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Thinking Through Tragedy and Comedy A Symposium on Performance Philosophy and the Future of Genre

Preciosa de Joya


In its re-telling of the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, the Javanese shadow puppet theatre introduces a wonderful repertoire of comic relief. Known as punakawan (clown-servants), Semar, and his sons, make their timely appearance immediately after gara-gara, the scene depicting the world in turmoil. But while they have captivated the hearts of spectators through laughter, the comedy, the slapstick, sexual innuendos, and obscene jokes, have largely been unexplored. What one reads/hears about the punakawan is often a far cry from their behaviour in performance. Reduced to mystical interpretations, they are sanitized to perfectly embody philosophical "truths."

It has been argued that through philosophical interpretations the Javanese protect themselves from laughter's uncontrollability. Still, they succumb to it, and the comic pervades the entire play. This paper hopes to explore this tension: why do the Javanese find the punakawan, with their deformities, craziness, and crass behaviour, so irresistible, and yet are wary of heightening comedy as a sign of moral decay? Or, why is Semar--a fat, farty, androgynous clown servant, the antithesis of refinement and self-control that the Javanese hold dear--depicted as the philosopher and wise advisor to the heroes?

Preciosa de Joya studied philosophy in the Ateneo de Manila University, and received her Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. She is currently a fellow at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. Her research, which hopes to contribute to ICI's core project, Errans, explores the Philippines and Indonesia for spaces of thought that offer new ways of seeing but have been largely ignored or deemed unworthy of philosophical inquiry.