Jose Victor Torres
Dramatizing history and historicizing drama
FOR PROLIFIC playwright and historian Jose Victor Torres, an interest in history and writing may be triggered by just reading Ladybird children's books.
"As a child, I was a heavy reader," Torres told the Varsitarian. "I remember reading the two-volume Ladybird book, History of the Kings and Queens of England, that made me interested in history and eventually in writing."
Indeed, the Ladybird fan is now no mere beetle.
At 39, Torres has bagged five Palanca Awards for his one-act plays, two of which won first place–"Huling Panauhin" in 1996 and "Resureksiyon" in 2001. Earlier, in 1995, he had earned his first two Palancas– third prize for "Sandaling Tagpo" and an honorable mention for the English play "The Flathouse Roof." His "A Daughter's Seed" also placed second in the English one-act play in 1997.
Last year, Vibal Publishing and the Intramuros Administration published Torres's historical tour book on Intramuros, Ciudad Murada, which won the National Book Award for Travel Writing this year.
Aside from teaching historical and features writing at the Faculty of Arts and Letters (Artlets), Torres is now senior historic sites development officer of the Intramuros administration, and faculty adviser of two UST-wide student organizations–the Teatro Tomasino and the Thomasian Writers Guild.
Fascinated by history
Torres said that as a boy, he enjoyed memorizing historical dates and facts.
"Learning the story of history greatly interested me," he said. "Scholarship-wise, I found investigating and analyzing very exciting."
From reading Ladybird classics, Torres shifted to Gregorio Zaide and Teodoro Agoncillo's works. Agoncillo's students, Bernardita Churchill and Isagani Medina, later became his model historians.
Since there's a paucity of histories on the University of Santo Tomas during the American colonial period, Torres focused his doctoral dissertation on that area of research. The result was "In Transition: UST during the American Colonial Period."
"Most of the papers in the archives under the American period were written in Spanish. No one actually dared to collate those data until I decided to use them for my dissertation," Torres, who just obtained his Doctorate in History this year from the UST Graduate School, said. "We are actually planning to publish this under the UST Publishing House."
Aside from reading, Torres was also an aficionado of movies and plays during his younger days. This eventually led him to writing his first play at age 13.
"People say I have an ear for dialogue," said Torres, whose "mentors" include fellow playwright Rene Villanueva and screenplay writer Jun Lana. "I found it easier to write about conversations I have with people, rather than just take everything out from my imagination."
Torres received proper training in playwriting and play production when he joined Teatro Tomasino, the University's official theater group, in 1983. By 1987, the group had staged his first major play, "Sitio," at the now defunct Metropolitan Theater.
"The University is Catholic, but I do not consider its conservative rules as a hindrance to our expression of the art. In fact, having rules makes you consider what is beyond those rules," Torres said.
Torres received his first award in playwriting in 1994 for "CafÃ© Vittorio" from a playwriting contest organized by the Gantimpala Theater Foundation, which eventually led to the staging of his first play outside the University.
Torres said that most of his plays employ female protagonists because of the complexity of women's psyche.
"I find a woman's heart interesting because it is so diverse," Torres said. "Once her emotions escalate, she could go anywhere. She could end up lonely, happy, angry, and vengeful. Once a male character, on the other hand, shows emotion, people would stereotype him for being gay, but females would be accounted for showing a strong character."
In 2001, the UST Publishing House published Karugtong, consisting of three of Torres's highly praised historical plays, "Ang Huling Panauhin," "Resureksyon," and "Senyor-Senyora." The characters are based on Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere.
In his most acclaimed play, "Ang Huling Panauhin," Torres uses the character of Maria Clara in Noli Me Tangere as protagonist. She is looking for her lost love, Crisostomo Ibarra, only to learn of his death. In the end, she commits suicide, which provides a poignant ending to the play.
This is contrary to the sentiments of his other play, "Resureksyon," where the assertive Padre Damaso is shown as a "pitiful old man."
"A domineering male character is always on top. This way, the only way he can go is down. The mere fact that a woman is going up and trying to race with the male to be somewhat better is already a conflict in itself. This creates drama, because drama is conflict," Torres explained.
Torres did not find writing plays about women difficult, since his household is female-dominated. He was able to observe attitudes and behaviors of women from his wife and daughter and other women.
"The Flathouse Roof" is based on a poem written by a 10-year-old girl. "Wood, Wine, Candles, and Glenn Miller's Orchestra" is inspired by the story of a female American lighting director whom Torres had met in a production.
"History is so full of drama," Torres said. "Discovering the drama in a historical story can make history interesting."
Although comedy plays are more popular and profitable these days, Torres would rather stick to drama, since the effect of comedy on the audience, according to Torres, is only superficial.
"I like tickling the audience's minds rather than just their senses," he said.
The publication of another set of Torres' historical plays is currently in the works. One of these plays is "Contra Costa," a play about the 1860 Daet Revolution in Camarines Norte with monologues by two prominent historical figures: Juan Luna and Aurelio Tolentino.
Torres has also been commissioned by the Pangasinan provincial government to write a play about Juan dela Cruz Pelaez, one of the Filipinos who revolted against the Spanish government.
"What's interesting in writing history as drama is that you may or may not use the dialogues which were actually spoken by the historical figure. Sometimes it is very interesting to dissect the mind of a historical figure which eventually affected the historical event," Torres said.
Distorting historical facts, however, is a reality a historical playwright like himself has to face.
"You can't actually stop the distortion," Torres said. "The mere fact that you're inventing dialogue for your character is already creating an image that may or may not be the image of the hero himself. It is impossible to stop the distortion if you are already using a historical figure for a product of your imagination."
How does he choose between history and playwriting? Torres said that history appeals to him when he is in the mood to do investigative research. He writes his plays when he wants his creative juices to flow.
"F. Sionil Jose taught me never to stop writing. If you get tired of writing one thing, write another one. If you get tired of writing this one, go back to the first one or start another one. That is why I never get tired of writing; there are so many ideas and observations you can write about."
At the end of the day, Torres said he desires to have his name etched in history–immortalized both as a historian and a playwright.
"I would like to be remembered for my writings, specifically my plays," Torres said. "The arts define or even create the times a generation lived in. I would like to influence this generation through my works."
Montage Vol. 10 • December 2006