Winner of the 2008 Benda Prize
Originating in 1891 in the port city of Surabaya, the Komedie Stamboel, or Istanbul-style theater, toured colonial Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia by rail and steamship. The company performed musical versions of the Arabian Nights, European fairy tales and operas such as Sleeping Beauty and Aida, as well as Indian and Persian romances, Southeast Asian chronicles, true crime stories, and political allegories. The actors were primarily Eurasians, the original backers were Chinese, and audiences were made up of all races and classes. The Komedie Stamboel explores how this new hybrid theater pointed toward possibilities for the transformation of self in a colonial society and sparked debates on moral behavior and mixed-race politics.
While audiences marveled at spectacles involving white-skinned actors, there were also racial frictions between actors and financiers, sexual scandals, fights among actors and patrons, bankruptcies, imprisonments, and a murder.
Matthew Isaac Cohen's evocative social history situates the Komedie Stamboel in the culture of empire and in late nineteenth-century itinerant entertainment. He shows how the theater was used as a symbol of cross-ethnic integration in postcolonial Indonesia and as an emblem of Eurasian cultural accomplishment by Indische Nederlanders. A pioneering study of nineteenth-century Southeast Asian popular culture, The Komedie Stamboel gives a new picture of the region's arts and culture and explores the interplay of currents in global culture, theatrical innovation, and movement in colonial Indonesia.ABOUT THE AUTHOR---Matthew Isaac Cohen is senior lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies at Royal Holloway University of London. His articles on Southeast Asian performance have appeared in New Theatre Quarterly, Asian Theatre Journal, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, and Archipel. As a practicing shadow puppeteer, he has performed in the United States, Europe, and Asia.