|My great aunt was a nun, so
I fancy myself an authority.
I’ve been attending the Aberystwyth Arts Centre productions ever since I arrived in this town after fifteen years of life in Manhattan. I had a bad attitude in my suitcase and thought that nothing could match Broadway, that this was just the sticks. Well, shows like Chicago and Hairspray proved me wrong. Actually, the very first show I saw here, Oliver!, did that. And it was great to see Mr. Bumble again, right there in that convent. Gary Davis, I mean, who plays Monsignor O’Hara. Indeed, there were a number of familiar faces in the cast, among them David Barrett and Robert O’Malley.
Last night, I had the good fortune to hear the music of Alec Templeton. Live and by proxy—and right here in town. Templeton’s compositions, among them barrier-obliterating and class-unconscious numbers like “Bach Goes to Town” and “Debussy in Dubuque,” were performed at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth. Pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips was ably assisted by Templeton himself, whose voice and ways on the keyboard were heard in a variety of radio recordings from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Why here? Why now? Well, Templeton was a Welshman by birth, a fact that seems to have eluded most of the Welsh who pride themselves to be a nation of song. So, last night was as good and as high a time as any for his countrymen and women to acknowledge Templeton’s remarkable against-almost-all-odds career, even if the will to embark upon it took the composer-pianist as far West from the West of Britain as Hollywood. The countrywoman who did the acknowledging was Rhian Davies, teller of Templeton’s life in words and images. Davies, who generously acknowledged as well all the support and assistance her project received from broadcasting buffs and music lovers around the inter-networked world, has known about Templeton practically all her life. Eager to share her readily transmitted enthusiasm, she brought home to us, the assembled audience, that it is always Alec Templeton Time.
Templeton’s life is the stuff of legend. Born blind, he developed an ear so keen and a wit so sharp that he was destined to play tunes made for the cutting of rugs. That he was an expert at middlebrow musical culture has a lot to do with the fact that the eyes beneath his brows saw nothing and that his ears saw nothing but potential. Others, left in the dark yet accustomed to light, might have seen an insurmountable impediment.
The mind’s eye of Alec Templeton saw no such manifestations of doubt. He saw, say, Lower Basin Street . . . and took it. It may be that sightless people, who sense space by feeling their way around and listening intently, are not so much impressed by the walls facing them as their seeing contemporaries, not so much concerned with apparent boundaries, be they cultural or national.
“I understand,” a writer for Radio Guide remarked in 1936, “why his friends, when you start glooming about his sightless eyes, smile superciliously and say: ‘Save your sympathy for someone who needs it.’”
The stuff sighted folks concern themselves with is so much nonsense to a man like Templeton. Sensing a universe where others might imagine chaos, he crossed the waves and made a home for himself on the airwaves, authoring an etherized existence.
“Radio,” Templeton reportedly said, “is to me the greatest miracle of man’s ingenuity. My ears are my eyes, and I tune in at every opportunity, listening to everything from Vic and Sade to Toscanini.”
Hearing Templeton’s music performed live and seeing his career celebrated was a thrill. Yet as pleased as I was that all this happened in the little Welsh town where I now live, I wonder what claim Wales has to her native son. After all, the place of his birth, like his blindness, was not of his choosing. Indeed, he chose to unfurl his pinions, take to the air, and come to live for all willing to be all ears, in a medium whose art is not limited by space but that is instead the stuff—the no-matter—of time. Make that Alec Templeton Time.
I don’t often indulge in morning afterthoughts. I might—and frequently do—revise what I said (or, rather, how I said it); but I generally just take time, and one time only, to say my piece instead of doling it out piecemeal. Unlike the producers of much of the (un)popular culture I go on about here, I don’t make a virtue of saying “As I was saying” or make my fortune, say, by milking the cash cow of regurgitation. To my thinking, which is, I realize, incompatible with web journalism, each entry into this journal, however piffling, should be complete—a composition, traditionally called essay, that has a beginning, middle and end, a framework that gives whatever I write a raison d’être for ending up here to begin with.
Although I resist following up for the sake of building a following, it does not follow that my last word in any one post is the last word on any one subject—especially if the subject is as inexhaustible as the Eurovision Song Contest, which festival of song, spectacle and politics compelled me previously to go on as follows: “It [a Eurovision song] is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.”
Diplomatic blunder, my foot. My native Germany did win, after all, coming in first for the first time since 1982, when Germany was still divided by a wall so eloquent that, growing up, I did not consider whatever lay to the east of it German at all. Apparently, this year’s German singer-delegate Lena Meyer-Landrut, born some time after that wall came down, did not step on anyone’s toes with her idiosyncratic rendition of “Satellite,” a catchy little number whose inane English lyrics she nearly reduced to gibberish.
Her aforementioned insistence on turning toenails into “toenates” intrigued a number of bemused or irritated viewers to go online in search of answers, only to be directed straight to broadcastellan. Perhaps, the United Kingdom should have fought tooth and nates instead of articulating each tiresome syllable of their entry into the competition, a song so cheesy that it did not come altogether undeservedly last, even if European politics surely factored into the voting.
Britain never embraced European unity wholeheartedly—and those in the thick of the economic crisis now challenging the ideal of Europe may well resent it. Is it a coincidence that the votes were cast in favor of the entrant representing the biggest economy in Europe, a country in the heart of the European continent?
While not content, perhaps, to orbit round that center of gravity, other nations may yet feel that it behoves them to acknowledge the star quality of Germany, which, according to contest rules, is called upon to stage the spectacle in 2011. After all, why shouldn’t the wealthiest neighbor be host of a competition some countries, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, declared themselves too cash-strapped even to enter this year.
I may not have been back on native soil since those early days of German reunification, but there was yet some national pride aroused in me as “Satellite” was declared the winner of the contest by the judges and juries of thirty-eight nations competing in Oslo this year along with Deutschland.
That said, seeing a German citizen draped in a German flag as she approaches the stage to take home a coveted prize, however deserved, still makes me somewhat uneasy. Given our place in world history, the expression of national pride strikes me as unbecoming of us, to say the least. I was keenly aware, too, that there were no points awarded to Germany by the people of Israel.
Will I ever stop being or seeing myself as a satellite and, instead of circling around Germany, get round to dealing with my troubled relationship with the country I cannot bring myself to call home? That, after the ball was over, formed itself as a sobering afterthought. And that, for the time being, is the beginning, middle, and end of it. Truth is, I take comfort putting a neat frame around pictures that are hazy, disturbing or none too pretty.
Folks flicking through the May 25-30 issue of Radio-Movie Guide back in 1941 were told about a “New Song Sensation,” a novelty number written by Ted McMichael (of the Merry Macs), Jack Owens and Leo V. Killion. The identification of the tunesmiths aside, this was probably no news at all to America’s avid dial twisters. Published only a few weeks earlier, the “Sensation” in question had already “featured on the air by Kate Smith, Bob Hope and Alec Templeton.” In fact, as early as 23 April, listeners to Eddie Cantor’s It’s Time to Smile program would have been exposed to what was tongue-in-cheekily billed as a “Swedish Serenade” overheard by an illiterate boy who “should have been in school”:
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.
According to Radio-Movie Guide, Benny Goodman was so keen on the ditty that he wanted to “buy an interest in its profit for five thousand dollars.” It is easy to see the attraction of such novelty nonsense at a time when news from Europe were similarly bewildering yet decidedly less diverting. And before we tut-tut a nation at war for going gaga over a trifle such as “The Hut Sut Song” while being gleefully indifferent to—or woefully ignorant of—the world, we might consider the musical offerings conceived for the current Eurovision Song Contest, an annual agit-pop extravaganza that, in this, its fifty-fifth year, is playing itself out against the somber backdrop of the European fiscal crisis.
Much of Europe may be cash-strapped and debt-ridden, but the thirty-nine nations competing in Oslo this year have it yet in their means to bestow points and favors upon one another—or to withhold them. Even the least affluent countries of greater Europe may take comfort as well in the potentiality of turning freshly minted tunes into pop-cultural currency. Europe is less concerned, it seems, with the phrases it must coin to achieve such a feat.
The emphasis on rhyme over reason is apparent in traditional Eurovision song contest titles—and winners—like “Boom Bang-a-Bang” (United Kingdom, 1969), “Ding-A-Dong” (Netherlands, 1975), and “Diggi-loo, Diggi-ley” (Norway, 1984). It is an orchestrated retreat to the banks of a mythical “rillerah,” a clean plunge into a stream of pure nonsense beyond the realities of the Babel that is Europe. Might an agreement to be agreeably meaningless be a key to intercultural understanding?
“The Hut Sut Song” came with its own dictionary:
Now the Rawlson is a Swedish town, the rillerah is a stream.
The brawla is the boy and girl,
The Hut-Sut is their dream.
By comparison, most Eurovision entries, which, in the past, included “Volare,” “Waterloo,” and some inconsequentiality or other performed by Celine Dion, do not make much of an effort to render themselves intelligible. While by and large performed in some approximation of English, today’s Eurovision songs are, for the most part, incomprehensible rather than nonsensical, as if members of the vastly, perhaps inordinately or at any rate prematurely expanded union were determined to avail themselves of the English language as a means of keeping apart instead of coming together, inarticulate English being the universal diversifier.
Eurovision songs have always suffered—or, you might well argue, benefited—from less-than-sophisticated lyrics. Take these lines from this year’s Armenian entry, performed by one Eva Rivas: “I began to cry a lot / And she gave me apricots.” Which begs the question, I told a friend the other day: if she had only laughed a little, might she have gotten . . . peanut brittle? Well, perhaps not. Apricots are a symbol of Armenian nationality.
In its well-nigh incomprehensible delivery, “Satellite” takes the cake, though. According to British bookies and the internet downloads on which they rely to establish the odds, the quirky, bouncy little song representing my native Germany—where it became an instant success—is second in popularity only to the entry from Azerbaijan (which, as the contest rules have it, lies within the boundaries of Europe).
A Danish-German-American collaboration, “Satellite” scores high in both the “bad lyrics” and “strange accent” categories, proving, as only a Eurovision song can, that those categories are not mutually exclusive:
The singer, Lena Meyer-Landrut hails from Hanover. Not that this should lead us to expect any pronounced British connections in her house. Still, being a graduating high school student, she ought to have a firmer grasp on the English language. At least, her origins and education cannot account for—or explain away—references to painted “toenates” and underwear “thay blue.” Since, after weeks of tryouts and rehearsals, she still can’t, er, “nate” those undemanding lyrics, her accent is clearly an affectation. Could it be anything else?
Just what kind of “Hut-Sut” are European “brawla” dreaming of these days as they insist on diving, seemingly pell-mell, into the turbid “rillerah” they make of English? Not of a unity achieved through universality, I reckon. Perhaps, they are simply getting back at the native speakers by twisting their tongue in ways that are as likely to alienate as to amuse, and are having the last laugh by turning this recklessly appropriated language into Europop gold with which to pay back the British for steadfastly refusing to adopt the sinking Euro. The apricot stones-filled cheek!
Whether “Satellite”—or Germany—wins this Saturday has perhaps more to do with the recent bailout of Greece than with the merits of the song or the quality of the performance. Then again, a Eurovision song, however frivolous, is generally looked upon as something larger than its number of bum notes and odd intonations. It is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.
I am not inclined to manual labor. If I lift a finger, it is likely to come down on what isn’t grammatically up to scratch or else to add a few scrapes to my scalp as I take some rambling bull by the inkhorn. There has been a little more of that going on lately—teaching and editing—and, my furrowed pate notwithstanding, I am heartily glad of it. Yet as much as I relish being back in the game after suffering the indignity of being benched for the better—or, rather, worse—part of the past five seasons, the academy has never felt like a home court to me. It is as if, carved into the trunk of my family tree, however rotten, puny and lacking in shelter it might be, are memos more emphatic than the certificates of achievement now dusting in the drawer I am so little inclined to tidy. Instead of considering myself invited as I enter places of culture and learning, I still feel at times as if I were crashing a party.
You see, I was born into that endangered social stratum known as the working class. It is an origin of which I am mindful, though neither proud nor ashamed. At least, I am not ashamed of it now. I used to be as thrilled about it as Ann Blyth’s character in Mildred Pierce, even though my parents bore a closer resemblance to Lana Turner in Imitation of Life—that is, too busy to notice that living up to their aspirations left their offspring in the dust they raised as they tried to shake the dirt clinging to their roots. At any rate, stuck in that cloud of dust was I, an asthmatic kid who couldn’t afford to hold his breath at the off chance of parental attention.
Not to suffocate under the rubble of post-Second World War Germany, my parents had to put their noses far closer to the proverbial grindstone than I ever did. Their generation, aided by American interests, pulled off the Wirtschaftswunder or “economic miracle,” a sleight-of-hands-on approach to the lasting trauma caused by total war and final solution, the coming to terms with which would have required equipment far more difficult to handle than shovel and broom.
I am not so disingenuous as to pass off my staying put as a form of sit-down strike, of giving the clean-and-cover-up efforts of my parents’ generation the spotless finger; but apart from the months I ill served my country working as a hospital orderly or the hours I spent cleaning apartments in New York City to help finance my college education, I remained sedentary for much of my life.
So far, it’s been a life spent lost in thoughts, ensconced in writing, and plunked down for performances that artists work on studiously for our delight and instruction—the kind of delight my father found it difficult to accept as serious work and the instruction he thought less of than the empirical knowledge that, along with calluses, is the badge and perquisite of the experience-hardened laborer.
I suppose it is easier for the worker—not to be equated here with the impecunious—to aspire to material possessions instead of culture and learning, since exposing yourself to something that poses a challenge rather than promising instant gratification requires still more work on the part of those who have little time and less energy to spare.
Now, my comparatively indolent existence permits me to spare that time; yet, as if my conscience and buttocks alike had been shaped by Protestant work ethics, I often feel rather uncomfortable. I’m not one to pooh-pooh the benefits of resting on one’s Popo (as dainty Germans call the posterior); but, there is nothing like wriggling in my seat in hopes of improving my mind to convince me that the calluses—and I—belong elsewhere.
I had that impression sitting through Letters of a Love Betrayed, a new opera by Eleanor Alberga (libretto by Donald Sturrock). Reading about it, I was intrigued by the promised fusion of Latin rhythms and a neo-Gothic romance based on a story by Isabel Allende, but felt let down by a score that to my untrained ear sounded forbidding, unmelodious, and, worse still, forgettable. Perhaps, the perceived cacophony was the result of a clanging together of too many stereotypes. Whatever melo- Letters possesses is all in the drama; derivative and contrived, it is creakier than a chair that has been squirmed out of too often.
I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it. I felt like a tired, vitamin deprived miner lured into a soup kitchen of the arts, the drama being a concession to what is assumed to be his tastes as he is being fed a presumably healthy diet with a none too musical spoon.
As I sat down again to express my thoughts on the matter of what’s the matter with me, I kept wondering whether what I was responding to so angrily was utter musical rubbish, dreck worse than the grime to which I chose not to expose myself, or whether my inability to open my mind was dictated to me by my past, a past unfolding in letters of a class betrayed.
At the risk of sounding like a loser at a Vegas spelling bee, I am a serious eye roller. Like a roulette wheel on an off night, each circulation marks the extent of my displeasure. The other night, I was really taking my peepers for a spin. Judging from such ocular proof, you might have thought that more than eyeballs were about to roll. Indeed, it seemed as if I were going to face the Lord High Executioner himself. Instead, we were merely going to a production of The Hot Mikado. I just couldn’t warm to the idea of going camp on a classic that seems least in need of burlesque—or Berlesques, for that matter. Not that this stopped middle-aged troupers like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Groucho Marx to play “Three Little Maids” (as part of a war relief benefit broadcast); but, at least, those tuning in were spared the visuals.
If I was less than enthusiastic, it was mainly on account of Charley’s Aunt. That dubious Victor/Victorian dowager had way too many nephews—and “they’d none of them be missed, they’d none of them be missed.” Cross-dressing has long been on the none too little list of circus and sideshow acts that are more of a source of irritation than of hilarity. One strategically placed banana peel does more for me than two oranges nestling in a bed of chest hair. It’s a fruit’s prerogative.
The origins of my aversion date back to the time when I began to realize that what I needed to get off my chest one day was something other than the fur I was not destined to grow in profusion. I was about twelve. Still without a costume on the morning of the annual school carnival, I let my older sister, who was as resourceful as she was bossy, talk me into wearing one of the skirts she had long discarded in favor of rather too tight-fitting jeans. Being dressed in my sister’s clothes was awkward for me, considering that I was fairly confused about my gender to begin with, certain only about the one to which I was drawn. More than a skirt was about to come out of the closet, and I was not equipped to deal with it.
Responding to my calculatedly nonchalant remark that the costume was some kind of last-minute ersatz, our smug, self-loving English teacher, Herr Julius, told the assembled class that, during carnival, folks tended to reveal what they secretly longed to be, which, apparently, went well beyond the common desire not to be humiliated. No wonder Herr Julius did not bother to don a mask other than the one with which he confronted us all the scholastic year round.
Matters were complicated further by my wayward anatomy. Let’s just say that it didn’t require oranges to make a fairly convincing girl out of me; I was equipped with fleshy protuberances that earned me the sobriquet “battle of the sexes.” I wondered whether I was destined to shroud myself in one pretense in order to drop another. That, in a pair of coconut shells, is why cross-dressers and any such La Cage faux dollies were never to become my bag. And I’ve got a lot of baggage.
What has that to do with The Hot Mikado, the show I was so reluctant to clap my eyes on? As it turns out, not very much. I had been mistaken about the gender of the performer playing Katisha, the character on the posters advertising the show (pictured).
Far from being some newfangled cabaret act, The Hot Mikado is seventy years old this year. Appropriating presumably WASPish entertainment for a younger and less exclusive audience, it was first performed in 1939 with an all-black, extravagantly decked out cast headed by the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the title role. The currently touring Watermill production—which is soon to conclude in Girona, Spain—updates the carnivalesque spectacle in retro-1980s colors, with Manga and movie inspired costumes, as well as assorted references to Susan Boyle and British politics. The music is still jazz-infused Gilbert and Sullivan.
Set “somewhere in Japan” and produced at a time when Mr. Moto was forced to take an extended Vacation, the anachronistic Hot Mikado was all jitterbug without being bugged down by pre-war jitters. It is outlandish rather than freakish, amalgamated rather than discordant, qualities reassuring to anyone who has ever felt mixed up or unable to mix. A few bum notes aside, the production was hardly an occasion for any prolonged orbiting of orbs. The joyous spectacle of it kept even my mind’s eye from rolling, from running over the bones, funny or otherwise, that tend to tumble out of this Fibber McGeean closet of mine . . .
Greek war relief special (8 February 1941), featuring Frank Morgan, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Groucho Marx singing songs from The Mikado
“Hollywood Mikado”, starring Fred Allen (11 May 1947)
Chicago Theater production of “The Mikado” (22 October 1949)
The Railroad Hour production of “The Mikado” (5 December 1949)
I suppose I am back in my element (earth, mingled with dust), being that I can reminisce at last about my recent trip to New York City from the comfort of my own patch of terra firma across the pond. Okay, so I never managed to turn writing into a living; but I sure can turn life into writing—provided I can go on about past experiences once I am good and ready, once that which has been going on and gone through my mind is bona fide bygone. Not one to multitask, I somehow cannot both be living and writing simultaneously, which is why Twitter is not for me. I am not cut out to be an on-the-spot correspondent. You won’t catch me with my finger on the pulse of anything yet living other than in my thoughts where, quickened by imagination, anything presumably dead and gone is readily revived.
Perhaps, going live is not the same as being in the moment; at least, performances need not be, by virtue of being live, worth a moment of my time. For the record (and this is a new record to me, for I am about to change my tune): canned performances are not necessarily inferior to live ones. At least I thought so a few weeks ago while watching a recorded broadcast of a dazzling Metropolitan Opera production of Madama Butterfly, screened on the plaza in front of the building housing that venerable institution. There I was (leaning against a trash can, no less), joined by hundreds of strangers, to take in, free of charge, the musical equivalent of cured meat, a pickled delicacy shared out to lure those partaking into the venue to shell out serious money for the supposedly real thing. Maybe I’ll think differently tomorrow at the local cinema, where I will be catching a high definition broadcast of the current National Theatre production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, live from London; but I sure realized that live is not to be confused with lively when I went to see South Pacific at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, just a few feet from the screen where Madame Butterfly had flickered before my teary eyes.
South Pacific left my peepers dry, even though I was on the brink of welling up when I reminded myself that I had let go of more than $90 for a discount ticket to for the dubious privilege of beholding said spectacle. What I witnessed was Broadway on an off night, some less than “Enchanted Evening” during which the cast went through the motions like Zombies on sabbatical. I knew as much when I opened my playbill to discover one of those white slips that, on the Great White Way, are equivalent to a pink one: Paulo Szot, the celebrated lead, had been replaced for the evening (and several weeks to come) by one William Michals.
Turns out, Mr. Michals had all the charm and thespian animation of a Bela Lugosi. Not that Laura Osnes (as Nellie Forbush) was out-Mitziying Ms. Gaynor. She did not as much try to wash that man right outa her hair as dispose of him with a purple rinse. As I remarked to my fellow onlooker, the pair had less going on between them as might be generated by a preschooler’s chemistry set.
Almost everything about this potentially engrossing play seemed to have been rehashed on a desperately reduced flame. I, for one, was boiling; it wasn’t “Happy Talk” you’d have overheard had you been eavesdropping on us as we left the theater. Sure, the production had been running for a year and a half and wasn’t exactly “Younger Than Springtime”; but the Pacific, never more deserving of the name, has rarely felt quite this tepid. A rousing rendition of “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and the still-spirited performance of Danny Burstein (as Billis) aside, the promise of Bali Ha’i never left anyone feeling quite this low . . .
I rose before the sun, and ran on deck to catch an early glimpse of the strange land we were nearing; and as I peered eagerly, not through mist and haze, but straight into the clear, bright, many-tinted ether, there came the first faint, tremulous blush of dawn, behind her rosy veil [ . . .]. A vision of comfort and gladness, that tropical March morning, genial as a July dawn in my own less ardent clime; but the memory of two round, tender arms, and two little dimpled hands, that so lately had made themselves loving fetters round my neck, in the vain hope of holding mamma fast, blinded my outlook; and as, with a nervous tremor and a rude jerk, we came to anchor there, so with a shock and a tremor I came to my hard realities.
With those words, capturing her first impression and anticipation of a “strange land” as, on 15 March 1862, it came into partial view—the “outlook” being “blinded”—aboard the steamer Chow Phya, Anna Harriette Leonowens commenced The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), the “Recollections of Six Years in the Royal Palace at Bangkok.” The account of her experience was to be followed up by a sensational sequel, Romance of the Harem (1872), both of which volumes became the source for a bestselling novel, Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam (1944), several film and television adaptations, as well as the enduringly crowd-pleasing musical The King and I.
Conceived for musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence, the titular “I” is currently impersonated by Shona Lindsay, who, until the end of August 2009, stars in the handsomely designed Aberystwyth Arts Centre Summer Musical Production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic.
The title of the musical personalizes the story, at once suggesting authenticity and acknowledging bias. Just as it was meant to signal the true star of the original production—until Yul Brynner stole the show—it seems to fix the perspective, assuming that we, the audience, see Siam and read its ruler through Anna’s eyes. And yet, what makes The King and I something truly wonderful—and rather more complex than a one-sided missionary’s tale—is that we get to know and understand not only the Western governess, but the proud “Lord and Master” and his daring slave Tuptim.
Instead of accepting Anna as model or guide, we can all become the “I” in this story of identity, otherness and oppression. Tuptim’s experience, in particular, resonates with anyone who, like myself, has ever been compelled, metaphorically speaking, to “kiss in a shadow,” to love without enjoying equality or protection under the law. Tuptim’s readily translatable story, which has been rejected as fictive and insensitive, is emotionally rather than culturally true.
“Truth is often stranger than fiction,” Leonowens remarked in her preface to Romance of the Harem, insisting on the veracity of her account. Truth is, truth is no stranger to fiction. All history is narrative and, as such, fiction—that is, it is made up, however authentic the fabric, and woven into logical and intelligible patterns. Whoever determines or imposes such patterns—the historian, the novelist, the reporter—is responsible for selecting, evaluating, and shaping a story that, in turn, is capable of shaping us.
Tuptim’s adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which strikes us at first strange and laughable—then uncanny and eerily interchangeable—in its inauthentic, allegorical retelling of a fiction that not only made but changed history, is an explanation of and validation for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sentimental formula. Through the estrangement from the historically and culturally familiar, strange characters become familiar to us, just Leonowens may have been aided rather than mislead by an “outlook” that was “blinded” by the intimate knowledge of a child’s love.
Strange it was, then, to have historicity or nationality thrust upon me as Anna exclaims, in her undelivered speech to the King, that she hails “from a civilized land called Wales.” It was a claim made by Leonowens herself and propagated in accounts like Mrs. Leonowens by John MacNaughton (1915); yet, according to Susan Brown’s “Alternatives to the Missionary Position: Anna Leonowens as Victorian Travel Writer” (1995), “no evidence supports” the assertion that Leonowens was raised or educated in Wales.
Still, there was an audible if politely subdued cheer in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre auditorium as Anna revealed her fictive origins to us. Granted, I may be more suspicious of nationalism than I am of globalization; but to define Leonowens’s experience with and derive a sense of identity from a single—and rather ironic reference to home—seems strangely out of place, considering that the play encourages us to examine ourselves in the reflection or refraction of another culture, however counterfeit or vague. Beside, unlike last year’s miscast Eliza (in the Arts Centre’s production of My Fair Lady), Anna, as interpreted by Ms. Lindsay, has no trace of a Welsh accent.
As readers and theatergoers, we have been “getting to know you,” Anna Leonowens, for nearly one and a half centuries now; but the various (auto)biographical accounts are so inconclusive and diverging that it seems futile to insist on “getting to know all about you,” no matter now much the quest for verifiable truths might be our “cup of tea.” What is a “puzzlement” to the historians is also the key to the musical, mythical kingdom, an understood realm in which understanding lies beyond the finite boundaries of the factual.