Drama—Southeast Asia

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Editors: Karen Christensen and David Levinson
Date: 2002
Encyclopedia of Modern Asia
From: Encyclopedia of Modern Asia(Vol. 2. )
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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Numerous theatrical genres developed in Southeast Asia as a result of influences coming from India, the Islamic nations, and China. Additionally, as indigenous theater practices crossed national borders in the Southeast Asian region, they influenced new developments in adjoining countries. Finally, in many of the individual nations that collectively compose the region of
A man operates shadow puppets in a shadow theater in Wayang Kulit, Java, Indonesia, in 1992. (CHARLES & JOSETTE LENARS/CORBIS) A man operates shadow puppets in a shadow theater in Wayang Kulit, Java, Indonesia, in 1992. (CHARLES & JOSETTE LENARS/CORBIS) Page 293  |  Top of Article Southeast Asia, local forms evolved as specific responses to political and social conditions.

While primary elements of form differ between theater genres from area to area, certain dramatic elements are shared by most types of plays. Epic stories, often featuring the fall of kingdoms or great battles involving kings and gods, make up the dramatic text of performances throughout the region. Comic, serious, and farcical sentiments are collectively present in most plays, and most drama serves a didactic purpose, demonstrating the victory of good over evil.


Many ancient forms of theater are still popular in the Javanese-speaking area of the island of Java. Wayang kulit (leather shadow-puppet theater), the most popular form of theater in Southeast Asia, was well established by the time of its inclusion in twelfth-century court literature. Rulers patronized performances that took place during religious events. In wayang kulit, a dalang (a person functioning as a puppeteer, orchestral conductor, priest, and narrator combined) manipulates up to two hundred puppets in a drama beginning at dusk and continuing until dawn. A gamelan orchestra, composed of multiple chimelike instruments struck in repetitive rhythms, accompanies the action. The elegant puppets, intricately incised with cutout designs and subsequently coated with colored paint and gold, developed their current form between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. The movable arms of the puppets, especially effective in the display of battle actions, were added during the final period of this development. During the eighteenth century, puppet sets included up to 400 puppets. By the nineteenth century, puppet shapes and coloring had become fixed.

During the performance, the dalang sits on one side of a white screen (kelir), originally lit by the flickers of an oil lamp but today usually by electric light. Audiences may sit on either side of the kelir, the side opposite where the dalang sits being favored to see the shadows on the screen. By sitting on the dalang's side, however, his skilled puppet manipulation and his tourde-force vocal performance can be more clearly observed. The cycles of plays performed in wayang kulit, collectively known as the purwa (old) cycle, feature Java's most ancient myths, including those borrowed from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Several forms developed out of wayang kulit, each practiced almost exclusively in court environments. A derivative known as wayang madja (middle theater) employs leather puppets to tell stories of legendary Javanese

A Thai dancer performing traditional costumed dance. (CORBIS) A Thai dancer performing traditional costumed dance. (CORBIS) kings. The shadow-puppet form of wayang gedog, created in the sixteenth century, dramatizes stories of the Javanese prince Panji. Wayang klitik uses wooden puppets enacting the rise of Damarwulan from village youth to national hero during the Majapahit era (1293–c. 1520). Wayang dupara depicts historic events from the central Javanese trade and cultural center of Surakarta. The Java War of the early nineteenth century provides the leather-puppet dramas of the wayang Djawa, and the period of Dutch rule is portrayed in the wayang wahana. Wayang beber, a puppetless form originally performed as a religious ritual, features a dalang punctuating his presentation by referring to illustrations painted on long scrolls, which he unwinds to musical accompaniment.

Wayang orang (literally, "human theater") also sprang up in the courts at some time prior to the fourteenth century. Stories taken from the mythology of early kingdoms were enacted by an unmasked human cast using dance and song, which was at times improvised Page 294  |  Top of Article by the actors. Another form featuring human performers is wayang topeng (masked theater), which probably developed as a result of the influence of Indian dance dramas on indigenous animistic rituals. The wayang Menak, also known as wayang tengul, which uses leather puppets, depicts stories of the Islamic hero Amir Hamzah of the late sixth–early seventh century.

Developed in the twentieth century, ketoprak and ludruk are popular attractions. Ketoprak originated in central Java as a dramatic form based on stamping rhythms from rice-planting activities and uses dance-acting to dramatize Javanese legends. Performances today are fairly naturalistic and exclude dance, although both song and dance may precede the central play. Improvised dialogue is used by both male and female performers, and wing-and-drop scenery is conventionally employed. Ludruk, commonly associated with the city of Surabaya, developed in eastern Java. Although it traces its origins to an animistic form called ludruk lerog, today it is a realistic, spoken entertainment concerned with modern life; domestic comedies are particularly popular. Song and dance may be performed in the intervals between scenes, and a traditional dance known as ngremo precedes every ludruk. An unusual feature of ludruk is the appearance of female impersonators, rarely found in realistic theater forms in which women are included as cast members.

The western Sundanese region of Java developed a doll-puppet form called wayang golek. Because daytime performances were more popular than evening ones in this region, the doll-puppets supplanted the newly introduced wayang kulit during the nineteenth century. While Islamic themes with a proselytizing function initially supplied the dramatic content of wayang golek, present-day stories are intended primarily to entertain. The dalang has been replaced in most presentations by a female singer who performs popular songs. Sundanese theater also includes theatrical stagings called sandiwara, which may include dramatizations of scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the style of wayang orang, history plays presented in the style of ketoprak, or more realistic dramas depicting contemporary life.

Balinese wayang kulit is similar to its Javanese model, but simpler: the performance lasts only four hours, the puppet designs are less intricately patterned, and there are only sixty or seventy puppets in a set. Plots continue to be taken from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but significant legends of the Balinese are also dramatized. In wayang wong, a Balinese derivative of wayang orang, characters often wear masks. Since wayang wong was developed in the villages, the overall environment of a presentation contrasts greatly with the sophisticated court atmosphere of a wayang orang production. Only stories from the Ramayana are staged in wayang wong. Most important, where in wayang orang dance is featured, in wayang wong performers emphasize poetic recitation.

Wayang topeng is also popular in Bali, its masked performers remaining silent throughout the dance-drama in contrast to the presentation of Javanese topeng, in which characters may employ dialogue. A theatrical ritual known as the barong dance-drama presents a cosmic story relating the balance between good and evil. Chaos is magically ousted from the community through the reenactment of a fight between the lion-like figure of the barong and a witch named Rangda. Villagers, wielding sharp knives in a state of trance, join in the fight but neither Rangda nor the barong can be destroyed: the play's conclusion is a balance demonstrated between the forces of good and evil.


Traditional Thai theater consists of several performance genres. The two most important classical forms are the khon, a masked court dance-drama in which scenes are staged from the Ramayana (called Ramakien in Thailand), and the lakon, a term covering various forms of dance-dramas. In addition, there is likay, a rural folk play in which actors boisterously improvise comic or melodramatic dialogue interspersed with dance and music, as well as nang yai or nang talung shadow-plays, found in southern Thailand.

The khon masked drama adopted movements from Indian temple dancing. During the Ayutthaya period (1350–1767), the khon was enacted by male court retainers playing both male and female roles. By the mid-1800s, men and women were performing together. Khon performances are characterized by their combination of song, dance, and acting. Actors and actresses are masked, and only clown characters speak onstage; narrative verses are usually recited and sung by a chorus sitting with the accompanying woodwind and percussion musical ensemble.

Generally in lakon and khon, little scenery is used, but costumes and props can be very elaborate. The oldest form of lakon, and indeed of all Thai theater, is the lakon jatri or "sorcerer theater." Beginning as animistic ritual, lakon jatri developed into a dramatic form after Indian dance traditions were introduced into the telling of the Buddhist jataka tale of Manora; the theatrical form itself came to be known as manora. During the fourteenth century, lakon jatri arrived inPage 295  |  Top of Article the central capital and evolved into lakon nok (also called manora), which relies less on dance and more on contemporary dialogue and bawdy humor.

Likay, a popular theater genre, developed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Likay is found primarily only in Bangkok today, but during the 1920s and 1930s hundreds of likay troupes attracted audiences throughout Thailand. A solo singer initiates the performance; then an actor engages the singer in a dialogue and introduces the drama. Common stories are taken from literature or history.

The puppet theaters of Thailand include both doll and shadow-theater forms. The nang yai shadow-theater is an ancient form that influenced the development of khon. Scenes from the Ramakien are performed to musical accompaniment.

Under King Chulalongkorn, Western forms of drama began to be popular. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice, as well as a number of English, French, and classical Sanskrit plays were translated by King Vajiravadh. Today many playwrights produce dramas written in the form of Western spoken drama or in a fusion of Western spoken drama and traditional Thai forms. One of the most widely produced playwrights is Supa Devakul, a writer of popular novels and of plays for stage and screen.


While few, the theater forms of Laos are diverse. Moh lam (literally, "singer of lam") is a folksinging performance originally involving a duet composed of a singer and a khene (reed organ) player. Developing out of the Buddhist melodic storytelling popular since the first millennium CE, early forms of moh lam included topics such as accounts of local and court news, bawdy ditties, and epic stories from the Rama Jataka (the Laotian Ramayana, containing strong Buddhist elements). Today, the popular presentations feature two singers competitively improvising love poems, according to strict traditional formulas.

In another form of lam, lam luong, the moh lam originally enacted all the roles, changing costume and movement with each character. Now, influenced by Thai likay, as many as thirty people perform the various roles.

Modeled after Khmer court performance in the fourteenth century, Laotian court theater (lakon phrarak phraram) included female dance, masked male dance, shadow-theater, and musical presentations. Patronized by the court, the elegant presentations were refashioned to favor Thai stylistic elements after the Thai conquest of the Khmer kingdom. Remnants of lakon phrarak phraram are now occasionally staged in Laos and in overseas areas to demonstrate traditional culture.

Modern spoken drama (lakon wau) was introduced to Laos during the early 1980s. Today the National Drama Company presents works derived mainly from improvisations or adapted from Laotian legends, as well as translations of Western classics.


Thirteenth-century reliefs found at Angkor Wat testify that a form resembling Indian dance existed in the Khmer courts. Indian dance, and possibly dance-drama, probably accompanied Buddhism into Cambodia between the fourth and ninth centuries. Javanese dance-drama was also brought into the Khmer court by its Javanese founder, Jayavarman II (802–869). The court asserted its cultural identity by evolving an elegant classical dance-drama tradition maintained until the fall of Angkor in 1431. At this time, Siamese (Thai) forces transplanted the Khmer court along with its theatrical forms to Siam. During the nineteenth century, Thai classical dance, modeled after the transplanted Khmer dance-drama, was carried back into Cambodian courts; further developments created a repertoire of dance-dramas performed until the Pol Pot massacre of court performers. The government of Cambodia now cultivates this traditional dance, previously restricted to the court, at the National Theater Company, which also features Khmer shadow-puppetry and circus. Her Royal Highness Bopha Devi, a former classical dancer and the daughter of King Sihanouk, is now the minister of culture and is actively seeking to restore the vitality of Cambodian arts, including drama.

Popular twentieth-century theater forms include lakon yike and lakon bassac. Lakon yike resembles Thai likay in that both mix classical and contemporary choreography and instrumentation. Lakon bassac, featuring traits found in classical Vietnamese theater, Khmer theater, and even Hindi and Western movies, developed as traveling performers of different styles stopped at villages along the Bassac River. Modern spoken drama, originally in French, entered Cambodia in the 1940s. Plays focus on Khmer society.

Myanmar (Burma)

Sixteenth-century traveling entertainers performed Burmese spirit-plays, wherein a clown played the primary role. The existing nat pwe, in which a mediumPage 296  |  Top of Article performs Indian-like dance movements, descends from this form.

Captured Thai prisoners brought Thai classical dance-drama into the Burmese courts in 1767. At first presenting the Thai Ramayana, Burmese dramatists soon crafted their own adaptations and wrote new plays based on Burmese stories, until the demise of the court dance-drama with the British conquest a century later. Musical and dance characteristics of the Burmese courts continue, however, in the classical zat pwe musical plays found in central and southern Burma.


From the thirteenth through the early twentieth centuries, Chinese opera was reconfigured to please Vietnamese courtiers. While the new plays reflected Vietnamese concerns, performance elements continued to use costuming and makeup, conventionalized action, and symbolic use of scenery found in traditional Chinese opera. Popular throughout central Vietnam until the end of the nineteenth century, hat boi has practically disappeared since losing its court support. In the twentieth century, two popular variations of hat boi evolved: tuong tau and cai luong. Each adopted Vietnamese melodies, replacing the Chinese musical system of hat boi. Both added scenery and sought new dramas from Vietnamese history and love stories. The tuong tau repertoire was eventually subsumed into cai luong, effectively combining the two forms into one.

Modern spoken drama (kich) began in the cities with the introduction of French plays. It developed a variety-show format in which a half-hour play follows two hours of musical entertainment.

One of the most unusual forms of puppetry in the world is also found in Vietnam. Puppeteers stand on one side of a body of water and by using long strings operate puppets located on an island or a boat between the operators and their audiences. The spectators gather on the banks of the opposite shore to watch.


Javanese wayang kulit was introduced into Malaysia prior to the sixteenth century. Presented in Malay, stories came from Hindu and Islamic sources. An ensemble of Malaysian instruments replaced the Javanese gamelan. Some regional dance-dramas resemble Thai likay in their combination of dance, drama, opera, and comedy.

Bangsawan originated in Penang in the late nineteenth century. An operatic theater form, it combines improvised dialogue, singing, dancing, martial combat, music, poetry, and comedy. Chinese opera is also popular with the Chinese community, although it is now in danger of losing its audiences since many younger Malaysian Chinese do not speak Chinese.

The Philippines

Epic recitations, brought by early Malay and Indonesian settlers and possibly also emerging from the early Negrito culture of the indigenous population, date to the pre-Hispanic era in the Philippines. In the seventeenth century, Spanish missionaries created the moro-moro play, or komedya, dramatizing through marches, stage combat, and music the Christian conquest of the Moors. A passion play, known as sinakulo, is still enacted during Lent.

During the period of U.S. colonization (1898–1945), the operetta form of the zarzuela was played before officials and traders. Anti-American sentiments and other social concerns fueled new dramas. Subsequently, companies turned primarily to Western drama, staging Shakespeare and musicals. Noted modern Filipino playwrights include Wilfrido Ma, Guerrero, Severino Montano, and Bienvenido Noriega.


Reflecting its ethnically diverse population, Singaporean theater includes nonprofessional Chinese opera, called wayang by the Singaporeans; bharata natyam and kathakali (Indian classical dance forms), danced by committed amateurs in the Indian community; and Western dramas, musicals, and experimental forms staged by young directors. Singapore is home to Southeast Asia's largest performing arts complex, the Esplanade-on-the-Bay, and interest in theater has steadily grown since the early 1990s, when the government reversed its previous stance opposing theater and acknowledged theater as economically important to the community.


Since the nation of Brunei Darussalam achieved independence from Britain in 1983, both government and nongovernment organizations have been established to support the preservation of traditional theater forms and the development of new dramas and musicals. Primary producing groups include the Senandung Badaya Groups (KKBS), Rusilia, Darah Kedayan, Putera Seni, Kastea, and Astrawani. Traditional performances are generally dramatic pieces featuring various combinations of song, dance, humorous banter, trance, and martial arts display. The most popular Page 297  |  Top of Article forms are performed on special occasions such as marriages (alus jua dindang, song-dance), harvests (aduk-aduk, dance and the martial art form of silat), coronations (alai sekap, dance), festivals (henari, dance and humorous banter), or as cures for sicknesses (anding, trance dance).

Dallas L. McCurley

See also: Drama—Thailand ; Literature—Laos ; Literature—Myanmar ; Music—Southeast Asia; Ramakien

Further Reading

Brandon, James, ed. (1967) On Thrones of Gold: Three Javanese Shadow Plays. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

——. (1967) Theatre in Southeast Asia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Miettinen, Jukka O. (1992) Classical Dance and Theatre in South-East Asia. New York: Oxford University Press.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3403700871