CERVANTES, Benjamin Roberto “Behn” H.

 

cervantes-behn-picThe artist and activist Behn Cervantes was a theater pioneer, teacher and progressive thinker who devoted his life to the movement for social change and to the fight against dictatorship.

History of political involvement

Here’s how Behn described his own political education:

I was approached to direct a production on the Diliman Commune called Barikada.  I was to work closely with a young group of Philippine Science High School alumni … .  It was a script in progress since it altered as it developed with rehearsals and experimentation. … Ang Tao ang Mahalaga, Tigreng Papel, and other original songs [were composed for the production and] soon were lustily rendered in rallies and demonstrations by the newly organized Gintong Silahis [the cultural arm of Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan].  For all intents and purposes, I was GS’s Artistic Director and Coach since the main performing group lived together in an HQ called Boni for daily exercises and our multiple performances in rallies and strikes around Greater Manila.  It was the busiest theatre group I had ever worked with.  Certainly, it was the most committed.  (“Gintong Silahis,” SDK: Militant But Groovy, p. 114)

Thus began Behn’s involvement in the political struggles of the ‘70s.  He joined Gintong Silahis in its engagements, notably in the floods that ravaged Central Luzon in 1971 and the “Long March” from Los Baños to Manila in 1972.  He was very soon accepted formally in the movement.

Behn explained his deepening commitment to social change in a letter to then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile:

… I feel it is my duty to involve myself in cultural affairs native in theme and in manner to my audiences.  No doubt, since theater is a mirroring of life, I have researched and often stepped into the social realities of our country.  Rather than centering my work on escapist themes and foreign plays, I have worked with original Filipino plays that depict our very own realities.  I believe that only with such material can we view ourselves more clearly and truthfully.  It is for this reason that I have stopped participating with theatre groups who utilize material alien to the Filipino character and which further the miseducation of our people.  (“Letter to Hon. Juan Ponce Enrile,” 23 Nov 1977)

Behn became a high-profile personality in the protest movement against the Marcos regime.  He was there at strikes and rallies, was a leading figure in alliances featuring different sectors, from students, artists to the religious sectors. He was often on the frontlines of demonstrations.

Behn was detained three times: Camp Crame, 1975; Bicutan, 1977; and Fort Bonifacio, 1985.

After his second incarceration, Behn wrote to his family:

The history of the case is of course my consistent position as an opposition to martial law and my work in the university as a teacher and a director.  During these past few years, I have become known as one of the most vocal dissenters.  My movie, Sakada, and my plays, especially the last one, Pagsambang Bayan, show the exploitative nature of this system, the evils the ruling class commit on the many, the need to change the order of things.  (“Letter to Family,” 19 Jan 1978)

After the 1986 People Power Revolution, Behn committed his life to reminding people of martial law atrocities and emphasizing the need for cultural conversion. He said in a piece in the Jersey Journal:

… I don’t see myself as a theatre man.  I’m a member of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines and our Preamble says, “We are Filipinos first who happen to be artists.”  The problems of the country are foremost.  (Jersey Journal, 18 Aug 1995)

Circumstance of death and impact

Behn died in 2013 due to complications arising from diabetes. Important figures of the anti-dictatorship struggle and respected artists mourned his passing. Critic Nestor U. Torre had this to say:

So many significant contributions and achievements to recall, review and give due importance to! … [I]t’s clear that Behn’s arch-eyebrowed naysayers were wrong in diminishing his seminal contributions to making theater an agent for change rather than escapism in our nation’s life and times.  (“Behn Cervantes’ seminal contributions to activist theatre recalled—and affirmed,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, 30 Apr 2016)

 

Born                      August 25, 1938, in Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija

Died                      August 13, 2013, in Alabang, Muntinlupa City

Occupation         Artist, retired professor

Parents                Cenon S. Cervantes, Sr. and Rosario Elizabeth Holcombe

Siblings                 Eleven (three brothers, eight sisters)

Education

Elementary         De La Salle Grade School, Taft Ave., Manila

High School         De La Salle, Taft Ave., Manila

College                 AB Speech and Drama, 1963

University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City

Post-Graduate  Master in Fine Arts, 1967

University of Hawaii

Others                  Film and Theatre, Columbia University, New York

Beloit College, Wisconsin

Professional Accomplishments

Acted in over 200 productions, including plays, musicals, operettas, revues, cantatas, and street theatre

Worked with two summer stock companies in Beloit, Wisconsin and Stoney Point, New York

Directed over 120 plays, operas, musicals, cantatas, and street plays in the University of the Philippines, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Meralco Theatre, Insular Life Auditorium, Phil-Am Life Auditorium, and provincial venues (for cultural outreach programs), eventually concentrating on Philippine dramaturgy and original Filipino plays and musicals, e.g.,Barikada, Pagsambang Bayan, Sigaw ng Bayan, Iskolar ng Bayan, and Lorena

Founder/Founding Member of UP Repertory Company and Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA)

Resident Director/Artistic Director of, inter alia, Repertory Philippines, UP Christian Youth Movement, UP Student Catholic Action, Upsilon Sigma Phi, Sigma Delta Phi, Sigma Beta, Beta Sigma, and UP Speech Association

Appeared in over a dozen featured roles in Philippine films and played major roles in two French films

Directed four feature films, including Sakada, several documentaries, some television episodes, and commercials

Acted, hosted, and guested in several major Philippine television shows

Received numerous awards, grants, fellowships, and scholarships, including, inter alia, the Palanca Award in 1997 and Gawad Urian in 1976 and 2012

Columnist/Contributor—BusinessWorld, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Panorama, Manila Times, People, &c.

Wrote numerous articles and essays on Philippine culture, theatre, and the arts

Has lectured in various schools and universities all over the Philippines, sat in different committees, acted as resource person in many fora and formal hearings

Cited as one of the five outstanding Filipino stage directors of the last 50 years, along with Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero, Severino Montano, Rolando Tinio, and Zeneida Amador

Sources

Bantayog profile form submitted by Antonio H. Cervantes, brother

SDK: Militant but Groovy, Soliman M. Santos Jr. and Paz Verdades M. Santos, eds., Anvil Publishing Inc., 2008

Behn Cervantes Files, containing various letters, newspaper clippings, photos and other memorabilia