The popular theatre of the Malays is called bangsawan (bangsa: people; wan: noble). Its stories are from Arabian romances, other Islamic literature, and Malay history. They usually deal with rulers and aristocrats and some themes are borrowed from Western theatre.
Bangsawan is a kind of melodramatic, semi-operatic form of drama that combines songs with spoken dialogue. Its popularity has recently faded, but it was extremely well liked, especially before World War II, when bangsawan troupes toured as far as Sumatra and Java, influencing popular theatre there.
The origins of bangsawan can be traced back to popular Indian theatre. In 1875 a Parsi theatre company from Bombay performed with great success in Penang, which led to the creation of bangsawan. It is usually performed on a Western-kind of proscenium stage with painted backdrops and semi-historical costuming. From the very beginning it has been purely commercial theatre without any links to either courts of the religion.
In bangsawan throughout written scripts are rare. The more or less fantastic plots give only rough outlines of the action, thus leaving much space for improvisation. The stories include Arab material, such as the Thousand and One Nights, as well as Indian, Indonesian, and Chinese stories. Even Western stories are popular, including Shakespeare’s plays.
In their quality the colourful, painted backdrops reflected the economic standing of the troupe. The wealthier the group, the more pompous were the paintings. A set of backdrops usually includes a curtain, a street scene, a garden, a palace hall, and a jungle view. Until the early 20th century it was customary that these scenes followed each other in a certain order, but this practice was later abolished.
Even troupes with less elaborate backdrops aimed to create “local flavour” in their productions. For example, plays with Indian themes are accompanied by Indian Bollywood-kind music and costuming in order to refer to India, and Chinese stories were staged similarly with some references to Chinese music and visual elements.
Although the story material of the bangsawan repertoire is vast and heterogeneous, the role types seen on the stage follow a fixed system. The lead is often a young man, even a poor one, but through his cleverness and other qualities he attains his status as a hero. The female lead is usually a charming maiden. Other stock characters are a king, ministers and courtiers. Spirits, hermits and clowns may also be included, according to general Southeast Asia tradition.
The acting is not limited by any rigid style, which is often the case in ceremonial or court traditions. Bangsawan acting is characterised by melodramatics and improvisation, as well as a kind of elasticity, which makes it possible to change the style according to the performers’ skills and the needs of the play performed. Battle scenes are often enacted by the use of movements and poses of the pentjak silat martial arts.