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Black Angel: Classical Myth, Race and Desire in a Brazilian Modernist Play

Rodrigo Tadeu Gonçalves and Guilherme Gontijo Flores

This paper examines Nelson Rodrigues’ Anjo Negro (Black Angel, 1946), one of the earliest Brazilian plays with a black protagonist. Although it draws on Greek Tragedy (particularly Medea and Oedipus Rex) and Christian symbolism, the play performs a deconstruction of classical tragic models in order to reinvent the idea of the tragic in a modern framing (cf. Lopes, 1993; Szondi, 2004; Rabelo 2004; Motta, 2011). The play is about the married life of Ismael (“a big black man”) and Virginia (“the white wife, most candid”) after the death of their third child.  Soon we discover from the couple that their children were conceived in rape and killed by their mother for being black. Ismael’s stepbrother, Elijah is seduced by Virginia. Right after their sexual encounter, Ismael finds out what happened, and with Virginia’s help he kills Elijah. The child in Virginia’s womb, who would supposedly break the circle of filicides, turns out to be a beautiful white girl, Anne Mary. Ismael blinds her, so that she cannot know he is black and, fifteen years later, he seduces her. In the end, Ismael and Virginia find out that they really love each other, accepting their nature as an interracial couple, and leave Anne Mary to die locked up inside a glass mausoleum. The play was censored in 1946 under the claim that it could "trigger a racial war aiming at creating social hatred and disorder" (Ribeiro, 1948) but, due to the intervention of intellectuals, it was performed in 1948 with immediate success. Menotti del Picchia, in a very positive contemporary review, identified important Aeschylian overtones in it (Picchia, 1994) and later Abdias do Nascimento would insert the play in the most important anthology of black Brazilian drama (Nascimento, 1961), a turning point for black literature in Brazil.

The play is an excellent case study through which to examine the ways in which Greek tragedy and myth intermingle with nonclassical elements (cf. Pinto, 2009) and are used to suit the needs of a racial and social Brazilian context, filtered through the lens of a modern psychological discourse (Delfino et al., 2006). Although not a traditional rewriting of Greek Tragedy, one can identify some important topoi in the play. For instance, although every character has a meaningful Christian name, Virginia is cast as a white Medea (cf. Burlim, 2009), who kills her offspring, while Ismael wants to get rid of his otherness and be part of a white patriarchal society. Another Greek tragic element is a chorus of ten black women responsible for commenting and framing the scenes. Also, Elijah is a Christian Tiresias, a blind androgynous character, responsible for delivering a curse by Ismael's mother. Finally, Ismael can be seen as an inverted Oedipus, because not only he seduces his stepdaughter, but also kills her.

The main issue raised in the play is the fact that neither the black protagonist nor his white wife can cope with the underlying racial attitude of their society (cf. Moutinho, 2004; Fernandes 2008a,b; Moura, 2012).  All complications arise from Ismael’s self-prejudice, and his desire to incorporate Virginia’s whiteness results in an isolated world. Their house (as opposed to Medea's palace in Euripides) is never reached by the sun, while Medea in Euripides escapes with her grandfather's chariot. Paradoxically, the breaking of the circle is also the re-enactment of its own beginning.  In sum, Rodrigues redeploys Greek tragic themes, within his complex view of how historical Brazilian racial tensions imbricate the repression of primal human desire. 

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Afro-Latin and Afro-Hispanic Literature and Classics

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