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3.1 Themes: Inventory of Ethical Positions
“Every human being is entangled in the problem of choice, and choice is central to the wayang” writes Sri Mulyono (1977: 16). An exploration of ethical choice is indeed central to wayang performances. Clifford Geertz describes an "almost psychoanalytic interpretation” of wayang as a common practice (Geertz 1950: 270). Many conversations in which I have participated – as witness or interlocutor – still address the issues that Geertz identified in the 1960s: the inner struggle between the self and temptations, or between self-control and passions, represented by the opposing sides of the Baratayuda war. Ethical commentary is an essential part of the discursive sphere that surrounds wayang in general, and specific performances in particular.
I wish to suggest that the ubiquity of these ethical obsessions characterizes kontemporer performances as much as tradisi ones. The prescriptive character of these ethical commentaries is sometimes highlighted: "As education for the young, self-knowledge for the adult, and philosophy for the old, the wayang has its answers to those questions and to the question of how to live our lives" (Mulyono 1977: 272). However, the ethical questions addressed in the wayang shows are sometimes also open to interpretation. As Franz von Magnis-Suseno notes, "the plays (lakon) are replete with moral ambiguity” (Magnis-Suseno 1997: 58), and this ambiguity invites discussion and disagreement.
When describing the reactions of the audience members to a particular story, Mulyono writes: “each one will see it in his own way, according to his own capacity and his own needs, for the wayang is so broad and so full of life that it can be a whole different world for each member of its audience” (Mulyono 1977: 26). It is worth noting this is the same author who stressed the educational character of wayang. He is not alone in embracing both possibilities: its instructive character and its open room for personal interpretation are common tropes in wayang parlance.
The subsections within this chapter constitute my personal interpretations of the ethical themes addressed by the performances selected for this dissertation. I have constructed these thematic explorations through my selective readings of the performances, which are informed by my conversations with audience members and dalang, and by my observations of key events in contemporary Java in the six year period I have visited Indonesia yearly (2008-2014). To borrow a term from Sonja van Wichelen (2008), each of these sections presents an "inventory of positions" within Indonesian society. What is remarkable about this inventory is the wide range of attitudes that are represented in the kontemporer performances. Each of the sections looks at how the performances tackle a particular set of ethical questions, offering many different answers:
1. Art: Spiritual Missions, Institutional Parodies. What should be the role of the artists in a society? What should be the role of artistic institutions in artistic production?
2. Environmental Concerns: The Urgency of Didacticism. How should people act in relation to pressing environmental concerns?
3. Familial Ties: Destiny or Strategy? What should be the role of people in a family and in society at large, according to their age and gender? Are the traditional ethical norms of behavior still valid or should new ethical compasses be sought?
4. Politics: Parables, Mockery and Activism. How should politicians act? What is the role of the common people in the political sphere?
5. Spirituality: Controversies of Belief. What does it mean to be spiritual? What should be the relation between an individual's spiritual quests and organized religion?
6. Women: Between Misogyny and Empowerment. What is the role of women in society? How can they fight their traditionally assigned roles of submission?
7. Youth: The Obedient Rebels. How should the youth behave? Should young people adapt to established norms or push them through rebellion?
Although each section groups together all the performances which deal with a particular ethical question, I distinguish between different ways in which they do this. The most fundamental distinction, which is the criteria used in the diagrams as well, is between the performances that briefly address a question (represented in the diagram by a small circle) and those that make that issue their central theme (represented by a big circle). I also differentiate between the ways in which the issues are elaborated, which can be either direct and explicit or subtle and allusive. A third distinction is between the imperative character of the ethical explorations. Some of the performances make strong claims and explicitly suggest particular courses of action, whereas others just highlight questions without offering conclusive answers. A last distinction is between those performances with views that adhere to traditionally held notions and those that suggest progessive or controversial ethical attitudes.
While highlighting these distinctions, I give equal consideration to all of these modes of addressing the ethical questions. I dedicate substantial attention to tangential references, that is, to thematic references that are not part of the plot of the performances and which are elaborated briefly and then dismissed. I often analyze them with as much detail as the references that are explored in a more nuanced way through plot development. I wish to argue that, in the world of wayang – be it traditional or kontemporer – this way of referencing the current affairs of the world is a very important part of the performance. These commentaries are often a central part of what is at stake in the performance, and how it is interpreted. Hence, I believe it is justified to consider them as important to the meaning and implications of a given performance as other types of references to the themes.