Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Antônio José da Silva

One of the books on my Five For Fourteen list was the early 18th-century story attributed to Antônio José da Silva, "The Jew." The book, Obras do diabinho da mão furada (roughly: "Tales of the Devil with the Pierced Hand") is made up of a series of 5 folios written in dialogue-laden prose, interspersed with rhymed verse and popular refrains. The integration of these techniques gives rise to a text that maintains a comedic tone while simultaneously delivering a didactic narrative, full of popular wisdom. In fact, almost all of da Silva's work (the majority of which is theatrical) is considered part of the joco-séria genre (literally: "jocular-serious"). Like his writing, da Silva himself represented a fascinating combination of seemingly disparate phenomena: he was, in a way, both Brazilian and Portuguese, Christian and Jewish, Lawyer and Literati, Celebrity and Villain. This post will hopefully offer a very brief history of da Silva's life, by way of a broad overview of his artistic production.

Devil puppet, made for the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos' theater
production of one of da Silva's plays (Source

It is not entirely surprising that several of the characters in Obras are heard using epigrams in Spanish, rather than Portuguese. This could simply be a symptom of the ongoing cultural and linguistic exchange between Hispanic and Lusophone communities of the peninsula. But beyond casual interaction of neighboring cultures, I think it is possible to understand the pan-iberian linguistic references as evidence of da Silva's efforts to establish a cultural critique that extended beyond Portugal's borders. 

Antônio José da Silva, "The Jew"
By including refrains of both Portuguese and Spanish (and Brazilian?) origin, da Silva reinforces the "universality" of the devil, a character who can trick in any language. Thus it becomes possible through this devil character to appraise a broader set of cultural features in western Europe and colonial American, chief among being the Inquisition. The use of multicultural epigrams critiquing the Holy Office are da Silva's attempt to align his criticism with what appears to be more "universal" grievances among Europeans and colonial subjects. When taking into consideration some of the more salient biographical details of Antônio José da Silva, this critique, and the techniques he uses in his writing, acquire even more significance.  

In 1705, Antônio José da Silva was born--not in Portugal--but in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. During this time, Portuguese cultural, legal and theological institutions represented an enormously influential element of Brazilian society. (Brazil was officially a colony of Portugal until 1822, when it became an equal member of the Portuguese United Kingdom; Brazil remained a monarchy until 1889.) As a result of this influence, the Inquisition was capable of extraditing Brazilian residents back to Portugal to be tried for any allegations against them. 

Puppets of Teresa (left) and Sancho (right) Pança - from the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos' theater production of da Silva's play about Quixote (Source)  
Antônio José da Silva’s parents were unlucky enough to have experienced first-hand the far-reaching legal jurisdiction of the Portuguese Holy Office. When da Silva was a mere seven years old, his "converso" family (newly converted to Christianity) was required to travel back to Lisbon where they were brought before the Inquisition for allegations of heretical “Judaizing.” These proceedings resulted in a conviction and punishment, which most likely consisted of having goods and property seized by the State. This sudden lack of resources led the family to settle permanently in Lisbon, where da Silva came of age and eventually died. 

Dom Quixote puppet, created by the
Teatro Nacional de São Carlos
Da Silva's writing career began -- and quickly reached its apogee -- while he was completing his studies in law in his 20s. During this time, he began publishing theatrical works that included musical elements and which he called "óperas." These pieces were performed by puppets, rather than actors, in the Teatro do Bairro Alto. 

"The puppets used at the time, made of cork and wood," writes Argentinian researcher and stage director, Jacobo Kaufman, "were relatively tall, about one and a half meters in stature, hanging and manipulated on wires." The puppets were a key element of da Silva's theatrical productions, Kaufman says, because they were "allowed to use foul language and say things an actor or singer would not dare utter on stage." The use of puppets, therefore, provided a presumably safe distance from which da Silva could lambast the rich and powerful -- although this strategy did not always work, as evidenced by the fact that "The Jew" became da Silva's nickname after a lifetime of being persecuted by Inquisitors. Eventually, in fact, the Holy Office condemned Antônio José da Silva to a public death in an auto-da-fe when the young intellectual was only 34 years old. 

Da Silva had hoped that the use of puppets would successfully create a safe distance between the author and his critiques. And although that was ultimately not the case, it seems logical that the main character in Obras do diabinho da mão furada is the devil. The familiar trope of the devil can function in a way similar to the way the puppets function in da Silva's theater -- as a bulwark between the author and his chosen subject matter. The devil is, by his very nature, expected to refer to taboo subjects -- he is the father of bad behavior.

In this story, the devil does not disappoint, as he journeys alongside a hapless traveler, wreaking havoc on small Portuguese towns...and of course, getting all the most memorable lines!

Tomorrow's post will feature an in-depth discussion of the book that you won't want to miss!

Until then - keep rustling!


  1. The puppets are amazing and their faces very reminiscent of Commedia dell arte style masks. Looking forward to reading more about this!

    1. I thought these puppets were great, too-- I would love to see them in action someday! They did remind me a lot of the Italian Commedia, especially when one considers the way da Silva involved so many popular and well-known story lines into his plays... his version of Quixote, adapted for puppet theater, built on the already beloved characters of the novel and added some naughty new scenes, such as Dom Quixote believing that Sancho Panza is in fact his lady Dulcinea in bewitched form--I'd love to see that!