“THESE ARE MY PLAYS” By JOHAN JAAFFAR
The Institut Terjemahan Buku Negara (ITBM) published the English translation of Johan Jaaffar’s seven stage plays. The plays were translated by Professor Dr. Solehah Ishak. The Bahasa Malaysia edition was published by Balang Rimbun Sdn Bhd in 2012
The original plays in BM published by Balang Rimbun Sdn Bhd
An anthology of Johan's plays published by DBP in 1981
Introduction to Johan Jaaffar’s plays:
Johan Jaaffar’s Alterities
The early school years:
Reading Johan Jaaffar’s plays and seeing his theatre productions would give readers/audiences the opportunity to delve into the many continuums of this “third generation” Malay playwright, the generation after the bangsawan, sandiwara and the realistic sitting room plays of the drama moden period. Johan Jaaffar is a playwright belonging to the Malay absurd-abstract- “absurd-ala-Malaysia”- surrealist, experimental decade of the 1970’s. Although the playwright’s mark of dramatic activity and creativity emerged in the 1970’s, Johan was already actively involved in drama activities even as a young primary school student, at the Sekolah Rendah Perserian Semerah, Johor in the early 1960’s. Then he not only watched sandiwara plays but helped whenever he could or was needed. This continued into secondary and later his high school years at the Sekolah Tinggi Muar where Johan would be in charge of writing scripts, choosing the actors and was responsible for directing the school’s dramatic presentation. In these early years Johan derived his ideas and inspirations from Malay literary canons like the Sejarah Melayu/ The Malay Annals and the Hikayat Hang Tuah amongst others.
The university years:
As an undergraduate at the University of Malaya from 1974-1977, Johan Jaaffar became even more actively involved in the writing and production of plays. He was an active member of KESUMA (Kumpulan Kesenian University Malaya), the Cultural Group of University Malaya. In 1965, KESUMA staged Johan’s “Kotaku Oh Kotaku”/(“My City Oh My City”) at the University’s Experimental Theatre. Johan not only wrote the script but was responsible for directing the theatre production. Again in 1976, KESUMA staged yet another of Johan’s play, Angin Kering/Dry Wind, again at the same venue.
Johan Jaaffar, Dinsman, Hatta Azad Khan together with a few other theatre people, form the Third Generation of Malay Theatre activists. This Third Generation started their theatre activities in the university campus, especially in the post May 13, 1969 decade, a date noted for the racial riots which sundered the nation. The racial riots led to the introduction of the New Economic Policy and also the Rukun Negara (National Principles) amongst others. It is within this decade of turmoils, uncertainties, of racial harmony gone awry, that this Third Generation of playwrights experimented with the absurd, avant-garde plays. Johan wrote Angin Kering, Dia and Sang Puteri, his trilogy of absurd/ experimental plays. The Third Generation Playwrights deliberately left behind the familiar, realistic sitting room plays of the 1960’s.
It was also a post May 13, 1969 decade marked by the pioneering play of Bukan Lalang ditiup Angin, written by Noordin Hassan as a signifier of May 13, 1969 with various signifiers aimed primarily at his Malay readers/audience. The experimental decade of the 1970’s was marked also by Dinsman’s Bukan Bunuh Diri/”Tis Not Suicide” (1974), and Hatta Azad Khan’s “Mayat”/”Corpse” (1976). This Third Generation of playwrights not only experimented with the craft of playwrighting but also in the choice of “stories” told or untold. They dared to experiment with the aim of exposing their society to be scrutinized. They were also a group of highly educated dramatists, exposed to and perhaps influenced by western writers.
The working years
Johan’s foray into “official” employment was at the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP). It is not my intention to delineate Johan’s career path but it is important to note that at DBP, Johan was surrounded by other literary figures, or important columnists, who helped spurred the growth and shaped the Malay literary scene. These include the influential columnist of the 1970’s-1980’s Datuk Mohd. Noor Azam and writers like Baha Zain, Anwar Ridhwan, Dinsman, Sutung R.S. and Othman Haji Zainuddin amongst others. Johan was also close to Malay writers of the older generation like Keris Mas, Usman Awang, Pak Sako, Arena Wati, Samad Said and Abdullah Hussein.
At DBP, Johan also had the then auditorium of Balai Budaya (now the BalaiTun Syed Nasir) at his disposal. It was here that Johan continued to hone and develop his theater making activities. Besides the writers and the readily available auditorium at DBP, Johan was also deeply engaged with a group of theatre performance arts practitioners at Anak Alam, comprising a group of writers and artists who declared about their innate freedom to be creative and experimental. These include Malaysia’s renowned artist Latiff Mohiddin, other writers-poets-performers like Mustafa Haji Ibrahim, Ghafar Ibrahim, Khalid Salleh, Muhammad Abdullah and Pyan Habib.
Based on their guiding principle of their innate freedom to create and experiment, members of Anak Alam, produced absurd plays, voicing their anger, protests and anti-establishment attitudes. Johan Jaaffar could be said to have met his artistic spaces and inter-spaces under the roof of Anak Alam, whose hallmark had been the need and the right to produce creative, experimental works as they deemed fit.
As stated earlier, this introduction is not concerned with the trajectories of Johan Jaaffar’s various careers. They are mentioned only to situate him as an important playwright. Johan has moved from DBP to work as Chief Editor of the Utusan Group of Publishers, became in his own words a farmer for a while to now head one of Malaysia’s paramount multi-media agency, the Media Group of Companies.
Johan Jaaffar: The ever present playwright:
Undeniably Johan Jaaffar, grew up, worked in, was exposed to, loved and was sometimes exasperated by Malay theatre. Unfortunately for Modern Malay theatre too, Johan Jaaffar has not been as prolific as his theatre attending or script reading public would have liked for reasons best known to him alone, besides of course his monumental work commitments. Still it cannot be denied that Johan’s involvement with theatre is manifold. He not only write scripts, he also direct scripts, both his own and that of others. It is also a testimony of his talents that he has also acted in these theatre productions. Johan can be labeled as a playwright-director-actor in the mould of the late Syed Alwi. More than that Johan is also an insightful and sharp critic not only of theatre but of his social-cultural-political-economic milieux.
In the field of theatre, Johan not only write plays for the stage but he was also involved in radio and television plays. The television plays produced in the 1980’s include “Asy Syura”, “Angin Bila Menderu”, “Pak Tua”, “Pendekar Raibah” and “Pemain”. Besides writing original scripts for television, Johan also adapted novels both for the stage and for television. These include the novels of Anwar Ridhwan like Hari-hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman, A. Samad Ismail’s short story “Rumah Kedai di Jalan Seladang”, A. Samad Said’s Langit Petang, which became Langit Petang: 12 Tahun Kemudian. These plays were televised by RTM, the Radio and Television Malaysia network. Another of A. Samad Said’s novel which was adapted by Johan Jaaffar for the stage was Salina. It has been said that Johan read the novel thirty times before he adapted the novel for the stage. Such is Johan’s determined gregariousness and devotion not only to details but to get to the deeper resonances of the text so as to successfully translate and transform it into theatre.
A charismatic figure, a sharp critic, and an avid theatre practitioner and goer, the ever present playwright, Johan’s aura, and influence is far reaching. His Angin Kering and Kotaku Oh Kotaku have been produced numerous times even as they continue to beckon new directings and new readings. Veteran as well as up and coming theatre groups continue to be fascinated by Johan’s plays. It is not surprising that Johan continues to play a mentoring role to theatre activists, both small and great.
READING THE PLAYS
1. ANGIN KERING / DRY WIND
Angin Kering was staged at USM in 1979
“Angin Kering”/“Dry Wind” is the first play in Johan Jaaffar’s trilogy in which he posits characters ranging from the all knowing, Mahatahu, to the all wealthy, Mahakaya, and his wife at one end of the social-economic spectrum and the ordinary paddy planters and their families at the other end of the spectrum. Mahakaya and his wife live in a luxurious mansion which is cooled by powerful air-conditioners, where the temperature of their bath water is constantly regulated to be coolest in the midday and warmest in the cool night. They have a Slave who has a daily chore of 99 things that he must do to please his master. Slave is constantly reminded that he is the twenty-second slave to have been employed by Mahakaya. All the other former twenty-one slaves having been cursorily dismissed for not doing their jobs well.
Yet another important character is Si Jelita, the Beautiful one whose voice is melodious and who sings of reasons in an age or in a society where reason is absent. Beautiful, perched high on a boulder, can see the dichotomy of life in the play’s milieu. Beautiful is surprised at so much wealth on one side of society and such dismal poverty on the other side of society. This economic divide is sundered by searing heat where the sun has scorched the farming society and terrain with only the dry winds blowing. On the other side of society, where the wealthy live there is the danger of a deluge of uncontrollable flood water about to destroy the palatial homes and surroundings.
Mahakaya has ordered Slave to demolish the dam so that the rising flood waters will not proceed to drown their property. But Slave also knows that demolishing the dam will not only arrest the flood waters, it will also cause destruction and death to the paddy farmers and their land. More importantly, he knows that amongst these paddy planters are his parents. Demolishing the dam means that he would also be directly responsible for the deaths of his parents. Understandably, Slave refuses to do what his master, the Mahakaya, has ordered him to do.
Slave returns to his village to be welcomed by his parents like the proverbial return of the prodigal son. They honour him with titles befitting, in their minds and imagined beliefs, their wealthy status in life, where their huts are miraculously transformed into mansions, where food abound and there is much merry making. But Slave knows that he has returned home not bringing honours, respect and wealth but death, defeat and annihilation not only to his family but to the whole farming community. Still the paddy farmers are deluded by the very poverty which they seem to think as abundant wealth, the scorching heat which they seem to feel as the cool breeze, dust and dirt which they regard as comfort.
The paddy farmers are on a binge of eating, merry making and generally enjoying themselves luxuriating in abundant wealth, food and laughter. Beautiful with her sweet voice, pretty face, attractive demeanor sees the truth of the reality. She cannot understand the joyous merry making accompanied by loud music and the general commotion of celebration. She does not see that there is anything to celebrate or be joyful about for the paddy farmers are only deluding themselves. What they see as cool, beautiful weather is scorching, unbearable heat and what they see as a feast of good food is the devouring of their own flesh.
The farmers realize that in the midst of this wealth where their barns are full of rice, they must still fight the onslaught of natural enemies. Reminiscent of Shahnon Ahmad’s No Harvest but a Thorn, where Lahuma had to fight all manner of insects, birds and prey to defend his paddyfields, likewise in “Angin Kering” Patani, Matani and the other paddy planters had to safeguard their rice land from the rats, snakes, crabs, the tiak birds and other disasters coming their way. Patani in his delusory hallucinations “dream” of living in a house where the furniture are all imported from abroad, including from Switzerland, carpets from Afghanistan, chandeliers from Austria. Even the building materials are imported from overseas, like bricks from Taiwan. His house/mansion must have glass walls with a dome and decorated with original paintings by Michaelangelo, Renoir and Picasso.
Beautiful, too, has her own dream as she herself admitted. She dreamt of living in a huge, beautiful house where she will live comfortably and luxuriously with servants to entertain her every need, whim and fancy; moreover she will be able to eat whatever she wants and all the delicacies she desires. More than that, she will adorn her body with gold and diamonds and in so doing further enhance her beauty.
In “Angin Kering” the playwright has constructed an oppositional binary of drought and flood, dry wind and wet wind, of absolute poverty and unbounded wealth. But in the end the playwright has also demonstrated that wealth and the ability to enjoy wealth and bask in luxury with their every whim catered to, is not the prerogative of the wealthy and mighty only. In this play, even the poor farmers dream of untold wealth, unparalleled luxury and boundless enjoyment and merry making. In their deluded minds, what they are celebrating, enjoying and honouring are real and true. Perhaps by constructing this trajectory, the play highlights the fact that man, no matter from which end of the social ladder or spectrum they come from, share the same needs, wants and dreams. They all want to be rich, live a life of luxury and bask in all manner of comfort. In short, they want to live the good life.
Thus in this play, Slave sometimes talks like a poet. At other times he sounds like a lawyer although in his common demeanor, he is a mere slave doing all that his master, the All Wealthy Mahakaya bids him to do, including demolishing the dam which will kill his parents.
The playwright also takes a jibe at the education system as is revealed in the conversation between Mahakaya and his Slave as to why he did not go to school. Slave’s father saw no point in having him formally educated, for as Slave says, those who go to school are just like parrots. They do not think, they only ape and repeat what others say and do.
“Angin Kering” is not only a powerful play of social criticism but is also a play of justice and equality in terms of shared dreams, wants and needs not only of the powerful wealthy, but also of the powerless poor. Again, what unites the rich and the poor, like everyone else, is the common, sure certainty of death, for as the character in the play states, everyone will certainly die, although what is also a fact is that no one really wants to die.
Written in a language which is repetitive, short but very impactful, the play does not use long dialogues to hammer home the message of social (in)justice and (in)tolerance. Almost poetic in its staccato manner of presenting dialogues, interspersed with the songs sung by Beautiful and also the occasionally non-staccato lines of normal dialogues running to a few lines, the play constructs a world of almost hallucinatory delusion and abject reality.
2. DIA / SOMEONE
THROUGHOUT his play-writing career, Johan Jaaffar has been concerned with investigating and delving into the bowels of his society so as to better highlight the aberrations and anomalies that exist in his milieu, with the hope that the exfoliation of such concerns will better that very society. Thus it is that Johan’s plays are concerned with social and human shortcomings, transgressions, iniquities and inequalities. Class differences, exploitations, greed and untold sufferings are scrutinized and magnified by the dramatist with the hope of changing and improving his environment. His characters are therefore searchers who are always on a quest for social justice, equality, and above all, a general improvement of their living conditions.
“Someone” (Dia), the second play in Johan’s trilogy which contains “The Dry Wind” (“Angin Kering”) and “The Princess” (Sang Puteri) are peopled by characters who are on a quest for their personal “grail.” Si Pencari (The Searcher/Seeker) seeks for someone--anyone or anything, that can give meaning to his life and make it whole again. Si Kaya [The Rich One] who, inspite of his wealth, is still a dissatisfied person. He too seeks for someone. Tukangnya [His Craftsman/Aide] courts personal glory through the creation of a magnificent golden dais which will be the ceremonial seat for the someone which Si Kaya and Si Pencari pursue. The splendor of creating the dais, combining, in Si Tukang’s words, both “engineering and technological feats” are means of glorifying Si Tukang’s own creativity and prowess. Si Tukang seeks and finds purpose in his life in a physical structure. Si Gadis Buta [The Blind Girl] and Ibunya [Her Mother] on the other hand, are only after the basic ingredients to enable them to live. They want nothing, only food, water, shelter and clothing.
Johan’s “Someone” is a play where the characters are on a mission where they seek for meaning in life. The play exemplifies the endeavors undertaken by Si Pencari and Si Kaya, to find someone. Unlike Beckett’s Vladamir and Estragon who waited for Godot, Johan’s Si Pencari and Si Kaya do not know who or what they are looking for. It can be anyone, a he or a she, or anything for that matter. Where Vladamir and Estragon failed to meet Godot, Si Pencari succeeds in meeting his someone. But the someone is neither a leader, a messiah, a Mahdi, a fuhrer or a duce; she is but only a blind, starving girl, who is on her personal quest to assuage her hunger. She only seeks for food and drink. Her life would be significant and meaningful again if she can only have food.
It would seem, on a simple, textual level, that in “Someone”, it is only Si Pencari who finally succeeds to find the someone. Significantly too, this someone would be duly honoured and glorified. It is towards this purpose that Si Tukang has crafted a magnificent golden dais, gathered an assembly of dignitaries, arranged a ceremonial reception, and organized a carnival to celebrate that someone’s coming. Even as “Someone” is concerned with the search to find meaning and purpose in life, the playwright cannot resist poking fun at his society which is still inundated with ceremonies and ceremonial functions. Thus the welcoming committees, the golden dais, the honour guards and smiling maidens, all of which testify to a community besotted with unnecessary official, ceremonial rites and rituals.
Si Pencari’s faith transforms Si Gadis Buta into the someone whom he has been waiting for all this while. Si Pencari will replace her stinking rags for clothes of the finest material. Si Gadis Buta will be washed, perfumed and adorned with the most precious and delicate of jewellery. And lo and behold, Si Gadis Buta becomes not only a reincarnation of goddesses of a bygone era, she indeed becomes the very someone whom Si Pencari seeks. More importantly, just as Si Pencari’s faith and belief have succeeded to realize all these transformations, that very faith too has now endowed Si Gadis Buta with sight.
The Blind One can now miraculously see. But the sight in front of her eyes is not something that she wants to see: a throng of people going amok, deaths and bloodshed. Si Gadis Buta would rather be blind again so that she would not have to see the scene in front of her. Throughout the honours that are heaped on her, the basic thing that she yearns for is still beyond her grasp. She remains hungry and she continues to starve.
The playwright does not only deny Si Gadis Buta the basic ingredient of food, he also annihilates the novel experience of her gaining sight. At the same time, Johan again mocks his society with its public acclamations of helping the poor, the down-trodden and the neglected. Si Teman derides the effort of the state to help the lower denizens of society. He ridicules the public exposure involved when aid is to be rendered to the poor. The grand publicity, with cameras zooming in on the cheques to be handed out, is not proportionate to the actual aid doled out to the needy. Si Teman sneers at the red-tape involved, the appointments to be made, the schedules to be followed by those who beg for help and who do eventually get whatever meager help from the welfare agencies.
Si Teman does not only scoff at such official rituals, he is also the voice of reason who taunts Si Pencari. If Si Pencari deludes himself into believing that someone does indeed exist, Si Teman ascertains that the former knows that that someone is but a figment of his crazy imagination or absolute yearning which has resulted in a hallucination of make-belief. For Si Teman, the someone has yet to materialize. In fact he does not know what or who that someone is. The playwright, through Si Teman, in fact denies any possibility that Si Pencari’s mission is accomplished, or that he has found what he has been seeking for.
In fact the subtext of “Someone” is instead complete annihilation and destruction: Si Pencari’s success and beliefs are destroyed by Si Teman’s reasons and rationality. Si Gadis Buta’s transformation and sight are nullified by the reality that confronts her and her failure to get the most basic of necessity like food to stop her starvation. Si Kaya’s success in creating buildings and the sky-scrappers which he built are ravaged to the ground because men decide to fight men. The playwright does not only deny Si Kaya his social accomplishments in the form of multi-million dollar buildings, he even refutes Si Kaya’s physical ability by making him blind at the end of the play. Si Kaya finally has nothing: no wealth, no dignity, no track record of his accomplishments and worse of all, not even his own sight.
As for Ibunya [The Mother], she will continue to wait and hope that something will happen to change and better her life. She has absolute faith in her God and she believes that what she gets, what she is and what she will become, are all in god’s hand. Her life is beyond her control. It is all fated to be thus.
The playwright not only deprecates the ceremonial rituals embedded in his society, he also denounces state efforts in eradicating poverty and mocks at rituals as can be seen in Ibunya whose absolute pietism can only ensure that she remains manacled in her poverty stricken life. “Someone” exemplifies Johan’s absolute despair, anger and helplessness at his society for although it is marked by rapid economic progress, nevertheless leaves the majority of its subject poor, neglected, deprived and still striving for the most basic of human amenities like food and shelter.
The playwright paints a bleak picture, denying any form of positivism for he wants to confront his readers and audience with such a hopeless condition of human society with the hope of jolting them into a new social consciousness and awareness. The dramatist wants to liberate the members of his society from the shackles that have fettered them for so long. In an “interview” with this writer, Johan said that he was obsessed with writing “Someone”. He wrote nonstop for several days. It was also written during a period of real depression in 1976, marked by unemployment and the fact that Johan was at the threshold of a new life, where he must decide to enter the labour force or stay ensconced in the world of studies and academia.
Although it only took a few days to write and finish the play, it was not performed for several years. In fact “Someone” had its stage debut only in 1982. The playwright admitted that it was his most difficult play to perform. Most of Johan’s plays are usually visualized on paper and then produced on stage. With “Someone”, Johan was without any direction as to the end product of a theatre. As he puts it, he “simply did not know how to stage it.”
When he finally decided to direct “Someone” it was done on a shoe-string budget, with a cast of completely new actors. It formed part of the festival organized by a conglomeration of theatre groups called the “teater generasi ke3” [the third generation of theatre people]. “Someone” itself was staged by the Avante Garde Theatre group. Since Johan, the playwright-director had no idea how he was going to produce “Someone”, he decided to produce the play on a bare stage, without any sets or props to further enhance the desolation that is the sub-text of “Someone”. The bare stage is also an appropriate symbol of the nothingness, namely of having nothing, that forms the spine of the play. The cast would also be an assembly of new actors.
Crew working to set up a set for one of Johan's plays
Since it’s first and only production in 1982, there have been several requests to reproduce the play, but the dramatist has refused permission, preferring to guard this play which he wrote “like a man obsessed” to himself. Perhaps Johan’s possessiveness can be attributed to the anguish which he felt at the chasm which splits his society into the super-rich Si Kaya and the down-trodden, starving Si Gadis Buta and Ibunya. Whatever the playwright’s reasons, his purpose in exposing such bleakness and despair in “Someone” must surely be his realization and anger but yet embedded within it is the hope that his society can still be changed, and made better.
3. SANG PUTERI / THE PRINCESS
Sang Puteri was first published by Sarjana Enterprise in 1981
“Sang Puteri” (The Princess), the third play of Johan Jaaffar’s trilogy posits characters who are again divided by the haves and have nots. On one end of the scale are people like Anjang, Mak Anjang, their daughter, Inah, her beloved Andak, the soothsayer and village elder, Tok Aki, who lives by customs and traditions. On the other end of the spectrum are Tuanda and his entourage of personal aides, headed by the Pamanda. Like all rich people with power, Tuanda will never take “no” for an answer and what he wants he gets, even if it belongs to someone else or has been promised to another person.
The villagers are held together not only by their poverty but by their dreams. Andak’s dream is that he is living in a “big, beautiful house beyond measure”. The mansion is so beautifully designed and enormous that although Andak runs from one end of the mansion to the other end, he will never be able to reach and meet its end. Likewise Andak dreams that his paddy fields are as “wide as the ocean” but unfortunately he cannot harvest the rice. Tok Aki, the voice of reason, warns them not to daydream but to work hard, for the land is all that they have. But for Mak Andak dreams are all they have. They have absolutely nothing. They can only dream, for by dreaming they can have everything.
In an attempt to better his fortune, Andak decides to leave the village and cease to be a paddy planter. Interviewed by Pujangga, he admits that he has been chosen to work for the titled Tuanda who is rich and powerful beyond measure. Before leaving for his new job, Tok Aki, Anjang and Mak Anjang advise Andak to always do as he is told, to be good, to be aware that his knowledge is limited. Andak is also reminded not to go against rules, not to challenge traditions, and as always not to forget his daily prayers. He is cautioned not to try to be too clever and always to do as he is told. Above all, he must always remember that he is of the lower class. As such he must always behave. Such are the advice and warnings that his parents and the village elders impress on him prior to his leaving to go and work with the Tuanda.
Tuanda, on the other hand, is on a mission to empower his social standing. He wants Pamanda to seek a suitable bride for his son. But his son has no interest in the princesses from other lands or the great women with class and status. Instead, all the son wants is Inah, the paddy planter’s daughter. Since, his son is adamant, Tuanda agrees that his son shall wed Inah. But Inah shall be reconstructed to fit into the new class she is entering into. On Tuanda’s orders, Pamanda will get the best hairdresser, the best makeup artist and the most renowned couturier to dress and transform Inah to become a lady fit for his son. Inah shall also be taught all the social etiquette befitting her new status. More importantly, she shall be taught the proper ways of speaking and the correct pronunciations, for according to the Tuanda ‘The way one speaks determines one’s class.’ The education and reconstruction of Inah must be complete to enable her to be assimilated into Tuanda’s social class.
Before everything else though, Pamanda has to go and officially ask for Inah’s hand. This must be properly done, to be accompanied by a grand ceremony. Through this social endeavor, the playwright shows how Anjang and Mak Anjang willingly accept Tuanda’s request ignoring the fact that Andak loves Inah and that they plan to get married. Both parents accept Inah’s fate not only as a fait accompli but as something to their own social advantage. It is Inah’s fortune and luck but it is Andak’s misfortune that Inah is wanted by Tuanda for his own son. Her parents’ acquiescence to Tuanda’s demands so irked Tok Aki who then reminds them of their promise to Andak. Tok Aki feels that they should not blindly comply but that they must refuse the betrothal, of which certainly Inah’s parents simply cannot or would not do so.
The wedding preparations are planned and organized by many committees befitting a nuptial of such a grand scale. The setting up of the various committees is to cater, not only to local guests but also foreign guests and the foreign media. The playwright’s sarcasm of such grandeur is obvious. The wedding festivities itself will last for 44 days and 44 nights.
It is not surprising that although Inah’s parents are invited to be part of the wedding festivities, they would not be able fit in Tuanda’s grand social scheme of things. They themselves realize that they will be such absolute social misfits amongst Tuanda’s many guests. Hence they prefer to return to their village. Back where they belonged, they dream about Andak who appears to them with his hands and feet bound as he tries to push a boulder up a hill with his chest. Reminiscent of Camus’ Sisyphus, Andak’s task is a hopeless, futile endeavor almost symptomatic of his leaving the village, working for Tuanda to make a better future for him and Inah. All Andak’s plans and dreams become annihilated when she marries Tuanda’s son. And the village continues to be poverty stricken and the villagers suffer in the scorching heat.
Amidst the social havoc, the pining and waiting for Andak’s return, a Pujangga comes to the village. He is writing a dissertation and has chosen the village as his focus of study whereby he will research and study the impact of development and changes on the social, cultural development of the village. Pujangga concludes that the villagers suffer because of an uncaring system. Pujangga is later elevated to become the Pujangga Negara who also becomes Tuanda’s assistant.
Andak’s mission to ameliorate his poverty comes to naught when he is caught by Petanda and is accused of committing a number of crimes. These include making too much noise and speaking too loudly, thus, disturbing Tuanda’s sleep; voyeuring on the Princess Inah and refusing to cooperate with Petanda, the investigating officer. Andak is incessantly questioned, emotionally tortured and is on the verge of giving it all up. But psychologically, he is emotionally helped and boosted by Tok Aki who is always shouting, urging and interjecting encouragement that he not give up, that he be brave and that he fight his torturers. At the end Andak does not die, he overcomes all the obstacles thrown in his path and he succeeds. He lives only because he has been spurred by Tok Aki’s words of encouragement telling him to fight for his rights and not to give up. But Tok Aki does not live, he finally dies. The voice of reason, logic, bravery and conscience is finally annihilated.
The play culminates with Tuanda’s lament that the earth they inhabit is prosperous, the land fertile, the people happy and friendly, but ironically in spite of all these, they are all destitute and death is everywhere. In the end the sole inheritor of all his splendor is Inah, but as Tuanda admits, her origins are lowly and she is really not a legitimate inheritor of the land. The play ends with Andak shouting the fact that he has not died, that he is still very much alive and physically present. Unfortunately, no one can hear or even recognize him. Andak, who has traversed both worlds, the worlds of the destitute paddy planters and the rich, powerful world of Tuanda, has seen it all, has been punished and has suffered, and although he comes back, he has become a stranger to the villagers for they do not recognize him and does not acknowledge his presence or return. As such he is not in a position to offer any help to them.
True to his concerns, Johan Jaaffar in this play again posits a myriad of binaries: power-powerlessness, plenty-poverty, class-classlessness, obedience-revolt, rich-poor, titled-untitled and always underlying these binaries are oppositions and paradoxes. It is a paradox that the earth is prosperous and the land fertile but the farmers are hungry and destitute.
In this play, the playwright has given an image of a land where happiness and joy have disappeared and death abounds. To make it even more bleak, Inah who has been reconstructed to become Princess Inah is found to be not the legitimate, proper inheritor of all of Tuanda’s splendor. In the final analysis, no matter how much reconstruction went into the remaking of Inah, she is still from a lowly class. She cannot become part of the ruling power with status, class and position. Although she has been changed and transformed, she does not legitimately belong to Tuanda’s class. She remains, in spite of all the changes, in spite of her marriage ties, in spite of being called “Princess Inah” she remains manacled in her lower class position with her old mindset unchanged.
4.KOTAKU OH KOTAKU/ MY CITY OH MY CITY
In this play, Johan Jaaffar puts on centre stage characters that are seldom put on stage in front of the curtain. Often these characters are unseen, unwanted and when they happen to be seen they are avoided or, they are looked down upon and frowned for having come out to share a common space. These two characters are the Night Soil Collector and the Sweeper.
The playwright sets the meeting of these two characters in the Lake Garden a well-kept place full of trees, shrubs, flowering and non-flowering plants which are created and encompassed within manicured lawns. It is a place of tranquility, a garden right in the middle of the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur. It is presented that when the Sweeper leaves after his job of sweeping the city is completed, the Night Soil Collector would then come in to do his job. They meet in the Lake Garden and in this confrontation they accost each other by pointing out how each has no right to “pollute” the tranquility and beauty of the Lake Garden by just being physically present there.
They are joined by the Prostitute who has made the Lake Garden a place to ply her trade. All three clamour not only their right to be there but also loudly proclaim the services that they do to the country. The Sweeper who cleans the city of its rubbish proclaims that Kuala Lumpur will certainly be buried with rubbish if the likes of him do not do their duty of clearing the city of its garbage and keeping the city clean. The Night Soil Collector brags that if he does not collect and throw away what he claims to be man’s possession which he most hates, namely his own excrement, the stinking smell will make people feel disgusted and the uncollected filth will become a health hazard. They both know that without their services, the people of Kuala Lumpur will surely not be able to live well and peacefully and that, eventually, they will all die.
Likewise the Prostitute proclaims her contributions to society. Without her services, those who have come to need and greatly depend on her, will become lost, disoriented and they will also not be able to function properly. She provides her services to all, from important leaders high up on the social rung, to the lowly Night Soil Collector and Sweeper if they so need and desire her services. She can even render her service right there and then, in the Lake Garden, just to please her clients, reduce their stress, make them whole and functional again.
Still no matter how great their services and how indispensable they all are, they are just denizens of the city who are frowned upon and their physical presence in the Lake Garden are not wanted. Their very presence will cause discomfort to those who frequent the place. Both the Night Soil Collector and the Sweeper will make the people who are enjoying the sights, smells, beauty and tranquility of the Lake Garden leave the place, for they will certainly be unable to stand the foul stench emanating from these two beings. Likewise the likes of them will also jar the peaceful, beautiful milieu with their dirty and stinking presence. All of these traits can be seen from the confrontation between these two characters as they laud their own contributions and significance to the city and its inhabitants even as they both point a finger at each other’s disgusting, foul smelling and demeaning presence. They are just not welcome in the serene calmness of the gardens. This is best exemplified when the young couple sitting on the bench, who are just enjoying the fresh air and each other’s presence, are disturbed by the foul stench of the Night Soil Collector and Sweeper. These two has just been denied their most basic right, namely to just be there in the Lake Garden like the other city dwellers could.
Hence Jebat, the modern day version of this legendary figure appears on the scene to fight for the rights of people, in the likes of the Night Soil Collector, Sweeper and Prostitute. Jebat’s presence on stage is not only a spoof of the classical Malay (anti) hero but also a representation of the trajectory that these people, frowned and looked down upon, unwanted, yet whose services are crucial, are also beings who have the right to be at the Lake Garden. It is also to point out the irony of opposing needs and social abhorrence.
Sweeper’s family living in the village is proud that a village son works in the city of Kuala Lumpur. But Sweeper himself knows and tells his family that the people of Kuala Lumpur look down on him; they find his job demeaning and they prefer not to have anything or any contact with him. It is a hilarious scene to see Sweeper describing the bustling city of Kuala Lumpur to his village folks. Sweeper’s description of the city’s sky scrapers can only elicit an imagined analogy of these buildings from the mother who can only compare them to the various tall trees in the village that she knows. Sweeper’s wife concludes that K. Lites (which is pronounced as Kay El Lites, referring to the inhabitants/city dwellers of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur) must be very good, agile and competent climbers to be daily climbing up and down these very tall buildings. Sweeper corrects her (mis)conceptions by telling her that there is no need for K. Lites to be agile for they do not have to physically climb these high buildings. He tells her that these sky scrapers come equipped with lifts/elevators and explains to her how this mechanism functions.
Looked down upon and humiliated, although the services they provide are so crucial to a city’s survival, the sweepers, night soil collectors and prostitutes unite and decide to go on strike thus effectively denying the city of their crucial services. Imagine a city buried deep in garbage, its filth not collected, its stinking excrement turning putrid and the overwhelming disgust at the foul smell not to mention the proliferation of diseases. The city leaders become cranky and are not able to function and do their jobs well because the Prostitutes have also gone on strike. By withholding their services and going on strike, the prostitutes effectively deny the city dwellers, or at least those who rely very much on their services, their much needed stress relieving, enjoyment source providers.
The result of the strike is the demolition of the city’s health, beauty and natural, social upkeep. Because of the widespread disease, Jebat, the people’s leader, fighter for their rights, champion of their needs, also succumbs to whatever diseases that has inundated the city. Jebat’s death is a wakeup call to those on strike who decide to end their strike and get on with their jobs of cleaning the city and getting it back to its normal, pre-strike state. The play ends with a return to normality and a cementing of the status quo.
In “My City Oh My City”, the playwright deliberately nullifies the main stereotyped images of creative writers and the description of women. The young couple, simply named Young Man and Young Woman, epitomizes a loving pair out on a date. In his construction of this social episode, the playwright makes the Young Woman refuses to be described in the cliché manner of equating her to the moon, which she tells her beloved is really not beautiful either, for the moon is full of huge pock marks. His sweet words to her are all annihilated when she asks him whether he has borrowed these words from some romantic poet like UsmanAwang! She does now want him to be a poet either for he will then be describing her in a poetic finds unappealing.
In this play, Johan takes a look at stereotype images, of poets and artists by making fun of the language peculiarly used by poets and the etchings, lines, abstract art of the artists/painters. Concomitant with this literary concern, the dramatist has given the characters of the Great Poet and the Great Writer to represent the creative, literary endeavors of his dramatic spectrum. The nation’s foremost poet, simply named Great Poet, seeks inspiration everywhere and in everything: the stench of drains, leeches, pus and the gloomy, squalid villagers on the fringes of the city. The poets are mocked at in this play when they seem to think that they do not need to have education to become good poets, all they need are to have feelings, sentiments, visions and illusions. Above all, they need to be creative. It is for this reason that the Great Writer only needs to stand and stare, and willing inspiration to come to him so that he can produce his great literary masterpiece.
“My City Oh My City” is a deliberate reconstruction of society from the Night Soil Collector and Sweeper’s perspective to ensure the sustenance of the health and cleanliness of the city. Without these lowly subaltern denizens performing their jobs, the city and its inhabitants will be ravaged by diseases and like Jebat , they will surely die. The play is a wake up call to appreciate these denizens. More importantly, it is to mock the stereotype image and perceptions of K. Lites.
5. PASRAH / SURRENDER
“Pasrah” is a short one act play peopled by characters who are simply named One, Two, Three, Four and a Stranger. It is a play where absolute despair seems to be the subterranean leitmotif and the characters comprising of the four friends only talk about death, loyalty and love which have to cease to exist; they also reminisce about greenery which is now lost, hence, non-existent and about emptiness. For these friends, death is a utopia to look forward to. They are discussing about a coffin which they have been guarding for seven thousand years and are beginning to realize the futility of their work and existence.
Typical of a profoundly nihilistic play, the friends realize that after enslaving themselves for the past seven thousand years, the only thing they have discovered is that all they could get for their enslavement and efforts of doing whatever they had been asked to do was torture, boredom, and hatred. They even have to sacrifice the pleasure of having women and children around, for these have all become extinct.
Throughout their lives, they have been compelled to be loyal and to do as they were told. Thus it is that they now tell themselves to relinquish everything, to surrender their fates and and all that they have been doing. They want to return to a state of nothingness.
Like in his other plays, Johan could not resist putting a character, Two, who is the creative persona in the play. Two has written a poem which had taken him seven thousand years to write and it certainly is the best poem ever written. He is proud of his creative, literary input. As in his other plays, like in “My City Oh My City” for instance, Johan takes a satirical look at creative writers, especially poets. The playwright seems to take issues with poets perhaps in an effort to urge them to better and greater efforts. Or perhaps he is just mocking their poetic efforts and endeavors.
“Surrender” is the playwright’s tour-de-force, full of nihilistic despair and existentialist angst where the character, One, says “a tragedy is an everyday entertainment”. It almost seems that in this play, all the characters are bent on a mission whereby all that they are concerned about is to extol their despairs, regrets and the futility of existence.
6. ASIAH SAMIAH
This is an epic play about love, lust and power which engulfs the entire life of Samiah from when she was a child, to her becoming a young woman and eventually to becoming an old, mad woman. Johan has taken a female character and made her almost like a whirling, centrifugal and centripetal power. The play presents numerous issues of emotions, status, love, man’s gregarious and lustful nature. To complement the picture, perhaps, the play also delineates the innate weaknesses of women who finally must physically succumb to men. But, like the phoenix she rises yet again to live independently and even happily in her own mad, insane world. In this mad world, unknowingly and unconsciously, she will still have her revenge as she continues to disturb and disrupt the sane lives around her who are in their “sane”, “normal” world, outside of her mad, demonical sphere. The ironic truth is, it is Asiah Samiah’s very madness that becomes her saving point. It is the one thing that keeps her alive. For in this raving mad world, Asiah Samiah finds comfort and solace as she continues to live in a past long gone or destroyed, at a time then when she did not know hardship, emotional destruction or love denied and betrayed.
As a young, only child, Asiah Samiah was the doted upon, beloved daughter of her parents, Tuan Setiawan Tanjung and Puan Suari Alimin. Asiah Samiah fell in love with her childhood friend, Anas Samanda, a poor, romantic idealist, who although he suffered for his principles and beliefs, still managed to woo and win Asiah Samiah’s love. But unlike the romantic tales of yore, where the beloved couple live happily ever after, Asiah Samiah’s and Anas Samanda’s love for each other came to nothing; in fact it was cruelly destroyed by Misa Sagaraga who with his wealth, power, status, greed and lust denied Asiah Samiah her world of romantic-ideal love with Anas. Her marriage to Misa Sagaraga resulted in the birth of Laila Anurisah. But Asiah Samiah made a rather hasty decision when she left the house, her baby and her husband. Asiah Samiah’s actions so shamed her husband who then decided to sever all ties with the baby by simply having her thrown away. But the baby was saved by Siti Bunirah. Laila Anurisah grew up to become not only a very lovely young lady but also a pious one. Her piety and religiosity is symbolized by the fact that her head is so neatly covered by a scarf. Her headgear becomes an important signifier of her determination, courage, independent spirit, and above all her religious belief and commitment, all of which had helped her throughout her ordeal.
In this panoramic, epic drama of love where lust, power, ideology and idealism are always in ever changing, contrapuntal relationships, the one steadfast, loyal, sane certainty is only Marga, who, from the time he was young until he is old continues to love Asiah Samiah. This unreciprocated love does not prevent Marga from doing all he can do to take care of Laila Anurisah when she was a very small child. He even took her to see Anas Samanda to tell him about Asiah Samiah’s daughter. Instead of loving or even liking the child, for she is after all Asiah Samiah’s daughter, Anas Samanda chooses to hate the child on sight. Asked to guess her name, Anas, correctly knows the child’s name, much to Marga’s surprise. But as Anas Samanda explains that was the name chosen by Asiah should they have a child of their own. For Anas Samanda, the child, Laila Anurisah, has become a signifier of something hated, unwanted, of the destruction of his love for Asiah Samiah. Therefore, he does not want to have anything to do with her. He does not want to see her as being part of Asiah Samiah, the woman he once loved.
For her own father, Misa Sagaraga, Laila Anurisah symbolizes the shame heaped on him by his wife, especially when she decided to leave him and abandon the child she had with him. This unwanted, abhorred child in turn becomes a symbol of his hatred, animosity and shame. He callously decides to just throw her away. For Marga, Laila Anurisah is something unattainable, a might have been, a reminder of love unrequited, hence a symbol of his unreciprocated love for Asiah Samiah. But if the love had been requited and reciprocated, it would have been something to be loved, adored and cherished.
Marga’s love for Asiah Samiah is exhibited in many ways. Even when she was a child he was already reading and telling her romantic stories. From the time Asiah Samiah became a young adult, in all her beauty, although her behavior was callous, Marga loves Asiah, even when later in life, she was ostracized by society. Every day at dusk he sits on a bench waiting for the mad Asiah to appear and sing her song of woe and fear. Marga knows that in her mad condition Asiah Samiah is cocooned by her insanity from further torment and torture. She continues to live in her own dream world remembering only her love for Anas Samanda and seeing her abandoned Laila Anurisah as symbol and proof of her love for Anas Samanda.
It is also because of his profound love for Asiah Samiah that Marga proclaims to her daughter, who has come to seek confirmation about her mother’s existence, that her mother has indeed died. MargaTua’s lie that Asiah has died is to safe both mother and daughter. He does not want to tell Laila Anurisah that her mother is still alive or that she has become a stark, raving mad, insane woman. At the same time, MargaTua does not want the mad Asiah Samiah to see her daughter whom she has abandoned come to haunt her. Thus it is that Marga Tua convincingly tells Laila Anurisah, who is now 24 years old, that “…your mother, Asiah Samiah, is dead,”
To a certain extent MargaTua’s statement is not wrong, for definitely to those who are normal and sane, the mad Asiah Samiah no longer exists. She is no longer herself. It is almost as if she has really died, lost to the “real,” world. It is only Marga Tua who continues to love her, hence his constant, everyday ritualistic vigil of sitting on the bench at twilight, to wait for the raving mad Asiah Samiah to approach him.
The play is not only a drama of love lost, won, to be forever lost yet again, or to exist but under such horrible, painful conditions, as a reminder of something unachievable; it is also about wealth, power, status versus principles and ideologies. It is a play delving into questions of dignity, pride, self-worth and moral values. Anas Samanda is the poor, idealistic man who has grandiose notions of principles, rights, ideology and dignity. In contradistinction to him is Misa Sagaraga who is wealthy beyond measure and who will not let anything or anyone stand between what he wants. Marga Tua really is the outsider who has learned from the bitter experience of his past. He remembers clearly the things which happened to his family which has made him become the sort of man that he is now. Because of all the sufferings, shame and humiliation which he and his family endured, he is now be able to live without the ideology which had so fired Anas Samanda’s whole life. Marga Tua learned from seeing how his father was dragged away from his home like a criminal and how his father was then imprisoned, humiliated and tortured. Marga Tua realized a long time ago that, as he tells Anas, “we’re just too small to change the world.” But it is not a lesson that Anas Samanda wants to or can believe in or abide by. So it is that Anas sacrifices his love and he dies fighting for his principles of justice, dignity and equality!
Issues and dramatic techniques
This epic love story is told in a language that is simple, easy to understand, in the swaying, rhythmic, linguistic movements which are poetic, although empowered by a dramatic technique that is tight, taught with emotions, struggles, ideologies, principles, sacrifices and sufferings. Johan Jaaffar in an ordinary casual manner, has spun a soothsayer’s tale, with several songs forming a leitmotif to the plays development, progression and impact. Throughout Asiah Samiah, Marga Tua and even Laila Anurisah sing parts of the ligal, ligal song as a contrapuntal juxtaposition to the interweaving betwixt emotions, power/powerlessness, ideology, love, and (in)sanity. The playwright has drawn out a dramatic tale which affects the heart, provokes the mind and simultaneously jars and makes ordinary life and living topsy turvy.
The play seems superficially devoid of loud emotions, exemplifying instead a simple tale of love lost or never won, but within this continuum, the dramatist posits the growing and becoming old of Asiah Samiah, Marga and even Laila Anurisah. Hence in the play Asiah Samiah is known as Asiah Samiah Muda (the Young Asiah Samiah) and Asiah Samiah Tua (the Old Asiah Samiah). Likewise there is Marga Muda and MargaTua and we are told about the abandoned baby, Laila Anurisah, and we see her when she is twenty four years old looking to find her mother.
The dramatic narratology is interestingly developed through a variety of techniques by using simple dialogues, recriminations, lamentations, oratorical and legal speeches as well as songs. If Asiah Samiah is both the centrifugal and antipodal magnet/power, the songs she sings are both the leitmotif and doppelganger to the mad intricacies of the old, self-abandoned Asiah Samiah.
The play is also about the nostalgia, of especially, Marga Tua, as he reminisces about his father’s fate, his family’s misfortune and their subsequent social ostracism. But he also remembers his love for Asiah Samiah and recalls that it has always been, in fact, unrequited love from the very beginning. Throughout Asiah Samiah has eyes, ears and heart only for Anas Samanda. Marga Tua also recollects how Asiah Samiah has been rather callous, in protecting and projecting her love for Anas Samanda. She is always seeking help and confessing to Marga about her feelings for Anas. In spite of it all, Marga continues to love Asiah Samiah. If it is a tale of love and loyalty, it must be that of Marga’s love for Asiah Samiah symbolized by his sitting on his bench at twilight to wait for the mad, Asiah Samiah to come and reminisce about her past and sing her leitmotif songs. And he does this every day, without fail. In fact the measure of Marga’s love for Asiah Samiah can be seen in the fact that it is he who takes care of Laila Anurisah, even taking her to see Anas Samanda hoping that in Laila Anurisah, Anas will be able to see and recall the love that he once had for Asiah Samiah. The child is supposed to be the symbol of their ruptured love but instead of remembering his love, Anas chooses instead to see Laila Anurisah as a symbol of destruction, betrayal and hence of his unfulfilled love.
Therein lies the difference between Marga’s and Anas’ love for Asiah. Marga will take care of the child not only because she is just an innocent baby but because he loves her mother so. Misa Sagaraga, the other male, in this triangular relationship, also “loves” Asiah Samiah but in his case it is more of making sure that he gets what he wants because he has power, status and wealth. Although Asiah Samiah does not like him, still on their wedding night she succumbs to physical pleasure, much to her own disgust. Misa Sagaraga’s love, like Anas’ love for Asiah Samiah is transient and conditional. When Asiah Samiah decides to leave husband and child, Misa Sagaraga’s lust/love turns to hatred which he takes out on the baby.
Such is the stormy love story of Asiah Samiah and the two men in her life. Intertwined within this triangular love story is the fact that Marga Tua becomes an outsider/ observer of the love song between Anas Samanda and Asiah Samiah. Marga Tua only remembers and recalls a past nostalgia. But he is not just any ordinary observer for he becomes also a participant, central, crucial and very emotionally involved. It is this centre-periphery dichotomy that becomes yet another dramatic device chosen by the playwright. The other love is the normal parent love and love as seen in the responsibility of taking care of Asiah Samiah as a child.
Besides the love-hatred story, the play also reveals other binary oppositions, especially in the ideological warfare between Anas and Marga’s father. Marga’s father was imprisoned because he dared to fight for his principles and defended his right to the piece of land which had been his all this while. Tortured and humiliated, Marga’s father refused to back down. His principles did not help, but instead hurt his own family although it benefited his neighbours for they did not have to give up their land since he had opposed it on their behalf! The fight, struggle and ideology became magnified in the son. Anas Samanda was imprisoned because he wanted to fight for a bigger cause: to change the minds and ethos of the masses.
And like his father, he too did not succeed. This play is inundated with opposing themes of madness and lucidity (real or imagined), of love and lust, of forced compulsion and meek submission. These contrapuntal juxtapositions and binaries in turn become the foundation to exemplify social concerns and ethical choices, tradition and modernity, unimaginable wealth which can enable the rich to purchase exorbitantly branded foreign goods whilst the destitute poor have to struggle daily to just eke out a living. Herein lies the social trajectory of this play.
Although the play deceptively uses simple everyday language, it is so crafted to become ironically complex and complicated. This in itself is yet another binary tool deeply exploited by the playwright. The complexity can be seen from the differing layered shifts in time, the progression from young to old, the flashbacks, the linear development of thematic present-past-and even past past. Even the dialogues between Asiah Samiah Tua and her parents are deliberately contradicted at a time when she was young. This is further showcased when she interjected their dialogues about her heart as can be seen, for example, in Act. 6.
For this writer, Asiah Samiah epitomizes the deep structured revelations of a very craft conscious playwright who also scathingly criticizes the social milieu of his society. The playwright mocks brand conscious members of society who cannot even pronounce the brands they are buying and using as can be discerned from Misa Sagaraga’s dialogues in Act. 7. This is further illustrated in the endeavors undertaken by Misa Sagaraga as he goes about reconstructing Asiah Samiah in the image of his liking by having her clothed in expensive designer labels, made up by professional artistes and ensuring that she uses only branded goods. He wants to transform her into some ideal woman he envisions in his imagination, which his wealth, power and position can make into reality.
In this play, the dramatist also takes an autobiographical jibe by having Marga Tua’s journalist friend leave the media world for reasons best left alone, as was once done by the dramatist himself.
Asiah Samiah is Johan Jaaffar’s tour-de-force as he encompasses social concerns, grapples with class, conflicts and enumerates power-wealth-status within a polar binary of weakness-destitution and classlessness. By imbibing these issues the playwright once again reveals his empowered stance and dramatic craft for a genre which he has abandoned for a rather long while. It is almost as if with this play, the playwright returns to the world of theatre with a vengeance. Hopefully he will utilize his dramatic craft, social concerns to further enhance modern Malay theatre.
7. PEMAIN / THE PLAYER
Johan Jaaffar has rightly categorized this piece of creative writing as a novelet/ drama/ short story and it certainly can be analyzed as either of these creative forms. In this anthology, it is seen as a piece of dramatic literature, especially as a subgenre of monodrama which only serves to prove that long before this genre became popular in Malaysia, Johan Jaaffar had already been an avant-gardist. The play can be read as a long monologue, parts of which are the interiorization of one person’s personal angst in a world which is cruel, uncertain, indeterminate. This play is constructed as always along opposite binaries of leader-led, power-powerlessness, the haves against the have-nots, love-lovelessness, certainty-uncertainty, hope-despair, reality-illusion, truth-lies amongst other.
The central character is the narrator/ old philosopher whose Joyce’s Molly like monologue goes on many trajectories as he thinks philosophically about the self, questioning himself about his own innate self as perceived by himself and by others. He is also on an existentialist quest of first trying to figure out what is and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, what is present and what is absent. These positionings seem almost like a philosophical treatise on the various meanings of existence, beliefs, perceptions, relationships and power. It also can be read as a political treatise of individual, personal freedom as opposed to a collective responsibility egged on by leaders or those who have been empowered with authority to impose law and order. The play can also be represented as a social construction and Foucauldian deconstruction of power, punishment and acceptance. Above all the play can be read as an existentialist treatise, where the most profound question haunting mankind is who is he really and what does it mean to be him. Other related philosophical demands include the continuum of truths or non-truths, whole truths, when is it true or why is it true or even why is it not true. Truths, like other metaphysical questions, are always subjected to presentations, perceptions, reconstructions and reevaluations.
Loyalty is also a social construct and contract to be fulfilled only for a length of term and then discarded when it is no longer useful or the person who is being loyal has become a liability, hence useless. The philosopher cites the story of the dog and its loyalty to its owner. The dog which had served its master well was simply thrown away when it was no longer useful. But the dog can still find its way back to its former owner’s house and although it is no longer wanted or welcomed in the house, in fact the children’s owner simply chased it away, the dog continues to sniffle around the front gate and rummages for food in the garbage bins.
In this tale, the dog’s loyalty is poorly rewarded by its owner. The thrust of this story is that of power relationships, for the one who has power can not only do as they like but can be callous and ungrateful. Loyalty, like friendship, is placed on a trajectory where its value is constructed by others and dependent on power and usefulness as perceived by those with power.
The play also (re)views man-woman relationships as exemplified by the old philosopher/ narrator/ the person who has been in and out of prison and Yie, she, who is now a management expert. This is not surprising for Yie has been taught management theories by professors who themselves have been trained in the best universities! Like in some of his other plays, the playwright cannot resist re-presenting the peculiar world of academia and also of poets. In this play, the old “philosopher”, the I/the narrator is also a poet. He compares himself to the renowned Rendra as he writes a poem on “Death”. He takes pride in the fact that he will be remembered for writing a poem using only one word, that one word being “Death”. He might even win Malaysia’s Literary Award for using only the word “death” the most number of times in one poem. Johan seems to be gleefully re-presenting images of academicians and poets in this monodrama, even as he takes a jibe at literary awards given to writers. He is both mocking the recipient of such awards, namely the writers and the organization/institutions giving those awards.
The play also takes a critical stance at the roles of television, books and magazines, the print and other forms of media for belittling ones’ intellect. In short, the play makes comments on the inadequacies of the media in (not) fulfilling its social, intellectual and creative functions of serving the larger societal concerns.
Intelligence is an issue crucial and central to this monologue/ monodrama. Likewise is mental stability or the lack thereof and how this is perceived in a stereotyped manner. The play posits that mental stability is a social creation, constructed and normally perceived without much debate by others, whoever those others are. But the reality is, according to the “I” of the play, is the fact that the inventions, innovations and creations which have impacted society have been done by people who are not stable. [In]stability actually creates creativity.
Yie is also presented as a workaholic who is also very well disciplined. Each morning she will go to work accompanied by the 12 written things on her list which she needs to do for the day. At the end of the day, Yie will make sure that all the 12 items she has on her list would have disappeared.
Through the lenses of the narrator/ philosopher whose every movement and action are recorded, one must ascertain a broad range of concerns including the continuum of power, laws and rights. The old philosopher reminds the reader of Marga Tua’s father in “Asiah Samiah” for the philosopher in this play reminisced about what happened to him when he fought for his rights. The philosopher re-voices Marga Tua’s concern/ dilemma that the meaning of freedom is never understood until that freedom is denied and lost.
Besides freedom, the right to do, speak, think, act/behave, own or believe in, the play also focuses on personal, familial and social relationships. The relationships are seen in how the narrator constructs his relationship with Yie, the management expert. For her, no matter how highly educated she has been, on a personal, man-woman front, Yie still succumbs to stereotype, images whereby she sees herself as a damsel in distress and dreams and believes that a knight in shining armor will come and save her. In her dreams, she imagines that she is tied to a tree but she will certainly be rescued by her knight.
The narrator, the I’s many philosophical roles and functions in society are constructions formed in his recalling of past events within the spectrum of his current dilemma whereby he is an outcast of society as viewed, interpreted and legally enforced by those members of society who have the power to do so. The “I” of this Jocyean Molly Bloomlike existential ramblings full of angst is finally seen as the myriad facets of many persons. He is Yie’s lover, he is also his own sister, Amie’s, brother, just as he also describes himself as an old philosopher and a poet. Others also perceive him to be a traitor to his own race for he has betrayed them. He is seen as the enemy of the majority and that he is not being naturalistic. He acknowledges all that they say and perceive of him for when all is said and done, he alone knows what he has experienced and undergone. He certainly knows that the price of dignity is excruciatingly cheap.
For all the sufferings that the “I” of the play has to endure, for the severance of familial, social, personal ties, for the freedom he fought for, for his rights that he so championed and lost, for his beliefs, his sufferings, his endurance, his strengths and his weakness, “I” finally realizes that really and truly he does not know anything, anymore, and that certainly he has no answers, no truths to abide by, no absolutes to believe in. He is almost the magnification of an existentialist philosophy of absolute despair interspersed ironically with momentary flashes of hopes, dreams and abilities.
Written as a treatise of life by an I/ philosopher/ narrator/ crusader/ lover/ brother/ son, the play drama is aptly titled “The Player” signifying the many roles, masks, faces, fronts that one constructs or are constructed by others simply by being an inhabitant of society.
In the beginning, this mono-drama or a long monologue is reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s the little prince, whose interjections and self-deprecation's seem to summon receptions and responses from readers to take a deeper look and make a deeper reading of the text for these interjections are deliberately done almost in a Brechtian Verfremdungs effect.
“The Player” serves to put mono-drama on an important forefront, capitulating the many, varied possibilities of dramatic re-presentations and theatrical conceptions. This is yet another of Johan’s contribution to the drama world done at a time before mono-dramas became a favourite (re)presentation on the Malaysian theatre scene.
The seven plays translated for this publication includes Johan’s renowned trilogy of “Angin Kering”/Dry Wind, “Dia’/Someone and “Sang Puteri”/The Princess. This group of plays including “Kotaku Oh Kotaku”/My City Oh My City and “Pasrah”/Surrender has positioned Johan Jaaffar within the absurd-abstract-surrealist experimental plays so lauded in the decade of the 1970’s. More than the epoch making experimental newness of the plays, they are important as social critiques and treatises of paradoxes contained in all its myriad possibilities in society.
The poster for Sang Puteri staged at Pangging Eksperimen UM on 20th & 21st October 1979
These paradoxes seem to haunt Johan as he grapples with delineating, presenting and postulating to his readers/audiences the paradox of want amidst plenty, the paradox of love and lust, the paradox of greed and selflessness, and throughout, almost always, in one form or another, in voices loudly heard or deafeningly silenced, the paradox of poverty and deprivation amidst that of plenty and abundance.
He continues and substantiates these concerns in his latest play, the award winning Asiah Samiah. It is interesting to note that through the meanderings and morphological metamorphosis of Asiah Samiah, Johan once again embarks not only on his trajectories of paradoxes but imbibes within this play metaphorical and existential elements of alienation, despair and angst. “Asiah Samiah” beckons readers, audiences, critics, academia into seeing Johan Jaaffar, the ever present playwright, under new lights and considerations. The play’s thematic stances, the songs which become leitmotifs not only for the central characters but for the overall reflections and refractions of the play serves only to highlight Johan Jaaffar as one of Malaysia’s paramount playwright. This has been further proven by Pemain/The Player read within the epistemological context of a scatological dialogue almost irreverent in its critique of society and societal concerns. These are then pivoted within individual binaries of hope-despair, light-darkness, presence-absence, love won-love lost. The play also shows how in the forefront Johan has been with developing the different forms and sub-genres of writing plays.
One of the plays directed by Johan
Throughout his play-writing trajectories, Johan seems particularly concerned with the social-cultural-political-economic-religious-racial matrix of his society. He also seems unable to refrain from viewing the creative, literary parameters present in his milieux. As such in sarcastic, cynical, blatantly critical innuendos he takes a look at the world of poets and poetry writing, at the world of academia and of the education system of his milieux. Johan deliberately mocks literary writers, critics and the world of the mass media. His plays show that Johan is a playwright acutely aware of the incongruencies, disjunctures and inequalities that have dominated his society. The playwright is very much concerned with the downtrodden and of the poverty so rampant in his society which he theatrically juxtaposed with the display and abuse of absolute power and untold, unimaginable wealth so callously exhibited by the characters in his plays. Above all, the overriding subterranean concern has also got to do with personal beliefs and ideologies, with integrity and the mettle of one’s character and personality. The seven plays in this anthology proves that if he could, he would want to eradicate, or at least, reduce paradoxes, oppositional binaries within his society and uphold good principles, beliefs, ideology and empower the mettle of characters, enhance values and integrity as shown by some of the characters throughout his seven plays.
Head of Post Graduate Studies
Faculty of Film, Theatre & Animation
University Technology MARA
Puncak Perdana Campus