Inside the curtain booth, the topeng actor places his masks, all neatly covered with white cloth, in their proper order of appearance. After dedicating an offering, he unwraps the first mask, eyeing it for some time as if he were taking into his personality all that is individual about the character reflected in the immobile face. He quickly puts it on and turns. Already his movements are rendered as dance and a transformation is apparent.
The curtain trembles, the gamelan buds to a fervent pace of expectation, and dancing feet visible behind the curtain slowly lift and settle to the ground. A stoic-looking man with wide eyes and a questionable smile draws apart the curtain. In swift motions of defiance, he hovers inside the booth, uncertain whether to come out or not. He then begins to march forward, gazing inquisitively, putting a finger to his forehead, taking a bit of his clothing, and, in one delicate gesture, letting it drop from his hand. He resolves to dance, radiating the sound of' the gamelan in the vibration of his fingertips and pattering feet. After a few moments, he retreats to the curtain and vanishes.
The curtain shakes again. Suddenly, it is pushed aside in the grand gesture of a buxom movie star stepping into the limelight. There before you stands an extremely shy, effeminate young man who draws a limp hand to his mouth and
blushes at his abrupt exposure. Languidly he clings to the curtain. Terribly sweet at heart, he cannot bear everyone laughing at him, which of course everyone is. Feeling he should come out for a moment, he coyly moves on stage, swinging to and fro with his hands dangling in the posture of loose noodles. Helplessly, he just stands there looking ridiculous, unable to move except to flutter his eye lashes, while the audience rocks in laughter. Such abusiveness is too much for him. He quickly seeks sanctuary behind the curtain. Thus was the introductory display of masks for one performance of Topeng. Both the stoic and the clown were enacted by one man-the principal Topeng actor, who by changing his mask impersonates a series of different characters.
Topeng means something pressed against the face-a mask. Topeng masks survive from the 1 6th century. Today's mask play, commemorating historical exploits of local kings and heroes, was influenced by the traditional Gambuh dance. Often called the "chronicle play", Topeng stories are drawn from the babad literature, genealogical histories of important noble families, set in the villages, kingdoms and temples of Bali.
The medium of a mask play necessarily alters the telling of history. The borderline between fact, legend, and the miraculous has little importance in Topeng, in which many episodes include divine intervention or acts of magic.
The intent is not to reconstruct exact personalities of the past, but to portray their types: sweet or manly, heroic or simple-minded. The noble characters, usually a king and his family, dance in the refined style. Their stature is so lofty, they do not design to speak and express themselves only in pantomime. They are accompanied by two clumsy clowns, who wear half-masks which leave their mouths free to talk as interpreters for their dignified masters. Along with the nobility and clowns is always a marvelous display of crude caricatures, whose sole function is decorative and entertaining.
There are many forms of Topeng, depending upon the set of masks used and the style of the performers. A popular solo performance is the classical Topeng Tua, representing the movements of an old man. In a normal Topeng play, three or four actors, usually all men, impersonate the characters. A full set of Topeng masks, numbering from thirty to forty, belongs to the principal Topeng actor who is responsible for the series of eccentric personalities that produce the comedy of the play. To watch a good Topeng actor is truly inspirational. Through an endless resource of bizarre mannerisms and tones of speech, he manages to concentrate the whole of human folly into one serial panorama of grotesquely masked comics.