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INDONESIAN THEATRE - Historical Background and Current Trends

by Saini K.M.

What is Indonesian Theatre? What distinctions make it worthy to have a special name and place among both western and indigenous theatres? What factors make its birth, growth and development possible? What position does it hold in the history of Indonesia as a nation? Those are some of the questions this essay aspires to answer.

Some background informations about Indonesia

Before answering the questions, some background informations about Indonesia
should be provided. Indonesia is a country that comprises 13000 islands, big and small. In many cases an island is separated from another by thousands of kilometres of land and sea. Some of the islands are thickly populated, some are only sparsely, while others are uninhabited. By 1990 the official number of the population is 180 millions. It is divided into 300 ethnic groups. It means that there are 300 languages and cultures, which despite similarities have marked differences. The fact explains why in former times and during the colonial days those ethnic groups felt themselves as separate entities and even fought against each other.
Due to its geographical position which is located between two oceans and two continents, Indonesia was and has always been exposed to foreign influences. Successively it was influenced by India, China, Islam and the West. The result of the influences are evident in the fact that Indonesia now officially recognizes 5 religions, namely Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism. There are also hundreds of religious minorities which are recognized and united under the common name of 'Belief in One God'. From a cultural point of view Indonesia is both a kaleidoscope and an extremely wide spectrum. There are people who are culturally living already in XXI century while others are still left in the darkness of the stone age.
How could these peoples living in a wide spread archipelago and adhering in many cases to extremely different cultures and religions be united into one nation? Moreover, how could these ethnic groups have one national theatre or the 'Indonesian Theatre'? The answers lie in their history, namely the times of them being colonialized by the Dutch and the struggle for independence, up to the present time.

Three centuries of colonial wars and intrigues

Beside being located on the 'crossroad of the world', Indonesia was also known as the 'land of spices' which were highly prized by the West. It was to secure the control of spice trade that the Portuguese, the Arabs, the Dutch and the English fought for 'East India' in XVI century. Partly through war and partly through arrangement with the English, the Dutch became the sole colonial power in Indonesia. One after another indigenous kingdom or tribal governing family fell under its control. After about three centuries of colonial wars and intrigues, the Dutch succeeded in securing its complete control over the whole of East India or the present Indonesia.
The Dutch exploited the land through the establishment of plantations of tea, coffee, rubber, quinine, clove etc., and exported the products mostly to the West. To run the industries and the administration of the land the Dutch needed local help. Thus the colonial government established educational institutions to instruct and train young Indonesians.

The aspirations to nationhood and independence begins to take form

The policy proved to be a boomerang. As early as the beginning of XX century when a small number of Indonesian intellectuals was able to organize itself into a group, the awareness and aspirations to nationhood and independence began to take form. In 1908 a Javanese physician named Dr. Wahidin Sudirohusodo was moved by the ignorance of his people, and with the support and help from some medical students, instituted 'Budi Utomo'. Budi Utomo is a fund-raising organization to finance the education of indigenous students. Though the immediate aim was education, the rationale of the efforts was based, among others, on the need of 'securing the honour of the nation'. The political motive of Budi Utomo became more evident when it involved itself in the discussion of the need of 'indigenous militia' (1915) and when its representative in the Volksraad (a kind of parliament during the colonial era) demanded that more indigenous members appointed to the assembly (1921).
The educational base of the awareness and aspirations to nationhood was not only the first but also a strategic step of the nationalist movement in Indonesia. Inspired by the ideals of Budi Utomo, many non-governmental educational institutions were established, such as the 'Taman Siswa' in Middle Java, the 'Pasundan' in West Java, etc. These schools produced intellectuals who were ideologically different from those graduated from colonial government schools.
Another organization which expressed the same awareness and aspirations though with religious colouring was the Sarekat Islam (Islamic Association). The association which was originally named Sarekat Dagang Islam (Islamic Trade Association) combined religious, economic and nationalistic ideals. Moved by the conditions of indigenous trade under strong competitions from both the Dutch and the Chinese, in 1911 Ki HaJi Samanhudi with Mas Tirtoadisuryo established Sarekat Dagang Islam. Through the advice of Omar Said Cokroaminoto who worked as an official in a trading enterprise in Surabaya, East Java, the word 'trade' was dropped, and the political character of the movement became more evident. The change proved to attract more members to the movement. The Dutch Colonial Government who was aware of the potential threat of the movement refused to legalize it as a national movement in 1913, but recognized and legalized 56 of its chapters as local and autonomous organizations. Still the movement succeeded to hold its First National Congress in 1916. Beside involving itself in the indigenous militia issue, it demanded that the Dutch Colonial Government establish a special parliament with members exclusively of Indonesian origins.
While Sarekat Islam was more and more vocal with its strong political demands, a faction led by Semaun began to colour the movement with socialistic tendencies. The faction succeeded to add another principle, namely 'the struggle against the evil capitalistic colonialism', to the existing principles of Sarekat Islam. As a matter of course the Dutch Colonial Government became more hostile towards the movement and it needed only a simple reason to act. And the reason came by when in 1919 two rebellions took place, namely at Toli-toli, Sumatera, allegedly led by Abdul Muis, one of Sarekat Islam national leaders, and at Cimareme, West Java, led by a moslem country leader. Without too much bothering about necessary evidencies that Sarekat Islam was really involved in the rebellions, the Dutch took strict measures against the movement.
Despite what happened to Sarekat Islam, new local and ethnic movements, with or without nationalistic aspirations, came into being. Meanwhile Sarekat Islam changed its name into Partai Serikat Islam (1923) while the socialist faction into Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party, 1923). In 1927 the Partai Serikat Islam changed its principle into 'struggle for national independence through the principles of Islam' and changed its name to Partai Sarikat Islam Indonesia (The United Islamic Party of Indonesia).
In 1926 the Communist Party staged strikes and armed struggle against the colonial government and duly suppressed. The party was banned and the leaders, namely Semaun, Darsono and Tan Malaka were banished to Boven Digul, Irian Jaya.
The year of 1926 is also significant from the point of view of the birth and development of the Indonesian Theatre. An Indonesian intellectual who worked as a teacher in a Dutch secondary school in Padang named Rustam Effendi was also known as a poet. He wrote a play titled Bebasari (Bebas means literally free or independent). The play is in verse and the story is about the struggle of the protagonist, Bu Jangga, to free the Princess Bebasari from the hands of evil Rahwana. The students of the school had been rehearsing for months and were ready to perform the play, but the headmaster of the school who was Dutch, detected the message behind the complicated symbolism. He firmly forbade the performance of the play.


"The Youth Pledge" in 1928

Though the national awareness and aspirations had inspired Rustam Effendi and many other poets and writers by 1926 and even before, the very important leap in the development of nationalism of Indonesia took place in 1928. The year is considered as one 'of the 'landmarks' in the history of the Indonesian national movement. In 1928, in the national Youth Congress, one of the ideological bases of the movement was laid. The congress succeeded to ratify 'The Youth Pledge' containing three basic principles as follows:
  • We, Indonesian youths, recognize that we are of one nation, Indonesian.
  • We, Indonesian youths, recognize that we are of one motherland, Indonesia.
  • We, Indonesian youths, uphold one (national) language, Indonesian language.
So far the growth and development of the national awareness and aspirations have been explained as being the consequences of the humiliations and sufferings under the yoke of colonialization. Actually the growth and development were also inspired and influenced by what happened abroad, such as the works and struggles of Indian nationalists under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and the fall of Port Arthur into the hands of the Japanese (1905).
World War II in which an Asian nation, namely the Japanese, took an active role and was victorious in the first phases of it; gave a great boost to the national aspirations and struggles in Indonesia. It did not only give Indonesian nationalists more confidence in themselves, but gave them also stronger bargaining power against the Dutch. But the bargaining power was no longer needed when the Japanese occupied Indonesia after forcing the Dutch to surrender unconditionally (1942).
The hopes and expectations of the first days of the Japanese occupation was quickly changed into disillusionment. To win the war for the victory of The Great East Asia under the Japanese flag demanded incredible sufferings from the people. Some of the Indonesian nationalist leaders, such as Soekarno and Hatta, cooperated with the Japanese and did their best to get concessions and a promise for the future independence. Others, like Syahrir and Amir Syarifuddin went underground. These 'legal' and 'illegal' struggles were coordinated to reach the same goal, independence.

Proclamation of Independence and Pancasila

On August 17th, 1945, two days after the Japanese capitulated to the Allied Forces, Soekarno-Hatta proclaimed the Independence of Indonesia. The day was not only an occasion for rejoicing but also the beginning of the painful War of Independence (1945-1950). The following decade, namely 1950-1960, was a time of another disillusionment and experiment in liberalism. 1960-1965 was a time of political struggle between the communists and their fellow-travellers on one side and the army and non-communist factions on the other. The struggle climaxed in the Communists' aborted coup d'etat in 1965. Spearheaded by university students and backed by the army and the non communist-factions, another struggle against a government dominated by the communists began. It ended on March 11, 1966, when President Soekarno gave way and appointed General Soeharto as the High Commander Responsible for the Safety of the Nation. The general banned the Communist Party and the era of New Order began until the present day.
Behind those events, stretching from 1908 up to now, something has been taking place, namely the birth and growth of a nation, Indonesia. As has been described in the opening part of this essay, the archipelago which was formerly called East India (Oost Indie) was inhabited by 300 ethnic groups. The humiliation and sufferings under the colonial yoke made the ethnic groups aware of their similarities and the need to unite in order to reach their common goal, namely independence. The struggle towards independence was done in two planes, the ideological and the political (assuming the military is the part of the latter). On the first plane the urgent need to define nationhood was evident in the evolutionary process of laying down the ideological foundations. From the first limited effort of 1908, through the bold and brilliant conceptualization of 1928 and to 1945, when the independence was proclaimed, the process was on the way. Though elaborated some times before the proclamation, in August 1945 the Pancasila (The Five Principles) was officially recognized as the ideological foundation of the nation. The Pancasila consists of five principles as follow
  • Belief in One God.
  • Just and civilized humanism.
  • The unity of Indonesia.
  • Democracy lead by wisdom gained through negotiation among representatives.
  • Social Justice for all people of Indonesia.
On the ideological plane, namely through the Youth Pledge and the Pancasila (The Five Principles), the 300 ethnic groups adhering to their respective cultures and various religions and beliefs succeeded to found a wide base to accommodate both their common and special interests. They became a nation in a true sense. On the political plane, the Proclamation of Independence secured for them a state, a constitution and a republican government.
The Proclamation of Independence also proved the falseness of the theory upheld by Dutch scholars such as Colyn, Treub and Garretson, stating that there is no such thing as Indonesia; there are only Java, Sunda, Bali, Minang, Minahasa etc. The quasi-scientific theory which was intended to fight the growth and development of a nation overlooked the fact that it was colonialization itself, for which the theory was elaborated, that kindled and fanned the passion for freedom. Ironically it was colonialization that partly laid the foundations of a national system of values or culture.
Another historical irony is connected to the birth and growth of the Indonesian Language (Bahasa Indonesia). For hundreds of years the Malay Language was the lingua franca of traders in the archipelago. The Dutch took advantage of the fact and decided that Malay was an official language in its colonies. It resulted in the spreading of Malay in the archipelago, and though with many dialects, the language made possible the closer relationship and cooperation among the ethnic groups. Needless to say that it was also a very important factor to make the growth and development of a common system of values or culture possible. The adoption by the Republic of Indonesia of the Indonesian Language (based on Malay) as a national and official language meant not only to be the political foundation of the nation, but also that of its national culture.

But how about the Indonesian or national theatre?

The foundation of the national ideology was firmly laid down by the time of the proclamation of independence. The Indonesian Language, both as part of the ideology and the medium for its promotion among the ethnic groups, was functioning and growing. It could even pride itself with a literary tradition, maintained and developed by poets and novelists from the time the aspiration to nationhood was born. But how about the Indonesian or national theatre? Was there any theatre worthy of a nation with a glorious history in securing and maintaining an ideology of its own and a language that functions as a lingua franca for its people, and even prides itself with a literary tradition already?
The answer is positive. There is a theatre which was born and developed and still developing like the nation itself. This theatre, to be worthy of its position as a national theatre, should meet some requirements. It should express the awareness and aspirations of the nation, namely its hope, expectations, fears, dreams etc. It should use the means or medium understood by Indonesians, such as the Indonesian language. The play written by Rustam Effendi in 1926 is one of example. And it does not stand alone. The years around that national landmark, namely the Youth Pledge (1928), other playwrights wrote in the same spirit. Sanusi Pane wrote KertaJaya (1932) and Sandhyakalaning MaJapahit (1933); Muhammad Yamin wrote Ken Angrok dan Ken Dedes (1934). Those plays dealt with themes connected to visions of the coming nationhood with its hopes and problems. They were written in the Indonesian language by Indonesian intellectuals involved in the struggle for independence. Muhammad Yamin even held the position of Minister of Education and Culture after the independence. Soekarno himself, the charismatic leader of the nation and its first president, wrote and directed a play in Bengkulu, where he was banished in 1927.

The birth of a national theatre

But like the growth and development of the nation itself, the birth and growth of the theatre was not simple. There were still other requirements to be met beside the expression of the national 'ideology' and the use of the national language. The fact that there are plays as works of literature does not mean that a theatre exists. The real theatre, the living one, requires a certain idiom and a public or audience that understands the idiom. What theatrical idiom allowed the plays written by Rustam Effendi, Sanusi Pane, Armyn Pane, Muhammad Yamin, Sukarno, to be understood and appreciated by the audience? And what kind of audience ?
The questions are relevant in connection to the Indonesian theatrical situation. As an archipelago of 13000 islands and 300 ethnic groups, Indonesia is a place where many ethnic theatres or theatrical expressions can exist side by side oblivious of each other. The situation made the development of certain traditional ethnic theatres possible without any intervention from outside. The undisturbed development might result in a very refined theatre, such as the puppet-theatres of Java, Sunda and Bali. While the number of islands and the difficulties in transportation in former times resulted in the rich variety of theatrical traditions. The Makyong and the Randai from Sumatra, the Lenong, the Topeng Banjet, the Longser, the Ketoprak, the Ludruk, the Wayang Wong from Java, the Aria and the Kecak from Bali, the Mamanda from Sulawesi are only a few of the kaleidoscopic richness of the ethnic traditional theatres. But actually it is this very refinement and richness that hindered the growth and development of a national theatre. It is not easy to change one's partiality to one's ethnic theatre, especially when it is very old and refined. How could a national theatre be born and grow in this situation? How could a new theatre be born among old and cherished ones, some even the pride of one's culture and admired by foreigners, especially the West? What is the idiom of this new theatre, what images and what symbols does it use to express its content? Is there any (new) content or wisdom at all? Is not wayang (the puppet theatre) a sublime theatre that has all the aesthetic beauty and eternal wisdoms ?
Despite the problems it has to face, the 'national theatre' was born and grows steadily. It was born out of the historical necessities of the nation. At the time when a number of the members of different ethnic groups saw the dawn of nationalism, they felt the need to communicate with kindred spirit. Newspapers and magazines were the most effective and the lingua franca, i.e. the Malay language, was there to use. It was almost natural that members of nationalist-movements and their supporters used printed mass-media as their favourite platforms. News which were written from the point of view of the nationalists and essays propagating nationalism were the first products of the efforts in the national communication. From this point, literature is the next step. Poems, stories and plays expressing the awareness and aspirations towards nationhood were then in abundance. It was the same need and creative energy that produced abundance in literature that was also behind the birth and growth of a new theatre. And a new audience, though still very small in number, was also born. They were the members of the nationalist movements and the most sensitive and educated among the society.

The 'trans-ethnic' theatre

But this new theatre, like the nation itself, had to pass many phases and overcome many problems before coming to an idiom or style of its own. It was not born out of nothingness. There were already various ethnic theatres and a 'trans-ethnic' one. The ethnic theatres used ethnic language, images and symbols which mostly meaningful only to the members of the ethnic group. It is noteworthy that nationalistic ideas and aspirations were also expressed through ethnic literature and theatre, but since the language and many symbols used are intelligible only to the members of the ethnic group, those arts can not be classified as national or Indonesian. The 'trans-ethnic' theatre came to Indonesia from India through Malaysia (Penang). It was called Wayang Parsi by the Malays. For some reasons the troupe returned to India, and its manager sold the properties, costumes etc. to a Malay enterpreneur, Mohammad Pushi. Mohammad Pushi changed the name of the troupe into 'Bangsawan' (1885). The 'Bangsawan' was a professorial theatre and used Malay language in its performances. The repertoire consisted of local melodramas of kings, queens, princes, princesses and demons, tales from India or the Middle East. It is evident that the theatre was meant for entertainment. And as such it was well received by Malay-speaking and town-dwelling audience in Singapore and Sumatera (Indonesia). When it visited Java (Jakarta, then Batavia) it was not well received and failed financially. It was once again dissolved and sold to a Turk named Jaafar. Jaafar renamed the troupe 'Stamboel' (for Istamboel, the Turkish name for Constantinople). It was successful and another 'Stamboel' theatre was established in Surabaya (1891). The leader of this troupe was August Mahieu (of French-Indonesian parents) was born in Surabaya in 1860. He named his theatre Komedi Stamboel. To avoid the kind of failure suffered by the Bangsawan Theatre, he added to the repertoire the popular local (Indonesian) stories, such as Nyai Dasima, Si Conat, Oey Tambaksia, and stories from Shakespeare in adapted forms. It was assumed that he also used a Malay-dialect more acceptable to the Javanese, rather than the High or Court-Malay used in the Bangsawan Theatre. As a theatre it relied on glamourous costumes and gorgeous set, as for the acting it almost resembled the modern musicals of Broadway. Emotions were expressed through songs, and dances were important parts of the theatre. Though it used Malay language and was well received by many ethnic groups, it could not be classified as the national theatre, because it did not express the awareness and aspirations towards nationhood. The goal of the trans-ethnic theatre was financial, the method was entertainment. But from the point of view of the birth, growth and development of the Indonesian theatre, both the ethnic and trans-ethnic theatres are very important. They prepared the way for it.
As a theatre which is concerned with awareness and aspiration and a part of the struggle of changing the reality of a colonialized society into an independent one, the national theatre should by its very nature be an aesthetic one. Its problems of clarifying das 'Sein and das Sollen' of the situation faced by its hypothetical audience is purely aesthetic. It means that it has to find theatrical images and symbols that might frightened those nationalistic ideas, emotions, hopes, fears, etc., to a mixed audience, namely those who were already aware of nationalism and others who were to be won to the cause, and also to the various ethnic groups with their differences in culture.
The difficulties can only be overcome by really dedicated artists and with the help of some historical factors. Pioneers in the national theatres were intellectuals, who were sometimes not only involved intellectually in the struggle against colonialism but also politically. Sanusi Pane and Armyn Pane wrote essays and poems propagating nationalism. Muhammad Yamin and Soekarno became the first statesmen in free Indonesia. Considering the great risk for both politicians and political writers in those times, there is no doubt about the dedication of those pioneers. But there were also historical factors that were of great advantage to the birth of the national theatre. The first was the existence of a trans-ethnic language that functioned as a lingua franca, namely the Malay language. Though still awkward in expressing new nationalistic ideas, it was a tool that was at hand and could still be developed and refined. As for the existence of a trans-ethnic theatre the type of Komedi Stambul, its advantage to the growth of the national theatre is doubtful. As a professional theatre which aimed at profit, the Komedi Stamboel did not aspire to attract the attention of the audience towards reality. On the contrary, it gave them the opportunity to escape from reality to the glamourous world of fantasy. This disadvantage was soon changed when an educated Chinese named Tio Tik Djien established a group called 'Orion'. Though theatrically 'Orion' was based on Komedi Stambul, some 'modern' western theatrical principles were adopted. The songs and dances which were important parts of the Stambul were banished from the stage. The stories were finished in one performance, while in the Stambul the serial was a very common practice. The stories were no longer longwinded like those of the Stambul. The characteristics of the plays and the performances of the Orion types were more suitable to the taste of the nationalists or the educated Indonesians in those days. Many nationalists and educated Indonesians had the experience of studying and even performing XIX century European plays. The seriousness and the idioms of the theatre seemed to be the one needed. The audience, though few in number, was there already. Thus the new theatre was ready to be born.


Amateur theatres become very active

But other historical events were still needed to speed the birth of the new theatre. During the time between 1926, when Rustam Effendi wrote Bebasari and 1942, when the Dutch Government capitulated to the Japanese Army, the artists seemed busy trying to find the most suitable idiom for the new theatre. In those years Sukarno wrote Krukut Bikutbi and Dr Setan. Imam Supardi wrote Keris Empu Gandring (Empu Gandring's Kris). An adaptation of L'Avarice by Moliere was done by Nur Sutan Iskandar. Amateur troupes involving the membership of intellectuals and of nationalist-movements activists mushroomed in big cities such Jakarta (Batavia), Bandung and Surabaya. One distinguishing qualities of the amateur troupes from the professional ones was that the actors and actresses of the amateur troupes were faithful to the text of the play. It was true that the professional theatres also performed written western plays, but in the performance the actors and actresses felt free to change the texts to suit their taste. When the Japanese Army occupied Indonesia (1942), the situation quickly changed. In the first year of the occupation, professional theatre was less active. Only one, namely 'Bintang Surabaya' that returned to the scene. On the contrary, the amateur theatres became very active. Many intellectuals and nationalists seemed to view the presence of the Japanese Occupation Army as the opportunity to advance their cause. Pusat Kesenian Indonesia (Indonesian Centre for the Arts) was established in 1943 with the blessing of Sukarno, the acknowledged leader of Indonesia. Sanusi Pane, the poet, essayist and playwright, was appointed chairperson of the organization. The activities of the organization was not limited to theatre, but covered such arts as painting, literature, ethnic dances etc.. This fact and the close cooperation between the organization and the Japanese Occupation Army, caused many artists leave and establish new ones. Anjar Asmara established 'Sandiwara Angkatan Muda Matahari' (The Sun Young Generation Theatre) in 1943. He recruited its members from elementary school and secondary-school students. They prepared themselves as actors by mastering the basic knowledge and skills of theatrical performance. It was true that the plays they performed were more entertainment in character. The reason was that it was not easy then to evade the attention of the censorship. Still the effort was significant. Those young men and women who were active in the organization were the future supporters of the new theatre. Their position was evident by the fact that their performance and acting were disliked by the common public, the 'mass' who were used to professional theatres, and received warmly by the intellectuals.

Theatre as a medium of national awareness

Another troupe was established and led by Sanusi Pane's brother, Armyn Pane. The troupe was named 'Pancawarna' and performed plays mostly written by Armyn Pane. It was significant that the troupe also performed Jinak-jinak Merpati, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Nora. But the most important thing was the fact that, like his brother Sanusi, Armyn was both an artist and a nationalist. His novels and plays expressed the awareness and aspirations very well.
The most famous was 'Sandiwara Penggemar Maya' (The Maya Amateur Troupe) which was established in 1944 in Jakarta. The initiators of the troupe were Usmar Ismail, D. Jayakusuma, Suryo Sumanto, Rosihan Anwar and Abu Hanifah. The members were young intellectuals, nationalists and professionals (physicians, pharmaceutists etc.). The principles upheld by the troupe were nationalism, humanism and religion. What is significant about the founding of this troupe was that the reasons are dissatisfaction about the works of the 'Centre for the Arts' which they thought to be too much controlled by the Japanese. It is also evident that the troupe's principles are three of the future 'Five Principles'.
In the activities of 'Maya' the development towards a national theatre reached an important landmark. Theatre was no longer just an entertainment. It was now a medium for cultural expression based on the national awareness, its aspirations towards humanism and religiosity. It was also importan from the point of view of the interest towards theatre as serious art and science. It was from the time of 'Maya' that the theories of theatre were studied seriously. No wonder that the leaders of 'Maya' became the founders of the future 'National Academy of Theatre' in Jakarta.
The Japanese was not unaware about the possibility of the manipulation of the theatrical activities by the nationalist-intellectuals for the national cause. On one hand the Japanese agreed to the establishment of Indonesian Centre for the Arts led by Sanusi Pane and supported by Sukarno. This seemed to be an effort to tame the nationalist-intellectuals. On the other they established 'Java Eiga Kosya' (1942), an organization in charge of the 'artistic' activities. One of the chapters of the organization was a dramatic school led by R. Arifin. The result of the study in this school was a chain of performances of downright propaganda plays. The Japanese established yet another organization, namely the 'Keimin Bunka Shidosho' or the Cultural Centre (1943). Ironically they appointed Sanusi Pane, the famous poet, essayst and dramatist wellknown for his nationalism, as chairperson and recruited other famous Indonesian men of culture as members. The aims of the organization were: (1) to adapt culture to the ideals of the Great East Asia, (2) to enhance cooperation between Japanese and Indonesian experts in the field of culture, (3) to promote the progress of Indonesia culture.

Japanese censorship

Early in 1945, when the situation was becoming worst for the Japanese, a censorship body was established as a division of Java Eiga Kosya. To prevent actors and actresses from filling dialogues with nationalistic or anti-Japanese ideas, improvisation was no longer permitted. All theatrical performances should be based on texts, or scripts or plays, which should be submitted before hand to the censorship body.
A kind of irony of history happened in connection with the censorship. The Japanese's demand that producers and directors submit written texts before the performances compelled them to ask the help of more writers and playwrights. The result was that many plays were written and many young potential playwrights emerged. And the improvisatory habits left by the professional actors and actresses of 1920 and 1930 were completely erased from the amateurish stage. The censorship proved not only to stimulate playwriting among the intellectuals but also to make the year of 1945-1946 one of the most productive in the history of Indonesian dramatic literature.

Theatre during the time of the War for Independence (1945-1950)

During the time of the War for Independence (1945-1950) the theatrical activities were going on, but in a different way. It was hardly the time for aesthetic contemplation and creation, nevertheless theatre was in great demand. The fighting spirit of the people should be kept high and their ability to suffer should be maintained; they should never lost sight of the ideals they were fighting for. Theatre could do its share in the efforts. There were performances behind the fronts and although done on make-shift stages or in open fields, the response from the audience was always strong. There was never a time in which life and stage had so vital and strong bond. Even the professional theatres which in peace time used to offer the public ways of escaping from reality to fantasy, during those years did not fail to let the stage open to the melodramatic revolutionary heroes and heroines. The same thing happened in ethnic theatres. The kings, queens, princes, princesses and demons from the legends and myth gave way to longhaired and bearded revolutionaries and their faithful girlfriends as well as to the wicked Dutch soldiers.

The post-war years

But, lively and vital as it was, the war years did not produce either memorable performances or good plays. It was the following decade that left a special impression on the history of the Indonesian or national theatre. It seems that in the peace-time just after the war that artists had the real opportunity to contemplate upon the war for independence; on the other hand, it was also then that they began to be disillusioned. The sufferings, the test of courage and human values, treason, hypocrisy, heroism and cowardice, self interest and sacrifice, etc. that took special dimension during the war were depicted in the plays such as Faja Sidik
(Emillia Sanosa, 1955 ?), Captain Syaf (Aoh Kartahadimaja, 1951), Pertahanan Terakhir (The last Defence - Sito Situmorang, 1954), Titik-titik Hitam (Black Dots - Nasya Jamin, 1956), Sekelumit Nyanyian Sunda (A Melody of Sundanese Song - Nasyah Jamin, 1959). The rest deals with the disillusionments of the post-war years, such as corruption, political opportunism, the erosion of the national ideals, the yet unchanged conditions of the poor, the emerging clash of ideologies, namely between nationalism, Islam and communism, the neglected sufferings of victims of the war, etc. Those themes are expressed in plays such as Awal dan Mira (Awal and Mira), Sayang Ada Orang Lain (It's a pity there are other people), (Utuy T. Sontani, 1951, 1953). Even adaptations, such as Pakaian dan Kepalsuan by Akhdiat Kartamiharja (1956, based on The Man in Grey Suit by Averchenko) and Hanya Satu Kali (1956, based on Justice by John Galsworthy), were meant to express the disillusionments.
In order to express the national awareness and aspirations a special theatrical idiom is needed. During the fifties, conventional realism and naturalism seemed to be the choice. It was a kind theatrical lingua franca for a generation familiar with western theatre at the time when the influence of Ibsen and Chekhov was at its highest. Both the artists and the audience were at home with the idiom. Conventional realism as an idiom or a style was firmly rooted by the establishment of The National Academy of Theatre in 1955. The academy was directed by the famous playwright and film-director Usmar Ismail. He cooperated with Asrul Sani, a veterinary but also famous as poet and screenplay-writer. The alumnae of the academy were to be outstanding actors and directors, such as Teguh Karya, Wahyu Sihombing, Tatiek Malyati, Pramana Padmadarmaya, Galib Husein and A. Kasim Ahmad.

Jim Lim and the Bandung Theatre Study Club

But even at the time when the national theatre seemed to find its own idiom, namely conventional realism, a problem emerged. Even at those time, the educated was a very small minority. The new theatre was facing a dilemma. To maintain the standard would mean to be exclusive and to cater only to the taste of the privileged few. To lower it, or returning to the style of the 'Stambul' or 'Dardanella', would mean to betray the artistic ideal, the one cherished and jealously defended as integral part of the national ideal itself. Confronted by the dilemma, Jim Lim turned his attention to the rich tradition of ethnic theatres. Backed by the Bandung Theatre Study Club, an organization he initiated, he experimented by integrating ethnic elements to his performances. Since the late fifties, he was known as one of the best actors and directors in conventional realism. His directions of 'Awal dan Mira' (Utu T. Sontani) and 'Uncle Vanya' (Chekhov) and his realistic acting in such plays as 'The Glass Menagerie' (Tennesse Williams) (1962), 'The Bespoke Overcoat' (Wolf Mankowitz) etc. were still being talked up to the present day. But in 1960 he directed 'Bung Besar' ('The Big Boss', Misbach Yusa Biran) in style of Longser, a Sundanese folk theatre. It was a scandal and he was harshly criticized and jeered. He did not stop experimenting and in 1962 he integrated elements of 'leather puppet theatre' (wayang kulit) and Sundanese music to his direction of Pangeran Geusan Ulun (Saini K.M., 1961). In his adaptation of Hamlet (Jaka Tumbal, 1963/1964) he continued his experiments by integrating more elements of ethnic theatre such as the gamelan music, the chirebon-style of mask dance, the longser-style clowning, etc. Meanwhile he continued to keep pace with the development in the West. He directed and acted in realistic in style but absurdist in content Caligula (Camus, 1945) and Rhinoceros (Ionesco, 1960) and in completely absurdist The Bald Soprano (Ionesco, 1950). Though he left Bandung, Indonesia, in 1967 to study theatre and then to live in Paris as an actor, his friend Suyatna Anirun continues his work. Like Jim Lim, Suyatna mixes elements of western and ethnic theatre in communicating with an audience which is culturally mixed. It proves that this idiom, namely a mixture of western and ethnic theatre, more suitable for a new generation who was less westernized compared to their elder brothers, the generation that was born before the war. Both Jim Lim and Suyatna Anirun enjoyed big and responsive audience during the sixties.

Rendra and his 'Bengkel Teater Yogya'

An event which was important in the efforts of freeing the theatre from the limitations of conventional realism happened in 1967, when Rendra returned from the United States and with his 'Bengkel Teater Yogya' (Yogya Theatre Workshop) performed the teater mini-kata ('Minimal Word Theatre'). His experiments with rhythmical movements, monotonous sounds or words, choreographed blocking etc. (Bibop, Rambate-rate Rata, 1967,1968), opened the limitless possiblity for the theatrical articulations.


'The Springtime of Theatre' of the seventies

Those events seemed to prepare the coming of 'The Springtime of Theatre' of the seventies. The establishment of Pusat Kesenian 'Taman Ismail Marzuki' ('Ismail Marzuki Park' Art Centre) by Ali Sadikin, the popular governor of Jakarta in 1970, inaugurated the most creative and productive theatrical activities not only in Jakarta, but also in big cities such as Bandung, Surabaya, Yogyakarta, Medan, Padang, Palembang, Ujung Pandang etc.. 67 plays were written by 17 playwrights and performances held both in festivals or on regular base. There were also seminars and formal discussions about theatre in general or about its particular problems. Beside Stanislavsky, names such as Brecht, Artaud and Grotowsky were more and more pronounced. The Department of Theatre was established at The Jakarta Institute (IKJ) in Jakarta, while another Department of Theatre was also established at the Academy of Performing Arts (ASTI) in Bandung. Many university students began to organize their own troupes to meet the demands in their own campuses but also to promote the prestige of their Almamaters.
But the most important things as the legacies of the 'Springtime of Theatre' of the seventies are the emergence of the theatrical idiom which is accepted as Indonesian, and the recognition as accomplished theatrical artists such figures as Teguh Karya, Rendra, Arifin C. Noor, Suyatna Anirun and N. Riantiarno. The figures are still the most dominant in the theatrical scene of Indonesia up to the present (1990s).
The Indonesian theatrical idiom is a mixture between western and ethnic elements. It takes from the west the structural solidity which is very important to express the themes in a restricted time allowed in contemporary performances. From the ethnic heritage it takes those images and symbols which are both the reservoir of the rich ethnic experience and the articulation of it. What is meant by western elements in this context are mostly those taken from conventional realism. As for Brechtian and Artaudian idioms and styles, the Indonesian artists recognize them as their own. The Sundanese Longser and Javanese Ketoprak etc. are Brechtian, while the various Balinese theatres are the source of Artaudian ideas and practices.
Although the idiom is still being developed and refined, major artists have been successful in using it as their medium and put their personal 'signature' on it. Teguh Karya (b. 1934) started his activities in Jakarta at the time when Jim Lim and his friends were active in Bandung. Although he is better known as film-director today, Teguh Karya is an accomplished actor and director of the stage. Rooted firmly in conventional realism, his memorable directions are mostly based on plays by Strindberg (The Father), E. Robbles (Montserat), Jeff Last (Bangsacara-Ragapadmi) etc.. As film director he won several national and international prizes. It is his films that mostly reflected his commitment to the national aspirations.
Rendra (b. 1936)
is a poet, playwright, actor and director. He started in the tradition of conventional realism. His plays, namely Orang-orang di Tikungan Jalan, Guncangan Pertama'and Bunga Semerah Darah were written in realistic style. His first memorable direction is of realistic play, Dead Voices (van Logem, 1963). He is a powerful actor and his charismatic presence on the stage never fail to fascinate the public. His performances during the seventies attracted big audiences. After his realistic period he experimented with the so-called teater mini kata (Minimal Word Theatre, 1967/1968). During the seventies, backed by 'The Yogya Theatre Workshop' he organized, he wrote and directed his own plays, namely Perjuangan Suku Naga (The Struggle of the Naga Tribe), Sekda (The Governor's Secretary), Mastodon dan Burung Condor (Mastodon and Condor), and his translations, namely Lysistrata (Aristophanes), Antigone (Sophocles) and Oedipus (Sophocles). In the eighties he directed his play Panembahan Reso (His Majesty Reso) and Selamatan Anak-anak Sulaeman (The Exorcism of Sulaeman's Children). Except in the last play which tends to be artaudian in style, Rendra takes advantages from brechtian techniques and idioms to express his visions related to a nation entering and struggling in world shadowed by economic superpowers.

Arifin C. Noor (b. 1941)
is a playwright, actor, stage and film-director. Like Rendra, he is concerned about the situation in which powerless, ordinary people fall as victims without knowing how to defend themselves and nobody pays any attention to their sufferings. Arifin expresses his reflections on the fate of poor and weak people in an idiom of his own, a fine mixture of Brecht, Artaud and surrealism. Combined with specially composed music, the style sometimes reached the power of lyricism of the best of poetry.

Putu Wijaya (b. 1943)
is a playwright, actor, stage and film director, novelist and short-story writer. As a Balinese he is deeply rooted in a rich theatrical tradition. His artaudian images and symbols fill the stage and give the distorted but clear vision of the dehumanized world of a nation moving very fast in uncertain direction. The Balinese influence is strongly evident in the musicality of his theatre. The words, the sound effects and the musical compositions (if there is any) fuse together into another 'musical' composition. In this vein, Putu Wijaya wrote and directed his plays such as Edan (Crazy), Aduh (Ouch), Awas (Watch Out), Aib (Shame), Dor (Tam), etc.
N. Riantiarno (b. 1959)
is a playwright, actor and director. He started writing in realistic style such plays as 'Pelangi' (Rainbow), 'Cermin' (Mirror), dealing with domestic problems. Later he wrote more about social discrepancies in Brechtian style. His wellknown plays and directions are Opera Ikan Asin (Adaptation of Three Penny Opera by Brecht), Opera Kecoa (Cockroach Opera), Wanita-wanita Parlemen (Adaptation of Lyssistrata), Bom Waktu (Time Bomb). The combination of humour and social protests which are characteristic of his original plays proves to be attractive to the public of the metropolitan Jakarta, that his performances used to attract big crowd. His popularity and the managerial skill of his wife enable Riantiarno to work on professional basis.
Suyatna Anirun (b. 1936)
is an accomplished actor and director. His memorable actings are as Uncle Vanya (Chekhov), King Lear (Shakespeare), Old Man (Awal dan Mira, Utuy T. Sontani), etc. He directed all styles of plays, both domestic and foreign. Among others he directed The Seagull (Chekhov), The Proposal (Chekhov), The Midsummer Night's Dream (Shakespeare), Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare), King Lear (Shakespeare), Rhinoceros (Ionesco), Egmond (Goethe), The Broken Jug (Kleist), L' Avarice (Moliere), Le Medicine malgre lui (Moliere), Pangeran Geusan Ulun (Saini K.M.), Panji Koming (Saini K.M.),Sangkuriang (Utuy T.Sontani) etc. Whatever plays he directed he never let the audience forget that theatre, above all, is for aesthetic enjoyment. For that very reason Suyatna Anirun was one of the most respected directors at the present.

What is Indonesian Theatre?

It is time now to return to the questions this essay aspires to answer. What is Indonesian theatre? What distinguishes it from both the west and indigenous theatres? What makes it worthy to have a special name and place in the history of Indonesia as a nation?
Indonesian theatre is one of the reflections of the birth and growth of a nation, Indonesia. It cannot be separated from the history of Indonesia as a nation. Its themes express the awareness and aspirations to nationhood. After Indonesia secured its independence, it expresses both the pains and the exultations of the growth of a nation which is still in the process of development. It uses Bahasa Indonesia or the Indonesian Language as its lingua franca. It distinguishes itself from both the western and the ethnic theatres not only in the matter of theme, but also in its idiom or 'style. It mixes both the western and indigenous idioms to express the sensibility of a nation that is culturally influenced by both. It is supported by the members of all ethnic groups. They feel the theatre is really their own. They are involved in it and work together to express their national sensibility and to have aesthetic satisfaction. The audience of the Indonesian theatre was and is the most 'Indonesianized' of the nation. In former times, they were the intellectuals and nationalists; today they are intellectuals, university and highschool students living in urban areas. The 'Indonesianization' of those born after the war is achieved through several channels, namely the national ideology or Pancasila, the national language or the Bahasa Indonesia, the national system of education and the government controlled mass-media. The urban areas, especially the big cities, are places in which the process of Indonesianization the most intensive (see also: Summary of an article on a discussion of 'Theater and Tradition' by Yenni Kwok)
It is worth noting that the professional and commercial theatres of the pre-war years developed and was absorbed into the film-industry. The propaganda theatre, which is now the government project, is mostly shown as the part of the television programs. The aesthetic theatre, namely the Indonesian theatre, is performed mainly on stage and organized mostly on amateur basis. Depending on its size and number of populations, a city may have one to several but less than ten independent troupes. Should the city have universities, some might be added to the existing number of troupes. Since the seventies, universities have been more and more important as the home-base of the theatre, the Indonesian Theatre.

Summary of the article: "Theater keeps traditional ties"
on a discussion of "Theater and Tradition" in Taman Ismail Marzuki
(Jakarta Post, 5 Sep 1997)

by Yenni Kwok

As to Indonesian style and idiom in Indonesian theatre there has recently been an argument between Ki Hadi Sujiwo Tedjo (Dalang and the cultural correspondent of KOMPAS), Endo Suanda (ethno-musicologist) and Ratna Sarumpaet (director of Satu Merah Panggung; actress in Marsinah Menggugat). Both agree that there is a special Indonesian style, which they call "cengkok" (accent, singing style, inherent feature of the surrounding culture or tradition; Javanese word) and which is clearly noticeable among Indonesia's leading theatre groups:

Bengkel Teater:
Javanese warrier dance (in: Oedipus; Rituals of Solomon's Children)

Teater Populer:
Balinese dance (in: Jayaprana Loyansari)

Teater Gandrik (Yogyakarta)
Central Javanese "ketoprak"

Teater Koma:
Modern version of "ludruk"

Studiklub Teater Bandung
Sundanese traditions (in: Kartoluwak)

Teater Kubur:
Oil drums, which remind of Bode traditions, even though they were never used as such (Dindon WS)

But apart from the Indonesian "cengkok", suggests Endo Suanda, there is always "cengkok" in western, eastern, northern or southern influences. Some Indonesian groups make a detour via western traditions until they "eventually pay homage to the home traditions" and develop their own "cengkok" like Slamet Syukur or Tony Prabowo.


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