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  • Javanese Performances on an Indonesian Stage: Contesting Culture, Embracing Change
  • Cobina Gillitt
Javanese Performances on an Indonesian Stage: Contesting Culture, Embracing Change. By Barbara Hatley. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008. xix + 336 pp. 53 illus. Paper, $35.00.

Since 1945, when the political entity now known as Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands, the predominant culture of this island nation, home to over three hundred ethnic groups and languages, has been Javanese. Indonesia's first two leaders, Sukarno and Suharto, both were ethnically Javanese, and their centrist governments reflected their cultural heritages by prioritizing Javanese arts and aesthetics in the national sphere. Given the continuing shift from central to regional governance since Suharto's resignation in 1998 and the subsequent questioning of the positioning of Javanese culture in the nation as a whole, the publication of Barbara Hatley's Javanese Performances on an Indonesian Stage: Contesting Culture, Embracing Change provides a timely and engaging analysis of how Javaneseness has been enacted in theatrical productions in Central Java over the past three decades.

Research for the book is based on fieldwork and interviews Hatley has conducted since her first trip to Java in the 1970s for her doctoral dissertation. Her descriptions and accounts of specific performances that she has witnessed over the past thirty years are exhaustive and evocative. Once the performative circumstances of a particular event are fully laid out for the reader, Hatley then carefully analyzes the implications of the content of the script, the locale and conditions of the performance, and the individual personalities and their participation in or contestation of prevailing notions of what it means to be Javanese at that moment in time. She focuses primarily on two forms of theatre: ketoprak, a Javanese-language melodrama originating in the countryside near the Central Javanese cities of Surakarta (Solo) and Yogyakarta during the latter half of the ninteenth century, and teater, Western-style scripted plays performed in Indonesian for urban audiences since the beginning of the twentieth century. Both types of theatre, Hatley argues, "engage with Javanese tradition with an explicitly contemporary focus" (p. 11), which make them fertile grounds for exploring how interpretations of Javanese theatrical conventions and identity shift over time, especially during the period of political and cultural upheaval in the course of the transition from the Suharto's New Order government through to the beginnings of true democracy after the election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004.

Javanese Performances on an Indonesian Stage is laid out both chronologically and thematically. The first three chapters focus on the state of keto-prak in the 1970s, its performative conventions, and its cultural backdrop in [End Page 185] Yogya karta. Hatley illustrates how ketoprak participated in the replication and perpetuation of New Order social codes and centrist ideology even when the traditional stories themselves seemed to challenge images of beneficence and power in the Javanese courts. Chapter 4 maps out the development of teater during the same period of time through the 1980s, beginning with the pioneering work of Rendra's Bengkel Teater and then detailing the activities of some of Bengkel's former members who went on to found companies such as Dinasti, Gapit, Jeprik, and Gandrik. Unlike ketoprak, which was a popular form performed for and by "underclass" residents in the kampung (inner-city ethnic neighborhoods), teater was the domain of students and the educated who staged Indonesian-language plays while experimenting with Javanese performance aesthetics to voice political criticism and explore their Indonesian/Javanese dynamic selves.

In chapter 5, Hatley paints a vibrant picture of globalization's effects on the theatre scene in Yogyakarta, where the traditional forms of kampung -centered ketoprak began to vanish while collaborations between ketoprak and teater practitioners moved to the forefront with spectacular mega-events playing to large, young, urban middle-class audiences. Hatley theorizes that these theatrical spectacles became important gathering places to help defuse growing tensions while uniting people in a common cause as public opposition to Suharto and his New Order regime grew in the late 1990s. The artists behind these events were instrumental in bringing about Suharto's downfall because their productions not only criticized the central government while...


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