Southeast Asian Drama Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Modern-day Myanmar , a country once known as Burma, has a rich dramatic tradition. Burmese theater includes animistic performance, Buddhist theater, court dance drama, and popular theater. Dance and music are fundamental in traditional animistic performance, in which nat (spirits) of heroes and ancestors are invoked through trance manifestations during festivals or private séance sessions. Prescribed songs and dance numbers, with ancient, jerky movements, are used to summon thirty-seven specific nat.

Buddhist theater is primarily concerned with jataka, tales of Buddha and his prior lives. Court dance drama was greatly influenced by Siam (present-day Thailand) when Burmese King Hsinbyushin captured the Siam capital of Ayutthaya in 1767. Captured Thai dancers helped to refine the Burmese court theater. This fusion gave rise to a new literary art, with court dance drama performers accorded higher status than that of animistic nat performers.

Popular theater emerged when patronage of court dance drama diminished under British control in the 1800’s. Pya zat (new plays) are modern comedies and dramas with texts by individual authors. Pya zat are popular because they address contemporary issues of modernization and urbanization, topics more appealing to modern audiences.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Cambodia’s theatrical traditions are more than seventeen hundred years old, derived from the ethnic Khmer people of Cambodia , and include traditional village performance, court dance drama, and modern theater. Traditional village performance is multifunctional and simultaneous with spirit invocation, ritual functions, social integration, and general entertainment. Chanting, dancing, and music are found in a form of folk chanting (ayay) for entertainment and courting between men and women. Dancing and music are found in stag dance (trott), where performers impersonate a deer and hunters.

Lakon kabach boran (the dance of the palace ladies) was a highly refined and aesthetic genre in court dance drama, performed by well-trained royal harem women. This is known in the West as Royal Cambodian Ballet, performing roeung (epic dance drama) with Indian, Javanese, and Thai influences. It initially suffered under French colonial rule after 1867 when a lack of court patronage forced many female dancers to live by other means. During the 1930’s, French support and a court renaissance of the Lakon kabach boran remarkably revived the genre. It managed to survive the murderous Pol Pot regime, which banished all forms of arts and entertainment and killed many of its most famous dancers from 1975 to 1979. In 2000, a guest tour in France of this ballet form was a spectacular success.

Modern theater is fused with indigenous Khmer performance and Thai, Malay, Chinese, and Vietnamese theatrical traditions. Modern spoken drama (lakon niyey) is influenced by French drama and is very popular with contemporary Cambodians, dealing with current and pressing urban issues.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Indonesian theater consists of proto-theatrical forms, court and folk theater, urban drama of the last hundred years, and modern drama. Proto-theatrical forms include epic recitation of tales from Indian traditions, poetic dialogue performances with Malay verse, and spirit invocation with trance and séance performances.

Court and folk theater arose between the seventh and thirteenth centuries with substantial influence from Indian Buddhist and Hindu religions. Indian-influenced female dance, mask dance, and shadow puppetry (wayang), which is also Chinese-influenced, were integral in spiritual and political empowerment of rulers. When Islam made inroads into Java in the thirteenth century, the Buddhist-Hindu ruling elite moved to Bali. Gambuh (ritual dance drama of Bali), with predictable story lines of tensions among ladies-in-waiting and the prince and his ministers, has declined since 1906. In Java, shadow puppetry and mask dance drama were redefined by Islamic influences. In Sunda, theatrical traditions occupy a middle ground between the frenzied aesthetics of Bali and the fluid aesthetics of Java.

Urban drama of the last one hundred years—with precedence of dialogue over dance and plots and story lines with sustained narratives—was influenced by touring Malaysian troupes and was aimed at commercial entertainment. This form of urban drama is similar to the Italian commedia dell’arte. The urban dramatic tradition forces the audiences to confront the epic and classical worlds.

Modern drama is spoken drama that asks the contemporary audiences to confront current problems and issues of city life. Modern plays are typically written and performed in the modern Indonesian language. Rustam Effendi’s 1926 verse drama Bebasari, about the abduction of Princess Bebasari (Indonesia) by Rawanda (Holland), was quickly banned by the Dutch colonial government. Even after Indonesian independence in 1945, the imprisonment of playwrights and widespread censorship continued. For that reason, ties between modern drama and politics remain significant.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Laotian theatrical traditions are directly influenced by Thai and Cambodian (Khmer) theater and drama and fall into three categories: proto-theatrical and indigenous performance, court dance and theater (influenced by Khmer-Thai models), and modern drama derived from folk performance and popular Thai theater. Proto-theatrical and indigenous performance still serve a function as epic storytelling, courting, and curing. Now rare, lum pun (sung storytelling) was an ancient performance of jataka, executed by male chanters in the Lao language. Pa-nyah is a courting game in which men and women sing poetic dialogues, accompanied by music. Lum pee fah (sky spirit singing) is a curing performance executed only by women, who communicate with good spirits to chase away a disease.

Court dance and theater began in the fourteenth century when the Lao court wanted to emulate Khmer monarchs. Neither as rich as the Khmer nor possessing Thailand’s sophisticated theatrical traditions, the Lao Kingdom created smaller versions of their court dance performances.

Modern drama, with spoken roles and a sustained narrative, emerged in the Lao-speaking region in Northern Thailand in the 1920’s. It has been influenced by Thai dramatic troupes and adapted forms of Nang Daloong, the genre of Thai shadow theater. Before the communist takeover in 1975, the traditional forms of dance and court drama were preferred in Laos, whereas Lao people in Thailand preferred the popular modern drama. A lessening of communist repression in Laos has led to the open reemergence of traditional dances.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Malaysian theatrical traditions embrace the categories of proto-theatrical performance, Hindu-Muslim folk and court theater, urban theater, and modern drama evident since World War II. Proto-theatrical performance includes singing of epics (penglipur lara), spirit invocation, and poetry performances with roots in Malay customs. Hindu-Muslim folk and court theater shows influences from India, Indonesia (especially female dance theater), and Islamic sources. Urban theater emerged along the west coast of Malaysia. Bangsawan (a form of opera), the most successful commercial theater genre of the twentieth century, emerged in the late nineteenth century as a drama for urbanites with plays gradually drawn from Arabian, Chinese, Western, and Indian models. Modern drama emerged between 1940 and the 1960’s after the decline of urban theater. Purbawara, plays about the glory of historical and mythical personages, were performed in the Malay sultanate as a form of protest against British colonial control, which ended in 1957. After World War II, Malay nationalism was infused with modern and urban considerations. Modern spoken drama (drama moden), pioneered by Mustapha Kamil Yassin in 1963, tries to mediate between past and present, asking Malay audiences to be critical of their culture and society.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Filipino theatrical heritage includes proto-theatrical performance, Islamic dance, Hispanic-influenced theater, American-influenced theater, and modern drama. Proto-theatrical performance functioned as spirit communication, dance rituals, epic recitation, curing, courting, and rites-of-passage ceremonies and dates from before Christian and Muslim influences. Islamic dance is similar to the Muslim music and dance traditions of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Hispanic-influenced theater sees continuous popularity of religious performances, notably the komedya (genre of religious plays), written from the seventeenth century to the modern day. Zarzuelas, Filipino operettas based on Spanish models, were popular from 1890 to 1930 and dealt with romantic love suffused with nationalism and realism. American-influenced theater includes bodabil or vadavil (vaudeville), which appeared around 1916 and gradually developed into burlesque.

Modern drama of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries was spawned from a century of colonial and nationalistic struggles. Some of the first scripted, spoken plays in all of Southeast Asia were written by the Filipino Ilustrados (elite) and dealt with guerrilla warfare against the United States (1909-1916). Even after independence in 1946, Filipinos still wrote plays in English because the American education system had introduced Broadway musicals and Western classics. Modern spoken dramas deal with the colonial past, indigenous heritage, the Philippines’ own political corruption (notably the overthrow of the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the mid-1980’s), and current urban issues.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Singapore has four concurrent theatrical traditions: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. Until Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965, Malay theater enjoyed an era of high literary prestige, led by the Sriwana theater company. Sriwana staged plays in purbawara and drama moden.

Tamil theater emerged in the 1950’s with adaptations of reformist and realistic plays from traditional Tamil tales. The contemporary Tamil dramatic system has appeared to be in no hurry to change aesthetically or otherwise. Mandarin theater was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976), which inspired Kuo Pao Kun to write epic plays demystifying Mandarin dramas in Singapore. His professionalism, dramatic education, and vision for the revolutionary theater in Singapore popularized his work. In the 1980’s, Kuo wrote several successful Mandarin-English plays that were less revolutionary and more reflective and expressionistic, notably The Coffin Is Too Big for the Hole (pr. 1985). Following 1986, Singapore’s English dramas were performed extensively because the appeal of Asian dramatic forms among the younger Westernized generation is tenuous.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Thai theatrical traditions include village animistic performance, court dance drama, popular drama, and modern spoken drama. Village animistic performance is infused with Buddhist and Hindu influences from the Malay region in Southern Thailand, stemming from the fourteenth century. Present animistic dances are staged for entertainment in the context of temple rituals and spirit festivals.

Court dance drama includes nang yai (large leather puppets), a shadow and silhouette puppet theater with an Indian-influenced epic story; khon (masked-dance drama), performed by a male cast to a chanted narrative with musical accompaniment and dancers miming the actions of the text; and lakon fai nai (female dance drama), supposedly derived from Khmer court female dancers captured in the fifteenth century. The lakon fai nai is generally considered the most elegant, poetic, and graceful of all Thai dance dramas.

Popular drama serves as entertainment and is found in the genres of nang talung (shadow puppet theater) and likay (commercial theater created in the twentieth century). It mixes classical dance, costumes, songs, and music with melodramatic story lines. Modern spoken drama lacks mass appeal and remains an elitist art for a rarefied royal, university-educated, and Westernized Thai audience.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Vietnam , the only Southeast Asian nation in which Chinese influences are ubiquitous in dance and theater, has theatrical traditions that include folk performance, classical performance, popular theater, and spoken drama. Folk performance, with proto-theatrical influences, functioned in spirit incarnation, courting, storytelling, and other entertainment traditions. Múa rôi nuôc (water puppetry) is a unique folk tradition that has been preserved orally.

Classical performance was mostly court dance drama, which was heavily influenced by Chinese traditions because of China’s thousand-year domination of Vietnam. Hát bôi, a genre of classical court opera theater, developed in the eleventh century.

Popular theater, which developed in the early twentieth century, is predominantly cäi luong (reformed theater), a highly popular genre of melodramatic theater with a foundation of singing. Its popularity was primarily in South Vietnam; elitist Northern Vietnamese theater patrons often evaluated it as having lower artistic merit.

Kich nói (spoken drama) was a twentieth century development with French influences. This genre was undertaken by the literary elite privileged with a Western university education under French colonial rule. Vu ình Long’s Chén thuôc óc (a cup of poison) was the first Vietnamese spoken drama about a morally troubled civil servant and was performed in 1921 in Hanoi. Spoken drama has become a genre in which writers and literary figures reflect on the cultural, social, and political life introduced under communist rule and confront pressing modern and urban issues.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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

Brandon, James R. Theatre in Southeast Asia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. Provides valuable basic facts and history of theatrical traditions of Southeast Asian countries.

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

Miettinen, Jukka O. Classical Dance and Theatre in South-East Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Provides an overview of historical and traditional developments of dance and theatrical models for each Southeast Asian country. Pictures and color plates help readers visualize the rich theatrical forms of each country.

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

Peterson, William. Theater and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Singapore. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2001. Examines numerous facets of modern-day Singapore theater, including dramatic constructions of gender, its festival culture, “interculturalism,” and the Singapore musical.

Sears, Laurie J. Shadows of Empire: Colonial Discourse and Javanese Tales. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. Explores Javanese shadow theater as a staging area for negotiations between colonial power and indigenous traditions; shows how the modern shadow theater must be understood as a hybrid of Javanese and Dutch ideas and interests, inseparable from a particular colonial moment.