on recto's play - nick joaquin
A Note on Recto's Play (A Retrospective on Philippine Literature in Spanish)
By Nick Joaqui­n

Submitted by Alberto Florentino for the Philippines Free Press
June 1, 2005, New York, NY, U.S.A.

In 1917, the Sociedad Talia, a theatre guild, sponsored a playwriting contest. The judges, among whom were Fernando María Guerrero, Cecilio Apostol and Jose Carvajal, chose Un lio por un retrato by Jose Ma. Garcia Suarez as the best comedy; and Solo entre las sombras by Claro M. Recto as the best in drama.

Recto, then 27, finished Solo entre las sombras as his second play; his first play, La ruta de Damasco, (apparently missing all these years) had been pronounced "very promising" by the critics, who also noted that the young poet-playwright-lawyer from Batangas had been deeply influenced by The Spanish dramatist Benavente.

On June 19, 1917, Solo entre las sombras was performed for the first time, with the greatest actress of the period, Praxedes L. de Pastor, more popularly known as "Yeyeng" in the role of "Gabriela." The day had passed when opening nights commonly ended with the constabulary hauling off the author and his cast to jail; but Philippine theatre was still so ferociously alive that a new play was then apt to excite as much public discussion as politics does nowadays. Recto's prize-winning play (Solo entre las sombas) was no exception.

Recto's Solo was promptly denounced by those who saw it as an attack on the system of education then being imposed in the Philippines and as an invitation to return to the ways of the past. In newspapers, night clubs and tertulias raged an increasingly bitter war over the question of whether or not there was a reactionary tendency in the Recto play.

To Recto's defense came some of the most brilliant minds of the period - Cecilio Apostol, Feliciano Basa, Manuel Ravago, Manuel Bernabe and Francisco Varona - who argued that Recto merely wanted to rectify, to redress the balance, to moderate the "violent saxonization" of the youth. (In those days, sajonismo was the term for Americanism.) What the play advocated, said Recto's defenders, was a blending of the two cultural forces then in conflict, the old and the new, through a tempering of the modern with the classic educational ideals - a synthesis of the Hispanic and the Anglo-Saxon traditions.

Unfortunately, as we all know now, that is not what happened. No attempt at a synthesis, or even co-existence, was ever encouraged. One culture was simply totally discarded while the other was adopted wholesale. And although they did not know it then, Recto's defenders, all writers in Spanish, were actually fighting for their own survival. As it happened, Recto was the last important writer in the direct line of succession from Rizal - "a true sprig of the Great Tree," as Francisco Varona put it - for, surely, not even the most nationalistic among us will claim that today's writers, whether in English or Tagalog, can trace their literary ancestry back to Rizal. In fact, it is very probable that the only reason Rizal's books have not joined the works of Guerrero and Apostol in oblivion is that he happens to be our national hero. As it is, we know him only in translation. The original Rizal is a foreigner to use - and a dead foreigner at that.

Nothing is more futile than to argue over "what might have been" - but suppose that there had been no cultural break; suppose that the literature developed by Rizal and Recto had continued to develop - and there can be no question that it would have continued to develop, if the Americans had not stayed. Those who repeat the trite cliche about the Philippines making more progress in 50 years under America than in the three centuries under Spanish miss the point of our history altogether. By the 1890s, the Philippines had reached a point in culture when it could not but bloom as it did. And such was the impetus of the Revolution and of the Intellectual movement at the turn of the century that, Americans or no Americans, the first decades of this century were bound to be a time of great and momentous advances in the Philippines. The American occupation hastened our modernization and our political development but it was to thwart the full flowering of the cultural trend represented by Rizal and the other ilustrados - a trend that might have led to a richer and more autonomous culture than the one we actually got. The shift from Spanish to English was a fatal blow to our cultural growth; our literary development suffered - and is still suffering - for literature is the very soul of language and we were made to abandon the language in which our literature had developed and to begin all over again in English.

The prime victims of this shift in language were, of course, the writers in Spanish of the 1900s, who, deprived of an audience, either fell into decline or, like Recto, who could have become one of our greatest literary figures, but had abandoned literature altogether.

All these writers had achieved such a superb mastery of Spanish that it stands to reason that the generation after them would have carried this mastery to even greater heights and might have produced a greater literature. What the succeeding generation actually produced were the groping pioneering efforts in English of the 1920s - a labor that was valuable and heroic but which was a radical deviation from the development indicated by our history, and which, therefore, could not - and did not - produce the great literature that the tremendous intellectual vitality of the 1890s and the 1900s seemed to herald. For the Filipino writer in English has suffered grievously, too, from the incoherence of our culture - and here the best example is Jose Garcia Villa.

Logically, and chronologically, Villa - along with all the pioneer writers in English of the 1920s - should have been the further development of Rizal and Recto; he might even have been, so indubitable is the top quality of his genius, the culmination of 300 years of Spanish in the Philippines. If Rizal was the "Marlowe," Villa should have been the "Shakespeare" - if there had been no interruption in the development of our culture. Unfortunately, there was, and when Villa came, he had to manufacture, instead of continuing, a literary tradition. He should have been the flowering; he had to become a seed. Rizal and Recto should have been his fathers but Villa had to start from scratch - and the literary fathers he made for himself were Sherwood Anderson and E.E. Cummings. The result has been "pure" poetry, very beautiful but quite rootless, and which, for all the relation it has with the Philippines, might just as well have been written by an Eskimo. This is not Villa's fault but the fault of history, which cut him off from his true roots; and he, Villa, every Filipino writer can not but suffer from this loss of a tradition; this alienation from the "classic" writers of his own history.

So great has that alienation become that people of the old culture seem to us almost foreigners - or mestizos - and there has arisen in our times the preposterous need to explain that the culture which produced Rizal and Aguinaldo, the Lunas and the Guerreros, and Apostol, Bernabe and Recto, was a culture as truly and authentically Philippine as the Ifugao, the Moro, the Yanqui colonial, or today's enlightened Sajonismo. Whether that culture - if Dewey had only sailed away at once - might not have developed into the Philippine culture (as the Hispanic culture in America developed into the specifically Mexican, Guatemaltecan, Argentinian, etc.), we will never know now. At any rate, this play of Recto's may serve to indicate the potentialities of the literature that we lost.


Nick Joaqui­n, born 1917, is one of the most respected Filipino writers. For the past half century, he has written novels and edited magazines, and has written definitive essays on Philippine History and Culture. Also known as "Quijano de Manila," Joaqui­n has won awards in the Palanca literary contests, the Philippine Journalist Award, the Republic Cultural Heritage Award, and many others. In 1976, he was conferred the National Artist Award for Literature.
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