Indonesian Theatre and its Double

Goenawan Mohamad

Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre
Tuesday 20 January, 2015


First of all, thank you. Thank you for having me here — among people who work and live exploring different ways of “making theatre”.

As I see it, the act of “making theatre” is a process in which words and action, language and bodies, supersede each other, addressing themselves to a particular community or audience. In parallel to that, the political takes place. To put it differently, the political is, as it were, its double. At least that is what I remember of Indonesian theatre works in the late 1960s and 1970s — a period marked by the rise and fall of politics and the replay of repression.

But first allow me to offer a definition. By “Indonesian theatre” I mean a set of plays and stage performances using the Indonesian language.

The language, of which the base is Malay, is unique in its political history. Since previous centuries, it has been adopted, albeit inconsistently, as a linguafranca by the Patanis in South Thailand, people of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Southern part of the Philippines and Timor Leste. Today it is Indonesia’s national language.

In other words, the national language is not an infixed legacy of colonialism — Dutch colonialism that is.  Neither is it an expanded medium of communication generated by a majority culture. In fact, the beginning of Indonesian print-capitalism that spread the use of the language was led, among others, by the so-called “non-indigenous” minorities, the ethnic Chinese. In addition to that, Indonesia has never had an established centre of excellence preserved by a ruling class. The attempt to create a hierarchical standardisation has never been a success.

In short, it is a democratic language par excellence, created by different paroles. It is no surprise that it becomes a natural part of the political. Hence, as early as 1920s, the language was not merely a medium of nationalist, or anti-colonialist, ideas; it was, in itself, a nationalist expression. It was chosen as an act against the residue of the colonial language policy and simultaneously a breakaway from local forms of orality, and literacy nurtured by provincial (“feudal”) aristocracies.  In other words, it is part of the process of internalising the idea of “Indonesia”, which, as Benedict Anderson famously said, is an “imagined community”.

From the outset, theater using the Indonesian language has the dynamic of what Rancière calls “literarity”, meaning having an excess over the modes of communication, which reinforce a given social order. This literarity can easily undermine any hierarchy secured by the powers-that-be — a “distribution of the sensible” articulated by traditional stage performances, especially in Java and Bali. Hence, it was no coincidence that the prevalence of the national language in the theatre was profoundly associated with the Revolution of 1945 — a revolution which was both an anti-colonial resistance and a force of modernity.

However, the link between the Indonesian language — and the theatre using it — and the political is not always in a placid state. Especially when politics is on the rise but immediately submerged by the need to stabilize political groupings and identities. This leads to the production of a reiterative (and persistent) lexicon, articulated in slogans, catchphrases, and empathic acronyms.

The decade between the 1950s and the 1960s saw such a trend in the Indonesian language — especially during the period of the “Guided Democracy” with its “Third-World” revolutionary fervor. The regime organised days of “indoctrination” for all levels of the society. State-controlled radio and television were used for state-controlled mass-communication. The printed media were required to publish, on a regular basis, Sukarno’s “teachings”.

In 1966, Sukarno was dethroned. The “New Order”, under the leadership of Suharto, a former Army general, began. This regime that replaced the “Guided Democracy” was basically a bureaucratic-authoritarian administration, forged by the military and propelled by the idea of “development” (pembangunan). The social engineering was less to create a sense of solidarity among citizens than to control life. The political format was shaped not as a rostrum of   communication but a schema of manageability. Hence the predominant use of the language was not to spark political passion like it was during Sukarno’s rule, but to put people and ideas in line. It was the language of the Police.

Of course, there were carry-overs from the repressive system of the “Guided Democracy”. The theatre remained under the scrutiny of the government. But a crucial difference marked the role of language:  the “New Order”‘s official speeches and statements were largely an extension of bureaucratese.

Despite the difference, both “Guided Democracy” and the “New Order” generated the impulse to put “Platonic” demand on the theatre: its ideas and practices were to be judged according to their direct moral and political worth. Hence, to have the right topic and the consistency of the text were the most important requirements. There was no recognition that, inside the play’s narrative process, the supremacyof the text would be no more and the language would never be a complete tool.

But the demand is, of course, nothing new. In 14th and 15th Century Java, for example, Muslim missionaries took over wayang performances — all with their Hindu-based narratives, characters and elements of symbolism — to introduce their precepts of “moral reforms”. In the 20th Century, under Sukarno, it was imperative for theatrical productions to represent the country’s optimistic march to a socialist future. Under Suharto’s authoritarian bureaucratic regime, driven by the push and pull of the Market, the impetus was to prevent anything that would get in the way of efficiency. A literary work or a theatrical piece was expected to rely on a stable relationship between meaning and world. The play was not the thing, the Order was. Unpredictable subjects, a certain set of taboos, should never be spoken on stage.

Manipulating a stage, making it a political tool of a master, can be effective, but up to a point.

I remember “The Murder of Gonzago”, a play-within-a play in Hamlet.

We all know, in the third act of the tragedy, Hamlet produces a play for a special audience with a special purpose. He wants “to catch the conscience of the King”, admittedly in a hurried and impatient way.

He invites a group of “the tragedians of the street” to perform. He gives them lengthy advice on how to act. He wants them to present a realistic stage performance, to “hold … the mirror up to nature”. Oddly,once it is staged, it turns out to be a dumb show followed by several lines of a stilted style of speech with monotonous rhymes.  ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ becomes a confusing mix between a playful trick to trap the guilty and a reckless attempt to slap the face of the powerful. There is nothing in the text ascertaining that Hamlet succeeds. Meanings are no longer attached to verbal eloquence.

At the end of the day, a play is an event. This was what the Indonesian theatre of the 1960s and 1970s insisted.

In 1968, Rendra (1935-2009), one of Indonesia’s greatest poets and stage directors, shocked the audience with a performance he called Bib-Bop. It was pure movement with almost no verbal elements; the solo actor only whispered monosyllabic words without meaning. I call it “teater minikata“, a play with minimum words. In no time, it set itself as a new paradigm.

In his later pieces, Rendra developed this form into a bigger production, Barzanzi, for instance — a re-creation of a traditional Muslim celebration: it is a play that is no longer shaped by the need to represent an idea, big or otherwise. Logical connections are no longer in place; what you have rather, are successions of figures. In a group of 15 people, men and women, on stage, there is no voice with authority. Image foreshadowed text. The “visible” took precedence over the “speakable”.Words are no longer a force that gives the world external to language a form; words are parts of the world.

The minikata was never a single trend in Rendra’s plays, let alone in the Indonesian theatre as a whole. But as the time was ripe for defiance against the ruling mode of discourse, the new paradigm had its echo in the works of other playwrights like Putu Wijaya (b. 1944). One of Putu Wijaya’s powerful pieces, Aduh, presents a group of people doing “some activity” without making it clear what activity it is. The play develops into more actions with no specific aim; actors talk and reply as unspecified bodies who continue their shifting, unfocused, dialogue.

This, I think, is where a democratic challenge to the authoritarian order takes place. Aduh questions the superiority of speech over silence and stuttering — in a time when words were regimented by those in command. The play defies the hierarchy of voices. There is neither man nor woman who wins others to his or her arguments.

Another leading playwright of the period was Arifin C.  Noer (1941-1995). Undoing categories of “high” and “folk” artistic expressions, his famous Kapai-Kapai displays a different kind of sensibility. It is made of phrases written in a modernist lyrical vein but also quatrains of comical nonsense of pantun verses recited by the uneducated class of Jakarta in their local theatres. Arifin’s early works, like Tengul, suggests an acute sense of living with a community to whom the author is no longer an authority, but an invisible part. A playwright is someone who does not speak, but listens to, his audience.

In such a position, the Indonesian theatre was, and probably still is, fundamentally political — not because of its loud protest, but because of its challenge to the words of power.