Thailand: traditional arts – Lakhon drama performance

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The legitimate drama, which is called Lakhon, is of very ancient, probably Indian origin, and is so strongly imbued with convention and tradition as to be almost incomprehensible to the spectator who has received no education in the matter.

It has considerable affinity with the Burmese drama, and like it was formerly played in the open-air, which accounts for the fact that it is usually on moonlit nights that representations are given.

The stage is merely an oblong space on three sides of which the audience sits while the fourth is reserved for the orchestra and as a sort of green-room and dressing-room where the players dress and make up and sit to await their cues.

In the houses of the well-to-do who have their private stage, this fourth side is screened off leaving two entrances right and left, but it often remains quite open so that the performers can be seen by the public while going through the interesting operation of changing their clothes. No scenery whatever is used, and the only piece of stage furniture is a dais, or raised seat, placed at the end of the stage jast in front of the orchestra and dressing-room, and between the two entrances, which serves as a throne, as a bed, as the interior of a cottage or what not, according as the action of the play demands.

The dresses are very gorgeons, but are strictly conventional and quite unlike anything to be seen in modern Siam except in old pictures representing the classical costume of gods and of royalty.

The repertoire consists almost entirely of stories from Brahman mythology or of fanciful episodes in the lives of kings of the remote past, and thus the heroes are always either gods or kings, and the heroines usually princesses.

The impersonators of all the serious parts are women but comic relief is provided by two or three men who, usually dressed as peasants, that is in
next to nothing, and without any make up, appear as country bumpkins, or as slaves or servants and enliven the proceedings with interpolated dialogue only remotely connected with the plot and with buffoonery which is often very clever and usually verging on the indecent.

The make up of the women consists of powder plastered on the face until it resembles a smooth white mask and of strongly marked black eyebrows and red lips. This covering entirely precludes all facial expression of the emotions; hence joy, sorrow, pleasure, anger, and fear are all expressed by conventional signs.

The dialogue, except that of the clowns, is conducted at a high and monotonous pitch of the voice and the singing, which forms a great part of the entertainment, is always slow, loud, and of strong nasal intonation.

Incidental pas seul dances indicative of love, triumph, defiance, and other emotions are of frequent occurrence as are concerted morceaux cle ballet implying the array of armies, the flight of angels, or the peregrinations of errant princesses with their attendant maids-of-honour.

Dancing is in fact almost the principal feature of the entertainment and an immense amount of time is passed in training the body to the diflicult postures and undulations which the art demands.

Skipping, tripping, or pirouetting have no place in the Siamese dance which consists of wreathing the arms with the fingers turned back to’ the uttermost, swaying and writhing the body and advancing or retiring with gliding motion, the toes turned out widely, the legs bent and the heels always in contact with the ground. Strange to say, such dancing when executed by a company of well trained supplebodied girls is frequently of very charming effect.

The national dancing which is very similar to that of the Burmese, has, apart from the drama itself an immense hold upon the people. Children of both sexes, but more especially the females are instructed in the art, and though their limbs may not acquire the extraordinary suppleness and double jointedness which enables professionals to bend their elbows the wrong way, and to turn their fingers back over the hand to touch the wrist, yet some proficiency is usually attained and the pose becomes familiar to such an extent that upon the sudden experience of joy or triumph in later life, the body is almost involuntarily thrown into the
attitude of the dance as the most adequate way of expressing the feelings.

Lasciviousness of gesture which is a common feature of Indian dancing, and which to a certain extent permeates the Burmese art, is markedly absent from the Siamese Lakhon dancing, though among the Lao it is at times not altogether tabooed.

The Lakhon is supposed to derive its name from the city of Lakhon or Nakhon Sri Thammarat, corrupted by the Malays into Ligor, and the supposition is possibly correct seeing that the city of Lakhon is one
of the most ancient in the country, and was very early imbued with the spirit of Brahmanism, the influence of which is plainly evident in the drama of Siam.

Text: Graham, W.A.
Photo: internet
Abstract from the book:
Siam: a handbook of practical, commercial, and political information
by Graham, W.A. (Walter Armstrong), 1868
Publication date: 1913
Publisher Chicago: F.G. Browne

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