Penman No. 396: A Playwright for Our Time

Penman for Monday, September 14, 2020

TODAY, SEPTEMBER 14, marks the 26th?death anniversary of a dear friend and, for me, one of the best Filipino playwrights of his generation, Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr., or “Boy” as we knew him.?

The literary world is full of poets, fictionists, and essayists, but playwrights are few and far between, and good playwrights come even more rarely. Boy wasn’t just good—he was great, which is a word I don’t use very often with people. He understood and magnified the human condition onstage with uncommon empathy, and without the histrionics that passed for drama in lesser hands. Amazingly, his formal training wasn’t even in Literature or creative writing, but Economics, at which he professionally excelled as well.

He was a friend and mentor, one of the earliest and strongest influences on my own writing. Although just two years older than me, he was streets ahead as far as his grasp of craft and his artistic vision were concerned; while I was flailing around for material and treatment, he knew what he was doing, and generously led me along.

Boy and I met as fraternity brothers when I joined the Alpha Sigma as a UP freshman in 1971; already precocious, he would graduate that year, cum laude, with a degree in Economics, at age 18. He would go on to complete his MA in Economics within the next two years. 

I caught up with him again at the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) in 1973, where, fresh out of martial law prison, I had landed a writing job. Boy was already there, at 21 possibly the youngest director in government, in charge of the Policy Coordination Staff. We became “Sicat boys” working under the indulgent eye of our boss, Dr. Gerry Sicat, along with the likes of Federico “Poch” Macaranas and Aniceto “Chito” Sobrepe?a. Boy and I fancied ourselves playwrights at that time—he had written a play in UP under the tutelage of Prof. Amelia Lape?a Bonifacio, and I had already written plays for PETA and “Balintataw”—and so a fierce but friendly rivalry was born.

We joined playwriting competitions with gleeful passion, eager to outdo one another. In 1976, I won first prize at the CCP playwriting contest with “Madilim ang Gabi sa Laot;” Boy won second prize with “Ramona Reyes ng Forbes Park.” That was the first and last time I would ever win over Boy, to whom I would finish second or third in the CCPs and Palancas in the years to come. It came to a point when, sick of losing out to him (and after I had watched and applauded his masterpiece, “Bayan-Bayanan”), I decided to pack up and move to another medium—the short story in English—where I felt safely out of his reach.?

But our friendship flourished, and we spent many lunches in Ermita talking about drama, writing, and all the things we wanted to do. When he was sent by NEDA to Harvard in 1979 for his MPA, and later to Columbia for further studies, he snuck out of his Economics routine and took extra classes in Theater and Film. In long, handwritten letters which I still keep, he shared his discoveries with me—about, say, the works of Ibsen and Chekhov—which I eagerly soaked up. I had dropped out of UP after my freshman year to go into the protest movement fulltime, and then to work and to marry, and I knew very little about theater and writing except from what I had imbibed at PETA and from my own limited reading. I was hungry for mentorship, for someone to tell me right from wrong and good from bad, and Boy provided that at a crucial time.

Most helpfully, Boy taught me about Chekhov and indirection, the art of saying something by saying something else. At a time when my own writing was treading history and politics, Boy grounded me by going straight to the heart of things. “You know, Butch,” he told me one day as we finished lunch, “I’ve figured out that there’s really only one thing that people are after, and that’s happiness.” That remark has stayed with me all these years.

In 1984—after I had gone back to UP to finish my long-delayed AB—I chose to write about the drama of Bienvenido M. Noriega Jr. for my baby thesis, with another mentor, Franz Arcellana, as my adviser. I recently unearthed my typewritten copy of that thesis, and it’s remarkable how fresh his words remain. I quote: “The quest for happiness is an obsessive concern with Noriega—‘personal happiness,’ he emphasizes, ‘instead of social utopia, regardless of social conditions.’ The hitch, in Noriega’s scheme of things, is that such happiness can often only be attained through love, and love is the most difficult thing in the world to manage.” A quarter-century after his death, he remains a playwright for our time.

I was on a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland in September 1994, working on what became Penmanship and Other Stories, when I received news of Boy’s passing from cancer through a phone call; there was no email and no Internet at the castle then, no way to tweet my grief, as we might do these days. It saddened me deeply; he was too young to go at 42, I thought—and I felt an even more urgent need to write while I could. Four years later both of us were named to the CCP Centennial Honors List, a joyous moment we should have celebrated together.

I thought of Boy Noriega again recently when I read about the nominations being open for the next round of the National Artist Awards. I think it’s time, brother, I think it’s time.

Penman No. 79: Men of Letters (1)

ImagePenman for Monday, December 30, 2013

I’M AN incorrigible pack rat; I keep restaurant receipts and bus tickets from the 1970s, business cards from associates long forgotten or even departed, and notes and memos from various points of my engagement with one bureaucracy or other. These odds and ends molder in a large wooden baul that sits in a corner of my office, a chest Beng and I bought for our daughter’s wedding but which somehow stayed with me (our unica hija Demi will still get that baul, contents and all, on one of her visits home from California). Other old letters I keep in a leather briefcase, itself now an artifact, a souvenir from my first trip to the US in 1980.

I was rummaging through the papers in that chest and that briefcase a few weeks ago, looking for something I could contribute to the benefit auction we were holding for Writers’ Night, when I stumbled on some letters I’d received (and some I sent—I dutifully Xeroxed my outbound mail then) from writer-friends. The most interesting ones were those that opened a window on my friends’ minds as writers and as persons—as young men, really, on the road to emotional, intellectual, and artistic maturity.

One of those friends I exchanged long letters with was the late Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega Jr., very probably our finest playwright, and something of a prodigy who headed the Policy Coordination Staff at the National Economic and Development Authority in his early 20s; Boy went to Harvard in 1978, when he was 26, for his master’s in Public Administration, but cross-enrolled in theater courses at the same time. Another was poet Fidelito Cortes, who beat me out to a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford in the mid-1980s (and who made up for it by greeting me in San Francisco with the gift of a Stanford sweatshirt when it was my turn to come in 1986). I also wrote letters to film director Lino Brocka, who preferred to use the telephone to respond (quite often forgetting, when I was in Milwaukee, that it was 2 am when he was calling from Quezon City).

Boy always hand-wrote his letters in small, fine script; Lito, like myself, used a typewriter; our letters went on for pages and pages, reporting on what we were writing, seeing, and thinking at that time, aware that we were standing on the doorstep of our lives’ great labors.

This week and next, let me share some excerpts from our exchanges, leaving aside more personal references. I’m translating Boy’s from the Filipino original.

Harvard U, 3 Nov 78

Dear Butch,

My drama course is the most exciting of all my subjects. We’re studying all the major dramatists. We’re done with Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Wilde, Shaw… Wagner, Dumas fils and Buchner, and soon to follow will be Brecht, Pirandello, Beckett, Miller, Williams, O’Neill, etc. The best for me are still Ibsen and Chekhov—Ibsen for characterization and Chekhov for his mastery of dramatic devices such as economy in dialogue, choice of moments, verbal counterpoint, and so on. You know, it’s only now that I’ve discovered how Chekhovian my [three-act play] Bayan-Bayanan is. When I get back home, I can return to it and give it a final revision because I know now how I can still tighten and improve it. One more thing I admire about Chekhov is his lifestyle—shy, pensive, self-assured.

I don’t know if I can still write for the CCP [Literary Contest]—I’m too pressed for time. What about you, are you all set for this, or are you working on your Filmfest entry first? My dilemma in joining contests always seems to be that I worry about how to write my play in a way that the judge who’s in a hurry will grasp. If it isn’t well-made (meaning, it has a very clear plot), it could be hard to appreciate or to draw attention. I guess that if Chekhov joined our contests, he’d lose…. His style is so refined compared to mine. Once, for example, he was asked what the “character” of one of his characters was, and he answered, “He wears a yellow tie,” and everything was in that answer.

19 Jan 79

What are the entries to the Manila Film Festival—are they any good? Have they started the songfest? These would be good to get into—I have a lot of ideas for songs, about country and love and life—but I need to look for a good composer and a good singer….

There must be many more good playwrights such as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Racine and Moliere, but I still don’t know them well enough. I’d like to understand them all—because I’d like to teach drama someday (as a sort of sideline in case I become a full-time writer). It looks like I keep looking to [Rolando] Tinio as a model—whatever is in my field, I’d like to know.

…. The more I learn here, the more I’m aware that there’s so much I don’t know. The truth is, I need philosophy, psychology, and more to put everything together in my head. What I’m doing now is crash education. My letter’s getting awfully long. I’m just trying out the ideas I’ve been picking up. That’s because I don’t have any students yet. I remember when PETA asked us to give a lecture about our plays. I feel like I wasn’t able to say anything. The audience’s orientation was also so different. That will never happen to me again. I will also organize my ideas.

…. This will be all for now, because I’m getting sleepy. It looks like both of us keep writing such long letters. I hope we’re not just repeating ourselves. But it seems to me that we’re progressing.

2 March 79

About some of the points you raised in your letter—you’re right about speechwriting there. The Philippines or the world won’t change because of one speech. I’ve tired of this myself. The problem there is, every presidential speech has to be a speech to impress. It would be easier if it were just a speech to inform. Another problem is that we still lack in achievement and vision, so it’s really hard to impress. If there’s truly a lot to show, there wouldn’t be much need for talk, right?

…. The finitude of everything probably remains debatable. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic—I suspect that man will always discover something to overcome natural forces…. In general, I think I’m still optimistic. Maybe this is because I believe there’s a God who guides our actions. The “meaning” of life probably just doesn’t manifest itself in its consequences (in its practical results) but in the way life is used. Could be in some small things (small acts of charity, love, etc.) that we sometimes fail to notice.

…. There was a point in my brief life (before I turned 21) when I asked myself these things—what was the purpose of life? Why are people the way they are? And so on. Every now and then, I still raise the same questions, but I’m no longer dismayed, like I used to be. I’m no longer surprised, either…. When I come home, I’ll write some essays (I’m preparing my topics)—I’d like to be able to contribute to the field of thought. I have so many plans.

Boy Noriega died of cancer in 1994 at 42; I was away on a writing fellowship in Scotland, working on what would become Penmanship and Other Stories, when I heard about it. I later put his letters to me together and gave copies of them to his family. Next week, some fun with Fidelito.