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November 17, 2003


Do wars breed theater? Does theater rise out of wars? Is theater a result of war, or is it a weapon, even a battlefield? Is one of the vestiges of war a theater of war? The Philippine experience provides insights.

War against Spain and the United States

The events of the late nineteenth century in the Philippines are fairly well known. The revolutionary secret society called the Katipunan was founded, then discovered in August 1896. By the end of the year revolution had spread throughout the country.

Between August 29, 1896, when Filipino revolutionaries first attacked Spanish soldiers, and the declaration of Philippine Independence on June 12, 1898 by General Emilio Aguinaldo, Filipinos waged war for the first time in their history. It was a hit-and-run, faction-troubled war, but eventually led to the first revolution in Asia against a colonial power, and the proclamation of the Philippine Republic at Malolos, Bulacan.

That ending was neither glorious nor permanent, however, for while the Filipinos carried on their war against Spain, Admiral George Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, Spanish authorities secretly negotiated the bloodless surrender of Manila, and in December the Treaty of Paris was signed, ceding the Philippines to the United States for a few thousand dollars.

The Philippine-American War, identified in American documents of the time as the Philippine Insurrection, broke out on February 4, 1899. From then until April 6, 1902, when Miguel Malvar, the last Filipino general in the field, surrendered, there was continued guerrilla warfare.

In two years, therefore, the Filipinos fought both the Spaniards and the Americans, and here began the theater born of war.

In the period between 1902 (when Theodore Roosevelt declared general amnesty and officially ended the war) and 1906 (when Macario Sakay surrendered, and armed resistance officially ended), the “seditious” plays came to be. Playwrights spoke up on stage, disguising their anti-Spanish and anti-American sentiments in the costumes, manners and scenography of traditional theater, and when discovered, were arrested—sometimes along with cast and crew, and in one case, reportedly with the entire audience.

These plays constituted a form of guerrilla warfare directly contrary to Act No. 292, the “Sedition Act” passed on November 4,1901, which made advocacy of Philippine independence a crime since such advocacy fanned the embers of resistance to American rule. Section 10 which provides that


[u]ntil it has been officially proclaimed that a state of war or insurrection against the authority or sovereignty of the United States no longer exists in the Philippine Islands, it shall be unlawful for any person to advance orally or by writing or printing or like methods, the independence of the Philippine Islands or their separation from the United States, whether by peaceable or forcible means, or to print, publish or circulate any handbill, newspaper or publication, advocating such independence or separation was later to be invoked in the arrest of the anti-American dramatists.


Juan Abad’s Tanikalang Guinto (Golden Chain) is about Ligaya (light; the spirit of independence), daughter of Dalita (extreme poverty and suffering; the Mother Country), who is forbidden to see Kaulayaw (sweetheart; Filipino hero) by her uncle Maimbot (greedy; the American insular government). Ligaya receives a golden bracelet from Maimbot that becomes a chain to bind her to his control.

The play was first staged at the Teatro Libertad on July 7, 1902, and subsequently in other theaters in Manila, Laguna and Cavite, where it was enthusiastically applauded and obviously understood. On May 10, 1903, provincial authorities shut down its Batangas, Batangas performance and incited the author for sedition. The Court of First Instance of Batangas, presided over by Judge Paul W. Linebarger, found the drama “seditious,” and sentenced the author to two years imprisonment and a fine of $2000.

The decision of the lower court was reversed by the Supreme Court on August 9, 1906. While this case was pending decision, Abad, out under bail, wrote Isang Punlo ng Kaaway (An Enemy Bullet). This was produced at the Teatro Rizal in Malabon on May 8, 1904, and resulted Abad’s second arrest.

Hindi Aco Patay (I Am Not Dead), by Juan Matapang Cruz, may have been written and produced earlier, but was presented at the Teatro Nueva Luna in Malabon on the night of May 8, 1903. In the play, Karangalan (honor) loves Tangulan (defender, patriot), and resists Macamcam (one who usurps power; the American insular government). Tangulan is thought killed in a duel with Macamcam, but he springs up and declares, “I am not dead!” The red sun on a Katipunan flag rises behind the stage, representing freedom won, and the loyal Filipinos take the villains and traitors captive.

At this point, a drunken American soldier hurled an empty beer bottle at the Katipunan flag, then climbed the stage with some others and tore the scenery apart. The riot caused the arrest of the theater manager, the banning of the play, and the confiscation of “seditious” props, among them Katipunan flags and revolutionary emblems. Ten of the actors were arrested a month later, and the author, who had been in hiding, was arrested by the secret service on July 5 during “a big Americano fiesta” (The Manila Times, July 6, 1903).

The trial was made especially interesting by questions about Cruz’s identity. He seemed an unlikely author, and at one point claimed that his wife had written the play. The authorities surmised that Dominador Gomez, a labor leader, may have written the play. Despite the questions, Cruz was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, and apparently served them in full.

Aurelio Tolentino’s revolutionary activities started long before his writing of Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas(Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow). He had helped in the distribution of La Solidaridad and other propaganda literature, and had been one of the original members of the Katipunan, assisting Emilio Jacinto and others in the printing of Katipunan forms and certificates of membership. He was with Jacinto, Andres Bonifacio and others at Pamitinan Cave in Montalban, where the first cry for independence was heard on April 10, 1895. Shortly after the start of the revolution, he was imprisoned for nine months in Bilibid, and tortured.

He joined General Aguinaldo in Cavite, and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Philippine Independence at Kawit on June 12, 1898. He wrote for various nationalist papers: La Independencia, La Patria, El Liberal, and his own Filipinas. In August 1900 he headed a secret society called Junta de Amigos, “with authority from Aguinaldo to form and organize guerrillas” (T.M. Kalaw, quoted in Manuel 1970, 374). When General Artemio Ricarte attempted to organize a new revolutionary force in 1903, Tolentino joined him, and was arrested and charged with conspiracy. In his lifetime, Tolentino suffered nine imprisonments.

One of these was for theater. Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas was about attempts to subjugate the Philippines in the past (by the Chinese), in the present (the Spanish officials and friars) and the future (the Americans), and how Inangbayan (Mother Country) and her son Tagailog (Tagalog; the Filipino) win over them. This drama played to a packed house on May 14, 1903 at the Teatro Libertad in Manila.


At a certain point of the play, the script called for the actor playing Tagailog (the Tagalog provinces) to haul down the American flag and to trample on it as a sign of victory. Since the actor was reluctant to do this in full view of the Americans in the audience, Tolentino reportedly took over the role himself. The gestures… angered the Americans in the audience, who then proceeded to cause a riot. As a result, Tolentino and several other members of the company were arrested (Manlapaz 1975, 2).


Tolentino was charged with sedition, and at the trial (he was defended by a young lawyer, Manuel Quezon), was sentenced to two years of imprisonment and a fine of $2000 gold. Rafael Palma and two American lawyers appealed the sentence, but on March 6, 1906, the Supreme Court upheld the decision and found Tolentino guilty as charged. The Court ruled that the drama


directly and necessarily tended to instigate others to cabal and meet together for unlawful purposes, and to suggest and incite rebellious conspiracy and riots and to stir the people against the lawful authorities and to disturb the peace of the community and the safety and order of the Government. (Philippine Reports 1903, 10)


Other plays suppressed for these same reasons were: Ang Kalayaan Hindi Natupad (The Unattained Freedom) by an anonymous playwright, presented in Obando, Bulacan on May 15, 1903, cast and crew arrested; Pulong Pinaglahuan (Subjugated Island), raided in Navotas, Rizal, the night of January 23, 1904, author Mariano Martinez and 20 performers arrested; Dahas na Pilak (Silver Force), at the Teatro Nueva Luna in Malabon, Rizal, May 1, 1904, the author, manager and eleven actors arrested; Ang Katipunan (The Katipunan) by Gabriel Beato Francisco, staged on February 21, 1905 in Laoag, Ilocos Norte, the entire audience reportedly arrested (Hernandez 1976, 132-36).

The plays called “seditious” by the American authorities were actually the first nationalist plays of the Philippines, their concern not merely personal or regional, but national. In stories disguised by meaningful names (Inang Bayan/Mother Country; Liwanag/Light; Karangalan/Honor; Halimaw/Monster; Dahumpalay/Snake), and hiding behind the love themes and filial relationships of traditional theater (Liwanag and Kaulayaw; Karangalan and Tangulan; Taga-ilog and Inang Bayan), the playwrights wrote about the desire for freedom and independence, about the oppression of the motherland, the treachery of fellow Filipinos, American betrayal and imperialist designs.

Using traditional dramaturgy, they inserted bits of subversive stage business: girls on stage suddenly forming, through their costume colors, the Philippine flag (the display of which was forbidden by law); the unscheduled singing of the National Anthem (also forbidden by law); the surprise appearance on stage of an underground hero, like General Artemio Ricarte, code-named El Vibor (The Viper); or new stage business, like the trampling of the American flag, or the replacement of the friar-villain in Walang Sugat (Unwounded) by Uncle Sam.

This made theater as fresh and unexpected as the day’s newspaper—all because of the realization that the Americans had come not as friends, as averred, but as colonial masters to replace the Spaniards and anyone else in the past who had had imperialist designs on the country (e.g. Haring Bata, the Chinese emperor, inKahapon, Ngayon at Bukas).

Arthur S. Riggs, an American military man and correspondent, wrote in 1905 of this valiant theater with grudging admiration. Stage managers with no machinery, lights, tools, money or credit mounted play after play. Long runs and crowded houses testified to the audience reception despite the danger of arrest. He ends:


It is difficult for Americans to conceive of dramas to see [for] which they would risk arrest, jeopardize their personal safety from bodily harm, and which, when seen, would stir them to such a pitch of indignation and enthusiasm that they could leave the theatre full of purpose against the government and its emissaries. It is also difficult to conceive of our own feelings were we placed as the Filipinos are (Riggs 1981 [1905], 349).


All this ended in 1907, when the first Philippine Assembly was inaugurated, and the Philippine fight for independence moved from the battlefields and battle-stages to the halls of negotiation and legislation. Plays eventually began to deal instead with elections, families and their conflicts, love in all its colors.

Interestingly, Aurelio Tolentino, a member of the Katipunan and nationalist playwright, was among those named by General Emilio Aguinaldo to the Filipino Commission to confer with the Schurman Commission on peace. The clear connection between war and the stage is most visible in him.

More than data about banned plays, and about the dramaturgy used to deliver their messages, the nationalist/“seditious” plays left behind a tradition that was the base of political theater, of theater involved in the national cause, committed to the country. This is quite possibly the earliest political theater in Asia, and certainly earlier than any in the United States. The plays—sometimes called drama simbolico (symbolic drama)—also left behind texts that have been revived again and again in recent times, and techniques of indirection that served their heirs well (plays about the revolution against Spain to suggest the growing revolution in the countryside; plays about lovers and families, set against poverty and military oppression; plays about victims and oppressors) in the later war that was the Marcos Martial Law era.

The 1902-1907 plays called “seditious” by the American Insular Government were not only vestiges of war but its fruit, significant weapons and parts of the combat. This theater left its own vestiges too, a heritage of political theater that in later years was to be called “subversive,” a theater of protest.


The Japanese Occupation

The three years of the Japanese Occupation are noted for a lively theater life. The venues were the movie theaters (e.g. Avenue, Capitol, Life, Dalisay in Manila), which were allowed to show only Filipino and Japanese, and not American films, and whose stages were available for live performances.

Plays from Spanish and English/American theater were translated and/or adapted, and gave inspiration (e.g.Martir sa Golgota), laughter (e.g. Cyrano de Bergerac), and hope. These were usually accompanied by what were called “stage shows” as the Japanese authorities ordered, to distinguish them from the vaudeville that had preceded them, and was clearly American in origin and orientation. Actually, they were similar in method and spirit, both being composed of variegated musical and comedy acts—songs, dances, stand-up comics, magic and acrobatics—and by way of drama, little skits. These became the venue for subversive, anti-Japanese theater.

Famous examples were the comedy routines of the fat-and-thin comic pair, Tugo and Pugo. They would make fun of the Japanese non-verbally, by pulling up their cuffs and revealing rows of wristwatches, which the Japanese had taken to confiscating and wearing simultaneously. Especially remembered is the skit in which a sorrowing daughter is consoled by her father with the assurance that “Mang Arturo will return,” an obvious reference to General Douglas MacArthur and his promise “I shall return.”

Theaters became message centers, since guerrillas would come in not only to be entertained, but to receive word from friends and supporters. If the Kempeitai (military police) appeared in the audience, tenor Cecile Lloyd—or someone else—would suddenly appear on stage (during a love scene, a dance, intermission), singing the signal song, “Bakit Ka Hindi Dumarating” (Why Haven’t You Returned?), which told the guerrillas it was time to slip out and away (Avellana 1967, 681).

Stage icon Leopoldo Salcedo’s roles always reminded the audience of the courage of the Filipino. When he played the guerrilla fighter, the audience cheered. When the Japanese authorities demanded that he play the Japanese general instead, the trick did not produce allegiance to Japan, but more applause for the guerrilla, and hope for the liberation of the Filipino.

These bits and pieces of theater may pale beside the “seditious” plays. The Japanese Shimbunsha was strict and efficient, censoring scripts, issuing guidelines, and closely watching implementation. These theater devices were all that could be managed, and they were caught by the audience, passed on, remembered as among the most effective ways of keeping up the peoples’ hope and courage through three dark years.


The Marcos Years

One could say that the content, staging and clever indirection of the protest plays of the Marcos era was theater itself at war, finding its weapons along the way, depending on the state and strength of its enemies (Marcos and the military). One could also say, however, that it was made possible because of the tradition of political theater left behind by both the “seditious” plays and the Japanese era stage shows. One could claim further that the Filipinos had by then grown comfortable with using theater as weapon and battle field, and indeed used it with devastating effectiveness in an internal war.

Almost all the theater after the declaration of Martial Law in September 1972 was protest theater. To the playwrights and theater groups, it seemed self-indulgent to write and stage plays about emotions, personal journeys and social interactions. Theater had to stand beside the people, against the enemy.

And so it did.

In the pre-martial law years of nationalist resurgence (rallies, marches, demonstrations against imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism, government corruption), theater responded with plays focusing directly on national problems—among them Huwelga! (Strike!), Hukumang Tuwad (Kangaroo Court), Barikada (Barricade), Tunggalian (Conflict), Pakikibaka (Struggle). These were staged on streets and plazas and in front of factories, by nationalist groups like the Kamanyang Players, Kalinangang Anak-Pawis, Panday-Sining, Gintong Silahis and Tanghalang Bayan, as well as by the semi-professional Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and the school-based U.P. Repertory Company. The plays were brief, urgent, and directly, confrontationally political, often advocating revolution.

Martial law stopped all that. Although there was no direct censorship, play scripts had to be submitted to the Office of Civil Relations for approval. After the depths of New Society waters had been tested, however, theater returned to battle, staging more plays between 1972 (the declaration of Martial Law) and 1986 (the EDSA revolution) than had gone onstage in the 35 years preceding.

Theater people had to exercise great subtlety and craft, since they were not allowed to confront the issues directly, or use clenched fists and waving red banners. Historical plays were staged. Ang Walang Kamatayang Buhay ni Juan de la Cruz Alyas… (The Deathless Life of Juan de la Cruz alias… ), set in the first decade of the American era, when people were driven from their homes into zones of control; Sigaw ng Bayan (The Nation’s Cry), about the Katipunan and revolution against an oppressive state; and many others brought home to the audiences the lessons of history, inviting comparisons, although nothing was said about the martial-law present. The audience needed no telling, but themselves drew conclusions about unchanging oppression. Artistically, the implied and unsaid strengthened the plays, giving them power beyond what they would have had in other times and climes.

Other plays were written about social, newspaper-front-page realities: Alipato (Sparks), on thieves, prostitutes and drifters; Buhay Batilyo, Hindi Kami Susuko (Batilyo Life, We Will Not Yield), on the maltreated casual workers in fish ports; Higaang Marmol (Marble Bed), about the colony of homeless denizens who inhabited cemeteries and slept on the marble graves; Anak ni Bonifacio (Son of Bonifacio), about a land-greedy landowner and the urban poor. Inevitably the audience asked themselves: Who is to blame? Why do these problems exist? Who can make changes? Who should? Who must?

Folklore and folk theater were especially effective, because of the instant recognition. Sinakulo ng Bayan (The Nation’s Passion Play), based on the Lenten Passion play, had Christ as worker, plow on his shoulder, and Annas, Caiphas and Herod costumed as American Imperialism, the Dictatorship and the Bureaucracy. The Christmas play Panunuluyan (The Search for an Inn) took Joseph and Mary to commercial centers, landlords, factory owners, and finally to the urban poor, to find a birthing place for Christ.

After the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983, the theater became bolder, more direct. “If people are marching in the streets again,” said director Behn Cervantes, “the theater, which was always ahead of them, must go even further.” Thus came plays like Ilokula, ang Ilokanong Drakula (Ilokula, the Ilocano Dracula), about Marcos drinking the blood of the Filipino people; and Pagsambang Bayan (The People’s Worship), in which the congregation at Mass is composed of farmers, the urban poor, underground revolutionaries, students, and ethnic minorities. The priest comes down from the altar to join the people, changing his vestments to peasant clothes, and tying on a bolo.

In 1984 came the play Oratoryo ng Bayan (The Nation’s Oratorio), which made theater out of the Declaration of Human Rights; in 1985 Buwan at Baril (Moon and Gun) focused on eight individual lives and reached insights on communities, society and the nation. After 1986 and the end of the Marcos era, came Panata sa Kalayaan (Oath to Freedom), which fused three legends to make a “new legend about the people,” and to integrate the experience of immediate past and present.

In the provinces the theater experience was often more direct and more intimate. Mindanao has more than 120 theater groups in three provinces, many of which have experienced confrontation with the military. In Samar and Leyte audiences have been driven away by gunfire. A master’s thesis has documented the theater training in the hills of Negros Occidental that went alongside military preparations of the New People’s Army.

Today the activist theater groups are gone, but PETA, university and college groups, and community- or church-based provincial troupes remain. Their plays no longer focus on oppressors, but on the problems and issues that persist: poverty, corruption, oppression, especially of the lumad (the native owners of ancestral lands), injustice, the trampling of human rights.

If the “seditious” plays of the American colonial era were protest theater reflecting a people’s discovery of themselves as nation victimized by foreign aggression, the Marcos/martial law era was a laboratory for political theater of many strategies. Theater was born of war, entered the battlefield, shed blood (actors and directors arrested; plays closed or banned), and triumphed. When the era ended, theater was acknowledged as both warrior and weapon, having effectively conscienticized the people, roused them into action, and made a difference.


The vestiges of war found in Philippine drama and theater, therefore, are: a definite commitment to the country by a good number of theater groups; an ease in the use of theater to deliver political messages; a repertory of plays political but using indirect (symbolic, allegorical, suggestive) expression; a squadron of veteran playwrights, directors and actors; a toolbox of theater techniques, strategies, designs and devices; thus definitely a theater that derives not from fad and fashion, but from urgency and involvement. Philippine theater has, through three eras of political struggle—Filipino-American, Japanese, anti-Marcos—never hesitated to go to war.


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Fernandez, Doreen G. 1996. Palabas: Essays on Philippine Theater History. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Guerrero, Milagros C. 1998. “The Katipunan Revolution”; “Surrender at Biak-na-Bato”; “The Malolos Republic”; “Aguinaldo’s Government”; “The Filipino-American War.” Reform and Revolution, Vol. V, Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People. Manila: Asia Publishing Company Limited (Reader’s Digest and A-Z Direct Marketing, Inc.

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