We saw The King and I last night at the San Diego Civic Theatre. It was a great show, evocatively staged and powerfully performed. But I also found it uncomfortably dated. The “Buddhist prayer” routines had me squirming in my seat, and the “happy ending” of Siam adopting Western habits of deference put me in mind of Shylock’s forced conversion. The difference is that today, the last few scenes of The Merchant of Venice are often played as ambivalent or even negative, but the ending of The King and I is positively bubbly.
I wondered if my reaction was a 21st-century response to a mid-century musical or perhaps Rodgers and Hammerstein. But South Pacific addressed issues of racism (“They Have to be Carefully Taught”) in the same ways that The King and I reinforced them (“Western People Funny”). And, of course, 400+ years on, Shakespeare’s plays continue to be relevant.
Perhaps the problem with modern plays lies in licensing restrictions. The King and I can’t be set in any time or place other than Victorian Siam. But what if it could? It’d be an interesting idea to set it in, say, the White House of any recent presidential administration – take your pick. Suddenly the condescension, the almost willful misunderstandings between various sides, the search for a rational way forward, shifts from being a time capsule to being scathingly relevant. Imagine setting The Sound of Music, with its pivotal cross-border flight, in today’s world.
The genius of Shakespeare may lie in the constant reinvention of his plays. Modern plays, with few exceptions, stagnate, frozen in time, with an audience primed for passive viewing instead of engagement. Maybe that’s why I love seeing Shakespeare’s plays: they’re always new.