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Burmese Nights: the Pagoda Festival Pwe in the Age of Hollywood's ‘Titanic’


The Burmese zat pwe, an exuberant variety show involving almost every kind of performing art, has fascinated foreign visitors to Myanmar for the past hundred years. It continues today as a vibrant amalgam of singing, dancing, acting, and comic improvisation, still performed annually at pagoda festivals. As Burmese scholars have noted, the Burmese performer is primarily a singer and dancer rather than a dramatic actor, and therefore tends to use plays as frameworks for demonstrating virtuosity in these areas. This is reinforced by the training given at the two State Schools of Music and Dance, and while the Drama Department at the University of Culture does acquaint students with dramatic acting, the emphasis remains on music and dance. Moreover, the scripted drama, especially the classical drama, which reached a peak in the mid-nineteenth century, is increasingly omitted from the pwe programme, having gradually been displaced by the pop music that is considered necessary to attract young audiences. Despite such changes, which alarm traditionalists, the pwe performance has shown a resilient flexibility to adapt to audience preferences and remains a lively highlight at the festivals. Catherine Diamond – who has previously written for NTQ on Vietnamese and Turkish theatre, and on oriental approaches to classical tragedy – is a dancer and drama professor who is currently directing for the Thalie Theatre, the only English-language theatre in Taiwan.

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Notes and References

1. Orwell George, Burmese Days (New York: Time Inc., 1962), p. 95.

2. Some critics are suggesting a half-night show in the urban areas which could be presented in permanent auditoriums as well as the basha-type theatre with mats. See Pe Win, ‘Myanmar Dance Theatre V’, Today, Yangon, VI (16–31 01 1999), p. 16.

3. The anyeint pwe features a single female dancer and three to five male comedians. This elegant solo female dance declined during the post-war years, but its revival has recently been supported by the state in the form of annual nationwide competitions. Although anyeint thabin, or groups of female dancers, had been popular in court all through the nineteenth century, the rise of the solo performer accompanied by clowns seems to have occurred with the demise of the court, as the form was then sponsored by wealthy merchants of less refined tastes. Also, at the same time as the male lead began to dominate the pwe performance, the female soloist excelled in the anyeint dance. See Singer Noel F., Burmese Dance and Theatre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 63. The earthiness of the clowns' humour and the elegance of her dance make a strange pairing, but they are linked by a conventional tension between them; for although they can tease her, she has to remain impervious to their taunts. The dancer has not only to be a virtuoso dancer but she can fling back their comments salted with her own retorts. Today, in some troupes she clearly dominates the stage, whether dancing or speaking; in others, the spectators pay more attention to the comedians when she retreats upstage, crouching with her back to the audience, and assuming a stance of invisibility to catch her breath and wipe her face with a handkerchief.

4. Nat pwe is less of a performance than a ritualistic gathering of mediums. See Singer, p. 81–7.

5. Playwrights contend that to get a new play staged one needs a celebrity to star in it to draw the audience.

6. Singer, p. 74. Unlike the State Schools of Music and Drama, the Drama Department at the University of Culture, which opened in 1993, offers a degree programme with a curriculum of general education and performance studies, combining scholarship, theory, teaching methodology, and performing skills. Thus two tiers of performers are being established: trained practitioners; and teacher–practitioners who do not work in the pwe troupes, but in the tourist resorts and Ministry of Culture.

7. Other instruments in the saing waing include the gong circle (kyi naung waing), bronze pots (maung waing), hanging base drum (patma), double-headed drums (so khun), stick-struck drum (si-doh), oboe (hne), flute (wa pa Iway), big cymbals (yagwin), and time-keeping cymbals (than-lwin).

8. Thanegi Ma, The Illusion of Life: Burmese Puppets (Bangkok: White Orchid Press, 1994), p. 30.

9. Thwin U Aung, ‘Myanmar Traditional Choreography’, paper given at Myanmar Two Millennia Conference, Yangon, 12 1999.

10. The zawgyi is often represented with a full beard, which suggests the possibility of a non-Burmese origin, but no Burmese scholar currently entertains that idea.

11. Singer Noel F., Burmese Puppets (Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 86–7. The Burmese marionette theatre (the only form of puppetry native to Myanmar) has been in decline since the early part of the twentieth century. Its position of pre-eminence depended on royal support, and with the demise of the court in 1885, the puppet troupes had difficulty adapting to the commercial ways of the town, especially in lower Myanmar in the Yangon area, where they were in competition with live drama. Moreover, when U Po Sein adapted the jatakas for live actors, this special province of the puppets was usurped. ‘Formerly live actors were thought to be too impure to act the sacred Jataka stories down until the late nineteenth century. Puppets, being made of wood, however, “cannot act unwisely”, and hence held a monopoly on performance of jataka plays. Once zat pwe troupes broke the monopoly and began to do the always popular jataka stories, puppet troupes lost their special niche in Burmese culture. Live troupes soon drove puppet troupes out of existence.’ See Brandon James R., Theatre in South-East Asia (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 224.

12. The longyi is the customary Burmese dress for both men and women, yet the woman's dance longyi (htamein) is special in that it is split in front to reveal the train. One student's longyi came loose during the execution of a roll on the floor, and he was forced to clutch it lest it drop. This ever-threatening calamity might explain why the clowns and male actors are continuously pulling the sides taut and retying the garment during a performance. Women do not retie their htamein on stage. In addition to using the gesture simply as a release of nervous energy, it sometimes serves an expressive purpose, such as when a man is preparing to fight (similar to rolling up one's sleeves). In performance, the mintha wears a pasoe, a brocade longyi tucked up under the legs with the end hanging at the back in a rooster's tail (kyetmee), the long-sleeved jacket (htaing-ma-thein-ein-gyi), and head-dress (magaik). This costume frees up his legs for dancing.

13. Htut U Ye, Myanmar Dances (Yangon: U Kyi Win, 1997), p. 51–2.

14. The word palo comes from the verbalization of the three beat time pa-loJI, with a sudden sharp accent on JI. The chin or shoulder moves in a slow circular motion during palo, and is jerked forward sharply at JI. See Ma, op. cit., p. 59. The Burmese dancer learns the vocalized syllables representing the sounds of the drum to accompany the movement, similar to the bols of Indian classical dance.

15. The name ‘Manikhet’ in Pali means ‘precious stone eye’, referring to a celestial horse that had the precious stone eye. See Singer, op. cit., p. 22.

16. U Ye Htut, op. cit., p. 37.

17. U Ye Htut, ‘Myanmar Zat Thabin’, Today, n. d., p. 58.

18. Aung Maung Htin, Burmese Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937), p. 100.

19. Ibid., p. 98.

20. Ibid., p. 134.

21. Ibid., p. 115.

22. Ibid., p. 110–11.

23. Although English and French companies came to Yangon during the nineteenth century, the general public had no contact with them, for they performed in their native tongue for the colonial residents. Moreover, they rarely performed actual plays but presented musicals and pantomimes.

24. Sein Kenneth and Withey Joseph A., The Great Po Sein (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965), p. 78–9.

25. Aung, op. cit., p. 139.

26. Kyi Aung San Suu, ‘Intellectual Life in Burma and India under Colonialism’, Freedom from Fear (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 112–13.

27. Modern melodrama (pya zat) became popular and was shown together with the variety acts during the first half of an all-night performance. Some cinemas were turned into theatres to satisfy public demand for the pya zat, which featured the popular film stars of the day. See Singer, p. 75. The stage plays that actively attempted to imitate the acting style of the films were called the ‘human bioscope’.

28. Landry Lionel, Land and People of Burma (New York: Lippincott, 1968), p. 132–7.

29. His thesis was that despite bad times – and the times of U Kyin U and U Pon Nya were bad – if people had hope in the future, they could take an interest in serious drama; if even that hope was denied, then farce and sentiment reigned supreme. The thesis might not be so far-fetched if, given the demise of the democratic process and the resumption of a military regime, escapist entertainment values again dominate.

30. Believing they perform best when possessed by the lamaing, each actor murmurs a prayer before going on stage. The nat is propitiated with an offering of green coconut, two bunches of bananas, and a token amount of money. An offering called kadaw-pwe is usually donated by sponsors, and an invocation by a minthagyi, (an older veteran mintha) on behalf of the troupe. The lamaing nat is not only the deity for both puppet and live theatre, but also for farm implement workers and carpenters, because woodworking involves making puppets and constructing stages as well. Many taboos govern theatre work, and two involving the lamaing prohibit intimacy out of wedlock between company members and the killing of animals by company members for either food or sport. The original Lamaing was, according to legend, the daughter of a famous astrologer or zawgyi. See U Ye Dway, Today, Yangon, n. d., p. 40–2.

31. Sir George Scott (Shway Yoe) writes that the two leads who were under contract to a better-class troupe in the 1870s were very well paid, but worked under the stress of constant travel, with prolonged periods of sleepless nights. Of the large number of mintha and minthamee listed in the numerous Burmese-language articles on the theatre of the early 1900s, the working life of the majority did not exceed five years. See Singer, op. cit., p. 56.

32. Perhaps the one comedian whom foreign visitors may come in contact with is Lu Maw, of the Moustache Brothers in Mandalay. The English-speaking Lu Maw gives nightly demonstrations of the anyeint pwe dances and comic shtick because he can no longer perform for the Burmese public. His brother is in jail for having offended the government.

33. Kelly R. Talbot, Burma (London: Black, 1933), p. 66.

34. Usually an image of the Buddha is projected onstage as the prayer is sung. Clearly devout, and respecting the religious underpinnings of their performances, Maung Cha Thar and Mandalay Thein Zaw do not scant them. In contrast, Moe Minn's troupe went through the necessary rituals in a cursory fashion, expunging religion as much as possible from the performance. One of the conventions of the stage is that the Buddha himself can never be impersonated, and rarely a saint; no disparaging remarks can be made towards either, although targeting monks and religious hypocrisy have been the staple of the comedian's repertoire. ‘About 8.00, the orchestra strikes up its welcome runes which are usually about the glory of Buddha and the peace and prosperity of the country.’ See Pe Win, ‘Myanmar Dance Theatre, III’, Today, Yangon, VI (16–31 12 1998), p. 46.

35. Shweman U Tin Maung was awarded the title of Ahlankha Kyawzwan (master of poetic sense). He was already making a name for himself as a mintha in the late 1930s. After the war, he continued to enjoy success, and was highly thought of by purists and audiences alike for his revival of the traditional styles. The 1950s set the standard for the current pwe performance and Shweman U Tin Maung was the reigning star. See Singer, op. cit., 74.

36. Although the performer must approach the would-be donor in good faith, such contact can be problematic for the female performers. During her song, one singer saw a male donor rise, but after she went over to him to receive the gift, he tried to paw her hand. She pulled back abruptly, but did not allow even a flicker of irritation to show on her face.

37. A unique example of local adaptation is the case of Burmese piano music, in which the instrument is played to resemble a xylophone. Evidently, when the Italian ambassador presented the first piano to King Mindon in the 1860s, the court musicians were ordered to learn the new instrument, which they did – but by converting it into one of their own, using one finger on each hand to approximate the mallet of the xylophone. This method replicates the divided voice in Burmese music, since the music consists of two single lines of melody without chords, and the instrument is tuned to the key of the xylophone. As British civil servants and missionaries came bringing more pianos, the Burmese continued to develop their own music (and a full hand technique) on the instrument rather than learn western melodies. When silent movies became popular in the 1920s, it was Burmese piano music that accompanied them. (My gratitude to Kit Young, a pianist in Chiang Mai who has played with Burmese pianists, for this information.)

38. Comic sketches indulge freely in scatological jokes, such as that involving the creditor who, waiting for the hero, has an attack of diarrhoea and relieves himself in a bag supposedly containing cakes for the hero's girl-friend. Other examples include classical verses created to describe the ‘beauties’ of flies hovering over night soil, or a ‘serious’ disputation about the differences between male and female excrement. According to Aung, the punishment for the actor breaking the stage taboo toward religious or royal figures was an attack of diarrhoea, sometimes fatal. This reveals among other things the less than sanitary conditions the itinerant troupes are forced to endure. The clowns give plenty of graphic demonstrations of the appalling latrines.

39. Keeler Ward, ‘Burma’, The Cambridge Dictionary of Asian Theatre, ed. Brandon James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 1318.

40. Critics are beginning to suggest that literature should again be the source of theatrical material. ‘The dramatic story could be taken from the Nipata, history, legend, and folklore or be a totally new creation. How close to the contemporary should history be without becoming an anachronism for the zat pwe? Those countries are fortunate which have a strong literature to draw from. A search should be made in our literature for suitable themes.’ See Pe Win, ‘Myanmar Dance Theatre, V’, Today, Yangon, VI (16–31 01 1999), p. 18.

41. Becker A. L., ‘Journey through the Night’, The Drama Review, XV, No. 2 (1971), p. 86.

42. Ethnic Burmese of all ages enjoy the pwe, and in the Shan State the people perform their own version of the pwe, but the performances appeal less to the ethnic Indians, Bangladeshis, and Chinese in the Yangon. Before government restrictions, neighbourhoods used to host amateur theatricals in which all kinds of ethnic dance and drama were performed by local residents.

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