The cast and creative team of The King and I move later this week from rehearsal rooms to the stage of the Vivian Beaumont, but I find my mind drifting far far away, to the inspiration for the story: Anna Harriette Leonowens.
Mrs. Leonowens was born in Ahmadnagar, India, in 1831, and died in Montreal, Canada, in 1915: her life reflected an era, the Victorian, and her story encompassed the globe. We know her from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s superlative musical and, before that, from Margaret Landon’s bestselling 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, on which both the musical and the 1946 movie, Anna and the King of Siam (Irene Dunne, Rex Harrison), are based.
Landon drew her story from Leonowens’ two memoirs: The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which can be downloaded for free on Amazon, and Siamese Harem Life (1873), which is available in printed form.
The former volume is an expansion of articles Leonowens published in the Atlantic Monthly. It turns out she had quite a career not only in American periodicals but in the United States itself. In 1869, less than two years after leaving the employ of the Siamese king, Leonowens turned up in New York City. She opened a school for girls on Staten Island, but the academy didn’t last: when the first memoir was published successfully the following year, Leonowens abandoned the project and hit the lecture circuit, the primary means, in 19th-century America, of stoking the flame of one’s fame. From the podium she declaimed on such subjects as “Christian Missions to Pagan Lands” and “The Empire of Siam, and the City of the Veiled Women.”
Such titles brought a few complaints about sensationalism. Long into our own era, some observers have cast a comical eye on Leonowens’ narratives. When Siamese Harem Life was re-issued, in 1953, The New Yorker’s anonymous reviewer wrote the “somewhat Scheherazadean memoir” is “devoted to an account – highly flavored, though by no means spicy – of the many love affairs with which the young ladies of the Bangkok court enlivened the tedious pageantry of their lives.”
That re-issued edition carried an introduction by Freya Stark, a British explorer who, in the twentieth century, carried on the tradition of women travelers in whose ranks Leonowens is generally enrolled. In our own time, gender has assumed a more prominent place in any assessment of Leonowens’ legacy: her place in feminism has helped balance the modern charges of sensationalism and Orientalism.
I will address these ‘isms’ in my next blog entry, an interview with Bartlett Sher, the director of LCT’s The King and I. For now let me leave you with one final fun fact: Leonowens was the great aunt of actor Boris Karloff, who famously played Frankenstein’s monster in a series of iconic 1930s movies.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.