New Theatre Quarterly

Research Article

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

Catherine Diamond

Abstract

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.