Monday, December 29, 2008

The King and I

The life of Anna Leonowen was even stranger than the unlikely plot of The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical adapted from Margaret Landon’s 1944 book Anna and the King of Siam. Leah Price reviews Susan Morgan's biography entitled Bombay Anna published in July 2008:

A mixed-race Anglo-Indian army brat, she managed to pass as a Victorian lady long enough to be hired as a governess at the court of Siam. Her experience in the royal harem was later parlayed into literary fame and a trans-Atlantic career of teaching, writing and lecturing.

On disembarking in Singapore as a young widow in 1859, this gifted con woman subtracted three years from her age, relocated her birthplace from Bombay to Wales, forgot her mother’s Indian parentage, promoted her father from private to major and changed her husband from a clerk to an army officer. “The most important thing in life,” she declared, “is to choose your parents.” Leonowens’s racial passing depended on her eye for detail: a letter from her waxes sentimental over the “golden locks” of two of her children, although both happened to be brunettes. Equally crucial to these reinventions was her ear for language: not simply her knowledge of Hindi, Marathi, Persian and Sanskrit but the ability to mimic a genteel English accent.

In 1861, Mongkut, the king of Siam, asked his agent in Singapore to find his children a governess. A former Buddhist monk and an accomplished scholar who had earlier allowed American missionaries access to the harem, Mongkut was seeking a woman who would teach English without trying to proselytize. With few unmarried British ladies on the spot, Anna Leonowens — apparently ladylike and genuinely widowed — was chosen. From this point on, Morgan’s heroine will remind readers of Becky Sharp, the governess who schemes her way through Regency society in Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.” Unlike Becky, however, Leonowens turned out to be a good teacher.

At the time of her arrival, she estimated that Mongkut’s harem housed a population of 9,000: his sisters, aunts and children of both sexes, as well as consorts, concubines and slaves, and other women who had been offered to the king in order to pay debts or cement political alliances. Although she later described this city within a city as a hotbed of “Slavery, Polygamy, Flagellation of women & children, Immolation of slaves, secret poisoning and assassination,” Leonowens thrived there. She taught Mongkut’s children, then numbering about 60, including the crown prince. (Historians continue to debate her influence on the political reforms he carried out after his father’s death.) She also gave English lessons to adults and served as an unofficial secretary to the king. (Historians differ on her relations with him: did she shape his policies and draft his English-language documents or simply copy out some letters?)

After five years, Anna Leon­owens left, traveling to England and Ireland before settling in the United States, where she once again supported herself by teaching. The friends she found in the American publishing world helped her bring out two memoirs, The English Governess at the Siamese Court and The Romance of the Harem, which were sufficiently popular to open up a new career for her as a lecturer on topics from “Siam: Its Court and Customs” to “Brahmanism, Ancient and Modern” and “Christian Missions to Pagan Lands.” Leonowens sent dispatches from Russia to an American magazine; she moved to Nova Scotia to live with her daughter, and then to Germany to accompany her grandchildren to school; she wrote a memoir of India that mixed vivid reportage with autobiographical fibs; she lectured on women’s suffrage. She died in 1915.


In 1946 Talbot Jennings and Sally Benson adapted Margaret Landon's novel Anna and the King of Siam into the screenplay for a dramatic film of the same name, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. The novel was also adapted as a hit musical comedy by Rodgers and Hammerstein, The King and I (1951), starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, which ran 1,246 performances on Broadway. In 1956 a spectacular film version was released, with Deborah Kerr starring in the role of Leonowens. Revived many times on stage, the musical has remained a favourite of the theatre-going public. In 1999 an animated version of the musical was released by Warner Bros. In the same year Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat starred in a new feature-length cinematic remake entitled Anna and the King.

1 comment:

fen said...

Good idea

Funny Aircraft ,Funny Animals Video,Funny Babies ,
Funny Cars ,Funny Cartoon ,Crazy Movies ,Funny Friends ,
Funny Sports ,Funny Wedding Parties ,
funny pictures,funny jokes,free videos,free music,
free download,music video,comedy,stupid