Willibrordus S. Rendra

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Rendra in the 1990s

Willibrordus Surendra Broto Rendra (7 November 1935 - 6 August 2009 in Depok, West Java - aged 73), widely known as Rendra or W. S. Rendra, was an Indonesian dramatist, poet, activist, performer, actor and director.

Early life[edit]

Born to a Roman Catholic family (his father was a Catholic English teacher) and baptized as Willibrordus Surendra Bawana Rendra, he changed his name to 'only' Rendra when he embraced Islam in 1970. After studying English literature and culture at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta (Central Java), he didn't make time to graduate because with his first theatrical project he was already gainfully employed. In 1963 he staged his first play ( "Dead Voices"), became fascinated with the craft, and from then on, with his traditional religious ritual performances, as well as Western avant-garde experiments, captured and kept large audiences. Because of the nature of his poetry readings and his sexy performances on the stage, he was given the nickname "Burung Merak“ (the Peacock) by the press.


In the 1960s the company of Rendra was instrumental in inaugurating a stream of innovative, modernist, and controversial theatre performances that were based to a large extent on Western models. In 1969 he created a series of dramas without any dialog where actors employed their bodies and simple sounds such as "bip bop", "zzzzz" and "rambate rate rata". The journalist poet Goenawan Mohamad dubbed these experimental performances as “mini-word theatre.” During the 1970s, his plays such as "Mastodon" and "The Condors” and “The Struggle of the Naga Tribe” and “The Regional Secretary” were often banned because they openly criticized Suharto’s development programs that often alienated indigenous people and tended to side with multinational corporations.

Rendra performed Shakespeare, Brecht, and the ancient Greek-oriented socially critical pieces and as a keen student of the Cino-Indonesian martial art Silat Bangau Putih/White Crane Silat Persatuan Gerak Badan, ,[1] Rendra always looked a lot younger than his age and played Hamlet when he was well into his sixties. On top of this, Rendra translated works of world literature (including Aristophanes, Sophocles and Brecht) into the first Indonesian performances and staged them, solidifying his role as a pioneer and leading spirit in contemporary Indonesian literature. After a period of study at New York City's American Academy of Dramatic Arts Rendra founded the Bengkel Teater in 1967. He brought his Western experience into the traditional Indonesian theater form to merge them into something profound. His productions were highly innovative, and are an enormous influence on the artistic variety of Indonesian art to this day.

During the repressive New Order era, Rendra was one of the few creative people in this country who had the courage to express dissent. When the novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer was returned from Indonesia’s gulag — the prison island of Buru — he said Rendra was “one man who has the courage to resist the power of Suharto, under his own name. If you cannot respect that, you should learn to.”[2]


During the Suharto era, Rendra lived for a long time in a poor district of Jakarta, where artists from all over the world (including Günter Grass) visited. Throughout the seventies Rendra was increasingly important as a poet and his performances and poetry readings were mass events. In 1979, during a poetry reading in the Ismail Marzuki art center in Jakarta, Suharto’s military intelligence agents threw ammonia bombs on to the stage and arrested him. He was imprisoned in the notorious Guntur military prison for nine months, spending time in solitary confinement in a cell with a ceiling too low to stand up and only mosquitoes for company. When he was released, without ever having been charged, his body was covered with sores from mosquito bites.[3]

After Suharto's ban[edit]

After he was released from prison he was banned from performing poetry or drama until 1986, when he wrote, directed and starred in his eight-hour-long play “Panembahan Reso,” which discussed the issue of the succession of power that was a taboo at that time. Before the performance at the Senayan sports center, he told his cast of 40-something actors: “Pack your toiletries, because there is a chance that we might get arrested.” The play took six months to prepare and was performed for two nights. “Modern Indonesian theater has no infrastructure. We must create it ourselves,” he used to tell his performers. After the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 and the beginning of democratization, Rendra was a dominant figure in the emerging world of modern Indonesian literature and theater and became the patron of an unrestricted, free and socially engaged artistic community.

Literary legacy[edit]

Rendra on stage

Rendra continued to create numerous literary and cultural projects. In 2003, now long recognized internationally as a great poet,[4] he hosted the first international poetry festival in Indonesia (in Makassar, Solo, Bandung and Jakarta). Rendra repeatedly stood on the list of candidates for the Nobel Prize for Literature and he saw international publications of his texts and made numerous appearances at literary festivals around the world. Until his death, he worked continuously on books, literature, and various projects and productions, and occasionally as a movie actor. His last home, in Depok, south of Jakarta, was a farm and until recently was also the home of the Bengkel Teater, where Rendra and his actors and artists lived, worked and also maintained an ecologically sustainable farming operation.


“I learned meditation and the disciplines of the traditional Javanese poet from my mother who was a palace dancer. The idea of the Javanese poet is to be a guardian of the spirit of the nation.”


Rendra was married three times and had eleven children from three marriages.[citation needed]


  • First prize of Sayembara - Writing Arts Drama Section of the Faculty of Education and Culture, University of Gajah Mada Yogyakarta (1954)
  • National Literature Prize BMKN (1956)
  • Art of the Indonesian Government (1970)
  • Prize of the Academy Jakarta (1975)
  • Main Book Prize of the Ministry of Education and Culture (1976)
  • Adam Malik Award (1989)
  • The S.E.A. Write Award (1996)
  • Achmad Bakri Award (2006)


  1. ^ http://www.insideindonesia.org/feature/rendra-and-martial-arts-02071317
  2. ^ http://thejakartaglobe.com/home/obituary-farewell-ws-rendra-poet-playwright-and-father-of-indonesian-theater/322679
  3. ^ Bramantyo Prijosusilo - Jakarta Globe
  4. ^ Bakdi Soemanto -Rendra: Karyadan Dunianya, (2003) Soemanto, Bakdi (2003), Rendra : karya dan dunianya, Grasindo, ISBN 978-979-732-181-9