Plots are taken mainly from the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (Ramayana more common in Bali, also in Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia, Mahabharata more common in Java).
A. The Mahabharata: Mainly a story of problems of succession to the throne. Two brothers have claim; Dhritarastra is the older, but he is blind, so Pandu rules instead. Dhritarastra has 100 sons, the Kauravas; Pandu has 5 sons known as the Pandavas. After Pandu dies, the younger generation cannot agree on which group is to rule. The Pandavas are more popular, since they are just, brave, etc., They are:
Yudhistira, the oldest, the embodiment
All the Pandavas are in fact descended from the gods. The Kauravas, headed by Duryodana, are mean, tricky, etc. They trick the Pandavas out of their share of their Kingdom in a dice game (in which they cheat). The Pandavas have to go into exile in the forest for 12 years, and spend another year in disguise, after which they return to claim their kingdom. The Kauravas refuse to yield, and there is a terrible battle, the Bharatayuddha, in which the Kauravas are all killed. One of the Pandavas allies is Krisna (actually an incarnation of the god Vishnu) whose participation insures their victory.
B. In the wayang version of the Mahabharata, all of the above is already known to the audience. Each wayang takes a portion of the same story and works it out according to a form which is the same for all wayang. The battle scene of the Bharatayuddha is rarely performed, since it is felt to involve powerful forces. Instead, typically a wayang will concern itself with the search for a supernatural weapon, which if obtained by the Kauravas, would destroy the balance of power. The Pandavas get the weapon by virtue of their moral superiority, and the stage remains set for the future battle.
C. A wayang performance does not
present a linear development of a plot: rather, the intersection of different kinds of
worlds. (1) Each wayang begins in a palace (usually of the enemy, i.e. the Kuravas,
sometimes of the Gods); then (2) moves to a forest, in which the hero is typically
meditating and practicing asceticism. (3) concludes in another palace (usually that of the
hero), ending with battle scenes in which the hero and his allies defeat the enemy, at
least for the time being. The interest of the audience is not focused so much on what will
happen next, as it is on how it will happen; a skillful dalang (puppeteer) combines
predictable elements in a creative way.
II. The Puppets
A. Wayang as the
intersection/coincidence of different worlds:
B. Wayang as the intersection of
different type of character:
C. the center: the Kayon
III. The Performance
A cloth screen, illuminated from the dalang's side, so that shadows are thrown against the screen.
A. Length: All night long. This makes it a kind of asceticism for the audience (and for the dalang -- one man performs all parts accompanied by music from the gamelan).
C. The audience:
D. The goal: Ramai (from Sanskrit Ramya
"beautiful", Javanese rame or ramai "bustling, noisy, full of people",
(Malay ramai "many people"). To create a protective tangle of relationships
involving as many people as possible, in as beautiful a way as possible, is one of the
primary goals of wayang.