Thai Theatre as Political Dissent

A review of Kamron Gumatilaka and the Crescent Moon Theatre: Contemporary Thai Theatre as Political Dissent, by Parichat Jungwiwattanaporn.

Parichat Jungwiwattanaporn’s dissertation, Kamron Gunatilaka and the Crescent Moon Theatre: Contemporary Thai Theatre as Political Dissent, provides not only an insightful analysis of the work of theatre director Kamron Gunatlaka, but also a much needed overview of contemporary Thai theatre beyond the traditional court forms. Jungwiwattanaporn combines history, theory (especially ideas relating to Brecht), and political analysis in her examination of this influential and dynamic artist’s work.

Jungwiwattanaporn traces Kamron’s theatrical history and practice through the four trajectories of history, aesthetics, politics, and philosophy. The introduction focuses on the theoretical framework of aesthetics, Marxism, and Buddhism as it relates to the biography of Kamron Gunatilaka—his theatre practice was greatly influenced by avant-garde and postmodern theatre practices. The second chapter provides a clear overview of “Thainess” within politics, religion, and identity and how they relate to and are expressed in the arts and culture of Thailand. The following chapters, based on interviews, videos, documentary research, and firsthand experiences, traces the history of Kamron’s theatre practice as it intersects Thai history and challenges different aesthetic ideals. The appendix and glossary also provide useful information and resources in order to help the reader understand Thai history, culture, and the plays.

Thai theatre must be understood within the context of discourse and practices of Thai identity where concepts such as nationalism and sakdina form a contemporary version of Thainess. First, the ideal of sakdina, or “knowing one’s place in society,” provides a hierarchical, class-based value that permeates Thai political and daily life through use of language, dress, social etiquette, and artistic practices. Within this system, “individuals with lesser social status always use a lower status coded language and are expected to show submission to the ones with higher status” (p. 58). The hierarchical-based attitudes and practices continue even though the system was officially abolished in 1932. Second, the concept of nationalism stemmed from the motto of the Three Pillars, articulated by King Rama VI (reigned 1910-1925), who declares that it is the duty of all Thai to love, be loyal to, and defend the three most important institutions of Thailand, which are Nation (chat), Religion (satsana), and King (Phra Mahagasat). These three pillars are propagated through the arts, including theatre, and within daily life, forming what Jungwiwattanaporn argues is the basis for Thai hegemony and Thai style democracy with its emphasis on the moral superiority of the ruling class.

Jungwiwattanaporn provides an insightful overview of Thai theatre history, where Thai theatre, like Thai social and political life, has been up until recently, primarily centered around honoring the king. Court forms such as kohn (masked dance theatre) and lakhon nai (eighteenth-century court theatre) have received the most support and attention as “high art forms” as compared to other folk, or “lesser” forms of performance. Additionally, Western-influenced forms that celebrated modern national identity were developed, further disenfranchising regional or folk theatre artists. A “People’s Theatre,” was conceived in order to voice the stories of oppressed peoples and where artists began to experiment with different contexts and forms. It is within this context that the Crescent Moon Theatre Group began.

Chapter 3 is where the dissertation begins to focus more closely on Kamron and the early history of his theatre work. In 1966 Crescent Moon first formed, but as a literary group, not a theatre group, committed to studying Western, Chinese, and Thai works that developed the member’s liberal humanist attitudes and a spirit for activism. The name for the organization came from a group of Chinese poets in the 1920s known as the Crescent Moon School who inspired the Thai students by their innovative poetry that broke from tradition. Initially the group focused on writing and publishing literature, but in 1970 some of the members began to write plays; first to be read and then they began to stage them in 1971. Jungwiwattanaporn provides clear summaries of these works. The group learned about theatrical process, a mix of Stanislavski, Craig, and Decroix, when the American director Gary Carkin directed Death of a Salesman at Thammasat University. The experience was a turning point for Kamron, who after spending nine months teaching in a rural area, returned to direct five productions for the group, whose focus was quickly turning from literature to theatre. Then, as Thai politics turned more tumultuous, the theatre group became more politically focused and staged improvisational protest dramas. In 1975 the group staged Maxim Gorki’s The Mother and officially became the Crescent Moon Theatre Group (CMTG) with the stated aims of, “1) To present plays that are mobile and self sufficient; 2) To present plays that present humanity and truth in society; 3) To support other groups with technical equipment and training; 4) To spread knowledge about theatre” (p. 110). The chapter contains many details both of those early productions, with compelling descriptions of the group’s process and performances together with clear details from history—it makes for exciting reading.

Following a crack down and mass arrest of student protestors on October 6, 1976, Kamron moved to Paris where he married a French graphic designer. In France Kamron worked with German theatre artist Wolfram Mehring who was known for his diverse physical approaches to theatre known as “Body Expression”. Jungwiwattanaporn provides an important introduction and overview of Mehring’s work and approaches to actor training that is important not only for understanding Kamron’s theatre, but is valuable on its own.

Chapter 4 sees Kamron divorced from his wife and returning to Thailand in 1986 where he staged The Revolutionist, a play inspired by Pridi Banomyong (the leader of the 1932 revolution in Thailand that changed the government to a constitutional monarchy)—it became the most frequently revived play between 1987 and 2009. Jungwiwattanaporn offers a detailed analysis of the 1987 production (it became the production on which most subsequent productions were based) together with a useful overview of the political context that details how theatre relates to and potentially subverts social hegemony. Her analysis is especially interesting and rich because of her personal connections to Pridi and Kamron (Pridi founded Thammasat University where Jungwiwattanaporn worked as an instructor from 1993-2000).

Even though Kamron remained busy and active producing and directing theatre, Thailand lacked a permanent theatre company that could employ and foster full-time professionals. In 1995, CMTC was founded to foster theatrical production in Thailand, especially as a “medium to address current problems in Thai society” and to train the new generation of Thai theatrical artists (p. 196). CMTC also served as the leader for a larger organization called The Theatre Community that desired to foster other companies and create a network for Thai theatre artists. In spite of these ambitious beginnings, the new theatre company and organization struggled both financially and personally. CMTC staged its last production in 1997 – and until the writing of the dissertation (2010) remains the only theatre company of its kind. The remainder of this chapter and the next chapter then focus on a close analysis of two pivotal productions by CMTC—My Name is Phaya Phan and A Mid Winter’s Dream.

My Name is Phaya Phan was loosely based on Oedipus Rex and was created through an improvisational process. According to Jungwiwattanaporn, “Kamron wanted to create a semi-Artaudian, semi-Buddhist ritualistic production that explored the ancient myth of Siam via fictional, primitive, gestural and verbal languages” (p. 201). Kamron had to determine how to tell the well-known story of Phaya Phan, well known in Thai culture and often represented in classical Thai theatre, and if he would use gestures from traditional Thai dance. Instead, Kameron was determined to create a version of the story that strove to both challenge the sakdina cultural system and conventional forms of theatre presentation in Thailand, which he equated with Thai bourgeois’ values. Jungwiwattanaporn, through describing how Kamron was influenced by a variety of Western theatre practices, even as his understanding and execution was deeply rooted in Thai Buddhist values, complicates ideas that intercultural performance moves from East to West only. Throughout Jungwiwattanaporn shows a nuanced understanding of various theatrical approaches, theories, and styles and their relationship to Buddhist principles. The chapter also includes photos and descriptions of the production, translations of parts of the script, and details of the performance. Jungwiwattanaporn concludes, “The production not only achieved an anti-sakdina, and opposition to the state-infused Buddhism ethos, but also managed to turn a simple Thai folktale into an animistic myth with Buddhist-Artaudian aesthetics” (p. 235).

Chapter 6 focuses on how theatre functions as resistance. October 6, 1976 was one of the most bloody uprisings in Thai history, but this fact is rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the government that celebrates it as a “victory.” In the chapter, Jungwiwattanaporn argues that Kamron’s play, A Mid Winter’s Dream (MWD) “is significant for Thai theatre not only because of its aesthetic innovations, but also because it functions as resistance to the state’s attempt to repress the historical memory of October 6, 1976” (p. 236). Kamron chose to revive MWD in 2006 as a a commemoration of the thirty year anniversary of October 6, even though he had not directed for ten years (the original production of MWD was in 1996). A recent coup in 2006 made the production even more relevant than before. Jungwiwattanaporn was able to attend rehearsals and watch the production, and therefore offers a unique and valuable description and analysis of the postmodern aesthetics accompanied by color photos and informative photos. She also attended a post show discussion and collected written responses from about 200 members of the audience. These reveal that the audience’s understanding of the production was mixed, even so, Jungwiwattanaporn concludes that, “MWD serves as a psychological agent for Thai society that tries to transcend the event [of October 6] and continues to allow it to have a place in both social history and private memory” (p. 290).

The conclusion does an excellent job of framing Kamron’s work within larger discourses of globalization and the future of theatre in Thailand in the twenty-first century. Information from each chapter is put into conversation with the others in helpful and interesting ways. A history of Kamron and CMTC is really a history of Thai contemporary theatre and performance—one cannot be understood without the other. This dissertation is an important contribution to our understanding of Thai theatre and culture. It also provides insightful analysis into the counterhegemonic possibilities of theatrical expression that resonates outside a Thai or Southeast Asian context.

Jennifer Goodlander
Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance
Indiana University
JGoodlan@indiana.edu

Primary Sources

Observation of rehearsals and performances
Interviews conducted by the author

Dissertation Information

University of Hawaii at Manoa. 2010. 366 pp. Primary Advisor: Elizabeth Wichmann-Walczak.

Image: Bust of Pridi Banomyong. Flickr Commons.

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