Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama

By Marc Maufort | Go to book overview

The "Oriental" Musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the U.S. War in Southeast Asia

Bruce A. McConachie

Early in the action of The King and I, Anna gives the King's children a lesson in geopolitics. Seeing an old map of Asia on the wall in which Siam occupies an area roughly the size of China, she rolls out her own visual aid to cover it. Anna's new map is a Mercator projection of the world with Siam reduced to dimensions drawn in London and surrounded by land masses colored to denote the encroachments of European imperial power. The children object to the shrunken size of their kingdom, but their father, the King, commands them to recognize that Anna's version of the world is the correct one. Within the world of the musical, the British map is just as real as snow, which the children also deny; both define natural realities in an external world.

In his book American Foreign Policy ( 1974), Henry Kissinger drew a sharp distinction between western and third-world views of reality:

The West is deeply committed to the notion that the real world is external to the observer, that knowledge consists of recording and classifying data -- the more accurately, the better. Cultures which have escaped the early impact of Newtonian thinking have retained the essentially pre-Newtonian view that the real world is almost entirely internal to the observer. (48)

Without the aid of western advisors, believed Kissinger, the people of Southeast Asia could not understand their lives and their place in the world. He and Rodgers and Hammerstein assumed that the West had a monopoly on knowing reality.

Building on this assumption, these makers of musicals and of U.S. foreign policy centered their symbolic actions upon metaphors of containment. The nucleus of a group of related metaphors, images of containment circulated in many arenas of American culture during the Cold War. Drawing on the new historicism of Stephen Greenblatt as modified by the cognitive psychology of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, I hope to demonstrate that the popularity of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "oriental" musicals, The King and I, South Pacific, and The Flower Drum Song, helped to establish a legitimate basis for the American war against the the people of Southeast Asia in the 1960s. As historian James William Gibson suggests, the "deep structural logic" (344) of our culture and society--even including such seemingly innocuous practices as Broadway musicals--helped to draw us into Vietnam.

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