The Twentieth Century

During the reign of reformist rulers at the end of the 19th century, traditional Thai theatre came up against competition from spoken drama and even Western opera. Admiration of Western art introduced realism and naturalism, undermining even more the role of traditional stylised Thai theatre, especially as Western-type stages, illusionistic sets, and lighting effects were adopted.

During the reign of King Rama VI (1910–1925) Western influence increased further. The English-educated king was a real theatre aficionado and spent much of his energy, as well as of the state budget, on his passion. He translated Western dramas into Thai and wrote dozens of plays himself. He built several Western-type stages and, as a shock to many, also appeared publicly as an actor.

While busy with lakhon phud or the new Western-type spoken theatre, Rama VI also revived traditional forms of dance-theatre. As in many other Asian countries, Thai theatre at the turn of the 20th century became a platform for patriotism and nationalistic ideology. Western-influenced realistic theatre was seen as the most suitable medium for these aims but, at the same time, traditional forms were partly reshaped to fulfil their new task.

Under Rama VII (1925–1935), traditional Thai theatre found itself in a serious crisis. The main reason was an economic depression, which limited the court’s resources for maintaining expensive forms of theatre. Around this time, the cinema, the modern rival of traditional theatre, gained popularity, and the first commercial movie theatre was established in Bangkok.

A decisive turn of events occurred in 1932, when royal power was limited, and Thailand became a constitutional monarchy. This signified the final break between the court and traditional theatre, which was now under the authority of the government’s Fine Arts Department. The old traditions gradually came to be regarded as national art instead of the art of the court which they had been created and developed as.

Since the end of the nineteenth century new audiences have influenced the development of theatre. The lakhon nok performances of the commercial theatres were mainly aimed at the urban bourgeoisie, and plays at Buddhist temple fairs usually drew a rural audience. Theatre had to adapt to the tastes of a new kind of audience, and the ideals and severity of court art gave way to new melodramatic plots and less refined humour.

Cinema and television are naturally the main rivals of both classical and popular theatre. The new media have provided employment for many actors who began their careers in the theatre, but the flood of Western films and the thriving video business are serious threats to the Thai motion picture industry which, however, has been able to produce internationally acclaimed films.

The government’s Fine Arts Department and the College of Dramatic Arts, as well as its provincial colleges, maintain the classical dance and theatrical traditions and thus provide thousands of young people with the opportunity to study their demanding techniques. In the latter half of the 20th century several new theatre houses and theatre and dance companies were founded.

For decades the Patravadi Theatre, founded by the actress Patravadi Mejudhon, has been providing a stage for the contemporary Thai arts as well as for an international dance festival. Since its renovations the Sala Chalernmkrung, an art deco movie theatre in the Chinatown of Bangkok, has served as a stage for both classical khon and modern entertainment, while the National Cultural Centre provides the venue for several festivals as well as for both Thai and foreign large-scale productions.

At the beginning of the 21st century several trends can be recognised in the Thai theatrical arts. Classical as well as regional forms are studied and their older performance practices are now and then revived. However, completely new kinds of styles and expressions, often borrowed from the West, such as modern dance techniques, musicals etc., are practised and performed while many young artists aspire to create a new kind of synthesis of the traditional Thai forms and contemporary techniques.