[Here…listen to this while you read the post.]
I am apparently the official protector of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” from ridiculous accusations of ethics offenses, so once again, I will charge into the breach. No thanks needed, Mr. Gilbert, Sir Arthur—I owe you debts that can never be repaid.
In a brain-endangering op-ed for the Seattle Times, Sharon Pian Chan expresses the opinion that the operetta is a “racial caricature,” and thus “every snap of the fan was a slap in the face.” The nature of the complaint has old origins: the original show in 1885 nearly caused an international incident, as Japan registered an official complaint to Great Britain claiming a grievous insult to its people. W.S. Gilbert, who was skilled at such things (a few years later he stifled French indignation over a song in “Ruddigore” that pretended to make fun of the French while actually ridiculing British bravado), explained that “The Mikado” in no way ridicules anything about Japan or its people, but is entirely a witty and original satire on everything British. This was true then, and is true now. Then, however, people, including the Victorian era Japanese, were able to see distinctions, and were not seeking victim status and leave to play public censor under the authority conferred by political correctness. Today, people like Ms. Chan are not so easily calmed.
Thus is art harmed, entertainment stifled, laughter stilled and music forgotten. A good argument could be made that “The Mikado” is the greatest musical comedy entertainment ever written.* It certainly caused the biggest international sensation (the closest rival is another Gilbert and Sullivan classic, “H.M.S. Pinafore”): it is estimated that by the end of 1885, at least 150 companies in Europe and the U.S. were producing the satire. As recently as the 1960s, it was credibly claimed that a “Mikado” was going on somewhere in the world every minute of the day.
The show is fun in every respect: comedy, music, lyrics, satire, characters. It is also fun to act in and produce, for children as well as adults. Unfortunately, several factors have led to the gradual scarcity of productions in recent years, from the cyclical (Gilbert and Sullivan go out of style, but always come back) to the ridiculous ( it seems like every production has to cope with some absurd controversy, like the 2011 Montana production that was accused of threatening Sarah Palin’s life). Political correctness aversion has been the biggest factor in making the very best G&S show rare while productions of Broadway musical junk flourish, however. Since the characters are supposedly “Japanese,” shouldn’t all the singers be Asian? Isn’t Asian make-up offensive like blackface? Oh, hell, let’s just do “The Pirates of Penzance.”
“It is difficult to spend three hours watching people of another race mimic its idea of what your own race is supposedly like. It’s an emotionally wrenching, viscerally exhausting experience. If you don’t feel that discomfort, consider yourself privileged. The show makes sense as satire about Victorian British Society. It makes zero sense why this satire about the British is set in Japan. If it’s not about Japan, then why does it need to be set there at all?”
- “It is difficult to spend three hours watching people of another race mimic its idea of what your own race is supposedly like.“
1. It’s called “theater” and “acting.” Should all Jews be offended at “Fiddler on the Roof?” Should Spaniards boycott “Carmen”? Is “The Music Man ” hard to watch for genuine Iowans?Should salesmen take offense at Arthur Miller’s representation of a salesman? Or are people of Asian descent more sensitive, less reasonable, and more devoid of humor than Jews, Spaniards, Iowans and salesmen? Gee, I never thought that was true, but Chan is making a generalization about her own race. Who’s stereotyping?
2. If there has ever been anyone who wasn’t Japanese, anywhere, ever, over the age of 12 who watched a competently performed production of “The Mikado” and thought for a nanosecond that this was how Japanese talked, acted, joked, or behaved, that individual suffered a closed head injury prior to the performance. By the way, “The Mikado” has always been popular in Japan.
3. This is an even a less likely reaction now than in 1885, when many Victorians knew nothing about Japan or how real Japanese acted, beyond the Japanese life and culture exhibition that was temporarily being held in the London neighborhood called Knightsbridge when the show premiered, and which is specifically mentioned in the script.
4. The characters in “The Mikado” are Western in attitude, parlance, and humor.
- “It’s an emotionally wrenching, viscerally exhausting experience.”
1.This is not just hypersensitivity, but cultural arrogance. Western art can’t use fans, kimonos, or other elements of Japanese culture without causing trauma? In any context, it is balderdash, and in the context of art, it is dangerous balderdash. The rules of artistic expression are that anything goes, and if people are entertained, then whatever that anything was, it worked. Art is utilitarian. Comedy is the most utilitarian of all.
2. I’ll just say it: I think anyone who is upset by the studied and self-mocking silliness of “The Mikado” needs psychiatric help, and quick. Meanwhile, Ms. Chan should stay away from “Madam Butterfly,” “Miss Saigon,” and “Pacific Overtures”—and God, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” at all costs. And beware “The Hot Mikado”—it will blow her mind.
- “If you don’t feel that discomfort, consider yourself privileged.”
Cheap, lazy, unfair and disrespectful. This is minority chic bully tactics: if you don’t see it our way, you’re an oppressor! It relieved the critic of the obligation to make a compelling or rational argument, because the opposition is pre-discredited by the terms of the engagement. The objective of this kind of statement, and indeed the entire essay, is to make people uncomfortable enjoying “The Mikado.” What an objective: robbing millions of the joy of a sublime musical comedy that doesn’t have a sinister or harmful thought behind it or in it, to score political correctness points. We have far too much political correctness, and nowhere near enough laughter and song…because there’s never enough.
- “The show makes sense as satire about Victorian British Society.”
Why yes, Sharon, that’s the idea. Glad you got that, at least.
- “It makes zero sense why this satire about the British is set in Japan.”
Or to be more accurate, an alternate universe, Bizarro World, funhouse mirror Japan that bears as much resemblance to the real country and culture as Busch Gardens does to Europe. The satire is set in this obviously imaginary Japan because the idea is silly, because W.S. Gilbert thought it would provide interesting and colorful design options for the production, and because he calculated that audiences would like it. He was right, too–spectacularly so. Millions of “privileged audiences” in almost every country around the world, of all ages, creeds, colors and religions, have laughed at the characters, relished the satire, and loved the songs. But never mind. Their enjoyment is wrong, because Sharon thinks it should make us all uncomfortable.
- “If it’s not about Japan, then why does it need to be set there at all?”
Yeah! And “Godspell”…what’s the deal with that? If it’s about Jesus, why are they all clowns? Besides, people in Japan don’t sing all the time! Neither do people in England! And while we’re at it, how come there are pirates in Never Land in “Peter Pan”? There are no other ships to rob; it makes no sense! My advice, Sharon: write your own damn musical. Good luck getting anyone to sit through it.
Of course, Ms. Chan is free to be offended by whatever she chooses. Unfortunately, she and her ideological clones follow the restrictive, misery-inducing and liberty-strangling ideals modeled by Jordan Wright, a descendant of original Redskins owner George Preston Marshall, who was the moral exemplar extolled by the Washington Post today in what may be its worst anti-Washington Redskins editorial yet. Wright said, with the Post nodding vigorously, “It’s about respect. If even one person tells you that name, that word you used, offends them, then that’s enough. That should be enough.”
Really? One person, eh? Just one? Well, I guess that sinks “The Mikado,” then. What is the enjoyment that can be derived from a musical comedy classic, really, in comparison to the manufactured discomfort of a political correctness fanatic? The fact that so many in our society agree with Ms. Chan that the innocent joy of the many must yield to the hypersensitivity of the few explains quite a bit of our current dysfunction.
* Which isn’t to say that it’s my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan show: I am partial to “Iolanthe,” “Patience,” “Ruddigore,” maybe “Yeoman of the Guard.” But objectively, it’s hard to beat the goings on in Titipu.
Spark and Pointer: Fred