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Historical Background: Fascist Theatre Policies in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Salazarist Portugal

In his research article Goffredo Adinolfi compares the propaganda establishment of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Salazar’s Portugal, and concludes that although the German Propaganda Ministry founded in 1933 served as a model in the formation of propaganda office both in Portugal and Italy, neither of them was as efficient and well-organised as Joseph Goebbels’ (1897-1945) monopolistic propaganda machinery, nor did the Portuguese and Italian regimes expect as much active political involvement and complicity as the Nazis demanded of their citizens (617). He also asserts that Antonio Ferro (1895-1956), the head of the Portuguese Secretariado da Propaganda Nacional (SPN) [Secretariat of National Propaganda] possessed far less political control compared to his German and Italian counterparts (614-617).

The SPN lacked coercive powers such as issuing decrees or directly controlling the censorship organs. The jurisdiction of the Secretariat was restricted to organising propaganda activities and promoting national(istic) culture life in Portugal and abroad. Moreover, at the time Ferro was appointed SPN director, he was still an outsider of the Portuguese political elite. His appointment might have offended the leading members of the Uniao Nacional (UN) [National Union]. Accordingly, the relationship between the SPN and the UN was characterised by mutual antagonism (Adinolfi and Pinto 169-170).

Indeed, Ferro was a cosmopolitan journalist, with connections in modernist avant-garde circles, who had nothing to do with Salazar’s nationalist provincialism. Perhaps because of this, he was awarded the position of masterminding the regime’s official culture policy, and coined the Polttica do Esptrito [Politics of the Spirit], which cleverly combined modern aesthetic principles with historical tradition (Pinto 195). Ferro also attempted to involve Portuguese artists in actively promoting the ideological doctrines of the Estado Novo. He even set up a great number of prizes in order to stimulate national literary and theatrical production.

However, only those authors whose works best expressed the concept of the Portuguese nation and values received recognition, while, for instance, novels written by writers such as Jose Maria Ferreira de Castro (1898-1974) or Aquilino Ribeiro (1885-1963), who were noted for being opposed to the Salazar regime, naturally went unrewarded (Rendeiro 60-67). As far as theatre is concerned, the Gil Vicente prize was established in 1935 to recognise and reward outstanding national dramatic contributions. It might not come as a surprise that all prizewinner playwrights were either politically committed to the Salazar regime and/ or had personal ties with Ferro or Salazar, as was the case of Virginia Vitorino (1895-1967), whose prize-winning play Camaradas was decided upon in a Lisbon restaurant by Ferro and his wife, Fernanda de Castro, in the presence of the remaining two jury members. Vitorino’s play was, in fact, quite mediocre, and not even a success on stage (Raimundo 182).

Ferro’s other important cultural initiative was the Teatro do Povo [People’s Theatre], a mobile theatre company founded in 1936 with the objective of bringing stage plays to out-of-the-way places where the population normally had no access to traditional theatre, and in the meantime, of inspiring the writing of new original plays through annual awards for the best works submitted. Predictably, the plays selected were again second-rate propaganda works with uncomplicated plots and characters easily identifiable as good or bad (Sapega 15-16).

It is curious that the same mediocrity should characterise the propaganda theatre of both the German and Italian Fascist regimes. Despite all the competitions and prizes introduced by the Fascist cultural institutions, both regimes were unable to produce grandiose dramatic works of great literary merit that would comply with the Fascist political objectives and at the same time captivate and entertain their audiences. The repertoire of German and Italian theatre was, therefore, mainly dominated by non-ideological plays during the Fascist period such as farces and love triangle plays in Italy and innocuous comedies and classic plays in Germany.[1]

Remarkably, the same mundane non-politicality characterised the Portuguese stage. Since the long-awaited prestigious national drama failed to be born under the aegis of the Polttica do Esptrito, theatre managers had to continue to fill the theatres with unchallenging, tried-and-tested theatre translations. In the absence of state subsidies, to avoid bankruptcy the theatre had to comply completely with the taste of the audience - who, in fact, revealed scant interest in avant-garde tendencies as well as new themes (see: P. E. Carvalho, Identidades and Santos).

Indeed, the Fascist regimes showed a quite ambivalent attitude towards foreign dramatic works. On the one hand, “foreignness” was seen as harmful to national cultural life: in both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy quotas for the proportion of foreign authors in the repertoires were introduced in order to protect the national theatre industry from competing foreign imports (Drewniak 85-86, Rundle 71). After the war outbreak, censorship of foreign works from the opponent countries became far more severe: the majority of the British and American plays were blacklisted in German and Italian theatres.

On the other hand, despite all their rhetoric and restrictive policies, foreign plays including dramatic works in English were indeed staged in both countries. By way of illustration - although it is true that premiers of foreign plays had more than halved during the Third Reich period - Shakespeare remained the most frequently performed author after Schiller and, paradoxically, George Bernard Shaw also enjoyed a privileged position on the Nazi stage as Hitler’s favourite playwright (London, “Non-German” 239).

Also, recent studies by Sturge, Rundle and Seruya have already revealed that Fascist Italy, Germany and Estado Novo in Portugal were far more receptive towards world literature, more precisely, towards translated literature published in book form, than one might expect in view of these regimes’ overtly nationalistic stance. In the absence of similar data-based research on Fascist theatre translations, no detailed comparison can be drawn as yet. The present study, nevertheless, makes a bold attempt to provide more systematic insights into the theatre translation production in Portugal during the Fascist era.

  • [1] For more information, see: Berezin, Cavallo, Drewniak, London Theatre, and Strobl.
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