Asian Drama Analysis

Central Asian Republics

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are countries with many shared features. They were all incorporated into the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century, subjugated into czarist rule in the nineteenth century, and subjugated into Soviet republics under the Soviet Union until its breakup in 1991. These nations have a history of their own theatrical traditions. However, with Russianization before and Sovietization after 1917, their dramatic practices and theatrical aesthetics were heavily influenced (and still are to some degree) by Russian classics and socialist-communist propaganda of the Soviet Union.

Kazakhstan had relatively no written literature; however, poetic and musical folklore flourished for many centuries under the country’s traditional feudal and nomadic life, becoming an indigenous cultural heritage through oral preservation. Because of intense eighteenth and nineteenth century colonization, Europeanization and Russianization penetrated all spheres of Kazakh life. Kazakhstan was turned into a Soviet Republic in 1936, after which Soviet literature and performing arts became endemic, and traditional art forms were discouraged and suppressed. Kazakh-Soviet dramatic art heavily reflected politically communist agendas, resulting in plays praising Soviet power, socialism, and the collectivization of Kazakh culture and the industrialization of the country, even after World War II. In the mid-1950’s, Kazakh theater experienced some relaxation in censorship as it tried to update its dramatic repertoire. The 1960’s ushered in a taste for Kazakh comedy, which developed into a rich new blend of Kazakh modern drama. Kazakhstan’s Lermontov State Academic Russian Drama Theatre, with a repertoire of Soviet propaganda, staged plays about Soviet power and socialism and flourished during the 1970’s. Toward the end of 1980’s, some improvements in Kazakh theater included objective theater criticism, changes in theater structures, and a growing openness toward new and gifted stage directors and playwrights. In the late 1990’s, typically only small ethnic theaters in Kazakhstan were able to consistently produce plays because, since independence in 1991, major Kazakh theaters have experienced economic difficulties. The few theaters that have survived have attempted to revive dramatic art that would critically reflect the varied cultural and social climate of the country.

Kyrgyzstan ’s early theatrical arts consisted primarily of singing, improvisation, and storytelling of national epics, along with a primitive form of comedy. In 1917, with Russian and Soviet influences, Kyrgyz Soviet dramas were given in Russian; as a result, Kyrgyzstan was under severe political and cultural repression in the late 1920’s. The Kyrgyz Studio, the country’s first state theater, produced both Kyrgyz and Russian plays, forging an awareness of social issues and developing a new theatrical sophistication. The Kyrgyz State Drama Theatre, established in 1941, produced thematic war plays that supported the Soviet Union’s involvement in World War II—or, as it was called, the...

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East Asia

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

China ’s artistic and theatrical heritage finds its place in the country’s very early history. Highly developed, and rich and extensive with a wide range of genres and periods, Chinese traditional theater, in its fundamental structure, is choreographically secular, presentational, and musical. Chinese theater and drama changed, adapted, and developed along with the country’s long history and its political, cultural, and social upheavals.

Theater in Hong Kong is sometimes seen as inferior to theater in mainland China; however, on closer examination, it is innovative it its own way while still retaining the theatrical sophistication and richness of Chinese theater, from which it is borrowed. Cantonese opera , or Yueju, made its way to Hong Kong from South China with the basic styles and structure borrowed from the more refined and renowned Beijing Opera . Western-oriented modern spoken Chinese drama (Huaju), performed either in English or Cantonese, continues to thrive in Hong Kong, probably because of its former status as a British colony. Gozai Xi, or Taiwanese opera , is derived from Chinese drama that came from the Fujian province in southeastern China. Although musically different from Beijing Opera, Gozai Xi shares with it the basic movement, costumes, makeup, and staging accompaniment.

Like many other Asian nations, Japan sees traditional and sophisticated theater as an open-ended art form, in which many elements of song, music, dialogue, elocution, and props are blended. Unlike Westerners, who value spoken drama, with its heavy concentration on content and meaning, the Japanese value theater as a complete performing art: Spoken drama and theater are considered a separate art distinct from written literature.

North and South Korea boast a long history of theatrical tradition, especially in mask dance drama and puppetry. Because of the division of the country in 1948, traditional theater in North Korea was subjugated in favor of modern, Western-influenced spoken drama that idealized communism and the state. In South Korea, preservation of traditional theater was encouraged and coexisted with modern spoken drama based on Western and European models.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Though divided into three geographical regions based on cultural, ethnic, and linguistic differences, Melanesia , Micronesia , and Polynesia share three common theatrical features. The first feature includes theatrical performances that take place in the forms of festivals, communal feasts, and life-cycle rituals to celebrate social life and the community. The second feature includes comic skits that are traditionally enmeshed in music, poetry, and dance. These comic skits are with actors but they do not portray other personas in a structured narrative (as in Western spoken drama). The third feature stresses the importance of professional specialists with expertise in these traditional art forms. Social, cultural, and political changes were inevitable because of Western colonialization and Christianization in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Oceania’s theatrical tradition was not immune to the change, finding itself increasingly based on Western models.

Melanesia is known for dance mimes, the use of masks with a dramatic bent. These mimetic dances are performed from the perspective of the prey in reenactments of fishing and hunting and serve social and cultural functions, in comparison with Micronesia and Polynesia, where dances of hunting and fishing are performed from a human perspective. In Micronesian theatrical performances, song texts are very central and choreographical gestures are abstract, whereas mimetic role play is not emphasized (although it exists). Micronesian dances are much more decorative than Polynesian dances, which are more metaphorical and use poetic texts as intrinsic elements. Western-influenced modern spoken drama is found in Melanesia and Polynesia, and it often criticizes Western influences or reflects each region’s culture. Despite the pervasiveness of modern film and television, theatrical traditions and drama seem to keep pace with the times and continue to be a vital tradition to the people of these three regions.

South Asia

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

India has a long and very rich, highly developed history in theater, in both its structures and sophistication. Indian theatrical style is often baroque, colorful, corporeal, emotional, and not at all restrained like East Asian theater. Because of the nation’s multicultural population, Indian theater is vast and quite extensive, with varying influences on its nearby neighbors, Bangladesh and Pakistan, as well as other South Asian countries.

Bangladesh and Pakistan have theatrical traditions related to each other and to India. To understand these commonalities, geographical, historical, and political facts need to be considered. The people of Bangladesh, which became independent in 1971 from West Pakistan, are predominantly Muslim, like the Pakistanis, but linguistically and ethnically Bengali, like the people in northeastern India. Therefore, Bangladeshi theater is directly related to Bengali theatrical history and tradition. In Bangladesh, jatra—a regional theater form dating to the sixteenth century as part of the Vaishnava religious movement in which dances, songs, and plays are fundamental elements—is very popular because it originated from the rural areas of Bengal and is performed in Bengali language. Modern drama, thematic in the struggle for independence and against repression of the Bengali people, was popular in the 1960’s.

The current borders of Pakistan and India were created in 1947. Historically, Pakistani...

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Southeast Asia

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Traditional theater in Southeast Asia —Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—is more than one thousand years old and has roots in dance, literature, and the religions of both South and East Asia, regions that hold their own rich performance traditions. Western-oriented modern spoken drama is also popular in these countries. Because these nations had international contacts along with their own indigenous performance history, they are well endowed with a highly developed theatrical heritage with influences from both South and East Asia. Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, and especially Indonesia are well influenced by Indian theatricality. Vietnam is heavily influenced by Chinese theater because of its centuries-long domination by China. Each country still maintains its own distinct dramatic forms despite the fact that theatrical similarities are inevitable because of geographic proximity and historical and political similarities. Southeast Asian drama gives priority to performance instead of sustained narratives like Western drama, but it is not at all less intellectual than Western theater or drama tradition. The understanding of Southeast Asian theater requires the knowledge of the whole genre and form and not just individual plays.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Brandon, James R. Brandon’s Guide to Theatre in Asia. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1976. A guide to theater models and trends in Asia.

Brandon, James R., and Martin Banham, eds. The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Includes entries on individual Asian countries and their respective theatrical developments and history, with comprehensive listing of the most important aspects of each country’s dramatic genres and styles.

Brandon, James R., and Elizabeth Wichmann, eds. Asian Theatre: A Study Guide and Annotated Bibliography. Washington, D.C.: University and College Theatre Association, 1980. A study guide with comprehensive bibliography on Asian theater.

Mohd, Taib Osman, ed. Traditional Drama and Music of Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kementerian Pelajaran Malaysia, 1974. Contains a collection of papers presented at the International Conference on Traditional Drama and Music of Southeast Asia, Kuala Lumpur, in 1969, with entries by scholars and experts.

Obeyesekere, Ranjini. Sri Lankan Theater in a Time of Terror: Political Satire on a Permitted Space. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1999. Examines Sri Lankan socially critical theater of the 1980’s, including extracts and descriptions of several plays, interviews, and a history of one theater company.

Rubin, Don, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. London: Routledge, 1994. Volume is concentrated on theater and dramatic history and development in almost all Asian countries, notably those of Central Asia.