Yul Brynner became a Broadway legend over the years with his role of the King of Siam in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I”, he played it for both the Broadway production, and for the film version. This play was based on a novel by Margaret Landon, called “Anna and the King of Siam”, which was published in 1943, and sold the musical play rights in 1950.
As an interesting note, Yul Brynner played King Mongkut of Siam in 7 different theatrical productions of The King and I as well as the movie (1956) and television (1972) versions. This is a record that stands today as well as having appeared as the same character 4,625 times on stage. He was even touring with the show when he was informed of his diagnosis of fatal cancer.
But how much of “The King and I” was a real fact, how much was fiction and why are the movies about it still banned in Thailand? Leaving aside Yul Brynner’s work, that is not in question here, let’s try to take a look at the real Anna Leonowens here, and at the real King Mongkut in the next section.
The real Anna Leonowens wrote two books, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court: Being Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok” (1870) and “Romance of the Harem” (1873), which inspired Margaret Landon to write “Anna and the King of Siam”, the semi-fictionalized biographical novel about Leonowens. Anna’s books were renounced by King Mongkut’s biographer, who claimed that both books were full of historical errors, King Mongkut was grossly misrepresented as a tyrant, and that her description of the court (and Siamese people in general) was inaccurate (for example, describing them as morally inferior, and child-like people who would not progress without the help of the Western people).
But those weren’t all the inaccurate facts in Anna’s stories about Siam, it was also Anna’s story about herself, her own version of her life, just to mention some facts of the Welsh woman born in 1834, who was hired as the governess to the children of the King of Siam. She was born Anna Edwards and brought up in India in 1831. Her father wasn’t Captain Thomas Crawford, who died in battle when she was six years old, he was Thomas Edwards, a soldier of the Bombay infantry who died three months before Anna was born. Anna’s husband wasn’t a captain (and later Major) named Thomas Leonowens who died in Singapore from a sunstroke on a tiger hunt, he was Thomas Leon Owens, a clerk in the army pay office at Poona and died of apoplexy during their stay in Penang, Malaysia, leaving her with two children, Louis and Avis. After that, Anna changed his name to the more exotic Leonowens, moved to Singapore and began a small school for British officers’ children. Avis was sent back to England and Anna gets the invitation to go to Siam, and work as English teacher (not governess) to the children and wives of King Mongkut. Or to mention some other examples, now from the time in which she was already a teacher in Siam, where she claims that the King threw wives who displeased him into dungeons, and that the King ordered the public torture and burning of a consort and a monk with whom she had fallen in love, like the Tuptim episode in the musical or the movies. But Bangkok’s soil wasn’t appropiate for building dungeons nor basements, and there wasn’t any mention of public burnings at that time.