A Simplified History of Traditional Theatres in the Philippines (Part 1)

The Hispanic annotators wrote in their reports to the Hispanic monarchy that if not for their introduction of the theatre, the natives (the precolonial settlers in the islands in the Visayas) would not have one. In a way, this is true because the theatre (read here as formal theatre), meaning the staged, the costumed, and the scripted, was really introduced by the Spaniards during colonization.

First in the list is the comedia or how drama was usually called in Spain at that time. 

The Spaniards had two agendas when they arrived in the Visayas: to conquer the islands and to convert the natives to Christianity (remember Philippine history, Spanish colonialism may be summed up in two symbolic categories of the sword and the cross). The sword represents the social and political history of Hispanic colonization while the latter refers to the Christianization of the islands. And to talk about the theatre – the formal staging that colonial Spain brought to the Philippines, is also a discussion of the conversion of the natives to Christianity (and later Catholicism). This is because the theatre had a very important role in the conversion narratives of the islanders. The theatre became a useful tool in aiding the Spaniards to convert the natives. As the saying goes, catechism involves a lot of theatre! 

A 19th century print depicting a scene from a “Moro-Moro,” an anti-Muslim play popular during the Spanish colonial period to mark Spanish victory over the Muslims in the Philippines and to assert the supremacy of Christianity over Islam. Image by by Rudolf J.H. Lietz

In the early days, two types of comdia became popular: those which narrated the stories of the bible and those of the saints.

To communicate the “good news” or the Holy Bible, the Spaniards (well, the accompanying friars of the conquistadors) dramatized the Scriptures. Philippine traditional theatre scholars such as Doreen Fernandez and Nicanor G. Tiongson explain that this dramatization had strong effect on the people. These performances were really ingenious ways of catechism. There were annotations telling us that after a performance, conversion to the new religion (Catholicism) became so easy such as the Bohol conversion: Boholanos immediately were converted into Christianity after watching a comedia performance based on the story of Saint Barbara in the language of the islanders. 

According to Fernandez, the annotations revealed that the natives became very afraid of how the performance represented heaven and hell. There was an implied message that if the natives would not stop venerating idols (precolonial Gods), the Lord God (the Catholic God) would punish them and would bring them in hell to be damned. Whether or not this story is to be believed as factual, the comedia performed in Bohol was the very first comedia performed in the island translated into the vernacular.

In her seminal work Palabas, Fernandez explains that the Jesuit friars were responsible for the coming of the first comedia in the Philippines. During the inauguration of the first grammar school in the island of Cebu in 1598, Fernandez narrates that the program took the form of a comedia. In 1609, the first comedia written by a Spaniard in the local language was staged in Cebu’s neighboring island of Bohol. Unsure whether actors were locals or members of the Spanish authority, the first comedia in the vernacular was about the martyrdom of St. Barbara with an aim to draw the natives away from idolatry.

Anyhow, when the islands were already Christianized, comedia was no longer needed for evangelization. The next most important concern then of the Spaniards was to control the natives politically (okay, here comes the sword part vis-a-vis the “divide et impera” project of Hispanic colonialism). 

I have discussed elsewhere that as a form of popular entertainment, the comedia introduced in the Philippines were the capa y espada (cape and sword), which featured the adventures of nobilities in quests for love and honor and later became more popular as the moro-moro or moro y cristianos

Usually, a Christian princess falls in love with a Muslim prince, and/or a Muslim princess with a Christian prince. The romance is opposed by the parents, who in the plot are the leaders of warring kingdoms. But more importantly, the opposition is based on one thing: religion. War is, most of the time, intensified between the two kingdoms. However, in the end, amor vincit omnia (love conquers all) – someone gives up his or her religion and the other kingdom follows suit. As a rule of thumb, the Muslim is converted into Christianity. After conversion, not only the prince and the princess are reunited in Matrimony, but also the two kingdoms. 

Performance of Arakyo, the Komedya of Nueva Ecija (Photo: SAPT)
A komedya performance by the Komedya ng San Dionisio (Photo: SAPT)
Santacruzan in San Luis, Batangas (Photo: SAPT)
A sinakulo performance in Pampanga (Photo: SAPT)

Then, there was also the comedia based on the passion of Christ, which eventually became what we call in many Catholic communities as the sinakulo. In the contemporary Philippines, the sinkulo is performed during the Cuaresma or the Lenten season of the Catholic Church. But performances of it are dominant during the Semana Santa or the Holy Week of the Lenten calendar. 

There are historians who argue that the origin of the sinakulo is the pasyon, an epic narrative on the passion and death of Christ, especially Gaspar Aquino de Belen’s first Tagalog Pasyon and Pasyong Henesis written in 1814. 

The narrative of the Pasyong Henesis is not a direct dramatization of the Bible. It is a reinterpretation in a sense that the last part is the epic adventure of Queen Helena and her son Constantino, in search of the “Holy Cross.” This part is the popular text of the Tibag, the inspiration behind the santacruzan. Other scholars argue that Pasyong Henesis is not necessarily be the origin or the source of the sinakulo for there are playwrights (sinakulista) who wrote their versions of it which did not include Queen Helena’s epic adventure. Others argue that thinking Pasyong Henesis as the main source of the sinakulo suggests ethnocentrism (Tagalog to be superior over other cultures). Other regions may have composed their own pasyon and sinakulo independently from the Pasyong Henesis and inspired by the narratives of the Bible.

In the early days, the sinakulo was usually presented on a proscenium-type of stage, a make-shift actually made of bamboo-and-wood or cement and steel; under light bulbs that cast an unyielding light instead of creating a mood and against painted cloth or paper backdrops, called telon.

But going back to comedia, how did it become the komedya

To be continued. . .

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