Winner of the 2008 Benda Prize
“This book makes an important contribution to the literature both on Indonesian theater and on the cultural history of the Netherlands Indies around the turn of the twentieth century. It is meticulously and thoroughly researched and written in a clear, fluid, accessible style.”
Barbara Hatley, author of Javanese Performances on an Indonesian Stage: Theatre, Society, and Politics in Central Java
“Illuminating and impressive—we are in the presence of a scholar who can think large thoughts on the basis of many small facts he has gathered from a great array of sources.”
American Historical Review
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 and 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.
While audiences marveled at spectacles involving white-skinned actors, there were also racial frictions between actors and financiers, sex 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: Popular Theater in Colonial Indonesia, 1891–1903 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.
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.
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