Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Complicated Depiction of Southeast Asian Peoples and Culture

Authored by Kaitlyn Jeffries

Sandy Wilson’s review of the West End revisal of The King and I, printed in Plays and Players, Vol. 21, No. 3, December 1973 issue. Featured in the photograph printed in the article, Peter Wyngarde and Sally Ann Howes performing “Shall We Dance.”

The King and I is a musical theatre play, with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II that originally premiered on Broadway at St. James Theatre. Mongkut, King of Siam (now Thailand), hired a British tutor, Mrs. Anna Leonowens to teach his children English. A widow, Anna tutors while simultaneously attempting to humanize their cultural difference and broaden their world-view beyond Siam. Anna endeavors to remove Siam’s perceived barbaric image by assimilating the family into Western culture and customs. Anna and Mongkut engage in a short lived romance, and after subsequent family turmoil with one of the King’s many wives, Anna wants to leave Siam. On his deathbed, Mongkut asks Anna to watch over his son, Chulalongkorn, as he begins his rule.

The King and I article, printed in Plays and Players, 1973 edition, reviews the plays revisal on West End at the Adelphi Theatre in 1973, with Peter Wyngarde (Mongkut, King of Siam) and Sally Ann Howes (Anna) in leading roles. Overwhelmingly, Wilson found the play underwhelming; she felt the play was far too like The Sound of Music (Wilson 1973, 51). Wilson goes on to state,

“[Wyngarde] is an actor of uneasy flamboyance, who never convinces totally either as a monarch or savage […] [Oscar Hammerstein] took a tale of enormous interest, peopled with exotic characters motivated by historic conflicts, and turned it into a leaden-footed bed-time story” (Wilson 1973, 51-2).

The political climate was contentious at the turn of the nineteenth century with European forces seeking more influence in Southeast Asia. The King and I, as a play, illustrates the romanticisation of European culture and Christian values on Southeast Asia (Neher 2015, 467). Not only in the North American premier, but also in the British release of the musical, minorities are played by Anglo-Saxon actors. Furthermore, Rodgers and Hammerstein depicted the Siamese characters in an exaggerated manner, highlighting nudity, patriarchal behaviors (Donaldson 1990), mixed in with oddity and rebellion. This is particularly shown through the play’s portrayal of the king’s polygamy (Neher 2015, 466), as it is not a western custom, the play depicts the family dynamic as immoral and akin to slavery in respect to the wife.

The King and I makes overtures to represent minorities without racial stereotypes that seemed to overrun theater. Oscar Hammerstein has stated of his recreation of the original book that, “[their] aim was to portray the king and his court with humanity and believability” (Most 2000, 317). Rodgers has also made statements to this effect, maintaining that when writing the portrayal of their character’s they wanted to avoid stereotypes that made caricatures of the character’s race. Evidence to their intention is delivered through the small play within-a-play, “The Small House of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” that the children put on for the European envoys that visit the palace (Mordden 2013, 165). Through their written portrayals of non-European cultures, Rodgers and Hammerstein attempted to unpack decade’s worth of vaudeville acts that made caricatures of minorities by creating a level of pomp and circumstance to a previously unrepresented Southeast Asia. As the play and film aged, however, the representation reflects old Eurocentric ideals of civilization and poke-fun of a culture that is proud of its traditions.

References:

Ansorge, Peter, ed. 1973. Plays and Players 21 (3).

Wilson, Sandy. 1973. “The King and I.” Plays and Players 21 (3): 51–52.

Donaldson, Laura. 1990. “‘The King and I’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or on the Border of the Women’s Room.” Cinema Journal 29 (3): 53–68.

Mordden, Ethan. 2013. Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Most, Andrea. 2000. “‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’.” Theatre Journal 52, (3): 307–337.

Neher, Erick. 2015. “‘The King and I’ at Lincoln Center.” The Hudson Review 68 (3): 463–473.


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