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Engaging with America

Engaging with America
Published: Jul 02, 2010

Anne-Marie Morgan

   Rendra in the 1970s
   Image courtesy of Burung Merak Press

Rendra spent 1964 to 1967 in the USA during which time he studied theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and social sciences and the humanities at New York University. Prior to his departure, his alliance with the MANIKEBU writers opposed to the Leftist-inspired works of LEKRA had resulted in an effective ban on publishing his work in major periodicals. His sponsored study in America provided a good reason for absence from Indonesia as well as the chance to engage with Western arts and artists at the height of the 1960s alternative and experimental era. During his absence the Sukarno government, with its increasingly strong stance against the 'evils' of Western culture, was overturned, opening new opportunities for internationally-influenced artists such as Rendra to explore alternative means of artistic expression.

Rendra returned to Indonesia knowing that he did not want to work in the West. He wanted to be in Indonesia where he could combine local performance traditions such as arja from Bali, ketoprak from Central Java and wayang and folk opera forms with western avant-garde techniques and approaches he had experienced in America. The actors who helped establish Bengkel Teater in January 1968 - Azwar AN, Moortri Purmomo, joined later that year by Putu Wijaya and Arifin C. Noer - went on to establish their own successful and influential modern theatre companies. Together they helped found modern Indonesian theatre.

It was a theatre of experimentation as indicated by its name, meaning Workshop Theatre. Experiments focused on Indonesian adaptations of the works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Brecht and Beckett from the Western repertoire together with original works. Rendra's intercultural experimental work in Indonesia differed from that of Western interculturalists, but there were remarkable parallels and similarities in choice of repertoire and in theoretical approaches to dramatic interpretation of this material. Bengkel attracted considerable interest within Indonesia and, for the first time, modern Indonesian theatre began to draw the attention of international arts circles and theatre communities.

Bengkel Teater and the community

When Bengkel Teater was established it was a time of great excitement for company members and audiences alike, and a hugely productive period in Rendra's professional life. The effect of his time in America was immediately obvious. He was no longer merely the leader of the group, as he had been in drama groups formed prior to his trip to America. He was the guru. His role was not just to direct plays, but to provide spiritual and even paternal leadership to the company, providing instruction not only in dramatic practice but also in philosophy, politics and sociology. This very early decision to teach, or use others to teach, remained as a hallmark of Rendra's company management throughout his career. He was more than a director and his view of a theatre group was more than just a set of people who met to rehearse plays.

The company collectively cultivated some land, and classes ranged from social responsibility and conscience, to yoga, tai chi and martial arts, to health and hygiene and English language - as well as script-analysis, acting, workshop improvisations, voice production and movement. There was an ongoing education agenda of interdisciplinary and intercultural subjects. Visitors, both domestic and international as well as friends and acquaintances gave talks, lectures and workshops on all manner of topics, from doctors discussing the spread and treatment of epidemic tropical diseases to dramatists describing and demonstrating their own dramatic practice methods.

The structure of Rendra's company strongly reflected social trends and community practice evident in America at the time. It showed connections to the anti-establishment youth movement, Greenwich Village culture, hippies, the folk movement, developments in experimental drama and the growing enthusiasm for resident, permanent theatre companies. Rendra expressed a desire for Indonesians to be more in touch with their cultural roots, having seen a model for this in America in experimental community theatre. Members of the group dressed in a fashion that reflected these influences, wearing jeans and jackets and t-shirts with political or socially-oriented slogans. Many of the men wore their hair long and loose. Their dress contrasted strongly with the traditional Javanese or neat conservative Western clothes of their Yogyakarta neighbours. Their lifestyle was considered shocking, with its late night parties and commune-style living and sleeping arrangements. Their seemingly bold fashion and lifestyle choices were, however, also typical of a more widespread blossoming of such freedoms amongst youth in Indonesia rejoicing in new liberties following the fall of Guided Democracy.

However, the group's lifestyle and work process also reflected Javanese regional cultural influences. As Barbara Hatley and others have pointed out, this pattern of living is reminiscent of aspects of the communal lifestyle of touring Javanese popular theatre groups. Javanese shadow puppet heroes typically display long hair and there was a comparable association of ascetics and other males amassing spiritual power through cultivating long hair during the revolution. The young Surabayan revolutionary leader Bung Tomo similarly swore he would not cut his hair till the Dutch were driven from Indonesia. These historical examples were not lost on Rendra, who he drew capital from them.

New directions for modern Indonesian drama

Rendra's first Bengkel productions exemplified his intercultural mix, revealing his western drama school training and American influences in a re-imagined modern Indonesian drama form. Scriptless improvisations, playing with sound and physical space, making meaning from abstractions, speaking without words or in monosyllables, finding new ways to project the actor's body, movement and voice were the very substance of western acting classes in improvisation of the 1960s. There are also similarities in content with avant-garde, especially absurdist works of this period from America and Europe, and with earlier European existentialist drama, a genre with which Rendra was familiar before his training in New York.

Bip Bop was performed in March 1968, just two months after the formation of Bengkel Teater. The name Bip Bop was the collective title for a group of what came to be known as the mini kata (mini word) plays. The first program included four pieces, each less than thirty minutes in length. The performance opened with one actor standing alone on the stage chanting 'bip-bip-bip...'. This actor is soon surrounded by a group chanting 'bop-bop-bop...'. The lone actor moves one way, the group moves another way, then towards the lone actor. Eventually the lone actor is caught up in the group action.

Though seemingly simplistic, this small sketch was vitally important to Rendra and revealed much about his thinking and his aims in creating a modern theatre and enlightened consciousness for Indonesia. One account suggested Bip Bop revealed the menacing threat of a powerful mob, or mass consciousness imposing its will on the individual. This was a particularly powerful story just a few years after the mass killings of 1965-66 and the hostilities that had preceded them, painfully etched into Indonesian psyche, engendering feelings too strong to be expressed easily in words, even today. Harry Aveling has said that its purpose was to emphasise 'the conflict between the individual and his social collectivity'. Rendra himself described the mini kata as showing 'one of the most fundamental forms of conflict in our society... traditional society considers collectivism a means of ensuring well-being, while modern society has strong aspirations towards the assertion of individual identities'.

For Rendra, this dichotomy was not a simple one. He saw collectivism espoused in the teachings and practice of traditional Javanese culture with modern cultural practices and government policy obscuring the all-too-real self-interested manipulations of individuals. Yet this was not limited to Indonesia alone for, when living in America - the very society which proclaims most vocally the rights of the individual - he had witnessed individuality subdued by the mechanisms, prejudices and tyranny of the state. He found this especially so for black Americans, the subject of his poem 'Blues for Bonnie', written in 1964 and in which a black man cannot break free from his roots enmeshed in the racism and deprivation that he has tried to escape.

Ia bernyanyi.
Suaranya dalam.
Lagu dan kata ia kawinkan
Lalu beranak seratus makna.
Georgia. Georgia yang jauh.
Di sana gubug-gubug kaum negro.
Atap-atap yang bocor.
Cacing tanah dan pellagra.
Georgia yang jauh di sebut dalam nyanyinya. ...

Isterinya masih di sana
Setia tapi merana.
Anak-anak negro bermain di selokan
tak kerasan sekolah.
Yang tua-tua jadi pemabuk dan
banyak hutangnya.
Dan di hari Minggu
mereka pergi ke gereja yang khusus untuk negro

Di sana bernyanyi
terpesona pada harapan akhirat
kerna di dunia mereka tak berdaya.
Lumpur yang lekat di sepatu.
Gubug-gubug yang kurang jendela.
Duka dan dunia
sama-sama telah tua.
Sorga dan neraka
keduanya usang pula.
Dan Georgia?
Ya, Tuhan.
Setelah begitu jauh melarikan diri,

masih juga Georgia menguntitnya.

......He sings.
His voice is deep.
He marries songs and words
to bring forth different meanings.
Georgia. Far away Georgia.
Negro huts
with leaky roofs.
Earthworms and malnutrition.
In his songs he talks of far away Georgia.

His wife is still there.
Patient and suffering.
Negro children play in gutters
Not feeling at home in school.
The old men become drunkards and
get into debt
and on Sundays
go to the church specially for negroes.

There they sing.
spellbound by their hope of heaven.
In this life they are powerless.
Mud which sticks to the shoes.
Huts without windows.
Sadness and this world
both equally old.
Heaven and hell
both worn out too.
And Georgia?
Yes God.
Even after running so far from her
Georgia still comes running after him.

Coupled with his disillusionment with America's incapacity to respect the rights of particular individuals was Rendra's struggle with issues of spirituality that are also echoed in this poem and raise the issue of collectivism versus individualism. Brought up as a Javanese Catholic, religion had been part of his life that he felt connected him with western culture(s). In America, he was shocked by seeing little evidence of Christian conduct as he understood it - caring, lawful, generous and compassionate. His spiritual movement towards Islam at this time reflected his need to feel connected to others through a set of mutually-enacted, collective values; while also seeking a religion that valued the individual. Rendra claims Islam provided him a way of valuing individuality, while also connecting him with the majority of Indonesians. While some claim that Rendra's interest in Islam was to pursue the possibility of having multiple wives (which he did, attracting much publicity), it is clear that his conversion was significant for the rest of his life's work and his personal philosophical orientation.

Rendra was thus caught with a foot in each camp, having empathy towards both individualism and collectivism. Aware of this dilemma, he deliberately drew attention to it by actualising it on stage. He regarded this dilemma as a central issue confronting dramatists and other artists in modern Indonesia: is the group or the individual more important and is this positioning culturally or politically or philosophically determined? This was a dilemma with which he continued to engage as his American experiences heightened his awareness of such disparities and contradictions in Indonesia.

Reactions and challenges

The mini kata plays were performed a number of times between 1968 and 1971, to mixed reactions. At the first performance the actors were (literally) stoned by the audience and, after performing in Jakarta, a doctor pronounced Rendra to be schizophrenic. Critics, including Goenawan Mohamad and Dick Hartoko, praised the innovations for their novel and exciting contribution to modern Indonesian drama while at the same time acknowledging the unusual, startling and challenging nature of the material, which was later to be heralded as the beginnings of modern Indonesian drama.

What Rendra had introduced was the challenge of a theatrical hybrid form that skilfully blended contemporary Western influences with local traditions into a unique intercultural Indonesian performance form. It was a blend that was at once both recognisable yet confronting for Indonesian audiences; a postcolonial challenge to former western domination, while at the same time embracing western avant-garde post modernity mixed with contemporary and traditional local influences and perspectives. This hybrid blending was later to extend to including western practitioners working with Rendra, and Bengkel members working with interculturalists in the west, including Peter Brook. Rendra's next phase of work, his original productions, took the challenge further with some of the most controversial and applauded work of modern Indonesian theatre, pitting Rendra against key figures of the New Order as he confronted their hypocrisy and despotism and expressed the disillusionment of a new generation who had discovered that the New Order would not deliver what had been initially promised.

Anne-Marie Morgan ( is a Research Fellow at the Research Centre for Languages and Cultures at the University of South Australia. She completed a PhD on interculturalism in the work of Rendra in Indonesia at Flinders University in 2000. The translation of Blues for Bonnie used here is Harry Aveling's.

Inside Indonesia 101: Jul-Sep 2010

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