These two forms of artistic expression have to be considered together in Thailand. The theatre is conceived and enjoyed as an art which combines gesture and movement with spectacle. In this sense it is not very different from what is called “total theatre”, combining dancing and singing, both involving music and the spoken word, and enhancing the visual effect by the attention paid to costume.
In virtue, the subjects treated, all taken from mythology, legend or epic, and the strict traditional rules which govern the dancing, this theatre is a ritual spectacle. Not all dances are of a religious nature: in fact most of them are expressions of courtly art. Nevertheless they all have something of the character of a rite, almost a sacred ceremony: this not surprising, since the Thai concept of the sacred is much wider than the sense generally given to the term in the West.
The traditional Thai shadow-play is called nang, meaning puppets of animal-skin. Life sized figures were used, made of ox-leather and painted. The actors moved them in front of a screen, and candles cast colored shadows on the screen. The steps and gestures of the actors were strictly prescribed, so that the effect was of a dance. The story was accompanied by an orchestra and choir, and explained in recitative. The nang is now practically extinct.
After the shadow-plays came the masked plays (khon), which are still popular, though they now aim at a relatively more natural effect. Originally all the actors in these dance-plays wore masks, but today human and divine figures appear without masks. In former days all the dancers were men, but now girls play not only the female roles, but gods and heroes as well. The movements of the dancers are strictly prescribed, and every gesture has a meaning, so that the initiated can interpret the course of action from the movements of the dance.
The dance follows the rhythm of the music. Besides the dancers and orchestra, a choir and solo singers are essential to the khon. The words are solemnly recited by the choir, and individual parts are sung by soloists. For a sucessful performance all four groups must be completely attuned to one another. A classical khon play lasts five hours. The contents are known to the audience, because the subject is always from the Ramakien or the Javanese Inao legend. King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) wrote excellent adaptations of the Ramakien for the stage, keeping the ritual character of this theatre: the audience does not want a new plot or new characters, but rather has come to see the representation of a myth, and indeed to take part in the celebration of a rite.
In addition to this masked play there is also the classical dance-drama in which the actors, unencumbered by masks, can combine singing and speaking with dancing. Here too the figures and the steps follow a strict tradition. The course of the action is sometimes interrupted by grotesque interludes, either on mythological or realistic themes, which are always very popular.
The lakon is not a religious dance any more than the khon: both are courtly dances, though not in the same sense as, say, the dances danced at the court of Louis XIV. Rama II, the 19th century king who was also a poet, maintained a famous dance troupe, for which he himself wrote choral music and recitatives, directed the choreography, supervised rehearsals and provided sumptuous costumes.
Khon and lakon dancers must pursue a long and arduous training, beginning at the age of 6 or 8. The teaching of the khon dancers is done in four groups according to the type of part; male parts, female parts, demons and monkeys. The demon and monkey parts require a degree of agility which requires almost acrobatic skill. The training of the lakon dancers is no less strenuous: they too must learn to dance every step and perform every movement in accordance with the exact rules prescribed by tradition. At the age of 30 the dancers retire from the stage, and may then become teachers, costume designers or dressers. These last two employments are no light responsibility, since it takes 3 or 4 hours to dress the dancers in their costly garments, some of which have to be sewn up on the wearer.
In this century the Fine Arts Department has taken over from the court the responsibility for maintaining the classical arts. In 1934 the National School of Music and the Dance was founded in Bangkok, and it is this school that puts on the excellent performances at the Silpakorn Theatre. There are many private teachers giving instruction in the national dances.
Folk dances which seemed to have been forgotten have been revived by contemporary dance groups. Among these the dances of the Lao people of northern Thailand are particularly attractive. The dance troupe of the Fine Arts Department has also been able to reconstruct very ancient dances on the basis of old sculpture and carving, and has performed dances of the Dvaravati, Srivijayan, Lopburi and Sukhothai periods in the costume of the time. The old folk dances, however, are still danced in country areas, including the very popular ramwong, a round dance with very simple steps.
The Thai fondness for dancing is also evidenced by the numerous dance halls in which western-style dancing takes place.