Don’t you absolutely love the way Anna Leonowens is presented in this very Victorian story combining morality, romance, humour and (a not very accurate view of!) Thai history? Abolitionist, advocate of women’s rights, genteel but hard-working devoted single mother, confidante of one king and the inspiration behind the reforms made by another, friend to royal wives and beloved by royal children, promoter of East-West harmony, courageous, uber- principled, and beautiful and glamorous to boot? She even sorts out arguments over the Bible! I’d give a lot to have Mary Poppins’ ability to tidy up the house just by clicking my fingers, and I adore Maria von Trapp, but I’d love to be Anna Leonowens. If I was being a Victorian. OK, there’s no way I’d ever get into the dress that Deborah Kerr wears in the “Shall We Dance” scene, and I’d probably do an Eliza Doolittle and forget to pretend to be posh at the most inappropriate moment, but even so. Shame that a lot of the story’s “romanticised” (not to mention didacticised) and has given people an inaccurate impression of not only Anna (which isn’t really a problem, I suppose) but of King Mongkut and mid-19th century Siam in general; but I love it as a story and as an incredible musical – and this is a great production of it.
There are so many wonderful, wonderful songs in it – not only Shall We Dance, but Something Wonderful, Hello Young Lovers and We Kiss In A Shadow which are all so emotional, Getting To Know You which is very sweet, and I Whistle A Happy Tune which I’ve always liked too. The broken English of Is A Puzzlement doesn’t work now as well as it did in the 1950s, but the actual lyrics, the confusion of a leader who desperately wants to do what’s best for their country but, in changing times, just isn’t sure what that is, works in any time. The message of the song rings so true, and the king is such a fascinating character – even if the story doesn’t depict him very accurately.
Coincidentally, the Thai royal family’s in the news this week, with King Maha Vajiralongkorn, King Mongkut’s great-great-grandson, due to be crowned on Saturday and having just married his bodyguard (well, the deputy leader of his personal security detail), whom he apparently met whilst she was working as a flight attendant on a plane he was on, and made her queen. That’s a brilliant story, and it’s all true! Anna’s is … well, the word I’ve used is a “romanticised”!
OK, she was employed as a schoolteacher (note the use of the word “schoolteacher”, never “governess” with its overtones of being an upper level servant rather than a “free and independent employee”) to the Siamese royal children. And King Mongkut was certainly interested in science, and in Western ideas and closer ties with the West. And, yes, he did have a lot of wives and concubines, and a lot of children (82). But he’s certainly not thought to have been cruel, and the Tuptim story’s caused a lot of upset in Thailand over the years. King Mongkut actually banned forced marriage, and freed a lot of the royal concubines. Furthermore, he definitely wouldn’t have been dancing a polka with the schoolteacher – which is a shame, because I really love that scene. Nor was Anna at his deathbed: she wasn’t even in the country when he died, but on holiday in England! Chulalongkorn, the crown prince in the film, abolished slavery (and prostration), but it’s a bit rich to claim that that was because of the influence of Anna Leonowens.
As for Anna herself, she lied about her maiden name and place of birth – quite possibly to cover up her mixed race heritage (see here if you wish to read my wafflings on that subject!) – and her late husband Tom Owens (who later merged his middle name and surname to create the posher-sounding “Leonowens”) was a clerk, not an army officer. It’s a very interesting tale of fake news, really. And her real story’s even more interesting – she travelled widely, tried to set up her own schools, was the great-aunt of Boris Karloff (seriously!), and genuinely was a feminist, and an opponent of slavery.
A lot of musicals have very serious messages. Very few of them are just purely about entertainment. The King and I is one which combines morality, romance, humour and history. OK, it’s not very accurate history, but most people seeing the film or the stage show will never have had the opportunity to learn much about Thailand, its history and its culture – I’ve got a degree in history, as well as a GCSE and an A-level, and Thai history never came up once in my struggles – and owt’s better than nowt. We’re learning something about Siam/Thailand. And, yes, it’s from a Western viewpoint, but we are talking about something set in the 1860s. The stage show, unlike the film, includes the “Western People Funny” song, in which the Siamese ladies sing about how ridiculous it is that they’re being made to wear Western clothes, and about the Western “sentimental Oriental” idea, which does redress the balance. And I think the story is respectful of Siamese culture – it’s certainly very respectful of Buddhism, and we’re clearly meant to hope that the king is able to stop Siam from becoming a British or French protectorate.
It also includes “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” which has that great line about being a “free and independent employee”. That’s not an East-West thing, and nor are all Anna’s comments about respect for women. Jane Eyre makes a similar comment, in a very different context, about being a free and independent person. It’s a very important theme in The King and I.
Of course, the issues of freedom go way beyond that, to the question of slavery, and the Tuptim story. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most important books of the 19th century in terms of raising awareness about slavery. Read it, and the sickly religious language will probably make you want to throw up – it really is unbearable! -, but it was incredibly important at the time, and it’s interesting how it gets linked into The King and I … if rather misleading, because there were a lot of differences between slavery in the American South and slavery in Thailand. But slavery is still slavery. Thankfully, this production of the stage show did not include Anna’s comments about how “Mr Lincoln is fighting a great war to free the slaves”, which always annoy me, though! Lincoln fought the Civil War to bring the Southern states back into the Union, OK! And, no, King Mongkut didn’t really offer to send him any elephants to help him win the war – although he did offer to send elephants to the US for use as beasts of burden.
I’ve got off the point now. It’s quite irritating that the question of slavery has to be viewed through an American prism, but I suppose the idea was that it was one the audience’d understand. And it’s the Tuptim affair that breaks the king. He actually died of malaria, but, in this – and it was the first musical ever to kill someone off actually on stage, incidentally – he dies of heart trouble, not only physically but mentally, having realised that his time is up because Anna Leonowens made him realise that he couldn’t beat Tuptim.
But he dies knowing that Chulalongkorn is going to bring about reform. This production gave Chulalongkorn a bigger role than he gets in the film – it had a lovely scene in which he and Louis Leonowens sang part of “Is A Puzzlement”, about how grown-ups argue about things that they don’t really understand themselves. And he’s not a baddie. He’s a good guy. He tried his best. It’s not one of those horrible absolute Victorian religious stories in which everyone’s either right or wrong – one of the king’s last lines is about how what matters in life is to have tried your best.
It is a Victorian moral story, though. The king dies because Anna stopped him from beating Tuptim. And there’s this theme of honour all the way through it. Honour, whilst it’s a big thing in Girls’ Own and Boys’ Own stories, doesn’t always work that well in stories for adults. In Gone With The Wind, honour is a big theme but it’s all rather ironic, because the honourable Ashley Wilkes is really a complete loser. In The King and I, the keeping of your word is crucial. Siam cannot hope to take her place on the world stage if her king cannot accept that he has to keep his word about the schoolteacher’s living accommodation: she was promised a house, rather than an apartments within the palace, and she keeps on about this house until the king gives in.
It sounds so mad, put like that, but it’s the principle – the idea of truth and trust. In 2019, no-one trusts a word that comes out of any political leader’s mouth. In 1862, was it any different? Did any adults genuinely believe the idea of the wonders of British justice and spreading it across the world? 1862 was probably too early for that idea even to have been round, actually. And Abraham Lincoln certainly wasn’t the saint he’s now made out to be. (I’m just using Britain and America as examples because the story’s about a British woman and goes on about Lincoln.) Yet, somehow, the idea works here.
A lot of that’s because of the music. Music can make most things work. We’ve got all these great songs, and the unspoken attraction between two great characters. The costumes are wonderful, too! The dancing’s wonderful. And it’s very romantic … but just the chemistry between Anna and the king, but the romance between Tuptim and her lover, Anna’s love for her late husband, Sir Edward’s unrequited love for Anna, Lady Tiang’s love for the king. And the love between Anna and her son, the king and his children, the royal wives and their children, Anna and the royal children. Not many things manage to combine morality and emotion well. This does. It really gets you. Wonderful story, wonderful music, wonderful production. Cute kids!
And I still want that dress …