Theater and the Discourse on Power: Jose Rizal’s Participation in Philippine Theater in the Last Decades of the Nineteenth Century

Apolonio B. Chua


The study focuses on Jose Rizal’s participation in Philippine Theater during the last decades of the nineteenth century. It starts with a careful inventory of attitudes towards existing theater forms and a description of the culture of theater as conceived and imagined in Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891). In Chapter 20: “The Town Council’s Meeting” in Noli Me Tangere, the study zooms in on the debate on what would be the best and most appropriate theatre piece for the town fiesta. Here, Rizal delineates theater enmeshed in issues of power and Spanish colonialism. He notes as significant the ilustrados’ claim to theatre space and ideology, thereby interrogating Spanish hegemony. The debate becomes the central imagery and situation for Rizal’s analysis and construction of the history of Philippine theater in the novel. Conservative and radical elements duel. The conflict becomes sharper as Rizal continues his critique by putting into his fictional world the very historical actors known at that time; namely, Nemesio Ratia, Jose Carvajal and Praxedes Julia Fernandez (also known as “Yeyeng”). They were part of the comedia troupe hired by the town for the fiesta. In Rizal’s second novel, El Filibusterismo, we encounter the events surrounding the presentation by a French opera troupe in Teatro de Variedades, which Rizal considers as the Manila theater model. The features of this model include a particular ticket system, various kinds of audiences, imported dramatic texts which were largely incomprehensible, actors behaving as actors both on-stage and off-stage, and the Teatro de Variedades space as stage for seizure or possession of power. When the students in the audience stage a walk-out in the theatre of the city and when in provincial San Diego, a stampede cuts short a comedia performance, the interrelationships between society and a discourse of power are revealed.

Rizal’s annotations of Philippine theater in his novels are anticipated in his earlier artistic creation, “Junto Al Pasig,” a poetic invocation revealing ties to indigenous theatre presided over by the babaylan or native priestesses. They also run parallel to a later critique of Vicente Barrantes’ judgment on Philippine Theatre; contrary to Barrantes’ view, Rizal underscores the ilustrados’ claim that it is the Filipino who can best define and evaluate his own theatre culture (June 15 and 30, 1889, La Solidaridad).

When three years after Rizal’s death, Gabriel Beato Francisco (1850-1935) acknowledges in his play “Ang Katipunan” (ca.1899), the hero’s involvement in the formation of the Katipunan, Rizal’s participation in Philippine Theatre completes a full circle. Once the annotator and historian of theater within his novelistic frames, Rizal now enters the semiotic world of a play on the Katipunan, thus affirming not only his high ranking in the symbolic world of the organization, but also the role of theater for the construction of the nation and its future.


Philippine Drama, discourse and power, Jose Rizal, realism

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ISSN: 2012-0788