This article was originally published in Theatre Arts. Donald Oenslager. New York: Theatre Arts, Inc., 1941. pp. 344-353.

A relief from the Temple at Angkor, CambodiaTHE THEATRE of Indo-China is one of the oldest theatres in the world -- as old as the civilization that flourished under the early Khmer rulers of the ninth century. Watching a performance of this classical theatre today, vestigal as it is, one is very much aware of antique ritual and strange convention. The measured beat of the action is arrested like some great gesture of the past held in space, and the music is static like the echo of a Byzantine Litany reverberating down the ages in the timeless dome of Santa Sophia. This ancient theatre of Cambodia is not sympathetic to the aggressive action and modern tongue of the Japanese, French or Thailandish political spheres of influence prevailing in Indo-China today. Nor does it compare with superimposed western fashions of drama or the arts of contemporary Indo-China. The architecture of the French governor's colonial palace is a Cambodian version of the style of Louise Philippe, that of the palace of the king is a Louis Philippe version of Cambodian architecture. Native houses are drab and colorless and French domestic architecture has traveled so far overseas to the East it has become at once saline and tasteless.

But there is high drama of another kind for western eyes in the cosmopolitan stream of life that today sweeps along through the wide, shaded streets of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Here Europeans, Annamites, Siamese, Malaysians and Javanese rub against swarthy men from the provinces of Tonkin and Souch China. Yellow-robed bonzes go about their daily business of begging, praying and teaching. Coolies, bearers and sailors from all the ports of the world swarm along the steep banks of the restless Megong that flows by the city. The Megong with its connecting network of canals is the country's great waterway, always cluttered with sampans, junks, barges and patrol boats. Then there are the blinding white highways like the Mandarin Road to Annam. Dust hangs all day like a white fog, sticky and thick, over these highways that never rest from the burden of constant traffic, day and night, with never a pause even at dawn or at dusk. Manners and customs of the past and present meet continually in the sights seen along these thoroughfares, but never inside the theatre. The classical theatre lives only in the past and like a ghost is seen only after dark.

Now it is dusk in Phnom Penh. The humid heat of the day is over. Foreigners emerge from the cool retreat of French homes. Oppressive hole-in-the-wall shops spill their native contents out over the sidewalks. By six o'clock beer and aperitifs are served on a cafe terrace overlooking the banks of the Megong. Just below, man, beast and bird perform their evening ablutions in the swift muddy current. This is the refreshing moment of the day for everyone. The sacred white elephant munches carrots and clover in the privacy of his royal enclosure. Contented water buffalo scrunch body deep in water and hyacinths floating in the moats that girdle Angkor. Peacocks and egrets and heron preen their plumage by ponds of lotus. Crimson light merges earth and sky into a common glow of serenity. Night comes with magical swiftness. Hundreds of Pleiades in hundreds of different formations stream across the tropical night sky. Indo-China boasts of little night life to match the splendor of these starry skies.

But it is dark and we are looking for the theatre now in earnest. For native entertainment, itinerant Chinese troupes put up temporary bamboo theatres in the outskirts of the town. There are motion pictures (for everybody American and French) but of too rare and old a vintage for our pleasure. There is no western theatre at all, though dominating a square in the centre of Saigon is the imposing Beaux Arts Theatre built in 1890; but the sleeping Muse has not thrown open her doors for over three years. This repository of western dramatic art puts up a brave, if hopeless, Parisian facade to simulate a theme centre of gay Latin pleasure in Saigon, ironically called the 'Little Paris' of the East. Only the lights of a few small French cafes nearby and the chatter from bright porches of the Continental Hotel give it any encouragement. The real night life of the city is shut tight behind barred doors.

Through this muffled drumming of a teeming eastern city we hurried along by rickshaw to the Royal School of the Dance to witness a performance of the classical theatre of Cambodia. This is the training school for all the performers of the Royal Palace. We were finally deposited without ceremony by the edge of the road and climbed up to a broad veranda protected from the street by a blanket of bougainvillea and masses of aromatic flowers. A spacious entry hall, embarrassed with four monumental Victorian buffets, served as the lobby of the School. They made tiny Madam Soysangvann, who greeted us most politely, seem even tinier and more fragile than she was. She is an accomplished court dancer herself and is the head of the School by royal appointment. She had arranged a special program of plays to be given for us by some of the royal troupe and her pupils. She escorted us into the dance hall. We were a little disappointed, for the hall had none of the oriental splendor of the two great entertainment pavilions we had visited that morning within the Royal Enclosure. They are called a Rung-ran or 'dancing shed' which implies that in Cambodia, as everywhere else in the East, the drama was born in the dance. These pavilions have high pitched roofs of vermilion, blue and gold tiles that flash gaily in the sunlight. They are columned structures, open on all sides, and raised high on platforms so that they dominate as well as ornament the formal palace gardens.

The School's dance hall, if not large and ornate, is picturesque and intimate. The walls are whitewashed boards. Green shutters are along one side. Green posts, each with a girdle of exotic plants around the base, support the low ceiling. Between these two posts the chorus of six women chant an accompaniment to the performance. Down the centre of the hall runs a broad strip of matting. Two strips of red Brussels carpet separate this dancing area from the raised dais on which we sat as guests to watch the performance. Four electric bulbs glared down over the dancing area, bright as the noonday sun. At one end of the hall, sitting on the floor, are the musicians before a red damask hanging, surrounded with all their incredible paraphernalia: drums, tympani and wind instruments. At the opposite end is a golden oriental divan with a cover of gold brocade. Behind this hangs a badly painted landscape backcloth. A single door leads off to the 'green room' or dressing room. This was all the scenery there was. But for the descendants of the Khmers it was probably as filled with meaning, though with none of the beauty, as the conventional pine tree of the Noh stage is for the Japanese. We occupied stiff chairs on the dais. At one side of this dais was an altar with two candles burning in golden candlesticks before a small figure of a theatre divinity. Behind it on the wall hung a rare kakemono. Above the altar was suspended a fantastic canopy fashioned of strings of fresh flowers, tuberoses, hyacinths and lilies, whose pungent frangrance perfumed the whole hall. This was in honor of Madam Soysangvann, whose birthday we were celebrating. It lent an air of informal festivity to the whole occasion, shared by several hundreds of friends of hers and guests of ours tucked away quietly and modestly in every available spot to see the plays.

The themes of Cambodian drama are derived from two principal sources. The first are based on episodes from the lives of the ancient Khmer kings. The characters of these chronicle dramas are princes and potentates, princesses and courtesans, with a full complement of demons and witches. The second are fanciful dramatizations derived from favorite portions of the ancient Indian poetic legends, the Mahabarata and the Ramayana. Their characters range all the way from gods and goddesses and immortal heroes to mythical giants and animalistic spirits. All plays are broken into innumerable scenes but there is no pause and the action is continuous. Comedy merges with satire and satire with tragedy. The bill of fare is all-inclusive and, knowing the infinite variety of oriental tastes, we were prepared to digest almost anything.

Even as we were arriving, the orchestra set up a cacophony of restless, stirring notes and turned them into a medley of outlandish rhythms while we innocently believed they were only tuning up! The chorus of women singers took up these rhythms, each beating the time with two pieces of wood. The leader sat in front of the chorus and before her was the text of the play. Madam Soysangvann gave the signal to begin. Several young girls made a sweeping entrance onto the dance area. With but a few exceptions all the performers of Cambodian dramas are women. Their supple figures are very small and pliant. They move like impersonal, fragile, starry-eyed dolls, designed and created only to act in this charmed theatre which is a fusion of music, dance and pantomime.

From childhood the pupil's training is most rigorous, for a finished actress requires infinite skill and technical knowledge. The tongues of these actors or dancers (they are really both) are muted. They never speak. With pantomime and dance they visualize the text of the chorus and complement the music. Postures are highly conventionalized and gesture flows formally from one attitude to another like the visual pattern of musical notes on a page that makes a passage of a fugue. Though pantomime expresses the realistic content of, for instance, a love scene or a duel, it does so with unrealistic gestures that are highly artificial and unemotional, each gesture designed as a conscious link in a whole chain analogy of storied fantasy that makes the scene as impersonal as it is negative. The dancer orchestrates her body with sweeping arcs of changing rhythms. The line from the fingertips through the wrists and then over the elbow to the shoulder and head is so controlled that it appears to be one continuous curving line that sweeps through constantly repetitious patterns of alternating and reverse inversion of the same arc motive. Consequently the whole pictorial effect of a scene is very much like the complicated pattern of a subtly designed oriental fabric.

The costumes, too, are based on principles of pure design as well as pure theatre to enhance and to enlarge the extraordinarily mobile art of these miniature actresses. There is no restraint in the orchestration of their color -- magenta, malachite, gamboge, jade and cobalt are enriched with much gold and many jewels and flowers. Certain supernatural characters wear grotesque masks. The faces of all the other performers are invariably painted almost flat white with black penciled eyebrows and full carmine lips. Their little white faces are surmounted with pagoda-like golden headdresses. These theatrical costumes are partly dazzling fantasy, partly oriental fairy tale and belong completely to another epoch and to another world of splendor. One recalls vaguely having seen them before -- and against a background as extravagant as they, themselves, appear to be. Striking similarities become suddenly very obvious. While wandering through the vast ruins of Angkor Wat, through crumbling corridors, by sculptured walls along terraces and turrets, one comes upon these very same dancing girls or apsaras. These players moving before us speak from out the past with the same voice, employ the same gestures as the players and dancers carved on the walls of these temples imprisoned in the jungles for a thousand years. Cambodian sculptors must have derived endless pleasure in capturing the timeless beauty of these dancers of the Khmer court, for today these tireless dancers of Angkor's ruins rank among the highest achievements of sculptured decoration of all time. These sculptured records are witnesses, as we were, too, that night, of the long and high estate the classic theatre of Cambodia has steadily maintained.

That day we were living between two theatres -- the theatre of the past and the theatre of the present. We could actually touch the one and witness the other. They seemed identical. But this traditional theatre is not the popular theatre of Indo-China today, no matter what beauty and high talent Madam Soysangvann and the Royal Cambodian School are able to summon into being. What is not popular in the eastern theatre today cannot possibly survive the larger drama of changing society and a changing political world. That is the inevitable tragedy that threatens the future of the classic theatre of Indo-China.


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