Burmese Entertainment

Drama, dance, and film

By U Myo Min

We Burmese love amusement. We throng the movie theaters and will sit up till dawn watching an all night pwé. Music and dance are part of our frequent festivals and family celebrations. But the truth is that the world of Burmese entertainment is now going through a period of rather chaotic transition. Our old theater traditions are being discarded or watered down—and what is taking their place has as yet no clear direction nor much artistic quality.

Thus if you were to go tonight to a typical Burmese pwè you would not see one of our classical dance-drama zats in the old Mandalay court style, but a variety program including dance numbers, skits, comic dialogue, singing, and perhaps a fragment from one of the old plays—all strung together, hour after hour, with lively musical accompaniment. The public loves it, but it is not great theatrical art.

The word pwé might be roughly translated as ''show," and this gives the key to the nature of our theater today. The zats do have plots, but they are the familiar Buddhist tales or historical legends which we learned as children, so there is no element of novelty or surprise. What we come to see is the performing—the virtuosity of the actors.

The dance numbers in our pwés are usually drawn from two main style traditions: one which is pure dance, with little symbolical content (see Plate 22 in the art section) and another which mimes the dramatic stories of the zats (see Wun Tha's sketches on the following pages), a form which came to us from Siam.

In recent decades there have been some attempts to create a modern legitimate stage with new plays treating contemporary themes but they have not succeeded. At the moment we have no repertory house in Rangoon with a regular season. What we do have are touring variety companies which, if no theater is available, set up little temporary stages for a night or two—the audience usually sits on the ground—and then move on to another place.

Foreign films, especially those from America and India, are extremely popular in Burma, but we also produce about fifty Burmese pictures each year. Unfortunately, none of the thirty-odd producing companies yet have the financial or technical resources to make impressive films. Scripts are often lifted bodily from foreign pictures, and clowning, song numbers, stunts, and overdoses of pathos mar the romantic or historical stories which are the standard fare. Newsreels and educational documentaries are being made by the Burma State Film Promotion Board.

To those of us who are proud of our heritage of classical drama and dance, and of highly evolved art forms such as the Burmese puppet plays, it is depressing to see so much neglect of the old traditions and adulteration by elements of the new which are of questionable value. But—we must face it—the psychological factors in our society which shaped our theater are rapidly changing, and until new bases are established our stage can hardly be expected to rise above the level of mere entertainment.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1958/02/burmese-entertainment/306826/