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"Is a theater a public service?"

posted May 23, 2013, 9:17 PM by Aiala Levy
[originally posted on December 10, 2011, at aialalevy.posterous.com]

Antonio Joaquim de Sampaio Peixoto asked his fellow members of São Paulo's Provincial Legislative Assembly (Assembleia Legislativa Provincial) on April 22, 1854.  "If it's a public service, why has it never been part of the [provincial] budget?  A theater, Mr. President, is a business, and nothing more."


As a business, Peixoto implied, a theater had no reason to receive funding from the provincial government, whose deficit for the 1854-1855 fiscal year would assume a whopping 254:905$000 (205 contos and 905 mil-réis) if all budgetary amendments on the table were adopted.  The controversial subject of discussion was the Teatro do Largo do Palácio, referred to interchangeably in Assembly documents as the "theater of São Paulo," the "public theater of this Capital," and the "Theatro da Ópera" (the latter signifying the theater's prominence rather than the genre of performances within).  The provincial budget for 1853-1854 had stipulated that this theater, i.e. its impresario, receive an annual subsidy of 3:000$ in order to improve the quality and frequency of performances.  But times were tough, claimed Peixoto.

"Three contos de réis is nothing," representative Antônio Luiz dos Reis França retorted.  "It is an embarrassment for the Province of São Paulo to not have a capable theater."

"Pernambuco gives 16 contos to theater," Antônio Joaquim Ribas chimed in, with José Pedro de Azevedo Segurado adding, "Maranhão gives 10 contos."  And, of course, Rio de Janeiro with its magnificent, Imperial Court sponsored Teatro Lírico Fluminense, could not be excluded from the conversation.

"What do I care what they do in other parts?" Peixoto snapped in response.  "He who is rich can have vices… whoever spends without a budget ends up without honor."  But Peixoto was the only one who dismissed theater's value.

"It's necessary to entertain the people," Manoel Eufrazio de Toledo argued.

"We are not under an absolute government… in which, in order to distract the people, it pays for entertainment from the king's treasury," Peixoto countered.

"The theater only entertains?" questioned Hipólito José Soares de Souza, arching a condescending brow (I'm sure) at the narrowness of Peixoto's reply.

No, no, Peixoto agreed.  "A well regimented theater is a school of morality, but we have public services of absolute necessity."  He later clarified, "I am not an enemy of the theater, but the public coffer should only be opened for theaters when, for example, there is a fire… it's the case of charity, as we have done in this House for businesses that, due to greater forces, have needed to rebuild themselves."

There are functions for the theater that make it well worth the government's consistent support, insisted Prudêncio Geraldes Tavares da Veiga Cabral.  The province's contract with impresario Antonio Bernardo Quartim would require that the theater host performances celebrating current civic events and commemorating those of the past.  As a space for instilling patriotism and educating paulistas in the history of their nation, the theater certainly was nothing if not a public service.

"But until when [must we be forced to fund this]?" was all Peixoto could say.

"For as long as there is an empire of Brazil," Cabral calmly replied.  The Assembly burst into laughter.

"Our entire life, my dear sirs," Peixoto exclaimed in exasperation, "per omnia secula seculorum!!"  For ever and ever.

"Amen," cheered a chorus of voices.

Eighteen days later, the president of the province of São Paulo, Josino do Nascimento Silva, approved his government's budget for 1854-1855.  It included not only a subsidy of 3:000$ for the existing "theater of this capital," but also an annual allocation of 9:333$ (a total of 28:000$ over three years) toward the construction of a new theater.

Thirty-five years later, the empire of Brazil collapsed.

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Moral of the story: Yes, dear Peixoto, a theater can be a public service.

Unintended moral of the story: Never make claims about the future course of history.  The historian, sitting alone in the archive and craving diversion, will someday laugh at your foolishness.

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