The Spectacle of the Disappeared

Translating a play usually involves only translating the source text’s language while retaining details of periods, characters, names, settings, etc. In the Philippines, a concerted nationalistic effort begun in the late 1960s saw classics of world theater translated into Tagalog. Thus, in the 1980s and 90s, I was able to enjoy productions of Medea, Lysistrata, Cyrano de Bergerac, A Man for All Seasons, and Waiting for Godot, among others, in a Philippine language. These productions required of me only my acceptance of the anachronism of characters from ancient Greece or medieval England speaking in one of my own tongues. This anachronism is no different, of course, from that of watching Filipinos play clearly foreign characters—wigs, accents, and all—as in, for instance, a recent local staging of the Broadway musical Legally Blonde.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen productions that take the translation a step further localizing the play in addition to translating its language. Macbeth works just as well set amid the warring tribal culture of the Philippine Mountain Province, and Three Sisters found startling resonance in its new 1970s provincial setting. The recent staging of Argentinean writer Griselda Gambaro’s Information for Foreigners bills itself as an adaptation. Much of the specifics of Ms. Gambaro’s play have been replaced with Philippine equivalents, to chilling effect.

The play has never been produced in Ms. Gambaro’s homeland, because of its aggressively critical take on the atrocities of the Dirty War. It is also challenging to mount. The stage directions call for “a spacious residential house, preferably two stories,” for its theatrical space, “with corridors and empty rooms, some of which interconnect.” The audience is divided into groups led by “tour guides” who take them into various rooms and corners of the house to witness 20 scenes or tableaus, sometimes simultaneously, always in a different order, while being regaled with “information for foreigners”—recitations of news stories on which the scenes are based. Much freedom is given to the director in the coordination of these tour groups, and sequence is unimportant, except for the final scene, for which the groups converge in a large hall.

The experience of spectatorship becomes participatory and immersive, with the audience assuming the roles of “foreigners” visiting the “foreign country” of the play’s setting. Actors are planted in the audience to take part in the scenes—to perform atrocities, for instance, or be forcibly abducted, never to rejoin the group. The experiment of the play is to force the melding of the theaters of illusion and imagination: the audience is constantly aware of their complicity as “foreigners,” and the fourth wall is virtually nonexistent. The tableaus are crudely mounted with little attempt at realism, and the tour guides always remind their wards, that “it’s only pretense, not real.”

The production I saw, presented by the University of the Philippines-Diliman Department of English and Comparative Literature, and directed by Anton Juan Jr., was staged on campus, in a building that houses classrooms. The utilitarian architecture and fixtures, with cursory nods to decoration, were easily transformed into a vaguely “government” space that could as easily have been a bureaucratic labyrinth or prison cell blocks.

Against this grim backdrop played a series of carnivalesque spectacles out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Bob Fosse’s film of Cabaret, by way of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. The audience is not so much guided as herded into an atrium on the second floor of the building, welcomed and jeered at by members of the company. The tour guides are a motley crew dressed in fashions out of Blade Runner crossed with Ghost in the Machine and That 70s Show, playing sideshow barkers and jail wardens all at once. A Nazi Frank N. Furter cracked a whip menacingly as we were made to sit on the floor to view the first scene.

The production departs from the text in that there are three, not one, set pieces in which the tour groups converge. In the first scene the Milgram Experiment is reenacted as a game show, the veritable metaphor for contemporary Philippine pop culture. Before long, the audience is caught up in the proceedings, feeding the correct answers to the contestant strapped into an electric chair and fed a series of Orwellian word-association questions. Before the midpoint intermission, the atrium becomes the site of a grotesque tango number led by Dr. Furter, and the final scene is a depiction of government bureaucracy as an ominous funhouse manned by clowns.

The scenes of the original play dramatized actual cases of human rights violations in Argentina in the 1970s and 80s. The information for foreigners comes in the form of news stories recited to the audience by the tour guides to contextualize the tableaus. In adapting the play, Mr. Juan collaborated with the “participants of the non-play” (as they are called in his Director’s Notes) to re-situate the play in the Philippines, with emphasis on unresolved abduction cases of the last decade. This is no great feat, as the similarities between the human rights situations of Argentina and the Philippines (and of many other countries) are glaringly obvious.

The term “desaparecidos” (the disappeared, or those who have been disappeared) was coined in a bit of Argentine official doublespeak: neither alive nor dead, but disappeared. In the Philippines, they are referred to as “salvage victims,” perhaps in reference to bits of refuse picked up for further use. Both terms connote illegal detention, torture, and murder.

The past decade alone has seen the slow-motion massacre of Filipino activists, social workers, and journalists, and this production makes the references very clear, invoking the names and images of government officials from the prior administration in various scenes. The audience is forced to pick their way through dark corridors strewn with discarded clothes, or lined with portraits of the disappeared alongside those of national heroes.

A cursory comparison between the original text and the Philippine adaptation shows that a number of scenes were simply translated with a few adjustments for context. Scenes depicting torture by the military, for instance, could be played in any language and retain their fundamental meaning. Other scenes are given a recognizably Filipino treatment, particularly by appropriating a tawdry “perya” (town fair) setting and staging the scenes as carnival games, e.g. shooting a target that happens to be an actual human being’s head. Most striking was a vignette in which a stack of tires doubles as a prison hole from inside which an unseen prisoner forges a tender, erotic bond with a fellow prisoner on the outside.

Watching the adaptation knowing its Argentinean origins, the audience shifts back and forth between parallel realities, and the shock of recognition is intensified. The guilt at being a gawking tourist creeps up constantly, only to be dispelled by the chaos and rush to the next spectacle on display. The constant distraction and the wild shifts from illusion to imagination to reality are appropriately discomfiting. The heat of the closed spaces, the crowded rooms, and the confusion evoke a concentration camp in which the guests are really unwilling detainees. It makes for a strenuous night at the theater, on the physical and emotional levels.

Illusion, imagination, and reality are brought together in the play’s closing moments, when relatives of Filipino desaparecidos take the stage to introduce themselves and their beloved missing. The names trigger memories of long-ago news items, even as one of the relatives reiterates that, “We are not actors. We are real people.” That they are now part of the surreal spectacle is the production’s final gambit, sealed with the words “Welcome to the Philippines,” addressed to the tourists as the final shock of recognition.

Mr. Juan’s production might be faulted for stating its case in too literal or simplistic a manner, but it’s arguably the best, the most unsettling way to handle material that has dulled over time due to repetition without development. In traversing two decades and finding new expression halfway around the world, Ms. Gambaro’s play ultimately suggests that things do not, perhaps will never, change. The protraction and absurdity of the struggle for justice necessitates humiliation and shaming as spurs to action.

Vicente Garcia Groyon has published a novel, The Sky over Dimas (De La Salle University Press, 2003), and a collection of short stories, On Cursed Ground and Other Stories (University of the Philippines Press, 2004), as well as edited anthologies of Philippine short fiction. He holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from De La Salle University-Manila, where he teaches while completing a PhD in Literature.