Topeng – masked drama from Java

Last weekend I was training teachers in Dubai, and we were focusing on unfamiliar world theatre practices. One of the practices that we explored was the masked drama of Topeng from Java. In this blog I will give you a bit of background to Topeng and then share the elements of our practical work, so that you can see if this is something you may want to use for your research presentation, or to inspire collaborative work for your director’s notebook.

To start, here is a bit of context and history taken from:

http://www.xip.fi/atd/indonesia/topeng-mask-theatre.html Accessed on 1/12/2015

Topeng, Mask Theatre

Java is the home of several mask theatre and dance traditions, which are commonly referred to as wayang topeng (wayang: shadow or puppet; topeng: mask). They are believed to have evolved from early shamanistic burial and initiation rites. Mask traditions universally contain shamanistic features, for when an actor puts on a mask he gives up his own identity and embodies the character of the mask, usually a mythical being such as a demon, a supernatural hero, or a god.

The Origins and Stories

The earliest known literary reference to wayang topeng is from 1058, and mask theatre is believed to have been very popular in the kingdoms of East Java over the following centuries. This led to the birth of wayang wwang, a spectacular form of court theatre, where some of the characters are believed to have worn masks.

Two main traditions of topeng developed: the impressive dance-drama of the court, and the village traditions, which still contain ancient shamanistic elements.

Topeng is often based on the Mahabharata and the Ramayana epics, among other sources, but from a very early stage The Adventures of Prince Panji has been the most popular source of its plot material.

Key elements of Topeng

  • —Story performed by 5 men (troupe)
  • —Full mask to start – silent
  • —Half mask – speaks
  • —King sits on back of chair + mother of pearl teeth
  • —Different characters:
  1. Story-tellers
  2. Actors
  3. Clowns (deformed)/old men (lower, heavier)
  4. Animals

Order of performance

  1. Full face characters enters – Prime minister: he doesn’t speak
  2. Story-tellers (half mask) introduce the story – The first (Wayan – older) enters to start telling the story – no idea of place.
  3. Second story-teller (Ketut – younger) philosophizes about the culture
  4. Introduce the king
  5. Clowns enter and carry on the story
  6. Antagonist king ends the story

Elements of performance

  • —Gamelan music
  • —All wear the same costume
  • —Different masks
  • —Actors can swap headdresses & masks
  • —Performances last about 3 hours
  • —Performers do not rehearse together:
  • given an idea→plan the performance→all enjoy a meal →perform improvised story to the audience

To watch some Topeng and get some context in terms historical and cultural references watch this film, ‘Topeng and Temple Ceremonies’:

1 Comment
  • Mark Barham Smith
    March 25, 2016

    Dear Fenella,

    Your blog is amazing! I have only just come across it but already I can see how useful it will be both for me and for my students at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. I am putting a link onto the website I run http://www.theatrenotes.org so that they and other visitors to the site will know to look here. Thank you so much for posting such interesting and useful material. If you are ever near Cheltenham we’d love you to come and run a workshop with our IB girls.

    All the best

    Mark Smith

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