In an American musical, an Anglo-Indian woman arrives in Siam in 1862 to teach English to the many children of King Mongkut (Rama IV). The King, who was in his 60s, was played by Yul Brynner, a Russian-American still in his 30s when he first enacted the role on Broadway.
Respecting Thailand’s strict laws regarding lèse majesté, I won’t comment on the play’s handling of the touchy relationship between Anna Leonowens, a widowed English-language tutor, and the King, who reportedly had 39 wives and 79 children.
As my brief is to discuss America’s relations with Asia, I note that, as mentioned in the play, King Mongkut offered to send elephants to help mobilize the Union Army. President Lincoln declined the generous offer, noting that America’s climate did not favor the multiplication (breeding) of elephants, and that the United States found it practical to rely on steam engines for transportation.
My commentary here deals with a very American topic, the struggle for civil rights. The Rodgers and Hammerstein hit musical The King and I premiered only three years after President Truman issued a controversial order calling for complete desegregation of the U.S. military. The issue of race relations in American society was a hot-button issue about to hit the fan in what became the Civil Rights Movement.
The librettist Oscar Hammerstein II was looking for a hook to adapt an American novel that was based on the real-life Leonowens’ autobiography about her time in Siam. Hammerstein’s interest in furthering civil rights in this country is reflected in the attention he devotes to a play-within-a-play called “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a Thai retelling of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
You may know that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, is deemed the best selling novel of the 19th Century and credited with jump-starting the Civil War, a.k.a, the War Against Slavery. You may not know that slavery was part of Siamese society for centuries. When Siamese armies sacked an enemy’s capital they brought all the residents back to Siam as slaves, to build the great palaces you see in Thailand today. Some Siamese children were sold into slavery. Children born to slaves were slaves. Debtors also become slaves.
In Hammerstein’s libretto, the schoolmarm Anna learns that the Burmese king has given the Siamese king a gorgeous slave girl named Tuptim to wed as a minor wife. Every musical has a pair of star-crossed lovers and here it turns out that Tuptim is in love with Lun Tha, the Burmese temple-builder who escorted her to Siam. When they find time to be alone, the lovers make beautiful music together, singing “We Kiss In A Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” and with Anna, “Hello, Young Lovers.”
Tuptim reads “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and presents her version of the story as a ballet before European envoys at a Palace soiree. Tuptim provides a charming narration in which the evil King Simon of Legree pursues a runaway slave named Eliza. Through the Divine Intervention of The Buddha, a raging river turns to ice and snow falls to hide Eliza from the King. When the ice melts, floodwaters wash away the wicked slave-keeping King. The dinner show’s anti-slavery message is not lost upon the clever King Mongkhut character of the play. That night, the lovers escape from the Palace. Alas, Tuptim is apprehended and brought before the King, who seizes a whip to punish his runaway slave. In this critical scene, Anna’s civilizing influence renders the King unable to harm the slave girl. But when police find Lun Tha dead in the forest, Tuptim is taken away and for all we know, forever silenced.
It was King Mongkhut’s son Chulalongkorn (Rama V) — portrayed as a thoughtful, adolescent in the play — who ascended the throne in 1868 and took several steps to free household slaves. At the time, one-third of Siam’s population was enslaved. King Chulalongkorn wrote that the American Civll War, with its wholesale slaughter over the issue of slavery, influenced his decision to free slaves in his Kingdom. It wasn’t until 1905 that all forms of slavery were abolished in Siam.
Siam was first renamed Thailand in 1939. Following Japanese occupation, the name reverted to Siam in 1946, until 1949, when it re-reverted to Thailand.