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  • Modern Indonesian Plays:An Introduction
  • Cobina Gillitt, Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance (bio)

Early twentieth-century national theater in Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies, was largely revolutionary in tone and intent, supporting the end of colonial rule. Productions were urban, performed on proscenium stages, and presented in what would be soon adopted as the Indonesian national language, rather than in one of the country’s 350 local languages. However, by the 1930s, Indonesian theater had shifted its focus away from the independence movement and toward domestic dramas and psychological realism. This modern, Western style was preferred by the first national theater academy, Cine Drama Institut (later renamed Akademi Seni Drama dan Film Indonesia, or ASDRAFI), which opened in the Central Java city of Yogyakarta in 1948, three years after Indonesia proclaimed its independence.

The primary academy training was—and continues to be—Method Acting, developed in the United States by Richard Boleslavsky, one of Stanislavski’s former students. Boleslavsky’s 1933 book, Acting: The First Six Lessons, had been translated into Indonesian by Asrul Sani. Together with Usmar Ismail, Sani founded Akademi Teater Nasional Indonesia (or ATNI) in Jakarta, the nation’s capital, in 1955.

This modern acting style focused on the internal struggle of realistic characters, frequently from the elite class, in domestic settings—so-called “living room” dramas. It was therefore the antithesis of indigenous Indonesian theater, which was characterized by music and dance and by stylistically conventional portrayals of character types, and which was based on local myths, historical legends, or ancient Indian epics.

Opening Islands of Imagination is a play representative of the style of the 1930s. Armijn Pané’s A Portrait of the Times is a living-room drama in the literal sense. The play’s four acts are set in the home of a model, Dutch-educated professional family. Trying to make their way in a struggling economy and changing society, the younger family members are faced with personal and professional decisions. A Portrait of the Times begins in the midst of a game of bridge being played by the family’s son and two of his friends. Winning and feeling in control of his life, the son is confident and optimistic. As the action unfolds, however, he becomes drawn into the misfortunes of his sister’s fiancé, Suparman. Although gender roles had begun changing in response to the struggling economy, [End Page vii] Suparman anguishes over his inability to fulfill a husband’s traditional role of provider and head of household. Unemployed, he is deeply demoralized while his fiancée, whose salary could support them both, is optimistic about the changing times.

For fifteen years after Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno, declared independence in 1945, national theatrical institutes and most performance communities continued to prefer modern dramatic forms over local performance traditions, regarded as backwards and provincial. Even plays that were written by Indonesians but followed Western playwriting conventions were rarely produced, because of the bias toward European drama.

Arrogating authoritarian powers, in 1959 Soekarno declared himself President for Life and instituted a policy of Guided Democracy. This policy mandated that everyone—including theater artists—work toward creating a national post-colonial cultural identity that rejected Western influences. The Institute of People’s Culture (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat), or Lekra, enforced the regime’s policies. Founded in 1950 but most active between 1959 and 1965, this Maoist organization made sure that all works of art promoted Soekarno’s ideal of “Nationalism, Religion, and Communism” (Nasionalisme, Agama, Komunisme), known as Nasakom. The government-funded Institute of National Culture (Lembaga Kebudayaan Nasional) was the regime’s censor. Consequently, modern theater activity in Indonesia—except for Lekra-sponsored events—all but ceased by the end of 1963, even in the rarified world of the national theater academies. Journals that published plays, cultural essays, and other literary works were shut down. Outspoken artists were blacklisted and banned from performing publicly.

Because a young general named Soeharto promised political and economic reforms, many Indonesians welcomed the 1965 coup that installed him as president. Many in the artistic community were understandably elated when Soeharto’s New Order regime (1967–1988) abolished the Indonesian Communist Party and...


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