Filipino Drama: A Sketch

In this article published in the November 1931 issue of the Philippine Magazine, critic and essayist Ignacio Manlapaz traces the development of Filipino drama from the duplo to the modern film.


In the embryonic stage of a culture there are no arts, there is only art. The beginnings of the arts are organically related and exist as an "indefinite, incoherent homogeneity," to use Herbert Spencer's phrase. Thus Attic tragedy had its origin in the Dionysian ritual which consisted in the sacrifice of a goat accompanied by the chanting of odes to the wine-god. The mystery and morality plays of the Middle Ages grew out of the Quem quaeritis, a brief dialogue intoned probably like a recitativo and concluding with the singing of the hallelujah. In a similar way Filipino drama developed from a combination of music, poetry, and dancing, a kind of loose fusion of the arts.

In the XVIIth century the Filipinos had already fully developed two characteristic types of drama: the duplo and the karagatan. These are usually played at the celebration on the ninth day after a death. The duplo is an elaborate dramatic debate in verse, usually rhymed but unscanned, and without fixed stanzaic pattern. Riddles of a political, social, or even mathematical character called bugtong hold a large place in it. The players accuse one another of mythical crimes in highly puzzling terms and the accused defend themselves in terms just as puzzling. Quotations (later usually from the awits) rain without cease. Wits clash and sparks fly about. Those whom the Muses fail and are unable to read the riddles propounded to them are either chastised with a stick or made to say a long, elaborate prayer for the deceased, a kind of elegy called dalit.1

The karagatan may be loosely described as a duplo with erotic sauce. It is also somewhat less formal than the duplo for while the dupleros are generally well-trained professionals, the players in a karagatan are merely guests with ready parts and a turn for extemporaneous versification.

But besides these two typically Filipino forms of drama, we have also the awit and the corrido which, though of foreign origin, have been so thoroughly acclimatized that they savor no less of our native soil than the duplo and the karagatan, The awits are metrical variations of the Spanish chivalresque romances such as Cervantes belabored and laughed out of the literary court. It is well-known that after the publication of Don Quixote the ingenious Spanish writers of fantastic tales of knight-errantry were obliged to shut up shop, the vogue of their products having swiftly and steadily declined. But to the Filipinos these romances were so new, so fascinatingly exotic, that the reading of Don Quixote could only have had the effect of heightening their interest in such fabulous stories of knightly derring do as Cervantes mentions and making them sigh avidly for more conquering Amadises, Rolands, and Palmerins.

The corridos, which are legendary and religious poems, resemble the awits in that they are also extravagant fantasias on foreign themes. There is a Tagalog corrido entitled Historia Famosa ni Bernardo Carpio na Anac ni Don Sancho Diaz at ni Donfa Jinena sa Reinong Espana (Famous History of Bernardo Carpio, the Son of Don Sancho Diaz and Dofia Jimena of the Kingdom of Spain). This is undoubtedly based either on the epic, El Bernaldo o la Victoria de Roncesvalles, supposed to have been written by Bernardo de Balbuena, or on the French version contained in the famous Chanson de Roland.2 The author, following the fashion of corrido writers, had played fast and loose with his materials. But his readers-bless their simple souls—thinking perhaps that he had not gone far enough, added a few touches of their own to his story. They made the valorous Bernardo, that prodigy of strength, end his career as a prisoner between two moving mountains in San Mateo, a small Philippine town; and what is more amazing, they now regard as the cause of earthquakes his superhuman efforts to repel those vast forest-backed monsters when they close murderously upon him.

The corridos were intended not only to furnish entertainment but also to strengthen the people in their Christian faith by showing them that Christianity pays. For in these poems, the Christians in their conflict with the infidels, though invariably worsted at the beginning, always emerge with a high hand in the end. Could there be a better argument in favor of Christianity? People are always childishly naive in matters of religion and they decide the merits of a faith by considerations wholly pragmatic. The fact that the teachings of the Nazarene are penetrated through and through with a gentle otherworldliness and have only scorn for success that is not of the spirit, is naturally overlooked by their propagators among the laity and even the clergy, though perhaps quite intentionally by the most penetrating of them. For religion must be brought down to the level of materialism if it is to prevail. True religion is only for the few—for the spiritual elect.

These popular narrative poems are, as might be expected, heavily interlarded with moralizings. But Filipino moralizing has little in common with that of the West. Its most striking characteristics are unobtrusiveness and passivity. The true Filipino moralist never burns with messianic ardor. He does not, like Kant, desire to force his ethical principles down the throats of his fellows. As he is usually a poet, he is fond of weaving homilies into the texture of his verses. But he does not thereby lay himself open to the charge of subordinating pleasure to truth, and, we might add, to morals, like Wordsworth; his aim is simultaneously to delight and to ennoble. For in him the artist and the moralist are not differentiated; he sees beauty as goodness and goodness as beauty. He regards morality as art and art as morality.

The writings of Francisco Baltazar, the sweetest and greatest of our poets, show more strikingly than anything else in Filipino literature this peculiar attitude of our poet-moralists toward morals. His famous Florante and Laura, the awit to fully relish whose savor such noted European scholars as R. Kern, F. Blumentritt, and A. R. Meyer undertook the study of Tagalog, has, scattered over its pages, such characteristic strophes as

Ang laki sa layaw karaniwa'y hubad sa bait at muni't sa hatol ay salat,
masaklap na bunga ng maling paglingap
habag ng magulang sa irog na anak.

But even the sworn enemies of moralizing will not find anything in these lines to thumb their noses at. For here is moralizing not in the manner of the strait-laced Kants and Miltons of the West, but somewhat in the large, unconscious, amoral manner of life, or of Nature. Baltazar is too much of a simple, primeval artist to be narrowly and puritanically didactic. Indeed it would seem that in his eye, morality apart from art has little to recommend itself. For in the sphere in which he moves poetry and morals are fused into a kind of magic synthesis in most ways superior to its components.

Much of Baltazar's peculiar power and charm may be traced to the quality of his music. We are, in the opinion of discerning foreigners, a race of poets and musicians; but I am convinced that our musical gifts are more adequately and certainly more fascinatingly manifested in verse than in musical compositions. Our best musicians are undoubtedly our poets. Baltazar is our finest melodist. And he may well indeed be so, for if Huysmans is an eye, as Remy de Gourmont so aptly characterizes him, the creator of Florante is an ear. No line from his pen is ever without some charm of sound, some rhythmic grace or assonantal sweetness. And this is what so richly endears him to his countrymen who can put up with unmelodious music but not with unmelodious verse.

The corridos are written in what Epifanio de los Santos Cristobal calls the "octosilabos filipinos"3 and the awit in which Baltazar shines so gloriously in dodecasyllabic verse. Most of these narrative poems were not composed with a view to stage production but were intended simply to be read or sung to the accompaniment of an authocthonous musical air called kumintang. Such, for instance, were the corridos, San Raymundo and San Alejo, and the awit Florante and Laura. But the Tagalog theater includes many adaptations of awits and corridos along with adaptations of Spanish comedias and the familiar Lenten story—the Pasion.

The medieval religious plays, which played a prominent role in the development of English and Continental drama, were introduced into the Philippines by the early Spanish missionaries. These were originally acted by the friars assisted by natives who performed the minor parts. Later, dramatic representations of the Pasion—a metrical version of the stories of the Bible or more commonly, those that tell of the life and passion of Christ—were given regularly, specially during the Holy Week. Usually, these performances were rendered by professional players who provided a spectacle with some rather curious attempts at archeological realism. But sometimes the actors were merely pious amateurs in their everyday clothes directed and occasionally prompted by the man who played the part of Christ. Many versions of the Pasion, like those of Gaspar Aquino de Belen, Pilapil, and Aniceto de la Merced, were intended not to be acted but simply to be read or sung during Lent.

The moro-moro is a kind of melodrama which, according to Barrantes, had its origin in a wild war dance executed by some four or six young Moros armed with lances, daggers, and shields to celebrate the baptism of their king Ali Mudin in Pangasinan on April 28, 1750.4 The development of this martial pantomime took a most curious turn. It gradually became a show that no self-respecting Moro would care to take part in. The moro-moro as given nowadays is a garish, blood-and-thunder melodrama whose principal attraction is that scene in which Christian and Moslem nobles in loud costumes march up and down the stage striking pompous, exaggerated attitudes, each faction hurling at the other a long bombastic challenge liberally seasoned with insulting epithets, and after much bustle unsheathing their swords and engaging in single combats which before long become a sanguinary confusion invariably ending in the Moslems biting the dust to the holy delight of the Christian spectators. It is doubtful if, without this eminently edifying feature, the moro-moro would be surviving to this day.

The carrillo, which a few years back enjoyed considerable vogue in this country, is a shadow play in which the shadows are projected on a screen by cardboard figures held before a lighted lamp. Manipulated by skillful hands, these puppets execute movements and gestures oftentimes without rhyme or reason—a sort of pantomimic cadenza—which with the aid of the dialogue furnished by a "prompter" interpret the action of chivalresque and historical romances. Barrantes who did not fancy this primitive movie was quite beside himself with artistic indignation when he heard that a certain enterprising carrillo had dared to give a representation of Zorrilla's Don Juan Tenorio, although we may be sure that Zorrilla himself, had he heard about the matter, would have heartily enjoyed the humor of it and most likely would have said with Walt Whitman:

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?

It is strange that Barrantes who used the Filipino theater as a peg on which to hang his wholesale denunciation of the Filipinos should have overlooked a characteristic of it which he of all men should have been the first to notice. I have in mind the seditious tendencies of many of our duplo, karagatan, awit, Baltazar's Mahomet and Constanza, the youthful Rizal's Junto al Pasig, and scores of similar things. The Filipino writers during the Spanish regime had to make use of the most ingenious devices to disguise their aims so that to fully understand their writings one has to read carefully between the lines, or perhaps between the lines only. In Florante and Laura, for example, the vigilant authorities scented nothing dangerous, so well had the author masked his purpose. Even the most astute Tagalog readers of Baltazar's day did not perhaps thoroughly comprehend this awit. Indeed it was not until recently that its aim has been generally recognized, thanks chiefly to the critical labors of Epifanio de los Santos Cristobal. Now we know that Florante and Laura is almost as full of sedition as the Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo which cost Rizal his life.

The period immediately following the war with the United States was specially rich in dramatic productions of this kidney. The unpacified leaders protesting against American domination, sought to inflame the people to rebellion through the medium of the drama. To this end, they produced Juan Abad's Tanikalang Guinto (The Golden Chain), Aurelio Tolentino's Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), Hindi Ako Patay (I Am Not Dead), and many other dramas of a highly seditious character. The burthens of these plays vary but little from one another. Resentment of American rule, a plan to overthrow it, general uprising, and finally, freedom!-this is the theme on which revolutionary Filipino playwrights made stirring fantasias.

From 1872 to 1896 and from 1900 to 1904 Filipino literature was for the most part propaganda in falseface. But in the brief span of a little over three years between these two periods it suddenly reached undreamed of heights. That was, by common consent, the Golden Age of Filipino letters. The political freedom which the Filipinos had conquered at the cost of much blood and suffering acted as a powerful stimulus on their spirit, quickening, invigorating, and expanding it till out of overmuch fullness it sought outlet in intellectual creations, in literature, and in song. The numerous literary productions of that period all have the power and impetuous sweep of suddenly liberated forces. And unlike those of the preceding decade, they no longer show signs of crudeness and want of skill. In the poems specially of Fernando Ma. Guerrero, Jose Palma, and Cecilio Apostol, we find the exhuberance and overflowing of the spirit sublimated into the purest lyric rapture. The enthusiasm for freedom has been whipped into forms of grace and beauty. Patriotism and art go hand in hand. Liberty is poetry and poetry, liberty. Here, indeed, is an efflorescence of the national genius which we may well describe in the very suggestive phrase which Franz Liszt applied to the second movement of a famous Beethoven sonata —"a flower between two abysses."

It would be well to note in this connection that we produced our best literature not while we were struggling for liberty but while we were enjoying it. For revolt may be a good artistic means but it assuredly is not a good artistic end. And even when used as a means, it demands exceedingly careful handling. It is like strong primary colors which, when applied by a master hand, yield gratefully vivid effects but when employed by a dauber make only ultra-modern art. Revolt may make great artists but it can only unmake ordinary ones.

But the fact that Filipino drama up to 1904 or thereabouts was chiefly concerned with political propaganda, should not lead us to conclude that our theater then had absolutely no esthetic raison d'etre. Indeed it was the seditious plays more than any other species of drama that gave us a taste for theatrical entertainment of a higher order than the moro-moro. For despite their obviously nonartistic aims, these plays touch life at many points and have vital elements so conspicuously wanting in the fantastic dramatizations of Christian-Moslem conflicts. It is thus that our rebel playwrights effected, to a considerable extent, a reform of the Tagalog theater which Francisco de P. Entrala with his satire on it entitled, Cuadros Filipinos (1882), and Rizal's translation of Schiller's Wilhelm Tell into Tagalog (1886) had entirely failed to bring about. Unawares, they threw the moro-moro into the shade and cleared the way for the modem zarzuela.

In the June of 1902, Severino Reyes, the most popular of Filipino dramatists, organized the famous Gran Cornpania de Zarzuela Tagala. His object was avowedly to show the public that plays which were not all glare and gewgaw, and in which no bombastic Christians and Mussulmans cut one another's throats in the name of God, could also be entertaining. He wanted to banish the moro-moro, that one great bane of the Filipino theater, from the boards forever. Many other zarzuela companies have since then made their bow to the theater-going public, but it is the Gran Compania de Zarzuela Tagala which must receive credit for most of the reforms that have made the native drama a truly delightful entertainment.

Of late, many Filipinos have taken to writing plays in English. Armed with modern dramatic technique, they think to inject new blood into the native drama, to bring it up to date. Jorge Bocobo, Carlos P. Romulo, and Vidal A. Tan, all of whom write occasional plays only, are the most widely acclaimed of these new dramatists.

The advent of the movies and the talkies has made the prospect of the Filipino theater quite dark. These (how shall I phrase it?) canned dramas have taken the country by storm and the native theater is now finding it more and more difficult to survive in the face of their stiff competition. And not our theater only. For the movies, and specially the talkies, are playing havoc with the drama of all countries. And it would seem that we cannot hope for a better turn of things, for in matters of art these days man proposes and God refuses.


  1. Dalit is also the name applied to epicdithyrambical tale. See Gaspar de San Agustin, Compendio del Art de la Lengua Tagala.

  2. Encarnacion Alzona, Spanish Influence on Philippine Fiction.

  3. Epifanio de los Santos Cristobal, Nuestra Literatura a traves de los Siglos. Manila, 1914.

  4. Vicente Barrantes, El Teatro Tagalo. Madrid, 1889.