Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Philippine Traditional Theater Forms and the Performance Area

Prof. Bienvenido Lumbera
National Artist

Colonization by two Western powers has bequeathed to Filipinos of the 21st century a traditional culture which, upon closer scrutiny, reveals itself to be an amalgam of three cultures. The indigenous culture of the various ethnic groups that had settled in the different islands of the archipelago before Spain claimed them as its colony in 1565 forms the base of that traditional culture. The historian William Henry Scott gives a glimpse of that base in the following manner:At the beginning of the Christian era, Filipinos were wearing bark and woven cloth, and gold, bronze, stone and shell hair ornaments, earrings, pectoral disks, bracelets, finger rings and imported beads, and mined and worked gold for jewelry and irony for tools and weapons; they filed, stained, blackened or chipped their teeth and decorated them with gold, and had been chewing betelnut for 3,000 years; they owned tens of thousands of valuable Chinese porcelain jars and plates but cooked in a type of local poet with a history going back to 1,ooo B.C., they deformed skulls, removed them, preserved them, and buried their dead supine, prone or flexed in caves, graves, jars or coffins, and disinterred them, reburied them and venerated their bones. (Prehispanic Source Materials for the Study of Philippine History, New Day Publishers, Quezon City, 1984, 136-37.)Three hundred thirty-three years of Spanish colonization gave that base an overlay of Euro-Hispanic culture, and commencing in 1899 U.S. colonial rule added another layer of Western culture. When traditional Philippine culture is observed from the vantage point of the capital city Manila, it may appear to be but a tossed salad of Spanish and American ingredients. In the countryside, however, such an impression quickly dissipates, for there the dominantly peasant character of the culture shows through whatever trappings of a Westernized life-style found among the people in any marketplace. Theater in the native languages provides an excellent entry into the dialectics of the indigenous and the colonial in the creative works of Filipino artists.

Traditional Philippine drama comes in three Western forms introduced during the period of Spanish colonization. These are the sinakulo and the komedya, which native playwrights writing between the 17th and the 19th centuries developed under the auspices of parish priests and landholding native elites in Manila and the provinces. A third form, introduced during the final decades of Spanish rule was the sarsuwela, which an emerging intelligentsia was to cultivate as a dramatic form that best represented the interests and self-image of the Filipino after the Revolution of 1896.

The performance area for traditional drama has its beginnings in the platform stage set up in the church patio for theatrical productions put up to mark grand religious occasions like the feast of the patron saint, the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ, the celebration of the canonization of certain saints, and similar events. The platform when raised above the ground might have wooden or bamboo flooring, was open on three sides, with a rear wall which concealed actors changing costumes or waiting for their entry cues. Sometimes important personages were allowed to sit at the left and right wings. When a production was well-funded, a front curtain was rigged up and painted backdrops indicated the locales of various scenes. In front of the stage, a prompter's box provided the director-author space to direct action on stage and give the cues for the musicians. The audience, who did not pay to witness the production, either brought their own benches or watched the play standing up and moving around.

Given the performance area described above, it is obvious that the colonial theater form had to yield to the physical and cultural conditions under which the production had to labor. Note, for instance, the presentation of the sacred story of the death and resurrection of Christ which is the narrative of the sinakulo. In the developed form of the sinakulo, the script was drawn from a narrative poem in Tagalog called pasyon, and the stage presentation was intended as a solemn spectacle by missionaries determined to transmit the Roman Catholic Faith to the converts as accurately as was humanly possible. Thus, the dogmas at the heart of Church teachings, the doctrines embodied in the rituals, and the religious concepts behind the practices of the Faith were to be represented onstage without the intrusion of elements from the animism of unconverted natives. But the narrative poem on which the plot was based was itself a "corrupted" text, being a translation of the Biblical narrative from Latin or Spanish into a pagan language, and rendered into verse by a lay native artist. Although the sinakulo is not a musical play, a band was an essential part of the production, providing musical accompaniment to entrances and exits by "holy" principal characters like Jesus and Mary. Performed by native actors garbed in make-shift costumes constructed in imitation of the garments of religious statuary against a crude backdrop meant to represent the Cenacle, a Jewish temple or the Garden of Gethsemane, the Passion-story could no longer be what the colonizing religious leaders intended it to be; it had been indigenized by the very conditions of the performance area and by the circumstances of production by a native cast of actors and "technicians." The character of Judas might be cited as a persistent disruptive element in sinakulo productions, his presence as villain subverting the formality and solemnity demanded by the culture of the colonizers. He stands out among the Biblical characters in the play because he is allowed by tradition to crack jokes and behave crudely onstage, an indicator of a fissure in the colonial culture that allows the indigenous culture to assert itself.

The theme and content of the komedya are vehicles for the colonizing intent of this traditional dramatic form. Based on medieval Spanish metrical tales, the plots of the komedya tell about the divine right of kings and his vassals to keep enemies in subjugation and about the exploits of knights in battles waged in the name of God and the King against the Moors. The platform stage of the komedya became more elaborately decorated in later times, but its most basic construction consisted of a backdrop with two doors, one for Christian characters, and one for Moors. When characters entered through the door representing the kingdom to which they belonged, it was to be understood that the ensuing scene was transpiring in that kingdom. At the rear, above the main stage an elevation indicated mountain scenes or a parapet in the palace. Sometimes, when the play does not have mountain scenes, the rear elevation would be occupied by viewers of influence in the community.

Like the sinakulo, the komedya employs a band to mark entrances and exits with "stately" music for the high-born characters, who enter and exit with movements meant to simulate the manner and gait of royalty. Music also accompanies knightly display of skills and prowess, duels between warriors in a tournament and grand battles, all choreographed according to traditional dance patterns. Depending on the wealth of the sponsoring patrons and organizations, costumes are highly elaborate attempts to reproduce the director's concept of what is supposed to be "royal" garb, although it is customary to distinguish between Christian and Moorish characters through the colors and décor on their costumes. To indicate the "barbaric" nature of the Moorish characters, they are costumed in multi-colored clothes and given helmets sprouting artificial flowers and other such "wild" décor. Traditionally, the Christians are somberly dressed in black and often wearing a species of three-cornered cap.

The komedya borrowed its form from the Spanish comedia de capa y espada, but the outcome as unfolded in the Philippine performance area had departed from the demands of the original form by the time we encounter in the 19th century. In 1708, a Spanish chronicler writing about a dramatic performance he had witnessed, spoke derisively of the play as "al uso de la tierra," in the manner of this country. When we next encounter a reference to a drama done "al uso de la tierra" in another chronicler's account, we recognize that the natives had persisted in their ways and come up with a theater form well-loved by the crowds who patronized it both in Manila and in the provinces. Fray Martinez de Zuniga, after watching a komedya in a provincial town in Batangas, notes:The dramas of the natives are made up from three or four Spanish tragedies, parts of which are so interwoven as to form what seems to be a single piece. . .Each one of these dramas has a hero who is shown in the midst of many difficulties from which he is delivered by an image of Christ or some other image or relic given to him by his mother before she died. In these dramas, lions and bears appear to him, highwaymen overcome him, and always he comes out miraculously unharmed. The hero does not die tragically, however, should one of the leading characters die in this manner, the natives would regard the play as dull. . . Each drama has one or two clowns who make the people laugh with jokes that would freeze the hottest water in this torrid zone." (Status of the Philippines in 1800, Filipiniana Book Guild, Manila, 1973)
Reference to the clowns reminds us of the role of Judas in the sinakulo. These clowns, from the testimony of de Zuniga himself, subverts the komedya as a colonial form, for they break away from the narrative of the play to comment on the play itself and the actors, and they poke fun at erring public officials present at the performance. Called by various local names depending on the region from which the text originates, the clown or locayo is once again the indigenous culture asserting itself against the repressive strictures of the culture of the colonizers.

It was in the third traditional form, the sarsuwela, that the indigenous culture was able to give free play to its assertions. Introduced in the second half of the 19th century by traveling troupes from the Peninsula, the Spanish zarzuela was a musical play that proved to be most congenial to the interests and aspirations of an emergent native intelligentsia when the 20th century opened and the country had just come under the rule of a new colonial power. Instead of narratives from foreign sources like the Bible and the Spanish medieval ballads which the sinakulo and the komedya required, characters and vignettes from life as lived in Philippine society at the turn of the century allowed audiences a look at themselves as a people that earned its identity in the decades of struggle in the late 19th century. Given its origins in the 18th century version of the zarzuela which had abandoned, under the reform-oriented imagination of Roman de la Cruz, the mythological content of the form that originated with the works of Calderon de la Barca, the Filipino version of the zarzuela depicted popular life in society. Social ills, like gambling and drunkenness, were presented with a touch of humor, but the usual plots dealt with class differences that threaten to break up amorous relations between lovers coming from different socio-economic levels. Stock characters whose function as subverters of the status quo parallels that of Judas in sinakulo and the clowns in the komedya were the servants who served as confidants and go-betweens of class divided lovers.

Symbolic of the elevated status of the sarsuwela vis-à-vis the earlier traditional forms of the sinakulo and the komedya is the box set that signaled a departure from the platform stage for an outdoor performance. Filipino drama as represented by the sarsuwela had become an indoor event for which one had to pay an admission price to be able to watch it. In this way did the sarsuwela distance itself from folk performances of the sinakulo and the komedya, a dignity earned by sacrificing a substantial part of the audience that had traditionally patronized theatrical productions in the past In its new performance area, equipped with lighting facilities and rails on which to hang curtains and scenery, Philippine theater ironically assumed a colonial demeanor when it was able to move out of the platform stage and attain the ability to get as close as it could to the theater of the West. It was the "primitive" conditions of the earlier stage that in the past had indigenized foreign material mounted on it. Now that it had moved out of the shadow of its colonial borrowings, it began to assume the look of a Westernized indoor theater. And indeed, in time, this theater was to become in the 1930s and the 1940s a purveyor of Western plays when it learned to speak the language of the new colonial power in the college campuses of the capital city where movies and vaudeville would eventually drive them.

1 comment:

annaleenuque said...

I will be talking about Philippine Theater in my class here in Korea, and this helped a lot. Thank you so much for writing this!