Back home comments


In traditional wayang performances, most people skip the ending. It is perhaps the least often witnessed segment of the show and I know a handful of wayang aficionados who have never seen a performance all the way through to the end. It is not necessarily unimportant, perhaps, that the ending of a show hardly ever harbors a surprise. There might be unusual, creative departures from expectations earlier in the show, but never during the last scene. The things which were known in advance are to be resolved as expected.
This feature seems to be kept in kontemporer shows as well. The only exception is perhaps Slamet Gundono's Pertaruhan Drupadi, where the main character provocatively detaches herself from the wayang world to find answers for her own life. In my entire kontemporer corpus, this is the only instance of a performance where the ending includes an unexpected act. In all other performances, no matter how unusual or creative the treatment of the material, there is no surprise left for the ending. This is even true for performances that do not use the stories of the purwa cycle, such as Cebolang Minggat or Wayang Republik. In one case the plot is derived from a well known Javanese literary work, in the other, from a historical account. In both instances, though, the story is well known in advance.
Similarly, in this conclusion to my dissertation there will be no unforeseen revelations. The ideas that I wish to convey through this dissertation have been developed through the chapters in a way not dissimilar to the manner in which ideas are interwoven in a wayang show. However, I will elaborate once more two themes that run continuously through this dissertation. The first one is that wayang performances explore a variety of aesthetic and thematic possibilities. I believe that the most remarkable characteristic of this group of performances is their internal diversity. The best way to study and communicate this multifarious character is through a comparative approach, which highlights the texture of this diversity through different attempts to classify and analyze their variety. Throughout the dissertation I highlight a dislocation of ethical and aesthetic explorations as a productive analytical strategy. Sometimes the most contemporary performance in terms of aesthetic innovation can have a conservative message to deliver. This is certainly the case for the technologically complex work of Aneng Kiswantoro, Sumpah Pralaya, which ultimately insists on the importance of fate, family allegiance and war as a spiritual endeavor. The opposite situation is to be found in performances such as Dewa Ruci, by Enthus Susmono. This relatively conservative performance in terms of its aesthetics encourages an unconventional criticism of Islam.
An inappropriate insistence on tying form to content would overlook this telling characteristic of the works. In the Introduction I argued that the reluctance to dissociate form from content is a legacy of modernism and that it has affected theatre scholarship. In many areas, this approach is certainly insightful and useful. But there are other cases where it constitutes a prejudice, as it does for the analysis of performances in Indonesia. Sometimes, this tyranny of modernism (and its aftermath) blinds us to that which is interesting from other traditions. We tend to study aesthetic innovations that are also politically informed and, even better, controversial. Academic attention is given to performances that are liminal, provocative, and daring. Or, when more conservative aspects are studied, they are usually analyzed within the framework of purely traditional performances. I think this blindness often leaves out many things that are interesting to the people and places where they happen.
When I write "interesting" in English, I am often thinking about the Indonesian word menarik. In Indonesian, this word comes from the root tarik, "to pull" and thus something which is menarik is something that exerts an almost gravitational force, something that pulls you into its realm. Therefore it grants the object of attention a more active role than the passivity assigned to it by the word "interesting". Therefore, I am thinking of things that pull people in, in their own contexts. The most relevant things to study are not necessarily compelling by the same standards, inherited from modernism, that inform many a theatre researcher's preferences. Perhaps we would be wise to follow the suggestions of Alfred Gell, who in the early 1990s argued that an anthropology of art whould need to be guided by a "methodological phillistinism" in the way that the anthropology of religion is grounded on a "methodological atheism" (Gell 1992: 41). However, adopting this principle does not mean succumbing to the detached arrogance of scientific objectivity. In temporarily bracketing off one's own assumptions about what theatre must be lies the possibility of true intercultural dialogue, of encountering a deeper meaning of what art is for artists from other cultural contexts. In other words, it is possible to reconcile Gell's call for a methodological philistinism with Dwight Conquergood's appeal for dialogical performances, which strive for a real conversation with artists from different cultural backgrounds. Instead of starting our inquiries by searching for something "interesting" (according to preconceived notions) and analyzing those practices, could one analyze a representative set of practices and then ask "why are they interesting (menarik) in their contexts?" How do they exert a gravitational pull in these contexts that renders them compelling to create, to watch or to criticize?
The other theme that runs through this dissertation, which is exemplified by its website format, is the usage of digital technologies for the study of theatre. There is certainly more than one connection between the issues being studied and the approach I have chosen to undertake. For example, some of the performances also make extensive use of digital technologies. However, this does not apply to all of them. I am confident that a similar digital approach could be used for the study of a wide range of performance practices. In fact, I think that what this dissertation and the performances have in common is a desire to experiment with tradition. In one case, this is an artistic tradition. In the other, it is a research tradition in the humanities. Some aspects of my dissertation could certainly be considered conservative and closely aligned to this tradition. Some others, like the insistence on presenting them through a website, are uncommon.
In the development of this dissertation, I used software programming in two ways: to develop an ontology, and to create an interactive interface. Both usages were justified by the characteristics of the performances: disjoint explorations of ethics and aesthetics, wide-ranging internal variety and intermediality. These characteristics required a multimedia presentation and a systematic comparative approach. Hence the ontology and the interface. I would suggest that programming has much to offer theatre studies. In further research would include statistical analysis of these texts and data mining of the social networks in which these performances participate.
I believe that my dissertation, as much as the performances I analyze, stem from from a hands-on, creative tinkering. I don't dare make predictions for the future of research or for the future of wayang. However, if anything, that future lies in the outcomes of that reflexive, creative tinkering.