Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014

The King and Who?

True Story Behind Anna and the King of Siam

By David Luhrssen
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Three times filmed (under one name or another) and a Broadway hit, The King and I was a tall tale with great appeal to post-World War II America. Based on a purportedly true account, The King and I is the story of a proper English governess, Anna Leonowens, employed by the King of Siam (as Thailand was known). In her account, she worked patiently working amidst Third World barbarism to help end slavery and monarchial absolutism, as well as mold the imagination of the king’s son along the lines of Western democracy. The saga appealed to Americans’ sense of cultural superiority and missionary endeavor. Thais were greatly insulted.

In Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, School Mistress at the Court of Siam (published by University of Wisconsin Press), historian Alfred Habegger explores her story and finds it wanting in facts. He is not the first researcher down that trail, but investigates Leonowens’ memoirs (the basis for the movies and the musical) with greater fairness and fuller access to historical sources. He finds that the governess was employed in Siam but in a much lesser role than claimed. After her Bangkok sojourn, Leonowens came to the U.S. and stumbled into politically liberal circles. Her audience was easily titillated by her stories of the royal harem and exotic Asia, but despite speaking to veterans of the abolitionist movement, she was forced to carefully maintain a false Anglo-Saxon front and deny her mixed race origins in India.

Leonowens was a hit. She wrote popular accounts of her progressive influence on Siamese society that bore little relation to reality, yet reflected the general drift of Siam as well as the optimistic aspirations of Americans dreaming of a better world molded in their own self-image.

The 1956 film starring Yul Brynner as the virile, strutting King of Siam remains the best-known telling of the tale. As Habegger relates, the movie was banned in Thailand as “an act of colonization—an invasion that seizes not land or material products but a people’s sense of their past.”

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