BENJAMIN: THE PRODUCT OF “NATIONAL AMNESIA”

140 years since the birth of Brazil’s first black clown


TEXT BY NABOR JR.
TRANSLATION BY RAFAEL M. CORREA
SEPTEMBER/ 2010



Between the 1880’s and 1910’s, during the transition of the XIX and XX centuries, the period that encompasses the signing of the Golden Law (sanctioned on May 13th 1888), while most of the Brazilian population, under the recently-created “pseudofreedom”, still burned under the hot sun in the coffee and sugar-cane plantations, and some still loitered aimlessly around the beaten-earth streets of the countryside, a young and talented young black man from Pará de Minas, a son of slaves, challenging a well-known certain future and defying the fate that there awaited him, transformed the social, ethnic and financial diversity that reached out its hand to greet him.


Benjamin Oliveira, or simply Benjamin the Clown, was, according to critics, the first black clown in the country and likely one the world’s first. A role model of achievements, determination, success and overcoming difficulties for all Brazilians, Benjamin was one of those clowns whose names appeared printed on billboards in font that was often larger than the circus with which he was touring. He was the creator of circus-theater, a playwright who penned successful plays and an active player in the beginnings of the Brazilian movie industry.


Born in Pará de Minas in 1870, the clown passed away on May 3rd 1954. 2010 marks the 140th anniversary of the birth of the celebrated artists who has done and achieved much for the performing arts in the country. But, is he known to anyone?


The faint, almost inexistent records about the life and art of the artist exposes the depths of the ignorance of the general population regarding Brazilian Black history. Professor and writer Heloisa Pires Lima, author of the children’s book “Benjamin, o palhaço da felicidade” (Benjamin, the clown of happiness), defines the phenomenon as “National Amnesia”.


In an interview for this publication, O Menelick 2º Ato, Pires speaks about the life and art of the black clown and about the lack of information regarding the black contribution to the Brazilian cultural identity.



INTERVIEW



O MENELICK 2º ATO – Why, when and where did you get the idea to study the life and art of Benjamin the clown?
HELOÍSA PIRES – The first time I heard about Benjamin was in the book “A mao afro-brasileira”(Tenenge, 1988) organized by Emanoel Araujo (Museum director at Museu Afro Brasil). Later on, Heloisa Prieto asked me to write a paper on the black clown. During my research and conversations with Heloisa, there came the invitation to bring the character to life, as part of the “De Repente” collection she had organized.


The desire to present Benjamin to new generations turns implicit the question about national memory. Why haven’t I ever heard of him, great educators have never heard of him, despite such an important heritage for the country? Benjamin’s biography is awesome in terms of repertoire. It has many elements to a well-told story, narrated in a constructivist and caring way. This is seen is Benjamin’s skill in hopping about, meaning overcoming difficulty in a historically difficult and cruel time. This is also true as a reference, albeit with no intention of erasing the difficulties he faced.


OM2ºATO – What has been your biggest surprise as you unravel the details of this story?
HP – The idea for the book: “Benjamin: Happiness’ son” sprung up from the collection: “De Repente”, meaning, when something unexpected changes radically a person’s life. I pictured the moment in which Benjamin, a boy of 12 at the time, decides to leave with the circus that was touring through his city. From a literary standpoint, the history of the circus in Minas Gerais, still in the context of the 19th century, brought along a change of scenery that starkly contrasted life in a farm in Pará de Minas, where Benjamin grew up.


It was a surprise to find out he had his talent acknowledged by intellectuals at the time, such as the critic Arthur de Azevedo, and was considered the most important name for circus-theater in the country. We’re talking about a person who had the gift of the gab, the skill of rhetoric, and dealt admirably with the social implication in which he lived. “Quick with the change” as he would say.


OM2ºATO – Now that your research is complete, how would you rate Benjamin’s importance to Brazilian art culture?
HP - Benjamin is an absolutely enchanting person. It is not only the fame and success he achieved, but, also his elegant demeanor in facing challenges. He began his career in 1889 as run-on clown substituting a clown who had fallen sick. At the time, being booed off stage was the best thing that could happen; in those days, people would throw eggs, wooden shoes and potatoes. One day the crowd threw in a hay crown, to which the clown promptly replied: “If they gave Christ a crown of thorns, why wouldn’t they give me a crown of hay?”. The clown’s reply silenced the crowd momentarily and loud cheer and laughter soon followed. At the turn of the 20th century, during the so-called Belle Epoque, Benjamin could be found touring with the luxurious Spinelli Circus, through the country’s biggest capitals. The ‘Circus and Stages’ section of the ‘O Estado de Sao Pauo’ newspaper featured a picture of the famed Brazilian clown who competed with the best international attractions. His plays had props and costumes brought in from Paris. He was very bold. His break came through a circus adaptation of his stage plays. At this time he sang and performed in his own plays, giving birth to the Brazilian music industry. He would invite colleagues and other artists to join him onstage. When the Lablanca brothers’ cameras arrived to make the first films, the pantomime “Os Guaranis” play was selected to be made into a film. Meaning, he’s actually also related to the birth of the movie industry in Brazil.


OM2ºATO – What has been Benjamin’s contribution to the creation of the Circus-theater?
HP - Well, it was Benjamin de Oliveira who invented a new artistic genre and decided to call it circus-theater. There could have been similar initiatives before, but he was the one who put it together and gave it a name.


OM2ºATO – Did Benjamin express his negritude artistically? Did his skin colour help or hinder his career?
HP - His plays were always about prejudice. Above all he pursued false-puritanism, prejudice and racism. His first play, “O Diabo e o Chico”, is an explicit cry against racism. Now, to give you a dimension of his life, picture him running away through the countryside of Minas, before abolition. He tells the story in first person during an interview, in which he had to run away from a gypsy circus because the owners were planning on trading him for a horse. He hops out and books it! After many miles, he knocks on a door and tells the story that he’s being pursued by gypsies and asks for food and water. But the family thought he was running away from a farm nearby. Benjamin convinces the family that he’s a tradesman demonstrating his acrobatic skills. All he had to rely on was his body and mind. He then got food, a bed to rest on and the protection he needed. It must’ve been hard, but, a clown’s art is improvisation and at that, he was king.


OM2ºATO – Why is Benjamin’s story underestimated by the books and the media?
HP - Benjamin’s memory, like that of many other aspects of the Brazilian black population, lacks means of access to communication. This is the reason why we need to hail every and all achievement in a media that allows and respects these kinds of references.


We’re the ones who have to be ‘quick with the change’. He’s a role model of achievement, success and overcoming difficulties for all Brazilians. There’s still lots of material to be explored in this awesome journey. There are stage plays written by him. The props, costumes, vinyl discs, photographs, posters…..


OM2ºATO – As a writer and educator, please talk about the initiatives that aim to increase the value of the Black, as a role model.
HP - My trajectory as educator has always taken me down the path of trying to comprehend the Black presence in libraries, playgrounds, museums and anywhere education was happening. Since 1995 I try to fill in this gap, producing material for children that features an afro-Brazilian repertoire.
There is a generation, whom, I know, will be very pleased to find out about characters like Benjamin de Oliveira, just as I was. Who knows, maybe they will write more books, pen more plays and create more props with which this information can be spread.





CURIOSITIES AND PHRASES


“It’s much more common for the reference about the black population to be social losers, victims and often enduring pain. Not that these aren’t true, but why only these”.


“Benjamin’s legacy, as is the case with many other aspects of Brazilian black culture, hinders, due to the lack of access to means of communication”.


“The desire to present Benjamin to new generations turns implicit the question about national memory. Why haven’t I ever heard of him, great educators have never heard of him, despite such an important heritage for the country?”


“In 1948, he was in Carmen Santos’ ‘Inconfidencia Mineira’”



NOTES


CIRCUS-THEATER
Circus-theater was a theatrical genre/style that was very common and popular among Brazilians during the 20th Century. Eleven small circus companies would tour the country, performing large numbers of plays, some comic, some melodramatic.


BELLE ÉPOQUE
Considered the golden years of optimism, innovation and peace among the great European countries. It was a bustling time that started at the end of the 19th century and lasted until the first world war, in 1914.

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HELOÍSA PIRES
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