To identify what Philippine Drama is, one must first define drama and understand the “Philippine-ness” of these dramatic forms.
The meaning of drama should not be identified with concepts of theater of the Europe during the Renaissance. Drama is drama because of mimesis that is the imitation by an actor of actions that happen in real life.
The Philippine-ness of a cultural form varies in degrees, depending on whether it fulfills one, two, or all items of the following criteria:
1) It reflects Philippine culture.
2) It answers the need of Filipinos at a given time.
3) It works for the good of the Filipinos.
Philippine dramatic forms are best explored by categorizing them under the various historical periods that produced them.
The Indigenous Period
Pre-colonial drama consists of the rituals, dances, and customs of various tribes that inhabited the Philippine archipelago.
Characteristics of Philippine Rituals
1) The central figure of rituals is the shaman (catalonan or babaylan).
2) In most cases, the shaman is a woman or an effeminate man.
3) In these rituals, the shaman goes into a trance, as a spirit possesses him or her.
4) Rituals require a sacrifice such as a live animal, which will be killed, or sometimes, food.
5) Rituals are done to bless a newborn child, pray for a bountiful harvest, and predict future events like natural calamities.
Indigenous dances are imitations of animal movements and tribal activities such as gathering food or hunting animals. The most important dance for many tribes is the war dance.
In a war dance, the tribe’s warriors display their fighting prowess using different weapons against an imaginary enemy.
Customs, which were mimetic, are associated with courtship, marriage, death, or other critical occasions of tribal life and were performed as songs.
Among Visayans, the bical and the balac are two popular dramatic forms. In the bical, two opponents of the same gender exchange verses that reveal the other person’s shortcomings.
In the balac, the male participant will court the female participant with the use of verse, while the female participant rebuffs in verse the male participant’s advances. Often, the verses are spoken with a musical instrument (the kudyapi for the man, the kurlong for the woman).
The Spanish Colonial Regime
The Spanish regime from 1521 to 1898 saw the rise and popularization of various types of secular and religious drama, the former usually staged to celebrate town fiestas, and the latter, to highlight important Catholic liturgical feasts or seasons.
Of the secular dramas, the most important and popular was the komedya (also called moro-moro, linambay, or curaldal), a play in verse performed for many nights in the 18th century. Komedyas are based on European metrical romances that depict the conflict between Christian and Moorish kingdoms. One special characteristic of the komedya is its batallas, lengthy choreographed fights between individuals or armies.
Philippine Religious Dramatic Forms
1) Pununulayan – the search for an inn by Mary and Joseph
2) Pastores and Tatlong Hari – the adoration of the child Christ by the shepherds and the three wise men, respectively
3) Osana – the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday
4) Salubong – the meeting of the risen Christ and his grieving mother, Mary
5) Moriones – depicts the story of Longinus, the Roman soldier who was beheaded for believing Christ resurrection
6) Tibag – the search of Helena and Constantine for the cross of Christ
7) Sinakulo – dramatization of the passion of the Christ
The Early American Occupation
The drama (revolutionary and romantic) and the sarsuwela were the two most popular drama forms during the first two or three decade of the American regime.
The revolutionary plays of the turn of the century were labeled “seditious by the Americans because these plays were anti-American and exhorted Filipinos to fight American colonization.
As more Filipinos accepted American rule, the revolutionary drama slowly disappeared and the romantic drama rose and reigned for the next decades.
The sarsuwelas had their heyday in the 20s and 30s. The sarsuwela usually had three-acts with music and dancing interspersed within the prose dialogue. Sarsuwelas often focus on the love story between members of the upper classes, spiced with comic love between servants.
The Later American Period
In 1921, Luis Borromeo came back from Las Vegas, and started his own full-fledged bodabil (local version the vaudeville). During the Japanese occupation, the bodabil appended the romantic drama as one of its highlights, and thus was born the stage show.
The stage show is a potpourri of songs, dances, comedy skits, and romantic dramas. Bodabil songs, dances, and comedy skits are derived mainly from what was popular in America.
The Contemporary Period
The contemporary period gave birth to the modern contemporary theater, whose principle tendencies were realism, expressionism, and contemporized traditional forms.
Western realism, which seeks to move an audience through empathy with three-dimensional characters, has been adopted by Filipino playwrights who know follow two tendencies: the psychological, which focuses on the problems of individuals; and the social, which situates and roots individual problems within a larger framework of class society.
Becoming more popular than realism is expressionism, which directly discusses social ideas, consciously destroying the illusion of theatrical reality and employing mime, dance, songs, symbols, stylized sets, costumes and props, and almost anything that would clarify and intensify these ideas to the audience.
Contemporary Filipino playwrights have realized that traditional forms of drama still popular among the masses should not only be studied but imbued as well with positive and timely messages.
Tiongson, Nicanor. “What is Philippine Drama?” Filipiniana Reader. Ed. Priscelina Patajo-Lecasto. Quezon City: OASIS, University of the Philippines Open University, 1998.