Oleh : Josh Stenberg, Culture Writer [Dharmasiswa STSI Bandung] dari China Kelahiran Canada
First arriving in Bandung in September of this year, I found the senior students of the theatre department in the process of rehearsing various plays for their final exams. Some script choices did not surprise me particularly, being taken from the Indonesian modern repertoire of classics, such as Riantiarno’s Rainbow. Other scripts were by acknowledged masters of European theatre, in this case Genet and Ibsen. I am a PhD student in a theatre department in China, and this dual concern with honouring the international (Eurocentric) canon and valorising the independent national tradition is familiar. There was, however, one choice that came as a particular surprise—Peter Karvaš 1964 play The Big Wig (Veľká parochňa), translated here as Rambut Palsu.
Several factors contributed made this script seemingly unlikely. First, Karvaš, while frequently produced in middle Europe—that is to say, in the German- and Western Slavic worlds—his impact on the Anglophone or Francophone theatre world has been modest. Secondly, it would seem that Karvaš’s work, written during a time of Communist control of literary production in Czechoslovakia, and thematically deeply concerned with the trauma of the Second World War—would be of little interest to young Indonesians, born not only forty years after the end of the war, but many of them after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. Intrigued, I began to follow rehearsals, continuing my attendance to the end.
Under the direction of Wanggi Hoediyatno, the cast and musicians developed a fast-paced, tragicomic rendering of the script, accented, though never interfered with, by a small cabaret-style ensemble. The madcap, slapstick elements brought to mind the antics of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator and the clownish make-up invoked both pantomime and (for a viewer like me) the strange history of minstrel shows. Another resonance was the uncomfortable humour of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful or even of older American comic shows like the POW-camp-set Hogan’s Heroes.
Watching such cultural products, the question has always been, where, and how far, is humour allowed? If Theodor Adorno claimed that poetry was dead after Auschwitz, how is it that we have not only poetry of the Holocaust, but comedies thereof? Why is Edgar Hilsenrath’s Holocaust satire The Nazi and the Barber more effective than most straight-faced, moralistic accounts? In general, we don’t seem to have a great handle on the functions of humour—are we covering embarrassment, approaching otherwise taboo themes, reacting to incongruity?
STSI’s Rambut Palsu is an incongruous world for me. The Hairy ones—here by their costumes and insignia unequivocally identified as Nazis, historically so devoted to racial prejudice—are white-face Southeast Asians. The language—already in Karvaš divorced from its historical German—is naturally taken into a third language. The set is claustrophobic and always in danger of crushing the actors, seems places the general himself in a prison (appropriate, since he is oppressed by the need for new victims). And there is that uncomfortable sympathy one feels for the General—who is never off-stage, and crushed by a succession of failed interactions. The play is not set up to allow easy distributions of guilt—terrible things must occur because of an incomprehensible system which incorporates the general, the adjutant and Norbert as much as the victims, and the cause of which is observing at a safe distance (the audience?). Karvaš’s plot might be using absurdity to illustrate the Third Reich’s real bizarreness (perhaps the inverse of Hannah Arendt’s The Banality of Evil), or even allude to the witch-hunts of Stalinist Czechoslovakia—which also needed an unending supply of enemies. The Slovak press found the original “a tragicomedy rather than a comedy because there were too many topical references in the conflict between the bald ones and the hairy ones and the spectator sensed many associations with the present. (The New Czech Dramatic Avant-Garde, 7.) … But what does it mean when performed in Indonesia? Surely, we aren’t talking about Slovakia anymore? Do we direct ourselves towards Kafka, and see it as a comment on nightmarishness of all institutions? Is it (still) about the absurdity of prejudice?
Perhaps it is a little cheap to fall back on universal themes. As a foreigner and a newcomer to Indonesia, I am not able to do more than guess how these resonances work for an Indonesian audience. For me, I watch this production—and think, which imprisonment is this? Europe is not the only region to have produced traumatic histories, and Europe’s not the only literature to try and come to terms with it—sometimes, like the Enlightenment Europeans writing dramas set in India and China—one can borrow very far afield to talk about home. Perhaps that which never resonated in the Anglophone and Francophone West—never having experienced bureaucratic dictatorships—fits well into Indonesian narratives of historical trauma?
A theatre performance is embedded in the society of its practitioners and its audience. My references for understanding such a show, implicit and explicit, are Western. Yet the meaning of scripts alters according to its environment and no amount of exchange will produce the same expectations in diverse audiences. And so watching this play—entertaining, tightly plotted, brilliantly acted by inexhaustible talents— my experience is indirect but very rich, as I sit wondering, exploring, guessing what new meanings this story is accruing in its transplanted context, in the expert hands of young people three generations and fifty countries away.
As often with theatre, one finds oneself baffled and deeply impressed, and knows that the show is making sense, but not knowing why, or in which part of oneself…and remembering that the sense it will make will be different for everyone else—a reminder, for me, that the observer is always missing things, but only rarely lucky enough to be conscious of it.