Power Plays: Wayang Golek Puppet Theater of West Java

Article excerpt

Power Plays: Wayang Golek Puppet Theater of West Java. By Andrew N. Weintraub. (Ohio University Research in International Studies. Southeast Asia Series, no. 110.) Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004. [xvii, 295 p. ISBN 981-230-249-2. $30.] Illustrations, music examples, glossary, bibliography, index, CD-ROM.

This excellent book presents a lively account of the current state of a theatrical genre of prime importance to the Sundanese living in the western part of Java, Indonesia. It is always necessary when writing for an audience that is comprised of non-Indonesianists to explain that puppet theater in Java does not mean children's theater. The puppet theater genres, wayang kulit in Java and wayang golek in Sunda, the former using flat leather puppets, the latter three-dimensional wooden puppets, are highly sophisticated performances including music, poetry, song, and narration that is mostly based upon the epic stories, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In charge of all aspects of the performance is the dalang, the puppeteer who speaks the dialogue for all the characters, sings intermittently throughout the night-long performances, and directs the gamelan ensemble through established signals.

Weintraub gives enough introductory material concerning the history of wayang golek and its social setting to make this book accessible for someone not familiar with the genre. Wayang golek performances are most often sponsored by a family to celebrate a wedding or a circumcision. A stage is set up outside the house with chairs not only for invited guests, but also for all those villagers who will come uninvited and spend the night watching the drama unfold. Wayang golek is a truly popular entertainment in the sense of appealing to audiences across age groups, social classes, and economic statuses.

Two of the strong themes of this book, and the aspects that I will discuss most in this review, are first, the relationship between wayang golek performances and the technologies that emerged after 1970, and second, the attempts of the Suharto regime, called the New Order (1966-1998), to control the messages presented to the public by wayang golek performances. The New Order dictatorship of General Suharto initiated an unprecedented degree of government control over all aspects of social life including popular public performances. Top-down government control and economic development went hand in hand. The New Order government, a military dictatorship, believed that repression and control were necessary for economic development. They successfully encouraged outside foreign investment in Indonesian business, monopolized the political process in Indonesia, and took a paternal attitude toward the rural majority of Java's population. Weintraub includes the following quote: "Indonesia's unsophisticated rural masses are not to be distracted from the tasks of development by political parties. . . . Under a law established in 1975, political parties are formally banned from establishing branches below the regency level" (Benedict Anderson, Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. [Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990], 115). For as long as anyone knows, Sundanese puppeteers have been partially beholden to social elites as patrons. A wayang golek is an expensive proposition, and the richer members of a village community are more likely to hire such a performance than the poorer members. Weintraub maintains that the sponsorship of the New Order escalated and intensified attempts to control the messages of the puppeteers by the very substantial amounts of money that the government was willing to spend sponsoring wayang golek performances that would include pro-government messages. Weintraub argues that the government officials were most interested in the best-known, popular puppeteers. By sponsoring performances in large, urban areas with huge audiences, and by focusing on only a few of the hundreds of puppeteers who were available in the countryside, the government was instrumental in creating what Weintraub calls the dalang "superstars," a handful of men who were constantly in demand to perform both in the urban centers and in the countryside. …