[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
Sources: Seattle Times, Washington Post
38 thoughts on “Oh, NO!!! “The Mikado” Ethics Again (Political Correctness Division)!”
I never liked The Music Man when I lived in Iowa. Or before or since, for that matter.
BECAUSE you lived in Iowa???
I rate it the Great American Musical, hands down. Best finale ever, next to Threepenny Opera: “THINK!!!!” And the kids play horribly, the parents love it, and the com man wins. Perfect.
I was in a production of the Music Man once, I was in the band…. Best part ever, seeing as there was a disincentive to practise.
Just one person? That’s moronic, no one could ever say anything then. BTW, if you were to direct a production, would you leave the 2 n-words in, or no?
Nah. Even Gilbert’s original company had eliminated them by the 40s. “Banjo serenader”; “Painted with vigor”
I think I like “or pinches her figure, is made to look bigger/when something is made to break loose!” Still, if I were directing I MIGHT leave the second one in, just for shock value.
My rule is to avoid making more than the minimum changes to WS lyrics, since he is the master, except where he allows it specifically, as in Koko list song, known in the Tea Party as “Let’s behead Sarah Palin”…
Thanks for the Overture!! “Mikado” is one of my all-time favorites.
Point at hand…”Chan” is a Chinese name, and while the Japanese are adamant that the original immigrants to the islands were
Chinese, DNA studies point to Korea. Thus, the Chinese and Japanese, in a narrow definition of RACE, are not related. Henc3e, Ms. Chan should not be offended because it is not her “race” involved in the musical. By the way, the original peoples of Japan are as Occidental as we are.
That was the point I was going to offer. Chan is a Chinese name. So how come this woman- who apparently identifies with Asia rather than America- is suddenly so defensive about Japan- China’s historic enemy?
The answer is racial politics. That and nothing more. The Mikado has been morphed into Strawman-san.
BTW: Dragon is right about the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan. There are very few Ainu (“hairy ones” in Japanese- pure bigotry!) left in Japan, living on Hokkaido. The admixture in the wake of the Japanese conquest is the reason why Japanese tend to look less Asiatic than their neighbors.
Don’t tell this to Madame Chan. She’ll go ape!
Which is how the Ainu have been described by some Japanese. Racism?
I have heard, third-hand, that is from a friend who knows the kid’s mother, that a middle schooler in Virginia Beach got a three day suspension for using the word “sprinkles” because he should have known it would offend another student. Have been unable to verify with school system because of “student confidentiality.” But the word apparently did offend one person.
Why would “sprinkles” offend anyone? And what is self-evident about it if an everyday person can’t figure out what’s offensive about it?
I’m deeply offended by the “f “word, and some others that are worse. So should the world ban it’s/their use? I’m a person and I’m offended.
Now, Jack, you can’t do Pirates of Penzance. Orphans might be offended! Or policemen/constables! Or major generals! Or people born on Leap Day!
Where do I register a complaint about Michelangelo’s David. Such sculptures create a human body image that I will never achieve. It’s not fair I tell you – It’s just not fair.
It’s slap in the face, and those marble hands HURT. Anyone who doesn’t feel that way is just privileged, that’s all.
Why is Ms. Chan a spokesperson for the Japanese? That’s privileged of her 😉
Better yet, why is someone with such a strong bias against ethnic-mash-up satire reviewing one? This is the eight of reviewer conflict of interest and inability to be objective. And no emoticon, because I’m completely serious.
In Japan, at any given moment, you have productions of things like Gone With The Wind, Anne of Green Gables and My Fair Lady being performed with all-Japanese casts, with all dialogue in Japanese…should they be
stopped? Is it ‘white face’? Sigh. I wonder sometimes how these hyper-sensitive types manage to survive. They seem to want to take all the enjoyment out of life.
American musicals are very popular here! Here’s Japanese stage actress Mao Daichi performing as Eliza. She’s performed as Eliza 500 times, and played Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind-
Slap in the face!!!!
And for that matter, “Cats” is almost never performed by cats! STOP THE CATFACE!!!
“I think anyone who is upset by the studied and self-mocking silliness “The Mikado” needs psychiatric help, and quick.”
“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.”
Does your claim, that everyone who disagrees with you needs psychiatric help, pre-discredit those people’s views? If not, why not?
Since I have never said that everyone who disagrees with me needs psychiatric help, the question is false and pointless. Is this some kind of “gotcha”? She has the burden of proof, not me. The Mikado has been a recognized classic appealing without offense to all ages, genders, races and nations since 1885. My position is the uncontroversial norm. She is the one asserting that watching a musical comedy is “an emotionally wrenching, viscerally exhausting experience” when literally 99.9999% of humanity that has seen the show disagrees. Her assertion is no more rational nor justified by objectively measurable facts than an assertion that Poo-Bah is the anti-Christ and “Titipu” means “Hitler” in Martian. Thus suggesting that her position, if sincere, suggests cognitive issues is fair and reasonable.
Personally, I very much doubt that she was in distress as she claims, because she also says she appreciated the wit and humor of the piece. Impossible. She is making a dishonest claim, to support her “offense” argument. If she was as upset throughout—all 3 hours!—she would have never been able to appreciate the piece’s virtues. I don’t think she’s crazy. I think she’s lying for a political agenda.
My apologies, I misread what you said. You didn’t say that people who disagree with your position need psychiatric help, you said that people upset by The Mikado need psychiatric help.
You know…it’s good enough for Sarah Palin…
Well, after they cut off her head, they can just ship it to a shrink…
Ms. Palin is not insane, she’s just stupid.
She’s stupid like a Rosie O’Donnell or any other celebrity who makes cash by making waves. She’s neither crazy nor stupid. Just irresponsible.
I don’t mind that she is trying to cash in on her popularity. I am using stupid in the literal sense. It terrifies me that she almost was one heartbeat away from the presidency.
I wouldn’t want to live on the difference between SP’s IQ and Biden’s. My complaint with the media’s handling of Palin was that Biden, who is a babbling dolt, was given a pass.
Biden is far brighter than Palin — at a minimum, he understands how government works. I wouldn’t want him to be Sec. of State (ever) but overall he is the obvious choice.
Palin is brilliant at finding explosive catch-phrases like “death panels” and the classic, which gets better with each passing day, “How’s that hopey changey thing working out for you?” How indeed. I can’t think of a single clever, smart, responsible, articulate thing Joe Biden has said in his life. Palin was at least smart enough not to try to steal another politician’s speech about his life story and represent it not only as his speech, but his life! I don’t think there is sufficient data to claim that this boob is “much smarter” than anyone or any thing, including my dog, my shoes, this dead light bulb, that squashed spider.
How about when he said Obama was “bright, articulate, clean…” when he was trying to explain why Obama would, as a black man, be acceptable as a President?
Sharon Chan almost gets it, by bringing out a key question, but then fails to answer it:-
There’s a perfectly good answer, that it was in a long tradition of doing such things in a coded way so as to avoid trouble, even criminal prosecution. There had long been plays nominally about mysterious foreign countries that were really about Britain, for just this reason. It was not “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” at all (though obviously it also had to meet those criteria to succeed); it was a trope that had evolved for self preservation, and though the danger was only latent then, it was still real until well into the 20th century. Think the risk presented by the Lord Chancellor, and recognise a contributor to the reality behind one of the (composite) satirical figures…
If you know enough to write “Sir Arthur”, it is odd that you don’t know that “Mr. Gilbert” is wrong. It would make sense in a contemporaneous account, as unlike Sir Arthur Sullivan Sir William Schwenck Gilbert wasn’t knighted until long after the Mikado came out, but this isn’t a contemporaneous account.
Gilbert was knighted by Edward, after Victoria (who resented Gilbert’s satire, or just didn’t get it) died, and the pair were no longer writing together. I’m surprised YOU don’t know that the convention is to refer only to Sullivan’s knighthood and referring to Gilbert when discussing the operettas as a commoner, because of the time line. My old mentor on these works used to call them “Mr Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan,” and I almost quoted him, but I was sure you were lying in wait to say that you were surprised that I didn’t know that Sullivan was knighted.
I think your theory is only vaguely applicable. I agree that making up fake locales as settings for political satire was an old practice even then, but to suggest that Gilbert had any fear of reprisals is fanciful. By 1885, he and Sullivan were international stars, and could get away with almost anything…they were as untouchable as Will Rogers or the Marx Brothers. But more to the point: “The Mikado” isn’t even especially political by Gilbert and Sullivan standards. If Gilbert was boldly striding into uncharted territory with sharp attacks on the crown, you might have a shred of an argument. But years before he had authored his most direct attack on British icons with “Iolanthe,” which ridiculed the House of Peers and the Lord Chancellor. And he set the operetta in England.
It was a hit, too.
I can see how you were thinking of this, now you put it that way. But that was what I meant about “Mr. Gilbert” being appropriate to contemporaneous accounts and such – that “time line” thing. I didn’t see your piece as being about the Gilbert and Sullivan body of work except incidentally, but rather as being about Sharon Chan and her ilk, so I took it that you were speaking of the present day disrespect to the spirit of Sir William, as it were. It read as though you were thinking something like “if Mr. Gilbert were alive today he would be turning over in his grave at all this”, which doesn’t really work.
As for that reprisal thing, well, on the one hand I already pointed out that the custom and practice had grown up when reprisal was a far more present threat, and that it was somewhat latent by then, so for Gilbert and Sullivan it was more a matter of tapping into a trope; audiences had learned to decode such things (but that just means that the trope did indeed have its origins in such subterfuges and not in the trope’s incidentals, which is the very point I was bringing out). But on the other hand the threat was far from dead until almost our day; while life and liberty may not have been lost that way that late, careers were certainly ruined by putting one’s foot wrong (by the way, I misremembered the Lord Chamberlain as the Lord Chancellor while I was reaching for the word – getting it just too late, and having Iolanthe on my mind; yes, I am familiar with it, though it’s been a while). Oscar Wilde came dangerously close to that fate with his play Salomé, though he dodged that particular bullet. Either way, even in that day it was certainly safer to code allusions to powerful men; “polish up the handle of the big front door” told everyone who was meant in a way that could not bring retaliation without the butt ludicrously admitting being the butt, where the barb direct most certainly could. Iolanthe was no counter-example, for the very reason that it too was set out in an imaginary way, so that particular persons could always fail (or save face by feigning failing) to see themselves as this or that butt – which was the nature of the arrangement. It wasn’t a direct attack on persons at all, but a coded one; even the Lord Chancellor of the day could take it as meaning some other Lord Chancellor.
By way of further illustration of the origins of such coding and the social pretence that allowed it, consider this from Delarivier Manley’s experiences in 1709, which were hardly unique:-
Great stuff, P.M. Thank-you. It’s funny, I usually do give “Sir” to both authors, or “Mr.” to both. I actually pondered it this time. I think you are correct—in this setting, I should have used both titles.
Of course, until he was actually knighted, Gilbert wore his non-title as a badge of honor.
see my “big think” piece on the ethical code (or lack thereof) for the performing arts. We are flailing around because we haven’t agreed on a set of standards.