The Saturday List: 10 Reprehensible Responses to the NYGASP “MIKADO” Fiasco

George Grossmith made up as Ko-Ko in THE MIKADO

George Grossmith made up as Ko-Ko in THE MIKADO

Yesterday, in Musical Cyberspace’s Forgotten Musicals Friday column, I discussed the situation that surrounded the The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ planned production of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s The Mikado, a controversy that has been widely covered on theatre websites like Playbill and BroadwayWorld. With the announcement yesterday that the production had been cancelled, indignant responses that criticised the Asian American community’s response to the production’s marketing materials, which featured Caucasian actors representing Japanese characters, and the fact the inclusion of Pan-Asian actors and actors of Asian descent in the production was embarrassingly minimal. Reading through some of these responses left me bewildered. In what world are these people living? Alongside which people? Why are they missing the point?

My Saturday List would normally consist of a light-hearted collection of observations about musical theatre, but after reading some of the reprehensible responses to the fiasco surrounding the The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ cancelled production of The Mikado, I felt that I had to address these in some way. One could select ten similar responses to these on almost any social media platform that engages with musical theatre or opera, but I thought it useful to respond to a set of responses in one place: the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Facebook, a public group on Facebook where people volunteer their opinions in an open forum. In fact, these responses are all to be found in a single thread, started by group member Anthony Garcia, who describes the entire affair as a ‘how-de-do’, a phrase taken from one of the songs in The Mikado.

Right. A deep breath. And here we go.

Rutland Barrington as Pooh Bah in THE MIKADO

Rutland Barrington as Pooh Bah in THE MIKADO

1. One belief, held by many and put forward in this thread by Mathias Kayser, is that The Mikado is a parody of Britain in the 19th century, therefore casting white actors is not problematic. It’s true that Gilbert and Sullivan were presenting a satire of the politics and institutions of Victorian England. But here’s the thing: we are not living in Victorian England or one of its colonies. The society that is being put under the spotlight existed 130 years ago. The satirical aspects of The Mikado are largely no longer valid unless we assume that the British have remained stagnant as a society for that period of time. Britain’s “imperial century” is over. Many countries continue to deal with post-colonial trauma following the United Kingdom’s process of decolonisation and decline. The defense that The Mikado remains relevant as a satire is a pretense. The world in which The Mikado was written has been dismantled; the conventions around the casting of white actors in this comic opera should be too.

2. Cathy Bulfin offers the view that critics of productions that cast white actors in The Mikado ‘don’t get it at all’. What is it, exactly, that we don’t get? Racism perpetuated in the name of art? That white men have suppressed opportunities for people of colour in every industry over time, including the entertainment industry? That there is such a thing called restorative justice, which is a valid and necessary process? Because those are some of the things that Ms Bulfin and her peers seem to fail to understand.

1885 poster art for THE MIKADO

1885 poster art for THE MIKADO

3. You get some folks who only read the headlines and who get lost in their own gut reaction. Like Robert Watson, who considers anyone who might take offence at the use of white actors to represent Japanese people in 2015 to be ‘blind inartistic trouble-makers’. He should consider the grace that actress and writer, Erin Quill, extends to Gilbert and Sullivan about the intentions of their piece before offering any sort of criticism of The Mikado. Only then does Quill say, ‘We, the Asian Americans, do not want to ‘take away’ your precious Mikado – we want you to do better. We want you to stop constantly mocking us and telling us by your actions and deeds that Yellowface remains part of your theatrical lexicon. We want you to make any production of it, smarter, less full of stereotypes – more full of the respect G&S were trying for.’ Somehow, Mr Watson and his ilk interpret this as persons suffering from ‘white guilt and bigoted Asians’ simply attempting to ‘wreck the whole story’ of The Mikado – an inconceivable point of view for any rational person.

4. Mr Watson voices another popular response to situations like these: ‘These are simply PC troublemakers who want to censor art.’ It is not the denotation of political correctness with which Mr Watson is concerned, namely ‘the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against’, but some connotation of the word whereby the noble intentions of political correctitude is stripped of its integrity. Is it really censorship to suggest that an established practice should be interrogated? And when did art become a free platform for bigotry?

Gilbert’s own illustration of “A More Humane Mikado”, one of the numbers in THE MIKADO

5. There is something wrong when white communities are denied access to a potential theatre production when roles representing members of any suppressed ethnicity cannot be played by white actors, is Ian Bond’s summary of the situation. His suggestion? That it is ‘time to start fighting back’ to preserve the tradition of yellowface performance in productions of The Mikado and of blackface performance in productions like Show Boat! The world of which Mr Bond dreams is one where white performers can dress up as Japanese people, Chinese people, African people, Indian people, Middle Eastern people or Native American people for the diversion of white audiences, no matter whether this compromises the dignity of the people being represented or not. The solution is very simple, though no doubt a difficult one for Mr Bond and his cohorts to hear: if the show cannot be cast appropriately, the show should not be produced. Somewhere, someone will value the great sacrifice made by white audiences in this regard.

6. Because it was done in the past, that makes it acceptable today. So thinks Mr Bond, and Helen Booker, who herself performed in blackface in Show Boat in 1985, agrees. ‘It wasn’t considered racist then,’ she protests, ‘and I can’t understand why it should be now.’ Just because something wasn’t considered racist doesn’t mean that it wasn’t. Injustices are always perpetuated and justified by those who reap the benefits.

J. Hassal's THE MIKADO illustration

J. Hassal’s THE MIKADO illustration for a theatre poster for the show

7. Mr Garcia returned to the thread he started to propose that avoiding the trappings of yellowface – buck teeth, slanted eyes and so on – fixes everything. The thing is, representation is about more than make-up, whether this may be full yellowface, some variation of Geisha makeup, or any variation of generic Orientalism. An assimilation of an entire culture has to take place.

8. Mr Bond returns to the fold to posit that because the satire is about the British, there are no Japanese stereotypes in The Mikado. I never knew that the use of baby-talk (Pitti-Sing, Yum-Yum Pooh-Bah, Pish-Tush, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko) as a substitution for Japanese names, the Westernised depiction of the Japanese Emperor or the invention of national traditions could be considered free of prejudice. There’s also something in the viewing of an entire culture – no matter how tasteful the intentions for its portrayal might be – as nothing more than a vehicle for exploring the concerns of another.

9. Offence is in the eye of the beholder, claims Sarah-Jane Hall, who says ‘there is a conscious choice on the part of the offended to feel that way’. It follows, then, that ‘the offended’ should have no opinion on the way they are portrayed in the arts or whether, indeed, they should have the first option to represent not themselves, but their cultural background. Worst of all, it means that being offended by an insulting depiction of your culture is an adopted posture, an academic position that has no basis in public historical practice or personal emotional resonance. What a degrading view to have of the genuine suffering of ‘the offended’, a mendacity constructed to preserve one’s own supposed superiority.

A 1926 costume design for Ko-Ko by Charles Ricketts

A 1926 costume design for Ko-Ko by Charles Ricketts

10. The issue of race in productions like The Mikado is an American issue brought about by the American mindset. As far as AJ Ua Néill is concerned, ‘the rest of the world isn’t obsessed with race’. Well, if there are Americans who are working to counteract the effects of centuries of racism, they should be applauded. But they are not the only ones. People in countries around the world are engaging with these issues. Sometimes without elegance. Sometimes at the cost of human life. Sometimes taking small steps forward. Sometimes making huge strides that take them into the future. Perhaps it is time for Mr Ua Néill and his cronies to be present in the world in which we live, where – to cite just one example – economic wars fought over resources in central Africa have everything to do with serving the technological whims of people around the world. It must be comfortable to pretend that race is not an equation in contexts like these, but that’s yet another reality willfully ignored by those who benefit from, in this case, war caused by corporate competition. The issue of racial representation in the arts may seem like small fry in comparison, but the same attitudes inform both situations.

While this tenth item brings my Saturday List to a close, the thread from which these statements are taken continues to flourish and so does, one hopes, the discussions that push us forward in this renegotiation of generations of rehearsed practices that continue to flourish in contemporary performance practice. Feel free to join the discussion using the comments section below, or visit the the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Facebook to enrich the discussion of these points there. This is one of those things about which we need to talk, so that tomorrow can be a better day.

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9 Responses to The Saturday List: 10 Reprehensible Responses to the NYGASP “MIKADO” Fiasco

  1. Agreeing Disapprovingly says:

    As a member of that group I found the comments uncomfortable to say the least, and agree with you on many of these points.

  2. Eric Henwood-Greer says:

    While I don’t fully agree with all of that, it’s shocking how well he nailed all of the worst comments in the G&S group.

  3. Ua Neill says:

    I never knew I had cronies… Marvellous!!

    Yes, let us butcher and castrate our culture because queenie clutched her pearls and gasped.

    If you disagree with the neo-gestapo, they’ve got you on the list, I’m sure you’ll not be missed.

  4. Ben Akeladis says:

    Built a bit of a strawman out of each person’s comments on Facebook. Some valid points but you seem to suggest the purging of any historical production with anything that doesn’t fit today’s social mores. Do we need to get rid of Turandot or Les Miserables? South Pacific? The Book of Mormon? The Bible has some pretty backward-thinking stories in it too…

    I for one find distasteful that someone could consider marrying their adopted child (ward), but I understand that the story of The Mikado occurs in a time where this was an acceptable practice and this piece of the story fits the idiom.

    I don’t dare to talk of people’s experience of prejudice, as I’ve never experienced it myself. I do however see the relevance in telling the story as it is, and as it was told in Victorian England – the very ignorance of Asian culture at the time by Gilbert and Sullivan and the English audience at large is, in itself an entire sub-layer of comedy which makes The Mikado enjoyable to watch.

  5. David Fick says:

    Ben, there is a world of difference between calling for the purging of any literary text as its written – as opposed to an historical production as it was performed, of which there are not always accessible or reliable records – and asking for an interrogation of the way a text is translated into performance in our current setting.

    Placing The Mikado side by side with Turandot, Les Miserables, South Pacific, The Book of Mormon and The Bible is a futile exercise. The expectation that all of these should be treated in the same way with no regard to the vastly different traditions and contexts from which they emerged or how each individually relates to contemporary theatre practice is unreasonable. One wouldn’t expect ballet, contemporary dance and impressionist visual art to conform to the same conventions, so why should music theatre, musical theatre and (depending on your perspective) religion or mythology?

    It’s fortunate that you have never experienced prejudice in your life. Perhaps it is that lack of such experiences that makes the telling of a story like The Mikado the way it was told in Victorian England appear relevant to you. As a museum piece of that kind, The Mikado belongs in a history classroom dealing with either the representation of Asia in 19th-century colonial art or the context of theatre practice in the same period and setting. As a production intended for wider stages and audiences, theatre companies need to consider why and how the story of The Mikado can be told in a way that is relevant to the world in which we live, a world in which – too often – nostalgia obscures injustices of the past that continue to perpetuate themselves insidiously in our daily lives.

  6. Andrew Crowther says:

    Hi. There seem to be 3 different aspects to this question.

    1. Use of Japanese-stereotype makeup and expressions in NYGASP publicity. I’ve seen the photos and I don’t intend to defend them.

    2. Use of non-Asian actors in Asian (specifically Japanese) roles.

    3. The matter of whether The Mikado (as a work of art) should be performed at all.

    As regards number 2, it would obviously be ideal to cast The Mikado entirely from Japanese actors. Unfortunately, this is not always practically possible, though it has been done in Chichibu. I realise that it isn’t really a defence to say something bad also happens elsewhere, but what is your opinion, for instance, of the upcoming Madama Butterfly at the Met with only one named performer of Asian descent? It is a serious practical issue with all works of art which portray other cultures and, as I need scarcely say, all such works are invariably distortions of those other cultures in order to make a point of the creators’ own culture. I can see Turandot has been mentioned in this context.

    Okay, number 3. Huge question. Gilbert & Sullivan is full of silly names – Lord Mountararat, Adam Goodheart, Dick Dauntless, Ernest Dummkopf. Personally I find the names in The Mikado embarrassing: they’re too childish and frankly they’re not clever enough. But that’s just me. It is true that The Mikado satirises 1885 England, such as official corruption, power-mad leaders, the casual cruelty of those in control, and the problems of those promoted beyond their capabilities. I’m glad to know these problems don’t exist in the USA. But there must be some reason audiences still find relevance in the opera. They wouldn’t want to see it if there wasn’t something to get from it. I’m optimist enough to assume they’re not all hankering after racist stereotypes. The characters in The Mikado don’t tap into any recognised Japanese stereotype that I’m aware of; much of the opera’s strength comes from the fact that these characters are from an English point of view familiar and recognisable. It looks as if this might also be true in America. There are problems with The Mikado – just as there are with Porgy and Bess, say, or Madama Butterfly or Turandot. These problems are made worse by the fact that The Mikado isn’t a “serious” piece but a mere comedy, and comedy has to toy with the limits of good taste if it’s going to be funny at all. All comedy is to some extent irresponsible.

    You may be aware of the book written by Josephine Lee, associate professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota: The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. It is a very clear dissection of the prejudices and cultural assumptions of the opera, from a thoroughly informed viewpoint. A lot of the arguments made in the book are painful to a G&S enthusiast – painful because irrefutable. However, I would like to quote something that Professor Lee states on page xiv of the Introduction: “Both the tragic Madame Butterfly and The Mikado have been identified as orientalist, but these two musical versions of Japan work quite differently. The Mikado in particular defies charges that it is a racist work. Though its characterizations, setting, and story clearly misrepresent Japan in ways that can be seen as patronizing and insulting, at the same time it is a comic opera that disclaims the seriousness of these representations.”

  7. Marty Fuller says:

    All this is way out of line. It is the intention of the authors that matters in a work of art. If it offends anyone, don’t go. A white actor playing Aida, or Othello? Today you will see only black actors in Porgy and Bess. No denigration of Japanese people is intended in The Mikado. Only an exotic setting for the action, which was popular at the time it was written. I have seen some of the best interpretations of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof delivered by gentile actors. All this reaction to political correctness is totally misplaced. This is art, nothing less.

  8. Jim Griffin says:

    Meanwhile productions of the The Mikado will continue in the usual way and very few theatregoers will pay any attention to the futile complaints of a few strange people who just don’t get it!

  9. David Fick says:

    Andrew, thanks for the long response. The more I think about whether or not things are ‘practically possible’, the more favour I find in the idea that if a piece can’t be cast appropriately, then it should not be staged at all. I don’t particularly keep up to speed with the casting of productions at the Met, so I hadn’t thought about the casting of Madama Butterfly in the context of this discussion. That said, I read the Met’s triumphant announcement that they would no longer be using blackface for productions of Otello and, while I thought it a little late in the day, it seemed like a good step forward. But then I read the article and the Met is still casting a white singer in the title role, and this in a narrative that deals explicitly with race. The Met’s argument is that there are no black tenors able to sing the role. None? Not one? In the whole world? OK, fine – let’s go with that. If there are no black tenors in the whole world that are capable of singing this role, then perhaps it’s time to give Otello a rest until opera training catches up with the demands of contemporary theatre practice.

    You’re right in indicating that the problems are multiple in nature, there is some merit in separating them out. You’re right, there are always distortions of culture whenever one shifts cultures from their real setting into the stage. So it becomes difficult to make a universal argument about whether this in itself should play a role in the depiction of different cultures on stage. So, on a case-by-case basis, maybe we should be looking at the intentions and approach of the creators and whether those intentions and/or approach – however noble or appropriate they might have seemed at the time – read in the same way given the shifts that have taken place in the world between the time in which the piece originated and today. I think the intentions and approach of the company and people responsible for a contemporary production of the piece need to be interrogated too.

    That leads to your final point, regarding whether The Mikado as it was written has a place in the world today. First, there is the common argument that The Mikado is a satire of Victorian England. My post above argues its relevance as a satire given that the target of the satire has faded into history, which is counted by the comment that ideas like ‘official corruption, power-mad leaders, the casual cruelty of those in control, and the problems of those promoted beyond their capabilities’ remain relevant. As it happens, I agree that those ideas are still relevant in the world today. But as I spent more and more time with The Mikado over the past week, watching a production of it once again so that I would have a more immediate reference for this conversation, it occurred to me that the piece is a parody of the period rather than a satire on the issues. The difference between parody and satire lies in what the audience takes away, and were The Mikado a true satire, one should walk away with a critical awareness of its target(s). So I don’t agree that it is any supposed relevance that resonates with audiences; it is the primarily the humour of the piece. That humour relies partly in the parody of personality types, social conventions and political structures of the period and partly on a superficial adoption of Japanese aesthetics, which are viewed as exotic, brutal and performative. The former, let’s call it the social dimension of the piece, does have a place; the latter, the cultural dimension, has no place. It falls short because of its superficiality, which some – including Josephine Lee – argue is its strength, and because of a performance-based exotic aesthetic that was typical of western depictions of Japan, various African countries, India and China of the time. To try and reproduce that today, in the name of comedy or entertainment, is cultural appropriation, a stance that reinforces white supremacy over other cultures – “We’ll use your aesthetics to talk about our world, because your world is just aesthetic to us.” So, I can’t accept the argument that genre excuses racism.

    A point that perhaps has been missed by everyone in this discussion is why The Mikado remains a popular choice and one reason beyond whether or not it resonates with an audience or how good the music is or how funny it may be is that it is in the public domain. This means that the sometimes crippling expense of royalties does not apply to why The Mikado, which makes it an attractive choice to any producer who thinks they can sell a production of the piece. The salt being rubbed into the wound is that while this also allows for the piece to be approached in new ways or adapted, most companies opt for a traditional production, making a profit by reinforcing the kind of attitudes towards the piece that Jim Griffin and the folks of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Facebook hold dear. The codification of cultural appropriation in The Mikado becomes commodified and, sadly, it sells.

    PS. Marty, the popular counter-argument using Fiddler on the Roof is not analogous to the way that The Mikado functions. Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, who created Fiddler on the Roof were all Jewish American theatre-makers, and their approach to Judaism and the representation of Jewish people in the piece has an integrity that is completely lacking in The Mikado, in which a choice is made to connect with the Japanese culture and its people on a superficial level. A contemporary production of a historical play featuring Jewish caricatures that were common at the time in which various stereotypical Jewish traits are played merely for comedy would be viewed as anti-Semitic, not political correctness. Perhaps The Mikado never gets that specific, but its superficiality is part of the problem.

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