Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Dying Dog Leaves a Will and The Cat Shits Money

Ariano Suassuna
You guys. I think I'm in love. 

This is Ariano Suassuna, a living playwright from João Pessoa, Paraíba in Brazil. So far, I've only read one little thing he's written, but I'm pretty sure this is the beginning of a longterm love-affair with his writing. 

Yesterday I read his 1955 play, Auto da Compadecida (you can find an English translation by Dillwyn Ratcliff under the title The Rogue's Trial). With an intelligent and biting wit, this play riffs on fantastical literatura de cordel stories, Molière-esque humor, baroque auto sacramentales, the vernacular Catholicism of Brazil's northeast, and of course, hilarious scatological jokes (see: the title of this post). 

The plot is driven primarily by the actions of a poverty-stricken trickster named João Grilo (which means John Cricket). As he tries to improve his lot in life with the help of his only friend, Chicó, he deliberately creates confusion and chaos in order to extract money from the wealthier residents of his small northeastern town. He does this by successfully predicting the sinful ways of the other characters-- the lustfulness and greed of the baker's wife, the sloth of the baker, the greed of the sacristan, the pride of the parish priest and the bishop, and the murderous violence of the superstitious bandit, Severino. 

Cordel-inspired image of the play
The play opens with a scene in which João and Chicó are trying to figure out a way to convince the parish priest to bless the baker's wife's dog, who is near death. Through a series of amusing lies, João actually succeeds in getting the priest to bless the baker's wife's dog (and even get it buried in sacred ground with a Mass recited for it in Latin). João also creates a Last Will and Testament for the dog, setting himself up as one of the recipients of its financial bequest ("what a remarkable animal! such noble intentions!"). As the lusty baker's wife grieves her dead dog, João succeeds in selling her a cat who, he claims, shits money (the cat does a little demonstration of this special talent, shitting out a couple of coins that João and Chicó have shoved up the poor feline's ass). 

This first act establishes the picaresque lengths João is willing to go to in order to get a little money and get back at his former employers, the baker and his wife. It also demonstrates that João is the only character smart enough to create confusion and to straighten confusion out. This contrasts with his friend Chicó, who although he is constantly telling tall tales of fantastical adventures he claims to have had (in the style of fantastical literature de cordel), he is never clever enough to remember all the twists and turns in his story. When João points out an inconsistency in the story, Chicó always ends up concluding: "Não sei! Só sei que foi assim." ("I don't know! I just know that's how it was.") 
Another cordel-inspired image of the play
There are two major turning points in the play. The first major one comes when Severino, the bandit, and his righthand henchman, summarily execute all of the characters except João and Chicó, thanks to João's clever trickery. The lie João tells Severino succeeds in getting himself and Chicó spared, but only for a moment until the lie is discovered and João, Severino, and Severino's henchman all end up dead. 

The second major turning point immediately follows their deaths. All the murdered characters find themselves at their last judgement: Satan on one side sporting the leather outfit of the backlander bandit; and Jesus on the other side, an affable black man with a great sense of humor. As Satan levies charges against each one of the characters, they tremble and try to prepare themselves for an eternity in hell. But João, after having bungled everything up, is the only one able to un-bungle their mortal predicament. To do this, he calls on the Virgin Mary to intercede and act as their "defense lawyer." Mary's mercy knows no limit, and she gently defends the group of sorry souls against Satan's accusations. 
Still from the 2000 film adaptation of the play
This final act in which God the Judge decides the fate of all the play's characters reminded me a bit of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's 17th century allegorical auto sacramental called El gran teatro del mundo. The key difference between Calderón's drama and Suassuna's is the presence of humor in the latter. The audience laughs as the souls squirm during their judgement because João's irrepressible sense of humor continues even after death. And God Himself partakes in jokes-- it is only Satan who wishes to be serious, which makes him even more loathsome, monotonous, predictable.  

Furthermore, the intercession of Mary allows for "wiggle room" and negotiation in the souls' final judgement, which in turn allows for Jesus and Mary to outwit Satan and steal back the wayward souls he desperately tries to make his. Mary takes advantage of her position as defender to out-trick-the-trickster while she simultaneously rescues him from Satan's grasp, teaching João a lesson for having created so much chaos. 

But she does this with great sympathy; the mother of God not only has mercy, but also fun. Here we can begin to perceive a parallel between the divine elements of the play and the profane ones: Sinfulness--among mortals and in Satan himself--is predicable and boring. Humor and wit--among João, Chicó and Mary and Jesus--are surprising and edifying. A smart jokester (in this case João, not Chicó, who is a little dimwitted) is humble and adaptable to any situation, responding to his surroundings with a pun or a quip, thus saving himself in both worldly and heavenly realms. The pompous attitude of the self-important men-of-position are not able to interpret their circumstances quickly enough to respond effectively--they are too caught up in their own self-image, thus leading to a troublesome and dull life and afterlife. 

All of these elements of Suassuna's play come from popular tales of the northeastern oral tradition. "The obsequies of the Dog" and "The Cash-Evacuating Horse" are both anonymous popular folk ballads from the region, while the intercession of Mary is based on a popular folk play called O castigo da soberba. The result of this amalgamation of folk tales, humor, and wisdom is a play that calls attention to the human condition, its hypocrisy and its ability to redeem itself through humor. Dillwyn Ratcliff has said that Suassuna's satire "is forthright and emphatic but not bitter ..." In precious few pages, Suassuna has united a vast array of popular opinion and wit, much in the manner of the old playwrights of the commedia dell'arte. 

How do I know this...? "I don't know! I just know that's how it was..." 

Chicó, in a still from the 2000 film adaptation, reciting his characteristic line: "I don't know! I just know that's how it was." 
I highly recommend you get your hands on this play. You can expect some more reviews here on the blog of Suassuna's work in the near future, too! If you are interested in checking out the film adaptation of this play, the entire thing is available on youtube here, however there are no English subtitles on this version (you may have to purchase it to get subtitles). 

Have you read any plays recently?? Who are your favorite tricksters?? How important do you think humor is (in matters both sacred and profane)??

Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers! Keep rustling!!


  1. Oh I love this!! The Italians also have the tale of the ass who shits gold -- and yes it is a trickster in the market -- a sly Commedia figure. It is one of those odd universals and a reminder that life is never easy for animals around a trickster. Thanks so much for this post.

    1. I thought you would love this story! It reminded me of the wonderful Italian folktales you reference in The Innamorati. You should read this play- I think you'd absolutely love it! xoxo