My earliest Gilbert and Sullivan memory is seeing a poster for our local amateur operatic company’s production of something called, The Mikado. The memory is distinct–a two-tone (this was the 80s) “oriental” (read: bamboo motif) page pasted in the front window of a neighbors’ home. Amateur opera was–at least at that time–quite popular in middle class England. And nothing is more quintessentially English than the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Recently the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan society has come under fire for its production of The Mikado. You can read the details here. The central assertion is that it is racist–more precisely racial caricature.
Seattle Times writer Sandra Pian Chan points out:
When people of other races don costumes and makeup to play the role of an Asian person, that’s yellowface. Racial caricature — even when done with the purest of artistic motives and sincere love of other cultures — is still racial caricature.
I have no interest in defending the artistic merit of the Mikado since (a) I am not a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, and (b) because I haven’t seen The Mikado. Quite a number of people–most all of them Asian Americans–I respect have publicly stated their opposition to the production on the basis of its racism and I, for one, am unable and unwilling to dispute that characterization.
At the same time, there is something disturbing about consigning cultural artifacts to the dustbin of history simply because the way they represent a person, culture, or event seems (or is in fact) either inaccurate or offensive or both (i.e., you guessed it, The Mikado). At the risk of drawing a lot of ire, bear with me as I consider a couple of observations.
As a cultural artifact The Mikado represents a snapshot of nineteenth century England. This is an England flush with Imperial aspirations, wealthy by way of mercantilism, militarily dominant across the known world, and all but unfamiliar with Asian, especially Japan. This is Britannia, which rules the waves. Of course ignorance of Japanese culture is exuded in The Mikado, how could it not be? The writers and the audience had never been there. In other words, the “Japan” in The Mikado isn’t really Japan at all–its a representation of an idealized Japan that exists to serve the deeper satire found within the piece.
Must a piece of art be accurate in order to be artistic?
We are forced to ask a question: must a piece of art be “accurate” in order to be artistic? I think not. The are plenty of classics art that do not meet that most modern of all standards: accuracy. They are, as are all things, representative of the times in which they were written.
A second concern has been the issue of “yellow face”–the practice of non-Asians (usually whites) portraying Asians (often stereotypically) in artistic productions (usually by use of cosmetics). Obviously it is offensive to a person of one ethnicity to have someone of another ethnicity caricature them, but it’s not always a given that this is what is happening when a person of one race represents someone of another.
William Shakespeare set many of his plays in an Italy he had likely never visited. Granted, Italian culture was more well known in Elizabethan England than Japanese culture was in Victorian England. His actors spoke no (or little) Italian and portrayed people of a distinctly different ethnicity. The difference–why no one calls for Romeo and Juliet to be banned–appears to be the degree of similarity between Shakespeare’s Italy and what we know of Italy at the time. If there was a wider disparity, would we demand that Shakespeare be adapted? Probably.
All in all, I am warily sympathetic of calls to somehow alter revise productions of The Mikado. At the same time, I recognize too that calls to censor, alter, revise, or otherwise change pieces of art fail to honor the art as it was created. Perhaps the better way forward is more fully understanding the limits of cultural artifacts as well as their purpose in today’s culture. In other words, The Mikado is not being offered as an introduction to Japanese culture. Instead, it’s being offered as an example of nineteenth century English operetta with all the limitations that that entails.