But, the performances we see today are mere products of the cultures that have influenced the country through the years. Let’s take a look at how the history of Philippine theatre has evolved.

Pre-colonial Time

During the pre-historic times, theater in the Philippines was in the form of indigenous rituals, verbal jousts or games, or songs and dances to praise gods. According to early chronicles, pre-historic dramas consisted of three elements – myth, mimesis, and spectacle.

These mimetic performances mostly dramatized primitive rituals and epic poetry about deities and mythical legends, where the spirit of the deities would seemingly possess a catalonan (priest) or babaylan (priestess).

During this entranced state, the priest or priestess would consume the sacrificial offering, which could be in the form of a pig, chicken, rice, wine, or nuts.
"…seemed to shoot flames from her eyes; her hair stood on end, a fearful sight to those beholding, and she uttered words of arrogance and superiority." – Juan de Plasencia, 1590

Spanish Regime

When the Spaniards reached our shores, they used dramas such as zarzuelas as a pedagogical tool to influence the pagan tribes and teach them about Christianity and religion.

Another important form of theater popularized during the Spanish colonization is the comedia, also known as moro-moro, linambay, or arakyo. It’s a play in verse that portrays the lives, loves, and wars of moors and Christians.

Moro-Moro is a secular comedy that dramatizes the war between Christians and Muslims through the forbidden love between the prince and the princess. The comedy is resolved with the non-Christian being converted to Christianity, or through his or her death, immediately followed by his or her resurrection.

Comedias were normally performed in the pueblos or village centers to attract more people to the foundation of its regime. The comedia can last anywhere from 3 to 15 hours through a series of performances. The first Filipino comedia was performed in Latin and Spanish by Fr. Vicente Puche in Cebu in 1598.

On the other hand, a zarzuela is a form of musical theater that combines spoken word and song that celebrates various Catholic liturgical feasts. Jugar Con Fuego by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri was the first zarzuela introduced in the country in late 1878 or early 1879.

By August 17, 1893, Teatro Zorilla, the home of zarzuela, was inaugurated.
Throughout the 333 years of the Spanish regime, the Philippines was widely influenced by their culture, tradition, and religion. Today, zarzuelas and comedias are still being performed, albeit with other cultural influences and contemporary touches.

American Colonization

When American colonial rule was established, the United States introduced the American way of life through education, media, and language. Their influence on Philippine theatre is most apparent through the bodabil (vaudeville) and the plays and dramas staged or translated into English.

In 1898, the first bodabil was produced by the Manila Dramatic Guild for the sole purpose of entertaining American soldiers and other Americans residing in Manila. It was also the first theatrical performance since the revolution.

The bodabil is not a straight-up play. The theatrical performance is, in fact, a mix of songs, dances, comedy skits, and even magical performances. Local audiences bought-in and productions soon found themselves becoming entertainment spectacles that can be transported from one town to the next. Not long after, the bodabil was interjected into comedias and zarzuelas, as intermission numbers known as jamborees.

In the 1930s, the country was introduced to Broadway theatre or stage plays through the westernized education that was provided in most private schools for privileged children. Shakespearean tragedies and comedies, as well as western classics, were performed in the original English or English adaptation.

The Japanese Occupation

By the 1940s, when the Japanese took over the Philippines from the Americans, movie actors and actresses could no longer appear in films, as the Japanese confiscated all film equipment. However, the comedia, zarzuela, and bodabil remained in the country as forms of entertainment and expression.

Eventually, the bodabil evolved to become stage shows or variety shows with a short melodrama at the end to accommodate the actors and actresses who moved their craft to bodabil and theatre. Venues such as the Manila Grand Opera House and the Savoy Theatre became homes of bodabil.

After the war, movies returned to popularity, and the bodabil era slowly lost its luster. Stage shows became small, cheap performances held in open-air stages in the provinces. Sadly, the bodabil deteriorated decades later to become burlesque and strip shows held in cheap theatres around American military bases.

Philippine Theatre as We Know It Today

After the Japanese occupation, the Philippine theatre has evolved to become an amalgamation of the various influences such that of the zarzuela, comedia, bodabil, and western classics. Theatre was largely performed in English during the time, as it became a large part of classroom education. Meanwhile, zarzuelas such as “Ang Kiri,” “Dalagang Bukid,” and “Paglipis ng Dilim” became well-known beyond their regions.

By the 1950s, theatre had moved out of classrooms and the concept of paying for a ticket to see a theatrical performance emerged. This “legitimate” theatre was held in closed theaters – these became events in themselves, not just mere parts of a celebration or religious ritual.

During this time, playwrights such as Severino Montano, Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, and Alberto S. Florentino honed their crafts and contributed to the development of performing arts in the Philippines.

Through the years, Philippine theatre groups have staged numerous plays in both English and Filipino, be it written by a Western or local playwright. Spanish culture and traditions largely influence performing arts in the Philippines, but the contemporary style is borrowed from the Americans. Classic shows such as The Westside Story and Sound of Music made waves in recent years when it took the local stage. This year, The Theatre at Solaire presents The Lion King, an internationally renown production set to wow Philippine audiences.
When it comes to theatre and performing arts, Filipinos are never far behind. Catch the best of Philippine theatre at The Theatre at Solaire.