Asian Theater


Asian Theater, live performance, featuring actors or puppets, native to Asia, a continent with more than 2 billion people of many nations and cultures. Asian theater typically combines storytelling, dance, music, and mime and incorporates masks, makeup, scenery, costumes, props, and scripts. In contrast to theater in the West, the focus of Asian theater is generally on performance rather than on a specific text.

Asian theater is not a unified entity. Differences among Asian countries in language, culture, history, economics, politics, and religion have resulted in several hundred distinct theater genres, not all of which have been studied or catalogued. As elsewhere in the world, theater may function as entertainment; as confirmation of cultural or social unity; as religious, political, or ethical education; or as a combination of these.


Peking Opera

Peking Opera combines music, acrobatic dance, and spectacular costumes to tell stories from Chinese history and folklore. Using abstract, symbolic gestures rich in dramatic meaning, actors represent personages from the heroic, divine, and animal worlds, often in martial exploits. The traditional features of the masklike makeup and elaborate costumes immediately identify the characters to a knowing audience.

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Because Asia encompasses so many countries and cultures, generalizations about Asian theater can be simplistic and misleading. Although common characteristics exist, they may not apply to every genre. However, several aspects merit mention. First, much Asian theater has its origin in some form of religious ritual. In addition, nearly all forms of Asian theater require a lengthy training period for performers. Finally, most Asian theater combines several art forms.

Much of traditional theater in Asia arose from religious ritual—and in many cases still resembles it. Religious ritual and theater share certain elements of performance, including stylized speech, gesture, costumes, music, and dance. An actor may also be a priest or shaman (a religious figure who communes with or calls forth spirits), thus representing the continuity between humanity and the spirit world. Also, performers may fall into a trance or appear to become possessed by supernatural spirits during performances. Examples of theater figures who become entranced include puppet masters in Javanese wayang kulit, performers in Myanmar’s nat pwe, and actors in Balinese barong.

A Ritual and Religious Elements

The main difference between shamanism (rituals that involve spirits) and theatrical performance lies in the purpose. Shamans depend upon a shared belief that rituals will change the course of nature—for example, by healing people or by guaranteeing a good harvest. Theatrical performers remain outside that social purpose, aiming instead at providing skilled entertainment.

Many religions have contributed to Asian theater. In South and Southeast Asia, the major religions include Hinduism and Buddhism. The Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, which revolve around gods such as Krishna and Rama and heroes such as Arjuna, have been adapted for the theater in a number of countries in those regions. Buddhist Jataka tales, which tell of the previous lives of the Buddha, also have numerous theatrical adaptations. In East Asia, Mahayana Buddhism, Daoism (Taoism), and Shinto are the significant religions. East Asian dramas often feature ethical conflicts, divided loyalty, or concerns about the afterlife rather than specific religious content. Confucianism is more a moral philosophy than a religion, but it, too, has shaped theater forms.

The fusion of religious and cultural practices is often evident in Asian theater. For example, Japanese nō exhibits both Buddhist and Shinto elements. Cambodia and Thailand dramatize the Hindu deity Rama as an incarnation of Buddha, and Indonesia, which is largely Islamic, offers masked dramas of spirit possession as well as Arabic, Hindu, and Buddhist tales. But not all Asian theater is religious in nature. Throughout Asia, there are also plays dealing with romantic love and other subjects, intended to entertain.

B Transmission from Master to Disciple

Most forms of Asian theater highlight the actor, who obtains mastery only after a lifetime of practice. Demanding training begins in early childhood. Students study specific performance techniques from skilled masters for years before approaching scripts or appearing in performance. For example, training for the Indian dance-drama known as kathakali involves painful massage, which provides the physical flexibility required for kathakali’s demanding contortions. The performers must also master complex eye, mouth, and facial movements and about 600 hand gestures that carry specific meanings.

Because performances are based on recognized conventions, they reinforce community by presenting a familiar, orderly universe and a shared heritage. One of the greatest compliments a fan may shout to a Japanese kabuki actor is, “You’re as good as your father was!” This concept is in direct opposition to the Western premium placed on individuality and originality on stage.

C Blurring Between Genres and Cultures

Wars, colonization, and trade in Asia over several thousand years have blurred the boundaries of countries, languages, and religions. Theater, too, reflects this blurring of borders; no specific genre is exclusive to one locale. In contrast to Western theater, most Asian theater genres mix various types of performance. A Western audience attends a concert, dance performance, or play. But in Asia such genres as masked-dance dramas or sung-danced-and-spoken operas are common.


Theater in East Asia includes the traditions of China, Japan, and Korea. Most Chinese theater is urban, secular (nonreligious) entertainment, influenced by the ethics of Confucianism. However, a belief in spirits influences rituals performed by ethnic minorities in China, and Buddhism dominates traditional Tibetan performance. Japanese dramatic forms combine native shamanistic performance, secular entertainment, and cultural or religious influences from China and Korea. Korea, while influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism, retains a belief in spirits and shamanism as the primary influence on theater.

A China

Dance and music are integral to almost all Chinese theater. Traditional Chinese theater is presentational—meaning that the performers and the audience are continually made aware that they are seeing a performance and so do not become wrapped up in the illusion of reality. Nearly 400 local theater genres exist in China. The structural pattern of the music reflects the musical tonality of the Chinese language and its various dialects.

A1 Origins and Overview

Classical Peking Opera

Of the many major forms of regional theater in China, Peking opera is by far the most famous. It is a dramatic form that blends dance, theater, music, and acrobatics. Character types are associated with vocal styles. For example, main male characters sing in the baritone range; secondary male characters (usually unbearded scholars or lovers) sing in falsetto; and virtuous female characters sing in high falsetto. Performers wear dramatic makeup or masks. Accompanying instruments include bowed and plucked lutes, drums, clappers, gongs, cymbals, bamboo flutes, and oboes. The example heard here is an excerpt from the Chaozhou regional opera Bai Lixi Reunites with His Wife.

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The theater of China has its origins in ritual and probably began before the 3rd century bc. In 714 ad Tang dynasty emperor Xuanzong encouraged theater and strengthened the Pear Garden, a conservatory that trained male and female court entertainers. Permanent, covered urban theaters seating thousands were built during the Song dynasty (960-1279).

There are four major developments in the history of Chinese theater. Yuan zaju, the first great Chinese literary drama, developed in the 13th century. Kunqu is a mellifluous, elegant form that arose in the 16th century. Jingxi, more commonly known in the West as Peking Opera, is a 19th-century form that fuses several regional and popular genres. Huaju is spoken drama and originated in the 20th century.

A2 Major Genres and Their Development

Peking Opera

Peking Opera, in Beijing, China, combines music, acrobatic dance, and spectacular costumes to tell stories from Chinese history and folklore. Using abstract, symbolic gestures rich in dramatic meaning, actors represent personages from the heroic, divine, and animal worlds, often in martial exploits. The traditional features of the masklike makeup and elaborate costumes immediately identify the characters to a knowing audience.

Marc Garanger/Corbis

China’s first great age of theater occurred during the Yuan dynasty, a period of Mongol rule over China in the 1200s and 1300s. China’s Mongol rulers banned native Confucian scholars from government, forcing skilled poets to seek opportunities to perform for money. These poets teamed with local performing troupes to create Yuan zaju, a form of literary drama that reached its height during the reign of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (1279-1294). Men and women both depicted characters of either sex. Performances featured colorful costumes, singing, dancing, mime, and acrobatics.

Yuan zaju plays consisted of four acts and a wedge (a flexible, self-contained scene that usually appeared between acts). Each act had its own musical key, and only the leading actor sang. Typical plots featured romance, courtesans, supernatural events, battles, politics, courtroom justice, or heroic rebels fighting tyrants. Many ended sadly, sometimes with the main character’s death. Guan Hanqing is considered the greatest of the Yuan zaju playwrights, and 18 of some 60 plays of his have survived. In Guan’s Dou E yuan (translated as Snow in Midsummer and as The Injustice Done to Dou E), a virtuous young widow is wrongly executed for murder but is posthumously vindicated by supernatural events. After 1644, at the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Yuan zaju performances ceased.

As Yuan zaju ended its reign as China’s dominant form of theater, kunqu arose to replace it. In the 16th century, actor and musician Wei Liangfu blended various musical modes and speech patterns to create kunqu for performances at the emperor’s court. Kunqu’s music is slow and melodious, dominated by flute, and its language is literary, elegant, and refined. Among the best kunqu playwrights are Tang Xianzu and Li Yu. Tang’s Mudan ting (1598; The Peony Pavilion) is often considered China’s greatest drama. In 55 scenes it lyrically depicts young love and supernatural events. Li wrote popular plays and China’s major work of dramatic theory, Xianqing ouji (1671; partially translated as A Temporary Lodge for My Leisure Thoughts). He also directed a traveling acting troupe.

In 1790 a new genre, known as jingxi or jingju (meaning “drama of the capital city”) came into being. Better known to Westerners as Peking Opera, it was created in Beijing by actors from Anhui province who combined elements of several performance styles for Emperor Qianlong’s 80th birthday celebration. Jingxi’s immediate ancestors include regional folk songs, local dialects, clapper opera (in which orchestra members beat out a rhythm with wooden clappers), and a musical system called pihuang.

The scripts of Peking Opera tend to be revisions, often by actors, of zaju or kunqu dramas, and the operas emphasize song, mime, dance, acrobatics, martial arts, and speech. Actors specialize in a single role type: sheng (male), dan (female), jing (painted face), or chou (clown). Each type has several subdivisions. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, only males performed, and there were three ways to become an actor: by being an actor’s son, by receiving training from professional actors, or by having one’s family enter into a financial contract. Today, both male and female actors audition to train in respected government academies. The most famous Peking Opera actor of the 20th century was Mei Lanfang, a specialist in female roles who introduced Peking Opera to the West during tours in the 1930s.

Chinese Dancers

Dancers perform in Beijing, China. The complex choreography requires mastery of many hand gestures and facial expressions in addition to rhythmic dance steps. The hand gestures illustrate the influence of Buddhism, in which they represent abstract symbols that aid meditation. An ancient art form, dance has been a part of China’s artistic heritage for thousands of years.

John Slater/Corbis

Peking Opera stages are simple. The orchestra of fiddles, wooden clappers, gongs, and cymbals sits on a nearly bare stage with a carpet and two rear entrances. However, costumes and makeup, which identify role types, are elaborate and stylized. Actors wear water sleeves—long cuffs of white silk that fall about 60 cm (24 in) below the hand—and they express emotions by flicking the sleeves up onto the wrist or by swinging them while dancing. Pairs of pheasant plumes attached to headdresses also become components of choreographed movements. Warriors are identified by their heavily embroidered satin coats and by four triangular pennants strapped on their backs. Actors playing jing roles paint their faces with multicolored or black and white abstract patterns, which designate a specific character or personality. See also Chinese Music.

By the 20th century, dramatists had begun writing Western-style spoken dramas (huaju). The first original huaju, Heinu yutian lu (1907; The Black Slave’s Cry to Heaven), was an adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe published in 1852. It was first performed by Chinese student actors in Tokyo, Japan, and then brought to Shanghai. The most significant dramatist of early huaju was Cao Yu. His major play is Leiyu (1934; Thunderstorm, 1958), the story of a family tragedy that has been an audience favorite for many years.

Since 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, theater has been primarily a propaganda tool to promote government objectives. After 1963 Jiang Qing, a former actor and the wife of Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, used Mao’s artistic dictums to guide theater. From 1966 to 1976 the government undertook a campaign to stamp out elitism and revolutionize Chinese society. During this period, known as the Cultural Revolution, the government forbade all theater except “model” operas and ballets that featured revolutionary heroes. Many theater artists endured torture or were sent to brutal “reeducation” centers. After Mao’s death in 1976, controls were relaxed and more innovative plays appeared that reflect ancient Chinese ritual and Western influences.

B Japan

Classical Dance of the Ryukyu Islands, Japan

The art of dance on the Japanese Ryukyu Islands has developed along two main lines—the tradition of court classical dance and the diverse inheritance of the folk song-dance. This elaborately costumed dancer is performing one of the court dances according to strict choreographic conventions.

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Traditional Japanese theater can be traced back about 1300 years. It includes some of the longest continually performed genres in Asia, most notably the nō drama. See also Japanese Drama.

B1 Origins and Overview


Daikagura is an acrobatic dance traditionally performed at Shinto temples in Japan to frighten off evil spirits. Peformances today often involve juggling and are put on as popular entertainment. These masked dancers perform at a temple on Mount Komagatake near Tokyo.

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The Kojiki (712 ad), one of the oldest written records of Japanese myth and history, provides a mythical account of the country’s first theater performance. According to the Kojiki, the sun goddess Amaterasu had hidden in a cave. To lure her out, another goddess, Ame-no-Uzume, danced with lowered skirt and bared breasts, feet pounding on an overturned barrel. The gods’ raucous laughter at this performance enticed Amaterasu to peek out, restoring life-giving light to the world, and theater was born. Among the earliest genres to emerge was kagura, in which entranced priestesses or masked villagers performed celebratory dances at shrines of the Shinto religion. Nonreligious genres included sangaku and sarugaku (“monkey dances”), entertainments that included skits, circus acts, and acrobatics.

Performing arts imported from China and Korea from the 7th to 10th centuries profoundly influenced Japanese theater. In 612 Korean performer Mimashi (or Mimaji) introduced gigaku, a masked music-drama from Chinese Buddhism. Gigaku was supplanted a century later by bugaku, a masked theater with Chinese and Korean origins. Bugaku is accompanied by slow, elegant music, called gagaku, produced by drums, gong, mouth organ, and flute. Bugaku’s three-part rhythmic structure, provided by gagaku, influenced all subsequent performance.

The aristocratic theater genres of and kyōgen developed in the 1300s, during Japan’s domination by the warrior class, or samurai. Kabuki, a popular form of secular theater, and ningyō joruri (usually called bunraku), a form of puppetry, flowered without foreign influence from 1603 to 1868. After 1868 the Westernization of Japan fostered new forms: shimpa, shingeki, and the all-female takarazuka. The atomic blasts that ended World War II in 1945 prompted a search for Japanese identity and the creation of avant-garde genres such as angura and butō.

B2 Major Genres and Their Development

Classical Nō Drama of Japan

Inspired both spiritually and artistically by Zen Buddhism, the Japanese nō theater is composed of four main components: music (voices, instruments), choreography (dance, gestures), literature (texts), and dramatic effects (masks, costumes). Instrumental music, vocals, and action are intricately combined in nō theater productions and often perform various roles. For example, the guttural vocal interjections uttered by the drummers serve to mark time as well as to create a mood or appropriate atmosphere for the play. Like the drum beats, these vocal cries are not improvised, but are clearly marked, representing basic units of rhythmic organization.

“The Stone Bridge” from Japan 5: Music of the Noh Theatre (Cat.# Ocora C 559005) (p) 1987 Ocora/Radio France. All Rights Reserved./UPI/THE BETTMANN ARCHIVE

Nō, which is still popular today, was pioneered in the 14th century by Zeami Motokiyo, an actor in his father’s theater troupe. Under the patronage of Yoshimitsu, a shogun (military dictator), Zeami lived at court and transformed the sarugaku that his father performed into poetic, elegant, Buddhist-inspired nō. Zeami wrote many plays and treatises on nō performance and composition. (Nine major treatises have been translated as On the Art of the Nō Drama.) The major aesthetic concepts of nō include yūgen (dark, mysterious, sad beauty) and hana (flower), alluding to the freshness and skill for which actors must strive. About 250 nō plays survive, most of them written after Zeami’s death.

The nō stage is a roofed, wooden square with an entrance bridge. The audience sits on two sides of the stage. There are no stage sets and few props. Visible musicians play drums and flute, and a seated chorus chants narration and some dialogue. Performances feature mime, dance, and poetry. Some of the actors wear small, elegant masks. In a typical nō story, the characters seek Buddhist release from earthly attachments.

Kyōgen (“mad words”) are comic, fast-paced prose plays performed in conjunction with nō plays. Many plots feature the victory of clever servants or downtrodden wives over pompous masters. Mime is central. Some 260 kyōgen scripts survive, among them the representative scripts (most kyōgen scripts are anonymous) Bōshibari (Tied to a Pole) and Busu (Sweet Poison). Traditionally, five nō and four kyōgen were performed together and lasted all day. Today typical performances include two nō and one kyōgen. Actors of both genres are male, and most are the sons of actors. Each actor performs his genre exclusively.

Kabuki and bunraku are popular arts associated with an urban merchant class and are not influenced by foreign genres. They developed between the 17th century, when relations with foreign powers were forbidden, and the late 19th century, when Japan reopened to the rest of the world. During this time Japanese culture thrived in total isolation, with society structured on strict Confucian models.

Kabuki is said to have originated in a performance by Okuni, a female dancer-priestess, about 1600. Wearing male garb and an exotic Christian cross, Okuni performed sensual dances and skits called kabuki (meaning “dangerously off-balance”) in a dry river bed in the city of Kyōto. Male and female performers, often dressed as the opposite sex, soon became wildly popular. In 1629 women were banned from the stage; the young boys who replaced them were banned in 1652. As a result, the onnagata (female impersonator) was created.

Kabuki’s daylong plays, composed of numerous episodes, feature spectacular fights and dances, quick costume changes, heroic sacrifices, and star-crossed lovers. To evade censors, playwrights disguised their satires of contemporary events by giving them historical settings. Acting, makeup, costumes, and scenery range from realistic to elaborately stylized and exaggerated. The wide stage used by kabuki features the hanamichi (runway) extending through the audience.

Kabuki Theater

Kabuki theater is famous for its brightly colored sets, exaggerated acting, and lively and emotional music and dance. Kabuki is the most popular form of traditional Japanese theater. In the mid-1980s it became popular in the United States.

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Bunraku also appeared in the 1600s. It is performed by realistic puppets about 1 m (about 3 ft) tall. The main characters are each manipulated by three black-robed men who move in choreographed unison to create the puppets’ lifelike behavior. A single actor recites all dialogue and narration onstage, accompanied by a shamisen (three-stringed lute). Bunraku shares scripts and acting styles with kabuki. Many plays feature tragic conflicts of honor and desire. Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Japan’s finest dramatist, wrote about 130 plays for bunraku and kabuki. One of his masterpieces is Sonezaki Shinjū (1703; The Love Suicides at Sonezaki). The play Kanadehon Chūshingura (1748; The Treasury of Loyal Retainers), by Takeda Izumo, Miyoshi Shoraku, and Namiki Senryu, represents the supreme expression of loyalty, duty, and bushido (samurai spirit).

In 1868 supporters of the emperor regained control of Japan, ousting the shoguns that had dominated the country and ending 250 years of Japanese isolation from the rest of the world. The country rushed to modernize, discarding tradition (although major genres survived) and creating new forms of theater. The first partially Western drama was shimpa (“new school”), which included adaptations of Western classics and of melodramatic, patriotic plays that rebelled against tradition in subject matter and performance style. Kawakami Otojiro and his wife, Sada Yakko, were among the foremost performers of shimpa. While touring North America and Europe from 1899 to 1901, audiences compared Sada to renowned French actor Sarah Bernhardt. As the first modern Japanese actress, Sada’s influence helped overturn the 1629 ban on female performers.

Shingeki (“new theater”) fully resembles Western theater. Tsubouchi Shoyo, one of the originators of shingeki, translated the complete works of English playwright William Shakespeare. He also wrote plays and in 1906 founded Bungei Kyōkai (Literary Arts Society). Osanai Kaoru, cofounder of shingeki, established two theater companies that played a vital role in spreading shingeki. These are Jiyū Gekijō (Free Theater), founded in 1909, and Tsukiji Shōgekijo (Tsukiji Little Theater), founded in 1924. Major shingeki playwrights include Kishida Kunio, who wrote a realistic play called Sawa-shi no futari musume (1935; The Two Daughters of Mr. Sawa, 1989), and Kinoshita Junji, whose symbolic, poetic play Yūzuru (1949; Twilight Crane, 1956) is based on a Japanese folktale.

In 1914 takarazuka, an all-female form of theater, was established to offer discipline and artistic training to young women. It has evolved into a hugely popular entertainment presented by rigorously trained performers. Typical of its performances are musical versions of Western classics such as Gone With the Wind, Broadway shows, kabuki adaptations, and Las Vegas-style extravaganzas.

After Japan’s devastating defeat in World War II (1939-1945), Japanese artists struggled to find a new sense of meaning. Playwright Mishima Yukio summarized these conflicts in Kindai nōgakushū (1956; Five Modern Nō Plays, 1957). Butō was created as a nonverbal dance theater that sought to express the “dark soul of Japan.” Founded by Hijikata Tatsumi and Ono Kazuo, butō features nearly naked dancers painted white who writhe on stage. Angura (from the English word underground) flourished in the 1960s and the 1970s. It combined street theater, spontaneous activity, and in some cases anti-American political protest (see Performance Art). Kara Jūrō’s socially conscious Jōkyō Gekijō (Situation Theater), founded in 1963, and Terayama Shūji’s experimental Tenjō Sajiki (Peanut Gallery), established in 1967, are two of the most important angura groups.

Japan’s major theater artists of the late 20th century include director Ninagawa Yukio, who directed a wide variety of plays, and director and theorist Suzuki Tadashi, who created the so-called Suzuki method of actor training. The Suzuki method is based on lower body strength, with an emphasis on the feet. Important contemporary female playwright-directors include Kisaragi Koharu and Kishida Rio.

C Korea

In Korea, theater probably began with official ceremonies and native religious rituals. These were modified in the 7th century by Buddhist genres, which probably came from China. Confucianism later exerted a strong influence on Korean theater.

Puppetry in Korea dates from the 7th century. In kkoktu kaksi, traditional Korean puppetry, a puppet master recites lines to musical accompaniment while manipulating one puppet at a time. Holding the puppet body in his hands, the puppeteer moves its stiff arms using strings pulled from below. The plots of puppet plays are comic and satirical.

Sandae-guk (“mountain performance”) is a generic term for masked folk dramas. Until 1634 the Confucian-dominated royal court sponsored official performances of masked dramas. After 1634, however, performers were no longer supported and they left the court, bringing theater to the rural areas. There are many local varieties, but all share common features. Sandae-guk is traditionally performed outdoors by torchlight and lasts all night. Performers wear colorful costumes and grotesque masks of dried gourds or paper, with cloth head coverings. Sandae-guk also features complex dances drawn from shamanism and songs based on folk music. Its improvised episodes incorporate bawdy jokes and poetry.

Two other significant theater genres in Korea are hahoe pyolsin-gut and p’ansori. Hahoe pyolsin-gut, a masked folk drama from Hahoe village, occurs once per decade, on the 15th day of the first lunar month. It makes use of sacred and ancient carved, wooden masks. Its improvised stories generally satirize corrupt monks and immoral or stupid officials. In p’ansori a solo performer of either sex sings, recites, and mimes stories to drumming, using an intentionally hoarse voice. P’ansori is popular in live performances as well as on radio and television. Today, the Seoul Theater Festival supports new work in South Korea. North Korea’s government encourages theatrical activity that reflects its socialist ideology and goals.


Southeast Asian Theater

Dancers on the island of Bali, Indonesia, perform a barong dance-drama. Dance-dramas enact battles between good and evil, and dancers appeal to the spirit world during performances. The barong dance-drama is believed to exorcise evil spirits from the village. This scene depicts a struggle between the witch Rangda and the barong, a mythical and benevolent beast.

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The countries in Southeast Asia with the strongest theater traditions are Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Dance-dramas and puppetry are extremely important art forms in Southeast Asia. Performances often last several hours, or even all night. In some areas, Chinese and Indian influence is pronounced.

A Indonesia

Shamanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam have all influenced theater in Indonesia. Although more than 3000 islands with hundreds of different cultures and performance traditions make up the Republic of Indonesia, only about 20 influential theater genres have been studied, primarily on the islands of Java and Bali.

A1 Origins and Overview

Early influences on Indonesian theater include improvisational poetry games and trance-dancing led by shamans. The recitation of Javanese epics derived from two great Sanskrit works of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were part of religious rites from the 9th to the 14th centuries and also played a role in theater’s development.

Traditional theater in Indonesia developed between the 7th and 13th centuries, when a Buddhist and Hindu kingdom, Sri Vijaya, ruled the area from the island of Sumatra and traded with India and China. Performances at the ruler’s court featured female dancers, shadow puppets, masked performers, clowns, and a gamelan orchestra made up of gongs, metallophones (which resemble xylophones but have bars of metal rather than wood), xylophones, and drums. On Java, another island near Sumatra, Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms were in power until Islam reached the island in the 13th century. Despite Islam’s ban on theater and dance, the performing arts survived on Java, probably because of the presence of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam in which dance has an important role. Performers modified tales of gods and heroes from the Mahabharata and introduced stories of Muslim heroes and saints. By 1520 Indonesia had become predominantly Islamic, while Bali remained Hindu. Bali is known for its trance dances, in which performers experience an altered state of consciousness and seek contact with the spirit world.

Indonesia’s first modern play, Bebasari (1926) by Rustam Effendi, was an allegory for opposition to the Dutch rule of Indonesia, which had begun in the 1600s and lasted until the mid-1900s. Major contemporary figures in theater include playwright, director, and actor W. S. Rendra and Balinese playwright and director Putu Wijaya. Teater Koma, a theater company in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, presents operas about Indonesia’s socially dispossessed classes that blend indigenous popular music with Western rock music.

A2 Major Genres

Wayang Kulit

Wayang Kulit is a form of Indonesian puppetry dating from the 10th century and using stories from Hindu epics. The puppet operator, known as the dalang, also narrates the story, speaks the dialogue, does the sound effects, and leads the orchestra in a performance that lasts from dusk until dawn.

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Wayang is the term for puppetry, a hugely popular genre in Indonesia. A single dalang (puppet master) manipulates all the puppets, recites improvised narration and dialogue, and cues the gamelan orchestra. Performances may occur as part of religious rituals or for entertainment alone. Puppets can be intricately carved out of animal hide, sculpted from wood, or painted on scrolls. Some forms of puppetry feature human actors who move in a puppet-like fashion. Wayang stories come from the Mahabharata, Islamic tales, or local folklore. In all stories, balance and order are restored to a world threatened by chaos.

In shadow puppetry, such as wayang kulit from Java or wayang parwa from Bali, the dalang and orchestra sit behind a white screen, which is lit by an oil or electric lamp. The puppeteer uses rods to manipulate puppets, which cast their shadows on the screen. Puppets are delicately cut out of hide or wood and are typically 30 to 60 cm (12 to 24 in) tall. Clown or servant characters speak the local dialect, while mythical heroes speak an ancient literary language. Most audience members see only silhouetted shadows, but some watch from behind the dalang. Performances are lengthy and may last all night.

Balinese Dancers

The legong is a dance of Bali that features highly controlled movements of the arms and hands. It is performed by two or three young girls who wear tightly wrapped silk sarongs, flower headdresses, and collars decorated with tiny stones and mirrors. A gamelan orchestra featuring gongs and other percussion instruments accompanies the dancers.

Wolfgang Kaehler/Corbis

Barong is a complex, narrative dance-drama from Bali about the mythical barong, a benevolent animal spirit who battles the horrible witch-widow Rangda. Two men impersonate the barong, wearing an elaborate mask and costume. The actor playing Rangda wears a necklace representing human entrails (intestines and other internal organs) and a mask with bulging eyes, protruding fangs, and wild hair. During the performance male villagers fall into trance but are protected from Rangda’s evil power by belief in the barong. The performance concludes with the exorcism of Rangda.

Legong is Bali’s best-known dance-drama. In the legong young girls, who wear tightly wrapped sarongs and flower headdresses, perform to gamelan music. Legong is based on a dance called sanghyang dedari, in which girls in trance believe they are possessed by goddesses and may dance with closed eyes on the shoulders of dancing men.

Kecak Dance-Drama of Bali

The Kecak dance-drama of Bali is based on the Hindu epic Ramayana, which tells the story of Prince Rama and his rescue of his bride, Sita, from the demon king Ravana. A chorus of bare-chested men surrounds the dance area and imitates the “cak-cak” sound made by monkeys. An army of monkeys helped Rama in his battle with Ravana.

Arvind Garg/”Introduction” performed by Kecak Ganda Sari, from Kecak from Bali (Cat.# Bridge BCD 9019) (c)and(p)1990 Bridge Records, Inc. Box 1864, New York, NY 10116 1-800-321-4066. All rights reserved.

Kecak, nicknamed the Balinese monkey chant, developed around 1930. In kecak, a male chorus encircles a temple courtyard, imitating the “cak-cak” sound of monkeys as the epic Ramayana is enacted in pantomime. A dalang narrates. The kecak is usually performed by the light of oil lamps and serves primarily as entertainment.

A popular, working-class form of theater known as ludruk began on Java in the 1920s. In the ludruk, which is often satirical, clowns and transvestite singers perform songs interspersed with dialogue in the local dialect.

B Thailand

Traditional Dancer, Thailand

Traditional dance and music is an important part of Thai culture. Here, a woman in full ceremonial attire performs a traditional dance, called the Lacon Dance, that includes specific hand and head movements.

Thailand Tourism Authority

Thailand derived its most important theater genres from Cambodia, which it invaded in the 15th century. Thai performance in turn shaped the theater of neighboring Laos and Myanmar (Burma). Most theater was performed at the courts of Thailand’s kings. In the 20th century, King Rama VI helped revive and preserve traditional Thai court drama. Today, women perform female roles and refined male roles in all genres. Men play clowns, monkeys, and ogres.

There are three major court genres in Thai theater: nang yai, khon, and lakhon fai nai. Nang yai features the largest shadow puppets in the world. Made of flat, incised leather, they stand 1 to 1.5 m (4 to 5 ft) tall and are manipulated by dancer-puppeteers who move in front of and behind a screen. Two narrators recite from Ramakien (the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana). A piphat orchestra, composed of double reed instruments, xylophones, drums, gongs, and cymbals, accompanies the performance. Khon is a masked dance-drama performed in mime (originally by men only, but today by women as well) and accompanied by piphat orchestra and a narrator chanting from Ramakien. Elaborately carved, painted masks clearly identify characters, and highly stylized gestures and dance movements carry the action and express emotion. Lakhon fai nai is a refined, elegant, all female dance-drama accompanied by a singing chorus and piphat orchestra. It was originally performed by the queen and court ladies, with poetry written by the king or courtiers. Dancers or offstage singers recite dialogue. The performers wear tall, pagoda-shaped headdresses and form-fitting silk costumes.

Various popular genres also exist in Thailand. Commercial, improvisational likay features melodramas, situation comedies, and satires of traditional court dramas. Audiences are mostly middle-class women. Nang talung is shadow puppetry used in rural areas for political propaganda and entertainment.

C Cambodia

Performances at royal courts and temples began in Cambodia in the 3rd century ad or earlier and peaked during the Angkor period in Cambodian history, from the 9th century to the 15th century. During the 18th and 19th century performance styles and genres from Thailand were imported and adapted (ironically, as Thailand had several centuries earlier patterned some of its performance styles on those of Cambodia). During the violent reign of the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979, the vast majority of the country’s performing artists and playwrights fled or were killed. Almost all cultural documents and performance photographs were destroyed. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, actor and dancer Chheng Phon, a former minister of culture in Cambodia and one of the country’s few artists from the older generation, spearheaded the re-creation of performance traditions. The Cambodian government in power in the late 1990s supported ten professional troupes. The lakhon kabach boran, dance-dramas performed by women at court, correspond closely to Thailand’s lakon fai nai. In earlier times, performances lasted four days, with two four-hour segments each day.

D Myanmar (Burma)

The theater of Myanmar displays significant influences from India, China, and Tibet. Traditional beliefs also played a role in the development of theater. A major genre is a form of trance dance called nat pwe. It derives from the worship of “spirit wives,” who dance until they are possessed by one of 37 revered spirits, then speak while in trance. Zat pwe is Myanmar’s classical dance-drama with origins in Buddhism and legends. In zat pwe, actors who portray a prince, princess, and clown sing and dance while they oppose ogres and villains. Music defines the tone of each scene.

E Vietnam

Vietnamese theater reflects the influence of China, which ruled the country for hundreds of years, starting in the 200s bc. Musical modes from India appeared in the 14th century. The influence of France, which colonized Vietnam in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is present to a lesser extent. Hat bôi (also called hat tuông), which originated in the 13th century, is a classical court opera derived from Chinese models. Muá rôi nuoc, which originated before the 12th century, is a form of puppetry found only in Vietnam. The puppets use the surface of a pond as their stage. A structure behind the pond-stage hides puppet masters, who manipulate puppets representing animals, humans, and mythological characters by means of a system of underwater, mechanized rods.

F Philippines

The major performance genres of the Philippines have their origin in the traditions of Spain and the United States, both of which colonized the country. Komedya or moro-moro, which originated in the 17th century, is a folk drama that depicts Christians defeating the Moors. It is usually performed on saints’ days or at other religious festivals. Zarzuela or sarsuela are melodramatic operettas based on late 19th-century Spanish models. Troupes also perform Western-style spoken dramas in both English and Filipino.


India has been the dominant theatrical presence in South Asia for centuries. Much of the theater of other South Asian countries has adapted or borrowed from forms originally developed in India.

A India

Scholars have identified and studied more than 50 major traditional theater genres in India. India also has a thriving modern theater, especially in prominent cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai (formerly Bombay), and Delhi.

A1 Origins and Overview

Classical Dance of South India

The southern Indian kathakali is a dance drama that dates from the 17th century and is rooted in Hindu mythology. Male dancers perform kathakali at religious ceremonies and in exhibitions for tourists. The rhythmic cycle and melodic scale of traditional southern Indian music direct the dancer’s movements. This performer wears ceremonial makeup and dress that includes a large, circular headdress made of wood.

“Kathakali Dance Theater” from Ritual Music and Theater of Kerala (Cat.# Le Chant du Monde LDX 274 010) (p)1989 Le Chant du Monde. All rights reserved./Photo Researchers, Inc.

The Natya Shastra, written before 200 ad and attributed to a Hindu sage named Bharata Muni, is the world’s oldest, most complete manual for all aspects of performance. It details the requirements for theater architecture, costumes, actor training and performance, music, playwriting, and the emotional exchange that takes place between the audience and the actors. The book relates how the Hindu god Brahma created drama (natya) to entertain and to educate. While priests, musicians, and dancing nymphs were performing divinely created stories, jealous demons attacked the sacred stage. Brahma, however, created purifying rituals to include all beings—even demons.

From the 1st century to the 10th century, dramas written in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, were performed in temples and at royal courts. Performance of Sanskrit drama ceased, however, as a result of foreign invasions and because the language was spoken only by the upper classes, providing only a limited, aristocratic audience. During the 15th century, Islamic rulers, who then controlled northern India, forbade theater. However, local folk and devotional genres emerged elsewhere in India. Secular entertainment, puppetry, dance-dramas, and performances for religious minorities also flourished. In the 18th century Britain colonized India and introduced Western performance styles. In the 20th century, new genres appeared, including political protest plays and experimental combinations of European and traditional Indian drama. Indian poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore won the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature. His plays include Raja (1910; The King of the Dark Chamber, 1914) and Raktakarabi (1924; Red Oleanders, 1925). Significant contemporary artists include playwright and director Badal Sircar, actor Tripti Mitra, director Uptal Dutt, and director and educator Ebrahim Alkazi.

A2 Major Genres and Their Development

Odissi Dancer

Odissi, a dance form of eastern India, originated in Hindu temples and is characterized by soft and flowing movements. Through her hand and body movements, this odissi dancer indicates that the character she portrays is looking playfully through a window.

Lindsay Hebberd/Woodfin Camp and Associates, Inc.

Sanskrit drama was one of the earliest formal theatrical genres to appear in India. It conformed to the rules laid out by the Natya Shastra, with its lyrical poetry, happy endings, song, dance, and mime. Both sexes probably acted in these dramas, though actors did not always portray characters of their gender. Theaters seated about 400 people. The stage had a rear balcony and machinery to aid in depicting supernatural events, such as the appearance of heavenly nymphs. The most famous Sanskrit dramatists include Bhasa, Kalidasa, and Bhavabhuti. Bhasa composed plays based primarily on Ramayana and Mahabharata. His best work is Svapnavasavadatta (4th-5th century; The Vision of Vasavadatta). Kalidasa composed the most revered Sanskrit drama, Abhijnanashakuntala (4th century; Shakuntala and the Ring of Recollection). It tells of love, loss, a curse, and ultimate reunion between a king and a nymph’s daughter. Bhavabhuti’s greatest work is Utara-rāma-charita (8th century; The Later History of Rama). Mrichchhakatika (5th century; The Little Clay Cart), attributed to Shudraka, is one of the most popular Sanskrit works.

Scholars believe that some conventions of Sanskrit drama are preserved in kutiyattam, the country’s oldest continuously performed theatrical genre. In kutiyattam, which comes from the southwestern state of Kerala, actors perform ancient Sanskrit plays in India’s only permanent, traditional theater structures for Sanskrit drama. Ritual performances occur once yearly at two Hindu temples, Vatukumnathan and Irinjalagauda. Each play takes several nights to complete, three to eight hours per night. A tall, metal oil lamp on the stage provides dim light. Dance, song, chant, gestures with specific meanings, and exaggerated facial and eye expressions are accompanied by drums, cymbals, a conch shell, and a wind instrument called a kuzhal. Performers wear elaborate makeup and costumes.

Several types of dance-dramas exist in India, including kathak, bharata natyam, and manipuri, but the most recognized is kathakali, from Kerala state. Kathakali originated in the 17th century. Its plots come from the Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Puranas. Performers, who go through arduous training for six to ten years, wear brightly colored makeup in symbolic patterns and multilayered beards of paper and glue. Costumes usually include heavily layered, wide skirts and disk-shaped headdresses. Traditionally, performances lasted all night, but today they take only three or four hours. Actors dance, mime, and gesture while singers recite lyrical passages and dialogue. Drums, gongs, cymbals, harmonium, and conch shell accompany them. Kathakali may be performed in any locale for sacred or secular occasions.


Kathak is a style of traditional dance native to north India. Performed solo, it has its roots in the storytelling tradition of Hindu mythology which employs both mime and dramatic gesture.

Pankaj Shah/Redferns

Ramlila appeared in northern India in the 17th century. As a celebration of the life of Rama, the hero of Ramayana, Hindus consider it a part of their religious devotion. For Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and members of India’s other minority religions, it symbolizes national unity and is a popular commercial enterprise. Each ramlila lasts several weeks. In addition to hundreds of amateur actors, performances feature elephants, camels, burning arrows, fireworks, elaborate floats, and chariots. Ramlila performances are staged at rivers, forts, and other unconventional performance spaces in villages and cities. Performers wear patterned makeup, which may be embellished with sequins. If they are playing demons, they may wear multiheaded masks or black makeup. Local folk music and, occasionally, sacred chants accompany the play. Today, versions of ramlila occur all over India, from September to November, and millions of people attend.

B Other South Asian Cultures

In Sri Lanka, Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism are the dominant religions and have contributed stories, characters, and ritual to the country’s performance styles. Theater genres include kolam, a masked dance-drama that usually tells comic tales; the nadagama, a weeklong episodic play probably introduced by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 19th century; and rukada, a puppet theater featuring marionettes that are about 1 m (about 3 ft) tall.

In 1947 areas of northern India populated primarily by Muslims became East and West Pakistan, and in 1971 East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Although Islam does not condone theater, performances of theater in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, take place in urban areas. The first Urdu play was performed in 1853 at the court of Wajid Ali Shah of Oudh, in Lucknow (central India). Jatra, a Bengali-language genre, is performed in Bangladesh and eastern India. Formerly a religious genre, jatra is now secular and often highly political, featuring protest and satire. Settings and properties are minimal.

In Nepal, Mahayana Buddhist monks wearing large, colorfully painted masks perform the country’s most prominent dance-drama, the mani-rimdu. Performances take place in temple courtyards over three-day periods in May and November, and they celebrate Buddhism’s victory over Nepal’s traditional animism. Musical instruments include brass horns that are 3 m (10 ft) long, cymbals, and a trumpet made from a human thigh bone.
Contributed By:
Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei

Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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