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Review: Indonesian post-colonial theatre

Review: Indonesian post-colonial theatre
Published: Mar 13, 2011

Evan Winet’s study of teater reveals a rich and ethnically diverse history

Barbara Hatley

With each successive regime change the erasure of other narratives and identities involved in forging a unitary Indonesian nation – the grand ‘forgetting of the past’ – is repeated. Sukarnoist nationalism replaced colonialism and was erased by Suharto’s New Order; then came the so-called reformasi era. Theatre reflects these processes, yet it is haunted by political ghosts and an ongoing, post-colonial concern about its own authenticity and cultural legitimacy.

Evan Winet’s Indonesian Postcolonial Theatre: Spectral Geneologies and Absent Faces is an interesting and unusual study of teater, modern, Indonesian-language theatre based originally on the model of western drama. In Winet’s view, this derivation constitutes the defining quality of such theatre. As a product of interaction with European colonisers, teater continues to carry with it the ‘ghost’ of that colonial history.

In spite of nationalist rhetoric proclaiming Independence as an act of conclusive rupture with the past, Winet argues that ‘Jakarta’s theatre buildings, acting pedagogies and dramatic repertoires are still haunted by the colonial experience’. Just as European theatre in colonial Batavia suffered from a sense of inadequacy compared to the superior stage fare of Amsterdam, Paris and London, post-independence Indonesia ‘struggles to develop an Indonesian theater of the caliber of European and American examples’.

Colonial shadows

Winet explains the book’s approach as stemming from a wish to help illuminate why Indonesian modern theatre remains within ‘the shadow of coloniality’. He wants to challenge ideologically-motivated, nativist assertions of authenticity by presenting a more inclusive, pluralist perspective. The first four chapters of the book discuss the origins of modern theatre in the colonised East Indies, Eurasian and Chinese performances of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and linkages between the colonial and post-Independence periods in relation to theatre spaces and acting pedagogies. The final three chapters focus on Indonesian theatre of the 1960s onwards. They analyse how successive productions of two western classics, Hamlet and Caligula, have engaged with different moments in Indonesia’s post-colonial history, why committed Muslim artists have subsumed Islamic discourse and imagery within a nationalist framework, and how modern theatre after the ending of the Suharto regime continues to be haunted by presidential ghosts.

The early chapters give a fascinating picture of the ethnically-diverse theatre staged in colonial Batavia and of processes of revival, reinterpretation and erasure of these activities in more recent times. An example cited is the Dutch language play Karinda Adinda by Eurasian playwright Victor Ido staged in Batavia in 1913 and re-presented in Indonesian translation in 1993. The later performance occurred at a commemorative festival at the Gedung Kesenian Jakarta – the refurbished Shouwburg Weltewreden theatre where the play had first been performed. In Ido’s original work the Dutch-educated son and daughter of a Javanese district head denounce their father’s feudalism, espousing European ideals of equality in keeping with mixed-race, anti-colonial nationalism. The daughter, Karina Adinda, an independent-minded young woman inspired by the example of Kartini, defiantly stabs herself in order to join her murdered Dutch lover and avoid the marriage arranged for her by her father. In the 1993 version, however, the daughter’s suicide is avoided by the sudden appearance of her Dutch beloved, miraculously rescued from death. The play ends with a tableau where the son invokes nobility of ideas and deeds and asks for moral guidance from God. The stinging denunciation of native feudalism and patriarchal authority, inspired by European-derived values, is muted to fit the conditions of post-colonial New Order Indonesia. The event commemorated Ido as a Dutch rather than a Eurasian playwright, for within a nationalist, us-and-them understanding of Indonesian theatre history, the substantial contributions of Eurasian and Chinese plays, playwrights and performers are largely ignored.

In a chapter on ‘theatre spaces’ Winet examines the varied roles within performance activities in Jakarta of two major theatre complexes. These are the Schouwburg/Gedung Kesenian with its grand pillared façade, colonial-era European focus and contemporary cultivation of global connections; and the Taman Ismail Marzuki, the major municipal cultural centre, charged with fostering local and ethnic as well as modern cultures. To include under this rubric, as Winet does, plays produced in far-off spaces of exile in the 1930s by future president Sukarno, is rather a long stretch. However the accounts of Sukarno’s theatre productions in Flores and Bengkulu, including two plays influenced by Hollywood horror movies, make for absorbing reading.

The fourth chapter, focusing on issues of professionalism and amateurism in Indonesian theatre, describes how amateur modern theatre, which developed during the Japanese Occupation and actor training institutions, which were established after Independence, engaged with western theatrical concepts and standards. In response to accusations that this approach indicated dependency on and subjection to the West, Winet engages with the theories of two of its major proponents who argue the purpose was, rather, to develop inner psychological depth. It is through the struggle and eventual failure to identify with a western character – the insurmountable ‘Other’ – that actors come to better understand their own identity. Such individualistic understandings of cultural nationalism were out of keeping with Sukarno-era populism and with nativist cultural trends, which came to the fore in the theatre of the New Order period. Nevertheless, Winet argues that theatre artists continued to draw on imported techniques and scripts and themes of individual identity struggle.

In the final chapters, focusing on more recent developments, Winet’s post-colonial frame no longer seems sufficient to encompass the complex issues involved. To what extent does Emha’s separation of his art from his Islamic religious faith relate to post-colonial conditions? Are Islamic concerns sufficiently prominent in Ratna Sarumpaet’s plays to justify discussion in this context? The presidential faces haunting post-1998 theatre productions may well represent the lingering presence of authoritarian-style Indonesian nationalism. However recalling colonial parallels is not an adequate response to the conditions of these fluid, changing times, and the need to develop a new, inclusive, cosmopolitan Indonesia. The book’s concluding sentence exhorting modern theatre in democratic Indonesia to clear a space ‘not only for the ‘native’ but for the Chinese, the Muslim and, perhaps most challengingly, the mestizo’, suggests ethnic and cultural divisions in theatre which are oddly out of keeping with the hybridity and global-connectedness of much contemporary performance.

Nevertheless, the underlying pluralist sentiments of this sentence and of the book as a whole are all too relevant. Winet reminds us in a salutary and timely way of the colonial/post-colonial heritage of modern Indonesian theatre and of essentialising, exclusivist attitudes and processes, which need to be questioned and resisted. His discussions of particular performances, actors and groups, even where they may not wholly fit this frame, are lively, enlightening and informative.

Evan Darwin Winet, Indonesian Postcolonial Theatre: Spectral Geneologies and Absent Faces, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Barbara Hatley ( is Honorary Professor at the University of Tasmania and Monash University. She is author of Javanese Performances on an Indonesian Stage: Contesting Culture, Embracing Change. Singapore: NUS Press, 2008.

Inside Indonesia 105: Jul-Sep 2011

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