The performative component dominates the action, with the comic dimension accentuated by an unrealistic treatment of actions on stage, through the extremely rapid play of puppets, materialised in uninterrupted movements and shrill sounds adapted to the style of the performance overall, all very merry while still offering caricatures and satire.
Sound and movement
Going from right to left or from top to bottom, under the stage or in the air, the Dom Roberto puppet develops a kind of frenetically paced choreography of actions, interspersed with sounds or noises that range from characters shouting and singing their heads off to weeping and laughter. Their speech, mostly reduced to onomatopoeia, follows a characteristic enunciation of sung and musical diction associated with the puppeteer’s use of an aluminium swazzle placed under the roof of the mouth. It amplifies the voice, making it more high-pitched or nasal, and modifies words that are often incomprehensible due to the amplification of the R sound, which in the case of Dom Roberto punctuates the dialogue since the character is continually hailed by his name.
The tone of the farce is associated with an omnipresent prop in every play and essential in scenes of deceit or vengeance: a stick that can be used to hit symbols of power such as the policeman or even the Devil and Death. It is essential to the dramaturgy of Dom Roberto and has not been without censure. The range of “fighting tools” available to characters include a simple frying pan or saucepan, a broom, a kitchen knife and a scary carving knife. Larger than the characters, the props are disproportionate and create an unusual image of a world outlined in broad brush strokes in which fears are amplified and distorted, as with the Grand-Guignol.
The puppets – the robertos
Small in size, the puppets are made from wood and colourful fabric. The head needs to be made from sufficiently hard wood to allow the inevitable beating scenes, just like the hands, which provide a source of additional sounds. The face, painted bright pink, features large, staring eyes in black and white and a mouth with two rows of white teeth. The clothes define the character with conventional naturalistic features to suit their class and function.
Currently, items from this heritage are conserved and restored by copying existing items in order to guarantee the continuation of old texts and shows. However, new puppets are also being made for new characters.
The plays are short, rarely lasting more than ten minutes. Their sources lie in chapbook theatre, variety shows and music hall, along with inevitable moments of improvisation performed to suit the audience of the day. The action of different scenes is based on a minimalist model of action around a conflict involving basic themes – belonging to the farce of trickery – that encourage fun interaction with spectators.
The show’s ingredients include characters being beaten with a stick or headbutted, allowing the inclusion of violent acts generally condemned outside theatre.
The plays’ themes are indicated by the irreverent nature of the words used, an abiding feature in the battles between the protagonist and the rest, and by the transgression of social norms reflected in the violence of physical assaults against power and authority. Occasionally an erotic or scatological dimension is introduced that emphasises the body’s materiality, reinforced by the action with the tone adjusted to the mission of this type of show to provide comedy and entertainment. This is true for O Barbeiro Diabólico, a play dominated by a sadistic barber’s bloodthirsty cruelty. Its most famous scene is one in which he washes the face of his customer, Dom Roberto, with a dirty nappy and uses animal excrement to heal the cuts caused by his razor.
The social relationships displayed in the plots reproduce the traditional hierarchy of bourgeois society, similar to comedies of manners in the late 19th century. In the play Rosa e os três namorados, these relationships structure the action around a couple and their maid, Rosa, whose secret love affairs cause chaos and huge disruption. In Azinhal Abelho’s transcription (1973:239), from its initial lines the first scene shows the traits of highly predictable behaviour that demonstrate the power games reinforced by a conservative vision of the relationship between the classes and the sexes.
Thus, when Rosa’s master and mistress go out, she sees an opportunity for a nice bit of disobedience and laziness:
- Agora é que é bom. Os patrões foram-se embora. Vou fazer uma xícara de chá e toca a dormir.
[It’s perfect. My master and mistress have gone out. I'm going to make myself a cup of tea and go to bed!]
About to go out, her mistress gives her orders in a threatening tone:
Entra a patroa:
- Ó Rosa, vou-te prevenir. Toma conta da casa e não deixes entrar ninguém.
[The mistress enters:
Well Rosa, I’m warning you. Look after the house and don’t let anyone in.]
In contrast to his wife's harsh tone, the master speaks to Rosa in a tone of saucy complicity, in the style of a classic scene from a variety show or comedy of manners between a master and his servant:
O patrão para a Rosa:
- Rosa, marota, toma bem conta da casa, marota...
[The master, to Rosa:
- Rosa, you little monkey, look after the house, you naughty thing…]
The speed of the action that follows, with no psychological time or unnecessary downtime given the typification of the characters, is evident from the passage written below:
- Vamos, vamos embora. (Saem)
2ª CENA – Batem à porta.
- Quem é?
- Sou eu, Rosa, o teu namorado, o teu sapateiro.
Pum, pum, pum.
- Come, let’s go. (They leave)
Scene 2 – There is a knock at the door.
- Who’s there?
- Rosa, it’s me, your fiancé, your cobbler.
Bang, bang, bang.]
The salutary portrait of the unreliable maid is immediately confirmed and reinforced in a line addressed to the audience, which also serves to present the essential aspects of the plot: as indicated by the title, Rosa has three lovers: a lowly cobbler, a goldsmith and a Brazilian, but she announces that she will only marry the richest, the Brazilian from the mythical country of gold and of emigrants with huge fortunes:
Já sei quem é. É o meu sapateiro. Eu namoro três rapazes: um sapateiro, um ourives e um brasileiro. O brasileiro é muito rico, muito bom rapaz. Com esse é que me vou casar. Ai vou, ai vou.
[I know who it is. It’s my cobbler. I’m the sweetheart of three boys: a cobbler, a goldsmith and a Brazilian. The Brazilian is very rich and a decent boy. He’s the one I'm going to marry. I’m coming, I’m coming!]
The cobbler’s entrance opens a scene that includes several comic numbers based on stage games associated with the erotosexual theme of a lovers’ meeting, with the help of an essential prop, the bed, and a sheet hiding and revealing the couple’s actions in bed. They are interrupted by the arrival of her second suitor, which gives rise to the classic scene of a lover hidden in a wardrobe, with the comedy intensified by its repetition with another interruption by her third suitor. After all sorts of incidents, the action continues until the anticipated scene of a huge brawl – with very enlightening stage direction about audience expectations: (The audience cheers and applauds). Instead of re-establishing order, the master and mistress’s return and the arrival of the nightwatchman result in a “monumental brawl” that ends the play to the audience’s huge delight: The cobbler and goldsmith use the opportunity to give the policeman a good thrashing. In a flash they are all caught up in the brawl and fighting one another.
The play thrives on the comic motives in the dramaturgy of the farce, with caricatures of characters and cathartic actions. As with O Barbeiro Diabólico, it conveys the pleasure and fun generated now, just as in the past, by representing a merry destabilisation of the moral order and banned physical assaults, scatology and sex – all of which are ignored so furiously in the boisterous vitality of the small puppets. Dom Roberto theatre has retained the bold irreverence of farce that continues to charm and attract audiences.
Appreciation of the value of Dom Roberto theatre today is demonstrated by the existence of companies in different parts of the country, their appearances at national and international festivals, and the introduction of awards and institutional support schemes. It is important to highlight here the role of the institution that best represents the status of the robertist art form today: Lisbon’s Museu da Marioneta. It has not only contributed to the publication of the above-mentioned anthology of documents collected by Henrique Delgado, but since it was established it has provided a support programme comprising archives on decommissioned objects and companies (Santos, in Ribeiro 2011:6), a record of shows by existing companies, and a network of current artists. The museum is also actively involved in academic research in universities and specialist schools.
The museum’s active intervention is in contrast with the established image of a museum that protects heritage with lifeless collections of objects. It has become a role model for protecting an art form that on various stages has deservedly earned the support of audiences of different ages and sociocultural origins, all fascinated by the pranks played by these wooden dolls.
Finally, the role of festivals should be mentioned. They help with dissemination and exchanges between artists, and have the advantage of maintaining the nomadic aspect of this type of theatre. They are equally important as places where people can meet and maintain a dialogue between traditions that differ by country but are united within the same art form: puppet theatre.
This is asserted by the theatre specialist John McCormick, an expert on several European traditions, who believes that the presence of the ancient puppet on contemporary stages should be interpreted as a phenomenon that fosters awareness not only of particular traditions, but of the tradition of the puppet in its widest sense, as part of the history of living theatre:
One gets the sense that increasingly it is less about the traditions of a particular country, and more about the tradition of the puppet in its broadest sense. The puppet is not a museum item and its existence depends on communication with an audience. (2014:31).
There is no better definition of the meaning of Dom Roberto theatre or the mission of its artists who continue to perpetuate an art form today that goes beyond any local or national dimension of identity and incorporates the great tradition of puppets and theatre.
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Santos, Maria José Machado, Prefácio, in Ribeiro, 2011.
Zurbach, C. e Ferreira, J. A. (2009). Les opéras de António José da Silva, Puck 16, 151-156.
 O teatro de marionetas, de um modo geral, sempre se caracterizou por alguma marginalidade ou inferiorização social, portanto pouco merecedor de registos e ainda menos da atenção para a respectiva conservação e estudo (2011 :18).
 “[nos] domínios do teatro de fantoches tradicional lusitano, o espírito de inventiva do português” (ibid.).
 A voga dos pavilhões de marionetas foi grande no nosso Pais até há pouco mais de dez anos (ibid.:112)
 Nas grandes feiras do Suão, em locais planos, anchos de pó e sol, aparecem (...) as humildes fantochadas, com bonecos, a representarem intermédios jocosos perante auditórios atentos e encantados. Esta arte antiga, como o mundo, ainda é vivaz na nossa terra ao sul do Tejo. Os fantoches gritam, cantam, bailam ao som duma voz silvada, acabando tudo num arraial violento com pancadaria, nas cabeças de pau dos actores articulados (1973:238).