Where “I whistle a happy tune” is subversive contraband!
A trip to the land where Anna Leonowens danced the polka with a puzzled potentate would seem to be high on the list of warm fuzzies, right up there with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens! Who’d a’ thunk that ‘The King and I’ would be a banned book in that happy land, far far way, that inspired it! Why? – Odyssey hears you asking. It’s because of the ‘C’ word. . . . No, not that one. “Colonialism”. And it doesn’t take all that much cogitation to understand why.
As travelers to Bangkok in search of the popular musical’s roots we would be sure to savor the delights of dealing in contraband literature, since Thailand refuses to acknowledge any of the fictions about the English schoolmarm and King Mongkut of Siam (and they are ALL fictions, starting with her own diaries). The touristic community presents a united front with government agencies on this – one seeks in vain for mention of Leonowens on the Bangkok-tourism Internet. It is not just individual sections of the story that offend — the entire project is steeped in the patronizing condescension of early British attitudes toward south Asia, starting with the teacher’s diaries, memoir, and novels about Tuptim, and on to Margaret Landon’s fanciful “biographical work” Anna and the King of Siam, to the 1946 non-musical film with the same name (Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne), to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner) and the filmed version of it (Deborah Kerr and Brynner), to the Disney animation, and finally right down to Jodie Foster’s recent version, once again sans tunes. Foster certainly has done better than any of her predecessors, but she did not satisfy the appropriate Thai authorities, who refused to allow location filming (it was filmed in neighboring Maylasia), and have continued to ban release.
Will the real Yul Brynner please stand up!
Beyond the initial stumbling block of the condescending concept at the heart of the work, we come to the figure of King Mongkut, or Rama IV. He wasn’t much like the bewildered beefball Yul Brynner devoted his life to creating, still less like Harrison’s Londoner in a Nehru jacket of just a few years earlier. Here is an example from his 1862 correspondence with Leonowens:
English Era, 1862, 26 February
GRAND ROYAL PALACE, BANGKOK.
To Mrs. A.H. Leonowens:
MADAM: We are in good pleasure, and satisfaction in heart, that you are in willingness to undertake the education of our beloved royal children. And we hope that in doing your education on us and on our children (whom English call inhabitants of benighted land) you will do your best endeavor for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are mostly aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, as well as the followers of Christ, and are desirous to have facility of English language and literature than new religions. We beg to invite you to our royal palace to do your but endeavorment upon us and our children. We shall expect to see you here on return of Siamese steamer Chow Phya. We have written to Mr. William Adamson, and to our consul at Singapore, to authorize to do best arrangement for you and ourselves. Believe me
(Signed) S.S. P. P. MAHA Mongkut
The performance by Chow Yun-Fat in the 1999 film was a big improvement, and has been justly acclaimed – He’s Asian, for one thing. But there was still an objection from the Thai authorities, who said he came across as “a cowboy”. It’s true that the film does color him with a bit of youthful machismo that was certainly not characteristic of the real Mongkut, who spent decades as a Buddhist monk before ascending the throne at the age of 47 (he was 58 when he met Leonowens). But such youth and machismo was assuredly viewed as a box-office necessity, along with the assumption that a feeling of romantic tenderness must have arisen between the two principals, certainly not true of the real Mongkut and Leonowens.
Despite these lapses, the 1999 film might have passed muster in Thailand had it not been for the execution of Tuptim. (You remember her from “Small House of Uncle Thomas” and “We Kiss in a Shadow” in the Rodgers and Hammerstein.) Foster and Bai Ling, who played the role, make it into a wrenching feminist statement, a dramatic high point expressing a laudable sentiment. But it is very unlikely that the real Mongkut would have ordered such a killing, argue his Thai defenders, probably correctly. Certainly concubinage was an accepted part of the culture and therefore enshrined in law, but punishing a concubine’s disobedience with a grisly public beheading has not been documented and would seem uncharacteristic of the monk turned monarch. That is probably at the core of the Thai objections.
The Tuptim subplot was initiated by Leonowens herself in fictions entitled “The Favorite of the Harem” and “The Romance of the Harem”. The institution of the harem fascinated the mourning schoolmarm. She claimed the characters of these novels were taken from life, but she may have been fibbing about Tuptim’s execution. Makes a great second act climax, though!
Anyhow, let’s go to Bangkok and have a look at the Grand Palace, where the interactions between Anna Leonowens and Rama IV really did take place. We might even be able to visit the business founded by Louis Leonowens, the little boy we all remember. Although it is not clear whether he was whistling a happy tune as he founded it, the firm still bears his name, and seems to be going strong. But we’ll have to do all our reading up on his mom before we go, because we’re unlikely to find much in town that memorializes her.