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The Magic of the Mamulengo

February 3, 2009
Lampião and Maria Bonita

Lampião and Maria Bonita

Mamulengo is the name given to traditional puppet shows, a part of popular culture in northeast Brazil. Improvised puppet theatre performances employ popular characters in the performance of comedy, tragedy and drama from everyday life.

The Mamulengueiro (puppeteer) is an artist that employs his liberated imagination to create the spectacle, and the resulting performance reflects his own personality. He skillfully judges the reactions of the audience to get their involvement and interaction.

The language used employs the particular traditional vocabulary of the Mamulengueiro, adding charm and magic to his performance. He tells a story that is rooted in folklore tales that feature heroes, heroines and caricatures of familiar characters, such as the two most infamous characters of Pernambuco folklore illustrated above.  “Captain” Virgulino Ferreira da Silva (nicknamed Lampião meaning “Oil Lamp” in Portuguese), and his girlfriend, Maria Déa (nicknamed Maria Bonita) were the ring leaders of a group of bandits (cangaço) who terrorized the Brazilian Northeast in the 1920s and 1930s.

The performance dramatizes the situations and the conflicts of the world as they relate to the audience of the day, and the dramatisation uses every theatrical resource: love and hate, romance and disappointment, trust and fear. It also plays with words, uses puns, and employs various accents.

Frequently the stories will also blend the various cultural and ethnic influences of the indigenous population, of the Afro-Brazilian, and of the white European colonizers. The performance is usually in the form of a series of short improvised tales with no established text.

Mamulengo is an art form that comes from the common people of the poorer classes who traditionally have been less literate. It mixes sculpture, theatre, poetry, and dramatic communication in a very intelligent way.

Before the start of a show, some Mamulengueiros interact with the audience in other ways, as magicians, clowns or as town criers. The town crier option is the adoption of a famous character (Mateus) from a play (Bumba-meu-Boi).

Performances in the countryside of the interior are usually at the request of a wealthy patron (businessman or landowner), or on the initiative of the Mamulengueiro who chooses to perform in the street, at fairs, or public places. In this case, he makes his living from audience contributions by passing a hat among the crowd.

The performances are usually accompanied by a band, conducted by a master of ceremonies, and consisting of a fiddler, accordion, tambourine, bass drum and triangle.

The concept has several similar formats in Europe, which seem to have their roots in the 16th century Italian Commedia Dell’arte. The UK Punch and Judy show is one example (the first performance in the UK being recorded in May 9th 1662).

Punch & Judy (UK)

Punch & Judy (UK)

It is possible that the Brazilian Mamulengo originated form the time of Dutch occupation, the Dutch equivalent of the Punch and Judy characters being Jan Klaassen (Punch) and Katrijn (Judy). If indeed the Dutch introduced the tradition, it would date from the mid 17th century in Brazil.

Olinda is home to the first museum of the Mamulengo. The large collection of characters exhibited is impressive; some are funny and others are scary, some are grotesque and others are charming. All are interesting. The museum is located in Rua de São Bento 344 and open Tuesday to Sunday 10am – 5pm.

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