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Asian Theatre Journal 18.1 (2001) 69-80

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Burmese Marionettes: Yokthe Thay in Transition

Kathy Foley

Abstract: Burmese marionette theatre was a valued entertainment of the courts that came to popular audiences as well until the 1950s. A revival of the art is being led by the Mandalay Marionettes, and a division of puppetry has been instituted at the Yangon (Rangoon) University of Culture. Nationalism and tourism are joint influences in spurring the return to this important art of Myanmar.

The traditional puppet theatre of Myanmar (Burma), yokthe thay, experienced a severe decline in the period from World War II to the late 1980s when some claimed the art was in danger of demise. 1 In August 1998, however, I found a resurgence of Burmese marionette theatre, but in a new context. My intention in this brief report is to comment on the yokthe in its earlier milieu and discuss the current framework for puppet performance in Myanmar, showing how, as the traditional patronage system for the art has passed, the modern forces of tourism and nationalism have promoted the revival of the genre. I hope to extrapolate how the case of yokthe is representative of the situation of other genres in Southeast Asia as arts make the transition from a colonial to postcolonial era. With the emergence of modern nation-states in previously colonized areas, traditional arts are apt to collapse with the political and social change that self-determination and economic development encourage. When this occurs, the strange bedfellows [End Page 69] of tourist consumerism and nationalist ideology co-conspire to reinvigorate the traditional art. These forces, however, imply class migration of the genre from a folk art or court art to an urban middle-class art whose practitioners look with nostalgia toward an indigenous past while, simultaneously, using the genre to evoke national identity in a world where culture is consumed as a commodity by both local audiences and foreign visitors.

Traditional Performance

Yokthe means doll. Marionettes approximately fifty to ninety centimeters high 2 are danced to the accompaniment of a sai wang orchestra 3 while set opening scenes and diverse stories, largely based on jataka (stories of former lives of the Buddha), are sung. 4 The major performers of the genre, in order of their importance, were the singers who deliver the vocal parts, the manipulators, and the musicians. In the Konbyong period (1752-1885) up to forty artists might have been involved in a single palace performance with different singers taking the voices of specific characters and puppet masters manipulating a subset of the total cast. 5

While Burmese scholars conjecture that the marionette theatre is as old as the eleventh-century Burmese Kingdom of Pagan, the first documents referring to doll theatre come from 1444. A stone inscription of this date lists doll puppet artists along with other performers, who were dedicated to Htupayone Temple in Sagaing by King Narapati. Poetry and temple festival accounts of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries make clear that the string puppet theatre was an important part of Burmese cultural life. It was presented at entertainments where European emissaries were hosted, and it held significant status in the royal court. But for the details of performance practice, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century documents are needed.

Puppetry in Myanmar, as in other areas of Southeast Asia, was a highly esteemed art which surpassed human enactments in prestige. Hence the court ministers of entertainment under a number of the Burmese monarchs gave considerable attention to yokthe in edicts. By 1776 minister of drama U Po Phyu and deputy minister of drama U Toke issued rules for dancers, high drama (marionettes), low drama (theatre), song, and music (Ma Thanegi 1994, 18). Puppetry was called "high drama" as it could be performed on a raised stage whereas human dance, music, and theatre performances had to be displayed on the ground. The source of this restriction relates to the hierarchy of the state. To perform on a raised stage meant that the puppets (and of course puppeteers) would have their feet above the head of the [End Page...


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