Abraham Lincoln: King Mongkut’s “Great and Good Friend”

In Act I, the King asks Anna if President Abraham Lincoln has “enough guns and elephants” for winning the war in America. Although this anecdote from the musical is not entirely historically accurate, King Mongkut did offer elephants (for domestic, not war purposes) to James Buchanan in 1859. By the time the letter reached America, Abraham Lincoln had been elected president. He responded:

“Great and Good Friend:

…I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States.

Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.

I shall have occasion at no distant day to transmit to Your Majesty some token of indication of the high sense which this Government entertains of Your Majesty’s friendship.

Meantime, wishing for Your Majesty a long and happy life, and for the generous and emulous People of Siam the highest possible prosperity, I commend both to the blessing of Almighty God.

Your Good Friend,

Abraham Lincoln

Washington, February 3, 1862

Q&A with the King

IMG_7330Paolo Montalban (best known for playing the Prince in the ABC/Disney TV movie, Cinderella) has been in The King and I eight times. His role at Olney Theatre Center is his second time playing the King.

What is it like working with the kids?

It’s one of the perks of doing The King and I, getting to work with the kids. Being able to see the theatrical process through their eyes is like reliving that experience for myself for the first time.

What makes this production unique?

For one, it’s my second time being the King, so it’s kind of like riding a bike that you haven’t ridden for a while…. You have a director and it’s his first time looking at this piece, so he has really fresh eyes on it, and a new choreographer working on the piece for the first time. She also has really fresh eyes on it, so it brings a unique experience to the product.

Why should audiences see this show?

In my opinion, audiences should come see the show because it’s quite possibly the most perfect Rodgers and Hammerstein piece that’s every been created—it has a perfect book, perfect music and lyrics, and it has a story that was not only relevant back then, or when it arrived on Broadway 15 years ago, but it’s relevant now, and I think it’s a story you want to share with your kids and family.

How do you personally connect to this musical?

You know, it’s funny, because my family was a family of immigrants and being an immigrant family in the US—I came over when I was one—the most important thing to my parents for their children was being able to assimilate, not just quickly, but also fully into American culture. You know what’s interesting is that in a way, the King of Siam is trying to assimilate into the world because his country was so isolated for so many years, and now he’s trying to spread his wings and remain relevant in the world so that his county doesn’t get swallowed up by colonial powers.

What is the most challenging aspect of playing this character?

The most challenging aspect is trying to bring an integrity to the character and the actual historical figure without being…word for word, note for note exactly what he actually was in real life…to bring a human element to it. I mean, I obviously will never get a chance to know the real King, but the challenge is trying to get into his skin, trying to imagine what he must have been going through and how torn he must have been between wanting to keep the traditions of the past and also wanting desperately to bring his country into the future.

The King is an iconic role. What was it like making him your own? Were you influenced by other portrayals of the King?

When you think of The King and I, still to this day, you think of Yul Brynner. And the first thing people ask is, “Are you going to shave your head for this?” I’m totally open to shaving my head…But you know, the actual King of Siam had a kind of tuft of hair on top and very shortly shaved or closely cropped sides and back. That was the style of the time and era in his country. So one of the major things, just visually, is trying to find a look that will set this King apart from Yul Brynner’s. That being said, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the kings that have come before me. I still follow the old saying: “If it’s good, steal it, and the rest, just forget it.”

This isn’t your first time playing the King. What have you discovered about the story and character this time?

I’m still discovering it. What’s great about Mark [Waldrop, director] is that he’s really guided me into reconsidering the King as a more thoughtful, scholarly King who is just curious about the world. Many times in the past, including the Yul Brynner one, the King had the curiosity, but there’s also a bit of the tyrant…. People remember that a lot. So I’m still trying to find my way and find my own version of it.

You’ve also performed in David Henry Hwang’s revised Flower Drum Song, another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that closely examines notions of race and culture. How is it in conversation with The King and I? Did it influence your perception of the musical?

Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t write fluffy shows. They may seem fluffy because the songs are so catchy and you’re whistling the tunes outside of the theatre, but if you look deeper, there are a lot of really important themes going on, and those themes are still relevant today. There were themes that they wrote back then, and they will be important 200 years from now, long after this production of The King and I is done. With regards to Flower Drum Song…. What David Henry Hwang really pulled out of that new version was focusing on the immigrant experience, specifically in America, and I think he really captures that. I think he’s one of the foremost playwrights speaking about the Chinese-American immigrant experience, and it’s such an important story to be told because a lot of people don’t know about that. The King and I touches on those kinds of themes, of being in a foreign land. You have Mrs. Anna trying to assimilate in the culture, and in the same way, the King trying to assimilate in the English culture that she brings to the court.

Why is the King such an enduring character for American audiences? Why do we need to keep telling this story?

The King is such an enduring character and this is a story that we need to tell because the King, the historical King and the character in The King and I, was a man who didn’t just want his country to be better—he wanted to be better, and I think we can learn from that. I think that we can look at his doubts and the way he works out his problems that we can not only just want ourselves to be better, but we also want the people around us to be better.

Photos from the Margaret Landon archives

Gallery

This gallery contains 7 photos.

Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections has generously allowed us to get a closer look at the historical world of Anna and King Mongkut. Margaret Landon, author of ‘Anna and the King of Siam,’ collected an enormous library of photographs … Continue reading

A Day in the Grand Palace

An excerpt from Susan Morgan’s Bombay Anna, describing an average day in the Grand Palace:

“The king and his household rose at five. Their first act was to take their places—the king, his children, hsi sisters and other relatives, his concubines, and their slaves—along a strip of matting that started from the “Gate of Merit” and was laid “through all avenues to another” gate. The Gate of Merit was opened, the Amazon guards lined up on either side, and one hundred ninety-nine priests walked through, receiving their daily offerings of food from the members of the royal household. Then came an hour of quiet prayer in Wat Samiras Manda-thung, followed by a nap for the king, and breakfast about sunrise, at which Anna and Louis were often present. After breakfast everyone went about their morning tasks. The king retired to do his reading and correspondence. Anna, the children, and those women who wished to join in went off to do their lessons in the schoolroom. There was a little break for tiffin, or snack, between eleven and twelve.

At two o’ clock it was time for bathing and fresh clothes, followed by the major meal of the day. Anna and Louis sometimes went home for lunch at their rest time in the heat of the day. But they were always welcome to stay for the palace meal along with the whole household attending the king. Here Mongkut ‘chatted with his favorites among the wives and concubines, and caressed his children, taking them in his arms, embracing them, playing them with puzzling or funny questions, and making droll faces at the babies.’ After this main meal and family time the king went to the Hall of Audience or attended official matters with his ministers while Anna and her students returned to the schoolroom for afternoon lessons. These lasted until early evening, when everyone in the palace met again for light supper. The king retired to his private apartments around nine.”

‘King Chulalongkorn Day’

Hammerstein condensed various historical events into the final scene of The King and I, one of the most heartfelt and sincere moments in his and Rodgers’ repertoire. King Mongkut did die of a sudden illness, but it was after Anna had left on a six-month leave of absence; Chulalongkorn was crowned King of Siam, but not for another month; and the young monarch enacted a number of education and social reforms, but not until he was a more established leader. The musical version does, however, stay true to the essence of the historical events; Rodgers and Hammerstein took artistic liberties with the original story for the sake of dramatic timing and narration, but Mongkut’s moral fortitude and Anna’s influence did inspire Chulalongkorn to reform his country.

Celebratory wreaths and pictures surround King Chulalongkorn's statue in the Royal Plaza.

Celebratory wreaths and pictures surround King Chulalongkorn’s statue in the Royal Plaza.

Most notably, the monarch passed the Slave Liberation Act in 1900, freeing the one third of his country that was enslaved under traditional practices. For this, as well as sending his children to Europe for school and continuing to avoid colonialism, Thais celebrate his life on October 23 of every year. On King Chulalongkorn Day, government offices are closed in rememberance of the country’s beloved king, and admirers place wreaths and pictures on his statue.

Anna may not have had as much of a direct impact on Chulalongkorn’s beliefs as her memoirs would have readers believe–but her ardent abolitionist philosophy and Mongkut’s devout moralistic views undoubtedly impacted the prince’s belief system, and by effect, contributed to Siam’s development.

“A thousand liv…

Quote

“A thousand lives seemed to be concentrated in that one moment to Eliza. Her room opened by a side door to the river. She caught her child, and sprang down the steps towards it…. In that dizzy moment her feet to her scarce seemed to touch the ground, and a moment brought her to the water’s edge. Right on behind they came; and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice beyond. It was a desperate leap-impossible to anything but madness and despair…. The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she staid there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake; stumbling-leaping-slipping- springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone-her stockings cut from her feet-while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.”

An excerpt from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, from Part IV, The Chase.