A Simplified History of Traditional Theatres in the Philippines (Part 3)

At the height of the localization of the komedya, Dario Cepedes came to Manila in 1878 bringing with him the zarzuela, a Hispanic musical performance following domestic or ordinary people’s stories. 

The origin of this performance form is vague. However, the recognized origin is Isagani Cruz’s narration that the zarzuela started in Spain as sainete or an intermission performance in a comedia.

Like the komedya the early zarzuela performed in the Philippines were performed by Spanish troupes. According to Cruz, the zarzuela performances were considered to be comical or farcical, satirical but not preachy, and the performances of the actors were “natural” or “familiar” – very much like our melodramas. 

Nicanor G. Tiongson notes that the Filipinization of this Hispanic form is argued to have started in the nineteenth century when an anonymous playwright wrote the first vernacular sarsuwelaBudhing Nagpahamak (Conscience Betrayer). However, Doreen Fernandez (1996) and Cruz (1998) assert that it was the Kapampangan poet Mariano Proceso Pabalan (1862–1904) who first transformed the Spanish form into the local sensibility. Cruz explains that after Pabalan witnessed a Spanish zarzuela in Manila, Pabalan decided to see if the zarzuela could be written in the vernacular – the Kapampangan language. 

Cruz also notes that Ely Javillonar Marquez has quoted Pabalan in his master’s thesis: “True enough, Spanish is sweet and soft: our language (Kapampangan) is hard and stiff. But is it only Spanish that can be set to music?” On 1 September 1900 at the Teatro Sabina in Bacolor, Pampanga, Pabalan’s Ing Managpe (The Patcher, which focuses on a servant girl who patches up the arguments her patron initiates) was performed. Soon after, local playwrights from the different provinces of the Philippines began writing their sarsuwela and instilled kundiman (traditional romantic songs) at the core of this traditional theatre form.

Traditionally, the sarsuwela is a melodrama with songs and dance. It is usually written in prose, in one to five acts, narrating the challenges of romantic engagements between idealized Filipino characters, and oftentimes interfused with social, political, economic and cultural issues contextualized within the historicity of the period when the play was written.


The introduction of the zarzuela in the Philippines coincided with the rise of nationalism – the beginning of the Philippine revolution. Revolutionaries began using the form to pursue this call for independence. This paved the way for the zarzuela moving into the vernacular and became the sarsuwela as explained by Fernandez. Since its Filipinization, local playwrights have used this form as a performance of the “nation” – a performance of imagining an independent nation from Spain.

Folk musicians, usually church-trained composed most of the music of a sarsuwela. As composers, they also served as musical arrangers and conductors, depending on the group or town’s finances and resources. During the first and to date the only National Conference on the Sarsuwela in 2009National Artist Ramon Santos explains that the localization of foreign musical forms constructed new local musical genres, which emerged during the heyday of the sarsuwelavalse lento (dance music rhythm), balitaw (a variation of the American foxtrot combining Tagalog folk song), sining‐awit (art song), and, most important, the kundiman (Tagalog love song).

With the growing concern for realism in the theatre at the beginning of the twentieth century, the komedya was seen as a second-class form of entertainment (if not archaic). Most komedya performances were still based on European metrical romances and featured scenes of battle and love between two opposing kingdoms of different faith. At the height of the sarsuwela, the komedya was seen as a vestige of colonialism since it objectifies pre-national experiences and was considered inappropriate for the new political conditions at the turn of the twentieth century Philippines.

A contemporary performance of Severino Reyes’s Walang Sugat staged at the UP Theater on the occasion of the 2009 Sarsuwela Festival. (Photo: UP Sarsuwela Festival 2009 Archive).

During the early days of the American occupation in the Philippines, some playwrights began to present social critiques to the local audience. Severino Reyes’s Walang Sugat, for example, is set during the last years of the Spanish rule. Lapeña‐Bonifacio explains in her seminal work The Tagalog Seditious Drama that Walang Sugat is clearly an anti‐friar and anti‐Spanish government play which purported to show the cruelties inflicted on the Filipinos by the Spanish colonizers, the crimes of wealth‐grabbing and deceit committed by the Spanish friars and the successful revolution launched by the enraged Filipinos against them. 

Playwrights also used the form to register their grievances against the new American colonizers. These performances were later called “seditious plays” by American authorities. Playwrights such as Juan Abad, Juan M. Cruz, Aurelio Tolentino, Mariano Martinez, Maximo de los Reyes, Crisostomo Sotto, and Gabriel Beato Francisco began writing, directing, and acting stories showing past colonizers (i.e., Chinese and the Spaniards) and registering grievances against the American colonization.

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