On April 16, 1979 at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, Yul Brynner gave his 2,500th performance as the cruel, mercurial monarch of Siam in “The King & I.” The Russian-born actor died six years later but the play survived. Resurrected repeatedly in the last 30 years, it gets a fresh curtain call this Sept. 18 in Newcastle Upon Tyne. It’s time to retire the play, or at least change the names to protect the innocent.
This enormously successful Rogers and Hammerstein musical, seen by several million playgoers around the globe since its triumphant Broadway opening in 1951, is presented as a play based on fact. In reality, it’s a farce, an insulting and unnecessary travesty of history which for three decades has irritated the Thai monarchy and angered Thailand’s usually unflappable citizens.
The Thai king slandered in this play – and in the 1956 film that earned Mr. Brynner an Academy Award – Is King Mongkut, who lived from 1851 to 1868. His great-grandson, King Bhumibol, wears the crown in Thailand today.
An intelligent, liberal, educated sovereign, King Mongkut made one major mistake during his reign – he hired shrewish Welsh widow Anna Leonowens in 1862 to teach English to his royal children. Anna was a mediocre tutor. She turned out to be a great success, however, as an author.
Back in Europe, she wrote two melodramatic books – The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), and the lurid Romance of the Harem (1873) – which Victorian readers eager for titillation unwittingly swallowed.
Both books were riddled with falsehoods, imaginary incidents, and plagiarized passages.
She described her former employer as a “withered grasshopper,” and a cruel, lustful “Asian despot,” prone to towering rages. She accused the king of human sacrifice although historians later showed that she lifted the incident almost verbatim from an 1831 French missionary report, updated it to 1865, and made King Mongkut the villain. Anna indignantly described how the king locked up disobedient ladies in a subterranean dungeon under the Grand Palace – a physical impossibility since Bangkok is built on a marsh. She even charged His Highness with publicly burning at the stake one of the royal wives from his harem who foolishly fell in love with another man. Curiously, no other writers, Siamese or European, ever recorded the incident in their reports, diaries or letters home. Indeed, early in his reign, King Mongkut had decreed that his royal wives were free to simply resign and leave the harem. More than a dozen actually did, though most preferred the luxury of the palace.
Although Anna’s stories weren’t true, they were a profitable success.
When her fabrications first appeared, the shocked Siamese Court tried to buy up all the books. They failed and were forced to let the shameful smear run its course. The books eventually went out of print.
Unfortunately for Thailand, American writer Margaret Landon rediscovered copies in 1939. Fascinated by their fairytale quality, she decided to combine both books into one story. The result was “Anna and the King of Siam.” Anna’s spiteful imaginings gained a new and larger audience, including composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein who set out to shape them into a musical.
Like Miss Landon, they were unaware of the extent of Anna’s exaggerations and inventions. They believed they were working with a true story. In a March 25, 1951 newspaper interview, four days before “The King and I” made its Broadway debut, they acknowledged that producers were normally attracted to Oriental stories because of the :”opportunities for fantastic costumes and setting, and the chance for an occasional harem joke.” But “The King and I,” they promised, would be different. They had avoided unnecessarily embellishing Anna’s gripping eyewitness account, they maintained, preferring to build the action around the facts found in Anna’s own diary.
The play is indeed true to the book. That’s precisely the problem. King Mongkut (real names are used) displays the same towering rages, the same cruel streak, the same libertine urges that Anna falsely reproached him for, with one added preposterous insult – he is portrayed as falling in love with this unpleasant woman.
The undeniably entertaining but outrageous result was “Rousseau’s noble savage interpreted by Gilbert and Sullivan,” as one historian angrily put it.
New York loved it. Three years and 1,246 performances later, it finally left town to tour America. The popularity of the play remains undiminished.
Audiences attending “The King and I” today continue to believe they are seeing a reasonably accurate historical portrayal of the Thai monarchy in the 1860s, a thought that greatly upsets educated Thais.
“it has become most difficult to get even reasonable Western people to believe that ‘The King and I’ is almost entirely fictional except for the use of real names,” lamented the late prince Chula Chakrabongse. The play is no more accurate a portrait of Siamese court life, he noted, than “The Mikado” is of 19th century Japan.
“In America,” complained historian A.B. Griswold, “King Mongkut is known either as a petulant barbarian or a melodious clown.” Griswold convincingly demolished both stereotypes, demonstrating that the dignified Siamese monarch was, in fact, an accomplished astronomer, historian, poet, patron of the arts, and a remarkable linguist. (King Mongkut displayed a working knowledge of Lao, Cambodian, Annamite, Peguan, Burmese, Malay, Hindi, Latin and English. In contrast, Anna’s grasp of Thai was rudimentary.)
Griswold and other historians also lay firmly to rest the myth Anna created regarding her role in encouraging political and social reform in Thailand. In reality, she exerted a negligible influence on the king’s thinking, or that of his son, the future King Chulalongkorn. King Mongkut had reigned for 11 years before Anna arrived; most of the modern ideas Anna credits herself with raising – such as the abolition of slavery – had long been under discussion by the King and his advisers.
Mr. Brynner’s overblown portrayal of King Mongkut as an egotistical buffoon also embitters the Thais.
“No country, big or small, likes the world to laugh – no matter how gently or friendly – at one of its great men,” notes Thai expert Abbot Moffat, who effectively argues that King Mongkut was one of the great Asians of the 19th century. “For 17 years, he steered his country through the conflicting pressures and territorial ambitions of France and England, and set the course that preserved the independence of his country – the only country in Southeast Asia never to have fallen under European domination.”
It is little wonder, then, that “The King & I” is still banned in Thailand.
Britain, the country responsible for Anna, once attempted to set the record straight. In August 1970, the BBC broadcast a damming documentary debunking her fictitious tales. Scriptwriter and Scottish historian Ian Grimble summed it up well: “I have never heard of libel as brazen as Anna Leonowens’ achieving such phenomenal success.”
Now the bloody Brits are back at it.
Sorry, Thailand. Ars gratia artis.