Is It Time To Rewrite THE MIKADO?
By the mid-1880's, after trade had been firmly established between the two island empires, Great Britain was in the midst of a pop culture obsession with all things Japanese.
Though many may have had a sincere cultural appreciation, it became a popular fad to collect Japanese fans, vases, screens and other decorative items. (Cheaply-made knockoffs naturally followed.) Proper English ladies were often seen attending social functions dressed in imported Japanese kimonos and would even paint their faces to resemble what they would think to be an authentic Japanese style.
So when Gilbert and Sullivan's THE MIKADO premiered at The Savoy Theatre in 1885, its setting in the fictional town of Titipu, a quaint, storybook locale in an exoticized depiction of old Japan, might have been considered a commercial move to hop on the bandwagon.
But the cleverer ones in the audience took note at how the exclusively white members of producer Richard D'Oyly Carte's company, despite their costumes and made-up faces, were still acting and speaking in a veddy English manner.
Gilbert's opening lyric for the male chorus ("If you want to know who we are / We are gentlemen of Japan, / On many a vase and jar, / On many a screen and fan.") indicates that his version of Japan is only what can be concocted in the imagination of a white Englishman whose exposure to the culture is limited to imported decorative items.
Sullivan's beautiful score has moments inspired by the setting, but it's mostly the kind of musical merriment typical of his style. The plot, concerning a romantic triangle between a squeamish executioner, his young ward and a musician with a secret, has nothing to do with Japanese literature and when the characters refer to themselves as assuming a "characteristic Japanese attitude," or wondering in their "artless Japanese way," Gilbert's overwriting has it's tongue firmly in its cheek.
It's unlikely that Gilbert had meant THE MIKADO to be taken as a serious attack on insensitive white people appropriating another culture for their own entertainment. He was more concerned with lightheartedly satirizing his countrymen's foibles.
Of course, that was 130 years ago and topical satire has a short shelf life.
The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players was founded in 1974 by a group of alumni from the Barnard College Gilbert & Sullivan Society at Columbia University. Albert Bergeret has served as artistic director since the beginning.
Their productions are always done in the traditional D'Oyly Carte style and this writer, having seen several of their performances during the last four decades, including THE MIKADO, has always found their work to be delightful. This writer is also white and could very likely not have noticed aspects that would be insulting and hurtful to those of Japanese descent. The announcement of their upcoming production of THE MIKADO, a show they've done frequently, is now getting the kind of negative attention that went national last summer, when Seattle's Gilbert & Sullivan Society performed THE MIKADO with a predominantly white company amidst numerous protests.
In an editorial for the Seattle Times, Sharon Pian Chan wrote, "The caricature of Japanese people as strange and barbarous was used to justify the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Bainbridge Island was the first place in the country where U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up and expelled." (Click here for the entire article.)
Broadway performer Erin Quill appeared in and co-wrote the 2010 film, THE MIKADO PROJECT, about an Asian-American theatre company reclaiming stereotypes through a modernized production of the piece. (Click here for a 2010 BroadwayWorld interview with Quill.)
Quill was an outspoken opponent of the Seattle production and, in this blog entry, she describes attending a New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of the piece: "They played THE MIKADO for cheap laughs at the expense of Japanese heritage."
Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler describes on her blog (click here) the phone conversations she had with Bergeret, attempting to discuss the company's use of a predominantly white company in yellowface makeup.
The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players have posted an essay on their web site titled "THE MIKADO In The 21st Century" stating, "We have taken the criticisms seriously and to the heart," and addressing the issues of the operetta's content, their staging interpretations and casting.
There have certainly been productions of THE MIKADO that have avoided this controversy. Take, for example, this 2008 mounting by South Africa's EastCape Opera Company, that ditches any visual references to Japan altogether.
But perhaps the best solution already has precedence. When the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company toured America in 1947, Richard D'Oyly Carte's son, Rupert, allowed for two instances of a racial slur to be removed. That edit has been included in subsequent published scores. Also, it's a tradition with Gilbert & Sullivan companies, The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players included, to update the popular patter song "As Some Day It May Happen" ("I've Got A Little List") with numerous topical jokes.
If making these kind of changes are already a part of Gilbert & Sullivan culture, then a little more trimming may not be out of the question.
THE MIKADO has one of the funniest librettos ever written in the English language and surprisingly little of it depends on a Japanese setting. Change the characters' names, revise a few lyrics, remove a smattering of the text and THE MIKADO can be set in any fictional village while remaining a beautifully composed and hilariously penned night at the theatre.
For 40 years the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players have made valuable contributions to our city's performing arts scene. Keeping the D'Oyly Carte style of Gilbert & Sullivan alive and vibrant is absolutely a worthy artistic mission and it can be used in every other one of the pair's glorious works.
But with THE MIKADO... The time has come to find more effective ways to respect both the material and contemporary realities. To paraphrase another Gilbert & Sullivan classic, it really does matter, matter, matter, matter.