The return of a classic
Nick Joaquin’s “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” is seldom read today, except by Literature majors. But it has taken on a life of its own in live performances for the past half century. Perhaps the play is better known and appreciated in its Filipino translation, “Larawan,” than in its original English version. When I did a quick Internet search on Joaquin’s play I found both the text and commentaries, in addition to many reviews on its varied performances over the years.
One version that stood out was on two men playing the roles of the iconic spinster-sisters Candida and Paula, who were turned into Candido and Pablito played by Behn Cervantes and Anton Juan. Of course, I checked out the classic film version by Lamberto V. Avellana, which is available in seven parts on YouTube. One would think that both the play and the film are best left to academic research, but thanks to the persistence of the reclusive film director Mike de Leon, the Avellana film was taken from the dustbin of history and recently restored by an Italian company from two prints sourced from film archives in Singapore and Germany. After viewing the restored version in a premiere at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last weekend, I can say that the restored version is not just good as new, its picture quality and sound are probably better than the original.
Naty Crame-Rogers, venerable at 93 years, is the only surviving member of the cast of a film that was the collaboration of three individuals who have since been proclaimed as National Artists of the Philippines: Lamberto V. Avellana (1915-1991) for Film, Nick Joaquin (1917-2004) for Literature, and Daisy H. Avellana (1917-2013) for Drama and Film. Rogers was seated in the VIP row behind me, the same row as National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera and former Cultural Center of the Philippines artistic director Nicanor G. Tiongson, so I stood up to greet her before screening, and she said she was curious to see what the restored film would be like. After the screening, I asked her what she thought about the film and she replied: “When the film was first shown in 1965 some people complained that there was too much dialogue in it.” I laughed and added, “Hanggang ngayon Tita Naty, puro dialogue pa rin!” (Until now Tita Naty, [the film] is still full of dialogue.) Having said that, I thought of a new generation, more attuned to the “Avengers” and “Fast and Furious.” The members of this generation would probably find the black-and-white film quaint as Nick Joaquin’s English. They may also find the acting, borne out of the stage, old-fashioned, What else will young viewers of 2015 make of a film from 1965? Judging from the applause and outbursts of knowing laughter during the premiere, it seems the film can still hold its own after half a century.
As a historian, I see the film as an opening or a time warp where the present peeks into the past and discovers a world that is different and yet similar to our own.
“Portrait” was originally published in Women’s Weekly Magazine in 1952. Would a glossy fashion or society magazine today allocate the same space reserved to Hermes and Louis Vuitton for Philippine literature? The past is a foreign country indeed because people then were different.
In a preface to the complete play published in 1966, Lamberto Avellana, by way of a foreword, narrated how he and his wife Daisy came across “Portrait” in 1952, and after reading it in Women’s Weekly Magazine sought the permission of the author to shorten the four-hour play for a reading on a radio block-time limited to 30 minutes. Then they got permission to trim the play yet again into two hours, to be staged by their Barangay Theater Guild with a premiere in the Aurora Gardens in Intramuros in 1955. “Portrait” became a staple of the Barangay Theater Guild that performed this before different audiences and in different settings. Finally Avellana set the play into film and cut the play into a screen time of one hour and 40 minutes. It may have been a critical success, having been screened in the Frankfurt Film Festival in 1967, but it did not do very well in the box office. Avellana does not brag when he declared his baby part of Philippine movie history and in acknowledgements that came with a printed version of “Portrait,” he wrote:
“If Nick Joaquin never writes another play—he can be happy with the knowledge—Portrait has lit a spark.
“If Manuel de Leon (father of Mike de Leon), incorrigible patron of Filipino art, who made it possible, never produces another motion picture—with Portrait, he has made the fire grow!
“As for us, the kibitzers, having been part of this artistic experience in its many forms is reward enough.
“Between the covers of this book is the original play: full blown, uncut, free from the dictates of half hours of radio, the two hours of stage, and the one-and-a-half hours of screen. This is your invitation to enjoy Portrait, as a reader.”
Let’s hope the restored version will be commercially available, if only to encourage people to return to the text. Having enjoyed “Portrait” in film and on stage, it is high time I spent an afternoon reading the original Joaquin version to fill in the gaps left out by the other versions.
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