Describing the indescribable

Marianna Lis

Javanese shadow theatre, wayang kulit, like any other performance is in its nature elusive and unique. Any attempt to describe and document the performance must therefore also be an attempt to find out working methods and language that could translate not only words spoken by the puppeteer (dalang), but above all, all the nuances of movement of puppets animated by him, light and shadow play, the sounds of music or timbre of puppeteer and singers accompanying him.

The subject of the book

The basis of the Ben Arps’ book, which the author himself defines as being not only an attempt to present "how to make sense of this otherworldly-looking form of storytelling, felt to be at the heart of Javanese culture?" (p. VII), but also as practice in "philology of performance, a new field of study that applies the strengths of the classical academic discipline of textual philology, especially its principled attention to interpretation, context, and history, to performance" (p. VII), has become a performance Dewa Ruci, shown by dalang Ki Anom Soeroto at night from 23 to 24 November 1987 in Amsterdam. The book not only contains the full text spoken by a puppeteer during the performance along with its English translation, but also information about the musical accompaniment enriched with 250 illustrations (made on the basis of stills from the recording of the performance), through which it is possible to follow the development of the action. The puppets captured in pictures are accompanied by additional descriptions, completed with annotations, in which the author explains the meaning of individual elements, explains in detail the importance of decisions and actions taken by the characters, shows how music and the language used by dalang complement what is visible on the screen. In addition, what is especially important, he highlights the historical background, philosophical, social and religious contexts and political reference present in the spectacle of Ki Anom Soeroto, making the reader becomes a kind of perfect "recipient", able to understand all the symbolism and all the meanings the performance contained, possessing information not available for the audience while watching the show. The book by Ben Arps, thanks to the annotations it contains, can be read not only by those who want to broaden their knowledge of wayang but also by all those unfamiliar with the tradition of Javanese shadow theatre.

First attempts at describing performance

An attempt to translate the performance on words is always associated with some limitations and dangers. Description, as well as film record or photography, is never neutral, always directs the reader's attention to the individual, selected by the author, elements, exaggerating or distorting others. Dutch researchers have studied registered lakons (stories) of wayang since the 19th century. The model for the emerging descriptions and analyses became wayang play (in Javanese with Dutch translation) prepared by J. A. Wilkens and published in 1846. The text was accompanied by transcriptions of parts performed by dalang, narration spoken by him and the dialogues between the characters appearing on the screen. In the same time, in the 19th century, instructions for dalangs constructing tradition of wayang were created. The best known, Serat Sastramiruda, written in the form of dialog between the author and his disciple, Sastramiruda, from the beginning has been regarded as a set of rules, definitions and principles, which dalangs associated with kraton (sultan palace) in Surakarta should henceforth be guided. The work not only shaped the tradition and the role of puppeteer, but also imposed researchers and critics the way of thinking, discussing and describing wayang performances. Following the problems raised in the instruction next generations of researchers have brought up the same topics in their works, analyzing, among others, how dalang moves puppets in the fight scenes and how he changes his voice during the performance, thus bypassing many other elements which build performance.

Philology of performance in practice

Philological approach proposed by Arps, though most often used to interpret the texts, according to the author can also be used to interpret performances. As the researcher indicates "According to philology's theoretical principles, texts are to be studied as objects that are artefactual, interpretable, intertextual, contextual, and historical. These properties of texts are akin to properties of performance" (p. 41). Established in the early 20th century, a new area of research, the study of theatre, tried to create a theory that allows reconstruction of the theatre language. For some time the dominant theory was semiology of the theatre, trying to describe the whole spectacle and create a classification of the main systems of signs building the performance. Later studies - anthropology of theater and performance studies - also tried to find a language as fully as possible and faithfully reflecting a complexity of a theatrical performance.
Philological approach is not focused exclusively on the text. Each of the earlier theories used by either the researchers of wayang, or more broadly by experts in the field of the theatre, passed over some of the elements building a performance, which did not suit to the analysis. According to Arps, however, "If the object of study in a philology of performance is not to be systematically cut down to text, philology's basic ideas regarding artefactuality, interpretability, intertextuality, contextuality, and historicity need to be rethought to bring them in line with the new object of study" (p. 35). So the book Tall Tree, Nest of the Wind. The Javanese Shadow-play Dewa Ruci Performed by Ki Anom Soeroto. A Study in Performance Philology by Bernard Arps opens new perspectives for research in theatre studies. It is not only extremely valuable for all who study wayang and anyone interested in art and culture of Java, but also for all scholars, critics and theatre historians seeking new ways of speaking and writing about the theatre.

Marianna Lis, Theatre Studies Department, The Aleksander Zelwerowicz National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw