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Asian Theatre Journal 18.1 (2001) iii-iv

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Editor's Note

From the Editor

This issue, which focuses on Asian puppetry, is under the guest editorship of Professor Kathy Foley, Provost of Porter College at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Professor Foley, who has been area editor for Southeast Asia since ATJ began, is widely recognized as one of the West's leading scholar-practitioners of Southeast Asian forms. It is with great pride and confidence that I turn this issue over to her, and I am certain the results will provide an unusually valuable resource for anyone interested in puppetry, which has assumed so many remarkable and significant guises in Asia.

Samuel L. Leiter

How can a single person experience full human potential, expanding beyond the circumstances of one's life? If born to low status, how can one know what it is to be royal; if male, female; when young, how can one understand age? And if we only dimly comprehend other humans, how can we pretend to know other beings--animals, plants, gods, or demons?

In South Asia and Southeast Asia for over a thousand years, people have solved these conundrums using the puppet as a tool. The lively doll theatre traditions found throughout this region today are the legacy of artists who shrank the cosmos into a miniature world of figures. The vast expanse of the earth could be reduced to the few feet of a puppet stage. The puppeteer's lamp became the sun, throwing light on myriad creatures who, in their nobility or baseness, represented the world. The greatest stories ever told could be sung with one voice and battles that shook the world could be fought by two hands.

By using the small world to represent the large, the puppet master could stretch himself and those who watched to understand the forces, seen and unseen, that make up the universe. Poetic passages in archaic languages hinted to the audience that humans were like puppets-- [End Page iii] moved by some larger power. In the Bhagavad Gita (XVIII:61) the god Krishna speaks to Arjuna:

God dwells in the heart of all beings, Arjuna; thy God dwells in thy heart. And the power of wonder moves through all things--puppets in a play of shadows--whirling onwards in the stream of time.

In the contemporary opening song of the Sundanese wayang golek rod-puppet theatre, the puppet master (dalang) reiterates this theme:

The dalang dances the puppets, the puppets are danced
not knowing in whose hand.
The screen hides God, the Great Lord unseen.

The small world of the puppet became the place where one could empower humans to understand epic stories, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as local tales. Simultaneously, through clown characters and metaphorical reference, performers infused their own comic and contemporary comments into these epic frames. The puppet theatres discussed here are flexible, contemporary genres in which political critique and perennial sources of laughter--sex, power, and money--are explored.

Given the ability of puppetry to simultaneously represent religious/philosophical ideas and political/social issues, it is not surprising it rose to eminence. In Southeast Asia, human theatre is felt to be derivative. Dancer/actors imitate the puppet both in costuming and in movements. The puppeteer is in charge of the narrative in the same way whether he tells his story with puppets or with dancers. (In Indonesia puppets are called wayang and the dancer/actor's art is called wayang orang, "human puppet," since the dancer/actor strives to emulate the puppet's movement, voice, character, and body.) For a number of Southeast Asian genres, court support has faded away and the people and the government have become the sole sponsors. Although debate about who the puppeteers are really responsible to--the people, the government, their teachers, the ancestors--has not stopped, it is clear that puppetry matters.

The focus in this issue is on the rod and string puppets of South Asia and Southeast Asia. This regional focus will let readers perceive patterns, even as the articles fill in information gaps about puppet...


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