a literary and visual arts journal
All Theatre is False
translated by Syarafina Vidyadhana
HE HAD A LARGE frame. Sturdy. People would walk past him and think he could be an actor. He was an actor, but first and foremost, he was a person. The kind that would almost always leave his long sleeves unbuttoned. The kind you could almost always find near the Taman Ismail Marzuki1 complex in Cikini, where artists from all over Jakarta often hung out. Very few people knew where he came from – some said he was from Sumbawa. He had the kind of stare that was so intense you could almost see his eyes glisten. Although no one knew for certain what it was he was staring at.
Standing in front of the wall of Taman Ismail Marzuki, he looked as if he were facing a Master who no longer presented in human form. He stared at the wall. Flat. A flat surface had always tempted him to… he wasn’t sure what. An actor could only live and walk in their own body.
Having never trodden a single stage or performed a single show, one might question whether he truly was an actor. But then again, wasn’t the whole world a stage and all of us merely players? Putting on a show for as long as we are alive. Or for as long as we believe ourselves to be.
‘I cannot exist every day. Some days I need to also not exist,’ he said coldly to the wall. He reached deep into his trouser pocket and took out a few cigarette butts that he’d collected from the streets – the only explanation as to how his trousers smelled more like an ashtray than his own mouth. He picked one brand that he liked best: Mascot. He lit the cigarette, what was left of it anyway, and took a nice long drag. The smoke penetrated his lungs and filled them up. As he took his last puff, he could taste the breath of the person who last smoked it. It was almost two in the afternoon. He wasn’t hungry yet. Or maybe he was just used to the feeling.
‘Frans!’ someone called out to him. It could have been anyone – another artist from the neighbourhood – but Frans didn’t budge.
‘Ooh… look at him go.’
‘Beep boop… Frans is not available at the moment!’ said another voice, amused. Frans kept walking. It was as if the whole world was flat today. Nothing else existed but himself. Or, maybe, today he was also flat and therefore nothing was here at all. He wasn’t going to push, and he certainly didn’t want to be pushed. Today he felt like taking a break from personhood. Which also meant taking a break from hunger and other appetites. The only exceptions, he decided, were for smoking and walking.
He knew the neighbourhood like the back of his hand. Every day he would walk from one building to the next; from Teater Terbuka to Wisma Seni, from Studio Huriah Adam to Kantin Roro Mendut, from Teater Tertutup to Teater Arena, then all the way to Galeri Cipta (which is sadly no more). Every day he would walk around these buildings like an animal roaming outside of its cage for the first time. This was his home, his country, his native land – all within this small complex. In his mind, Indonesia did not exist for there was only Taman Ismail Marzuki. But no one there recognised him as the artist that he was, because he had never created anything that the industry deemed as art.
The cigarette butt he was smoking had run out of tobacco to keep it burning. The flame spread and singed the filter, letting out a sharp, tangy smell before finally going out. Frans squatted down as he started to dig a hole with his hands, his fingernails kept long on each. He put the cigarette butt inside the hole and buried it. Then he rose up – proud, like he had just ticked something off his daily checklist.
‘Frans, what are you doing?’ said a familiar voice, a female actor from Teater Kecil who was passing by. Frans didn’t say anything back. He was on leave – which part of this did they not understand. Today he was not a person. He wanted to tell her that he was hungry, but he had learned that the hunger felt by one person may not be the same as another. No matter how loud it screamed.
‘I haven’t fucked in two months,’ Frans said instead. The female actor, who would play Euis in the upcoming show, A Bottomless Well: A Play in Four Acts by Arifin C. Noer, was clearly taken aback. She stopped walking at once and looked at him: should she be offended? Seeing her reaction, Frans, ever so casually, began unzipping his trousers. But before they were completely down, the woman was out of sight.
Frans turned around to face the wall, and spat on it.
‘You see that? For an actor, she sure is anti-theatre. Antiperformance. Where’s the actor? Where’s the theatre? The performance remains buried alive inside my trousers!’ Frans shouted at the wall. ‘How easy it is to live as a man, as an asshole,’ he murmured. ‘And even easier to assume what women want.’ Frans then spat on his own hand and walked away. He knew not why or where he must walk. He knew only that he had to. To experience each and every space like it was his little corner of the world. Walking, he felt, had nothing to do with distance and everything to do with the event of walking itself.
At night, Frans would sleep in front of a closed shop, any closed shop around Cikini, or in the back of a cheap hotel in Gondangdia, not too far from Taman Ismail Marzuki. Sometimes he would sleep next to Jijok, his friend who, much like himself, was a performance artist and lived on the street.
The security guards at Taman Ismail Marzuki did not see them as artists, but rather a couple of petty thieves. That’s because every time they were around, something somewhere always went missing. Nonetheless, Frans and Jijok considered themselves regulars; whether it was a theatrical, dance, or music performance, they would always find a way to sneak into the building. But they were never there for the art. Instead, they would sleep for the full duration of the show. They saw it as a chance, if not the only chance, to sleep in a proper setting – in soft and comfortable seats, no less.
Ali Sadikin, the Jakarta Governor at the time, who was also a regular, didn’t recognise their artistry either. To him Frans and Jijok were nothing more than a couple of homeless bums.
‘Like I give a shit,’ Frans would say. ‘They can call me whatever they like: a bum, a thief, an artist. Living on the street is just one of the many ways to live!’ he would add, with pride, to anyone who made fun of him. Frans always took it seriously even when he knew they were probably only messing with him.
An object could leave a mark, and possibly shape its own narrative, if it was placed in a space strong enough to sustain it. Then it would become indomitable. This was why Frans insisted on maintaining his qualities. A task he deemed equivalent to that of keeping a chocolate bar from melting under the sun. Because once it melted, the shape would be irreversibly damaged – even if it tasted all the same.
Frans put his index finger on his forehead, mimicking a handgun. He said, quite convincingly, ‘Bang! This brain, as you well know, is not made of books, but of dust from the streets. Thinking on the street is not the same as thinking from inside your bedroom!’ People around him burst out laughing. Marus, a parking attendee with a stab wound on his face, walked over to him and offered him a cigarette.
‘Oh, thank you, my friend,’ Frans took one cigarette and lit it right away. He inhaled it deep, his lungs welcoming its smoky embrace.
‘Intellectualism is not a museum but the shit that dries up under the sun!’ Frans continued his lecture as he exhaled the smoke through his nose. His stare remained intense. People around him started laughing again.
‘All it took was one cigarette for you to spew philosophical bullshit,’ one of them sneered. ‘What would happen if we gave you a pack, eh? I bet Philosophy itself would get sick with all that smoke.’
‘But you’re wrong!’ Frans threw his cigarette on the ground and stubbed it out.
‘You see, I live under the sun. Not inside a pack of cigarettes. Now tell me, what can’t grow under the sun? You’ve all become stupid because you traded the sun for neon lights,’ he said as he was walking away. As if suddenly he was reminded of something important he had to do. His sleeves were fluttering in the wind. His long hair was fluttering, too – you could see the sun peeking between the strands.
Jijok sat at the back of the audience, barefoot and cross-legged on a floor mat inside the Huriah Adam building where a discussion of a recently released film was taking place. Every time they had a film discussion, the people in the audience looked quite different from the usual types. Nicer. That’s because most of them were artists working in film, and as such they always looked more stylish, more presentable than those who didn’t work in film - especially compared to the performance artists, like Frans and Jijok, who were notorious for looking like they’d never heard of soap powder. Jijok was listening to the talk when his eyes caught Frans circling the building through the windows. When Frans finally came inside, he just stood at the back, reluctant to sit down with the rest of the audience. Dozens of pairs of shoes were lined up by the entrance.
‘It’s a film discussion… come sit next to me,’ Jijok whispered to Frans.
‘No. This is bullshit! This is money-speak!’ Frans exclaimed. The whole room was staring, but he didn’t care. He stared back at every single one of them before stepping outside. When the discussion ended not long after, people stood up from the floor and tried to find their shoes. Among the crowd, one particular young director looked lost. It appeared that he could not find his shoes. Seeing the look on his face, Jijok grew wary. This could turn ugly fast.
The security guard looked ashamed as he started to realise what was happening. An up-and-coming director had lost his shoes on his watch. He knew exactly what he had to do, and so immediately looked for Frans.
Frans was sitting by the fish pond at the intersection of Teater Tertutup, Teater Arena, and Huriah Adam. He appeared calm. The security guard spotted his signature long trousers, rolled up to above his calves. On his feet were a pair of clean, brand new shoes.
The young director soon joined them at the fish pond and told the security guard that they were, in fact, his shoes on Frans’ feet.
‘You embarrassed me, Frans. Not only did you steal his shoes, you had the nerve to flaunt them like this!’ The security guard was on the verge of losing his temper.
‘What do you mean, ‘‘stole’’?’ Frans stood up as if to give them all a better look at the shoes. Several people began to gather around Frans, the security guard, and the young director who was standing barefoot.
‘Look at these shoes – look! These shoes look so much better on me than on him,’ Frans pointed at the young director. ‘So wouldn’t you think, since I wear them better, that they must be mine?’
The crowd was stunned at the absurdity.
‘You fucking lunatic!’
Frans walked away as soon as he heard the word ‘lunatic’. He left like nothing had happened, like it was not in any way a delicate situation.
‘Thief!’ The security guard shouted at Frans. But before he started after him, the young director stopped him.
‘It’s OK, I don’t mind,’ the young director said. ‘Those shoes look better on him anyway, so he should keep them. After all, I believe in the importance of aesthetics.’
Jijok separated himself from the crowd and went after Frans. ‘You crossed the line, Frans. Why did you do that? You could’ve gotten beaten up, or worse.’
‘Don’t. You’ve been brainwashed. Do you know what Truth is? You can’t possibly understand the truth if you trouble yourself with false morality. You’re just like them, you have no idea how philosophy is practised on the street,’ Frans sounded disappointed. ‘Now you’re only beginning to recognise the Truth, in all its glory, as it stands tall in front of you, in a brand new pair of shoes. There’s no doubt about it, like the certainty of that Descartes you idolise so much. We’re on the street, not inside a house, an art studio, or the governor’s office. We don’t hold any positions of power. All there is is dust. So might as well enjoy it. No point in complaining…’
Jijok spotted two long cigarette butts near his feet and picked them up. He gave one to Frans. They lit them and took a drag. It was nice, as if their bodies were clouds floating in the sun rays.
‘So truth equals stolen shoes, eh?’ Jijok tried to carry on the conversation.
‘Cool, right? Look at my feet!’ Frans jumped up and down, dancing in his new shoes. Jijok was amused. Impressed. Immersed. To Jijok, Frans’ little performance epitomised what it was to be human. A soul that should answer only to itself; a body that should move only according to its own will, untroubled by entrances and exits; a mind capable of seeing treasure in a pile of trash. Everything was something. There wouldn’t be two of the same thing. And this could only happen once.
The sun had long set. Frans and Jijok finished scouting the streets for bits of cardboard to sleep on in front of a bakery in Cikini. As they tried to close their eyes, it dawned on them what little sleep could do to salvage the night. The residual smell of baked goods filled the air. That, and the smell of petrol fumes and sewage from under the sidewalks. Their stomachs growled. Their hunger became more unendurable by the minute.
‘Have you got some money, Frans?’ Jijok broke the silence.
‘Money? What for?’
‘Ugh, why did you even ask what for. You got my hopes up for a second there.’
‘Well, it is hope that got us starving in the first place. Now knock it off. Don’t act like some spoiled artist or philosopher. Hunger is an integral part of a living, material body.’
‘You know what, Frans,’ Jijok raised his voice. ‘I’ve had it up to here with you. You’re so full of shit. Hunger means hunger. Stop romanticising it. Would you rather I kill myself tonight just so I can prove there is nothing philosophical or poetic about starving?’
Frans didn’t say another word that night.
The street in front of the bakery was slowly getting busy. As the sun rose higher, cars, motorbikes, and city buses began to fill the street. It was around this time that the two of them would get up to leave before the shop owners came and kicked them out. But when Jijok opened his eyes, Frans was nowhere to be seen. He got up, collected the cardboard, and put it in the bin. With sleepy eyes, Jijok then walked toward Taman Ismail Marzuki, to Teater Arena to be exact, where he planned on resuming his sleep. He had about three hours before the security guard would show up and tell him to leave. And so there he was, lying on his back, against the cold floor of a theatre building.
Jijok couldn’t tell how long he’d been asleep for when Frans came towards him, carrying two nasi bungkus.
‘Eat,’ Frans said to Jijok as he handed one of them to him.
‘So you lied to me last night, Frans? You did have money, huh?’ Jijok sneered.
‘Look at my feet! Yeah, I’m back in my old shoes. Went to see the ragman earlier and sold those shiny shoes,’ Frans said. ‘Now we can eat.’
‘Thank you, Frans,’ Jijok said with a full mouth. Tempe goreng. Tahu sayur. Sambal. Kerupuk. Teh manis panas. Later in the morning, Jijok had to go to the youth centre to prepare for a show that he was directing. His theatre collective had just won a prize at the annual Youth Theatre Festival held in five youth centres across Jakarta. As the winner, they now had the privilege of performing on a more prestigious stage: Taman Ismail Marzuki.
The show was about to begin. This would be the first time for Jijok’s theatre collective to perform in the Teater Arena at Taman Ismail Marzuki. Jijok cleaned up nice, he even took a shower and put on his best clothes. After sharing his final notes with the actors and the stage manager, Jijok left the stage. Tonight the general public will finally see me as a theatre director, he told himself. He decided it would be better for him to watch the show from the stalls, and so he left the backstage area to go and queue in front of the entrance.
But as he was about to step in through the doors, the security guard stopped him.
‘I can’t let you come inside.’
‘Are you serious? I’m the director!’
‘A thief is what you are! And thieves don’t get to come inside,’ the guard said.
‘Besides, you look nothing like a director.’
Jijok didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t convince the guy that he was really a director – the director. In the end, he had to wait outside for the full duration of the play. He didn’t get to see the fruits of his own labour.
Frans and Jijok were lying on their backs outside one of the shops downtown. This time it was a bike shop, to avoid the smell of bread that almost pushed them over the edge last time.
‘I can’t even watch my own play, Frans,’ Jijok sighed.
‘What did I tell you? All theatre is false. And every show at TIM is fake theatre. The real theatre is here. On these bits of cardboard. In front of this shop. On the street. Among the dust… where we try to escape from the smell of bread.’
‘Frans…’ Jijok said quietly. ‘To be honest, I don’t even know what theatre is.’
‘Honesty is good. That’s something that lot never have. They act like they know so much about theatre, when they don’t even have what it takes to confront the truth. All this time I’ve been acting like a madman just to please them. They wanted me to appear like a madman, and so I appeared like a madman. I did it all so they could understand what humanity, madness, and theatre mean. But as you can see, I’m not mad! Only you can see me for what I am. Nobody else. They would rather believe I’m a lunatic,’ Frans told Jijok. ‘So, yeah, I think you know better than anyone what theatre means. I mean, what even is the ‘‘people’s theatre’’? Those people are nothing but a bunch of bourgeoisies who despise the poor. Being poor…’
‘Please. I’m not hungry tonight,’ Jijok cut him off. ‘So I don’t need your lecture. I’m just tired.’
Jijok hugged himself and murmured, ‘I’m so tired.’
Frans sat up and began massaging Jijok’s foot. As Jijok started to feel more relaxed, he could see his life flashing before his eyes like a fast-changing montage. Each memory seemed to make its own music. They collided and intersected with one another, like a saw that kept sawing to make the teeth grow sharper each time. Deeper. They took him further and further into an endless tunnel of dreams. Frans knew his friend had fallen asleep from the sound of his breathing – steady, much steadier than when he was awake.
Nevertheless, Frans kept massaging Jijok’s body. ‘Now it’s time I apologise to myself, for treating myself like a madman for so long,’ Frans whispered to his friend. He stared at the street with a thrill.
Jijok was sound asleep under the Jakartan sky. Frans rose from the ground and left Jijok where he was. From that day on, no one ever saw Frans anymore. He had gone. Vanished. Like everything else that had passed.
Note 1. Taman Ismail Marzuki, popularly known as TIM, is an arts, cultural, and science centre in Cikini, Jakarta. The complex comprises a number of facilities including six performing arts theaters, cinemas, exhibition hall, gallery, libraries and an archive building. TIM is named after Ismail Marzuki, one of Indonesia's most influential composers.