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Modern Indonesian Drama
Beyond Bali
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Although it is possible to study every major non-English speaking Western culture through its translated literature, this has not been the case with the literature of Indonesia. This is one of the reasons whyLontarwas established: to ensure the ancient literary tradition of Indonesia, and its thriving contemporary literature, are more accessible to international scholars.Aware of the need abroad for text books,Lontaris publishing several multi-volume anthologies of Indonesian literature: one on the history of Indonesian drama, the other two on poetry and short stories.In 2001, with financial assistance from the Luce Foundation,Lontarbegan to collect modern Indonesianplayscripts. Hundreds were collected and scanned. With advice fromLontar’seditorial advisory board, 50 plays, representing the range of issues that were aired on the Indonesian stage in the twentieth century were chosen for transcription and publication in Indonesian. Of these, 35 were then selected for translation into English.
Early Developments in Modern Theater
Traditional dramatic forms such aswayangin Java and Bali had been performed for their ritual and/or religious significance.“A modern, secular theater, Malay Opera, emerged in the late nineteenth century. … The audiences as well as playwrights, directors, and actors, of Malay Opera included Europeans, Chinese, peoples of mixed-racial ancestry (theperanakan), and indigenous peoples of the Netherlands Indies (e.g. Javanese,Sundanese, and Balinese).” (Rafferty 10). The development of this multi-ethnic, secular, though still non-scripted, drama was an important transitional stage for Indonesian theater.
Malay Opera
“In 1891, AugustMahieu, a Eurasian ofFrench descent born in Surabaya (c.1860), established the first successful Malay Opera group in the Indies.” (Rafferty 10)Improvisational theater, with no written script and performed in the open, it combined tales from many cultures—European, Chinese, Indian, Persian, Javanese, and Malay. The merging of multi-ethnic stories also enabled the establishment of modern national identities and sensibilities.For a historical perspective on Malay Opera in Borneo, see also TanSooiBeng,Bangsawan: A Social and Stylistic History of Popular Malay Opera.
Origin of Modern Indonesian Drama
The publication ofRustamEffendi’s play,Bebasari, an allegorical verse drama about the struggle against Dutch colonialism, is considered to be the foundational moment of modern Indonesian drama.It was the first original play written by a native Indonesian in “high” Malay, and was intended for an urban, educated elite.Other playwrights following in this tradition both glorified the past and attempted to include contemporary issues.
Realistic drama
After independence, two major theatrical institutions were established: Cine DramaInstituutin 1948 in Yogyakarta, andAkademiTeaterNasionalin Jakarta in 1955. Both taught a realistic style of acting.Translations of Western playwrights (Poe, Ibsen, Shakespeare) became popular in the 1950s.“Serious” plays, featuring representation and analysis of contemporaryIndonesian society flourished.
Lontar Anthology 2: 1926-1965
Synopsis:The first four decades of the national art theater in Indonesia (1926-1965) were a period of fascinating experimentation undertaken by elite intellectuals heavily influenced by, and attempting to come to terms with, the forms and styles of western theater. These experiments ranged chiefly from hybrid anti-colonial allegories and grand historical epics to psychological and social realisms. This volume contains a selection of plays representative of the main currents of this exciting and pivotal era in the construction of Indonesia’s modern national art theater. The volume begins with nationalist allegories, then moves to psychological and social-realist works, and finally to plays that typify the dominant currents into which the theater of the New Order period, beginning in 1966, would later flow.Authors:RoestamEffendi,SanusiPane,ArmijnPane,SaadahAlim,UsmarIsmail,UtuyTatangSontani, Muhammad Ali,MotinggoBusye,MisbahYusaBiran,AgamWispi,YoebarAyoeb,IwanSimatupang,MohamadDiponegoro.
UtuyTatangSontani,Awaland Mira(1951)
SontaniwasSundaneseand used both the local language and Indonesian in his writings. He was famous during his lifetime for his novels, short stories, as well as plays. The plays were published in the 1950s and earned him high praise. He chose to frame his vision in one act plays in short story form as a way of exploring “human problems at a specific time during man’s long life.”Awaland Mirafocuses on the “physical and psychological victims of revolution in a newly independent nation” (Rafferty 14) by portraying the love of a nervous aristocratic man for a beautiful common coffee house owner who turns out to be handicapped.For an article onSontani, see
IwanSimatupang,Square Moon and Three Other Plays
Simatupangwas a journalist, novelist, actor, director, and playwright. For a brief biography, see in North Sumatra, he fought for freedom from the Dutch, and was later on the staff ofSiasat, a journal on the forefront of intellectual life in the struggle for freedom and post-independence Indonesia.He was associated with Theater 2000, an avant-garde theater company, and was heavily influenced by Existentialist writers , believing in the possibility of autonomy and independence for all.Square Moon(1957) focuseson an old man who has spent his life tying to build the perfect gallows and whose philosophy is “I kill, therefore I am.”His works deal primarily with issues of death, freedom, social disenfranchisement and conflict.
Lontar Anthology 3: 1965-1998
Synopsis:AsSoeharto'sNew Order government became increasingly authoritarian, censoring and crushing public opposition openly and often brutally, there was a clear shift in playwriting style from allegorical fairytales of wordplay, humor and oblique reference to a more direct engagement, interrogation, and call to arms. All in all, Indonesian drama during the New Order provides a fascinating window into a society in transition caught between the legacy of tradition, the challenge of repression, and a strong desire for democratization.Authors:ArifinC.Noer,Rendra,PutuWijaya,NoorcaMarendraMassardi,Akhudiat,WisranHadi,SainiK.M.,YudhistiraANMMassardi, N.Riantiarno,AsparPaturusi,AfrizalMalna,EmhaAinunNadjib,RatnaSarumpaet.
“New Tradition”
The governor of Jakarta, AliSadikin, was instrumental in the foundation of a Cultural Arts Center, Taman IsmailMarzuki(TIM) in 1968, which provided a Western-style, government subsidized venue for the staging of modern drama.The plays staged at TIM have seen various degrees of merging oflocal and Western forms and techniques. The use of regional elements in modern genres is central to the “New Tradition” and is in direct reaction to the forced social realism of theSoeharto’sregime.In order to keep the theater relatively free of political pressures, an Arts Council was formed. For the most part, it was an autonomous body with a “free hand” (Mohamad3).TIM organized an annual festival of theatrical groups run by young artists and featured traditional theatrical forms as well as modern plays, making it possible for traditional and modern forms of drama to co-exist in post-independence Indonesia.
W. S.Rendra: Struggle for Cultural Independence
Indonesia’s most famous playwright, he was also an actor, essayist, translator, critic, and poet.He was openly anti-Establishment, and was arrested in May 1978 for his seditious writings.Rendrawrote satirical, experimental plays, known for their innovative form combining Javanesewayangandketoprakin modern Indonesian productions. He borrowed elements of music, costume, dramatic structure, acting style, and joking routines from traditional drama, breaking down boundaries of low/high theaters.Struggle of the Naga Tribe(1975),while influenced by Western ideas,incorporates many traditional Javanese theatrical conventions, including the use of the figure of thedalang,the puppet master, to provide a social critique.Rendravalorizes therural poor, and an non-cosmopolitan, folk lifestyle.Rendra’sBengkelTheatre group initiated a new performance style,mini-kata, using movement and music but minimal dialogue, in response to the “prevalentslogalizationof the Indonesian language in the late 1960s” (Mohamad8).For an article onRendra, see an interview ofRendrain Australia, see
Putu Wijaya: Theater of Surprise
Worked withRendra’sBengkelTheatre group from 1967-69.Putu’stontonantheater similarly emphasizes spectacle over narration, and reflects his commitment to improvisation, creative adaptation, openness and flexibility. “The plays are both visually and aurally busy, at times verging on the chaotic” (Rafferty 16).Plot is minimal; characters are stylized and remain on stage for most of the play resulting in a crowded, noisy stage; humor tends to the bawdy and the grotesque and is used as a distancing device; and action is non-realistic.As in traditional Balinese drama, there is no obvious closure, and the central issue remains unresolved.Putu’stheater seeks to incorporate spirituality, bringing the traditional religious/ritual element back into a secular model.According toPutuWijaya, Indonesian actors “act without analyzing; they are reluctant to question the meaning of actions or situations in the script.”For an article onPutuassessing his life and works, see a video ofPutu’stribute toRendra,Monolog 'Merdeka'
N.Riantiarno: Commercially Viable Modern Theater
His blending of indigenous and Western forms is influenced by the example of MalayOpera.High ticket prices and an “entertainment” model makeRiantiarno’scompany,TeaterKoma, a much more capitalistic enterprise, catering to an affluent middle class.However, the plays, “with their graphically literal representation of the dark ‘underside’ of elite prosperity,subvertrather thanaffirmmiddle class assumptions. On the set ofTime Bomb(1982), directly below the chairs of a group of oblivious restaurant diners, sits a slum on the banks of a fetid canal” (Hatleyxi-xii).For an article onRiantiarno, see
Women Playwrights: Activists
Actress and playwright,RatnaSarumpaet, has her work included in theLontarAnthology, and comments incisively on issues relevant to women in contemporary Indonesian society, though she sees herself as a champion for all underprivileged people rather than as a feminist.Her play,The Prostitute and the President(2006), focuses on the lack of choices available to women who are forced into prostitution. The main protagonist,Jamila, has taken to murder as a way of dealing with her oppression: “hate that keeps building inside me, forever ready to explode and make me kill again…to make me kill again….” On her attempts to film this play to raise awareness about child trafficking in Indonesia, see clip of the film, most famous work,Marsinah: Songs from theUnderworld(1994) directlyaccuses PresidentSoeharto.For an article on her life, beliefs, and her arrest, see
Putu Wijaya:Geez!
Only two characters have stable names:BimaandSita. Both names go back to the Indian epics,RamayanaandMahabharata.BimaorBhimais the secondPandavabrother, known for his strength and bravery: "Of all the wielders of the mace, there is none equal toBhima; and there is none also who is so skillful a rider of elephants. In fight, they say, he yields not even toArjuna; and as to might of arms, he is equal to ten thousand elephants.” (Mahabharata, Book 5, Section 22).Sitais famed for her marital fidelity and devotion in theRamayana.Despite her abduction and imprisonment for ten years byRavana, she remains impervious to his sexual advances and is able to remain chaste.
Three Worlds inGeez!
The worlds of the mourners, the corpse, and the dancers are kept separate in the beginning, though we expect them to collide. There are also tiered platforms on stage: the top with the gamelan orchestra in a four-pillared temple; the middle with the corpse and the mourners; and the bottom withPutuhimself. “No world subsumes, destroys, or dominates another as the action progresses” (Zarrilliin Rafferty 42).
Putu’scharacters do not behave in causal, psychologically consistent ways. He establishes characters though monologues which start out by isolating a single motive or emotional tone for the character but which unfold by contradicting or subverting the original stance.Putu: “My manuscripts and my style of directing are neither anti-psychological nor do they support psychological reality” (Rafferty 44).
Use of humor and the unexpected
The gravediggers, reminiscent of the ritual-clowns ofwayang, are not the only characters who joke inappropriately; the mourners also indulge in incongruous, exaggerated behavior that belies expectations, leading one gravedigger to comment, “Hey, is this a burial or a party!” Their bawdy humor as well as their inter-changeable names give rise to laughter. The rising of the corpse multiple times also contributes to the macabre humor.Putu’sintention is to jolt the audience but also to convey a Balinese sensibility.Putu: “In Bali people joke all the time, even at funerals. They play cards at funerals. People are naturally prone to joking” (Rafferty 39).
Use of Indigenous Javanese elements
In Madison, he used gamelan, Javanese court dance, and a shadow puppet but in Jakarta, he has never used traditional techniques. Even in Madison, he subverted their traditional use, often breaking the conventional rule that guide both orchestra and dance. Dance movements were speeded up and changed; at times gamelan broke up into random cacophonous sounds (Zarrilli in Rafferty 40)
Questions for discussion
1.Bimais the only character in the play whose speech and motivation remain consistent. What is the significance of this consistency attributed to a supposedly dead person who remains in limbo at the end?2. To what extent isPutuintentionally supplying anexoticizedspectacle in using traditional Javanese theatrical elements in his Western productions? How necessary do these elements seem for an understanding of the play?3. Analyze the ways in whichGeez!functions both as a satire and as an absurdist commentary on the human condition.4. How are confusion and distancing used in the play to subvert conventional theatrical narrative and expectations?
Asmara,CobinaGillitt. “TradisiBaru: A ‘New Tradition’ of Indonesian Theatre,Asian Theatre Journal12, 1 (Spring 1995): 164-174.Aveling, Harry.Man and Society in the Works of the Indonesian PlaywrightUtuyTatangSontaniandAwaland MirabyUtuyTatangSontani. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Southeast Asia Paper No. 13, 1979.McGlynn, John H “Silent Voices, Muted Expressions: Indonesian Literature Today.”Manoa12, 1 (2000): 38-44.Mohamad,Goenawan.Aspects of Indonesian Culture: Modern Drama. New York: Festival of Indonesia Foundation, 1991.Peacock, James.Rites of Modernization: Symbols and Social Aspects of Indonesian Proletariat Drama.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.Rafferty, Ellen. “The New Tradition ofPutuWijaya.”Indonesia49 (Apr., 1990): 103-116.---. Ed.PutuWijayain Performance: A Script and Study of Indonesian Theatre. Madison, WI: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1989.Rendra, W.S.The Struggle of the Naga Tribe. Trans. Max Lane. New York: St. Martin’sPess, 1979.Riantiarno, N.Time Bomb and Cockroach Opera. Ed. John H.McGlynn. Jakarta:Lontar, 1992.Simatupang,Iwan.Square Moon and Three Other Short Plays. Trans. John H.McGlynn. Jakarta:Lontar, 1997.Soedarsono.Living Traditional Theaters in Indonesia: Nine Selected Papers.Jogyakata:AkademiSeniTai Indonesia, 1974.Three Plays by Three Indonesian Playwrights. Jakarta: Jakarta Arts Council, 2006.Winet, Evan Darwin. “BetweenUmatandRakyat: Islam and Nationalism in Indonesian Modern Theatre.”Theatre Journal61, 1 (March 2009): 43-64.Zarrilli, Phillip B.,PutuWijaya,MichaelBodden, “Structure andSubjunctivity:PutuWijaya'sTheatre of Surprise.”The Drama Review31, 3 (Autumn, 1987): 126-159.Zurbuchen, Mary S. “Images of Culture and National Development in Indonesia: The Cockroach Opera.”Asian Theatre Journal7, 2 (Autumn 1990): 127-149.





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Modern Indonesian Drama -