Vicente Barrantes on the Tagalog theatre

In 1887, the Spanish poet Vicente Barrantes published a slim volume titled El Teatro Tagalo, which presumably was about, as the title suggests, the Tagalog theatre. It turned out, however, to be a vituperative account of Tagalog theatre, which earned the ire of none other than Jose Rizal himself. Almost immediately after its publication, Rizal wrote a rebuttal of Barrantes’ views in La Solidaridad. Rizal might have had a grudge against Barrantes anyway, for the latter also published a criticism of Noli me tangere earlier in the year, which Rizal also answered in La Solidaridad.

Despite his altogether negative view of Tagalog theatre, Barrantes makes some interesting observations on theatre in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era. Below are two of these observations: the first, on the scarcity of locating a copy of a play, which then led to several versions of a play being produced; and the other, how local theatrical productions appropriated Spanish medieval love ballads by improvising the dialogue.1

It is certain that, even up to now, it is impossible to find even a single printed copy of a play in the Philippines, for which reason they keep on effecting changes in every performance, changes which aren’t minor … we can say for sure that the Tagalog playwrights would write their [own] works in full, although they would not print them for lack of resources and due to the fact that providing copies for the performances was the only palpable reason for them to do so. Thus, copies provided for the members of the cast would just circulate among them … which is why one of the main tasks of the special judge assigned to oversee theatrical performances was to make sure that no actors would put up a play belonging to someone else, and that the proprietary right to its staging would have to be warranted by way of the playwright’s signature appearing on the purchased copy.”

“We possess known and extremely popular comedies in the Philippines, the copies of which were being circulated no less by the authors themselves. These were the same theatrical productions that the cultured/intelligent Tagalog inhabitants were normally seeing on stage as confirmed by them, and even if they had observed certain alterations, it is because an actor had forgotten his lines or had learned them in the wrong manner. And so they were doing these performances in the same way as we do, more or less, that is, inserting some lines in between dialogues, which is referred to as improvisations in theatre jargon, with the specific difference that these lines were usually taken from popular medieval tales dealing with a hero of chivalry which they refer to locally as corridos, which deals with the same theme and of which they never run out of. In terms of repertoire, as it can be seen later, it consists solely of a few popular works of Spanish origin, which are characterized by elements of a hero of chivalry and of a comedy, and are mediated by way of a translation in the Tagalog language.”

  1. In Vicente Barrantes, El Teatro Tagalo [The Tagalog Theater] (Madrid: Tipografia de Manuel G. Hernandez, 1887). Translated into English for the Philippine Performance Archive by Prof. Elvin Ebreo of the Department of European Languages, UP Diliman (2017, in progress). Full text of the English translation will be available soon in the repository of the Philippine Performance Archive as new and original content.

Prepared by Leif Andrew B. Garinto