Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” – Playing “with a twisted cue and elliptical billiard balls?”

From the moment one lays eyes on the actors and introductory scene of The Mikado, its absurdity leaps out on stage and declares itself outright.  English actors, garbed in traditional Japanese clothing, dance on stage with regal gestures and sing operatic syllables to their audience.  To my (perhaps oversensitive) eyes and ears, these sounds and images evoke horror stories of performers in blackface, parodying another race through patronizing and insensitive behavior.  Then, as if to confirm my suspicions of foul play, the first song begins,

“If you want to know who we are, We are gentlemen of Japan; On many a vase and jar — On many a screen and fan, We figure in lively paint: Our attitude’s queer and quaint – You’re wrong if you think it aint, oh!”

Gilbert and Sullivan have not only demonstrated that they are willing to parody the Japanese race through costumes, but through direct statements, as well.  Surely, then, this opera must be a classic example of either subtle Orientalism or overt racism.  But something seems suspicious about my swift conclusion.  After all, why would a parody of Japanese attitudes begin with such outright statements like “We are gentlemen of Japan”?   A great sense of irony arises when English actors, whose facial features and operatic voices are clearly not Japanese, declare outright that they are Japanese.  The song continues to rattle off the most stereotypical perceptions of Japan that an outsider could possibly possess.  The singers declare that they are the same portrayals of Japanese that a Westerner might have seen painted on a vase or on a fan.  “We figure in lively paint,” they tell us.  No actual Japanese person would state that he or she was the object painted on a vase.  By the time the singers have stated, “our attitude’s queer and quaint,” the audience must have picked up on some sense of irony.  The actors do not seem to be parodying the Japanese race, but rather the English portrayals of that race.

An anonymous commentator has remarked that The Mikado is not actually patronizing or insensitive, but rather it is “really a delightful spoof of English misconceptions of Japan. In fact the whole opera is a lampoon of Victorian England and its insular culture.”  Given the absurd exaggerations and ironies that have already unveiled themselves in the first few lines of The Mikado’s introductory song, this statement appears to be perfectly tenable.  However, farce is a wily creature.  The absurdities that run throughout The Mikado leap from societal critiques to ironic dialogue and then from strange parodies to witty self-reference.  To a careful reader or viewer, these absurdities may all be fit into this “lampoon of Victorian England and its insular culture.”  Many other readers and viewers, myself often included, may be confused or offended by particularly strange moments in the opera.  Some, feasibly, might not even see the parody at all; they might enjoy The Mikado as a lampoon of Japanese culture, failing to realize that the parody is directed at their own attitude of insensitivity.

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno: A lampoon of homophobia or a lampoon of homosexuality?

In a contemporary pop culture comparison, Sacha Baron Cohen’s recent movie Bruno met with a similar kind of misunderstanding.  Although the filmmaker intended the film to parody modern America and its insensitive culture toward the gaycommunity, many viewers feasibly failed to see this parody, and instead saw the film as a parody of the gay community itself – to either bigoted delight or deep offense.  In a similar way, the kind of ridiculous farce that runs throughout The Mikado might simultaneously satisfy one audience’s desire to see a lampoon of Victorian England as well as another audience’s desire to see a lampoon of Feudal Japan.

The parody of The Mikado meets one obvious manifestation in Pooh-bah, the satirical embodiment of a government bureaucrat, and Gilbert’s mouthpiece for quite a bit of dry sarcasm.  He first enters the stage right after a blindly optimistic chorus: “And I am right and you are right and all is right as right can be!”  Pooh-bah proudly declares “every judge is now his own executioner” as if to say that this terrible government policy were a shining example of something as “right as right can be!”  Introducing himself, Pooh bah states that he his “a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite descent,” who can “trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal atomic globule.”  Ironically, he brags about his own braggart status, and then exaggerates his pedigree to an absurd extreme.  Witty, funny, bizarre: all these words give a fitting description to Pooh-bah’s speech.  Besides this bizarre character, though, who is being laughed at? For what tradition of hereditary pride and ridiculous law is Pooh-bah the satirical mouthpiece?

One might jump to the conclusion that the parody targets Japanese government and society.  After all, a Westerner at the turn of the twentieth century could conceivably hold the preconception that Japanese society was riddled with ridiculous laws (like a law against flirting) and that its rulers held pedigrees that extended back to the “pre-Adamite” era, or something near it.  Pooh-bah’s remark “I was born sneering” might not differ much from the Western preconception of a Japanese ruler, painted on a vase or on a fan with an angry sneer across his face.  As the narrative progresses and Pooh-bah drives the jokes further and further, however, his mindless bureaucracy, inefficiency, and haughtiness seem to point toward a different sort of lampoon: that of Victorian England.  Possessing every other government title in Titipu besides Grand Executioner, Pooh-bah frequently becomes tangled in his own plethora of roles and positions.  “In which of my capacities?” he frequently asks, at one point even following Ko-Ko around the stage, whispering in order to avoid being heard by himself.  He takes the joke to a characteristic extreme when he states, “But then, as Archbishop of Titipu, it would be my duty to denounce my dishonesty and give myself into my own custody as First Commissioner of Police.”  In such statements, Pooh-bah weaves a web of confusion around himself, eliciting Ko-ko’s witty remark, “That’s extremely awkward.” It is awkward, the reader must agree, and it reflects the tangled behaviors of government bureaucrats in our own familiar Western governments.  The English actors, thinly veiled in Japanese disguise, thus emerge to parody their own government, or any government riddled with inefficiency, hypocrisy, and utter awkwardness.

Much harder to comprehend are the self-conscious references to ‘the way things are in Japan.’  Ko-ko once requests “an abject grovel in a characteristic Japanese attitude.”  Later, Yum-yum parodies her own naïveté: “You forget that in Japan girls do not arrive at years of discretion until they are fifty.”  Later, she makes an even more shocking statement: “Sometimes I sit and wonder, in my artless Japanese way, why it is that I am so much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world.”  In each of these statements, and in the similar ones that run throughout the text, the Japanese characters make self-denigrating marks about their own culture and behavior. Because the actors are actually English, the reader could quite easily construe such critiques of the “artless Japanese way” as actual jabs at an inferior culture.  Whether offended, delighted, or confused, the reader finds herself confronted with outright bigoted statements.  Because the text is so infused with wit, double-meanings, parodies, and exaggerations, however, these bigoted statements could just as easily be parodies of their own attitude as they are parodies of Japanese culture.

Is the Mikado more akin to ‘blackface’ performances’ in minstrel shows or to Dave Chapelle’s tongue-in-cheek use of ‘whiteface’ in his comedy show?

As always, the interpretation is up to the reader.  However, one more clue may point us in the direction of Gilbert’s intention: the references to blackface performers that were replaced in the 1940’s to avoid offense.  The Japanese names and attire of The Mikado, in fact, evoke memories of minstrel shows meant to parody the behavior of blacks.  Why, then, would Gilbert refer to this offensive practice?  In one song, early in the opera, Ko-Ko enumerates all of the people that he might execute should he ever need to “act professionally.”  “Society offenders,” “people who have flabby hands,” “the lady novelist,” and even the self-referential “funny fellows” and “comic men” all make Ko-Ko’s list of those who would not be missed.

Using Ko-Ko as his proxy speaker, Gilbert adopts a mock-racist, mock-sexist attitude in which all women, people of other races, and even the actors in the opera themselves will be subject to wanton executions at the whim of this confused madman.  Amidst this list, Gilbert includes “the nigger serenader, and the others of the race.”  “Nigger” was later changed to “banjo” in order to avoid offense at that word, but in the original, it creates an air of self-conscious critique around this sort of culturally insensitive minstrel show.  With English actors thinly disguised as Japanese, The Mikado mirrors exactly this kind of insensitive performance.  Because it does so with a sense of self-conscious irony, however, The Mikado does not produce the same insensitive effect.  Rather, it ruthlessly parodies its own mock-insensitivity.

Gilbert and Sullivan sink this shot.

Humor and parody of all kinds run throughout The Mikado.  From innocuous jokes about the beauty of Katisha’s right ankle to bizarre references about the Second Trombone, Gilbert’s immense wit permeates almost every single line, beckoning the reader not to take anything in the opera at face value.  Although a reader could conceivably find in The Mikado either deeply offensive statements or humorous insensitivity, I believe that such interpretations would be misguided by the preconceptions of the reader who makes them.  Instead, Gilbert expects us to agree with Ko-Ko, when he states, “That’s extremely awkward.”  The farcical narrative and exaggerated stereotypes are, in fact, quite awkward.  Gilbert’s wit is not playing “with a twisted cue and elliptical billiard balls” like one character in a song by the Mikado.  Instead, it strikes with extreme deliberation, creating a purposeful sense of awkwardness around bureaucracy, hypocrisy, and cultural insensitivity.

About T Anderson

I am a graduate of Amherst College. I taught for a year in Harlem and now teach in Brooklyn.
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