It's quite a show.

Photographer: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Brazil's Theater of the Absurd

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Acclaimed Brazilian actor and director Claudio Botelho is used to enthusiastic audiences. But bringing the house down mid-performance was not in the script earlier this week, when Botelho -- who is currently on stage playing a theater troupe impresario -- turned to the audience and ad-libbed a few quips about a "crooked former president" and a "thieving president" facing impeachment.

In moments, scores of audience members were on their feet and shouting "There will be no coup!" while an opposing faction volleyed with "Go away! Go away!" The stunned cast looked on as some in the crowd tried to rush the stage and Botelho scolded the mutiny as "worse than the military." Chico Buarque, the popular singer who inspired the musical, withdrew permission for Botelho to use his score, effectively canceling the show.

And so it has become in Brazil, where the twisted plot of a massive political corruption scandal has invaded everyday life, polarizing not just the protesters on the country's streets, but also the people in its football stadiums, on college campuses and in living rooms. "Couples are splitting up over politics," my friend's wife texted him the other day, after government loyalists and opposition protesters held dueling street protests throughout the country. "Let's not let that happen to us, OK?"

As the whiff of corruption spreads from the presidential palace to congress to multibillion-dollar corporations, it's no wonder Brazilians are in a funk. But the vitriol is notable for a land that prides itself on turning life's indignities into a carnival. The darkening mood also is a sign that it will take more than quick fixes -- say, President Dilma Rousseff's resignation or impeachment -- to soothe tempers, never mind bring the country together again.

One story in a Sao Paulo newspaper told of a barber who boasted about the razor he kept in a drawer for left-wing customers flaunting pro-government opinions.

Also in Sao Paulo, a 9-year-old was bullied and insulted by classmates because of his red and white T-shirt -- colors favored by the corruption-tainted ruling Workers' Party. What the bullies didn't get was that the shirt carried a reproduction of the Swiss flag.

Social media has long been a battleground in Brazil. A Getulio Vargas Foundation analysis of hundreds of thousands of tweets posted in the two days before a massive nationwide anti-government protest earlier this month revealed a colorful portrait of a nation hewn in two.

Brazilian artists have long spoken out politically, but outright confrontation between opposing camps is out of character. "We're back to the Cold War," said author and music producer Nelson Motta, who despaired in a newspaper column that the current state of the country's politics was stoking intolerance and driving friends apart. "I never thought I'd see the country come to this and, hey, I lived through the military dictatorship."

Fortunately, not everyone has surrendered to the fury. On March 13, when more than 3 million protesters took to the streets, most of the nearly 460,000 tweets about the protests took no side in the partisan fray, taking the form of jokes and parodies instead.

And when conservative blogger Rodrigo Constantino published a list of 766 intellectuals whom he accused of "defending the indefensible" Workers' Party, the sendups went viral. "The day this ridiculous citizen praises me, I'll take him straight to court," sports journalist Juca Kfouri told a Brazilian website.

Claudio Botelho isn't laughing. On Wednesday, he posted a mea culpa on his Facebook page, apologizing to theatergoers and to Buarque, who promptly waived his ban on the musical. Even in conflagrated Brazil, the show must go on.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net