Philippine theater

[Newsstand] ‘Sing. Remember. Resist.’

John Nery

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[Newsstand] ‘Sing. Remember. Resist.’
The untimely passing of Floy Quintos does not only deprive us of our leading playwright; it also took away from us one of our most important public intellectuals

He would have rejected the very idea, that he was a leading public intellectual. He would have said something like, “Naaaaaaa! But thank you.” (That was his reply on Messenger when I once paid him a compliment.) But he was wrestling with important, consequential ideas in his plays, and while his plays invariably made us feel things, they also made us think things through.

A powerful example from The Reconciliation Dinner comes at the end of a long passage where Fred Valderrama, one half of the “pink” couple, marks their estrangement from their erstwhile best friends, the “red” couple Dina and Bert Medina, by recalling the milestones of outrage.

“Kami ni Susan…di naman kami leftist. Di kami aktibista. Simpleng tao lang kami. Dun lang kami sa tama, sa disente, sa dapat. And yet…wala.” (Susan and I, we’re not even leftists, we’re not activists. We’re simple people. We just side with what’s right, what’s decent, what’s moral. And yet…nothing happened.)

Then he adds: “You know what I really hated about the Duterte administration? Even the simplest, most human choices…ginawang battlefields.”

Whether we translate that last phrase in the passive “were turned into battlefields” (implying a lack of choice), or in the active “turned into battlefields” (suggesting deliberation on the part of the couples), the idea is deeply insightful, and explains much.

When the simplest choices become fields of battle, life turns into a war of attrition. That explains the exhaustion many of us felt in the Duterte years.

Taking time out to guest on my public affairs program In the Public Square to talk about the possibility of reconciliation after the 2022 elections, Floy highlighted this particular scene.

“When Fred says the one thing that he hated about the Duterte years is that the simplest, most humane choices became battlefields…. I guess that’s what pulls at us now, and that’s also the reason why we are so polarized or why Fred and Susan react so violently to finding out that their friends are BBMers. That’s really why they react so violently. It’s because the past six years have already shown us so much. And now we’re still going this way, so that’s where the shock comes from.”

The collector

When it came to story ideas, Floy had the appetite of a serious art or antiques collector (which he also was, eminently). He was willing to run a risk to land something of real value; he wasn’t afraid of the biggest topics: Philippine history, American colonialism, the nature of the fake (years before disinformation became an inescapable phenomenon), Maria Clara’s counter-life. His last play, which he won’t be able to see when it opens in May, raises, in the words of preeminent theater critic Gibbs Cadiz, “questions of truth, belief, the power of norms and authority, the capacity for stillness, the unknowability of the heart.”

But his plays were never merely excuses for ideas. “My biggest fear when writing a play is that it becomes didactic,” he told me. “The theater is very human. I’ll attend a lecture, I’ll watch a lecture, if I want the greatest course in history. My biggest challenge as a playwright is, how does it affect us as human beings? How is it a human situation instead of a history lesson or a narrative?”

Floy excelled in dramatizing the human situation. 

In The Kundiman Party, my favorite of his plays, he engages with some very heavy themes, including the same tension between the past and the future that lies at the heart of Nick Joaquin’s A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino – possibly the most influential Filipino play in English. But in the story of Maestra Adela Dolores, who is at once magnificent and diminished, and in her continuing choice to teach the kundiman, these themes, these tensions, find a home, a human situation, that we relate to, or can even imagine living in, or through.

I realize a writer does not need to be a moral person to excel at writing, but Floy was  such a generous person, so available (in the exact sense of Gabriel Marcel’s “disponibilite”) to friends and strangers alike, that I cannot help but think that his plays, and our playgoing experiences, are enhanced by exactly this: his sense of worldly-wise compassion. As the tributes poured in the wake of his death, a common theme was sounded: He was present to so many. (He even found the time, occasionally over the years, to message me if he found a particular column of mine to his liking. “Bravo for ‘Monsters in the House!’,” he would write.)

Even the daemons that drove him to write were touched by the need, or the desire, to leave the world a better place. Reflecting on The Reconciliation Dinner, for instance, he said:  “When I sat down to write it, it was really…because we forget so easily as a people. That’s just one of the things. We just have such short memories. And I was thinking, if this play could just take us quickly in the space of an hour and thirty minutes through what we’ve been through in the past six years….”

But as decent as he was, and as scrupulously fair (I read the production script of The Reconciliation Dinner, and marveled at how evenly he had apportioned guilt or blame), he was also and always about making the moral choice.

“I think that’s basically the quandary we find ourselves in these days,” he said on my show. “Another writer said it’s really about sweeping aside the politeness and the hypocrisy with which we seem to be carrying on today and really staking out the moral choice. Now, if staking out that moral choice in our lives is a form of resistance, by all means let it be a first step.”

In The Kundiman Party, the moral choice is built on the foundations laid by Joaquin’s Portrait. To the vocation of remembering and singing, Floy Quintos adds his own Quintosian take: “Sing. Remember. Resist.” –

Veteran journalist John Nery is a Rappler columnist, editorial consultant, and program host. In the Public Square airs on Rappler platforms every Wednesday at 8 pm.

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