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A Man Who Tries

Margaret Miller

In Roger and Hammerstein's The King and I, the character of Tuptim writes and performs her own version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. In her version she centers the story on Eliza's escape from the evil King Simon of Legree. The story she tells of Eliza's victorious escape is very much like her own story of escape from the King of Siam, although her own story doesn't end as happily (Berlant 638). Scholars such as Laura Donaldson and Lauren Berlant have previously looked at the relationship between slavery of blacks in Uncle Tom's Cabin and the slavery of women in The King and I. I would like to take their comparison even farther by saying that The King and I is, in its own way, a "Tom show."

"Tom shows" were dramatizations of Uncle Tom's Cabin that began to be performed even as the story was being serialized (Wikipedia). Many of them included elements of blackface minstrelsy (Wikipedia). These same elements are present in The King and I. In Lauren Berlant's "Poor Eliza," she writes that the King's "voice and body are otherwise staged through a kind of generic Asiatic 'bronzeface,' his body exposed and his vernacular enjoyed in what a U.S. audience would recognize as minstrel fashion (Berlant 639). Similar to "Tom shows," The King and I itself is a musical based on both Anna Leonowens biography and Margaret Landon's fictionalization of it (Berlant 638). Both The King and I and many "Tom shows" take many liberties with the works they are based on. Tuptim's "Tom show" in The King and I is similarly an excellent example of this. In her version, Eliza runs away from King Simon. In the actual novel, Eliza never even met Simon. The King and I tells its own version of Uncle Tom's Cabin with its characters taking the place of one or more characters from the novel.

Donaldson and Berlant agree that evil King Simon of Legree in Tuptim's play is a representation of the king of Siam. The King himself plays the role of each of Tom's three masters. His role as Simon is best seen in Tuptim's depiction of him in her play. Another example of this role is in his interactions with Anna, who I will later argue plays the role of Tom. For example, near the beginning of The King and I, the King attempts to remind Anna of her place in his household and tells her that she is his servant. Her insistence that she is not the King's servant is similar to Tom's insistence that Simon doesn't own his soul (Stowe 309). When Tom refuses to whip an old slave woman, Simon attempts to remind him of his place and asks him, "An't yer mine, now, body and soul? (Stowe 309)" In both instances, the Simon character believes that the Tom character has disobeyed him and tries to reestablish his position of power.

The King's role as St. Clare can be seen in his comments about Moses. He questions Anna about why Moses, a scientific man, unscientifically writes that the world was created in a week. The ensuing discussion between him and Anna regarding the difference between men of faith and men of science is similar to the discussion between St. Clare and Tom regarding the difference between the reality of faith and the reality of science (Stowe 263). In both situations the Tom character is explaining to the St. Clare character how to reconcile the two realms of faith and science.

The King also plays the role of Shelby. Throughout the first half of The King and I, Anna is continually reminding the King of the house he promised her. The King has, conveniently for him, forgotten that he had ever promised her a house. This is similar to Shelby's behavior in the beginning of Uncle Tom's Cabin. He had promised Tom his freedom "a hundred times," but, conveniently for him, forgotten that promise when he sold him to Haley (Stowe 28). The freedom promised to Anna was the freedom to raise her son "outside of a harem" and not in the captivity of the King's palace. The King is similar to Shelby in another way. When both the King and Shelby die, their sons, having been greatly influenced by Anna and Tom, begin to free their slaves. Shelby's son, George, feed all of his family's slaves and began paying them for their labor (Stowe 379). The King's son, who is the new King, declares that the people of Siam shall no longer prostrate themselves on the ground to show reverence to the King, but will retain their dignity and bow and curtsy instead.

Anna plays the role is of Tom. Interestingly, Anna's dead husband's name was also Tom. When Anna first arrives at the palace, she tells the King that she will be returning to England immediately if he does not give her the house he had promised her. She is convinced to stay, and takes off her bonnet, after she meets her pupils. Later she tells Sir Edward, a former suitor who is visiting Siam, that her heart is "very much alive" in Siam "among people who need me, people I can help (TK&I)." Her desire to stay where her teaching is needed parallels Tom's desire to stay at Simon's plantation although he is treated so badly. When Cassy asks Tom why he doesn't run away, he informs her that "the Lord's given me a work among these yer poor souls, and I'll stay with 'em (Stowe 345)." Tom believes that it is the Lord's intention for him to stay at Simon's plantation and help his fellow slaves become Christians (Stowe 359). Both Tom and Anna stay where they believe their teaching will be of the most help.

Anna's role as Tom is perhaps best seen in her interactions with the King. Several of these interactions have already been mentioned. One of the best examples occurs when Tuptim has been captured and the King is about to whip her. Anna pleads with the King not to punish Tuptim and says, "I beg of you not to take revenge on this girl. If you do you will be throwing away everything good you have accomplished for yourself and your country (TK&I)." This is similar to Tom's pleading with Simon when Simon is about to beat him. He pleads with Simon not to do so for Simon's own sake and implores him not to "bring this great sin on your soul! (Stowe 358)." In both situations, the Tom character pleads with the Simon character in order to save someone from being beaten for the Simon character's own sake.

Another interesting aspect of Anna's role is the song "Hello, Young Lovers" that she sings her first night at the palace. In the song she recalls a pleasant memory of her dead husband, Tom. She sings to the "new lovers now on the same silent hill" and implores them to "be brave, young lovers, and follow your star, be brave and faithful and true." She also sings that she will "remember this, and I always will (TK&I)." When one considers Donaldson's argument that "Liberation-for women, anyway-becomes less a struggle for political and social freedom than a desperate desire to be with the man you love," Anna's song takes on a new dimension of being about freedom (Donaldson 64). This is quite similar to George's speech to his newly freed slaves. He tells them to "think of your freedom, every time you see UNCLE TOM'S CABIN; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be as honest and faithful a Christian as he was (Stowe 380)." In both instances, what Anna and George learned from their Toms about freedom serves as an inspiration to them whenever they "think of Tom (TK&I)."

Other elements of Uncle Tom's Cabin are woven throughout The King and I. For example, in the middle of the night when the King asks Anna to take a letter for him she asks, "Now?" to which he responds, "Now is always the best time. (TK&I)" This echoes Miss Ophelia's comment to St. Clare when she was asking him to sign Topsy over to her that, "Now is the only time there ever is to do a thing in (Stowe 268)." Donaldson and Berlant both argue that Tuptim plays the role of Eliza. She is a slave in that she is a woman in the King's harem and was actually a present, or object given, to the King from the Prince of Burma (Donaldson 58). In many ways she is also an Emmeline character. In the novel, Eliza is a slave of Shelby, but it is never implied that they have any sexual contact. As a new member of the King's harem it is implied that Tuptim and the King will have sexual relations. Emmeline was purchased by Simon as an attractive addition to his household and not as a field laborer (Stowe 298). It is implied that if there hadn't been any sexual interaction between them before she ran away, there certainly would have been. Another similarity between Emmeline and Tuptim is that they play a more passive role in their escape. Eliza's escape across the ice "makes the spectator merge awe at the woman's power in the face of danger she endures for freedom, love, and family (Berlant 645)." She plays an active and powerful role in her flight across the river. Emmeline and Tuptim are greatly assisted in their escapes and play a more passive role. Emmeline escapes with Cassy who had created an elaborate plan for their escape (Stowe 346). Tuptim's escape was planned by her lover, Lun Tha. Donalson remarks that in her escape, Tuptim is "passive and invisible in the rickshaw pulled by an active and visible Lun Tha (Donaldson 64)." Although Tuptim sees herself as Eliza, the passive role she plays in her escape leads me to consider her as playing the role of Emmeline instead.

Of what use is it to consider The King and I as a "Tom show"? Not only does it help us examine The King and I in another light, but it also helps us see the moral of Uncle Tom's Cabin differently. Many people find the Christian message of doing the right thing by freeing the slaves not only overwhelmingly Christian, but also a daunting one (class discussion; Stowe 202). Indeed the task of ending slavery seems as difficult as turning Siam into a modern, Westernized country. The moral in The King and I is easier for the audience to enact in their own lives. It is not that you must face and overcome this challenge, but that you should, like the King, at least try to do so. To paraphrase lady Thiang, it is alright to be a man who stumbles and falls as long as you are a man that tries (TK&I).

Berlant, Lauren. "Poor Eliza." American Literature, Vol. 70, No. 3, No More Separate Spheres!. (Sep. 1998), pp. 635-668.

Donaldson, Laura. " 'The King and I' in Uncle Tom's Cabin, or on the Border of the Women's Room." Cinema Journal, Vol. 29, No. 3. (Spring, 1990), pp. 53-68.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Ed. Ammons, Elizabeth. New York: Norton & Company, 1994.

The King and I. dir. Walter Lang. Perf. Yul Brenner, Deborah Kerr. 1956. DVD. 20th Century Fox, 1999.

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