IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 19 | Regions | South Asia


Timely Art:
An Interview with Rendra

W.S. Rendra (b. 1935), Indonesia's most celebrated poet, playwright, and theatre director, was a guest of the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden, the Netherlands, from 1 February to 27 April 1999. Matthew Isaac Cohen interviewed Rendra and his wife-collaborator, Ken Zuraida, on 22 March 1999 and 22 April 1999 regarding Rendra's life and work in the theatre. Presented here are excerpts from this interview, translated from Indonesian.

By Matthew Isaac Cohen

Rendra has visited Leiden three times in the past, but experienced these earlier trips as overly rushed. The current visit has been more relaxed, allowing time for participating in cultural and political dialogues, long walks, as well as giving poetry readings. It follows upon eight months of intense political activity in Indonesia, during which Rendra acted as an advisor for a presidential candidate.

MATTHEW ISAAC COHEN (MIC): Is it true, as they say, that you were put forward as a presidential candidate yourself?
W.S. RENDRA: (WSR): Ah! What people will say...!
KEN ZURAIDA (KZ): When he read poetry in Yogya recently, there were shouts of 'Rendra for president, Rendra for president!' And there were banners.
WSR: That was popular sentiment, without due thought for the future. I feel most effective as an ordinary citizen, as a poet. I can speak freely, communicate with Islamic fundamentalists, peasants, nationalists, the military, former communists, Sukarno followers. There is need for a mental reformasi, a reformasi of the way people think. I am more free to talk about reformasi if I am not motivated by political ideology, but by humane concerns.

Rendra's visit to the Netherlands is a moratorium from this swirl of political activity. It allowed the interviewer a rare chance to probe in detail aspects of a complex life in progress. Rendra's artistic career is emblematic of the post-colonial cultural history of Indonesia. A cultural icon, his life can be read from the public record. Well known are Rendra's literary efforts as a teenager; the growing political involvement of his art during the Sukarno period; the founding of Bengkel Teater upon his return from the United States in 1967; his conversion from Roman Catholicism to Islam in 1970; his folk-tinged protest dramas of the 1970s; his imprisonment in 1978; his links to the industrialist Setiawan Djody; his multi-media productions with pop idol Iwan Fals and rock group Swami. His trade-mark long, flowing hair, denim clothes, and communal lifestyle complete with organic vegetables, make him more than Indonesia's last hippy: he embodies an alternative to the state's vision of modernity for many Indonesians.


Rendra's father was a language teacher and Roman Catholic missionary, progressive and modernist in outlook. He firmly believed that modernization could only be achieved though Westernization, a view Rendra would later actively contest. Rendra sees, however, much of his artistic temperament and personality as being formed through his Roman Catholic educational background, with its emphasis on empirical observation and deductive logic.
WSR: Indonesians, especially Javanese, think Platonically. Truth lies in the heart. Known history, history that is worth remembering, is the shadow image [wayang] of history. My education stressed changing such a world view, developing an appreciation for objective facts. Most important in the classification of objective facts was the study of syntax. This was the basis for later studies of logic, taught in high school. That does not mean that there were no subjective facts. We learned about charity and love through song, composing poetry. 'The only subjective facts are the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, and the Creed. Everything else should be...' (mimes drawing a line through the air).
MIC: Crossed out!
WSR: 'Crossed out!' (Laughs.) That was my father for you.

Rendra also was able to enjoy and absorb Javanese and emergent Indonesian theatre forms as a child growing up in the city of Surakarta, Central Java. He recalls seeing performances of sandiwara, kethoprak, and wayang wong. He was entranced by the special effects of the Hollywood film Words and Music. Many years later, he saw the movie again and found it 'corny.' But as a child, it was nothing short of miraculous. Rendra wrote his first play in 1948. His 1953 plays, A Flower Red as Blood and The First Jolt, are recognized as landmarks in the history of Indonesian drama.

WSR: I wrote essays about Hemingway, Steinbeck, Frost. These were broadcast on radio. And I got paid for them! With the money I received, I bought more books. I had a friend who could read Dutch, who would also write essays for the radio. There was a friendly competition between us. This helped me form my artistic character. I was able to pay for my tuition from my literary activities, to the surprise and delight of my father.
MIC: This was when you were still in junior high or high school?
WSR: High school. There were other high schoolers who were active in literature, Ajip Rosidi, Ardan, Sobron Aidit. We would travel through West Java together. I liked being with them, as we all enjoyed poetry. We also all loved to watch puppet theatre, and folk theatre. I was never really serious about theatre, though. For me, theatre was only for social purposes. My plays would be performed by friends at campfires. I only became serious about drama after reading The Human Image in Dramatic Literature.

Rendra recalls student life at Gadjah Mada University as all politics and clashes that often made him 'dizzy.' He found his studies in English literature unchallenging. At Gadjah Mada, Umar Kayam, an upper-classman studying pedagogy, and Professor Poerbatjaraka pushed him to become more familiar with Javanese tradition.

WSR: When I was in high school, I won a prize from the Ministry of Culture. In magazines, I won contests for the best short story. But for me, it was like receiving my report card from school. It was not a true gauge of artistic worth, for art is the expression of a particular moment. I have to strive continuously, so I can't pay too much attention to prizes. When in high school my popularity affected me negatively. Now I can deal with this but then, I couldn't. That was when I started to study [the Javanese mystical science of] tapa ing rame. I learned how to perform harsh devotions in the bustle of life.
MIC: Did you graduate from Gadjah Mada University?
WSR: I was about to be given my diploma, but was told I would have to first endorse Manipol-USDEK [Sukarno's 'Political Manifesto,' the 1945 constitution, Indonesian socialism, guided democracy, guided economy, and Indonesian identity].
'Huh!' I exclaimed. 'How's that connected to English literature?'
'Listen, all you've got to do is take this test. There's no need to wait for the results; all I need is your test number.'
I took the test and then came back to the head of the Comparative Literature department. 'I can't go on like this.'
'Calm down. I know this is all nonsense. You've passed all your courses and tests. All that's left to do is to sign that you've taken the Manipol-USDEK test. I've got the letter now with your test number on it.'
'Could I see this letter?'
'Sure, here it is.'
Tear-rip-tear! I tore it to pieces.
If I went back, I might be able to straighten things out. But what for? There's no connection between that and what I do. Education like that is pure dhagelan [slapstick comedy].

At Gadjah Mada University and in the years following, Rendra became embroiled in the intense cultural politics of the era. He was courted by LEKRA (the cultural arm of the Indonesian Communist Party) and, by the early 1960s, he allied himself with the anti-communists, resulting in an effective ban on publishing his work in major periodicals owing to the strong influence of LEKRA at that time.

WSR: I became serious about drama when my work was banned. What could I do? I Nyoman Moena, a director of the Bank Indonesia, approached me. 'Create theatre in my salon. I'll invite people from the banking world to watch.'
'Won't there be repercussions?'
'Don't worry, I know people in the security forces. I'll bribe them.'
So I created salon theatre.
MIC: What kind of plays did you do?
WSR: Chekhov, 'The Wild Duck.'
KZ: There were lots, at least thirty. He did free adaptations of European and American plays in English.
WSR: Later, Arifin C. Noer encouraged me to form my own theatre group.
KZ: These were the people who later spread 'the Rendra method,' performing Western scripts adapted to Indonesian sensibilities. If you read Ionesco's The Chairs and Rendra's adaptation, there is no direct connection.
WSR: All of this is connected to my early education. It is of primary importance that people shouldn't just draw or create realist theatre in imitation of a Western style. I felt impelled to teach the Western paradigm.
KZ: Rendra and his colleagues brought 'the West' to Indonesia. 'The West' to us, to Indonesia, was Europe, America, Japan, and India.
MIC: Everything through English.
WSR: Yes. I was interested in concepts like 'fear and trembling' bringing about 'catharsis.' But how could this be translated into terms understandable by Indonesians? Balinese gamelan music, for example, may not have one big climax, but it has small climaxes. Neng-neng-neng-neng. When I first read Aristotle, The Poetics, I realized for the first time the extreme difference between West and East. [╝]
Sin, irony. How to translate irony? Someone who does not intend to sin ends up sinning. Sophocles treated irony seriously, with respect. Human life is filled with irony. But Easterners don't see it. Why? Simply because it is a Western observation. But that doesn't mean the idea can't be introduced. [...] Java had no tradition of causal thinking- things were conceived of only according to parallel processes. I wanted to introduce something new, causality.
MIC: Through the medium of?
WSR: Oedipus. I am a Javanese myself, but as I was educated in a particular way, I could grasp the concept, as could my father and his friends. I wanted people, particularly politicians who were becoming increasingly dogmatic, to be able to think analytically. I felt this was critical, something of universal significance. Most importantly, I wanted to introduce my countrymen to Western paradigms that open up new possibilities for human consciousness, emancipating human consciousness. I produced Eastern rites integrated with a Western awareness.

Rendra's politics and general antipathy towards Sukarno resulted in periods of imprisonment in 1962 and 1963. Interrogations during the late Sukarno period were frequent, and when an opportunity came to visit America in 1964, Rendra seized it.

KZ: When he left for America [in 1964], it was more like being in exile than anything else.
MIC: But you were initially brought there by the U.S. State Department, weren't you?
WSR: Yes, they were my first sponsors. It was due to the journal Encounterwhich brought together many anti-communist intellectuals. During this time, such collaborations were necessary because of the Cold War. We would not be strong enough if we didn't work together in like this.
MIC: So you were brought to the U.S. for a cultural tour?
WSR: No. I was invited to attend a humanities seminar at Harvard. I was curious about what 'humanities' was. 'Yes,' I said, 'I'll go.'
KZ: Among those attending were the most important of Indonesian intellectuals: Soedjatmoko, Harsja Bachtiar, Umar Kayam. They changed Indonesia's curriculum for higher education, introducing the study of the humanities in the 1970s. Before that, it didn't exist.

A brief visit got exapnded three years (1964-67) in the United States, during which time Rendra studied theatre at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and social sciences and the humanities at New York University, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. He was particularly impressed by the theatrical phantasmagoria of Alan Schneider, as well as the dramas of Edward Albee, Archibald MacLeish, Arthur Miller, and Robert Lowell, and the work of director JosÚ Quintero. Rendra would later return to Indonesia with a deep appreciation for the power and pleasure of theatre.

MIC: You saw many Broadway musicals, like Fiddler on the Roof, during those years, correct?
WSR: Yes, people would tell me, 'these plays are just light entertainment.' They were, but I enjoyed them. The pleasure I got from them was the same sort as I got out of watching Javanese shadow puppet theatre. There was a freedom of imagination, an honesty.

Upon his return to Indonesia, Rendra formed a theatre collective in 1967, the first of its sort in Indonesia, which he called Bengkel Teater, 'Theatre Workshop.' Over the next eleven years, Rendra transformed the face of Indonesian modern theatre. He wrote and directed the plays he is best known for in this period, including Bip-Bop (1968), the first work in the genre of 'theatre of minimal text' (teater mini kata), and the powerful protest dramas Mastodon and Condor (1973), The Struggle of the Naga Tribe (1974), and Regional Secretary (1976). His plays during this time presented pointed critiques of corruption, political repression, and the destruction of the environment. The most important venue for his theatrical work during this time was Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM), the arts centre in Jakarta, established by Ali Sadikin, the anti-communist, anti-Soeharto governor of Jakarta, and a group of like-minded artists in 1968.

WSR: The problem was how to make an arts centre, with funding from Ali Sadikin, that would be controlled by anti-communists, without people affiliated with LEKRA, or with Soeharto supporters, without Soeharto's presence being felt there. The model was the Balai Budaya ['Cultural Centre'], which was controlled by anti-communists like myself during the period when communism was most powerful. Balai Budaya was a centre of resistance against Sukarno, LEKRA, and the Communist Party. It would be expanded as a Jakarta arts centre. When my work was performed at TIM, I was protected by Ali Sadikin. Later, it was the Ali Sadikin appointed Dewan Kesenian [Arts Council] or the Jakarta Academy that backed me up.

The cultural politics of Indonesia shifted during the mid-1970s, and in 1978 Rendra found himself without political support for his work. Rendra was imprisoned under suspicion of subversion, and spent much of the next decade being interrogated and going through cycles of imprisonment and release.

WSR: In 1978, I was seen as obtuse by politicians. The general elections had just ended. They asked, 'why are you still being openly critical in your work?' I received a threatening letter. Only then were my eyes opened. Everything was in shambles. I was defended only by intellectuals, not by politicians. I was put into a military prison.
KZ: Conditions were horrendous.
MIC: How many months were you there, five?
KZ: Almost eleven.
WSR: According to the law, as someone under suspicion, I could be held for questioning for up to eleven months. Longer than that, my case had to come to trial, or I had to be freed. So they said, 'we'll hold him for eleven months and let him go free for a month. Then we'll imprison him again!'
MIC: So what happened to Bengkel Teater? Did it disband?
WSR: No, she [Ken Zaida] took charge of it when I was in prison.
KZ: Officially, Bengkel Teater came under a committee, headed by Edi Haryono. I have produced Bengkel Teater myself since 1986.
MIC: Were you performing in theatres during this period?
KZ: No, at best in sports arenas. We also did impromptu performances in community halls, private homes, and so on. Also, during the period following Rendra's release, he was not officially permitted to hold interviews, make any sort of public appearance, publish, or speak on radio. For nine years, it was as if he was dead, completely inactive. The activities of his group could only be minor, as none of us had a name. We were only known in our own limited circle. We traveled throughout urban areas of Java, Bali, and Lombok, performing theatre, showing films. This was made all the more difficult as this period was the height of the New Order's power. Things were tightly controlled.
WSR: But this was also just the moment that protest was most necessary.
KZ: Nobody would support us. We had lost all our friends. That hurt.
MIC: Were you being watched during this time?
KZ: Yes, wherever we went, we were being watched.
MIC: When did this stop?
KZ: 1992.
MIC: And before that you couldn't go abroad?
WSR: Oh, I could go abroad, but needed permission from BAKIN [the State Intelligence Coordinating Agency].
KZ: There was some leniency shown, because of the influence of friends in the Asian Cultural Council. Rendra had lived in New York, had often performed there, and had many friends there. These were the people who helped.


Rendra returned to theatre in 1986, coinciding with a national effort to create more 'openness' and allow room for 'divergent opinions.' His first production was of a new play entitled Panembahan Reso (Baron Reso). It was the first large-scale theatre work of the New Order to deal with the theme of succession. The play has been criticized, however, for its dramatic incoherency and structural looseness. Some critics have found Baron Reso and Rendra's subsequent theatrical work of the 1980s and 90s to be less barbed than his earlier dramas.

MIC: How was it that you were able to start doing theatre again in 1986?
WSR: It was then that an anti-Soeharto faction of the Indonesian armed forces started to gain strength, as there was a new generation of high-ranking officers. I didn't work together with the Indonesian armed forces as a whole, but with a reform-minded faction of it.
MIC: So you had the backing of an armed forces faction?
WSR: Not backing, really. We had a joint interest. The point of fact is that Baron Reso would never have been produced without permission from the armed forces. But I am my own man.
KZ: Baron Reso was a work in progress for years.
WSR: I found that the point of the play in its original version was not clear. The final version of Baron Reso was graphic and lucid. It shows a process springing from the abuse of power. This abuse results in the closing of society. Without openness, there can be no political involvement in succession.[...]
MIC: So the changes made were your own artistic choices?
WSR: Yes, nobody can ask me to make changes. This is my artistic discipline. All my work must be free, truthful, and beautiful. [...]
KZ: Only eight minutes were left of the originally three-hour-long play.

Rendra's 'theatre of minimal text' work, Selamatan Anak Cucu Suleiman (A Ritual for Suleiman's Descendants), performed in 1988 at the first International Festival of the Arts in New York City, received mixed reviews. In Indonesia, Rendra has been roundly criticized for the extravagance of his multi-media stadium spectacles, especially Kantata Taqwa (A Cantata to Piety; 1990), with its lasers and special effects.

WSR: Kantata Taqwa was a massive spectacle. It had to be, because it was also an upacara [ritual celebration]. It was an upacara to say no.
MIC: What were you saying 'no' to?
WSR: To the government and its repression. The poetry I read, the song lyrics I wrote for this occasion were graphic and systematic vehicles for strong social protest against unemployment and the like. It was done on a large scale to involve the largest number of people. It was an upacara to raise consciousness and enthusiasm. [...] The ticket price was low; anyone could buy a ticket. Jakarta's Senayan stadium was overflowing: people were climbing the walls to get in. Spectators got a free audiocassette. This was done for the sake of propaganda, for the struggle. These cassettes, with their protest lyrics, became known with the public at large. I used lasers, though I admit I don't really know how to use them effectively in my work as a theatre director. I didn't use them for artistic effect, but for lighting up the sky, to excite the surrounding populace.

It is now 1999 and Rendra is preparing to embark on a new direction in his theatrical career, directing works on a more intimate scale than in the past.

WSR: I am now thinking about the most micro levels of expression. Every word should be embellished, and re-embellished. This needs, however, a sustained environment of intimacy. If I have an opportunity, I would like to embark on such a tack now. Opportunities, or lack of them, depend on societal conditions at a particular moment of time. Everything must be contextual. I do not make films, which can be put into storage. Theatre is in the here-and-now. [...] That doesn't mean that formerly I didn't want to do such work. But I had no opportunities to do it. A potential sponsor would say: 'Why should I subsidize work like that? I have no qualms about losing money, but the work should have a large public impact.' Okay. I had no problems with that. After all, we're only talking about techniques.
KZ: Theatre is very situational and incidental. We have to judge what is most urgently required for where we perform.
WSR: Yes, theatre needs to be contextual.

Dr Matthew Isaac Cohen is a cultural anthropologist and scholar of Indonesian and intercultural performance. He is currently a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies, in the 'Performing Arts of Asia: Tradition and Innovation' programme. E-mail: mcohen@let.leidenuniv.nl.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 19 | Regions | South Asia