The best expression of the Thai literary genius is found in poetry. Thai verse contains a great variety of meters, and the tonal quality of the language provides an additional metrical device not available in non-tonal languages. Tonal measure usually takes the place of rhyme, although in at least one form, the Kap, both are employed. Thai poetry is unlimited with regard to subject, but perhaps the best known and most numerous poems are the elegantly expressed and very musical love songs known as Klon’pet ton. The Klon’pet ton are very brief, eight- line verses in two stanzas. Each line contains eight syllables and the whole piece is perfectly balanced. Other forms include longer narrative love verse and the Ramakien epic, which is written in lyrical verse intended to be sung to the accompaniment of dancing.
Other areas of Thai literature are mythological, quasi-historical, and religious writings, the material for which came from many sources. The Ramakian, for example, is the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana epic; the Inao, a historical romance, comes from Java. Thai mythology derives from several sources, particularly from China, Cambodia, and India, and is important for the information it provides on the origin and development of Indochinese popular beliefs. Some of the earliest and best examples of Thai prose are embodied in legal literature. Religious literature is most heavily represented by the Buddhist canon; the Pattma Sompothiyan is the standard Thai life of the Buddha.
In modern times Thai writers have made use of Western literary forms. The realistic novel dealing with psychological problems has enjoyed some popularity among the better educated, and the short story has become a very popular medium. Some efforts have been made in free verse, but although well done, they have not been especially successful. Many Western works have been translated. Another area of modern literary activity has been the rendering of traditional Thai classics, such as the Pattma Sompothiyan, into modern colloquial style.
Traditional Thai drama is based largely on the Ramakian epic and the Inao historical romance. The former figures in the khon, a masked stage presentation which relies on music and highly stylized gestures and dance movements to carry the action and express the emotions of the characters. A second traditional form, the lakon, is a music drama which makes use of a singing chorus. Stereotyped gestures are used to express emotion in the lakon also, although masks are not worn. The main sources for the classical lakon repertoire are the Inao romance and local folklore. A third dramatic form, the rabam, is a kind of ballet. The rabam is as a rule interpolated between the episodes of the dramas. Modern Thai theater dates from King Rama VI, who was greatly interested in Western literature and who introduced many European plays. A playwright himself, he adapted many of Shakespeare’s plays to the Thai stage. Recently, some of the classical plays have been successfully revised by shortening episodes and by introducing modern stage techniques and devices. (See also Music, Oriental.)