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Theatre / A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino

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Posters for the two main film adaptations: (L) Ang Larawan, the 2017 Tagalog film version, and (R) the same-titled, 1965 English version.

Contra mundum! Translation 

An English-language Filipino play written in 1950 by author Nick Joaquin. It debuted on stage in 1955.

Set in the tragically beautiful, Spanish-colonial Walled City of Intramuros in the late U.S. colonial era, specifically in October 1941, the play is named for the huge, classically-themed self-portrait by the great artist Don Lorenzo Marasigan el Magnifico, and the rest of the play revolves around his two youngest, unmarried daughters, Paula and Candida, as they debate whether or not to sell off the painting—and the incomparably grand, Old, Dark House they live in—to pay their bills and support their father in his old age, with external pressures from all sides usually telling them to do the smart thing and sell them both.

Adapted a number of times into film: two examples include a 1965 black-and-white English version directed by Lamberto Avellana, and Ang Larawan, a 2017 Tagalog version in full colour, directed by Loy Arcenas, starring West End veteran Joanna Ampil and Rachel Alejandro respectively as Candida and Paula Marasigan, and Paulo Avelino as Tony Javier. The latter version finally premiered on Netflix in May of 2023.

Contrast Without Seeing The Dawn, a novel by Stevan Javellana that's set in almost exactly the same time period (late 1941, just before the war in the Pacific), but this time in the Visayan province of Iloilo, and focusing on the other end of the social ladder—namely, rural peasant farming families, many of whom probably worked for landlords very much like the characters in this play.

Provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The original play opened in The '50s, and the first film version came out in 1965, both depicting a not-so-distant past in 1941. Subsequent adaptations are more firmly into the realm of Period Piece.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Paula begins to fall for the rascally and wildly emotional Tony Javier, especially when he begins waxing about his ambitions to travel and study abroad, possibly taking her with him—something she's wanted in her youth, even if she thinks it's no longer possible now.
  • Audience Surrogate: Bitoy Camacho.
  • Big Fancy House: The Marasigan house, situated along Calle Real ("Royal Street") in Intramuros, where almost the entire play takes place. By this point, though, it's also an Old, Dark House (see trope entry below).
  • Big Bad Ensemble: Pepang and Manolo are soon joined by Doña Loleng and her group of socialites, leading to a Villain Song, "Conga".
  • Bungled Suicide: That "accident" Don Lorenzo had falling from the balcony? It was no accident—he attempted it after finishing the titular Portrait.
  • The Cavalry: Don Lorenzo's old friends - Don Alvaro, Doña Upeng, Don Miguel, Doña Irene, and Don Aristeo - all attend Candida and Paula's party during the La Naval and help them face Manolo and Pepang.
  • Christianity is Catholic: And a very old-school, Latin-speaking, unapologetically Baroque kind of Catholic too. At the time Nick Joaquin finished it, the Second Vatican Council (a.k.a. Vatican II), which simplified, updated and modernised a lot of old Church traditions—most notably, it finally allowed Mass to be said in the vernacular and had priests now facing the congregation, as opposed to the altar in the past—wouldn't convene yet for another decade (it would commence in The '60s).
  • Citadel City: Intramuros. And yet the tragic Foregone Conclusion is that the walls will do absolutely jack shit to protect the city's colonial splendour from airborne American bombardment and Japanese house-to-house fighting towards the end of World War II. note 
  • Corrupt Politician: Very downplayed with the Senator Don Perico. He's not portrayed as corrupt, per se, but he does admit he had to give up his poetry for politics because it wouldn't earn him a living. At least as a politician, he's made a tidy—if not necessarily completely honest—living for himself and his family.
  • Creator Cameo: Ryan Cayabyab, who set Ang Larawan to music, briefly appears as one of the Intramuros townsfolk.
  • Dances and Balls: Tertulias, of which there used to be a lot on Friday nights at the Marasigan house note , are basically soirees—social gatherings of colonial high society, even if they don't necessarily have to involve dancing.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The 1965 film.
  • Dramatic Irony
  • During the War: Not the play itself (though it does occur just before the start of the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and by this time the war in Europe has been ongoing for two years), but when conversing with the Marasigans, Senator Don Perico occasionally rhapsodises about his youth during the Philippine Revolution of the 1890s, in which he and Don Lorenzo fought. (Though it's less talked-about, presumably they also fought in the Philippine-American War, which was the Revolution's sequel.)
  • The Film of the Play: Both 1965 and 2017 films to the original 1950s play; the latter is also this with respect to the 1997 majority-Tagalog musical.
  • The Flapper: Susan and Violet, the vaudeville dancers at the Parisian theatre where Tony Javier plays the piano—while the Roaring Twenties is long past at this point, their mannerisms, vivacity and liberal (even loose) morals evoke a flapperish image.
    • Also somewhat in the character of Elsa Montes, who claims to have "brought the conga to Manila".
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: The Marasigan siblings all think themselves responsible and the others foolish: Manolo and Pepang, who send the money for the upkeep, see their younger sisters as being too sentimental to sell off the house and/or their father's portrait in order to help him, but Candida and Paula at least care for their father, whilst observing their older siblings cannot even be bothered to send enough money to support him—having splurged the rest on gambling and society events, in the manner of the stereotypical spendthrift Filipino.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The whole point is that we know what will happen to Manila within a few months of the events of this play.
  • The '40s: More specifically, see below …
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: The very genteel, Hispano-Filipino version of this, set explicitly in October of 1941—two months shy of Pearl Harbour, three months before the start of the brutal Japanese occupation, and three-and-a-half years before the extremely destructive American "Liberation" of Manila, which almost completely levelled the colonial metropolis (as if the countless rapes and skyrocketing death toll suffered by the citizenry weren't enough).
    • "Interbellum" in the Filipino context may not necessarily refer to the period bracketed by the two World Wars, since the American Philippines saw little direct action in The Great War despite already being a colony then. The earlier war in this case would be the Philippine-American War, which allowed the Americans to colonise the (consequently stillborn) Republic in the first place. No wonder the entire period between (1898–1946) is often summarised and stereotyped as "peacetime". note 
  • The Ghost:
    • Don Lorenzo, who never leaves his bed for the duration of the play, until the very end. (In Ang Larawan, his entry into the final Marasigan tertulia being thrown by his daughters is shown, but only lasts a few minutes.)
    • Also the nameless American buyer that Tony Javier has purportedly found for the portrait. And the French feature writer who according to Bitoy did an article on it.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Especially true for more recent productions like the 2017 film. It's a perfect excuse for the cast to don ornate, gauzy ternos (Catholic-lowlander Filipiniana dresses with shawls and butterfly sleeves), respectable barong Tagalogs (embroidered untucked shirts), and snazzy, light-hued sharkskin suits.
  • Gratuitous Latin: The logical conclusion of the characters' double exposure to Latin via Western Classical education on the one hand, and pre-Vatican II Catholic tradition on the other. A lot of this features in the dialogue as a consequence.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: Expected of an ex-Spanish colony among its colonial elites.
  • The Great Depression: Appears to have reached America's only large colony in the Asia-Pacific, since Bitoy at the start of Act II reminisces that The '30s were a hardscrabble period, and that like most people, he had to get by on odd jobs to survive.
    Bitoy: […] "I grew up during the hard, hard, nineteen-thirties, when everybody seemed to have become poor and shabby and disillusioned and ill-tempered. I drifted from one job to another—bootblack, newsboy, baker's apprentice, waiter, pier-laborer."
  • Happily Failed Suicide: Downplayed, and stretched out over the course of a year, but Don Lorenzo very gradually recovers his good disposition after the failed attempt at jumping from his balcony. He gets better as old family friends like Bitoy visit him (even if many of them only come because of the portrait), and during the La Naval tertulia, finally gets up from bed to be received by his children and all his old guests and friends.
  • Have a Gay Old Time
  • Honor Before Reason
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Marasigans, and painfully so. They used to be among the crème de la crème of colonial Filipino society—living in Intramuros and all—but their status will not help them pay the utility bills now. (Note also that Paula and Candida have no servants around to do their bidding or help care for their father or manage the house, as would be almost certainly the case back when they had wealth; their older siblings who have moved out, naturally, have their own servants, explicitly so in Pepang's case.)
  • Just Before the End: "The end" in this case being World War II, or the Japanese/Pacific side of it, anyway, sparked by the would-be invasion of Pearl Harbour in December 1941—a mere two months after the play's October setting.
  • Latin Land: Many Latin Americans would feel quite at home in Intramuros, what with the airy, storm-prone tropical atmosphere, the ancient, heavy fortifications, the Gratuitous Spanish, the old-school Catholicism (complete with a penchant for lavish fiestas), and the unequal and hierarchical social structure. Justified since Intramuros was the original Manilanote , and in Spanish times it was open only to the highest classes of colonial society, mainly Church leaders, government functionaries (including the Governor-General), military officers, and peninsular Spanish families.
  • Last Stand
  • Let the Past Burn: Paula slashes and burns the portrait. In so doing, she sets herself and Candida free.
    • Burn Baby Burn: Overlaps with this, since the object actually being burnt is a painting, not the house itself … though it's a Foregone Conclusion that the house, and practically all of colonial Manila with it, will be completely obliterated by American shelling by 1945 anyway.
  • Literary Allusion Title: To James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The parallel seems too close to be coincidental.
  • Majored in Western Hypocrisy: It's no surprise that Don Lorenzo studied in Europe in his youth, in the 1890s, before the Philippine Revolution (crossing paths explicitly with Real Life master artist Juan Luna). It would've been common for the Hispanicised, elite, ilustrado (intellectual; literally, "enlightened") class to which he belongs.
  • Melting-Pot Nomenclature / Aerith and Bob: With all characters being Filipino nationals, all the names are some derivative of Western—primarily either Spanish or English—but there are a mix of names still in use today (Paula, Lorenzo, Tony, Susan, Violet, Elsa, Patsy, Charlie, Pete, Eddie, Cora), and some more outdated names (Candida, Perico, Aristeo, Alvaro—which also double as Preppy Names). Some of the names mentioned, while also Western-based, are likely uniquely Filipino nicknames (Bitoy, Pepang, Loleng, Upeng).
  • Missing Mom: The Marasigan matriarch, who has been dead a while.
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations: Was adapted (and translated) into the majority-Tagalog Ang Larawan ("The Portrait"), which debuted on stage in 1997 and was adapted into a film in 2017.
  • The Moral Substitute: The producers of the 2017 film adaptation touted this as such in comparison to the numerous rom-coms and horror movies being churned out by mainstream film studios.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Since it portrayed a bygone period just before the Japanese invaded the country.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The Bureau of Health and Science note  pays no heed to Candida's offers to go rat-catching for them. None of their officials take her seriously; they end up calling security and chasing her out, thinking she's become insane or some sort of threat—at least, the way Candida tells it, anyway.
  • Old, Dark House: The Marasigan house. Its literal darkness becomes a crucial plot element, since Candida and Paula constantly worry about the electric company note  cutting off their power, since they're several months behind on payments. At one point, when Paula tries the lights and they don't work, she thinks for a second that what she and Candida had feared has come true at last—at least, until Candida looks out the window, and notices the entire Walled City is in darkness, forgetting a practice blackout was scheduled that night.
  • Old Maid: Paula is 40, Candida is 42, and neither are married, having focused instead of caring for their father and their ancestral home. (In the Philippines, it used to be common—especially in large families—for the youngest to forgo marrying and setting up their own families, in order to look after their ageing parents.)
  • Paparazzi: Not quite as stubborn and aggressive as some more modern examples, but Bitoy's work friends Pete, Eddie, and Cora, the trio of journalists that come to the house hoping to get down some words and photos of Don Lorenzo's Portrait. Certainly they seem to embody this trope from the Marasigan sisters' perspective.
  • Period Piece: At the time it was first written, the play wasn't set in the distant past, less than a decade separating time setting from publication—but the war's wanton destruction to body, soul, and environment upended so much of Filipino life, culture and society in such enormous and irreversible ways, that even as early as 1950, it's likely the Genteel Interbellum Setting before 1942 suddenly felt like a very distant and different era altogether. Certainly it looked very different physically after all the notable buildings were burned down or shelled into oblivion.
  • Posthumous Character: Paula, Candida, and Don Lorenzo, from latter-day Bitoy's postwar perspective.
  • Purple Prose: In true, Baroque, Nick Joaquin fashion, several characters burst into this. Bitoy's own framing monologues are only one example.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: In its own way, the play fights on the side of Romanticism, with its extolment of the way things used to be, before the war's physical—but also cultural, social, and moral—devastation.
  • Shout-Out: To The Aeneid. The titular portrait, while never meant to be revealed directly (at least on stage—the 1965 film reveals it, but in black and white, whilst the 2017 film only shows it indirectly or blurred), is described as depicting Aeneas carrying his decrepit father Anchises on his back as they flee the burning Troy. Don Lorenzo used his own likeness for both father and son—the former based on his current old age, the latter based on himself in his youth.
    • There's a lot of references to Greek and Roman mythology and literature in general, typical for an educated, Europeanised, upper-class Filipino family of the time.
    • Don Perico once mentions the Real Life Juan Luna's most famous painting, the Spoliarium, which features (dead) gladiators.
  • Shown Their Work: The La Naval procession through Intramuros was painstakingly and accurately recreated for Ang Larawan.
  • Smart People Know Latin: The peppering of Latin phrases by both the Marasigans and many of their high-society friends (the page quote is provided by Senator Don Perico) only serves to highlight the extensive quality education available to most of their circle, which often included studies abroad—most often in Europe, as was common in the privileged ilustrado, or intellectual, class.
  • Take a Third Option: Instead of deciding to keep the portrait for longer, or selling it off per Tony's wishes, Paula decides to destroy and burn the portrait, freeing herself and Candida of the spell of guilt it has plagued them with since their father first painted it.
  • Take Our Word for It: Don Lorenzo Marasigan el Magnifico is known by all of Manila society as a famous ilustrado (intellectual), an amazingly talented elite Filipino painter, and friend and rival of the Real Life master artist Juan Luna, and yet the only artwork of his ever mentioned explicitly in this play—the eponymous, double-headed self-portrait—is never even shown directly or completely, on stage or on screen. Verges on Informed Ability, though Don Lorenzo's talents are not meant to be in question.
  • Watching Troy Burn: Thematically this suffuses the whole play and the context for why it was written: an elegy by and for an entire generation that watched as colonial Manila, particularly Intramuros, burned. Nowhere is this more obvious than the direct Shout-Out to The Aeneid, the very titular portrait showing Aeneas and his father escaping the actual Troy itself. (Though the portrait's actual appearance is left to the audience's imagination in most stagings and almost so in the 2017 Ang Larawan, the painting itself doesn't necessarily depict its subjects literally looking back at Troy; the 1965 monochrome version has them looking at the viewer.)