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The Unrecognisable Bard: Amalgamating the Colonizer and the Colonized Through Theatre

by Charmaine Chan


Introduction


Established by an Indian, Muslim businessman, Bai Kassim, in 1902, the bangsawan troupe Wayang Kassim performed throughout Malaya, Sumatra and Singapore. Mr. Kassim later in his life became the proprietor of Theatre Royal in Singapore, which became the go-to destination for accommodating visiting theatre troupes. Whilst historical newspaper archives remark that 'the troupe [Wayang Kassim] performed different types of plays to attract ethnically diverse audience,'[1] this paper focuses on the troupes performances of Shakespearean tragedies. Departing from orthodox and traditional iterations of Shakespeare, the theatre troupe of Wayang Kassim incorporated Malayan cultural elements in their productions. In this process, the troupe drew from the local cultures of Malaysia and Singapore as much as it did from the original English material, adapting the works of Shakespeare into a hybrid cultural text in colonial Singapore. As such, the productions by the Wayang Kassim troupe well reflect the notion of theatre as a product of its context and sociocultural setting. This paper examines how these localised adaptations of Shakespeare's plays for the Malaysian stage by Wayang Kassim directors and playwrights reveal bangsawan theatre in colonial Singapore functioned as a locus of cultural hybridisation.



Wayang Kassim Productions of Shakespearean Plays


The troupe first performed in Singapore in 1904 with a production of Othello, and until 1909, staged various Shakespearean plays in Malay along with numerous Malay and Indonesian plays.[2] The interest that this paper takes in the Wayang Kassim was initially brought on by the troupe's first production of Shakespeare's Othello in Malay in 1908. Not only was the play interpreted and translated from English to Malay, the performance also included various comical elements that the troupe's playwright added. This was an unusual approach to a production of Othello, but the Wayang Kassim had already gained a reputation as well as popularity for their unorthodox productions of Shakespearean tragedies. An article in the Singaporean press at the time remarked that the troupe 'has the happy faculty of turning tragedy into comedy, which seems to take immensely with its patrons, who were apparently, more than delighted with the Malay interpretation of Shakespeare's great play.'[3]


As revealed by the press commentary on Wayang Kassim, the 1908 comedy infused Malayan adaptation of Othello was not an isolated event. In fact, 'this departure from the original plot was a common feature of bangsawan Shakespeare.'[4] For example, in a 1904 production of Hamlet, the troupe dressed 'the pensive Dane in Malay dress.'[5] The troupe did not stop with their first Malayan production of Shakespeare's work and subsequently produced multilingual adaptations befitting the multicultural Singaporean society. Rather than staging the same production in different languages, each show was a multilingual production, and so '[t]he popular songs and musical numbers of the Wayang Kassim were not only performed in Malay, but also in English, Singhalese and Tamil.'[6] Hence, in a production of The Merchant of Venice, a Dutch actor played the character of Shylock and whilst '[the actor] himself [spoke] his lines in his native language ... the rest of the company [would] interpret their parts in English.'[7] The resulting productions 'bore practically no resemblance to the play[s] known to Europeans, and yet Wayang Kassim's performances were immensely well received.'



Entertainment in Singapore at the turn of the century was hard to come by. In November 1896, The Straits Times even 'lamented the lack of a general social club in Singapore for "all the ordinary common or garden men among us".'[8] Without much else to do and with what little the average Singaporean resident could afford, many would turn to the outdoor theatre for both entertainment and an escape from the over-crowded housing conditions. Mr. Kassim's 'Theatre Royal on North Bridge Road became a popular venue for daily evening performances of Shakespearean plays in Malay.'[9] This could be considered an explanation as to why playwrights of Wayang Kassim actively sought to incorporate unorthodox comic relief into famous plays instead of staying true to their tragic narratives. Being aware of the living conditions of their audiences and the unique situation in Singapore at the time, the Wayang Kassim troupe prioritised casual and accessible comedy that appealed to the lowest common denominator of their patrons, and 'in their method of serving up Shakespeare, [did] much to brighten [Singapore's] otherwise dull existence.'[10]


The Reflection of Globalization as Seen in Wayang Kassim Theatre


Responding to the unique composition of audiences in colonial Singapore, Wayang Kassim productions continued to amalgamated different cultural elements and identities in performances of Shakespearean tragedies. The founder of the troupe Bai Kassim went so far as to 'employ several Dutch Eurasian and Sundanese actresses in 1903 who almost certainly had performed previously in Komedie Stamboel troupes'[11] in an attempt to faithfully represent differing cultures on stage. Shakespearean tragedies in bangsawan theatre in Singapore was not just a colonial cultural commodity nor a British imperial project of introducing English culture to the region. Instead, the familiar plays representative of British arts and culture served as a medium in which the theatre troupe depicted the multiracial, multicultural, and ethnically diverse local communities that could increasingly be seen as a portrayal of Singapore itself. Indeed, the local press comments that the audiences were 'as multicultural as the plays [that Wayang Kassim] performed, which consisted of Malays, Chinese, Indians and "a good sprinkling of Europeans" who tried to escape the boredom of Singaporean nights.'[12] Wayang Kassim encapsulated with the medium and stage of theatre, the transnational colonial hub that was Singapore. Though the productions of Shakespearean plays were not faithful representations of the original work, they stood to represent a mix of culture in Singapore and rapidly hybridising public sphere of the colony. Although Wayang Kassim performed Shakespearean tragedies in a British colony, they did not exclusively target the diasporic British settlers of Singapore. Through the experimentation with language and culture on stage, and bangsawan theatrical adaptations of colonially introduced texts, the troupe proved to be 'popular with a very large section of the population ... And once, even the governor of Singapore graced a performance together with a visiting US admiral.'[13]



Conclusion


Enthusiasts of the Bangsawan theatre persisted through its decline during World War II. Various efforts were made to revive the performing art, which made onto showings through new mediums such as the television and videotapes.[14] Wayang Kassim's practice in bangsawan theatre reflects the distinct role of theatre in colonial Singapore in facilitating the cultural hybridisation the city state is now famed for. The traces of its lasting impact outlined in this paper invites further historical investigation into Singapore's theatre history as a significant site of sociocultural production and representation which may have been previously overlooked.

Notes

[1] Nadi Tofighian, 'Mapping 'the whirligig of amusements' in colonial Southeast Asia,' Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 49, no. 2, 2018, 277-96, 278-9.


[2] Philip Smith, Shakespeare in Singapore: Performance, Education, and Culture (Routledge, 2020), 2.2.


[3] 'Untitled,' The Straits Times, 10 August 1908, 6. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19080810-1.2.39?ST=1&AT=filter&K=tragedy Wayang Kassim&KA=tragedy Wayang Kassim&DF=&DT=&Display=0&AO=false&NPT=&L=&CTA=&NID=&CT=&WC=&YR=&QT=tragedy,wayang,kassim&oref=article.


[4] Alexander C. Y. Huang, and Charles Stanley. Ross, Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia, and Cyberspace (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2010), 141.


[5] 'Hamlet in Malay,' The Straits Times, 2 March 1904, 1. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19040302-1.2.5?ST=1&AT=filter&K=tragedy Wayang Kassim&KA=tragedy Wayang Kassim&DF=&DT=&Display=0&AO=false&NPT=&L=&CTA=&NID=&CT=&WC=&YR=1904&QT=tragedy,wayang,kassim&oref=article.


[6] Jan van der Putten, and Mary Kilcline Cody, Lost Times and Untold Tales from the Malay World (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011), 231.



[8] Hermes. 'Singapore Social,' The Straits Times, 19 January 2016, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-social.


[9] 'Investigating History: Colonial Singapore (1819-1941),' National Heritage Board, www.nhb.gov.sg/nationalmuseum/-/media/nms2017/documents/school-programmes/teachers-hi-resource-unit-2-colonial-singapore.pdf?la=en.


[10] C.V.H., 'Othello in Malayu,' The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 12 November 1908, 6, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singfreepresswk19081112-1.2.93?ST=1&AT=filter&K=shakespearean play&KA=shakespearean play&DF=&DT=&Display=0&AO=false&NPT=&L=&CTA=&NID=&CT=&WC=&YR=1908&QT=shakespearean,play&oref=article.


[11] Putten and Cody, 231.


[12] Ibid, 230.


[13] 'Native Bandmanns,' The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 14 October 1910, 1, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singfreepressb19101014-1.2.3?ST=1&AT=filter&K=Wayang shakespeare&KA=Wayang shakespeare&DF=&DT=&Display=0&AO=false&NPT=&L=&CTA=&NID=&CT=&WC=&YR=1910&QT=wayang,shakespeare&oref=article.


[14] 'To Be or Not to Be in Bangsawan,' The Strait Times, 26 May 1988, 5, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19880526-1.2.67.8.1?ST=1&AT=search&k=shakespearean Wayang Kassim&QT=shakespearean,wayang,kassim&oref=article.



Bibliography

Newspapers and Government Publication:



C.V.H. 'Othello in Malayu.' The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 12 November 1908. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singfreepresswk19081112-1.2.93?ST=1&AT=filter&K=shakespearean play&KA=shakespearean play&DF=&DT=&Display=0&AO=false&NPT=&L=&CTA=&NID=&CT=&WC=&YR=1908&QT=shakespearean,play&oref=article.


'Hamlet in Malay.' The Straits Times, 2 March 1904. <https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19040302-1.2.5?ST=1&AT=filter&K=tragedy Wayang Kassim&KA=tragedy Wayang Kassim&DF=&DT=&Display=0&AO=false&NPT=&L=&CTA=&NID=&CT=&WC=&YR=1904&QT=tragedy,wayang,kassim&oref=article>.


Hermes. 'Singapore Social.' The Straits Times, 19 January 2016, http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-social.



'Native Bandmanns.' The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 14 October 1910. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/singfreepressb19101014-1.2.3?ST=1&AT=filter&K=Wayang shakespeare&KA=Wayang shakespeare&DF=&DT=&Display=0&AO=false&NPT=&L=&CTA=&NID=&CT=&WC=&YR=1910&QT=wayang,shakespeare&oref=article>.


'To Be or Not to Be in Bangsawan.' The Strait Times, 26 May 1988. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19880526-1.2.67.8.1?ST=1&AT=search&k=shakespearean Wayang Kassim&QT=shakespearean,wayang,kassim&oref=article.


'Untitled.' The Straits Times, 10 August 1908. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19080810-1.2.39?ST=1&AT=filter&K=tragedy Wayang Kassim&KA=tragedy Wayang Kassim&DF=&DT=&Display=0&AO=false&NPT=&L=&CTA=&NID=&CT=&WC=&YR=&QT=tragedy,wayang,kassim&oref=article.


Books and Articles:


Huang, Alexander C. Y., and Charles Stanley. Ross. Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia, and Cyberspace. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2010.


Tofighian, Nadi. 'Mapping "the whirligig of amusements" in Colonial Southeast Asia.' Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 49, no. 2, 2018, 277-96.


Putten, Jan van der, and Mary Kilcline Cody. Lost Times and Untold Tales from the Malay World. Singapore: NUS Press, 2011.


Smith, Philip. Shakespeare in Singapore: Performance, Education, and Culture. Routledge, 2020.

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