Tue, 30 Sep 2003

Sarumpaet's play, well directed but contains flaws

Max Lane, Contributor, Jakarta

If you are interested in learning about Indonesian cultural life since the overthrow of the dictator Soeharto, you should not miss Ratna Sarumpaet's new play Anak-Anak Kegelapan (Children In The Darkness).

Sarumpaet has continued her record of identifying and bringing to the mainstream stage issues of political morality central to Indonesia's future.

Her past plays in this genre have been Pesta Terakhir (Last Party), covering the attack on the anti-Soeharto activists holding free speech forums at the headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic party (PDI) in 1996; Marsinah Accuses based on the story of Marsinah, a tortured and murdered labor activist and last year's Alia, whose story was based on the sufferings in Aceh under military rule.

Children In The Darkness takes up the events that began the criminal history of Soeharto's New Order, the mass murders following a foiled coup in Sept. 30, 1965.

This issue has been discussed semi-openly in the media, books and in non-governmental organizations for some time now.

Former president Abdurrahman Wahid began to speak of this as an issue needing national moral correction but was only able to take it so far. Sarumpaet's play is the first real attempt to use mainstream cultural activity to confront society with important questions concerning these events.

Sarumpaet's approach is fundamentally a moral one. The climax of her moral challenge to society is focused in the last scene of the play where her hero, Imam, the critical and independent- minded son of a fascist general, confronts his father and his father's lackeys with the fact of the mass murder of the members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

"The country would have been destroyed if that party had come to power," answer's one of the fascist ruler's military lackeys.

"Is that a reason to kill all these people?" replies Imam passionately. Imam goes on to reject his father and his father's wishes that he follow in his footsteps as a national leader.

This scene crystallizes Sarumpaet's moral challenge: a negative assessment of the PKI by the military was not a justification for mass murder. This injustice must be rectified. This open moral stand taken on the stage in Taman Ismail Marzuki in Central Jakarta is an important event in post-Soeharto cultural life.

The play has good acting and, within in its aesthetic form of moral statement, well directed. At the same time, Sarumpaet's long play contains flaws which weaken its overall impact.

The story which she has decided to use distracts people, especially young people still unfamiliar with the facts of 1965.

Her tragic heroine, Zuraida, is the granddaughter of a woman imprisoned on suspicions of being a member of the PKI. She has suffered as a result, the subject of discrimination and stigma as well as of pressures from a mother in denial of reality and riddled by guilt for not defending Zuraida's grandmother and for accepting a position in the government of the oppressor.

But Zuraida's grandmother was not a member of the PKI. Sarumpaet's story makes her somebody wrongly accused of being in the PKI, the subject of plots to do with an extra-marital affair.

In fact, nowhere in the play do any of the consciously targeted victims of the mass murder have a chance to speak: the millions of people who consciously decided to join and be active in the PKI, the largest legal party in Indonesia in 1965.

This weakness is underlined again in the opening scene where again another victim is highlighted: a teacher of the Islamic religion who was killed, again mistakenly accused of being PKI.

Sarumpaet misses the opportunity to address the key central myth used to defend the New Order's immorality on this question and upon which society's acquiescence is also based.

This is not the myth that the PKI was responsible for the death of generals in 1965 or that the PKI was behind the 1965 coup or that the killings were a result of spontaneous popular revenge.

In fact, Sarumpaet does raise the issue of the Soeharto group's knowledge of the coup and makes it clear that she thinks the military was responsible for the killings.

The real myth was that the PKI was made up of evil people who deserved to be killed. It does not help in rebutting this myth by not having any characters who can present a case for the PKI.

My criticism is not that Sarumpaet should have defended the PKI or its ideology, but rather that she should have let them speak. What were they struggling for? What motivated them? What did they want for Indonesia? Only by answering these questions can we begin also to answer the question: what were those who organized the mass murders trying to stop?

This absence also creates an aesthetic flaw. By reducing the substance of the play to Sarumpaet's moral statement devoid of the necessary political elaboration, the aesthetic form of the play becomes one of statement alone.

Her script is written not as a dramatic and evolving story, but rather as a series of scenes mostly meant to provide an opportunity to make a statement, usually in the form of angry declamation or tragic soliloquy.

This flaw, the flaw of focusing on the "wrongly accused", actually weakens the impact of her correct fundamental moral statement in the final scene.

It is and was wrong. A great evil of the 20th century, to carry out the 1965 to 1967 mass murders of between 500,000 and a million people simply because they were suspected to be in the Indonesian Communist Party.

But in raising an argument about this whole event, it is also wrong, I think, to deny the members of the PKI a voice in presenting their case.

This absence has the danger of reinforcing the very taboo and stereotype that the ideas and actions of the PKI are indeed evil, or biadab ("barbarian") to use Imam's word.

It seems that they are so evil indeed that they are too taboo to be explained even in a play addressing the very issue of the murder and suppression of these millions of citizens and their views.