Book Review: A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino + Ang Larawan: From Stage to Screen

Earlier this month, I was finally able to keep a promise that I have been making to myself for several years and managed to catch one film that was playing in the Metro Manila Film Festival before it officially ended on January 7. Among all the films, I decided to watch “Ang Larawan”, a musical adaptation based on the musical of the same name that was based on the classic Filipino play, “A Portrait of the Artist as A Filipino” by Nick Joaquin. (You can check out the review here.)  However, after watching it, I decided to backtrack a little and actually read the play, and as I was interested in how they adapted things, I went ahead and decided to buy “Ang Larawan: From Stage to Screen”, which had a copy of the play, the libretto of the musical, as well as the actual screenplay. I  am now glad that I did, as I was able to appreciate the material more, and it was my very first foray into Joaquin’s works. (Coincidentally, this is also the first book for my 50 Book Challenge For this Year.)

Ang Larawan.jpg

“A Portrait of The Artist as A Filipino: An Elegy in Three Scenes” was written by Philippine National Artist Nick Joaquin in 1950, and was first staged in 1955. Since then, it has had several re-stagings, a musical adaptation, and now, a movie.

This play has been touted as Joaquin’s most popular work and the most important Filipino play in English, and it isn’t hard to see why.

The story of the play, movie and musical are all the same. It is set in October 1941, in the old Marasigan house in Intramuros. There, two spinster sisters, Candida and Paula Marasigan take care of their ailing father, renowned painter Don Lorenzo Marasigan, who, before falling mysteriously ill, created his last masterpiece, “A Portrait of An Artist as A Filipino”, and bequeathed it to his two daughters.

The sisters are hardly able to make ends meet, and they struggle with their decision of selling the now famous painting and leaving the house and their father, or staying with him. This, of course, is exacerbated by the fact that their two older siblings, Pepang and Manolo are pressuring them to move out, the fact that the world outside is rapidly changing, and the fact that war might break out anytime soon.

Along the way, we also meet several different characters who are metaphors for the different kinds of people in society, and how they all view the painting.

The painting itself isn’t really seen, but according to the descriptions, it features the Trojan prince Aeneas carrying his elderly father, Anchises, on his back, while fleeing the burning city of Troy.

In the end, Paula and Candida realize what exactly their father has given them, and make a controversial decision that they don’t regret.

Even though the play was first published in the ’50s, just as I said in my review of the movie, the themes and questions that the movie makes us ponder about are timeless, and for that reason, this play, will survive the test of time.

It talks about the value of family, our crisis of national identity, the way society perceives others, and how important values and traditions are left behind in the wake of the ever shifting and changing world.

The different characters in the play, although they are meant to personify different aspects of society back then are familiar to us, because even though this is how society was back then, the way society today thinks and perceives things are still the same.

We have those who do everything and anything in order to survive, those who take on jobs that they don’t really want to but have no choice to do so and feel as if the elite judge them, those who are educated enough to the point that they feel that they have the right to judge the past harshly based on what is perceived today, those who stand the middle ground, those who succumb and adapt willingly to change without a single thought, those that cling to it, and those who regret what they have turned their backs on.

I love the fact that the portrait itself serves different purposes. It can be the stand in for society who judges each and every character who views the painting, and it can be a metaphor for the guilty consciences of Paula and Candida, just as the house serves as the guilty consciences of Pepang and Manolo.

Because of this, I do believe that this play allows us to think about these things and to think more about the role our past traditions, history and our culture have on our past and present, and whether or not we should cling on to some of them in this ever changing world.

These themes are timeless, for me, so no matter how you adapt this play, I do believe that it would work.

Joaquin has definitely created a masterpiece, not just because his play makes us think, but because he writes it masterfully.

Being able to read “Ang Larawan: From Stage to Screen” allowed me to greatly appreciate the material more, and it was interesting to see the little changes as well. For example, the play itself had more scenes that talked more about Tony Javier’s backstory, and had thought provoking scenes in which Bitoy Camacho’s journalist friends, Tony’s vaudeville singers, the Intramuros socialites, Pepang and Manolo, talked about the painting.  It also made me appreciate the history of the play, and to see all the effort it took to finally turn it into a beautiful film.

In the end, the play itself is a worthy read, for Filipinos and international audiences alike. “Ang Larawan: From Stage to Screen”, on the other hand, is definitely a treasure trove for theater and film buffs alike, as you will be able to greatly appreciate the material more, and see how it was transformed into a musical and into a musical movie from the source material without it losing its essence.

The book also featured a foreword by Bienvenido Lumbera; an interesting introduction by Lourd de Veyra in the form of a listicle; a learning guide for the movie; an interview with Rolando Tinio; an afterword by the producers of the  movie; director’s notes for the movie; and several glossy pages with pictures of the different stagings of the play, character images and  stills from the movie.

I hope that this review will encourage others check out the play and the book itself, and I hope that this will also encourage many to read Joaquin’s works in the future.

 

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