« Goodyear v. Haeger argument preview | Main | MarkelFest! at AALS on Wednesday (Moved to Top) »

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

How Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado can survive and thrive in our era of ethnic grievances

Is Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado a racist “yellow face” caricature of Japanese culture? A spate of recent criticisms of Mikado productions have denounced the operetta in these terms, resulting the cancellation of a NYC production in 2015.

There is, however, a delicious irony to these attacks on Mikado: In criticizing the comedy as an illicit British appropriation of Japanese culture, the criticism overlooks the fact that William Gilbert was actually making fun of Victorian England’s appropriation of Japanese culture. After the jump, my defense of Gilbert’s masterpiece (and, in particular, an especially outstanding current NYC production thereof). More generally, I offer a few thoughts on how Gilbert’s jibe at Victorian England’s “Japonism” illustrates a certain similarity between conservative criticisms of “political correctness” and Left attacks on “cultural appropriation.”

1. Why did Gilbert choose to set his comedy in a fantasyland modeled on popular perceptions of medieval Japan?

In setting his comedy in a fantasy version of japan, Gilbert was taking advantage of a cultural obsession of Victorian England with all things Japanese that began roughly with the 1862 London Exhibition. Japan had just recently been “opened” for trade with Europe by Commodore Perry’s warships, and European collectors and artists were eagerly and indiscriminately shipping back Japanese artifacts ranging from silk kimonos and swords to grass hats and parasols. Japan was a cultural novelty, a way for Europeans to display their openness to the exotic and their freedom from narrow-minded prejudice. Sir Rutherford Alcock, the British envoy to Japan, an enthusiast for all things Japanese, had supplied the 1862 exhibition with an unofficial pavilion filled with various Japanese artifacts that he had indiscriminately collected during his three years’ stay in Japan. Likewise, James Whistler promoted Japanese prints as as a art form superior in their simplicity and lack of moralizing to traditional British Academy painting, while social critics and artists in the Aesthetic Movement led by Dante Rossetti and his circle associated Japanese art with pre-industrial purity missing from crass capitalist England. http://katsclass.com/10760/designwk04.htm

The point of this “”japonaiserie” was less to understand Japanese culture and more to declare one’s artistic independence from English artistic tradition. But how did the Japanese themselves feel about being enlisted in the European’s battles over art and society? One data point is supplied by the reaction of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s envoys to Alcock’s 1862 pavilion. At least one of the embassy’s members was appalled by a display that lumped peasant’s grass hats and jackets promiscuously with high-art prints and ceramics. The British effort to accommodate Japanese culture, in other words, could seem more like cultural appropriation to make the British look sophisticated than to show appreciation.

When Gilbert wrote Mikado in the mid-1880s, this vision of Japan as a pre-industrial land where pure beauty was honored over grubby commerce had its most visible expression in Tannaker Buhicrosan’s “Japanese village.” The improbably named Buhicrosan, an entrepreneur of Japanese-Dutch descent, set up the village in Knightsbridge, West London from 1885 to 1887 as a tourist attraction, staffed b who portrayed Japan as a quaint medieval society with lots of traditional dancing, tea ceremonies, and wood-carving. Like Alcock’s 1862 pavilion, Buhicrosan’s village did not please the Japanese government: The Meiji Dynasty wanted to convey an entirely more “modern” and industrial image, as it was in the process of “Europeanizing” Japan, with German law and British warships.

Gilbert visited the Knightsbridge Village while Mikado was in rehearsal and even recruited some of Buhicrosan’s performers to help train his cast. His immediate motivation for the Japanese setting seems to be that the British public had a hunger for all things Japanese: Japan provided, in Gilbert’s words, “picturesque treatment, scenery and costume.”

2. Was Mikado making fun of Japanese culture? Or of pretentious British appropriation of Japanese culture?

As many have noted, Gilbert’s Mikado is mostly a send-up of British bureaucracy and Victorian sexual repression. To the extent, however, that his comedy has any concern at all with Japan, it seems to be aimed exclusively at the British obsession with japonaiserie -- the “figures in lively paint/with attitudes queer and quaint” (to quote the opening chorus) that featured so prominently at Knightsbridge and in the “art-for-art’s-sake” posturing of Aesthetic Movement personalities like Swinburne and Oscar Wilde. Gilbert had already parodied (with Wilde’s active cooperation) Wilde’s Aesthetic mannerisms in his operetta Patience. Mikado had a faint echo of the same gruff Tory impatience with ostentatious cosmopolitan dabbling by (in the words of Ko-Ko, Mikado’s Lord High Executioner) “the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone/all centuries but this one and every country but his own.” That “idiots” here are certainly not Japanese but British, and their idiocy is the appropriation of another culture to flaunt their own cosmopolitan sophistication.

Gilbert’s target, in other words, is precisely the same as Mikado’s critics: The pretentious and self-serving use of someone else’s culture to make oneself look avaunt garde and open-minded. Ko-Ko’s line could just as easily be applied (choosing a random example) to non-Hindu white Brooklynites celebrating Holi by blowing colored powder on each other.
There is, in short, a certain irony to Mikado’s critics lambasting the operetta as iniquitous “yellow face” because it involves white people dancing around in kimonos and obis, when the point of the comedy’s focus on Japan (if there was one) was to make fun of white people dancing around in kimonos and obis.

3. So how can a modern audience get past ethnic grievance to appreciate Gilbert’s satire?

Our age is both hyper-polarized and historically amnesiac. No one but die-hard Savoyards and students of English Victorian cultural history remembers Mikado’s historical context. It is second nature, however, for us to find an ethnic grievance in non-“white” history or culture being displayed by “white” actors. Producing a Mikado that induces applause rather than cringes in such an environment seems impossible.

Kudos, then, to the NYC Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s clever 2016 Mikado production, which cleverly side-stepped these minefields by emphasizing the Victorian character of Gilbert’s “Japanese” fantasy. The entire operetta was staged as Gilbert’s dream induced by a concussion from a falling samurai sword. That sword was brought into Gilbert’s office by Richard D’Oyle Carte, Gilbert’s real-life impresario, as part of a prologue written by David Auxier, the production’s director, during which D’Oyle Carte pleaded with Gilbert to collaborate once more with Sullivan in creating a new operetta. D’Oyle Carte accompanied his pleas with some borrowed items from the Knightsbridge Japanese Village as a bribe, thereby explaining to the audience Mikado’s cultural context. Gilbert’s subsequent unconscious hallucinations were colored by this partial impression of a Japanese-inspired fantasy. Because D’Oyle Carte’s trove of Knightsbridge artifacts included no Japanese clothing, however, the cast of Gilbert’s dream was dressed not in traditional Japanese clothing but rather in a psychedelically colorful and flowery re-imagination of Victorian dress. (The bustles composed of fluttery streamers, in particular, were an inspiration). For the rest of Mikado, Gilbert gradually accommodates himself to this weird Victorian-japonaiserie dream world, acting as a discrete on-stage director while simultaneously playing the role of “Pish-Tush,” the original Mikado’s supporting baritone role.

It is a reasonable question whether such extraordinary creativity should be required to avoid accusations of “cultural appropriation.” After all, this is America: It should not be surprising or offensive that participants of one culture mix and match bits and pieces of other cultures to create something new. It would be ridiculous to complain that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portraying mostly white and Anglophone American revolutionaries with an African-American and Hispanic cast is somehow an offensive “cultural appropriation” of Anglo-American culture. Why is it any less absurd to gripe that non-Asian actors portray the “noble lords” of “Titipu” in Mikado?

This is not a question, however, that I intend to ask in this over-long post. Sometimes absurd politics produces great theater, and David Auxier’s efforts to placate Mikado’s critics have resulted in great theater true to the spirit of the original. It is still playing for five more days, so get tickets while you can.

Posted by Rick Hills on January 3, 2017 at 01:36 PM | Permalink


Thanks, Elise! My daughters both told me that, by posting at length on the Mikado, I would brand myself publicly as a hopeless. G&S nerd, to which I replied, "Good: there is a whole community of us out there!" Good to have confirmation of that statement.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jan 6, 2017 7:03:53 AM

Thanks so much for this wonderful analysis of a subject that has been plaguing lovers of G&S for the past two years. On the discussion group "Savoynet", we've gone round and round with it, and I've heard many arguments put forth, but yours is wonderfully congent. It's also important to hear this view from someone who is not of our "inner brotherhood". Thanks so much!

Posted by: Elise Curran | Jan 5, 2017 9:14:50 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.