The scums of Philippine society
By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.
Most of Alberto S. Florentino’s plays, starting with “The World Is an Apple” (1954) are concerned with the perennial social problem of unmitigated poverty and the nadir of dehumanization to which its victims sink down. His plays are by no means a departure from the early tradition of dramas of “social consciousness” written by Filipino playwrights with strong nationalist and socialistic leanings. Florentino’s plays pursue the same concerns, presenting scenarios of the “scums” of the Philippine society who are driven to the lowest forms of human degradation by sheer economic necessity. The main characters are drawn inexorably deeper and deeper into the maelstrom of certain destruction; and more often than not, society, that vast impersonal collectivity, is the culprit.
In rare instances, an institution in the establishment with social commitments like the Church plays through its representatives or functionaries the role of the “fairy godmother” thereby bringing about a live-happily-ever-after denouement. But the dominant strain of Florentino’s dramas is the inevitability of tragic suffering. He seems to be saying in effect, “Well, that’s how it is, or at least, how I see it all.” He seldom, if at all, proffers a solution. He just shows the social malady the way it is but does not give prescription. And indeed, he should not be faulted for this, for he must have seen rightly that the role of the literary artist is not so much to prophesy as to present a vision, not so much to propound the answer as to raise the question. Or else the playwright might as well become a thorough-going propagandist or a sociologist or even a social worker.
“Lungsod” (1971) dramatizes the tragic frustration of hopes of golden opportunities that most folks in the provinces dream of finding in the city. But these hopes are in fact based on a quicksand. When the brutal reality catches up with hollow illusions, frustration and tragedy ensue. Or one may prefer to hug the false sense of respectability of being an urban dweller, far removed from the shameful reality of a former home in the countryside with all its drab poverty. The case of Clara is truly regrettable. It is clear that Clara is beyond redemption, caught as she is in the net of prostitution. She no longer belongs to the home from which she has cut herself off, from the people whom she lives for, not because she is no longer welcome but because to go back to live with them means, first of all, shedding off her blinders, the sham existence she leads in the city (symbolized by her wig—artificial hair—and the dark glasses she wears even at nighttime). That is why in spite of her brother Ben’s pleading with her that she should stay, she rushes out of the house to go back to the city, the dark and lonely refuge of those creatures of the night who would rather live in the cold comfort of sin than suffer the dazzling light of truth that saves and sets free.
“Marianna” (1971) also takes place in the city, but mainly in the squatter area where people like Rene subsist on loot, stolen money, etc. But these folks, as exemplified by Rene and his gang, do not really mean doing harm to people or killing them in cold blood like hardened criminals. They are well-intentioned in the sense that if ever they rob, they do it all for survival. Rene, for instance, did not intend to kill the old guard in the factory which they ransacked. He aimed to shoot him only in the feet, but accidentally hit him in the head instead. At heart, therefore, he is not a criminal. Perhaps he is a “technical” criminal but not an abominable criminal morally culpable for his acts. This is a fact that only his friend, Marianna, understands so well, and which those cops do not. For these lost souls it is an amoral question of either robbing or surviving. Society denies them any middle course, when it is a matter of giving these people a chance. That is why the play ends up with Marianna furiously shouting at the policemen (who killed Rene in the showdown and who represent the establishment) as criminals and murderers while she cradles the inert body of Rene on her lap.
“Kaharian sa Lupa” (1973) portrays the squalid poverty of Silverio and his daughter Alma. He peddles old newspapers and used bottles for a living. But from their destitution they were delivered by a young priest named Valerio. Thus, unlike in the two foregoing plays, the social problem finds here a solution. It is Padre Valerio who as it were brings heaven (langit) on earth (lupa). In fact, he steals the show in the drama with his unusual concern for the poor, unusual compared to the callous indifference of the old priest, Padre Medina, who has just died, and who, shamelessly known for his love of ease and luxury, did not have the former’s dynamism. Padre Valerio exemplifies in his person the main tenets of the so-called liberation theology, the new socially-oriented thrust of the Church in the wake of Vatican II. This new theology of social commitment calls out to the clergy to step down from the pulpit and work and live with the people they profess to serve. Not that the power of prayer is minimized but that the hour demands the deliverance of the poor weighed down for ages by the chains of unmitigated poverty and oppression. Alma’s faith in the saving grace of God is here answered. Faith here triumphs. But not those of Marianna or of Gloria (in the “World Is an Apple”) whose clinging to moral and spiritual values is to no avail as the dark forces of evil prevail.
In conclusion, it may be said that Florentino’s dramas powerfully delineate the most urgent social problem of the time—poverty and the offshoots of crime, immorality, etc. He is almost Rousseauean in his faith in the natural goodness of man as well as in his distrust of the debasing influence of society. His dialogues are short and they ring true. Even when they speak of large truths, they do not indulge in ranting rhetoric. And the fact that Florentino shifted his medium from English to Pilipino in the writing of his plays no doubt proves that he realized that the effectiveness of artistic communication especially of the drama as a genre and a social force hinges on the language of the very people to whom his plays are seriously addressed.