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Nelson Rodrigues

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Dramatist, Novelist, Journalist

Nelson Rodrigues

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Last update: 01/09/2017

By: Maria do Carmo Gomes de Andrade - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

Nelson Falcão Rodrigues, Brazilian dramatist, novelist and journalist, was born in Recife, PE, on 23 August 1912. He was the fifth of fourteen children by the couple Maria Esther Falcão and journalist Mário Rodrigues. Besides Nelson, Milton, Roberto, Mário Filho, Stella and Joffre were born in Recife. Born in Rio de Janeiro were: Maria Clara, Augustinho, Irene, Paulo, Helena, Dorinha, Elisinha and Dulcinha.

When Nelson was five years old his father, a public attorney and journalist for the Jornal do Recife, moved to Rio de Janeiro because of political problems, where he worked as a parliament reporter for the newspaper Correio da Manhã. Maria Esther and her children came later. Arriving in Rio de Janeiro they stayed for some time at the home of Olegário Mariano.

Aged seven, 1919, Nelson was enrolled in the Prudente de Morais public school. In 1926, living in the Tijuca neighbourhood, he was expelled from Colégio Batista for rebelling. He was in the second year of high school and lived to argue with his teachers, especially those of Portuguese and History. He later enrolled in the Curso Normal de Preparatórios.

Because of his involvement in political matters, Nelson’s father was arrested and the newspaper he directed was silenced by the government for eight months. On his release from prison, Mário decided to found his own newspaper: A Manhã. It was at this paper that Nelson Rodrigues, at only thirteen years of age, began his journalism career as a police and sports reporter. As well as he, his older brothers Milton, Roberto and Mário Jr worked at the paper. At this point, against his father’s wishes, he had dropped out of school in the third year of the Curso de Preparatórios.

In time he earned the trust of the newspaper’s board and the privilege to write a column on the front page where he published his articles. The first of them, A tragédia de pedra... (The Tragedy of the Rock), was published on the 7 February 1928 edition, later publishing Gritos bárbaros (Savage Cries) and others. All was going well until he decided to publish an article attacking Rui Barbosa. His father, foreseeing possible problems, made him return to the police section, where he worked for several months.

He returned to the front page but, because of administrative and financial issues, his father’s partner, who had settled the debts of the newspaper, became the majority partner. However, he offered the role of newspaper director to Mário Rodrigues, who accepted, but shortly afterwards quit as he could not stand the intervention of the new owner in his articles and left the paper together with his sons.

On 21 November 1928, Mário Rodrigues launched, with great success in sales, his new paper: A Crítica. However, lieutenant-colonel Carlos Reis ordered the police to arrest all the Rodrigues they found under the allegation that one of them had ordered the murder of Carlos Pinto, a reporter for A Democracia. Nelson escaped prison because he was in Recife trying to cure a depression. When he returned to Rio de Janeiro he immediately returned to editing A Crítica, where he witnessed a tragedy.

Because of an article published on 26 December 1929, an irate woman invaded the newspaper editors looking for Mário Rodrigues. She did not find him, but instead found his son Roberto and promptly fired a mortal shot at him. This tragedy would forever be with Nelson Rodrigues, who later published a series of chronicles on the impact of this incident on his life. A little more than two months later, still dealing with the death of his son, Mário Rodrigues suffered a brain clot and died at the age of 44.

The Rodrigueses continued at the newspaper, but a moment came in which, again for defending their political beliefs, the editor and offices of several newspapers were invaded and closed. Out of those, only the Rodrigues family newspaper would not return to publishing. The brothers began to look for employment, going through a very difficult phase and financial strife.

After knocking on various doors, finally in 1931 Roberto Marinho invited Mário Filho to take over the sports page of O Globo. Mário accepted the job on the condition that he could bring along his brothers Nelson and Joffre. The money Nelson received at O Globo was all given to his mother, who gave back enough to buy his cigarettes. To get more money, he worked as an editor at Ponce & Irmão, a film distribution company in no Rio de Janeiro.

In an attempt to combat a persistent fever, Nelson, at 21 years old, had already had all his teeth removed and wore dentures. Only later was it diagnosed that the fever was tuberculosis. He went to Campos do Jordão, SP for treatment, where he remained from April 1934 to June 1935. It would be the first of various hospital internments during his life. The following year, tuberculosis also attacked his brother Joffre, who was taken to a sanatorium for treatment. Nelson stayed at his brother’s side until his death in December 1936.

Despite facing all kinds of difficulties, he secretly married Elza Bretanha, who was a secretary at the paper where he worked and with whom he had fallen in love, in a civil ceremony on 29 April 1940. On 17 May of the same year, finally with Elza’s mother’s consent, they married in a religious ceremony. The couple had two sons. The first was named Joffre and the second Nelsinho, who would be one of the most wanted terrorist by the Armed Forces, known by the codename “Prancha” (Surfboard).

In May 1941, Nelson Rodrigues wrote his first play: A mulher sem pecado (The Woman Without Sin), which was staged under the direction of Rodolfo Mayer, at the Carlos Gomes Theatre in Rio de Janeiro, but was not a hit. With Vestido de Noiva (Wedding Dress), his second play, with which he revolutionised Brazilian theatre, under the direction of Zibgniew Ziembinski, was presented in 1943. He won fame as a writer and, after that, became considered by critics as the founder of modern Brazilian theatre.

Critics stated that Nelson was able to portray human nature in his plays, through tragedy and the grotesque, giving a view of the world that was almost always pessimistic and desperate. His plays are considered to be the best in Brazilian theatre for almost forty years. He wrote among others: Álbum de família (Family Album) (1946); Anjo Negro (Black Angel) (1947); Senhora dos afogados (Lady from the Drowned) (1947); Dorotéia (1949); Valsa n.6 (Waltz No. 6) (1951); A falecida (The Deceased) (1953); Perdoa-me por me traíres (Forgive Me For Your Betrayal) (1957); Viúva, porém honesta (Widow, Though Honest) (1957); Os sete gatinhos (The Seven Kittens) (1958); Boca de ouro (Golden Mouth) (1959); Beijo no asfalto (Kiss on the Asphalt) (1960); Oto Lara Resende or Bonitinha, mas ordinária (Cute, But Ordinary) (1962); Toda nudez será castigada (All Nudity Will Be Punished) (1965); Anti - Nelson Rodrigues (1973); A serpente (The Snake) (1979).

Of his plays made into movies, the following stand out: Boca de ouro (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1962 and by Valter Avancine, 1990); Asfalto selvagem (J. B. Tanko, 1964); A falecida (Leon Hirzsman, 1965); A dama do lotação (Neville D’Almeida, 1978); Toda nudez será castigada (Arnaldo Jabor, 1973); Bonitinha, mas ordinária (Braz Chediak, 1980); Engraçadinha (Haroldo Marinho Barbosa, 1981); Perdoa-me por me traíres (Braz Chediak, 1983)

Among his work adapted for television, Engraçadinha (TV Globo, 1995) stands out. Besides his theatrical work, he also wrote around nine novels, from Meu destino é pecar (My Fate is to Sin), (1944) to O casamento (The Wedding) (1966), the majority under the pseudonym Suzana Flag. There was a period in which he published, in various newspapers, chronicles that showed his vocation to exaggerate. These chronicles were famous for the frequent use of expressions that later became popular, such as: “óbvio ululante” (hysterically obvious), “idiota da objetividade” (objective idiot), “padre de passeata” (parade priest), “freira de minissaia” (miniskirt nun) and other effective phrases that were later selected by Ruy Castro and published under the title: Flor de obsessão: as 1000 melhores frases de Nelson Rodrigues (Flower of Obsession: The 1000 Best Phrases of Nelson Rodrigues) (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997).

He still kept a daily column, at the newspaper Ultima Hora, called A vida como ela é... (Life How It Is…) where he published brief tales on routine themes, some more elaborate works and, sometimes, refined literary pieces.

Separated from his first wife, Elza, the couple reunited in 1977.

In 1979 he was writing his grand and last play: A serpente. On 23 August, Nelson Rodrigues’ birthday, his son Nelsinho was allowed to be released from prison to witness the birth of his daughter Cristina and on 16 October received conditional release, but could not visit his father who was unconscious in hospital.

Nelson Rodrigues died on 21 December 1980. Two months later, Elza fulfilled his wish to, while still alive, engrave her name next to his on their tombstone, under the inscription: Unidos para além da vida e da morte. E só (United Beyond Life and Death. That’s All).

Nelson Rodrigues had a very disturbed, intense life, marked by controversies, censorship, marriages and lovers, tragedy, the murder of his brother Roberto, the premature death of his father, his daughter Daniela, blind and with cerebral palsy, his son Nelsinho, imprisoned and tortured by the military regime, the death of his brother Paulinho, buried with his wife and children because of the collapse of the building where they lived in Laranjeiras in February 1967 and the suicide, in December of the same year, of his sister-in-law, the widow of his brother Mário Jr. Critics say Nelson was one of his own characters.






Recife, 27 April 2007.
Updated on 14 September 2009.
Translated by Peter Leamy, March 2011.

sources consulted

CASTRO, Ruy. Anjo Pornográfico. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1992.

ENCICLOPÉDIA Mirador Internacional. São Paulo: Encyclopaedia Britannica do Brasil, 1995.

GRANDE Enciclopédia Barsa. São Paulo: Barsa Planeta Internacional, 2005.

UMA JUSTA homenagem: Nelson Rodrigues agora dá nome ao teatro BNH. É o reconhecimento do gênio da dramaturgia do País. Interior, Rio de Janeiro, ano 10, n. 54, p. 8-9, jan./fev. 1984.

NELSON RODRIGUES [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 2 ago. 2011

RELEITURAS: resumo biográfico e bibliográfico. Disponível em: <>.  Acesso em: 7 abr. 2007.

how to quote this text

Source: ANDRADE, Maria do Carmo. Nelson Rodrigues. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at:  <>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.