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  • The Komedie Stamboel: Popular Theater in Colonial Indonesia, 1891-1903
  • Cobina Gillitt
The Komedie Stamboel: Popular Theater in Colonial Indonesia, 1891-1903. By Matthew Isaac Cohen. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. 2006. 473 pp. 36 black and white illus. 4 black and white maps. Appendix of Plays and Tableaux, Notes, Glossary, Selected Bibliography, and Index. Paper $30.00.

The Komedie Stamboel: Popular Theater in Colonial Indonesia, 1891–1903 by Matthew Isaac Cohen may cover only a few years in Indonesia's theatre history, but those dozen years represent a crucial period that helped lay the foundation for a modern Indonesian nation that continues to be reflected today in contemporary Indonesian theatre and film. Cohen details his subject exhaustively and lovingly, giving the reader a vibrant, rich, and absorbing portrait of the founding, development, and influence of the Komedie Stamboel, a Malay-language musical theatre troupe founded in 1891 in the booming colonial harbor city of Surabaya on Java's east coast. Cohen, currently a senior lecturer in the Department of Drama and Theatre, Royal Holloway, University of London, has spent decades researching Indonesian performance and is an accomplished Cirebonese wayang kulit dalang (West Javanese rod puppeteer). Using his multilingual skills, he has explored and included every possible research avenue, and, as a result, is able to include previously untranslated primary materials from Dutch, Javanese, and Indonesian contemporaneous sources. With this book, Cohen has produced nothing less than the definitive work on the Komedie Stamboel, a neglected and more often than not glossed over yet key moment in Indonesian cultural history. The book is written in accessible prose and entertaining to boot. [End Page 155]

After an introduction to the development of nineteenth-century popular theatre in the Netherlands Indies, the founding and development of the Komedie Stamboel is treated chronologically in five successive chapters beginning with an in-depth description of Surabaya in 1891, including its geography, ethnic populations, architecture, and cultural life, setting the stage for the troupe's heterogeneous beginnings. From its first performances of stories from The One Thousand and One Nights, Cohen describes in meticulous detail Komedie Stamboel's members, musicians, and audiences. At the same time, he elaborates on their social histories. The Komedie Stamboel is actually about more than the history of a theatrical company and its various incarnations under the leadership of actor-manager Auguste Mahieu (1865–1903), who is of Dutch and Javanese descent. It is an exploration of the Netherlands Indies' shift into a modern Indonesian nation state through a portrait of the different cultural constituencies that made up Surabaya and the world of popular performances at the turn of the twentieth century, especially the Indo—the Eurasians of (primarily) Dutch and Indonesian ancestry who were the main players and producers of Stamboel, and the Chinese who were the main financial backers. Cohen connects every aspect of Stamboel's productions to a wider cultural context. For example, when discussing the introduction of tableaux vivants into the addenda following a Komedie Stamboel performance, he traces the history of tableaux in European and American theatre, as well as a growing use of "pictorial illusionism" in other parts of Indonesia during the late nineteenth century (75). Every production mounted by the group is described in fascinating detail, down to the synopses of the plays, weather conditions at particular performances, the state of the road in front of the theatre building, the make-up of a particular night's audience, who was paid how much, petty squabbles between the actors, professional feuds between rival troupes, murders, and much more. All the personalities involved are presented three-dimensionally, as if Cohen personally knew each of them and was, in fact, there and is recounting this history from his experience of having attended the rehearsals, read each review hot off the press, toured with them throughout Java to Batavia, Solo, Semarang, Bogor, and Malang, among other cities, and overseas to Singapore as well.

Chapter 6, "Mahieu's Legacy," Cohen extends his study to include the influence of stambul (as it became known) on twentieth century Indonesian theatre and film, as well as on state and identity politics. Komedie Stamboel has been both held up as...