Strings seem to disappear and puppets take on a life of their own. Spectators are caught up in their miniature world. The curtain lifts and we are reminded of the remarkable skills of the puppeteer.
In traditional court performances, marionettes could ‘speak’ freely where human actors could not. The small performers were used to pass on messages, warnings and grievances that would otherwise go unspoken.
More about Burma marionette performance
In Burma puppet plays have been performed since at least the 1400s. In the 1700s, the royal court began formally to sponsor and regulate the puppet theatre. It quickly grew in prestige and popularity. At the height of its popularity between 1820 and 1885, the puppet theatre in Burma was considered superior to the live theatre, such was the degree of skill and expertise exhibited by the puppeteers. Some puppets became famous throughout the land and were instantly recognised and much loved by the people.
The puppets are marionettes, manipulated through strings controlled from above. The strings, controls and hands of the puppeteers are visible during parts of the performance;on show is the incredible dexterity of the puppeteers. A great marionette performance could allow spectators to enter the world of the puppets and to forget that the little figures were not in fact human. There are anecdotes told about the hazards facing the puppeteers of unpopular puppets, as the audience could unleash their fury on the puppeteers.
A Burmese puppet troupe includes puppet handlers, vocalists and musicians. Plays are based on Buddhist fables, historical legends and folktales, among other stories. The figures range in height from about 30cm to 1m. Nearly all are stock figures, puppets may be reused in different roles, but characteristics are kept for each play. Some of these puppet types have been standard for centuries, especially those developed from Buddhist fables, which probably formed the puppeteer’s first repertoire.
Though no longer as popular today, the tradition is still maintained by a small number of performing troupes. The courtly way of life portrayed in puppet theatre during its heyday is now long gone, but it is continued in today’s puppets and the stories they perform.
The puppet characters
Included in Brighton Museum’s collection are early twentieth century puppets such as the princess (minthamee), an ogre or demon, an elephant figure (derived from Ganesh). It also includes puppets made during the 1990s, an ornate king of the nats and a sorcerer (zawgyi), a survivor from pre-Buddhist Burma who practices alchemy to attain immortal life.
Notable among these new puppets is the character of the comedian. This was made by Moustache Brother Lu Maw, and serves as an unusual record of contemporary life in Burma. The Moustache Brothers are from a family of performers based in Mandalay, who rose to international attention when two of the brothers were arrested in 1996 for one of their comic performances. During the seven-year imprisonment of the brothers, Lu Maw, who had remained free, used the carved puppets as one of the reminders to visitors of the fate of his brothers.
Burmese theatrical dance costume
Marionette theatre and classical dance in Burma share many similarities. Chief amongst these is their shared origins in the great courts of the past. Costumes, characters and gestures look back to a courtly golden age. Alongside the marionettes, Performance Gallery displays a twentieth century theatrical dance costume performed by Panchee Nay Myo.
When Panchee Nay Myo left Burma in 1962, he brought with him the skills and sparkling exuberance of Burmese dance. In Burma he had made extensive studies of historical costume. These drawings informed his costume designs for performances in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s. He adapted textiles and items that he had brought from Burma, or found at London markets, to create exquisite theatrical costumes.