The University of Iowa

Portuguese sentiment 'saudade' is central element to creation of a play

August 26th, 2014

Saudade is a Portuguese word with no English translation, defined as a longing for someone or something one has loved, lost, and can never get back. Ryan Oliveira, a second-year MFA candidate in theatre arts at The University of Iowa, spent four weeks of his summer in Lisbon, Portugal where he immersed himself in this sentiment. From studying the handwritten manuscripts of saudade poet Fernando Pessoa and witnessing fado performances – a blues-y genre of music that intends to elicit saudade from the performer and audience – to traveling to various sites for staging inspiration, Ryan describes the preparation he went through in order to create his MFA thesis play. The plot concerns three generations of a family in Brazil and America struggling to resolve their losses for loves that can never return. Through experimenting with fado, a young man seeks healing from his life’s saudade. Read on for a personal account of Ryan’s travels.

Ryan overlooks the view of Castelo do Sao Jorge. Sites like this castle were used as inspiration for the staging of his play.

I began my trip in Lisbon physically and geographically lost in the streets of Mouraria, a neighborhood of Lisbon not only known for its deep history of fado performance, but as a melting pot of cultures – close to thirty nationalities represented in its winding streets and alleys alone. Little did I know that the sensation of being lost without landmarks would contribute a great deal in researching saudade as performance and even place. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this research trip, it is that saudade is practically built in the tile and earth of Lisbon itself.

From a ferry, Lisbon appears a castle on a hill, and indeed, from the Castelo de São Jorge – the highest point in Lisbon and coincidentally, a castle – one can witness all of the city’s winding streets, buildings dripping in historicity. Yet, they can also witness the growing changes in its landscape, such as suspension bridges, contemporary office buildings, and even condominiums that seem out of place in the old Lisbon.

Initially, the play I wrote was to be a fully-contained family drama with fado music throughout, but as I stood upon a Roman aqueduct and considered my research on Fernando Pessoa, I thought it a disservice to divorce myself as author in the fabric of this drama I was to create. Pessoa had his play-people, I would have mine, and all would be sensible in this strange, psychodramatic universe.

I certainly felt parched for thirst on my walks, longing for access. Of course, the droves of Portuguese to the beaches for water access on weekends alleviates the situation – if only for short bursts of time because of how cold the water is. But even toward the Atlantic, places like Cascais and Cabo da Roca are considered tourist spots for windsurfers, shoppers, and…well, tourists. Hiking by myself along the Atlantic coast overlooking the sunrise and sunset on the Atlantic Ocean, I certainly felt solitude – an untapped oneness with nature that was both inspiring and disheartening at the same time. Time would be a significant component to the saudade formula; as expressed by one gentleman I conversed with over drinks, time is always lost and then struggled to regain as one moves forward.

I thought about that long and hard on my retreat to the wester-wilds of Portugal. It led to darker materials written in the play.One can read it on the faces of cashiers and construction workers – Lisboans are not used to tourists. And while it is cheaper for tourists to buy objects in Lisbon, Lisboans must sacrifice air conditioning, water fountains, even water as a given in a restaurant as a necessary consequence of austerity. Strangely, it is a thematic affront to the once-maritime empire – a historic aspect of saudade.For the most part, Lisbon holds onto its historicity like a museum piece; in spite of the incredible discomfort of walking on cobblestone with flat feet, it remains a reminder of times past. Culturally, Lisbon holds onto those reminders, even in the wake of contemporary economic austerity and its new moniker of "coolest place in Europe to visit."

Ryan poses in front of the Castelo dos Mouros.

What I felt as I walked and talked in Lisbon – how much I missed home, culture, the family in which I already felt estranged as an American citizen with immigrant Brazilian parents – would not only be dramatized by the writer, but also projected upon the characters. This is much like Pessoa was discovered to have done with many of his characters – some of which serving as therapists or even best friends deterring him from real-life lovers. Capturing Lisbon onstage proved a more difficult concept, but one that would best be represented in pictures – another aspect of projection that maintains the sense of memory in a specific moment in time, easily lost.

Representing loss visually and linguistically proved more difficult, but the answer would come in a trip to the Museu dos Azulejos – the Museum of Tiles, but tiles distinctly adapted as Portuguese from Moorish influences, which provide the makeup of many Portuguese facades. Thus, a visual structure of the play was formulated – memory as a puzzle of tiles, some crumbling in the face of change, but still able to be put back together…if when.

Indeed, “if when” – até quando, in Portuguese - is a fitting phrase, much like the lingering finality of fado singer Camané’s “Sei de Um Rio,” lamenting a return to love and home and wondering when he can return (and simultaneously stop the pain). Witnessing fado performances at spots like A Baiuca, Tasca do Jaime, Tasca do Chico, and even during impromptu outdoor festivals, the sentiment ebbs and flows like the waves. Interestingly enough, however, is how fado is constructed lyrically and performatively – and how it’s never the same. An 80-year-old man hauntingly quivers in the air as he sings his fado in a blue, dimly lit, heavily crowded room. A large woman gathers her black shawl – a relic of fado singers - about her shoulders and sings with a bold, storm-challenging voice. A man with long silver locks of hair and a white, European-styled dress shirt boldly sings his romantic fado with such bravura as to induce the audience to standing ovation or dazed fantasy.

This fado singer is one of many Ryan observed to familiarize himself with the genre.

The music always has a rustic air to it that reminds me of listening to my parents’ old Brazilian country records as a child, and as sad or playful as these songs are, the populace sings on or shushes others in cold reverence to the fado. Fado is like church in Lisbon and throughout my time there, I found it warped from bold lament into anti-rebellious regiment and back again, never challenging anything, just...wallowing. Meanwhile, a block away provided African dances, hip hop, street art against austerity – bolder calls for community than the church of which I was bearing witness. Saudade evolved in performance for me, and with every night, I slowly became educated in its intricacies and difficulties. As much as I was entranced by the sad old man recounting his loss, I was disenchanted by how commercial the fado had become.

 True, fado was for the people, but it was for very specific people, with tourists welcome to watch and people of color or other cultures divorced from the proceedings. It has become part of my complication with the play that I am tackling further in the semester – how to deal with notions of race and ethnicity in fado, the very song that includes all in its longing, and yet excludes the very same people privy in its longing, as if it were to behave in the appearance of a museum piece - much like Lisbon itself in the face of economic hardship.

Ryan continues to edit his play throughout the course of this semester, and also hopes to submit companion pieces entitled “Lisboalogues” to various literary journals. Toward the end of the fall he plans to have a reading of his play at Playwrights’ Workshop, complete with projections and a feedback session to follow. Ryan will be attending the Latino-American Theatre Conference in Los Angeles this November, and, upon finding a composer to work with, his goal is to advance the play in development conferences that are friendly to bilingual works.

Ryan's trip was made possible through a Stanley Graduate Award for International Research.