June 14, 2004 Quo Vadis San Miguel Comedia? Christine F. Godinez-Ortega
forced into retirement after nine years due primarily to lack of financial
support from the community, will the San Miguel Comedya (play of San Miguel,
originally called Yawa-yawa or devil-devil) survive well into the next
millennium? Academics who were in the Iligan City National High School (ICNHS)
auditorium on September 26, 1996 to watch the revival and the only
performance of the San Miguel Comedya couldn't help but ask the question.
Some also took note of the deeper meaning into the comedya and what values
this theatrical form carries for the Iliganon.
Out of curiosity at how the comedya will turn out that night was good reason
enough to rush through dinner with friends, Ricky de Ungria, Bobby Timonera,
Tony Tan and Nancy Carvajal. We all wanted to be on time for the comedya's
revival three days before Iligan City celebrated Michaelmas honor of its
patron saint, St. Michael the Archangel on September 29.
Today, and for many reasons, it barely survives elsewhere in the country.
For instance, Dr. Erlinda Kintanar Alburo, director of the Cebuano Studies
Center, said that the comedya, popularly called "linambay" in her hometown
Carcar, Cebu, stopped being performed in the early '70s. She attributes the
death of the "linambay" to the diminishing landlord-tenant relationship,
thus not fulfilling the play's original function anymore.
Many stories abound about the origins of the San Miguel Comedya and many
descendants of claimants to the authorship of the original script. But there
are no extant documents to set the records straight.
The San Miguel Comedya was reportedly first staged around 1900 in Iligan,
263 years after the first moro-moro was believed to have been staged in
Manila 1637 to celebrate the defeat of Sultan Kudarat by Spanish
conquistadores led by Hurtado de Corcuera.
For 300 years of Spanish colonization, the Spaniards saw the powerful
influence of theater proselytizing or propagating Christianity.
Dr. Resil B. Mojares in his book, Theater in Society and Society in Theater,
discusses the significance of the comedya or linambay in Carcar, Cebu as a
highlight of fiesta activities, the fiesta being a "manifestation of the
esprit de crops of the town or barrio," as well as the fiesta becoming "a
point of collective pride to hold a 'good' celebration."
Majores likewise explores the rationale behind the stage of the moro-moro
and said that this drama form must have evolved from a marriage of
pre-Hispanic, native rituals and the European play.
Dr. Nicanor G. Tiongson, in his essay on the "Spanish Colonial Tradition" in
Vol.7 of the CCP Encyclopedia on the Philippine Art, says that there are two
types of comedyas. The komedya de santo, which the San Miguel Comedya like
the "moro-moro," "kumidya," "linambay," "miniris," etc., bring home the
point that the Spaniards representing the Europeans or Christians are
superior to the Moors or the non-Christians.
The Iligan comedya's revival this years can be credited to Ricardo Flores
(production coordinator), Jose Gaite (director) Felipe Padilla (musical
consultant) and Julian Zalsos (Lusbel), members of the Lumad Kaliwat
Iliganon (lukai); the executive assistant to the Iligan City mayor,
Francisco A. Cruz (in charge of production), as well as the determination of
44 members of the cast.
Must we acknowledge the sad fact that the comedya, part of our Spanish
Colonial heritage, has become just an appendage to other fiesta festivities?
In this high-tech age, new forms of non-religious entertainment like the
street dancing and merrymaking in Iligan called "kasadya," the "Wara-Wara sa
kadalanan"; the Ms. Ilagan beauty pageant, as well as the various sports and
cultural activities during the Iligan City fiesta celebration, naturally
eclipsed the revival of the San Miguel Comedya this year after a nine-year
In the past, the San Miguel Comedya was performed alternately at the plaza,
the churchyard of the San Miguel Cathedral or the city auditorium for three
or more days culminating on the eve of Michaelmas.
The present administration headed by Mayor Alejo A. Yañez, a decendant of
one the original families that staged the comedya as an individual or family
"panaad" or promise, pushed for its revival with P25,000 for props, a few
additional costumes for the "devils" and for the stage backdrop at the ICNHS
The amount appropriated for this year's staging of the comedya is considered
measly by some people. Production expenses with a cast of 44 could cost from
P70,000 to P100,000 without paying the players any honoraria since mounting
the comedya is their "panaad."
Majores, in his study, pointed out that in the 1919 staging of Orondates,
the costumes must have cost about P1,000 which was equivalent to 100 cavans
of rice, enough to feed a family of six for five years.
Today, the San Miguel Comedya was shown for free as is the tradition. This
kind of instence on free admission could correspond to keeping the
traditional form intact despite the changing times and the empirical world
of today's generation. At one time, the Mendoza family, originally from San
Miguel, Bulacan, bankrolled the San Miguel Comedya's Production in the
1960s. It is therefore of outmost significance that the community support
the staging of the comedya otherwise, like other art forms, it will
Its re-staging of the three-act play about the rebellion of Lucifer (Lusbel)
againts God and St. Michael's triumph gathered a crowd composed of the
players' relatives, Iligan's culturati and their children, music professors,
Frankie Englis and Dr. Precy Magdamo Abraham and her pyschologist husband
(who took time off from their teaching job at Silliman University in
Dumaguete City just to watch the comedya), Mita Lluch Cruz, Benny Badelles
and the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Outreach and Exchange Program
documentation team. Throughout the play, vendors went about their business
reminiscent of the staging of the zarzuela or moro-moro of old.
If one is not familiar with the conventions of watching the comedya, one can
really get impatient and bored with the drawn-out stage movements in the
innumerable, prolonged entrance and exits, the actors strutting to the
strains of the marcha music, taking eternity at their designed places on
stage: right stage for the angles or the good guys and left stage for the
devils or the bad guys. Lighting, too, left much to be desired since it was
simply on-off-on washes.
While the gestures were clearly theatrical, we could not make out much of
the dialigue. Most of the time the dialogue of the characters was prosaic
and colloquial even for the main characters, San Miguel and Lusbel, which
should have been in verse and elevated as dictated by tradition. It would
have helped if the San Miguel Comedya's script was made available to
scholars which, as claimed in the playbill, has been improved by Joaquin
Echaves and Ramon Padilla in 1936.
During the performance, poor acoustics was irritating, you just had to fill
in the gaps by relying on what you learned in catechism or by recalling your
college nightmare, John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Of course, it was not surprising if the devils upstaged the angels. The
devils with their nightmarish makeup over angelic expressions, got more
lusty cheers from the audience than the serious-looking angels with their
painted wings of plywood and some branded swords shaped like the Maranao
kris. The rest of the komedya players often went about their places in a
bewildering manner with the prompters bothering everyone. Most amusing was
the medieval backdrop of hell and the use of smoke, bereft of any magical
effect as intended, to herald the entrance of either a seraphim, an
archangel, a spirit or the devil, the difference could be seen only after
the smoke cleared. Scene-stealing particularly by the rowdy, pot-bellied
devils and Julian Zalsos, who played Lusbel, was the order of the day.
Colorful costumes long month-balled were a delight to the eyes throughout
the two-and-a-half performance. This shortening of the comedya introduced
because people can no longer sit through comedya performances that would
last for as long as 10 hours. The seven-headed monster representing the
seven capital sins and a vital prop to the comedya failed to materialize
The surprise elements in the play were the intermission number consisting of
the "eskrima," a part of the Sinulog, and the "diyandi," an Iligan creative
dance which is really a pact between Maranaos and Higaunons in their homage
to San Miguel. The "eskrima" and the "diyandi" are not part of the comedya.
One can be distressed no end if one brings in his pre-conceived notion of
theater that is Western or Hollywoodish. Indeed, appreciation of the comedya
has to be taken in the context of what is and its original purpose. This, of
course, needs to be explained to the present generation who is constantly
shaped by the aesthetics of MTV.
Can the komedya survive when in the other places in the country it has
already been forgotten?
Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology Humanities
professor and theaterman, Steven Patrick C. Fernandez believes the komedya
still fulfills man's spiritual needs especially when his economic or health
But his prediction as the how long the comedya will last is grim. Give it 20
years, Fernandez said, unless the government takes over in staging it for
tourism purposes; otherwise the comedya will just fade away. Culture is
dynamic and should always be contemporary, he emphasized.
A solution to keep the comedya alive is to form a core group composed of the
young, Fernandez said. Fernandez, who studied the comedya and the Iligan
sinulog extensively for his master's thesis at the U.P Diliman, opposes any
changes that some Iliganons want to impose on the comedya to make it more
acceptable to present-day audiences.
"If changes in blocking and other movements are done, then it will not be
comedya anymore but just entertainment," Fernandez said.
Majares (in the telephone interview at this home in Cebu City) agrees that
the comedya can continue if it satisfies the need, for the Iliganon to keep
his identity or uniqueness.
For his part and fresh from a second trip to Europe, Fernandez believes that
compared to the Europeans, Filipinos have a weak cultural base and are
constantly bombarded by "pop media". But he proudly pointed out that the
Philippines has more diversity in its culture compared to the Europeans.
He talked lengthily about how each town in Europe has a folkloric group
initiated by families that showcase a country's own culture and promote
regional pride. He said that these groups are supported by their
"It's a matter of empowering the people by creating a consciousness about
discovering and popularizing culture," Fernandez adds. He cites the
renovation of the Globe Theater where Shakespeare's plays are shown, among
other things, "to know what is like during Shakespeare's time.
Although he is cautious of the "pop media" like the radio, TV and the komiks,
he still thinks they can play a strong role in promoting our own culture.
Revival of the Iligan's San Miguel Comedya this year is good sign because
the religious fervor of the members of the cast has again been awakened to
manifest their "panaad." But for how long?
If proselytization was the first intention of those who wrote the script of
the comedya, then the philosophical dialogue and intense debate between
angels and devils reminded the audience that in whatever time or age, good
always triumphs over evil.
But this superficial meaning of the comedya. Fernandez believes that the San
Miguel Comedya is ethnocentric in the sense that, By implication, only the
Iliganons or Christians as represented by San Miguel and his coterie of
angels can be saved and are therefore superior to other ethnic groups such
as the Higaunons or the Maranaos.
In fact, only lumad Iliganons can take part in the play, an unconscious way
of showing superiority over migrants, or, say, the Higaunon who may not be
technically advanced but whose heritage of oral literature and wide-range of
gods and philosophy show a culture superior to that of the lowlander,
Christianized Iliganon who had been supported by the Spanish and American
Majores also expressed surprise over this instance on "lumad" players for
the San Miguel Comedya against the demography of Iligan being a melting pot.
"To lay a claim on a local identity that is fictive is understandable but
ironic," he said.
The San Miguel Comedya supported by a fulfilling the needs of the community
can go on for generations. Its central figure, St. Michael the Archangle
could become a rallying point to the Christian, Muslims and Lumad groups in
Iligan. Both the Christians and Muslims consider St. Michael their
Archangel, and the Lumad Higaunons pay homage to the saint and fondly call
him Li Gandingan.
Reference/s: *From Ani, 1997, a publication of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
About the Author:
Christine F. Godinez-Ortega teaches creative writing and literature at the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology. She is a founding member and has served as chair for the Literary Arts Committee of the CCP-Iligan Arts Council, and has served as regional coordinator for literature for the CCP since 1992. Her poetry, fiction, and articles have appeared in numerous local and national publications.