The playwright and his drama

Published September 16, 2020, 3:53 PM

by Diwa C. Guinigundo

Diwa C. Guinigundo


Boy Noriega was fulfilled as a literary person because writing drama was more demanding.  The muse required him to exceed his imagination. Economics, on the other hand, to him was like a most understanding wife. “I am able to cope with the requirements of the job. All you need is common sense and a sense of justice.”

Whether Noriega’s description was tongue-in-cheek, we will never know. He preferred creating scenarios where he had virtually full control of the plot, the characters, their mindsets and psyche, the conflict, and the denouement.

Noriega must have found liberation in playing around Aristotle’s Poetics. Complication and unravelling, some distance between the two. Since complication is mainly driven by the protagonist’s character, a flaw could be so controlling, making the play a tragedy. In Noriega’s plays, the major protagonists are robustly fleshed out, motivated, and developed. One could associate himself with Crispin in “Soltero,” or perhaps even play the part. In doing so, one would not need to grope for emotion with the script colorfully portraying Crispin’s character as a deep thinker, narrating his attempts at painting and poetry, while residing in a moderately-priced condominium and driving a white Beetle.

It is not difficult to understand Crispin’s choice to remain a “soltero” even despite descriptions of Cristina, his first love; and Roberta, his second.  Lines such as, “Pagkatapos, may kirot at mahinang mapapasambit siya ng ‘Huwag —huwag mo akong iwan…”  tell of his angst as separation from his first love ultimately came.  Cristina just could not take it anymore.

Cristina: Hindi ikaw ang tinatakasan ko. Sarili ko. Crispin, sarili ko.

Crispin: Mahal pa rin kita Cristina. Dakila ang pag-ibig ko sa iyo.

Cristina: Mahal ko pa rin siya.

Crispin’s soul is laid bare. And in these lines, we appreciate his body and soul.

According to Nestor Torre’s review dated May 22, 1984, in the Philippine Daily Express, Crispin “looks like he has everything going for him.” He was “kind, honest, handsome, bright, sensitive, and upwardly mobile.”  It is thus incomprehensible he remained a “soltero.” Torre wondered if loneliness in Makati is a meaningful topic in a poor country like the Philippines. For Torre, psychological alienation is a Western theme Asians would have difficulty relating to.

Bien Lumbera, himself a National Artist for Literature in 2006, in his review dated May 5-11, 1984, published in Philippine Signs, raised issue with Makati as a changing social milieu. Abstracting from Noriega’s play, Lumbera luminously presented Crispin’s old and traditional core value as a counterpoint to his modern lifestyle.  It is this nearly musical ambivalence on which to grow the roots of his future that there is alienation and loneliness inside Crispin. To Lumbera, Noriega’s avoidance of any deliberate attempt to convey a specific social or political message was one weakness of “Soltero.”

The choice of Makati as a setting highlighted a disconnect. Makati in the mid-1980s had transitioned from a mere corporate world into one where rallies showed unity of political purpose against the Marcos dictatorship. The narrow corporate world had become a center of heightened social consciousness.

Today, the Makati of the 1980s seems back again to political indecision, if not, by apathy as its current inhabitants are again trapped in Crispin’s ambivalent mould. Social alienation is stark among those with C and D salaries, forced to work and live with society’s upper crust in an A and B corporate setting.

Perhaps this kind of commentaries were to be expected. Noriega, the economist-technocrat, opted to be unconventional in his choice of theme and context. As a pioneer, Noriega was indeed discriminating and very promising. But unfamiliar writing and execution have their risks.

Noriega focused on man’s desire for happiness and whether this was achievable by keeping to orthodoxy or breaking away from it. Some commentaries have equated his remarkable control of character and plot to a bland script. For some people in today’s world, growing more kindness towards the world is anachronistic.

This is what generally describes Noriega’s rich body of drama work covering the brief span of 24 years from the time “Down the Basement” was written in 1970, to his death in 1994.

From the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Noriega garnered six awards from his full-length play, “Bayan-bayanan” awarded the Grand Prize in 1975 to the Third Prize winner, “Bongbong at Kris” in 1986.

Noriega was a 13-time winner of the Palanca Awards: nine full-length plays including first prize winning, “Mga Idolong Romantiko sa Isang Dulang Sumusuri ng Lipunan” (1981), “Bayan Mo” (1986) and “Deuterium” (1990); and four one- act plays, including special prize winning, “Kulay Rosas na Mura ang Isang Pangarap” (1975).

PETA awarded him Second Prize for his full-length play, “Tinangay si Napsa, Tinangay si Napsa” in 1973.

Palihang Aurelio V. Tolentino had Noriega winning in 1980 for his one-act play, “Lilipad Pag Pinalad.”

The Manila Critics Circle with the National Book Development Board awarded him National Book Awards four times for “Bayan-bayanan” (1982), “Pares-pares” (1983), “Soltero” (1985), and “Deuterium/ Mga Idolong Romantiko” (1995).

Noriega also wrote musicales (libretto) like, “Kenkoy loves Rosing” and “BituingMarikit.” Two plays were also filmed namely, “Soltero” and “Batang Pro.”

His works were staged here and abroad like, “Regina Ramos ng Greenwhich Village,” “Pinoy Pers Klas,” “Tres Hermanas,” and his very first play, “Down the Basement.”

Basil Valdez also interpreted Noriega’s song lyrics, “Tuldukan na’ng Hapis” which came out in 1983.

Who are the National Artists for Theater?

The earliest National Artist Award was given to Fernando Amorsolo posthumously in 1972 for painting. It was only in 1976 that it was awarded for Theater and Film to Lamberto Avellana. The next National Artist for Theater and Music was given in 1987 to Honorata “Atang” dela Rama. Two posthumous National Artists for Theater were given to Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero and Rolando Tinio in 1997. Daisy Avellana was National Artist for Theater in 1999. In 2001, Severino Montano received his posthumous award. Salvador Bernal was National Artist for Theater and Design in 2003. In 2018, the National Artist for Theater was received by Amelia Lapeña Bonifacio.

In his 24 years of playwriting and public service, Noriega buried himself in the classics and the masters. While more familiar with the techniques of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, many of his plays would have a Chekhovian streak. This was the assessment of another National Artist for Theater Rolando Tinio. He said Noriega’s controlled development of both characters and plot is Chekov’s highly economical playwriting. So the inner conflict of his characters makes for a difficult endeavor to discern.

Like Chekhov’s gentle, almost passive characters, Noriega’s Crispin of “Soltero” and Ricky, Milet and Nado of “Batang PRO” are better understood in their inner context to answer the basic question of why they seemed helpless in their difficult situations.

Noriega’s plays partake of Chekhov’s elusive style, that is, what is left unsaid is even more important than what is said—whether by the characters through their dialogues or even the sets which convey the mood of the whole exercise. Noriega was quite open about being more personal and he gave the audience the liberty to “draw out some social usefulness from the play.” Herein lies Noriega’s unique contribution to Philippine theater.  His very personal, character-centric plays succeeded in atomizing various aspects of harsh Philippine realities like overseas employment, child prostitution, poverty and social alienation in a Chekhovian style of parsimony, even if his intention was more personal or otherwise.

In the public domain, therefore, it is quite evident why Chekov’s own characters drew scathing criticism.  E.J. Dillon, friend of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, believed that “the effect on the reader of Chekhov’s tales was repulsion at the gallery of human waste represented by his fickle, spineless, drifting people.” Journalist-linguist R.E.C. Long had this to say: “Chekhov’s characters were repugnant – (revelling) in stripping the last rags of dignity from the human soul.” So very much like Milet’s in “Batang PRO.”

Noriega’s death 26 years ago should lead us to reappraise his work. Noriega had many propositions buried in the simplicity of his award-wining plays, whether one-act or full length.

(to be concluded next week)