On Thrones of Gold:
Three Javanese Shadow Plays

James R. Brandon (editor)

translated from the Javanese
University of Hawaii Press 1993 [1970]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007 http://dannyreviews.com/
On Thrones of Gold contains translations of three wayang kulit shadow plays. Preceding those is the best eighty page introduction to wayang kulit I have found anywhere. In this Brandon describes the subject material of the plays, their types and occasions, and their meaning and structure. He looks at play scripts, puppets and other equipment, gamelan music, and the speaking and movement techniques used by the dalang or puppeteer. And he introduces the three plays which are translated.

The translations are based on texts, not performances, and were done in two stages: a direct translation from Javanese into English by Pandam Guritno, followed by a reworking by Brandon into idiomatic English. This has produced accessible and unexpectedly involving plays.

The three plays illustrate the variety of mood and subject possible within the same formal structure, using standard elements. The Reincarnation of Rama involves mystical wahyu or gifts — infusion by the spirits of Rama and Leksmana — being bestowed on righteous kings; it doesn't have much in the way of tension or drama. Irawan's Wedding is a farcical comedy, involving a princess who is promised in marriage to two princes, one Pandawa and one Kurawa, and lusted after by an ogre king. The Death of Karna is much more serious, describing the tragic death of Karna at the hands of Arjuna, at the climax of the Great War between the Pandawa and Kurawa.

On Thrones of Gold is plentifully illustrated with halftone "screenshots" illustrating the action and disposition of the puppets in key scenes. A few colour plates give a feel for the appearance of the puppets themselves. And stage instructions explain something of the puppet movements and musical changes.

Three raps; the gamelan plays the melody Gendu. The KAJON is moved to the right of the screen. The powerful figure of BIMA strides on from the right, rear arm akimbo. He gestures off left. GAGAKBENGKOL, KENDANGGUMULUNG, and PODANGBINOREHAN enter separately, make the sembah, and sit respectfully before BIMA. The dalang raps three times; the music softens.

On Thrones of Gold is an essential book for anyone seriously interested in wayang. It would also make a good introduction to Javanese shadow theatre: it is no replacement for videos or live performances, but a useful complement to them.

April 2007

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
Related reviews:
- Alit Djajasoebrata - Shadow Theatre in Java: The Puppets, Performance and Repertoire
- books about Java + Javanese culture
- books about performance
- more world literature
- books published by University of Hawaii Press
%T On Thrones of Gold
%S Three Javanese Shadow Plays
%E Brandon, James R.
%M Javanese
%F Brandon, James R.
%F Pandam Guritno
%I University of Hawaii Press
%D 1993 [1970]
%O paperback, glossary, index
%G ISBN 0824814258
%P 407pp