Come, see, and judge for yourself!’ Originating in 1891 in the port city of Surabaya, the Komedie Stamboel, or Istanbul-style theater, toured colonial Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia by rail and steamship, performing musical versions of the Arabian Nights, European fairy tales and operas such as Sleeping Beauty and Aïda, Indian and Persian romances, Southeast Asian chronicles, true crime stories, and political allegories. It was the region’s first cross-ethnic theater: actors were primarily Eurasians, the original backers were Chinese, and audiences were made up of all races and classes. Spectacle, stirring music, and comedy appealed to the masses, but the theater also sparked public outrage, with racial frictions between actors and finaciers, sex scandels, fights among actors and patrons, bankruptcies, imprisonments, and a murder.
Matthew Isaac Cohen’s evocative social history situates the Komedie Stamboel in the culture of empire and translocal flows of itinerant entertainment. He shows how the theater was used as a symbol of cross-ethnic integration in postcolonial Indonesia and as an emblem of Eurasian cultural accomplishment by Indische Nederlanders. A pioneering study of nineteenth-century Southeast Asian popular culture, The Komedie Stamboel: Popular Theater in Colonial Indonesia, 1891-1903 gives a new picture of the region’s arts and entertainment through an exploration of the interplay of global culture, theatrical innovation, and the movement of people and ideas in colonial Southeast Asia.