About Miss Margarida’s Way

by Roberto Athayde

When I was eleven years old, already an aging habitué of children’s theater in Rio de Janeiro, I started going to grown-up plays... mostly thanks to a lovely Brazilian production of My Fair Lady. That musical, perhaps the most charming of them all, is based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, which I read forthwith on the advice of my father. He explained to me that what I saw was merely a popularization of a very complex work. From then on, Shaw became my favorite master and taught me that it is possible for the theatre to entertain and be extremely witty while dealing with utterly serious themes.

At that point I was only a step away from my interest in avant-garde theatre. I took that step gradually trying to expand my knowledge. My first impression was that there was in the air a strong desire or necessity that audiences become more involved in the theatrical action. But I also felt that directors were trying to do it in a completely erroneous manner. The physical presence of the audience is the crucial element of the theater. From its religious origins in the processions of Dionysus, theatre has undergone an increasing process of transformation in which most of the players became spectators while, along the way, a few of them became celebrities. That is to say, at first everyone participated as equals in the Dionysian feast but, as time went on, the most talented or the cleverest were the ones who stole the scene. This started with the Greek chorus and then the separation between players and audience increased until we arrived at the modern situation, in which spectators merely applaud or, if they are displeased, they simply do not respond or even don’t come. The advent of cinema and television has completed this progression by giving us perfectly ‘clean’ media that provide the possibility of experiencing art without approaching a performer or having to go out. But the theater is not dead: many people do insist on coming and would like to get closer and this has always seemed rather legitimate to me.

Yet the attempts to reach for the audience appeared to me very much frustrated and a little pathetic: I saw actors speaking directly to the audience, beautiful actresses walking into the public and sitting on someone’s knee. Why wasn’t that satisfying? Participation requires a minimum level of equality and, in such occasions, there was nothing of the sort: actors are glamorous people who train and play together on the stage under the lights, while the audience members are a bunch of strangers engulfed in semidarkness and who only have power by their absence. Once they are seated, they are at the mercy of the artists. It is difficult to remove their inhibitions by provocation: they know that they’re only supposed to laugh, be silent, applaud or boo and then leave. For a while it seemed impossible to change that.

My solution to this dilemma is giving the audience a role that’s structural, easy, intrinsic to the piece, and that permits them to react or not, as they feel like: a role that can be active and/or passive at the same time. The difference between active and passive, of course, is exorbitantly complex, but that complexity can be overcome in situations where action is possible without being indispensable.

Having a class of school children in front of their teacher, Miss Margarida’s Way is an attempt to solve the problem of what to do with an audience physically there, that might wish to participate but which cannot be forced to do so. When Miss Margarida says to them upon her entrance ‘I am your new teacher’, she automatically gives a role to the audience ... a passive one to those who are content just going along, but an active one for those who would risk talking back to the actress and play the students of a disturbed teacher.

Although I wrote Miss Margarida at the age of 21, it was already my fourth play and my second attempt to create a feasible role for the audience. My first attempt at this genre was even more radical: in Handbook for Surviving in the Jungle I made the four characters survivors of an air crash in the Amazon, while the audience members played those who did not survive the disaster __ a pile of corpses throughout the entire show. Over the years since then, in a total of 28 plays I’ve written, I’ve tried a few times to be consistent with such goal: to create situations in which an audience can play a role without having to actually do anything. Once I had them play a crowd ready to lynch a criminal (with shouting in a soundtrack coming from behind, to which the audience might add their own voices). In another play, it’s a fashion show, also equipped with a sound track, with which the audience may or may not express their agreement.

As for the subject of Miss Margarida’s Way, its formula is relatively simple. After being kicked out of three schools, my parents gave up on my formal education by the time I was 15. Six years later I was a nonconformist quite eager to shock. The spark was my return to Rio de Janeiro after four years abroad, mainly studying musical composition in the United States, but also having the privilege of spending the first half of 68 living in the Cité Universitaire, in Paris. Having been aloof regarding politics up until that time, I found myself abruptly plunged into the military dictatorship that Brazil was in 1971. Then I discovered that the dictator rather resembled the tormentors under whom I had suffered at school. Since one could not directly speak about the government, I saw an elementary school teacher as the means to give expression to the political situation of my country ... and to my own memories as a misfit student.

I also conceive Miss Margarida as a satire of every will to power, deriving her language from the three successive sources of power we have to endure in life: parents, teachers and government. She talks like a mother, like a teacher and like a dictator, all intermingled. Miss Margarida alternates between the language of seduction and aggression until her tragic ‘theory attack in the coronary vein’, that is, until she fuses into words themselves, which constitute her __ literary vocables being her most intimate nature. These strategies have given the piece a surprising flexibility and inspire directors with a desire for freedom, communicated by contagion from the very power madness of the character. Seeing a new production of Miss Margarida’s Way is seeing a very different play from what has been seen elsewhere, years ago or even the previous night. And there are always the students in the audience, who some fine day might as well want to change everything.

—Roberto Athayde