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Asian Theatre Journal 16.2 (1999) 194-229

Masks (Peran): A Malay Play by Noordin Hassan

Translated and introduced by Solehah Ishak

Masks is a previously untranslated play by Malaysia's well-known playwright Noordin Hassan. Solehah Ishak briefly introduces the context of modern Malay plays, situates Masks within the oeuvre of Noordin's playwriting career and analyzes the play within the perimeter of Malaysia's changing social-political-cultural milieu.
Solehah Ishak, who holds a Ph.D from Cornell University, presently teaches traditional and modern Malay theatre at the National University of Malaysia. She has presented and published numerous papers on modern and traditional Malay theatre forms. She is also the Editor of Malay Literature, a journal devoted to Malay literary studies and published biannually by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, the government literary and publishing agency.

Noordin Hassan's name is synonymous with the development of modern Malay theatre. Noordin not only writes drama but directs his own plays. He is also responsible for creating new "histories" on the Malaysian theatre scene. His play Bukan Lalang ditiup Angin (It Is Not the Tall Grass That Is Blown by the Wind, 1970) marked a new beginning in the development of modern Malay plays: it ushered in the era of anti-realism plays. Prior to the 1970s it was realistic plays that dominated modern Malay theatre. In terms of Malaysian history, May l3, l969, saw the eruption of racial tension, primarily between the Chinese and the Malays, which led to the suspension of democratic rule. 1 The riot led to the restructuring of Malaysian society and the implementation of several new policies on economy, education, and culture. 2 Malaysian playwrights were quick to react to the aftermath of May l3. [End Page 194] After l970, trends changed and anti-realistic plays variously called absurd (in Malay as well as in English), abstract (abstrak), and eventually "absurd plays-a la-Malaysia" (to demarcate them from a Western absurdism) became the mainstream of modern Malay theatre. In fact, the decade of the 1970s saw all sorts of theatre experimentation as playwrights grappled with the meaning of a post-May l3 Malaysia.

Thus the 1970s marked a period of intensive experimentation by playwrights who sought new ways to express their own angst regarding their social milieu. Noordin Hassan challenged other Malay playwrights to explore, through experimentation, Malaysia's rich traditional cultural heritage. It is not surprising that Noordin incorporates traditional theatre elements like the dance dramas of mak yong and menora, the boria (which involves a main comic sketch followed by a call-and-answer repartee in a sung processional), and the bangsawan (also known as Malay opera, which relies on stylized acting and improvisation). In the aftermath of May 13, 1969, then, Malay playwrights have turned to traditional theatre forms to illuminate their own roots. Realism in modern Malay theatre was seen not only as an offshoot of British colonialism but also as an imported element totally alien to Malay theatre practice. Hence the need to look for homegrown roots and traditions that can be highlighted on stage as reminders of Malaysia's own cultural heritage. This in turn can serve as a unifying factor in forging Malay cultural identity and hegemony.

Noordin's theatre is not merely an acting out of the dialogues on stage. His was a multimedia theatre long before the term came into vogue. It is an eclectic theatre, too, incorporating music, singing, and dancing. All these make the production of Noordin's plays "holistic," multidimensional, and multilayered, not only from a production perspective but also in terms of the message he wants to hammer home to the audience. While Noordin's theatre does offer something different, his productions tend to be the same throughout. They offer a mélange of acting, dancing, and singing encompassed within a holistic Islamic motif incorporating the chanting of religious verses, the recitation of the Koran, the promulgation of sermons, and the use of props signifying piety. In this sense the production aesthetics offer no surprise to frequent theatregoers.

Noordin is known for developing his...

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