Shall We Dance and Think About Privilege and Race? THE KING AND I at Toby's
To all accounts, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were dragged somewhat reluctantly by their wives into the project that became The King and I (1951). And when Rodgers and Hammerstein did become involved, they focused more on the piece as a vehicle for the talents of Gertrude Lawrence and for lovely songs and spectacle than scoring points in any serious national discussion. But sometimes the discussion finds you.
The excellent revival of The King and I at Toby’s Columbia provides an opportunity to reexamine a show most of us think we know. Viewed from 60 years on, the musical seems like a logical next step, after South Pacific (1949), in the authors’ consideration of racial privilege and segregation, a topic then coming to a boil in the United States. (Truman had integrated the Armed Forces only three years before, and some of the cases shortly to be consolidated as Brown v. Board of Education were already wending their way through the courts.) Broadway held a much bigger place in the popular culture and the national discourse then than it does now. So Rodgers and Hammerstein could not possibly have failed to weigh their contributions to that discourse, or to be ignorant of the impact those contributions would have.
Just like South Pacific, The King and I addresses the American racial discussion only by indirection. In the earlier work, the focus is on miscegenation, and the “other” race is Micronesian (the planter’s children) or Vietnamese (Bloody Mary’s daughter), in neither case African American. In The King and I, the focus is on privilege, and the un-privileged “others” are women, Southeast Asians, even whites – in fact everyone who is not the King himself is in a non-privileged status at some point vis-à-vis the King. Even the King, it emerges, is un-privileged and suspect next to the monarchs of the European colonizing powers.
In this drama that turns completely on group identity and privilege, U.S. race relations are explicitly dragged in only as a critique of gender relations in the Siamese court, via the Uncle Tom’s Cabin pantomime and ballet. But every status disparity, whether between men and women, Thais and Burmese, a king and his subjects, Simon Legree and Eliza, or Queen Victoria and King Mongkut, is shown an enemy to human potential and happiness. It is hard to imagine a musical in which the baneful effects of privilege are more fully limned and pilloried.
The relevance and power of this denunciation could hardly have been lost on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s contemporaries, no matter how indirectly it was expressed.
As the world knows, The King and I is built around the tale of Anna Leonowens, a British governess hired by the King of Siam in 1862 to teach some of his wives and children. Leonowens (in her two memoirs that were the source of Margaret Landon’s novel about her, which in turn was the source for The King and I) presented herself as a symbol of British breeding and enlightenment, bringing civility and a progressive view of gender roles to an utterly patriarchal court. Even historically, this was a slight gloss; Leonowens was of mixed Indian and English parentage, and of low birth – facts she was at pains to conceal. But her feminism was real, realer in fact than Rodgers and Hammerstein gave their character credit for.
What Rodgers and Hammerstein gave us was your grandmother’s feminism (well, many grandmothers’ feminism): female freedom defined primarily as the freedom to cleave to a man of one’s own choosing, after the relationship derives value from a conventional romance. Some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest songs, all in this show, extol that kind of love: HELLO, YOUNG LOVERS, MY LORD AND MASTER, and I HAVE DREAMED. The King’s unsentimental view of gender relations seems more perceptive in some ways, and probably nearer what the historical Leonowens would have appreciated, but it denies women the right to choose a mate. And the horrifying treatment of Tuptim, the Burmese concubine whose lèse majesté consists simply of insisting on romantic autonomy after having been given to the King, makes clear that this freedom is nonetheless fundamental and indispensible, akin to Eliza’s and Uncle Tom’s need not to be slaves. It may not be the whole cause, but the cause is lost without it.
The King may revel in the tyranny of his privilege, but it is still Rodgers and Hammerstein’s choice not to make a villain of him, any more than they would want to demonize the segregationists who bought tickets to sit in their audience. They may enshrine an Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet in the heart of the dramatized debate, but they are not about to present the King as a latter-day Simon Legree.