The early 2010s in Thailand saw a groundswell of criticism of the monarchy’s role in politics together with a revival of interest in Khana Ratsadon (the People’s Party)’s revolution in 1932. Many path-breaking activist collectives emerged and flourished during those few years: from Khana Nitirat (Enlightened Jurists), a group of law professors who proposed amendments to the lese majeste law, to Prakai Fai Karn Lakorn (Искра драма), a student theater group committed to bringing art to the people and sparking class struggle.
Nine Reigns was arguably Prakai Fai’s culminating work. Written and directed by Prontip Mankhong with research and assistant writing from Siam Theerawut, the play evolved over three annual celebrations of the 24 June 1932 revolution. The throughline in all three versions was the pastiche of Kukrit Pramoj’s novel Four Reigns (1953-1954), where Prontip starred as the conservative Mae Ploi and Siam starred as her revolutionary son. Every version featured Mae Ploi and her friend Mae Choi stumbling over the word “constitution”:
The 2011 version was called One Reign (or One Kingdom) and had only two scenes with no filler. In 2012, Nine Reigns premiered, having ballooned to eight scenes and forty-five minutes of runtime. Then, the 2013 version, which ran for one hour and forty-five minutes on a large stage at Khana Ratsadon Plaque, added an extensive first scene which satirised Thainess by giving “ethnic” backstories to the characters, with Mae Ploi cast as Lao and Mae Choi cast as Chinese.
A medley of political tales and historical sketches peppered with contemporary references, Nine Reigns left to the audience the work of connecting the dots. Its impetus was the stage adaptation Four Reigns the Musical, produced in the centennial celebration of the birth of Kukrit Pramoj plus the auspicious occasion of King Bhumibol’s 84th birthday. The musical enjoyed a 100-show run between 2011 and 2012, with one special Gala Charity show attended by Queen Sirikit. Unlike the musical, Nine Reigns openly parodied the unthinking conservatism and royalist sentiments of Mae Ploi. Paradoxically, this came closer to Kukrit’s own judgment of the character than what any of the “patriotic” adaptations ever did. As Kukrit said in a 1985 interview:
Mae Ploi is a very old-fashioned person. . . That Thai readers lionise Mae Ploi as a paragon of virtue is because Thai people are just like that. They haven’t evolved. The majority of readers are simply at that level of Mae Ploi’s. (laughs) So damn stupid, let me tell you—that’s why Four Reigns was such a hit. (laughs)
At a time when public adoration for the Thai monarchy in general and King Bhumibol (Rama IX) in particular was at its apex, the uproarious reactions of Nine Reigns’s audience revealed an undercurrent of a much different attitude, an attitude that is no longer underground under the tenth reign of today. We include in the body of the text such evidence of common(er) feelings—expressed as cheering, jeering, laughing, and clapping—both in the translated excerpts below and in our full transcripts in the original Thai. Click here to read the 2012 transcript, or here to read the 2013 transcript.
The three scenes excerpted here develop a snowballing theme of political change and Thai people’s intelligence—or lack thereof. Note that the chronology jumps from the arrival of the constitution in 1932 to the death of King Ananda (Rama VIII) in 1946 and then back again to circa 1939 when the first government of Field Marshal Pibulsongkhram prosecuted former King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) for misusing royal assets.
We have not been able to find high-definition video recordings of any of the performances. One videographer, we learned, deleted all their original files in the months after the coup in 2014, when lese majeste charges rained down on participants in another Prakai Fai production, landing Prontip in prison and pushing Siam into exile—never to return. Fortunately, second-hand uploads survive on YouTube. We are grateful to the videographers as well as the reuploaders. We are also grateful to Nick Nostitz who gave us permission to feature his never-before-seen photographs of the 2013 production, showing Siam Theerawut in his glory as our country’s revolutionary son. This translation is a monument to Siam’s work.
Scene 1 (from 2012; watch video recording)
MAE CHOI runs onto the stage
MAE CHOI: Mae Ploi, Mae Ploi, come out here please Mae Ploi, Mae Ploi.
MAE PLOI enters
MAE PLOI: I’ve been so worried; I heard the news that there’s been a rebellion.
MAE CHOI: Yes, Mae Ploi. The Palace gates were closed for the past two days I couldn’t get out. I was so scared.
MAE PLOI: So, what on earth is going on Mae Choi?
MAE CHOI: My dear! Seems like you have no idea what’s going on?
MAE PLOI: None whatsoever.
MAE CHOI: Well, the Khana Ratsadon People’s Party have locked up the royals and staged a change of government.
MAE PLOI: Khana Ratsadon?? Who are these people? Are they the same as Khana Nitirat? (audience laughs)
MAE CHOI: Nitirat…
MAE PLOI: Do these people have no fear of sin and karmic justice? And who are these second Khana Ratsadon people I wonder?
MAE CHOI: It’s Khana Ratsadon only, not the second Khana Ratsadon.
MAE PLOI: I see –only that.
MAE CHOI: Well, they say there are military men, those who studied abroad and the average citizen just like us. They also say that they plan to use what they call a Con-si-tew-tion to govern the country too.
MAE PLOI: Con-con-con-sitewtion? What does that mean? Please tell me Mae Choi. And what about the royals, what do they plan to do with them? Kill them all? Is that what they want to do? (audience jeers)
MAE CHOI: Umm—I myself don’t really know much about this Consitution they’re talking about. Something foreign I guess.
OD: Well Mum, when Un comes home why don’t you ask him yourself?
MAE PLOI: Seems like you still haven’t stopped making accusations against your brother, have you?
OD: I’m not accusing him, Mummy. You can ask him yourself if you like.
UN enters. He puts his hands up as a sign of respect.
UN: Good morning, Aunt Choi; good morning Mum, is there anything for me to eat? I haven’t had a full meal in days.
MAE PLOI: Un—tell me if it’s true that they say you’re committing treason.
UN: Please don’t use such a strong word as that, Mummy. Or if you do, why not just call this a change of government?
MAE PLOI and MAE CHOI: (together in unison) That’s too long!
UN: Then simply call it a revolution.
OD: These radicals! So ungrateful they are after all that His Majesty’s government has done for us.
UN: Od—these days I hardly see anything that His Majesty’s government has done for us. (audience cheering) All we see are poor people being taxed so that the royals can enjoy themselves at our expense. (cheering) All they know how to do is to hold mindless activities with the kind of merriment that only serves their senseless whims and beliefs. (cheering) There are birthday parties (cheering), funerals (cheering), and then just recently (cheering) what was that? Oh yes of course – the city’s celebration.
MAE CHOI: Oh dear – now let’s talk nicely to each other. I’ve got a question for you Un –this Constitution I’ve been hearing– is that some Westerner from somewhere?
UN: It’s not a foreigner or Westerner; it’s a law, the highest form of the law that all of us need to follow whether we’re royals or commoners.
MAE PLOI: Placing royals under the law – I’m sure they’ll concede to that!
UN: If they don’t, then that means war, Mum. (roaring cheer) The old and new regimes, seems we’ll be fighting for many more years to come before any side wins. Rest assured that in our lifetime maybe our own children will be at war with each other. We’ll continue to see this struggle between the old and new for a very long time to come.
MAE PLOI: Un!
OD: You see Mum? It hasn’t been that long and he’s beginning to show his true colors. Un hasn’t got an ounce of loyalty to the monarchy in him. (approaches UN and points a finger at him) He’d better watch out or he’s going to have lice crawling on his head for being so arrogant and not knowing his own place.
UN: If I have any loyalty left, my loyalty shall be for the colossal mass of citizenry and nothing else, Od. (audience roars with cheers, shaking their clappers)
MAE PLOI: Are you admitting now that you’ve committed treason?! (bursts into tears, OD embraces her trying his best to console his mother)
UN: Mum, if that’s what you want to believe then I’m sorry but I can’t help it. How long has it been that we’ve been having to put up with this messed-up, dissolute society? (audience cheering) But in a society full of oppression where the rich lord it over the poor. They can afford to be extravagant (cheering), enjoying all the luxuries while hundreds of thousands of people are living in abject poverty (cheering). It is time now for us to rise up and alter this society to bring about liberty and equality. (cheering)
MAE CHOI: Why the impatience Un? Wait a little longer for His Majesty to be ready and he will grant it to you himself. He was educated abroad, too, you know? The common folk in our country aren’t even educated—
OD: They’re still stupid.
UN: Then royals are stupid too! (cheering)
OD: “Plucking off the fruit before it ripens!”
UN: We need progress!
MAE PLOI: Watch out! Taking over their power like that, one day you’ll see them taking back what you took from them.
UN: If any one of those royals dares to grab that power from the people, then it’s probably time for us to see fighting and bloodshed. (cheering) The citizens of Siam today aren’t stupid. They don’t feed on grass and straw instead of rice. (cheering) They’re not going to be led by the nose like an animal like before.
MAE PLOI: (voice trembling, face contorted) I raised all my children constantly reminding them, instilling in them the importance of loyalty to the monarchy. Never did I think that I would have a treacherous son! Do you know something Un? You have destroyed everything I have upheld all my life with the utmost respect. Everything, trampled under your feet! (cheering) I simply can’t take it Khun Choi. Go away Un—don’t let me see your face again.
UN: Before I leave, first let me tell you that whatever my associates and I have done was never for any personal benefit but it has always been for the benefit of the colossal mass of citizenry in the years and years to come. (cheering)
MAE PLOI: That’s enough! I don’t want to hear another word from you. Please get out of my way, Un. I no longer wish to see you.
MAE CHOI: Hold on, be patient Ploi.
UN: Please excuse me, I’ll go out to eat. (applause)
MAE PLOI is sobbing.
MAE CHOI: Mae Ploi, the world is moving and every day things are changing, aren’t they? We have lived so long witnessing all these changes from one era to another. We’ve seen that some royals are good while some aren’t so good. There isn’t any standard against which they can be measured. We need to adjust ourselves to it too, you know? The clock is ticking and each day we keep moving forward.
MAE PLOI: If that is what you want to say to me, I think it is better if you leave. I insist that this is something I cannot accept. (turns to OD) Od –
OD: Yes, Mum.
MAE PLOI: Can you please see Khun Choi out?
OD: Follow me please, Mae Choi.
OD: It’s a pity isn’t it that you, Mae Choi, have been living in the walls of the royal palace for so long and that you have such thoughts. (folds his arms over his chest)
MAE CHOI: Well Od, it’s precisely because I have been in the palace for so long that I have witnessed so many things that you, young man, have not. Huh! (cheering)
All characters leave the stage.
Scene 3 (from 2012; watch video recording)
MAE PLOI appears onstage, she is coughing and her back is bent. She walks over to sit on a plastic chair.
MAE PLOI: Un dear, fetch me some water please.
UN is seated on the floor besides his mother’s chair. He hands her a bottle of water.
LUANG: (panting and out of breath) Mae Ploi!
MAE PLOI: Luang!
LUANG: Something terrible has happened, Siam is in deep trouble!
MAE PLOI: What’s happened?
LUANG: His Majesty has died. (extended cheering from the audience)
MAE PLOI: What are you talking about? He is still a young man. Hale and hearty he is, how can he be dead?
LUANG: This morning before coming over I stopped by at a coffeeshop and that’s all people were talking about. That the King has passed away.
MAE PLOI: So it’s just a rumour that’s being spread in the coffee shop!
LUANG: A rumour you think?
MAE PLOI: Well with all the rumours we hear – that His Majesty has taken ill, that he has numerous concubines, all sorts of things. These rumour-mongers have nothing better to do but to spread salacious gossip. Nothing is clear yet is it, Khun Luang?
MAE CHOI enters, sobbing.
MAE CHOI: Mae Ploi… Mae Ploi
MAE PLOI: (sobbing also) Mae Choi
MAE CHOI: Oh this back of mine aches so badly. I’m getting old.
MAE PLOI: Is what we hear true Mae Choi?
MAE CHOI: (wiping the tears) I would so wish that it’s all nothing but a rumour.
MAE CHOI: Mae Ploi – there he was asleep with so many people guarding the bed chamber. Still, he couldn’t escape this fate. Seems that people are saying that he died at the hands of the royal pages who were on duty. Probably had the backing of a politician. Oh! Those two hateful pages Chit and But.
LUANG: Is this the truth?
MAE PLOI: Is that already confirmed—the identity of the one who committed this reprehensible act?
MAE CHOI: No, it isn’t. (audience applauds) The government will need to further investigate this matter.
MAE PLOI: This is so devastating.
MAE CHOI: I’ve got to get back to the Palace now. I came here just to deliver the news.
MAE PLOI: (sobbing) Please do take care Mae Choi.
MAE CHOI: And make sure you look after your health.
UN: Mother, please excuse me while I send Khun Choi off. (turns toward MAE CHOI) Follow me, please.
UN leads MAE CHOI out.
LUANG: Allow me to go and notify my colleagues, we need to ascertain who it is who is responsible.
MAE PLOI: (sobbing) Please be careful Khun Luang, don’t trip over that walking stick of yours. (audience laughs)
MAE PLOI: (speaking to herself in a trembling voice) It really shouldn’t have happened. So young, so handsome was he, so befitting as our king, beloved by all his subjects. There he was, asleep on his bed, surrounded by courtiers and pages, and yet before we knew it, he was dead. It’s such a pity. But not to worry though, his soul must be standing guard over the Rama VIII bridge by now. (audience in fits of laughter)
A child appears in the middle of the stage
CHILD: Pridi killed the king! Pridi killed the king! Pridi killed the king!
EVERYBODY BACKSTAGE: Pridi killed the king! Pridi killed the king! Pridi killed the king! Pridi killed the king! Pridi killed the king! Pridi killed the king!!!
Scene 5 (from 2013; watch video recording)
The popular Thai song “Nang Fah Chamlaeng” is playing in the background – (lyrics describe the exceptional beauty of a woman who is like an angel in disguise) – MAE PLOI enters the stage and is seated on a low Thai-style table reclining on a triangular pillow, she sighs audibly
MAE PLOI: I really am exhausted from all this housework. If this were before when my husband was still alive, I’d be able to have all those minor wives of his to help me. Everything falls on me now. I’ve got a son and he’s useless, good for nothing. He’s not working, has no job and only spends himself running after women. (Sighs and shakes her head in dismay). As for my daughter, she’s gone off and married some Chinaman! Instead of finding herself an aristocratic gentleman she refuses anyone with blue blood saying anyone who marries a royal these days will only face hardship! How can that be? Goodness gracious, had I known I would have stuffed her mouth with ash as soon as she was born. I’m exhausted—I think I’d better get some rest and take a nap.
MAE PLOI falls asleep. At the sound of a northern Thai stringed instrument CHAO NANG KHAM HOM makes her way across to MAE PLOI.
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: Kham Hian, my dear Kham Hian, where are you, my girl?
MAE PLOI mutters something as if she is sleep talking
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: Get up now and talk to your mother.
MAE PLOI: Oh, just give me a minute Mother, what do you want from me? I really need to sleep a little longer. Please.
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: Kham Hian, you’re getting me angry. (MAE PLOI is startled. She gets up and turns towards CHAO NANG KHAM HOM) Get up and talk to me this instance!
MAE PLOI: (With her hands pressed together at her chest) Mother, Mother! Haven’t you already died? Are you a ghost, Mother? (lifts her hands up to cover her face) Please dear Mother, don’t come back to haunt me. I’m so scared. I’ll make sure I make merit for the repose of your soul. You’re already dead, Mother. Ghosts and humans should exist in separate realms just like Mae Nak, the ghost and Phi Mak her human husband.
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: I may be dead and I may be a ghost but I am your mother. I want to know what has happened. Why is it that now none of your servants are around in the palace? What about that Kham Kaew girl that I sent over to work for you? Where are they all?
MAE PLOI: It makes me so mad to talk about it. That husband of mine, Mother. Every maid, every servant we had he made her his wife! (audience cheers). So, I fired them all – each and every one of them.
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: Why would you do that?
MAE PLOI: Especially that Kham Kaew. How hurtful. Oh how I had trusted her. Now all I want to do is to break her neck if I can.
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: You have servants and your husband cavorts with them. (MAE PLOI nods her head in agreement) Then you dismiss them. (MAE PLOI nods her head) You do all the work until you’re exhausted. (MAE PLOI nods her head) You find yourself a new maid. (MAE PLOI nods her head) And again that husband of yours makes her his wife. And so what’s next?
MAE PLOI: Well, I fire her again!
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: No wonder, I can see why the great author Kukrit would say you were stupid!
MAE PLOI: (startled) What?? (audience cheers)
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: The honourable Kukrit said you were a simpleton. A stupid woman who provided an example for all the other women in Siam to follow you in your stupidity.
MAE PLOI: (lifts her hand) Wait!
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: Isn’t it because you’re gullible?
MAE PLOI: Of course not. Listen to me, Mother. Nowadays they no longer call our country Siam. It’s (turns to face the audience) Thailand!
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: There, there my dear. Of course the honourable Kukrit would say you’re stupid. It’s because you’re gullible. You believe whatever you hear.
MAE PLOI: You don’t understand, Mother. My husband had the position of Khun Luang. For someone of that stature how could he be wrong? A man of that rank, of course he could never be wrong, could he? (audience claps) But those servants, they are lowborn and as such they are always wrong. (jeers)
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: Oh well, whatever. The honourable Kukrit would still call you stupid.
MAE PLOI: Why would he call me stupid?
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: It might be the changing political tides that led him to admonish you in such a way. Since it isn’t normal. How was it before this? All we heard were praises for you. Mae Ploi is so good, Mae Ploi is so virtuous. Mae Ploi is so patriotic she loves her country. Mind you they’re all lies. (audience jeers) No wonder our country Siam has remained poor. No wonder we haven’t been able to progress in the same way as other countries. We’ve only got these losers, liars (audience toots, crying “hiew”) and selfish people. (another “hiew”)
MAE PLOI: The honorable Kukrit created me with the intention of making me an exemplary Thai woman, a role model who is filled with patriotism and love for the nation. And yet, he now calls me stupid. Well, if that is so then all Thais must be stupid too! (audience claps) and so is the honourable Kukrit himself! (applause) I’m so upset! I’m so very upset!
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: Don’t worry, my dear. Go and get some betel leaves and make merit for me, won’t you?
MAE PLOI: And where do you think I can get us any betel leaves? The government has already announced that betel nut chewing is banned.
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: Why would they ban such a thing? That’s the good stuff!
MAE PLOI: Well, it’s the Prime Minister who won’t allow it. He says it is dirty and unsanitary – all that spitting and spitting, you know?
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM: Okay, that’s all right. I hope you go and tell him that. If it isn’t like that I’ll make sure to break his neck and all his associates’. (MAE PLOI presses her hands together in fear and takes a step back) You damn liars, (audience jeers) you worthless cheats, remember this!
MAE PLOI: (lowers herself and lifts her hands above her head) I will, Mother, I will. Please don’t haunt me anymore. You terrify me. I’m really, really scared. (audience jeers)
CHAO NANG KHAM HOM exits. MAE PLOI screams loudly. She buries her face in the triangular pillow in her hands. “Please don’t haunt me, Mother. I’ll make merit for you. I’ll offer betel leaves…” MAE CHOI walks on to the stage and sees MAE PLOI.
MAE CHOI: Wake up Mae Ploi, wake up. Oh dear, oh dear your bad dream can turn into a good one.
MAE PLOI: Bad dream… Oh Mae Choi why are you here? Every time you come by something terrible has happened.
MAE CHOI: Mae Ploi….
MAE PLOI: What again?
MAE CHOI: It’s my dad.
MAE PLOI: Is he dead? (audience laughs)
MAE CHOI: Not yet. My dad’s in trouble. His business is in trouble. The government has started this campaign banning Chinese products. I feel so sorry for dad. What can I do? Now they’re accusing dad of extorting money from the Siamese—oh no I mean Thais – and sending it to China.
MAE PLOI: Well, it is true, isn’t it?
MAE CHOI: What’s this Mae Ploi? I came all this way to see you so that I could consult with you on this matter. What should I do?
MAE PLOI: Mae Choi, there is nothing I can do for you. I’ve been eating nothing but Pad Thai noodles, Pad Thai noodles day after day. (audience laughs) The government says we shouldn’t eat pork. They say that’s a Chinese import. And another thing, don’t you see that there are pictures of Field Marshal Pibul hanging all over the place now?
MAE CHOI: Yes, you’re right.
MAE PLOI: Look – there’s one on that pillar, and another on another pillar, there’s one over there on that flyover (cheering), this flyover here, too (cheering and screaming), and do you hear this? On the radio, every time you turn on the radio you hear nothing but the Field Marshal! (laughter and applause)
MAE CHOI: Yes, yes.
MAE PLOI: Here, look (gets up and appears to whisper to MAE CHOI) I’ve got something to tell you. Perm just told me this. Don’t you tell anyone, okay? Keep it to yourself!
MAE CHOI: I certainly will!
MAE PLOI: The Prime Minister, you know… he—(turns silent)
MAE CHOI: Well, go ahead and tell the story. I’m all ears.
MAE PLOI: Do you know why the Prime Minister confiscated the wealth of King Prajadhipok (raises her hands to her head in reverence) and Queen Rampaipannee?
MAE CHOI: Why?
MAE PLOI: Because the two of them had secretly taken money out of the Crown Property Bureau for their own use. (audience laughs and applauds)
MAE CHOI: Aiyah….
MAE PLOI: It belongs to them, doesn’t it? Why can’t they spend it? And they’re really terrible, terrible enough to halt the annual allowance paid to the King and Queen and as many as twenty two members of the royal family! (jeering)
MAE CHOI: Aiyah! Goodness gracious!
MAE PLOI: And if this is so (points a finger back and forth between herself and MAE CHOI) How can we fight them?
MAE CHOI: What about my dad, Mae Ploi? Won’t he have to exile himself out of the country?
MAE PLOI: Well, if he’s a relative of Thaksin’s then of course he must go. (laughter and cheering)
MAE CHOI: How is that related?
MAE PLOI: But I think that I’m a smart person and I think that you should leave your palace abode and return home to help your dad with his business. I hear that kneeling and prostrating yourself is no longer in vogue in the palace as it used to be. If you can’t kneel or prostrate yourself then what’s left for us to do, right? (cheering)
MAE CHOI: That’s true.
MAE PLOI: And if you go help your dad selling stuff I’m sure you’ll have a better life. At least your knees won’t be so rough and cracked!
MAE CHOI: They already are.
MAE PLOI: But there is one other matter of importance. You mustn’t let people know that your father is Chinese.
MAE CHOI: What? You’re so Lao yourself! (audience laughs) How can you say that to me, Mae Ploi?
MAE PLOI: Well, it’s true. I heard it on the radio. Hearing those broadcasts every day I can already say them myself. (audience claps) I think you’d better leave now. My sleep was interrupted by a bad dream. I’d better go back to sleep now.
MAE CHOI: Just look at that! Aiyah, I came all this way to see you. Better I leave then. Pfft.
MAE CHOI exits.
Translated by anonymous
Bonus: images from Prakai Fai Karn Lakorn’s Facebook page