Sunday, July 3, 2016

Masked (all about The King & I) by Alfred Habegger

  • THE BOOK
    • Masked: The Life of Anna Leonowens, Schoolmistress at the Court of Siam by Alfred Habegger
    • Published June 30, 2014
    • Other works by the author, an English professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, include The Life of Emily Dickinson and several books about Henry James

  • THE PREMISE
    • Anna Leonowens was the real person whose life inspired the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "The King and I".
      • She taught English to the King's children in 1860s Siam (now Thailand) and wrote a couple of memoirs about the experience that were popular in the 1870s.
      • In the 1930s a woman named Margaret Landon wrote a book about Anna Leonowens called Anna and the King of Siam. This was the basis for the 1946 Irene Dunne/Rex Harrison film and then the Broadway musical "The King and I".
    • The problem is this: Anna Leonowens did not tell her story factually. She lied, exaggerated, plagiarized and embellished her tales. Why?
      • Anna Leonowens was NOT the proper British lady as portrayed by Deborah Kerr. She was of Anglo-Indian descent, a fact she hid from everyone, including her own children. Her paternal grandmother was an Indian woman. In the 19th Century this mixed parentage was considered shameful. It also kept people from rising beyond a certain point in their careers or in society. Anna Leonowens would not have been acceptable in English society had they known of her mixed heritage.
        • In fact, she never lived in England, only passed through on her way to Ireland and then North America after her Siamese adventure. She was born in India and was 1/4 Indian.
        • The book quotes several people who commented on Anna's "tanned" skin, assuming it was a remnant of her time in Southeast Asia. She completely cut of contact with her family once she married because they would expose her efforts to pass as white.
      • She made the King of Siam seem a barbarian fool, when he was an enlightened man for his time, having been a Buddhist monk for over 25 years before he became king. He was also in his late 50s when she went to Siam, considered elderly at the time. (In other words, NOTHING like Yul Brynner.)
        • He did have a harem of wives and concubines and this was something Anna, with her staunch missionary-taught Protestantism, loathed.
        • Anna wrote of the concubine Tuptim who escaped the palace and was burned to death in front of Anna's house. It never happened!
      • Anna portrayed herself as the person who influenced the crown prince to abolish slavery in Siam (which was quite different from slavery in America, almost closer to indentured servitude in most cases). She actually had nothing to do with it.
        • Siam is the ONLY country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by the superpowers of the time. Britain had Burma, Singapore and Hong Kong, the Dutch had Indonesia, and the French had Cambodia and Vietnam. (That all worked out well.)
      • When Margaret Landon wrote her book she used Anna's information as her primary source which is why the history of Anna and the King of Siam is still wrong in all its particulars. 

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • This book, though a little dry in places, is very detailed in its research and its debunking of several myths that have been immortalized in the musical version of the story.
    • It was fascinating that this poor woman, who was part "native" and widowed young (and only two of her four children survived childhood), felt the need to lie and hide her past for fear of discovery and probable resulting ostracism. You can hardly blame her for wanting a better life for herself and her children than society allowed.
    • I recently watched "The King and I" for the first time. In the second half was a "ballet" typical for the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. This ballet was a Siamese take of Uncle Tom's Cabin! It was called "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" and narrated by the unhappy concubine Tuptim (played by a very young Rita Moreno!). The music and dance styles happen to be more pan-Asian than specifically Siamese or Thai but it is stunningly beautiful to watch.
      • Before I watched the movie all I knew of the story was that she was the English teacher who danced in the huge hoop skirts with King Yul Brynner. I knew the songs "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance" and that the king liked to say "et cetera, et cetera, et cetera".
      • And then here comes the practically out-of-nowhere ballet of Uncle Tom's Cabin! Totally batshit crazy! 
        • But then Rodgers & Hammerstein also created a tender musical about spousal abuse with this line: "It is possible dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all." GAG! 
        • And when they made Maria Von Trapp's story into a musical they thought, "Nuns vs. Nazis! Yes!"
    • Anyway, when I went to read about the story behind the movie musical I found this book and my library had it! Highly recommended to those with an interest in Asian history and the story behind the musical of "The King & I". 
    • Now I need to keep an eye out for the Irene Dunne/Rex Harrison/Linda Darnell (non-musical) version!

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