Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

British Imperialism
In the nineteenth century, the British held the point of view that trade was "the true herald of civilization" and that Great Britain's expertise in commerce gave it the right to its leadership role in international trade (Great Britain controlled forty percent of the world's manufactured trade in 1860). The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London showcased the world's fascination for technology and trade in a gigantic structure of glass and iron called the Crystal Palace. It housed exotic booty harvested from Britain's colonies and overseas trade—inventions, consumer products, and the contributions of many other countries, all crammed on over eight miles of display shelves. Queen Victoria visited the stunning Crystal Palace nearly every day, joined by throngs of pride-filled British subjects, to view the exhibits and to reinforce a sense of manifest superiority in technology and trade.

The Great Exhibition helped to allay any disquiet over the aggressive expansion of the British Empire. And there were reasons for disquiet Just prior to Anna Leonowen's visit to Siam, the two "Opium Wars" (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) were fought in China to secure Britain the dubious right to export opium from India (a colony of the British Empire) into China and to establish British-governed trade posts in China's most active ports. The "treaty-port system" became Great Britain's mode of dominating Chinese trade for the next forty years; it was also used in many other countries not officially colonized into the Empire. In 1855, Siam ceded to diplomatic pressure to sign the Bowring Treaty, which added Siam to Great Britain's extensive "informal empire," by granting Great Britain certain trade advantages as well as the rights to establish a consulate in Bangkok and to try its people in British and not Siamese courts. This agreement granted economic power over Siam and also provided Britain a buffer zone between its South Asian holdings (Malaya and Burma) and the holdings of the French (Indochina), thus making it easier for competing colonizers to cohabitate South Asia. Siam, unlike India, New Zealand, and Burma, retained its...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Together Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein produced eleven musicals. The King and I was one of their most popular. A musical is a drama with singing, music, and spoken dialogue. The songs express the sentiments of one or more characters and may be addressed directly to other characters in the play. For example, Anna sings "Whistle a Happy Tune" in direct address to her son Louis, and Lady Thiang sings "Something Wonderful'' to Anna. Sometimes the song is simply an expression of a character's state of mind, as when the King sings "A Puzzlement."

In the case of some musicals, existing songs are worked into a storyline. The lyrics (by Hammerstein) and music (by Rodgers) for The King and I were written specifically for the play, so the songs correspond seamlessly with the narrative. The songs enhance the richness of the action, they are part of the dialogue that moves the plot along, although the songs, dance, and music of The King and I could be removed without disrupting the plot line altogether. A musical differs from an opera in this respect, for an opera contains little or no dialogue and limited action, thus the songs must carry the weight of advancing the plot. Musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who's Tommy, works with little or no spoken dialogue, are called "rock operas," not musicals. The musical enjoyed its heydey between 1920 and 1950, when producers and writing teams such as...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

"After Hours" in Harper's, Volume 203, September, 1951, pp. 99-100.

"Getting to Know Lou" in People, Volume 45, June 3, 1996, p. 100.

Lardner, John. "The Surefire Boys in Siam" in the New Yorker, Volume 27, April 7, 1951, pp. 70-71.

Marshall, Margaret. Review of The King and I in the Nation, Volume 172, April 14, 1951, p. 353.

Review of The King and l in Newsday, April 25, 1996.

Simon, John. Review of The King and l in New York, Volume 29, number 16, April 22, 1996, p. 34.

"A Stately Pleasure Dome'' in Commonwealth, Volume 64, July 20, 1956,...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

Nineteenth-century: In Anna Leonowens's day, women were expected to show respect for men by not challenging their authority. They were to be demure and beautiful, not strong and self-willed. Few career opportunities existed for women who had no husbands to provide for them.

1950s: World War II necessitated women joining the work force to replace the men who were fighting overseas. By the 1950s, women had a secure place in the work force, although their career options were usually limited to clerical functions.

Today: Women can choose from almost unlimited career possibilities and are no longer expected to appear subservient to men.

Nineteenth-century: Europeans looked down on "Orientals" as backward, morally inferior people who could only benefit from an encounter with Western culture, an encounter that would place the Asian countries in a socially and economically dependent position.

1950s: World War II interrupted the establishment of trade practices between Asian and European/American countries. The American internment of Japanese-American citizens during the war years proved that the specter of Orientalism still persisted.

Today: Trade with Asian countries is more equitable and fair; however, vestiges of racism against Asians persists in many places and is still slow to disappear.

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Is Anna a feminist? What are the principles of feminism that she upholds, and how does she demonstrate her interest in the rights of women? Where and how does she depart from your idea of feminism?

How is "orientalism'' portrayed in The King and I? What role do you think "orientalism'' played in the British Commonwealth's interest in Siam in the nineteenth century? What role does this play indicate that it had?

What effect on the meaning of the story would occur in adapting The King and I to a dramatic play with no music or songs?

How would the story of The King and I be different if Anna were happily married when she took the assignment to act as governess to the King's children? Is this play a love story?

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

A 1946 black and white film starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne and produced by John Cromwell was adapted from Margaret Landon's novel Anna and the King of Siam before Hammerstein undertook the musical version of the work.

Charles Brackett produced the famous film version with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (1956); it is available on videotape from CBS/Fox Video.

A sound recording featuring Julie Andrews, Ben Kingsley, and Marilyn Home is available on Philips records (1992). A 1989 disc includes selections from various Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals sung by Samuel Ramey (available from EMI). Decca carries the sound track of the original Broadway cast with Gertrude Lawrence, while RCA carries one made in 1977 with Yul Brynner and Constance Towers (who took over the role of Anna in the original Broadway production after Gertrude Lawrence died of cancer). Capital Records carries the 1956 motion picture sound track recording as well as a disc of musical excerpts from the film.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The real Anna Leonowens wrote two books about her adventures in Siam teaching the children of King Mongkut. Her books, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1873), were renounced by Mongkut's biographer, who claimed that her accounts grossly misrepresented the Siamese king as a tyrant and that her description of the court was inaccurate.

Margaret Landon wrote a popular novel based on Leonowens' s books, called Anna and the King of Siam (1944). It was also the basis for a 1946 film, starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, before Hammerstein adapted it to the stage play.

Maxine Hong Kingston's novels China Men...

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