Love is in the Heir
Posted on 11/24/2018
“There's nothing wrong with sentiment because the things we're sentimental about are the fundamental things in life: the birth of a child, the death of a child, or of anybody falling in love. I couldn't be anything but sentimental about these basic things. I think to be anything but sentimental is being a ‘poseur’.”—Oscar Hammertsein II.
Rodgers & Hammerstein have famously explored sentimental themes in their masterpieces South Pacific, Carousel, and The King and I—among the most notable of their shows—which portray romance in ways that challenge their audiences to envision love not through a rose-colored lens, but rather through the complexities experienced when living through a force which becomes bastardized when neglected. In The King and I, characters are constructed via their own vision of love. The decisions they make and the lives they pursue are defined by influence of power and culture in the quest for knowledge and love. Keep your head low on December 14 and 15 at State Theatre New Jersey, in a journey through the heart of His Majesty in The King and I.
Anna emerges during the peak of Victorian England where mating practices existed for the purpose of procreation and the imposition of monogamy. Although she and Tom could have been wed for these reasons alone, she expresses sadness when reminiscing about their past in “Hello, Young Lovers.” Anna is void of resentment as she serenades her memories of Tom, encouraging young love at the silent hill. She expresses both her woes and joy throughout the musical as a woman filled with love for all who she encounters as is exhibited in "Getting to Know You." To that effect, what brings her to Siam is the expansion of knowledge. It is seemingly ironic that she should set off on a journey with the intention to teach while becoming the student; however, both knowledge and love can only exist as an exchange. This dialogue takes place between Anna and the King, Anna and Tom, Anna and Edward, the King and his wives, and Tuptim with Lun Tha. The King and I is a provocation to the viewers’ understanding of khwām rạk and h̄lng rạk—the love which is shared between companions and that which is shared between lovers, respectively.
Khwām rạk—a feeling of great fondness for a person—can best be assigned to the love which Anna and the King have for each other. A common point of contention around this show is whether the relationship between them is romantic. In the iconic number “Shall We Dance,” tension fills the stage as the audience is unsure as to how this flirtatious trance will end. What’s also curious about this dance is that it is set to a polka. Although it is just the two of them dancing together, the polka is not a dance that is often associated with courtship like the waltz which Edward and Anna briefly share. Even if Anna and Edward did not discuss their romantic history, it would be evident that there is a semblance of romance between the two because of the style of their dance; and even though the King and Anna do not exhibit romantic feelings for each other, the King expresses jealousy when he finds Anna and Edward together, alone. Anna is portrayed to understand the King in ways even his wives do not.
Historically, the acquisition of wives among royals served the purpose of amassing wealth and bearing children in the interest of the expansion of the nation and its kingdom. Much like in Anna’s marriage, the King’s marriages existed according to the power systems in which they were operating. It is unspoken by the King whether he does or does not love his wives, but what is understood is that love is not the cause of their unions. Therefore, one can conclude that the King is not incapable of loving, but his responsibilities of maintaining a kingdom under the pressure of British rule disallow him from prioritizing his own interests and needs.
H̄lng rạk—a strong, romantic attraction—is what is most commonly understood when referring to love. One could contest the King to be a lover by speculation of the number "Something Wonderful," where Lady Thiang sings an ode to her husband. The audience knows that "this is a man who thinks with his heart" even though "his heart is not always wise" because of Lady Thiang's serenade; and since he needs her love, he can be wonderful. What he lacks in conventionality, he makes up for in his charm. Therefore, he is, in fact capable of loving and being loved in spite of his selfishness which prevents Tuptim from loving Lun Tha. “Death is not worse pain than an empty life,” is Lun Tha’s most iconic line in The King and I. The suffering in the hearts of young lovers torn apart is not a strange theme in Broadway. In fact, it is very common; however Rodgers & Hammerstein created a contrast of Tuptim's desires as a foil to those of the King's. Tuptim even risks her own safety just to be with Lun Tha; and while Lun Tha's sudden death is mourned by Tuptim alone, the King's loss is felt by his wives, children, nation, and even Anna. To love is to suffer the consequence of loss.
In essence, a broken heart is what ultimately killed the King. A character who expresses love and compassion to a limit endures the pain of his last days while scrambling for the answers to his woes between bookshelves, awaiting Anna to pluck the strings of his heart. The King of Siam is no Gomez Addams, but Lady Thiang's narrative confirms his love for her. He possessed love for his nation by seeking to advance his people through science, and he honored his children by hiring Anna in the first place so that they could receive an education—and after all, he loved Anna for her patience, knowledge, dedication, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Bring your finest gold chopsticks and an open heart to The State on December 14 and 15 for The King and I.
By Rand Jitan