Yoke-Thay Pwe, Burmese Marionette Theatre

The topic Burmese theater ‘Pwe’, in general, and Burmese marionette theater ‘Yoke-Thay Pwe’, in particular, is definitely a very interesting one but it is also very complex. Therefore it is difficult to deal with it in the form of an article. After all, entire books with hundreds of pages have been written on this topic. OK, then; I try to do my best and you please let me know whether I have succeeded.

In his ‘Brandon’s Guide to Theater in Asia’, first published in January 1967, James A. Brandon has written: “The description of the Burmese as a happy and smiling person is born on the stage more than one would think possible” and that is very true.

Theatre, ‘Pwe’ has in Burma a tradition that goes back many centuries. Although www.haytheatre.com nowadays especially urban but also rural audience is increasing turning its attention towards more modern and easier consumable forms of entertainment such as television, cinema, videos and video games, etc. pwe (theatre) is still very much alive except, alas, for one form of pwe. But that is anticipating.

There are several kinds of theater here in Burma. The most popular is perhaps a mix of dance, music and dramatics called ‘Zat Pwe’. Zat pwe is often preceded by a theatrical form of pwe, called ‘Pya Zat’; here a heroic prince must overcome demons’ and sorcerers’ evildoings.

Another form of pwe is concerned with episodes from everyday life and called ‘Anyein Pwe’. A pure dance theater performed by both principal dancers and groups is the ‘Yein Pwe’.

Rather rarely seen by foreign visitors/tourists since publicly performed only within the framework of animistic festivals (Mt. Popa, Taungbyon, Magwe, Bago) and otherwise only at private ‘Nat Parties’ is the ‘Nat Pwe’. This is an animistic event in which a Nat Kadaw is functioning as a medium between nats (spirits) and people that are believing in supernatural beings and their powers and are communicating with the respective nats through the medium. This, by the way, is the reason for celebrating nat pwes. U Min Kyaw who is also known by the names Ko Gyi Kyaw or Min Kyawzwa is arguably the most liked nat. U Min Kyaw is the guardian of drunkards and gamblers and being with him means having a good time. But the most important reason for people to like him is that he is granting wealth to all of those who believe in him.

An exception to all of the different kinds of pwe is a form of this art that is said to have its origins in India but has over time developed into a uniquely Burmese form of theatre: this is the ‘Yoke-Thay Pwe’ or ‘Marionette Theatre’.

Not of one opinion are historians as to the time when the marionettes/string puppets made their first appearance in Burma. According to one opinion they were first mentioned in a poem written by Rattasara, a Buddhist novice monk in the 15th century. Others say that the yoke-thay pwe has its foundation in the time after King Hsinbyushin’s return to Ava after the conquest of the Thai capital Ayutthaya in 1767 A.D.

Be that as it may, undisputed is that King Hsinbyushin’s son Singu Min (usurper to the throne), who succeeded him called into life at his court a ‘Ministry of the Fine Arts’ in 1776. He appointed ‘Minister for Royal Entertainment’, U Thaw Win, who was now entrusted with the development of a new pwe art form.

It is important to know and to take into account that in Burma’s history and to not a small extent even today the standards of etiquette and moral behavior did not allow the public exhibition of intimate romantic scenes and that to portray the future Buddha in the ‘Jataka ‘ tales was considered sacrilegious. For this reason actors refused to play this part. These things posed real problems and the solutions to these were marionettes or puppets. What human beings were not allowed and/or not willing to do in public, wooden figures could do; the ‘Yoke-Thay Pwe’ came into being.

Not undisputed yet widely accepted is that by setting strict guiding principles and rules minister Thaw Win regulated and standardized yoke-thay pwe more than any other kind of pwe. From the stages to the marionettes to their clothing everything was standardized.

A yoke-thay pwe stage called in Burmese ‘chauk khan sin’ has to be 30 feet/9 meters wide and to be made of light-weight teak and bamboo. The backdrop scene against which the stories are played and told has always to be the same: A primeval forest on the right, a throne on the left and a sofa or couch in the centre. According to the guidelines the marionettes are divided into ‘yoke-kyi-sin’, the large marionettes (2.5 to 3 feet/0.75 to 0.9 metre high) and ‘yoke-thay-sin’, the small marionettes, then, up to 2.5 feet/0.75 meters.

All yoke thay pwe troupes had to be registered and the number of string puppets as well as their physical parts were determined to be 28. This number is derived from the traditional Buddhist belief that all and each organism comprises 28 physical parts..