The Aesthetics of the Oppressed

Carlos Zilio, PRATO, 1972, industrial ink on porcelain, ø 24cm


Commentary on Augusto Boal's last book

In a sense, The Aesthetics of the Oppressed it is a re-writing of its author's name. Its central metaphor seems to be in a story about the Pirahá Indians, from Roraima. According to Augusto Boal, throughout their lives they change their names because they believe that advancing age transforms them into other people: “they would be lying if they kept the same names: they are no longer what they were”.

It is a work of refusal to immobilize one's own legacy. Wise in the art of calling things by the right names, because “things need to be named to be recognized”, Boal composes in this book a negative kaleidoscope in which, in order to fluidize the name “Teatro do Oprimido” so often identified with the author, he rethinks its meaning based on a crucial issue: the need to overcome aesthetics.

More than any other artist in the Brazilian theater, it was Augusto Boal who took the modernist project to its ultimate consequences, by means of art, to surpass it. What was pointed out in the work of Teatro de Arena, whose strength was in extracting its theatrical criteria from the social and political struggle, gained an even more extra-aesthetic attitude in the Theater of the Oppressed.

The book published in 1974, Theater of the Oppressed and Other Political Poetics, was just a first step of the movement. It corresponded rather to a theoretical synthesis of learning as a playwright and director in the stage of shows than to an opening of a project. But the name – which alluded to Paulo Freire's pedagogy – was given. And what he invoked was new, a greater displacement outside the world of theatrical culture. Amplified by the condition of exiled author, the positioning would have consequences.

Since then, Augusto Boal has come to be seen by Brazilian theater as a foreigner. Something that his education in chemistry and his specialization in drama at Columbia University already announced, and that his Latin American diffusion confirmed. The subsequent worldwide celebrity only reinforced the image of the illustrious deterritorialized. But the real discomfort came from rejecting the idea of ​​culture as a class privilege.

The conceptual foundation of the Theater of the Oppressed, whose various strategies are defined in the following works (especially in the book Stop c´est magic) is very simple, almost a formula that only makes sense in practice: every person has, more than the right to artistic production, the duty of poetic practice as an instrument of liberation. For Boal, there is a social suffocation of “aesthetic activity” in a time of predominance of passive consumption of images. On the other hand, “when ordinary people are offered the possibility of carrying out an aesthetic process from which they have been alienated, this can deepen their perception of life, dynamize the desire for transformation”.

Since its origin, therefore, the Theater of the Oppressed has understood itself as a “rehearsal for the transformation of reality” carried out by groups of people who face their condition as reified beings – socially, economically and culturally. And the exercise of artistic autonomy emerges as a symbol of social, political and cultural deconditioning.

The novelty contained in The Aesthetics of the Oppressed it lies in the emphatic resumption of an aesthetic valuation that was never removed from the project, but which now takes place from its dismantling. Not being exactly a return of the Theater of the Oppressed to the artistic field, it is as if Boal needed to reaffirm the origin of the project to avoid straying. Medicine, art, is also poison, depending on the dosage.

Born from a critique of what he considered a populist tendency of his generation – manifested in the idea of ​​“bringing art to the people” – the Theater of the Oppressed developed as a tool for social intervention of the oppressed based on artistic activation. It was never intended, therefore, for art consumers, but to train multipliers.

As it is a frontier work, however, it is not uncommon for some of these multipliers to use the method from one of the isolated aspects, separating what is inseparable in Boal's poetics: theory and practice. For some, the simple thematic mention of the social problem by the participants would be enough for the pedagogical effect of the theater to be announced. For others, contact with the disalienating dimension of artistic work would already contain the germ of liberation.

Refusing to simplify, The Aesthetics of the Oppressed enunciates the conviction that the necessary deepening of the aesthetic dimension demands a distrust of the hegemonic forms of art. Since The Rainbow of Desire, Boal did not insist so insistently on the idea that “the police are in our heads”. Only that allusion, now, is not psychic, but anti-ideological. Just as the oppressed carry the oppressor in their mental representations (which refutes a dualistic representation of conflict), theatrical art carries dominant aesthetic formalizations that enunciate the worldview of the dominators.

And if “no structure of dance, music or theater is empty”, the need arises for an unprecedented aesthetic confrontation. It is no longer enough – even if that is where the clash is born – the “flashing of discontent” of the dominated in relation to the dominant ideas and forms. A greater opposition, internal and external, is needed against the rhythms imposed by the bombardment of the imaginary industry, at a time when aesthetics has become an effective servant of the capitalist imaginary.

Thus, to the same extent that he defends the development of a sensitive reason, capable of overcoming the verbal hegemony of symbolic thought, Boal observes that the main effect of the “violent sensorial stimuli of the society of the spectacle” is the obscuring of any form of thought.

A really activating Theater of the Oppressed – in times of cultural super-industry – has to take into account – in a sensitively critical way – the “basic principle of television hypnosis”, which is “look without seeing”, a process of anesthetizing accumulation of aesthetic information that they do not pass through consciousness.

The “aesthetic transcendence of reason” that Boal speaks of is, therefore, far from any irrationalism or postmodern sensorialism. If art can really help to improve life, as he believes (and so many of us do), that goes through the establishment of depassivative processes in which the damage has a name. And even oppression, so fluid, asks that its structures reveal themselves as realizations of existing concrete agents.

It is a work that requires a change in production practices, the invention of other modes of production and communication (the concept of origin of the Theater of the Oppressed). And that is completed in this book by Boal with the radicalization of a practice of “aesthetic distance” as a tool of understanding. It is not enough to know that “images, words and sounds do not circulate freely in society”, it is necessary to know how we participate in this process in order to build places and forms of opposition.

Every time he declared his multiple identity, Augusto Boal reinvented his artistic action. His attitude, imprinted in every corner of his remarkable work, is one of impressive joy. Only someone who knew the “nefarious and mortal melancholy” up close would be capable of a work so averse to resignation and conformism. So capable of becoming collective. Your name keeps moving.

*Sergio Carvalho is a playwright, director of Companhia do Latão and professor at ECA-USP.


Augusto Boal. The Aesthetics of the Oppressed Rio de Janeiro. Garamond / Funarte,

254p (

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