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 Home > About Thailand > The Arts > Drama

DRAMA

From Classical to Popular Arts


In the purely classical form, Thai drama and dance are indivisible.

The khon masked drama is derived from Indian temple rituals and dancing and draws its story line from the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Indian epic Ramayana. During the Ayutthaya period, the khon was acted by accomplished male court retainers playing both male and female roles because until the 19th century the movements were thought too strenuous for women to perform. By the mid 1800's both men and women were appearing on stage together.

Khon performances are characterized by vigorous, highly-formalized action. Acting and dancing are inseparable, each step having a definite meaning which is emphasized by precisely defined music to suggest walking, marching, laughing, etc. Because some actors and actresses are masked and cannot speak, narrative verses are usually recited and sung by a chorus that sits with the accompanying woodwind, gong, and drum ensemble. The leading male and female performers do not wear masks and on some occasions they may speak.

The ornate papier mache masks, decorated with gold, lacquer, and paste jewels, are works of art and perfectly portray the protagonists' personalities. Costumes are made of rich brocades adorned with sparkling costume jewellery and closely resemble the apparel of royalty and celestial beings in classical Thai mural paintings. Major characters are readily identifiable by the predominant colours of their costumes. Phra Ram, the hero, wears deep green, while his brother, Phra Lak, wears gold and the monkey-god Hanuman wears white.

Khon productions were originally so long more than 20 hours that performances were staged on two consecutive days. Indeed, a performance of the entire Ramakian [with 311 characters ] would take more than one month [720 hours plus] of continuous performance. King Rama II's shorter version of the epic is used for dramatic purposes and contemporary adaptations of certain episodes are as short as three hours.

Lakhon dance drama is less formal and actors, with the exceptions of monkeys, ogres, and other non-human, non-celestial beings, do not wear masks, Lakhon plots are drawn mainly from the Ramakian, the Jatakas, and folk stories, Khon and Lakhon costumes are identical, but Lakhon dance movements are more graceful, sensual, and fluid, the upper torso and hands being particularly expressive with conventionalized movements portraying specific emotions.

Lakhon is subdivided into numerous variation, the major three being Lakhon Chatri, Lakhon Nok, and Lakhon Nai. Simplest of all in form and presentation, Lakhon Chatri is often seen at popular shrines, such as Bangkok's Luk Muang [City Pillar] where dancers are hired by supplicants whose wishes have been granted to perform for the shrine deity.

Lakhon Nai drama was originally presented only by court ladies in the palace. It was graceful, romantic, and highly stylized. Lakhon Nok plays, on the other hand, were performed outside the palace and acted only by men. Filled with lively music, off-colour humor, and rapid, animated movements, Lakhon Nok was the ancestor of the enormously popular Li-ke folk theater which is still a feature of many provincial festivals.

Li-ke, a burlesque of Lakhon containing elements of pantomime, comic folk opera, and social satire, is generally performed against a simply painted backdrop during temple fairs. Its court-derived stories are embellished with local references and anecdotes, and spontaneous dialogue is freighted with outrageous puns and double entendres.

Two neglected dramatic forms are Nang Yai shadow play and hun marionettes, both regular forms of entertainment in Ayutthaya. In Nang Yai, intricately fashioned cowhide figures, some two metres tall, are held against a brilliant backlit white screen. Bearers of the figures dance their parts, the movements of which were later to provide the pattern for Khon and Lakhon.

The Nang Talung, a more popular shadow play found mainly in the south of Thailand, closely resembles the Indonesian Wayang. Beautifully fashioned Nang Talung figures are smaller than their Nang Yai counterparts and are often constructed to have one moveable part-an arm, a leg, or a chin. Concealed from audience, the manipulators are skilled singers and comedians whose repartee keeps the action bubbling.

Hun marionettes, seldom seen today, are superbly crafted figures which differ from European marionettes in that they are manipulated from concealed threads pulled from below rather than above. A more popular version is Hun Krabok [literally "cylindrical model"] which are similar to Punch and Judy style hand puppets.


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