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The Roots of Theater in the Philippines


Given the historical background of the Philippines, it is safe to assert that its theater tradition is as old
as the country itself. Its early beginnings were purely indigenouscommunity theater. All its forms
and manifestations were people centered,from the everyday rites and ceremonial rituals, customs and
traditions to the contemporary and new routes of expressions that draw inspirations from the same.
Its history and development of more than four hundred years to the present have always
been community-oriented. The late theater historian-critic Doreen Fernandez extracts the
same conclusion from her exhaustive research study of the historical roots of Philippine
theater published in her book, PALABAS: Essays on Philippine Theater History that was
published in 1996 (two years after this writer had migrated permanently in Australia),
which, no doubt, broke new ground considering the sordid lack of authoritative books on
Philippine theater.
To quote Fernandez: The indigenous drama of the Filipino, therefore, was described and
recorded by the Spaniards,but not recognized as such since it did not have the stages,
costumes, scripts and conventions that they had learned to expect from their own tradition.
In fact however, this drama the various imitations of life done in ritual, dance or even
play was community-based drama at its purest. There was no division between the
performer and the audience, since everyone in the audience was once, or would sometime
be a performer. No explanation was ever needed for any of the presentations, for their were
part of communal life and had meaning for everyone. They were created by the people for
their needs and presented for very direct purposes to bring about a particular good, to
teach definite role to the young, to consolidate the community in its common goals. In
context, it was drama of a high order, (5).
In The Poetics, Aristotle states that Epic poetry, Tragedy, Comedy, also Dithyrambic
poetry, and the music of the flute and the lyre in most of their forms, are all in their general
conceptions modes of imitation. The indigenous Filipinos already lived a life rife with rites
and rituals which are undoubtedly the earliest manifestations of community theater in the
Philippines, following as it were, this Western concept of drama as mimesis or the imitation
of life.
Unfortunately, the earliest Spanish chroniclers did not believe so and Fernandez contests
them all in her germinal book. For instance, El Teatro Tagalo, the first existing record of
Philippine drama written disparagingly from the point of view of a colonizer Vicente
Barrantes asserted that the Philippines was a country in which only the purely vegetable
developments seem possible and that the Filipinos were but races pertaining to the lowest
grades of the human scale. He also argued, without proof of evidential documentation, that
there was no national literature and proper drama to speak of before Spanish
colonization, further stressing that all of Filipino theater consisted of derivations and
influences from Spanish theater (Barrantes, 1889, 5-11).
Apart from earlier anthropological findings, by eminent American anthropologist Robert
Fox for example, which would readily debunk this notion, Fernandez more explicitly
debates that when one remembers that the Spanish had come from a country that reached
its Siglo de Oro of drama in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries , and that produced
Lope de Vega and Calderon de la Barca at that time, then we realize that the drama that they
were looking for must have been that which they knew from back home: the scripted,
staged, costumed Spanish comedias and autos sacramentales- and which they were of
course unlikely to find among Filipinos who were chanting epics, erecting rituals and
celebrating victories with their own kinds of songs, dances and mimetic action. If, however,
one defines drama as it was in its beginnings in the Western world as action or deed
involving mimesis or mimicry one realizes that what the Spaniards dismissed as pagan
or obscene, but which to their credit they occasionally recorded and described was,
unrecognized by them, indigenous Philippine drama (2) .
Indeed, for earlier researchers, there is a paucity of documentation on both oral and written
traditions, let alone the roots of Philippine drama, but there is however, one very useful
book written not by a Filipino but by an American particularly during the period of
American regime. The yarn surrounding its its discovery and consequent printing is such a
good story to read that I am compelled to lift the short flip side cover text, and quote it here
for the telling:
The Filipino Drama was written in 1905 by Arthur Stanley Riggs , right after two tears stay
in the Philippines, during which he had witnessed,examined, researched and reported on
the political plays which the American colonial government had judged to be seditious.
His reportage of the ensuing raids, suppression, arrests, and trials is accompanied by
informative sidelights on the personalities and the productions, and peppered with his own
opinions and perceptions. He included and annotated the English translations of six plays of
the period: Luhang Tagalog, andKahapon, Ngayon at Bukas by Aurelio
Tolentino; Tanikalang Ginto by Juan Abad; Hindi Aco Patay by Juan Matapang
Cruz; Malaya by Tomas Remigio; and Magdapio by Pedro Paterno. The manuscript,
complete with handwritten notations, illustrations, copious footnotes, and instructions to
the printer, was not published in 1905, or even a decade after. The winds of time and fate
eventually wafted it into an antiquarian bookshop, where in 1965 it was found by Central
Bank Governor Jaime Laya, who judged that its value to Philippine history and dramatic
tradition merited publication. Doreen G. Fernandez, chairman of the Ateneo de Manila
University English Department copy read the manuscript and wrote the historical
In her introduction, Fernandez stipulated that Philippine drama began, as all drama
begins, in mimetic ritual. The rites and ceremonies that marked the cycle of tribal life
birth, puberty, courtship, marriage and death; illness and recovery; planting and harvest;
battle and victory were often mimetic in nature. To somehow exert power over forces
beyond mans control, the tribal Filipino mimed petition and offered gifts, battled harmful
spirits to protect women in labor, imitated a hawks swooping down on its prey in a visual
metaphor for a marriage, bore symbols of friendly spirits in procession to assure good
harvest. He also held verbal jousts at wakes or feasts in which hypothetical situations
became contexts for extemporaneous versification and performance; sang and danced out
his feelings and comments on war and other work or occupations necessary for survival.
Kasaysayan at Pag-unlad ng Dulaang Pilipino by Arthur P. Casanova, published and
distributed by Rex Book Store, is considerably seminal being the first exhaustive, and, in its
time, the only authoritative book on Philippine theater history copyright 1984, exactly ten
years before the more definitive CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art (Vol. VII: Philippine
Theater) came out . Well deserving of its Best Book Award by the Catholic Mass Media
Awards in 1985, it became the yardstick of whos who in Philippine theater entertainment so
that the going joke then amongst the circle of artists in Metro Manila was that you have no
name, merit and credits to start with if you are not even mentioned in the book. Fortunately,
without lifting my own chair, this writer had been afforded ten pages of write-up in the book
that dwelt heavily on my own work on developmental community theater with PETA, CCP-
Outreach Program, the MET and most significantly theDulaang Bayan Program of the
University of Life of which I was once the Artistic Director).

Kundiman Magandang Diwata song may be accessed here...
Casanovas book lists some examples of awiting bayan (folk songs) and katutubong
sayaw (folk dances) from which sprang the traditional forms of drama in the Philippines.
The songs, which are very poetic and laden with emotion and sentimentality in their
melodic patterns and rhytm include:
1) Dalit (hymns for the dead)
2) Diona (songs of courtship, marriage and general revelry)
3) Kundiman (the most enduring, best-loved, and famous love songs)
4) Kumintang (songs of warfare)
5) Holohoo ( songs to appease or stop a child from crying)
6) Ombayi or Sambilan -songs amongst friends and relatives
7) Sambotani (victory songs)
8 ) Soliranin (rowing songs)
9) Tagulaylay (lamentations for the dead)
10) Talindaw (boat songs)
11) Umbay (funeral songs or very lonely songs of the bereaved)
12) Umiguing (weaving songs)
13) Uyayi (songs to induce children to sleep)
To this list I should like to add the following culled from my own further research:
14) Hele (lullabies)
15) Ihiman (marriage songs)
16) Indolanin (street songs)
17) Kutang-Kutang (songs by the blind)
18) Tagumpay ( or interchangeably called in various dialects as Balikungkong, Dupayin or
Hiliraw ( war songs)
19) Tigpasin (another name for rowing songs)
20) Tingad (household songs)