Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Testimony, Trauma and Performance: Some Examples from Southeast Asian Theatre

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Testimony, Trauma and Performance: Some Examples from Southeast Asian Theatre

Article excerpt

Is the suffering of others also our own? In thinking that it might in fact be, societies expand the circle of the 'we'. By the same token, social groups can, and often do, refuse to recognise the existence of others' trauma, and because of their failure they cannot achieve a moral stance.... [B]y refusing to participate in what I will describe as the process of trauma creation, social groups restrict solidarity, leaving others to suffer alone.

Jeffrey Alexander, 'Toward a theory of cultural trauma', in J. Alexander et al., Cultural trauma and collective identity (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 2004: 1)

Memory exists in an ongoing process of performance and response. Traces of the past otherwise slip into the archive, an ever-present but usually ignored repository filled with the random survivals of antecedent social relationships stored in buildings, landscapes, libraries, museums, store windows, the electronic media, as well as in the everyday lives of the countless unknown people whose paths cross ours. One person's memory is another person's archive.

Richard Candida Smith, 'Introduction: Performing the archive', in his Art and the performance of memory: Sounds and gestures of recollection (London: Routledge, 2002: 3)

All theatre ... is a cultural activity deeply involved with memory and haunted by repetition. Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The theatre as memory machine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003: 11)

Reality, film, theatre: Intersecting arenas for the performance of memory

This paper is a reflection on a number of theatre performances held in Singapore, each of which probed problematic or traumatic historical events occurring either in Singapore itself or in other parts of Southeast Asia. These avant-garde performances were inspired by or built around actual testimonies of individuals in ways which, for this author, suggest a striking fluidity in the boundaries between testimony and performance, one that raises difficult questions about performance ethics and the processes by which collective memories are shaped. The plays also made use of visual media: one had been recorded on video while others incorporated photographic and video materials into the actual performance. At the time I witnessed these plays, I had already become interested in the way that, over the course of the twentieth century, documentary films had come to play an increasingly important role in the recording of testimony concerning traumatic events. (1) Testimony on film, I have argued, functions simultaneously as evidential trace, and as performative event. Films of testimony develop their own trajectories as they enter into the realms of public remembering. They preserve and extend the record of personal experiences, thereby adding them to the pool of collective memory about an event. Theatrical performances, too, develop their own trajectories through repetition, as Marvin Carlson's statement (cited above) suggests. But what exactly might be different when testimony is performed as drama before a live audience? What are the purposes of such performances, and what might be their possible effects upon both participants and audiences? Is the trace left by a live theatre performance inevitably more ephemeral than those captured on film, or might it be in some respects even more powerful? These are some of the questions I raise--without necessarily being able to present definitive answers--in what follows. I conclude by arguing that in the Singapore context, because censorship laws place very specific constraints on the making of documentary films with openly political content, in recent years theatre has been able to offer a slightly greater space than film as a medium for critical reflection. How theatre directors and actors have tried to use this space is a subject correspondingly deserving of our close attention.

It is part of the human condition to be the bearer of memories that are not part of our own first-hand experience, but which are nevertheless crucial to our sense of ourselves, of where we have come from and what we should do next, and of our membership of diverse and overlapping social groups. …

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