What Rolando Tinio told me | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

National Artist for Literature Rolando Tinio

Last month, I dreamed of Rolando Tinio. It would have been likely if the dream content were tenor Dodo Crisol, the guy who gave me the complete Neruda collection and who died May 6, but it was Tinio who inexplicably appeared.

He was sitting slouched in a mall lobby, in white sports shirt and olive-green chaleco, his hair lank and his skin smoother than I remember. He was somberly gazing far ahead. I approached and asked if I could have an interview with him. He did not even turn or look up, so I asked if he remembered me.

“Of course,” he quietly said, still without turning. “By the way you hold the pen when writing…and that—,” indicating my footwear, which was, inexplicably, a pair of slippers.

He excused himself for a moment. The next instant he was boarding a car with someone, and the next scene the car had crashed onto a curb in the basement parking area. When I woke up, I thought long and long, and it dawned upon me that Tinio’s death anniversary was approaching.

Tinio died of a heart attack at 60 on July 7, 1997, while he was preparing to stage “Larawan, The Musical” (based on Nick Joaquin’s “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”). A few months later, he was honored as National Artist for Theater and Literature by the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

The following first appeared as “Dialogue in the Ivory Tower” in the Aug. 15, 1984, issue of Who magazine.

“THERE WAS a time I loved to say that I always aspired to the condition of the metaphor,” Rolando S. Tinio, artistic director of Teatro Pilipino, trails off in a whiff of nostalgia. “That was when I was a great admirer of Eliot.”

The Anglo-American poet’s art was concerned with art, but it soon became clear to this Filipino poet that what he was looking for was “life” in art. “When you are young you want life to be like art. As you grow older you want art to be like life,” he says.

Today, years later, he concerns himself with the translating, adapting and staging of Continental plays, acting in them, even sewing the costumes.

No, poetry is not irrelevant to social realities. “It is irrelevant to some, it is relevant to others,” he says—but acting and spending nights on the sewing machine are things “I can relate to these days.” Poetry has been put aside, to be taken up again at another time. He hasn’t written a single line in two or three years.

And what about social realities? His own he traces to Gagalangin, Tondo, in Manila, where he was born on March 5, 1937, and lived 29 years of his life.

As a young man plowing the field in a thunderstorm in Nueva Ecija, his father Dominador was almost struck by lightning—a sign, according to provincial folk, that his destiny did not lie on the soil; so he was sent to Manila to study.

Tinio’s mother Marciana, a public-school principal, is related to Tagalog-language purist Lope K. Santos, and even, supposedly, to Marcelo H. del Pilar. On his father’s side is mentioned General Manuel Tinio of the Revolution.

Nationalists and bourgeoisie

Rolando Tinio has always laid claim to an ivory tower above the place of dusty mortals. To quote a favorite playwright of his: “Unquestionably, this is a seat for kings, and in it we must try to live regally.”

This, then, is his politics—aristocracy, the political allegiance of poet-philosophers from Socrates to TS Eliot (and, some suspect, Joaquin and José Garcia Villa).

“When I was teaching in the Ateneo, at the height of premartial-law activism, many of my students and fellow teachers often invited me to join them and visit the slums so that we could get the feel of being poor,” Tinio recalls. “I told them, ‘Go on, live there if you want. But why should I go back there? I’d been there and I hated it. I had spent most of my life trying to get away from that squalor, so it is ridiculous for me to go back.’

“I am proud I have climbed the ladder to this social stratum. I am proud of my becoming a bourgeois. It only means I have succeeded in transcending my poverty. There is nothing to be proud of in being poor.” To him, one should hate only the vices of the middle class, not its virtues, which are presumed to be plenty also. “But should one excuse the vices of the poor because they are poor?”

When he was young, he sneered at those bourgeois colleagues of his at the Ateneo; that great sneer he turned into a Palanca award-winning black comedy, “Life in the Slums.” The play is an incursion into the two worlds of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. One could see that everything there is felt life, because the playwright had been there, in fact.

He despises the “supernationalists” whose ardor for the Tagalog language drives them to exclude anything not written in Tagalog; the radical activists who bewail the plight of their impoverished brethren while flicking their Dior lighters, clutching their Guccis, and dashing away in their Datsuns toward home in higher suburbia; the social realists whose sense of reality and idea of realism is confined to life in the slums; and the narrow-minded who know of love and death only from reading Baudelaire.

Radical translations

“I’ve made so many enemies that people ask me if I am not disturbed by it. Of course not. Rather, I am disturbed by friends whose works I cannot admire. I have strong opinions but I choose to keep my mouth shut. As you grow older you learn to be tactful. It is not a question of being dishonest. Just tact. Anyway, whatever I say about them now will not change the world.”

Tinio, however, has lost none of his incisive wit: “These supernationalists, they think they can build a whole literary tradition founded on Rizal alone? And what did Rizal write? Two novels? Some dramatic sketches and essays? Juvenile outpourings that amount to 10 or 15 pieces? Are these enough? Their intellect is so small. Their minds are fossilized.”

Of his dramatic translations, many snicker over, or are turned off by, his rendering of Shakespeare into colloquial Pilipino. No scholar worth his diphthong can ever understand why Romeo, for example, should call Juliet “groovy,” or why Juliet should describe Romeo as “naka-spooting.” Or who was that who dismissed Hamlet’s father as “gurang”?

“I have never used slang in my translations. Colloquial, yes. I once thought that to translate a period work I should render it in the Tagalog of that period. But that’s impossible. How, for instance, should you translate Sophocles? Render it in 5th-century BC Tagalog? These critics are stupid. What do they expect me to use for Shakespearean drama? Zarzuela language? They are only asserting their ignorance. They do not realize that Shakespeare is the greatest user of slang, colloquialism, street lingo, puns, the vulgate and the vulgar. That’s what I watch out for when I translate—the original spirit of the language. I get the feel of it, then I approximate it in Pilipino as closely as possible.”

Theory of acting

Of the plays he has written, his favorite is the Palanca award-winning “May Katuwiran ang Katuwiran,” his only play in Pilipino and a postmartial-law hit. It is about the master-servant relationship, and here he expounds his idea of social justice.

“I do not believe in a classless society. There will always be the rich, there will always be the poor. It is in human nature. There can never be a uniform society. There will always be individuals. Justice is given only according to each individual’s needs. The rich are exploitative because they think they are being generous; the poor are exploited because they think they are being clever.” This last statement has been further dramatized in “Life in the Slums.”

His critics complain that, aside from translating and directing the plays, he almost always stars in them, or he stars his wife Ella Luansing. He faces this assault with studied nonchalance.

“That’s one of my frustrations,” he says, “that I cannot find the right actor who has the intellectual and emotional complexities for the rôle. They do not understand what they’re playing, so I might as well play the rôle. And in Ella I find that intellectual and emotional sophistication I want in an actress. She had been one of my students.

“But what’s the matter with them? It is common practice throughout the world! Look at Olivier and his wife Joan Plowright of the National Theatre of Britain; Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud of the Comedie Française. Or Bergman and Liv Ullmann. Stanislavsky and Chekhov’s wife Olga Knipper of the Moscow Art Theater.”

But the critics persist saying he is a charlatan to say so. They concede Ella is all right, but they find nothing extraordinary in her acting that should justify his invoking the race of immortals in the same perishable breath. For this, he has only silence, turning a bored haughty face to the world. As a drama queen once said, “I will not give them the dignity of an answer.”

His idea of good acting is Jane Wyman of “Falcon Crest,” whom he considers the greatest American actress ever. “In a matter of a few seconds she can register in her face the nuances of adolescent vulnerability, greed and maternal love, in one instant. Not even Ingrid Bergman…”

State of Philippine theatre

And what is the state of Philippine theater? He disdains the social-realist trend Rizal’s novels have engendered, and he has only bitter scorn for the reliance on spectacle, striving for effects, and proliferation of unfulfilled symbols in Philippine poetry and drama.

One case he points out is Joaquin’s “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino”: It advances the theme of the dualism in Philippine culture, which finds its symbol in the imaginary portrait, but pursues a plot that climaxes in the seduction of Paula Marasigan—which has nothing to do with Philippine culture. The portrait comes out as a plot device, not as organic symbol, and what is supposed to be the theme is defeated by what the actual plot is.

Another case in point is Peque Gallaga’s version of Camus’ “Caligula.” Tinio believes a philosophical play like that should deliver the ideas without the pyrotechnics; in this he wants to strip art of its artifice. “Décor is décor.” He himself had staged the play and interpreted the character as a very sympathetic expression of human freedom, while Gallaga has interpreted it as the embodiment of maniacal power; understandably, he cannot see why Gallaga’s emperor is quite obnoxious.

What about the recent Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) production of “Macbeth”? Critic José Lardizabal says it was one of the best versions he has seen, and he has seen Olivier’s in the Old Vic. “That production was illiterate,” Tinio says. “They adapted the play to the present scene and yet Lady Macbeth was twisting her arms around as if in primitive ritual drama.”

About Repertory Philippines, does his policy of presenting European plays in the Teatro conflict with Ms Amador’s presentation of Broadway plays at the Rep? “Contrary to what people think, Zeneida and I have always been very good friends. In fact, I was one of the founding members of Repertory, and I’ve directed two plays there. If I don’t stage these European plays, who will stage them? If Zeneida doesn’t stage those Broadway hits, who will? The same with Peta, or Bulwagang Gantimpala. Each has his own specialty. Let the theatergoer have his or her choice.”

Does he get enough of the theatergoers? “No.”

Concept of drama

So, what is his estimate of his colleagues’ works? His reply: either “atrocious” or he is “vaguely familiar” with them, or that “he is very dear to me.” One gets the impression that for such a man, no one, absolutely no one, can be considered his colleague; not necessarily because he is above them, but because he is so far away from them.

In the Philippine literary circle and theater scene, he considers himself an isolato. That is a very hard rôle to play, but no matter, his favorite playwright would speak for him: “We don’t ask the rose what trouble it has taken. We ask it simply to be a rose, and to be as different as it can from an artichoke.”

If Philippine drama is so unsatisfying, does European drama fulfill the purpose for the Filipino audience? “I am not a prescriptive person. I like mostly French, Russian and Italian, but I don’t have any favorite playwright, only plays. Anouilh’s ‘Antigone,’ Arbuzov’s ‘The Promise,’ Betti’s ‘The Burnt Flower Bed.’ I mean, I may be passionately in love with a play by Betti but I don’t like his other plays. Shakespeare and the Greeks I also do not like very much. I cannot relate to their problems. I stage Shakespeare as a matter of obligation only. The English are too literary. Eliot, for instance.

“I’m hardly familiar with the Germans. I can’t recall having read Schiller’s ‘Mary Stuart.’ I don’t like Brecht’s epic theater. Sartre and Camus, I’m not interested in their existential problems, though I’ve done ‘Caligula.’ I like plays that are political but never ideological. I hate the American temper. Very sentimental. Williams? O’Neill? I am annoyed by their neuroses. Very mawkish. The same with Miller. And I haven’t done any absurdist play. Wilder? Ionesco?

“I once attended a convention of Southeast Asian theater people, and an American lecturer said we should not abandon our native theater because even the Americans were looking for the roots of their drama in Asia. A very intelligent woman delegate from Malaysia stood up and said, ‘Sir, do you know what you’re talking about?’ Of course, the roots of Filipino drama are in Europe. I don’t like Oriental drama, all those movements, dances. My concept of drama is not dance or ritual. To me drama is ideas and their conflicts.”

Classical attitude

But in Teatro Pilipino he has also done a Balagtas, a Severino Reyes, Bienvenido Noriega’s “Bayan-bayanan,” five one-act Filipino plays, and some of his own. His forthcoming program includes Goldoni’s “Mistress of the Inn,” “Waiting for Godot,” “Ghosts,” Salacrou’s “When the Music Stops,” all in Pilipino.

The day Tinio was going back to the Philippines, his fellows in Bristol University (where he finished a course in theater arts through a scholarship grant in 1968) tried to dissuade him. One said, “Why are you going away? Why are you leaving us?”

Tinio tried to explain, “I am returning to my country. I am going back to my people.”

And the Englishman said, “What do you care about them?”

And Tinio’s voice rose, “Do you realize what you’re saying? It is my country. Those are my people.”

And the Englishman said, “But you belong to us.”

Looking back, Tinio wistfully says, “Those are my colleagues.” And if his countrymen will not recognize in him a kindred spirit, he can always find strength and virtue in solitude.

Now Rolando Tinio has no need of metaphor. He even has learned to dislike symbols. He feels he has developed that proper attitude toward things that some would call the classical attitude: a calm acceptance of what is there in life; detachment from things; less of political bickering and more spiritual incursions; a clear use of reason and proper control of the emotions; and an embrace of a world of total reality.

And so he feels that no one, absolutely no one, can ever accuse him of being a hopeless romantic.

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