Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The King and I: Meet the Real Anna and the King

The King & I is one of my most beloved musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It is a popular musical that has been staged by different theater companies across the globe. This Tony Award winning musical ran for many years on Broadway and in London. It spawned a feature film that up to now people remember with fondness.

The movie adaptation of the play starred none other than Yul Brynner as King Mongkut, ruler of Siam in the 1860s. Opposite Brynner was Deborah Kerr in the role of Anna Leonowens. The story is based on the novel written by Margaret Landon entitled Anna and the King of Siam (published in 1944). It is about a British schoolteacher hired by the King of Siam to teach his children and his wives the English language, among other subjects.

What many may not know is that there is a real life Anna Harriette Leonowens. Mongkut wrote to Tan Kim Ching, his Singapore agent back in 1861 to help him look for a British woman who can serve as governess to his children. At that time, Leonowens was running a nursery school in Singapore. She was a recent arrival to the British colony. Leonowens’ father was a soldier of the Indian Army. However, she explained her dark skin by saying that she was of Welsh descent. Leonowens, who was a widow, claimed that her husband was an officer and not a clerk/hotel keeper. No one knew these untruths during her lifetime. Leonowens had two children. Her daughter Avis lived in England while her son Louis travelled with her to Bangkok.

The movie portrayed Mongkut and Leonowens as often butting heads. Frequent disagreements peppered their relationship. Even before getting hired, the real Leonowens asked for $150 per month in Singapore currency as wages which Mongkut was not willing to provide. She also asked that her home be near or right inside the missionary community in order for her to have Western company. Mongkut would not have it because he did not fancy having any one teach Christianity to his royal family.

Finally, after some haggling over compensation and housing, Leonowens, then 31, was hired as governess to Mongkut’s 82 children and 39 wives as well as concubines. She and her son first lived as guests of the prime minister before moving to a brick residence near the palace. At the beginning of her employment, Leonowens taught the royal family the English language as well as other subjects. In later years, she served as Mongkut’s language secretary.

Leonowens spent six years working for Mongkut before returning to England due to health reasons. Before her negotiations to return to Siam were closed, Mongkut died. She never returned to Siam but did correspond with King Chulalongkorn, son of Mongkut and her former pupil, for many years. Leonowens was able to see the new king when he visited London some 30 years later.

The next time you watch the movie The King and I, keep in mind that the main characters were based on the real King Mongkut and Anna Leonowens. The King and I was about a king who was protective of his country’s culture and identity but at the same time understood the need for modernization starting with exposing his royal family to Western language and culture.

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