By Margie Johnson
Hoop skirts, white gloves, and jeweled necklaces are all part of Anna Leonowens’ typical attire. Her style of dress has no practical use other than for show, symbolizing the wealth and beauty that is the standard of her position in Western culture. Throughout her journey into Siam, Anna stands tall with her head held high, separating herself from those who do not dress, look, or speak as she does. In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Anna’s whiteness is amplified and reinforced by her Western attire and mannerisms which grant her the authority to challenge the expectations for women in Siam. Those who do not possess whiteness, such as Tuptim, are left defenseless, trapped by the confinements of gender and femininity as proscribed by her culture and society.
Anna’s superior position is revealed in the very first moments of the musical. After taking a position as the school teacher for the royal children of the King of Siam, Anna and her son Louis embark on a journey from Singapore to Bangkok. While still aboard the ship, Louis excitedly exclaims that there is a “naked” man passing by, evoking an eruption of laughter from the audience. In immediately calling attention to traditional attire of Eastern culture in a mocking manner, a sense of “otherness” has been established in favor of Louis and Anna. The actors invite us to join them in their mockery. Further into the scene, Anna and Louis admit that they are afraid of what is to come, calling upon a singing response from Anna to “Whistle a Happy Tune.” There are no tangible dangers present other than the new culture of Siam, however, suggesting that it is the leaving behind of the comforts of their Western culture that they truly fear. When they finally arrive at the shore, the characters must physically lower themselves onto the ground below them, symbolizing their descent from their high lifestyle towards the presumably inferior and foreign Eastern civilization. As soon as they step foot on the ground, they are immediately swarmed by the common people of Siam. While some pull at Anna’s silk skirt and others beg for money, all are dressed in uniformly ragged and filthy clothes, dehumanizing the Siamese people and creating a starkly visual division of class and wealth. As a result, Anna and Louis are firmly positioned on a pedestal of properness, allowing the Western audience to more comfortably accept their likely preexisting conception of superiority relative to the presumed inferiority of the Siamese culture.
In an attempt to impress the British diplomat Sir Edward Ramsey, the King of Siam decides to entertain him in a grand manner with European traditions. One of the traditions includes dressing the King’s wives in European gowns. When attempting to put on the gowns and the makeup, the women shriek that they have to turn themselves “upside down and inside out.” They awkwardly waddle around in the bare hoops of the skirt or in an overly white painted face, alluding to their feelings of ridiculousness as they are not accustomed to any of these traditions and simultaneously making clear the false trappings of social standing and propriety. In one moment, a wife points to a dress and calls it a “costume,” referring to the dress as West and her face as East. Although the women are clearly suffering with their bruised toes and choking collars, Lady Thiang states that they must wear these trappings because Anna told them to do so, reinforcing the influence that Anna holds over them. Thus, it is no longer just the dress or the “costume” of Western traditions that provide Anna with power, but also the authority granted by her whiteness.
In addition to directing the entire event for Sir Ramsey, Anna speaks freely against the King, an action unheard of for a wife or any woman in Siam. Throughout the production, when confronted by the King’s rude remarks, Anna is unafraid to retort, emphasizing the immense amount of comfort and authority that her whiteness has provided her to the extent that she feels equal to a man of great stature. For example, before Anna arrives in Siam, she is promised a house by the King. This house is never delivered, however, causing her great distress. Although she is warned by the prime minister figure The Kralahome not to mention this unfulfilled promise to the King as it would aggravate him, she does so regardless and continues to do so throughout the musical. When teaching a lesson about snow, Anna’s students refuse to believe that snow, more whiteness, exists as they have never seen it themselves. After hearing the commotion, the King storms in and erupts into a fit of rage. He begins his tantrum with the discussion of snow but quickly trails into speaking poorly about the unfamiliar English traditions and revists the argument concerning the promised house. He throws books and shouts at the children, turning into a ruthless monster. While all of the students and wives cower below him in a prayer stance, Anna stands tall, head held high, and refutes him. She reminds him, once again, that the house was a broken promise and denies that she is a servant to his commands. If she does not receive her house, she states, she will return to England. In threatening to leave Siam, she has established herself as someone of value to the King with equal and unwavering opinions. Further, an entire song titled “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” is devoted towards Anna sharing her grievances about the King to the audience. In the song, she calls those under his ruling “toads” and pokes fun at their blind obedience. She includes a sexual reference, noting that all of his wives must compliment his sexual behaviors and behave as docile wives. In doing so, Anna has separated herself from the other women trapped under the King’s rule as she has enough power to ridicule him. Her incredible dominance granted by her whiteness has allowed her to supersede the limitations placed on the women in Siam. In a stance that would be humiliating to the King, were she a man, somehow it is accepted because she is a woman and while willing to confront him, still under his rule. Because she exhibits this Western whiteness, shared by the Western audience, it is still the Siamese people that are seen as “other.”
Tuptim, a woman gifted to the King of Siam from the King of Burma, does not experience similar autonomy as she does not possess Anna’s whiteness. Tuptim can speak English very well, and courageously exhibits this skill to the King when defending herself against the accusations that she was sent over as a spy. Instead of appreciating her talent and treating her as scholarly as he does Anna, the King pulls her away off stage to have her become another wife. In a plot twist, as suspected by Lady Thiang, Tuptim has fallen in love with another man. When Anna hears of this news, she feels sympathy for Tuptim and explains to the wives in a song about the great joys of falling in love. During the song, Anna stands tall above the women who are sitting equally far apart, grouping them into an obedient mass of women without any uniqueness or individually. Similar to the other women, however, Lady Thiang feels no emotion for Tuptim. Lady Thiang reflects the engrained sexist limitations of women in Siam and argues that it is foolish to love another man when she has the King. Due to the freedom and power granted by her whiteness, Anna has had the autonomy to fall in love naturally in contrast to the wives who must display constant obedience to the King. Tuptim, as a result, is forced to meet her lover in secret. In “We Kiss in a Shadow,” Tuptim and lover Lun Tha express the depths of their love for one another. They chase one another between pillar to pillar, playfully alluding to their constant hide-and-seek to see one another. Although a romantic song, they sing solemnly to express their sorrow that they will never be able to safely experience their love to the fullest as Tuptim has become a wife to the King. During the middle of the song, Lady Thiang strides in the background under a cool dark blue shadow, reinforcing the constant fear between Tuptim and Lun Tha of being punished for pursuing their love. A panic ensues between Tuptim and Lun Tha, causing Lun Tha to run away and leave Tuptim alone to finish the remainder of the song. Unlike Anna who can sing her love songs to an entire audience, Tuptim can only sing of romance in private, reinforcing Tuptim’s limitations as a new wife who cannot choose to be with the one she truly loves.
In an act of rebellion, however, Tuptim bravely attempts to defy her confinements and run away with Lun Tha. She gathers strength from the performance of Small House of Uncle Thomas, a version of the American classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tuptim performs as the narrator of the play, speaking directly to the King as she speaks from her own heart. She announces the characters by describing them as happy people with the exception of slave Eliza. When it is time to announce Eliza, Tuptim stands directly next to her and bows in the same manner, making a clear reference towards herself that she is the unhappy slave to the King. Tuptim understands that it would be forbidden to clearly reveal her misery in the palace as she is expected to be grateful as a wife to the King. She acknowledges that she achieved the highest honor for a woman in Siam even though completely imprisoned. In order to fight for herself, she cleverly calls attention to the similarity between her story and Eliza’s. Eliza is separated from her lover George, just as she has with Lun Tha. Eliza runs away from her slave owner Simon, just as she will shortly after the play. Additionally, Eliza can only escape hidden behind snow, a concept associated with Anna’s teachings and defiance as seen from moments earlier in the musical. Tuptim alludes to Anna’s freedom which she so desperately wishes to obtain through this connection. Anna’s freedom, however, is only granted by her whiteness. As a result, despite Tuptim’s efforts, she will never be freed from the expectations for a woman under the King’s rule. After the production, Tuptim’s escape is brought to the attention of the King, and she is given a physical punishment of whipping. Once finding out that her lover has been killed, she reveals that she will soon kill herself to be with him. Tuptim’s only chance of happiness has been stripped from her as she was not given the agency of whiteness to stand up for herself without severe punishment. She could not bear to behave in complete obedience as demanded of her for a woman in Siam, ultimately driving her to death as a final resort. The King and I utilizes the extreme contrast between Anna and Tuptim in order to illustrate the severity of race and gender confinements. In evoking raw emotion in the form of sadness and rage from the troubled life of Tuptim, the audience is able to question the unjust privileges granted to Anna. At the same time, Tuptim’s passion comes across as more authentic and not circumscribed by social class and social mores. The actors are masterfully able to portray their characters in a manner which is playful and highly entertaining while calling the audience to question their own notions of race and gender, power and place in society. If one is not white and proper as defined by Western culture, are they obstructed in their ability to obtain freedom and happiness? And at that same time, are the King in his maleness and Anna in her whiteness truly free?