Defending What You Know Best (The King and I )

Morgan Baxendale 


Ever since Anna Leonowens and her son Louis arrived in Siam, she impacted everyone around her, especially the King of Siam. The setting in which The King and I takes place is Siam, Bangkok in the early 1860s. Anna is all set for her new adventure to take a position as a schoolteacher for all of the children of the King of Siam, however, when she arrives she is met with many challenges that deal with holding firm in her traditions, values and succumbing to those of the King. As soon as Anna and the King step foot into the palace of the King, they both struggle to find any common ground and it takes almost the entire play for both of them to fully respect what each other believes in and why they are so passionate about it. The musical communicates something significant between Anna and the King of Siam that shows their cultural differences, how each view their social status, and the ways they look at gender and race. Both of these characters bring something unique to the table and allow the other actors on stage and the audience to have a full picture as to what it is like for two totally different people in this particular setting. 

Anna, who comes to Siam as a white English woman, immediately expresses to the audience how confident and excited she is about embarking on this new adventure. The staging helps tie this scene together extremely well, along with the first number that Anna performs in the musical. The first scene of The King and I was a pivotal moment for me as a viewer because of the way Anna expressed herself to the audience and how powerful she seemed when singing I Whistle a Happy Tune. You would think that a woman in this position would be more fearful or unsettled, but because of her experiences in England, the knowledge that she possesses, and the fact that she is a white woman, she is ready to take on these challenges in Siam. “I whistle a happy tune and ev’ry single time the happiness in the tune convinces me that I’m not afraid.” The more she continues to show confidence in herself, the more the audience believes in her as well. The staging in this scene is planned out perfectly because the boat that she arrives in emphasizes that she is the one with all the power in the scene because of the way the boat is extremely high and the audience has to look up at her. She is the one the entire audience has their attention on at that moment. Throughout the rest of the play, she has to fight for her power as a woman because the King continues to demean her, mainly because she is, in fact, a woman. Even though this battle between them continues, there is light at the end of the tunnel for both of them in this case. 

The fact that Anna is white woman is one thing, but the fact that she is a scientific and knowledgeable woman puts things in a whole different perspective. Anna fights from the very beginning to make sure she receives her side of the bargain from the King, which includes getting her own house to live in with her son, in exchange for teaching the royal children of the King. When the King would try and intimidate her about the deal or something about her teaching, Anna would rise up right away to defend herself. Anna was taken back when Lady Thiang, one the King’s wives, would call her sir because she possessed the knowledge and leadership capabilities that men particularly possessed during that time. All of the women around her that were noticing this behavior were surprised by her actions and so was the King, but if she was going to get anywhere with him she needed to be aggressive. The norms that surround a typical woman and a typical wife of the King, were to act like they were a servant to any male figure that was around and to be very soft-spoken. The way that Anna was acting, along with the other main characters, put into perspective how important the gender norms are in Siam. It was something that should definitely not be taken lightly, but Anna was doing a great job of starting to make pivotal changes for how they should act and how women were treated. Anna wants to make sure we all know that women should be valued and treated the same as men and puts forth that effort until the very end of the play. 

The King of Siam on the other hand is a totally different story. He is a strong male figure that has been a native of Siam his whole life and someone who thinks he has all the power in every situation. From the very first scene he was in, you could tell that everyone around him worshipped him and praised him. He had one specific rule for the people around him that indicated that your head could not be higher than his because if it was, it was like you had more power than he did. The King of Siam is a firm believer in the cultural norms in Siam, especially the ones that focus on valuing males over females. This meant he could treat them very disgracefully and almost slave-like. There are many times throughout the course of the play where The King likes to remind others in the palace, but especially Anna, who is King. Even if Anna is right in a particular situation and he is wrong, it doesn’t matter because the King is always right. The King thinks he has all the power and values the right things. There are times where he does doubt himself, but of course, not where Anna can see. After his issues with Tuptim and Anna, he comes to a conclusion that he is finding puzzlement within life. The number “A Puzzlement” takes the audience into a state of confusion, just like the King is facing. The directors set this scene up very well because you found out what was exactly going through the King’s mind when you couldn’t recognize it during the regular course of the play. He was being extremely vulnerable, which was very unlike his normal emotions and something he couldn’t relinquish to everyone else. The King would be considered weak and not powerful in this particular moment, and as a male figure he definitely didn’t want to portray that to anyone else. “There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know, and very often find confusion in conclusion I concluded long ago.”        

After analyzing both Anna and the King of Siam individually, I now want to discuss both of their characters collectively and what changed over the course of the play. For both characters, race and gender were important topics for them, but on different scales. The King of Siam wanted to make sure everyone around him followed his gender and race norms, but Anna was doing everything in her power to avoid those and stick to ones that she knows best and those that will benefit both genders. Because Anna was white and a woman, it made it even harder for the King to let Anna in at all.  Anna tried to defend every woman that was mistreated and verbally abused by the King, including herself. The moment in the play that grabbed my attention at the end and Anna’s attention was when the King said to Anna that “you are my servant.” At that point, Anna knew if she continued to stay in Siam she would continue to hurt, be mistreated, and see others mistreated as well. If Anna was like every other woman in Siam she would not defend herself, but she knew because of her statue, she could pull it off.     

It came to a point in the play that one of the King’s wives had to beg Anna to give him advice even when the King was on his deathbed, something needed to change in him and fast. I honestly believe that the King would’ve been ok with the fact that he was going to die knowing the fact that he was right, but deep inside him he knew and everyone else knew he had a “heart problem” and Anna needed to help one last time. In  receiving Anna’s help, he knew he would be going against all of his beliefs and norms that he has carried with him his entire life, and eventually succumbing to the right way of being King. 

In the final moments of the play, the King of Siam passes away, leaving Anna with what seemed like all the power. The King could not admit he was wrong for having the beliefs he had or the way he treated women, but he died knowing that his son; the heir to the throne was going to make changes to that were based on behalf of Anna. Anna did all that she could do to defend what values and standards she knows best, and ultimately ended up with the power over the King after his death. From the very beginning, most people in the palace and Anna believed that the King of Siam had a “heart problem”that caused many of his hateful beliefs. Eventually Anna was able to have power that she’d never thought she’d have in Siam because of her determination to show the people around her how all people should be treated and respected. Even though the King of Siam and Anna were two totally different people, from different backgrounds, the King was able to learn something pivotal from Anna that changed the entire direction of Siam for years to come. Anna never backed down from anyone that questioned her and stood firm in her cultural beliefs, values, knowledge, race and gender the entire time she was in Siam. Both Anna and the King made a monumental impact in the way culture and gender will be considered in Siam, but also in each of their lives.

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