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Asian Theatre Journal 16.2 (1999) 139-193


The Incantation of Semar Smiles: A Tarling Musical Drama by Pepen Effendi

Translated and introduced by Matthew Isaac Cohen *


Many of the rich theatrical cultures of Indonesia have yet to receive adequate attention by scholars. This translation of The Incantation of Semar Smiles provides an introduction to one of these genres--tarling, performed primarily in north-coastal West Java. This musical melodrama, with book, lyrics, and music by Pepen Effendi and released by the audiocassette company Prima in 1994, represents a new development in the history of the theatrical form. Dialogue for all previous live stage productions and recordings is largely improvised and songs are stock. In contrast, Fendi's operetta of jilted love and magical revenge is almost completely prescripted and musically through-composed.
Matthew Isaac Cohen is a cultural anthropologist who has conducted extensive fieldwork on theatrical cultures in Java, Indonesia. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies, the Netherlands, in the "Performing Arts of Asia: Tradition and Innovation" program and is working on a book on shadow puppet theatre in the Cirebon region. His "Barikan: A Ritual Drama for Shadow Puppet Theatre" is forthcoming from the Lontar Foundation.

Ajian Semar Mesem (The Incantation of Semar Smiles) is a musical-drama for tarling, a popular operetta or musical melodramatic form of the Cirebon region of north-coastal West Java, Indonesia. Tarling is a hybrid theatre amalgamating exogenous and endogenous cultural streams of influence. In its stories, music, acting styles, and dramaturgy, it draws directly and indirectly from Javanese folk clowning and social dancing traditions as well as nineteenth-century British melodrama, television, Java's classical tradition of gamelan (gong-chime) music, Portuguese ballad singing, and Middle Eastern and Indian popular music. Tarling has much in common with other so-called syncretic theatres found around the postcolonial world, such as [End Page 139] Concert Party in Ghana and natakam in Tamil Nadu. Although there are striking affinities among many of these forms, each has its own unique characteristics and autonomous history. 1

The contemporary performance practice of tarling, as well as its history, is characterized by unusual juxtapositions and disjunctures. Johannes Fabian's comments regarding popular theatre in urban-industrial Africa are apropos for Southeast Asia. Such forms, he says,

owe their existence, not to a more or less predictable evolution following some general laws or patterns, but to specific constellations, accidents in fact, and to an interplay of personal choices and sociopolitical conditions which have always been ridden with conflicts and contradictions. If it was developmental, this history has been characterized by breaks and breakthroughs more than by stages and transitions; accordingly, its present result--"present" being the time at which we study it--is far from being an institution that has settled down into functionally integrated structures, more or less peacefully serving well-defined societal needs. [Fabian 1990, 55]

The Incantation of Semar Smiles (hereafter The Incantation) might be called one of the breakthrough moments in the history of tarling: it was the first tarling musical drama with almost entirely prescripted dialogue and with the majority of the songs newly written especially for the play. Thus I shall frame my translation of the text of the commercially produced audiocassette recording of The Incantation in terms of the form's conflictive history and internal contradiction as a live theatre art and then present details about the productive and receptive history of The Incantation and its multitalented writer/composer/ director/star, Pepen Effendi.

Historical Overview

The Cirebon region of north-coastal West Java, the stretch of Java's northern littoral incorporating the regencies of Indramayu and Cirebon and parts of the north of the regencies of Majalengka and Subang, is an area of remarkable artistic richness reflecting and refracting the area's long history of cultural cosmopolitanism and its strategic position as a meeting place of many streams of cultural influence. This cultural area was formerly under the dominion of an Islamic sultanate centered in the port-polity of...

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