As explained last issue, my concentration for the following two weeks will be on defining the roots of Philippine theater and how we have come up with what we now know as Philippine contemporary theater. As illustrated last week, the very form of theater we now have is the result of our experience as a people over centuries of struggle for freedom, hope and victory. Filipino art and drama in the pre-colonial setup, although not entirely known, was characterized by dances, rhythms and songs performed in remembrance of old rituals and traditions unique in the tribal communities. As for this week, forms of theater during the Spanish colonization will be further explained.
Spanish Conquest Era
Despite amateur, these dramatic plays and rituals attracted earlier Spanish missionaries during their visit in the island. The season of Spanish colonization enabled many other forms of theater to rise. Spanish conquistadores introduced a range of play-types, Iberian in origin and often Catholic in tendency to the archipelago. The religious plays and dramatizations (sinakulo, salubong, panunuluyan) and the komedyas (called Moro-Moro), puteje, and carillo were some of the fruit of Spanish influences in the theater art. On the one hand, Tagalog theaters include many adaptations of Spanish comedias and familiar Lenten stories or passion. One great example could be the cenakulo, in which Christ’s life before the Resurrection was portrayed and was performed approaching Holy Week in open fields and usually lasted several days and nights in succession but the play was often presented only at night. The panunuluyan was another type of drama presented every year during the Advent Season and dramatized Joseph and Mary’s search for a lodging on Christmas Eve.
To diffuse the literary culture among the natives, the most exalted work of the friars was the establishment of educational institutions in which theatrical presentations usually took place. The first play written by the Spaniards in Visayan dialect was staged in Bohol in 1609, in which actors and actresses were natives. A Jesuit named Jeronimo Perez had written in 1637, the first allegoric comedy of things, on the occasion of Genereal Corcuera’s conquest of Mindanao and was presented on July 5 of the same year. The next comedy was presented on January 1772 at Royal Palace of Manila.
On the other hand, unlike the religious plays like cenakulo and panunuluyan, the Moro-Moro was a little bit different. It was a kind of melodrama which according to Barrantes had its origin in a wild war dance executed by some four or six young Moros armed with gears to celebrate the baptism of their king Ali Mudin. Based on Spanish tales about heroic battles between Christian knights and Muslim Moors, the komedya was an action-filled play which contained a dose of romance and invariably ended in the defeat and baptism of the Moors. Moreover, corridos were legendary and religious poems which resemble the awits extravagant on foreign themes and were heavily interlarded with moralizing on Filipino people. The main theme of each story was usually the victory of Christians over the infidels with whom they have conflicts. Needless to say, these plays served as strategic vehicles of the Spanish missionaries to instruct, baptize natives and spread Christianity in the archipelago.
Before the middle of the 18th century, there have been different kinds of comedies and dramatic presentations staged at various places in the country. The puteje was a dramatic presentation common among Chinese laborers in which characters were doll-like figures that appeared on the stage. Similarly, the carillo was a dramatic presentation in which characters consist of cardboard figures skillfully manipulated by persons who speak for the characters behind a white screen with a lighted lamp. The first carillo was presented in 1879; Navarro Peralta showed one on 1886 in Calle Magdalena and on 1893 on Calle Crespo. These were major entertainers during the times that no electricity was yet available. It was at this time that Filipinos began to experience seated as an audience in the dark as in a theater. During these times began to gain patrons, the elite and the commoner alike… “The well-heeled were brought by elegant carriages to teatro espanol while the others simply dressed, went on foot to teatro tagalo.” Sinibaldo de Mas, who was in Manila in 1841 witnessed how fond were the Filipinos in stage performances that some even had translated Spanish plays into the native tongue.
The formal buildings created for stage performances and other forms of public spectacles were an indication of the flourish of the theater arts. During the 1820s-1840s, only two theaters built in very light materials were recorded catering mainly to the indigenous inhabitants of Manila . At these times, Tondo primitive theater and Arroceros primitive theater already existed according to Juan Atayde. Although these theaters were built only for the Tagalog plays, occasionally Spanish plays were also presented there. From two, the theaters included to 26 from 1846 to 1896. According to history, 24 of the theaters were real structures adhoc for theater purposes dedicated for teatro espanol, tetaro tagalo or comedia clinica. Six of these were made of strong materials and devoted mainly to teatro espanol besides presentations of Italian opera, symphonies, concerts and on some rare occasions it became the setting of dramas and musical plays in English brought over by foreign theatrical companies. Built through power and proper financing, these theaters for the Spanish elite and upper social classes –– were characterized by elegance and strength. The teatro tagalo was erected in 1881 on Echague, Quiapo. Buenaventura’s study of theater in 50 years (between 1846-1896) saw that from 1887 towards the latter part of Spanish occupation, teatro Tagalog focused mainly on moro-moros, comedia fare and offered bilingual presentations and Spanish zarzuelas as well.
As other crowds began to notice the theater, the Chinese theatrical performances also tried to find for places where they could present their plays. Bonifacio traced the origin of Chinese theatrical performances in the Philippines, which started on 1866. On January 16, 1872, a Chinese opera dealing with the war between the Tartars and the Chinese was staged in Tondo Theater. However, the performance has failed to arouse sufficient interest among the Chinese audience because it was rendered in Mandarin Chinese which was not understood by the majority of the audience, who were largely Cantonese. In this stance, Chinese theater had no major influence on Filipino theater.
There were some instances in this period wherein the theater faced a number of problems. The lack of professional artists and problems on stage management was resolved by the coming in of fresh ideas in theater activity from Spanish artists and deportees. By the 1880s, improvements done in teatro espanol and Tagalog comedias – the backdrops and the sophistication of local talent and professionalism among them – were Spanish influenced. In the early decades of the period, principal roles and director’s posts for Spanish theater were filled by peninsulares and other imported foreign artists. By the 1880s, there was a turn, Philippine-born stage luminaries began to make their mark by filling principal roles creditably, winning popular acclaim, and securing their place in the hearts of the theater-going public. By 1896, there were enough professional actors and actresses for Spanish zarzuelas in Spanish and the usual moro-moro.
The period before the outbreak of Philippine revolution saw the development of the theater art in archipelago’s capital. Buenaventura notes that, “not only was there a proliferation of edifices and structures built solely for the theater purposes, but theater societies flourished as well. From the aficionado-type that they were in the 1840s and 1850s, theater and musical groups graduated into professional organizations with formal characters and by-laws.” Among the more notable ones were La Sociedad de Recreo, Liceo-Artistico-Lietrario de Manila, Union Artistica-Musical, Sociedad del Teatro Infantil de Dulumbayan and Compania Infantil de Trozo. The Union Artistica-Musical and the Liceo-Artisitic-Literatio were truly exceptional as the former counted a large membership and had for its main objectives the improvement of prefoseeional competence while the latter’s goal was to contribute to artistic education and the development of native talent. However, the Liceo experienced death as they faced divisions and lack of strong leadership among the organization.