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Political vaudeville

Politics is always theater but in the last few weeks, the country seems to have been watching a particular form of theater, and a long-playing one at that: vaudeville, or, in its Philippine incarnation, bodabil.

Vaudeville started out in the United States in the 19th century, a variety show that had a bit of everything: singers, comedians, jugglers, magicians, even animal performers. It was brought by the Americans to the Philippines later in the century and it quickly gained popularity among the lower and middle classes, with entire theaters devoted to it. Many of our well-known actors started out or had stints in bodabil—to name a few, Leopoldo Salcedo, Rogelio de la Rosa, Dolphy, Chiquito, even Nora Aunor.

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While vaudeville died out in the early part of the 20th century in the United States, it flourished in the Philippines, especially during the Japanese occupation and into the 1960s. But it was soon eclipsed by television (and, some say, by bomba or X-rated films).  The bodabil theaters closed down, but when you think about it, many of our noontime TV shows are still bodabil, combined with burlesque (burles in Filipino), cheap and often vulgar entertainment, but with more glitter and fanfare.

Call it cheesy, call it sleazy, bodabil, in the past and its contemporary version, has been analyzed by social scientists as reflecting values and norms, and the public pulse. During the Japanese occupation, bodabil was used to poke fun at the occupying forces. Today, the TV versions always have comedians parodying politicians.

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Now, in the long-running Napoles soap opera, we have politicians themselves performing and becoming the objects of commentaries in a nationwide, often live, vaudeville.

I thought about all this while waiting in a doctor’s clinic with about 10 other patients and their relatives, and the doctor’s receptionist. The evening news was on and the headliners were all about senators indicted for their alleged participation in the pork barrel scam: two jailed (Ramon Revilla Jr., Jinggoy Estrada) and one about to be (maybe) jailed (Juan Ponce Enrile).

The clinic would explode in sporadic laughter, for example when the newscaster talked about Revilla’s complaining about rats and cockroaches, the laughter explicit with schadenfreude (loosely, in Filipino, buti nga sa iyo, or in English, you deserve that).  There were times, too, when the clinic fell silent, as when the cameras showed two proposed hospital rooms, each measuring 3×4 meters, that would serve as confinement quarters for Enrile.

I actually found myself feeling quite sad for Enrile, thinking that hospital rooms can be worse than a jail, especially the type they showed on TV, with bars on the windows. Come on, now, I muttered to myself, spare the old man.

But someone in the clinic practically shouted out her cynicism about Enrile ever being jailed. “Ang matanda na yan,” she said, and I realized that while we do revere the elderly, sometimes the term for them can also be used with derision, to refer to someone who has become too cunning with age, a master of manipulation and deceit.

It didn’t help that the newscast included a mention of Enrile as being accused of pocketing more than P100 million in pork barrel funds. I could feel anger in the clinic, and I almost expected the patients, including a man in a wheelchair, to get up and chant, “Kulungin! Kulungin ang matanda!” (Jail him. Jail this wily old man.)

The bodabil character of our politics is not accidental, given the number of politicians connected to show business.  Revilla Jr. is an actor, preferring to be called Bong Revilla to distinguish himself from his father, also an actor, and a former senator.

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The father-and-son Revillas are known for their swashbuckling roles, images which they have to live up to in their political career. Think of Revilla Sr.’s successful passage of a bill that allows fathers to give their surnames to their illegitimate children, originally barred by the Family Code of 1989.

Rats, roaches, amulets

When the media reported Bong Revilla complaining about rats and cockroaches in his detention cell, he quickly issued a denial. It turns out the media picked this up from his lawyer, Sol Panelo, who described rats as huge as cats in jail. The point, though, is that whining about roaches and rats (even if they look like cats) can diminish Bong Revilla’s macho image—and his future political career—so he just had to issue the denial.

Then there’s Jinggoy (real name Jose Pimentel Ejercito Jr.).  Like his father, Erap the former president, Jinggoy was an actor, and like the Revillas, he did mainly action films with titles like “Bagets Gang” and “Estribo Gang.”

I haven’t quite figured out the public sentiment about Jinggoy. When it was Erap being accused of plunder, tried, convicted and jailed, public sentiment was ambivalent. There was an initial groundswell of indignation that led to public rallies and his ouster from office, but this was followed by some sympathy when he was tried and jailed.

“Jailed” is a deceptive term because he was later allowed to be confined in his rest house in Tanay. And “rest house,” like “jail,” is relative, the detention site being a 19-hectare property which has now become an Erap museum. I suspect more people visit that place, with resorts nearby, than Jose Rizal’s cell in Intramuros, or the Aquino Museum that includes Ninoy Aquino’s detention cell.

Jailing a politician always makes him a potential martyr for the future, depending on how history plays out, and on the politician’s own show-biz savvy.

Enrile is not from show biz, but, as the bodabil watchers in the clinic noted, he has the advantage of age, as in years of experience in roller-coaster politics. Sure, he doesn’t have action films to his name like the Revillas’ and Estradas’, but he does have a macho image to keep, from the Edsa Revolt days and in real life, one which he acquired without the benefit of amulets (agimat), a hallmark of Revilla and Estrada reel lives.

Side show

The bodabil will continue to unfold. Meanwhile, there is a side show: Nora Aunor not being made National Artist because our guardians of morality feel she is not a good role model given her conviction in the United States of drug possession. Noranians, myself included, are indignant. Here is a woman who has true artistic talent, a woman whose roles (and life) challenged many of our society’s inanities, including hypocritical moralities.

I am not justifying her drug use, mind you, but criticizing how we are too quick to criminalize drug users. She was found guilty and ordered to do community service, and the case was stricken off the record. In the Philippines, she would have been slapped with a years-long jail term.

So we punish her now by withholding a National Artist award from her, but reelect a child rapist into Congress and elect, as mayor, someone convicted of plunder. It’s bad bodabil, and probably won’t end there. Don’t be surprised if, in the future, the detention centers of the current crop of plunder politicians get historical markers extolling their virtues… and decrying their “unjust” persecution.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Chiquito, dolphy, Jinggoy Estrada, Jose Pimentel Ejercito Jr., Leopoldo Salcedo, National Artist, nora aunor, Noranians, politics, Rogelio de la Rosa, Vaudeville
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