The Coffee Table


From Ritual to REalism

Doreen G. Fernandez

(Notes on the History of Philippine Drama)

Indigenous Drama

“Mimesis” or “mimicry” is a key word in summarizing the essence of early Philippine drama during the 16th and 17th centuries.

·        ritualistic performances to please the gods

Customs and Traditions – dramatized songs and dance-drama were an integral part of their lives.

·        Leyte-Samar Visayans (ambahan, bikal, balak, siday, parahaya)

·        Daily occupational activities of early Filipino life were imitated (e.g. hunting, harvesting, courtship, etc.) as well as the movements of animals (e.g. fish, ducklings, ricebirds, etc.)

·        Games were also played (e.g. duplo, bulaklakan, karagatan, panyo palaran, kulasisi sing hari, pamanhikan)

o       Duplo is a very early form of Philippine drama in which participants imagine themselves in situations wherein they act out their roles; “pretend-play”

Indigenous Filipino Drama is a community-based drama (everyone is a participant) wherein different activities in life are imitated by singing songs about it, by body movements moving to the tune of an appropriate music, or putting one’s self in a situation and acting on it in accord to one’s role. Unlike in the Western (contemporary) drama, the Indigenous type needs no explanation for everyone who engages in it because they are already familiar with what is being reenacted. The early Filipino drama is done for the purpose of conveying a message that would result in the common good.

Primo viaggio intorno al mondo (1525) by Pigafetta – the very first native ritual recorded and reported to the Western world

Spanish Colonial Period


During the Hispanization period of the Philippines, the awit and the corrido became popular for its contents of chivalry and romance, and the lives of saints and martyrs written in meter. Spanish colonizers also taught the early Filipinos how to stage presentations both in Spanish and in the native tongue.

Spanish Comedia – a play in verse in 3 acts

The Komedya – the vernacular version of the comedia in which there are six-, seven-, eight- or twelve-syllable lines. The plot is basically about a Christian-Muslim forbidden romantic affair in which love triumphs over the battles and obstacles in the end. Parts of the komedya include the batalya (battle), palasintahan (love scene), pusong (the clown/s), mahiya (magic or enchantment scenes), and scenes of arousing pathos.

Huseng Sisiw and Balagtas are two prominent poets of that time who wrote komedyas.

The effect of staging komedyas is the scorning of the Muslim or Moro because of the drama’s plot in which they are the barbaric ones who eventually lose in the end to the Christians.

Religious Drama


To reinforce the spread of the Catholic faith in the country, the Jesuits dramatized certain Church rituals to arouse the interest of the native Filipinos. The religious drama is classified by Nicanor Tiongson into three – based on the liturgy, derived from the liturgy, and based not on the liturgy but on the liturgical calendar. It is also classified according to length – the short dramatization (salubong and panunuluyan), and the full-length dramatization (sinakulo and tibag).

Sinakulo – the best known of the full-length dramas that is said to be based on Gaspar Aquino de Belen’s Pasyon (1704) or on the Pasyong Henesis (1814). It is still an annual custom in some towns of the Philippines (e.g. Pampanga, Cavite, Bulacan, Rizal). The context of the sinakulo revolves around the forces of good and evil wherein the characters are the holy ones (e.g. The Holy Family – Jesus, Joseph, Mary), and the Jews who had condemned Jesus to His death.  

American Colonial Period

The Western variety of theater, as characterized by scripted plot, costumes, and staging, is introduced to the Philippines by the 19th century. The first Manila theaters were also built in the 1820s/1830s such as the Teatro de Tondo, Arroceros, Gran Coliseo de Binondo, Teatro del Principe Alfonso, Teatro Circo de Bilibid, Teatro de Sibacon, Teatro de Variedades, Teatro Filipino, and Teatro Zorrilla. Significantly, the plays that were presented at the beginning were the Spanish ones before a full adaptation to the Western tradition had taken place. Later on, the religious overtone (e.g. the Moro-Cristiano battles) that contained the plays was gradually changed to Philippine subjects such as historical events that had taken place in the country.

Teatro Tagalo/Ilocano/Pampango – consisted of the komedya and the religious dramas

Alejandro Cubero – father of the Spanish theater in the Philippines

The Zarzuela is a play with music that was introduced earlier during the Spanish colonization. Its vernacular form is the Filipino Sarswela in which it portrays domestic life (e.g. family life, politics, romance), and has music, dances, and party scenes.

·        One-act sarswela – presents the little foils of Filipino family concerns; has a single situation only

·        Sarswela songs – functions as part of the dialogue, exposition, development, comic interlude, or as a musical pause.

·        Zarzuela grande – three- to five-act play; wider and deeper scope

Severino Reyes’ R.I.P. – introduced the sarswela that made it into the first professional Philippine theatre.

The early Philippine drama mostly consisted of political allegories that depicted the sentiments of the Filipinos after America took over the role of the colonizer from the Spaniards.

The English language eventually became established and was marked as the language of the elite and the educated. The Philippine theatre was also introduced with foreign plays (e.g. Shakespeare).

·        A Modern Filipina (Jesusa Araullo and Lino Castillejo, 1915) – the first play in English written by Filipinos

During the American occupation, two newer entertainment forms also erupted – the vaudeville and the movies.

Sarswelas and Dramas became stereotyped, and the Philippine theatre had a shift of its content to a direct reflection of real problems in the country. However, these plots were still in its formulaic stage because of its hurried resolution in which a happy ending is immediately achieved.

Vaudeville – variety show that originated from France and introduced by the Americans to the Philippines

Bodabil – the Filipino version of the variety show that consisted of comedy skits, dancing, singing, and such.

Philippine plays written and produced in English began in 1945. Notable playwrights were Jean Edades, Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, Henry Irwin, S.J., James B. Retuer, Severino Montano, and Naty Crame Rogers.

Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (Nick Joaquin) – one of the greatest plays of the Philippine theater in English

The Palanca Memorial Awards first encouraged the writing of plays in English in the country. In 1954, awards and funds were given for the winning play manuscripts.

Philippine Drama in the Vernacular

English still did not become a natural language of all the Filipinos in the country by the early sixties. This eventually became a problem for the theatre people who found it hard to drawn in a large audience as they had used to when the plays were in the vernacular. Historical and social movements of the 60s and the 70s also influenced the return of the Philippine theater to its native tongue. Theatre not only became as a source of entertainment, but also a medium of conveying political and nationalistic messages.

Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA) – founded in 1967 by Cecile Guidote.

Contemporary Scene of the Philippine Theatre


Traditional forms of the Philippine theatre such as the religious dramas and sarswela are still being presented today in some parts of the country. The plays being written now, however, reflect the present situation (e.g. poverty, political corruption, and the like) through the theme of social realism in which man and society are interdependent forces. Theatre groups in the country have also become widespread through programs in schools and universities. Although, it is quite unfortunate that the Philippines do not have a national theatre because of insufficient support by the government in this particular field of art, however, it may have a better foundation someday.




I am personally very happy to have read Doreen Fernandez’s essay on Philippine theatre. Without its brief historical and cultural overview on one of the richest literary genres in the country, I would still be quite ignorant about it. Truth be told, I didn’t know how exactly this genre worked its way into the tradition of the Pinoys. It was a fascinating find that we already had an ancestral customs, such as the duplo, in which the play seemed to be a short way from its recognition. Reflecting on the vast history of the Philippine theatre, I think it is indeed a rich, however, dying custom in the country – dying in the sense that more and more people are turning into visual and technological portrayals of what the staged drama is trying to depict in today’s setting. This is perhaps why I chose to report on a play piece in my CL 150 class instead of choosing from poems, essays, or short stories. In a way, I want to be refreshed of what I have missed for so long – plays, dramatic depictions, real people acting meaningful events right in front of you. Experiencing a play is a breather, for me, living in this environment were life stories are just a click away in the internet (movies) or a click away in the TV remote (teledramas).