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December 06, 2004


The English language first set foot on Philippine stages in the first decade of the twentieth century, with the establishment of American colonial rule in 1901. The United States, through the American Insular Government, introduced into its new territory American ideals and the American way of life through a nationwide educational system, then later through the print and broadcast media and via film. Over the course of four decades, and beyond the end of American rule in 1946, American forms of art, plus their English and European counterparts, were introduced through the language and media and became accepted, assimilated, and used as models.

The American influence on Philippine theatre is found in what was then called bodabil, in the Western plays staged in the original English or in English translation, and in the original plays written by Filipinos in English and in Philippine languages and produced by contemporary theatre groups, using such styles as theatre of the absurd, epic theatre, expressionism, and various forms of realism. The American tradition entered the Philippine stage principally through the educational system established in 1901, and since then has continued, developing with fresh inputs, merging with or transforming traditional theatre, siring translations and adaptations, sparking the emergence of new playwrights, new trends, new theatres, and on the whole contributing ideas and energy to Philippine theatre.

The colonizers who arrived to establish the American Insular Government in the Philippines came upon a theatre scene they could not understand. They found religious dramas and dramatizations, long “hyperbolic” verse plays (komedya), the light musical comedy of manners (sarswela), and the plays they came to call “seditious” because these had the temerity to espouse Philippine independence from the United States. Arthur Riggs, a military journalist and eyewitness to the plays and to the trials of their arrested playwrights, cast, and crew, wondered in 1905 what would happen next, since this “inspiring drama, exactly suited to . . . [their] tastes and wishes” had been squashed by the American laws, arrests, and trials. The Filipino stage he called “a wholly quiescent and hibernating creature, awaiting the sun-warmth before its emergence from seclusion and futility.”

Riggs could not have known, of course, that the rites and rituals, the verse debates, songs, and dances of the indigenous theatre did and would continue, as would the folk theatre represented by the religious dramas and dramatizations, the komedya, the budding drama, and the sarswela. Each simply found its place — on the different stages both outdoors and indoors, in barrio, town, or city — and its own audience, whether paying or nonpaying, on religious feast days, at town fiestas, on civic occasions, and eventually in evenings at the theatre. Inevitably, however, the entry of the new culture would have an indelible effect on the Philippine stage.


The word comes from vaudeville, which was the first visible theatrical influence from America. Although a French form, it had been adapted in the United States as a show made up of assorted entertainments. Shows comprising song-and-dance numbers, magic and musical acts, skits and stand-up comedy, chorus girls and comedians were first brought in to entertain the American soldiers around the turn of the century. They entertained the native audience as well, who found them convenient and portable showcases for entertainment spectacles.

The songs and dances of bodabil (vodavil in Spanish; bodabil is the Filipinized word) soon came to serve as intermission numbers between one-act sarswelas (often billed in threes) or between the three or four acts of a full-length sarswela. They were called stage shows during the Japanese Occupation and, much later, variety shows. In some provinces the bodabil intermissions were called “jamboree,” a word that had originally been applied to the opening musical numbers of a stage show.

Bodabil eventually went onstage in such venues as the Manila Grand Opera House and the Savoy (later Clover) Theatre, forming images of “what’s entertainment” in the minds of Filipino audiences. Bodabil-type acts appeared (and still appear) on political stages, but decades later deteriorated into burlesque and strip shows in cheap theatres in suburbs or around the American bases. While it reigned, however, bodabil spawned musical trends and musicians, performance genres and performers. Borromeo Lou tuned in to jazz music. Dancers like Benny Mack and Bayani Casimiro (called the Filipino Fred Astaire), comic magicians like Canuplin (billed as the local Chaplin), a superb torch singer a la Sophie Tucker called Katy de la Cruz, singers like Diana Toy and Miami Salvador, and, much later, Eddie Mesa (the Filipino Elvis Presley), Diomedes Maturan (the local Perry Como), and Nora Aunor (who started as the Pinay Timi Yuro) developed in the following decades, showing the impact and influence of American popular entertainment.

They also proved how limber was the Filipino entertainer, how easy it was for him or her to catch American rhythms, and how painless and effective a tool popular culture was in the Americanization of the Filipino. The songs, dances, and entertainment forms of most Filipinos until the 1960s were undeniably patterned on the American dream. American popular culture embodied, for decades, their images of beauty and excellence, of life and of self.

The first words of English spoken on the Philippine stage, therefore, were those of popular American songs, songs of life and love U.S.-style. To the music-loving Filipinos, these were pleasant, easy to accept and even assimilate. Neither they nor the performers could have known how powerful these cultural tools were. As Noel Coward has said, “Strange how potent cheap music is.”

English-language Theater

Historically, the next and certainly the major American influence on Philippine theatre was the training in the English language propagated by the educational system established so systematically in 1901. Unlike the Spaniards, who had only reluctantly and sporadically taught the Filipinos their language (they had preferred to learn the Filipino languages themselves), the Americans established a public-school system and teacher-training institutions immediately upon the installation of an insular government. English, it was decided, would be the vehicle of education, and to accomplish this, American teachers were fielded: at first soldiers and their wives, then eventually the Thomasites, a shipload of teachers who came on the USS Thomas in 1901, sent expressly to teach Filipinos English — and, without teachers or students realizing it, the culture that comes loaded into the language.

Theatre in English was the immediate result of both the language training and the educational system. Considering, however, that these teachers were themselves the fruits of a Victorian education (which was not enthusiastic about theatre) and had only witnessed American theatre, if at all, in its infancy, the effects of American-style education were immediately felt not in the theatre but in the classroom. There was the change of language first of all, which inferentially made the vernacular theatres seem fit only for the provinces, for fiestas, for the unschooled, and promoted English as the language of the schooled and eventually the learned. Certainly,sinakulo and komedya would not be performed or mentioned, much less studied, in schools.

And then there were the examples of drama discussed in classrooms: “textbook plays” aimed at teaching the language, at rehearsing students in the speaking of it. These were not linked in any way to life outside the classroom, in contrast to the folk plays entrenched so deeply in community and popular life. Thus plays, staged in classrooms as language exercises, came to be many a student’s first (and lasting) impression of theatre. Stories like “The Monkey’s Paw” were dramatized, as was Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline.” Playlets, dramatizations, and longer plays were staged: for example, Arms and the Man and Polly with a Past at the University of the Philippines (UP), directed by the pioneering American teacher-director Jean Garrot Edades.

Eventually there came out of the classrooms native playwrights who spoke the new language with some ease (more ease is required to write a play than a poem) and who wrote dramas based on the classroom examples. The first play written in English by Filipinos was A Modern Filipina (1915) by Jesusa Araullo and Lino Castillejo, both teacher-students at the Philippine Normal College. In it a young woman speaks her mind and plans her future quite independently, then decides to accept a suitor who uses an old trick (he falls out of a tree and plays on her sympathy) to win her over. Being “modern,” however, she is shown not to have fallen for the trick but to have agreed because she really liked him best from the start.

With mastery of the language came more playwrights, like Jorge Bocobo, Carlos P. Romulo, and Vidal Tan — all of them, coincidentally, later presidents of the University of the Philippines. They progressed from writing occasional plays for Rizal Day or school-foundation days and similar occasions, to commenting on local mores and customs and on such issues as marriage and election promises. (I would note here that whereas the folk play had largely been written for fiestas and religious feasts like Holy Week and Christmas, the new plays came to be connected to civic occasions.) The best of these plays, such as Vidal Tan’s The Husband of Mrs. Cruz (1929), a comic rendering of elections and their effect on community and family relationships, showed the Filipino’s ease with the language and with the one-act play form, and his successful adaptation of both to Philippine subject matter and life.

Into this place and time soon came the concept of “legitimate” theatre on legitimate (mainly indoor) stages, as distinguished from the temporary, open-air, built-for-the-occasion, or built-for-other-purposes stages of folk theatre. The legitimate stage, according to American practice, was only for drama, and for access to it the audience purchased tickets to a play that was an event in itself and not part of a community or religious celebration. Legitimate theatre required not only playwright, director, and actors, but also a support organization for production, publicity, and ticket sales. Unlike the situation in “nonlegitimate” folk theatre, where all the above might be provided by a community, here there was as well a clear division between performers and audience, between stage and backstage, and between theatre and life outside.

By the 1940s and 1950s, when drama had moved out of the classroom and onto school and legitimate stages, and Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies had been performed in public by the Ateneo de Manila and the UP theatre groups, playwrights such as Severino Montano, Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, and later Alberto S. Florentino developed. For them, theatre was no classroom exercise, but a real and earnest art. Severino Montano (1915-80), who had studied drama at the University of the Philippines and in the United States at Yale University, still considered it a tool for education, and established the Arena Theatre at the Philippine Normal College while he was dean of instruction. With him as director, producer, and actor, the group staged almost two hundred performances from 1953 to 1964 throughout the country to bring “drama to the masses” and specifically modern drama to the schools and communities. Realizing that many communities could not provide real stages, he had his plays presented arena-style in auditoriums and classrooms, in meeting halls and open spaces.

The Arena Theatre repertoire consisted mainly of Montano’s four major plays: Parting at Calamba (1953), Sabina (1953), The Ladies and the Senator (1953), and the full-length work The Love of Leonor Rivera (1954). The last depicts the undying love of Leonor Rivera for Jose Rizal (they were real-life sweethearts), even through marriage to someone else, unto and beyond death. The lyrical text is in English, but the view of the national hero as a suffering man and an object of romantic love is most compatible with the native sensibility.

Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero (b. 1917) was the major Filipino playwright in English, with over a hundred plays to his credit, many published, most of them staged. Guerrero’s work was authentic and proper to the times (the 1940s to the early 1960s), because his language was that of the people he wrote about: the educated middle class, whose concerns were faithfully reflected in his writings for the stage. His was one of the few Filipino voices in an era of borrowed foreign plays.

Guerrero taught at the University of the Philippines, where the people he wrote about were learning English, along with the mores and manners of the Americans they read about and watched in the movies. His most popular plays include Wanted: A Chaperone (1940), which took a traditional custom into a setting of incipient modernity; The Three Rats (1948), the first psychological play in the Philippine repertory; and Condemned (1943), about a man sentenced to death, and the loves around him. His comic Movie Artists (1940) and Half an Hour in a Convent (1934), written while he was a student, and his first three-act play, Forsaken House (1938), have been staged in the 1980s and 1990s, but in Tagalog translation.

Certainly as important as Guerrero’s writing was his service to theatre in the Philippines. The UP Mobile Theatre took the substance and techniques of his theatre around the country, and presented more than 2,500 performances of his plays in English — and later in the regional languages — for nineteen years. The UP Dramatic Club, which he directed for sixteen years, produced over 120 foreign and Filipino works. In it he trained the actors and directors of future productions in and out of the UP. His own plays about basketball players, movie actors, parents and children, sweethearts and suitors and chaperones put the Americanized Philippine world on campus stages and in other theatres. The dramas from Anglo-American repertories that he staged at the UP (The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, Tea and Sympathy, A Streetcar Named Desire, Waiting for Godot) provided substantive theatre experience and ideas for audiences of many ages, among them those who later became leaders in the arts as well as in politics.

Alberto S. Florentino (b. 1931) brought to the attention of Philippine theatre directors and audiences the world outside the English-speaking universe: the slums and denizens of Tondo, which he took as his material for plays like The World Is an Apple (1954), Cavort with Angels (1959), Cadaver (1954), and Oli Impan (1959). Clear proof of the dominance English had gained in the theatre was the fact that Florentino’s audiences accepted without question or discomfort the fact that his Tondo stevedores, prostitutes, and urchins were speaking correct and idiomatic English. (“Oli Impan” is a slum child’s attempt to pronounce “Holy Infant” in the song “Silent Night,” although he has been speaking correctly before this.) Years later, these plays would be staged in Tagalog translation, and Florentino himself would declare an end to his writing of plays in English.

Aside from plays in English about the Philippine present, Montano, Guerrero, and Florentino introduced realism into Philippine theatre, an element not found in the sinakulo (Passion play) and the komedya (metrical romance) and only nascent in the sarswela (musical comedy). The biblical stories (and apocryphal side stories like the tales of Samuel Belibet and Boanerhes), the romances of the royalty of Albania and Persia, as well as those of the Estrellas and Anitas of sarswela land and the poets and hometown boys who loved them were now replaced by stories about a country lass falling in love with a (married) American, about politicians and their empty promises, about basketball players and movie stars, love triangles, and the plight of dock workers, squatters, and prostitutes. The real Philippine world was creeping up on the stage and creating a new theatre.

At schools, drama groups without resident playwrights — the Aquinas Theatre Guild at the University of Santo Tomas, the various Ateneo groups, the Paulinian Players Guild at St. Paul’s College, and others –staged American and British plays by writers such as Shakespeare, James Barrie, George Bernard Shaw, and Gilbert and Sullivan, and occasionally European plays in English translation, like Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and The Romancers, and the Greek tragedies. These became the lexicons, the models, and the experience of drama for Filipino urban youth. For these and for all the theatre lovers bred at the schools, who watched the European classics at the Ateneo and modern theatre at the UP, English was the only language for theatre, and Anglo-American plays and English translations the only models from world theatre.

Thus, although theatre in the 1950s was fairly active, it had no connection or relation to the vernacular stage, the chasm between them having been dug by both language and ignorance. The centuries-old theatre tradition that had linked the indigenous communities to the Hispanized regional cultures — community-based, often staged outdoors, and in various vernaculars — was effectively cut off from this new theatre, which knew legitimate theatre as being schooled, enclosed in edifices, and in English. This was the time, therefore, of such non-school groups as the Barangay Theatre Guild, the Manila Theatre Guild, the Penmouth Playhouse, and various others aiming for legitimate theatre and suffering from a lack of funds and audiences — which the school groups had, although in modest amounts and sizes.

The Barangay Theatre Guild was led by the eminent film director (and former Ateneo stage actor) Lamberto Avellana and his wife, the actress-director Daisy H. Avellana. The group did readings on stage and on television (e.g., Macbeth in Black), and is best known for its historic 1955 staging of Nick Joaquin’s major play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1951), and its subsequent film version (1966). Although this play, considered by many critics the most important Filipino stage work in English, has been produced often, both in the original English and in Filipino translation (Larawan, 1969), the Barangay version is considered the most authoritative, with the actors setting the templates, so to speak, for the major roles. The work is about two sisters and their father, an eminent artist, living in Intramuros, the walled city, in the years just before World War II. Its subject, the role of the past in the present, not only echoes Nick Joaquin’s continuing concerns and themes, but resonates as well in many other works in Philippine literature.

Nick Joaquin, National Artist for Literature, went on to write other plays, including Tatarin (1978), Fathers and Sons (1977), The Beatas (1978), and Camino Real, which, along with A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, have continued to be staged in English — as well as in Filipino translation — through the 1970s and 1980s into the 1990s.

Modern Theater

Through the educational system was pumped in, as well, the idea of modern theatre. Students came to be conversant with Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, with Shaw and Barrie, and later with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, Ibsen and Strindberg, without ever having heard of the sarswela. The idea of theatre that came with these dramas included proscenium stages, box sets and hand props, the fourth wall, Stanislavsky and the Method, and even the various later manifestations of realism, as well as Brechtian theatre and other trends and techniques. This was all reinforced by the movies, and later by television shows and videotapes, as well as by material in the print media. The images of musical theatre held by the schooled and by the young were generally not from sarswela or from Rogelio de la Rosa-Carmen Rosales film romances, but from the Broadway and Hollywood musical, as exemplified by the films of Busby Berkeley, by the Ziegfield Follies, and by movie musicals from Singing in the Rain onward. Through the movies too would come models of heavy drama or light comedy, the classics in traditional or new modes, schools of acting and directing, techniques of staging and presentation. Thus, in contemporary plays, playwrights and directors might refer to (and were certainly influenced by) the acting of Greta Garbo and Clark Gable or situations like those of Back Street, Gone with the Wind, and Casablanca.

The idea of theatre, its form and content, and its social function of education and entertainment were thus, for the schooled Filipinos of the first half of the twentieth century, shaped according to the American model. Because of the gap between the vernacular and the English-language theatres, there was no consciousness of the community base of Philippine theatre, or of the forms it had taken before the advent of English and the educational system. On the contemporary scene, theatre in the schools is seldom in English. Since the nationalist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, theatre in the national language, Filipino, as well as in Tagalog, Cebuano, and other vernaculars, has taken ascendance. In English still, however, have been the occasional musicals staged by such schools as St. Paul’s College of Manila (The Sound of Music, Carousel, and the like). Occasionally the Ateneo’s Dulaang Sibol and Tanghalang Ateneo, and the former Teatro Filipino at the CCP, have staged Shakespeare (Hamlet, Julius Caesar) in both English and Filipino, with the same actors performing in both versions.

Few playwrights still write in English: notable exceptions are Nick Joaquin and Elsa Martinez Coscolluela (In My Father’s House, 1987). Virginia Moreno’s Straw Patriot (1956) was first staged in Tagalog translation, asBayaning Huwad (1969). Plays in English are now almost the exclusive domain of Repertory Philippines, a theatre company founded in 1967 by Zeneida Amador, who wished “to make theatre-going a social habit in the Philippines.” In pursuit of this goal, Repertory Philippines presents yearly seasons of popular foreign plays, mostly from Broadway and London’s West End. In 1998, however, in observance of the centennial of the Philippine revolution against Spain, it staged its first play written by Filipinos (Joy Virata and Ramon Santos, with music by Monsod). Captain Miong was about General Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the revolution and president of the first Philippine republic. It was in English, and the combination of subject matter and language was well received by its audiences.

A special role played by Repertory Philippines has been the training of actors in the modes of the Western theatre, training whose effectiveness has been proven by the success with which many of the company’s actors (Lea Salonga, Junix Inocian) have found roles in Miss Saigon and other productions in London and New York. For the rest of the country, however, most theatre is in Filipino and the other vernaculars, and it is vigorous and daring, even combative when the times call for it. Theatre in English, although endowed with a significant history (it was impelled and demanded by the times) and with a collection of important texts, is now only a story to be recalled and retold, and an occasional adventure and pleasure.