On Monday 28th March I attended Dr. Matthew Cohen‘s performance A Dalang in Search of Wayang at the Centre for Creative Collaboration in London. Besides his many achievements as an academic, Matthew is a trained dalang or puppeteer of the wayang kulit tradition of Java. Matthew’s piece is a fascinating act between puppetry, stand-up (in this case ‘sit-down’) comedy, and philosophic research, in which Matthew as dalang, in a semi-schizophrenic dialogue with his own puppets, and with the audience, questions himself about the how, the why, and the what it is to perform a tradition of a far-away place to an audience that does not belong to the same cultural territory of that tradition.
Matthew’s performance is certainly inspiring for people like myself, who live this condition of cultural displacement as feature of their everyday life. The questions that the performance raised are indeed pointing straight to the meaning of our lives as performers and scholars across the borders. Rather than discussing themes of universality and interculturality in general terms, Matthew’s endeavour is an intimate, but frank reflection not just on the effectiveness or possibility, but on the very meaning of performing an ‘other’ performance tradition abroad.
Matthew’s questions are something I can very much sympathise with. Many times I found myself confronting audiences that knew nothing of Japan (let alone of Noh) besides geishas and sushi. The frustration of incommunicability, and a slight sense of superiority that derives from the thought of how much your efforts would be appreciated somewhere else, are sometimes difficult to bear. An audience that cannot understand the language, the symbolism, the dramatic devices of performance is an element of extraordinary resistance to what the performers tries to do. It needs to be instructed, nurtured, taken care of. By doing this, I sometimes wonder if we are not trying to transform this audience into something familiar to us, bringing it with our sphere of confidence. What does this mean, then? Is this an act of covert manipulation of the audience’s identity? Are we trying to create a bush league of our beloved and indulging original audience? Or, conversely, do we not realise that this ‘ignorant’ audience is the most indulging one, while informed ‘authentic’ audience would just kick our asses because or our poor skills?
There are profound ethical questions embedded in the reflection that Matthew put in the form of a much enjoyable comic act. To what extent can we call the tradition we are dedicating our life to ‘ours’? How can we then pretend to be ‘cultural ambassadors’ of something which does not really belong us, and why in the world should we fight against the resistance of an audience that can sometimes hardly hear us, if what we fight for does not belong us? Much intercultural scholarship has attested that we ‘Westerners’ cannot appropriate ‘Asian’ art and expect it to be ours, and I think this is fair enough, especially when one sees this concept in a larger scale political and economic frame. However, I would lie if I said that Noh ‘does not belong to me’, or that I am just ‘borrowing it for a couple of hours’ for my little demonstration. I’m sorry – I don’t sell post-cards.
There are ways to be more or less transparent in the way we undertake this act of moving culture across borders. What I was particularly pleased with in Matthew’s piece was the honesty of his presence. Dressed in a traditional cloth as a skirt, but wearing a trunk shirt on the top, Matthew did not pretend to hide what cannot be hidden (his not being a son of the land that gave birth to the tales he tells through wayang), and went about his performance in a constant dialogue with himself, and with the others who were watching him, without exposing the exoticism of Java. Rather than stating, Matthew was asking. One of the dangers of tradition is immobility, petrification of the form as petrification of the mind. It is thanks to unorthodoxy and disturbance that tradition can find stimuli for renovation. And yet there are ways to poke the boundaries of tradition without necessarily destroying it, or subverting its order – as long as questions like Matthew’s keep on being asked, and our many ‘others’ keep on listening.