Last night Kate and I went to see Porchlight Theater's production of The King and I. Kate assisted Bill Morey in the costume design for the show. At some point while growing up I saw the movie with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, probably on TV when I was fairly young. Young enough that I wasn't aware or thinking about gender, or the history of Western colonialism, and Globalization of culture. What follows is more a reflection on those theme's in the King and I, than on Porchlight's production, though it was an enjoyable and beautiful production that gave me room to ponder the way in which the King and I deconstructs itself and leaves one wondering about what exactly it is that we know or don't know, or simply act as though we know. Though, nor remembering much of the movie and not knowing the original this deconstruction may be due to Porchlight's own decisions in the production
It is from the start a fairly complex tale. The King of Siam, brings an English woman teacher and governess to teach his children for the purpose of bringing his kingdom in line with a changing world dominated the the British Empire and European colonization, and intertwined in this are two love stories. The first between Anna and King Mungcut (bound to fail as he has many wives, and thus more sublimated), and the second the love affair between the new concubine recently given to the king as a gift from vassal king and an agent of that vassal. And of course there is the play within a play as the concubine puts on a theatrical adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin, used as a cultural bridge to critique the practice of concubinage.
The conflict in part revolves around these love stories and the clashing cultural expectations concerning gender and love, and the person of a king. But there is in the background the conflict between British and Western colonial and Imperial ambitions, and King Mungcut wishing to navigate independently this changing world dominated by a new(to him and his small nation) Western Imperial power. Britain seeing Siam as inferior is contemplating colonization, the king obviously wishes to remain an independent power in the region, and thus is seeking away to keep Britain at bay.
The audience is then given conflicting desires: rooting for the King to "modernize" or Westernize his Kingdom and thus remain independent, but also rooting for Anna's seeking to impose her moral and ethical system, specifically in terms of the story line the Western view of romance and gender relations, monogamy, etc., etc., etc. thus colonizing Siam culturally, if not politically. This creates a double bind in the story, as we both wish for the king to hold our western views of romance, love, gender(though still assuming static reality of the male and female but as somewhat equals, or at least women are more equal in Anna's conception than in the Kings conception), while rooting for the King to protect himself and his kingdom from the encroachment of British Imperialism (and thus our western colonizing), by aping and appealing to Western colonial and imperial values. These values includes an abhorrence of Slavery, though a recent value, and of a certain value of marriage and romance as an equally freely chosen estate to be entered into equally by both parties. This western value is cast as a universal value through the love affair of the concubine and her lover. The play leaves these conflicting desires unresolved: Kingdom of Siam for now remains free of British colonization, but at the same time has been westernized, as the king's son at his death bed instructs his subjects to show respect for the king in terms of western gendered practice abandoning the tradition that had been in place up to that time. Neither romance's work out, the cultural divide and the political and cultural realities are too strong, but we are too judge this failure, and we hope for change, and that Siam will look more like England and the West in the end, (like us).
Anna I think can stand in for well meaning American and European activist at work in other countries and cultures, as progressives desire to spread what we consider humanizing values. The King and I raises, the question: can one reform other cultures and societies without universalizing certain cultural relative values. Anna's values of gender equality of Romance, are forerunners of current radical conceptions of gender equality and even the questioning of male and female as categories themselves. If we allow it the King and I can lead us even to question our current sense of the universal idea of democracy and freedom. Is our sense of democracy and freedom actually universal or aren't' they actually Western ideas we have universalized and some in other cultures are willing to convert to them?.How do we know the line between "opening up" cultures to "universal" ideas and tendencies, and subtle almost imperceptible colonization via an imperialism of value that assumes an underlying or overlay of human longing? In the King and I what is assumed as universal is heterosexual romantic love that assumes a parity between static genders. We who don't share this value are caught in an interesting double bind as we can recognize the cultural relativity of that value and at the same time since we share its value of romantic love we also see it as a universal value that the King of Siam should accept.
Along this analysis and my experience of this production of the King and I, the number where the son of the King and the son of Anna ask the question of how they know or how adults know they know what they know is the fulcrum of the musical. We the audience and Western progressives are, perhaps. in the end in this unresolved position and state of unknowing acting as if we know. Whose values are universally moral and applicable to all? Whose conception of gender and romance and marriage is univerraly moral and applicable to all. How do we know are understanding of human rights is universally true, can we even know that? The King and I does not resolve these questions but gives an answers by reaffirming our Western colonial values over those whom we colonized. It seems to me that even among the various activists I know this remains to be true; we say our values are correct, and we do not question what we think we know, and we see our ideas of gender politics and romance as normative and expressing a truly universal longing that can be found across the globe where ever we may go. But can we actually know that or are we simply comforted in this assumption, and smug in our ability to condmen those who are backwards and regresive both in our own cutlure and society and those in any culture or society? In fact any form of activism requires this sort of certainty concerning universal morality and justice. But do we, or even can we, know we aren't imposing a relative and culturally specific value and view of the world?