Once upon a time, an antique Japanese sword fell off a wall, where it had been hanging as a decoration, in a world-famous musical theatre writer’s home. At the time, W. S. Gilbert had been stuck for an idea. You see, what he loved to do, and what he unquestionably did best, was to poke fun at British society, its institutions, its illogical laws, the dumb ways people act in the name of being polite. Some of his hits, such as Iolanthe and Patience, had been set in contemporary England. But he held an impulse I can relate to: the desire not to repeat himself. Mind you, he still wanted to satirize Brits, holding up a fun-house mirror to their foibles, but he feared his routine had grown tired. Then the sword fell.
And, legend has it, suddenly Gilbert knew what to write. At the time, the English had a big-time fad going on, for Japanese design. There was even a precursor to EPCOT, an amusement park created to give visitors the experience of walking through a Japanese village. Now, this might strike you as ridiculous – and I’m certain Gilbert would agree with you – but, when I was a boy, Orange County, California had, not far from Disneyland, an attraction built on the same premise, called Japanese Village and Deer Park. (If you grew up in New York, you’re now shouting “That’s good water!”) So, both the late 19th century Londoners and mid-20th century Los Angelinos had a fascination with Japan.
In Patience, an ever-in-vogue character admits he’s a fraud: “I do NOT long for all one sees that’s Japanese.” It’s funny to think that those who follow fads are doing it just to be trendy, not because of genuine feelings. And then there’s the issue of loving Japanese things with no real understanding or appreciation for the actual Japanese people and culture.
You can look at this mania as a serious problem, or, as Gilbert did, you can look at it as stuff to ridicule. And ridiculing the British craze is totally different than ridiculing the Japanese, right?
The show Gilbert wrote, with Arthur Sullivan, was his masterpiece, The Mikado. Gilbert was, originally, an attorney, and the main lampoon of The Mikado is that characters follow the law so precisely, the Lord High Executioner is unable to execute anyone because he’s the next person scheduled to have his head removed and suicide is illegal. Follow? Well, even if you don’t, I hope you can grasp that Gilbert is spoofing British insistence on legal procedure, not anything truly Japanese. And so the world took to The Mikado, laughing heartily at its jokes about the British, for well over a hundred years.
In recent months, though, troubling questions have been asked about this remarkably hysterical musical comedy. In countless productions over the years, Caucasian performers have donned black wigs and applied make-up to their eyes in order to convey the idea that the characters are Japanese. In the present century, there’s a critical mass: a large quantity of talented Asian performers. In New York, at least, one could easily fill the stage with great singing actors who’d need no make-up to convince the audience they’re gentlefolk of Japan. Unfortunately, players of Asian descent are often denied jobs by producers and directors who lack the imagination to see the roles traditionally cast with Caucasians any other way. Economic forces, I feel, inevitably would lead some to question why a show set in the Japanese town of Titipu is so frequently cast with people who resemble Gilbert and Sullivan rather than George Takei.
Making matters worse was the venerable New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, known by its acronym, NYGASP. They, too, had the relatable desire not to repeat themselves. Over the decades, their productions of The Mikado evolved to include the addition of a character Gilbert never would have dreamed of. It was a little girl dressed in male garb, and called “The Axe Coolie” who ran around the stage yelling “high-ya.” I haven’t seen their production, but if that description is remotely accurate, it’s not in keeping, at all, with the original intent. And it led, understandably, to the accusation known as Yellowface.
We hear that term and are supposed to think of the more familiar Blackface, when whites would don burnt cork and hyperbolically racist stereotypes. In Blackface, the humor is derived from expounding on certain white folks’ belief that African-Americans act certain ways. And that’s about the most troubling form of entertainment America has known: humor built on prejudice.
So, NYGASP scrapped their production, uttered a mea culpa, and fights for survival in a world that seems to have turned against them. In my view, the addition of Axe-Coolie was not only racist, it was wholly unnecessary. Savoyards understand that The Mikado is funny enough to thoroughly entertain an audience without adding a single prejudiced trope. What kind of G & S company feels the need to add shtick to the most humorous operettas ever written? (Many, apparently.) There ought to be a way of mounting a bit of Victorian silliness in a way that gives no offense.
But it can’t be denied, either, that certain people live to be offended. Yes, bigotry exists in the world, and you may have suffered traumas and indignities: that’s sad but true. But if you can’t see the humor in what a Victorian English satirist did 130 years ago, setting a silly story in a distant country nobody knew much about, well, nobody’s forcing you to attend. The existence of The Mikado and the audiences who enjoy it is no insult to the Japanese.
Similarly, there’s a stunning quantity who get deeply offended by Carousel. Many months ago, I wrote a piece for another blog suggesting that those who see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 masterpiece as somehow excusing or sentimentalizing wife-beating are ignoring much of the script, perhaps willfully. Hammerstein is musical theatre’s greatest humanist, and he wrote musical plays for adults. If you can’t stand a show about a three-dimensional character who does some truly awful things (besides hitting his spouse, armed robbery leads to his death) as well as some good things, don’t go to Carousel. Leave it and The Mikado to those who have the ability to understand historical context and evolving sensibilities.