Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mrs. Leonowens

In London in 1980 I saw Yul Brynner in The King and I; I thought his portrayal of the enigmatic sovereign to be thoroughly magnificent, much better than in the Rogers and Hammerstein film from the fifties. Brynner as a mature actor had grown into the part so that when he walked onto the stage his presence overwhelmed it. He was everything a king should be, and everything a star should be, for that matter. One would never guess from watching the musical, and the earlier film version with Deborah Kerr, that the original "Mrs. Anna" is still the subject of enormous historical controversy, especially in Thailand.

The memoirs of Anna Leonowens, which recount her years as "governess" of the children of the King of Siam, have inspired novels, plays, musicals, and films. The Siamese king whose children Anna taught was a truly progressive and innovative ruler known as Mongkut. To this day the Thai people find the depiction of their national hero in the various films inspired by Anna's writings to be disrespectful. It is difficult to see the disrespect unless a person is familiar with Thai culture and customs. No doubt there are historical inaccuracies, as there are in most Hollywood renditions of life at any royal court, anytime, anywhere.

However, it has been pointed out that Anna Leonowens, either of her own volition or at the instigation of her editors, may have embroidered some of the facts of her life, as well as certain episodes at the palace. For one thing, she was born in India in 1831, not in Wales in 1834. Her true name was not "Mrs. Leonowens" but Mrs. Thomas Leon Owens. Her function was merely as a teacher of English, not as the royal governess. Her deceased husband was not a British officer who died in a tiger hunt, but a hotel keeper in Penang who died of a stroke.

All in all, it seems that Anna portrayed herself as being of a higher social status than she actually was. Perhaps she thought that people would prefer to read about a gentlewoman, an officer's lady, fallen upon hard times, than about a hotel keeper's widow on the make. It must be remembered that for generation Europeans and Americans would go to the Far East to re-create themselves. Anna's colorful embellishments were part of the persona she attempted to fabricate as she set out to start a new life in a far country. It is a little sad, since her true life and struggle is probably more interesting, if less elegant, than the myth.

It is a fact, as shown in the books and films, that Mrs. Anna read Uncle Tom's Cabin, that she detested slavery and was an ardent early feminist. The inner core of her personality rings true in spite of the exaggerations. The music of Rogers and Hammerstein is now part of American culture. To see Anna and the King swirling through the room to "Shall we dance?" is to glimpse a fairy tale, behind which the truth is even more intriguing than the legend. Share

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