In 2004, a contributor to an Asian American theater listserv noted that the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players would soon be performing The Mikado, and asked:
is this yellowface production offensive or not? if so, any plans of attack? where are the starving asian actors instead of using yellowface?
The mooted protest, or “attack,” never happened. But it was this post that prompted Josephine Lee’s new book, The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
The title is a feint: Lee’s real aim is to portray The Mikado as a racist tract. I am quite sure she could have devised a title that made her mission explicit, but she would have risked losing the reader before she had even begun. Once she is finished there is no doubt where her sympathies lie:
Though The Mikado harbors political sentiments of all kinds, it consistently escapes the charge that it means any of them. This shifty quality is ingrained in the nature of its yellowface: seemingly light, it can easily disavow any mean intention. . . . The very flippancy of these gestures further intensifies their effect, reminding us simultaneously how easy it is to demean nonwhite bodies and denying that such careless actions might impact real people (p. 191).
Lee admits that while she was writing the book, she was “asked many times whether my real objective is to prevent the opera from ever having another production” (p. xxi). She is not so foolish as to embark on a fool’s errand. That the question would be asked speaks volumes about where she is coming from.
It would be much easier to write this review if Lee were an unschooled quack. One could then dismiss her agenda as a simplistic exercise in racial politics, and be done with it. Lee, an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota, cannot be so readily ignored. This is a serious piece of scholarship, copiously researched. Lee offers a deep and thorough study of the production and reception history of The Mikado, albeit from a singular perspective that I find profoundly offensive and fundamentally flawed. For all its faults, the book commands attention.
To call a work racist is not quite the same thing as calling the sky blue, or sunflowers yellow. It’s a word freighted with social and political implications, most of them overwhelmingly unacceptable. It may not be Lee’s aim to see the opera banned, but if it were widely accepted as racist—as that word is usually defined—there is a good chance that it would be.
“Racism” has multiple definitions (Wikipedia offers a good overview), and Lee never states which one she is using. It could be that she hasn’t thought deeply about the matter, or that she is sold on a rhetorical flourish that entered racial studies in about the 1970s—namely, that “racism” is whatever one finds it politically useful to be, and that to admit of other possibilities is a needless show of weakness.
There emerged a school of thought at around that time, that racism is something that whites (defined as those of European descent, with Hispanics sometimes excluded) do to nonwhites. Taken to its extreme, every white baby is a born racist. It’s an ossified view of racism that locks the human race permanently into two non-intersecting categories—whites and everyone else. This seems to be Lee’s view:
On Western stages dominated by white actors, the practice of yellowface—the playing of oriental characters by non-Asian actors—marks the privilege to represent. Whiteness has traditionally been granted the power of racial transformation: white actors could successfully enact a variety of colored others, whereas nonwhite performers, as we have seen with the black performances of The Mikado, were invariably marked by what was seen to be the indelible and natural features of their race. Even when allowed more artistic freedom than as a quaint curiosity or display of brute primitivism, the nonwhite performer was rarely credited with the ability to transform into a full range of characterizations (169–70).
I was struck that “yellowface” is the accepted scholarly term for “the playing of oriental characters by non-Asian actors.” There are many ironies here that Lee does not comment upon. For one thing, it presupposes the old stereotype that Asians have yellow skin—which they do not. Now, I could well imagine a bigoted writer calling Asians “yellow,” but why would someone who is Asian herself acquiesce in that description? The term is also founded on the presumption that Asians are all one race, an assertion I believe the Japanese themselves would dispute.
Of course, yellowface is just one of many possible combinations in which people of one nationality impersonate another on stage. There are abundant examples (Gilbert wrote some of them; so did Monty Python) where English actors impersonate characters from France or Scotland, adopt exaggerated versions of real French or Scottish accents, and mimic well known stereotypes of those two nations for comic effect. Why has the scholarship of racial politics devised no shorthand word for that? I don’t know if Lee has been to Scotland, but I can assure her that many Scots are thoroughly convinced they are a different race from the English. And it must be noted that when Gilbert puts the French or Scots onstage, no one says (as they have about The Mikado) that Gilbert is really poking fun at England. To the extent his portrayal of those nations is offensive, Gilbert’s intention is exactly what it appears to be.
Lee never articulates clearly whether the charge of racism inheres in the author, the work, the performer, or the audience. Her discussion ricochets between the text, the actors who put it on, and the attitudes of those who watch and listen. In one particularly telling passage, she critiques Peter Sellars’s 1983 production for Lyric Opera of Chicago, but as evidence of “complex fears behind the modern version of the yellow peril” (153) that allegedly inhabit the production, the best she can muster is a quote from a British writer who lived in Japan—in 1904! Attitudes towards Japan might have changed in eighty years, and if she cannot produce anything more current, it could be that the Sellars production simply doesn’t have the racial overtones she attributes to it.
At times, she writes as if The Mikado were a living thing with actions and intentions of its own:
The Mikado has also defined what is Japanese in a variety of ways and to a multitude of audiences. Though it bills itself as a fanciful invention and source of innocent merriment, it also represents Japan both metaphorically and metonymically through its creation of Titipu and its characters and through the prominent display of Japanese objects and costumes onstage (141).
However compellingly light the touch of the opera, it still carries the weight of having to stand for Japanese people and Japanese culture. . . . it operates not only as a harmless divertissement but also as a touchstone of racial sensitivity (142).
As these modern versions all suggest, the revitalization of Gilbert and Sullivan lies in innovative restaging, youthful performers, and energetic performances. Unfortunately, in the case of The Mikado, this also entails a revisiting of stereotypes—the foreign invader or the immigrant coolie—that hammer home an overtly hostile and racist message. These moments reveal how The Mikado can never really disguise its own power to represent Japan and its connections to a political orientalism that exists within its patrician fantasy (164).
As we have seen, the opera disclaims any responsibility for racial representations even while visions of racial difference are at its very heart (180).
Lee seems to hold The Mikado responsible for events long past the period when it was written: “At the heart of Asian American discontent with orientalist images and practices, such as have been amply demonstrated in The Mikado, is a desire for stage representation to reflect some offstage authenticity, usually imagined as the laboring bodies of the disenfranchised” (171). How The Mikado could be held to stand in for Asian American discontent that no one had imagined in 1885, is not explained. (In the preceding quote, as in many, Lee refers to Asians as “bodies,” rather than “people.” I do not know why.)
There is no doubt that Asians have long been subject to ugly, vicious, and unconscionable bigotry. Lee traces this history, and while the hard evidence of Gilbert’s views is thin on the ground, she produces an abundance of repugnant cultural references from his own time that he cannot have been unaware of. For those who would hold Gilbert wholly innocent, it is tough but enlightening reading. She argues that Ko-Ko and Katisha are derived from stock characters of blackface minstrelsy. If there is a blackface antecedent for a joke, rest assured Lee will seek it out. I am not entirely convinced, but her argument is not without merit.
Yet, she gives Gilbert no credit for his attempt (unprecedented at the time) to make the original production at least visually authentic, down to hiring Japanese artists from the village at Knightsbridge to coach the cast. If Gilbert had never been to Japan himself, neither had his audience; had he wished to caricature the Japanese, rather than to portray them accurately, he surely could have gotten away with it. To Lee, Gilbert’s mimicry is just “commodity racism”—a fetishism of fabrics and objects that never strives to find real people underneath the clothing and make-up they wear:
The pleasure of The Mikado’s yellowface is in a racial transformation unencumbered by the real, a version of playacting that could be easily adopted and just as easily dispensed with (191).
Lee struggles, but never actually manages to find, much evidence that The Mikado is considered offensive by the Japanese themselves. It is true that the work was banned briefly in 1907 at the request of the Japanese embassy. Yet, when a correspondent of the Tokyo newspaper Asahi went to see the opera, he took no offense and concluded the ban was unnecessary. She seems almost disappointed in the reporter’s failure to be insulted (144–5).
The opera was not produced in Japan until the American occupation at the end of World War II. However, the lack of performances was not because of its specific content, but because it was illegal to put a comic portrayal of the emperor on stage. This would have been true, in other words, no matter what the opera had said, and no matter who had written it. The first productions there were mounted by (or for) the American occupying forces. Lee is full of sympathy for what she assumes the occupied country might have felt about “the superiority of American democracy over an imagined backward Japan” (196), without pausing to acknowledge what that country had done to become occupied in the first place. Some Japanese were troubled to find their emperor the object of comic satire—something they had never before been allowed to see—but there were no full-throated objections to the opera, though Lee tries desperately to find them. Most Japanese seem to have recognized the opera for the English fantasy that it was.
In 1956, Fujiwara Opera toured the United States with a production of The Mikado in English. Critics were respectful, but complained that non-native speakers struggled to enunciate Gilbert’s words. To Lee, “These reviews remind us that . . . the characterizations of The Mikado stood to lose rather than gain in credibility with Japanese performers in the flesh” (204). A better argument is that The Mikado stood to lose when the words got short shrift, regardless of who was speaking them.
Lee is vexed that the opera has not been protested more often. The only protest she describes in any detail, occurred at Pomona College in 1990. A few students picketed, but there was no mass boycott or cancellation. Later in the book, she refers to protests in the plural (169), and the “long history of Mikado protest” (215), which would lead the uninitiated reader to believe that organized objection to the opera has occurred far more often than it has.
The specter of selection bias hovers over Lee’s analysis. Between the 1930s and the 1980s, just one production of The Mikado commands her attention, the 1963 film The Cool Mikado, which she concedes is “painful to watch” (136), but probably not for the reason I would give, namely, that it is not very good. To Lee, it “demonstrates the ways that the radical utopias of The Mikado have been updated to reflect the image of the United States as a new superpower spreading its message of liberal tolerance around the globe” (134). But does the film really demonstrate that, when it basically disappeared after a short run, having made no perceptible cultural impact at all?
The last two chapters concern Mikado productions in America with Asian-American actors, and performances in Japan itself. In quite a few cases, it appears that Lee did not see the productions herself, and is instead relying on reviews and press releases, a procedure likewise prone to error. These productions, in any event, are not available on video, so her assessment of them cannot be tested or challenged.
Not many productions meet with her approval. One of the few that does is a 2007 production by Lodestone Theatre, The Mikado Project, a show about a group of Asian actors putting on The Mikado while struggling against its caricatures and stereotypes. The actress playing Yum-Yum complains that, by agreeing to stage the work, they’ll “be putting our stamp of approval on an Imperialist-Colonial, White-Male-centric, dick-waggling . . racist piece of crap” (qtd. on 181–2). The director concedes that their company is on the brink of financial ruin, and they need a sure-fire hit like The Mikado to remain afloat. The performers, obliged to perform an opera they loathe, resolve to rewrite it—practically beyond recognition.
To Lee, The Mikado Project “provides several opportunities not only for critique, but also for imagining how the opera might be liberated in order to comment on the politics of race, gender, and sexuality” (184). But whatever its merits, The Mikado Project is not The Mikado at all, but an original work that happens to use the opera as a mere backdrop. It doesn’t really answer the question of how Gilbert and Sullivan’s text could be presented to Lee’s satisfaction—if indeed it ever could.
She does not allow that the opera’s light satire and inescapably Victorian English outlook might just be fundamentally unsuited to the burden she wishes it to bear. In a recent production of Hot Mikado, “It is difficult to catch anything more than a fleeting glimpse of a more substantive message about race” (132). Another, this time in Madison, Wisconsin, “seems only to confirm a pleasing version of aesthetic foreignness that in fact covers over any more complicated understanding of exchange, commodities, labor, and commerce” (174).
Lee’s familiarity with Gilbert’s broader output is superficial. She refers to the actor who created the role of The Mikado as Richard Templeton, not Temple (73); she refers to the penultimate G&S opera as Utopia Unlimited, not Limited (87); and she describes Joseph Papp as the director, rather than his actual role as producer, of the so-called Papp’s Pirates (156). Twice, she claims (xix, 125) that the David Bell/Rob Bowman Hot Mikado of 1986 now rivals the original in popularity, a statement that is absurd on its face.
On p. 87, she quotes the Mikado’s song:
In “A More Humane Mikado,” the Mikado states that the fitting punishment for “The lady who dyes a chemical yellow / Or stains her grey hair puce / Or pinches her figger” is to be “blacked up like a nigger / With permanent walnut juice.”
The misquote—“blacked up,” rather than just “blacked”—is not a momentary slip, as Lee uses “blacked up,” in quotes, throughout the book. I don’t suggest that her hypothesis would have turned out any differently, but if you are going to describe a work as racist, you ought at least to quote it accurately. It makes one wonder what other mistakes could be lurking in Lee’s text.
Lee is aware that, from the beginning, critics have said that the opera is really about England, not Japan. She concludes, quite simply, that its racial overtones are inescapable:
Having Japanese performers in The Mikado challenges the logic of its racial impersonation. These examples belie the claim that the opera is only about England and insist on its power as a representation of Japan. In turn, they present versions of a Titipu that show the complexity of claims to a distinctively Japanese history for the opera.
These productions are framed not only by their rarity within a world overwhelmingly populated by yellowface versions of The Mikado, but also by the long history of resistance to the opera on the part of Japan (192).
But the very rarity of productions in Japan was directly the result of a censorship regime that prohibited putting the emperor on stage. Whatever the merits of this policy, The Mikado cannot be held responsible for it. Beyond the issue of censorship, it is hardly surprising that the Japanese hewed predominantly to their own theatrical tradition, just as the English hewed to theirs. In 1885, there were no Japanese performers in London who could have given The Mikado in English. If Gilbert was going to write a play situated somewhere other than England, who else but English performers could have been expected to act it?
The Mikado is not the only work in which Gilbert uses an exotic foreign locale as a stand-in for England. He does so in The Gondoliers, with Venice substituted for Japan; and he does so again in Utopia, Limited, with an imaginary South Pacific island. Is Utopia a racist work, when it is situated in an invented place? Lee points out repeatedly that the names of the characters in The Mikado, such as Pooh-Bah and Ko-Ko, are inauthentic. In a made-up place, they naturally would be. If Gilbert had actually tried to use real Japanese names, wouldn’t it just make the problem worse? The reviewer for the Tokyo newspaper Asahi described The Mikado as “an imaginary world, not in the least like Japan” (qtd. on 145). He got the point exactly.
There is far too much good here to dismiss the book out of hand; still, Josephine Lee’s The Japan of Pure Invention is frustrating on many levels. Locked into rigid and outdated notions of race and racism, it leans upon and reinforces the very stereotypes it seeks to explode. The legacy of racism in the English-speaking world is sufficiently broad and deep that some of Lee’s barbs cannot help but strike home. Yet, the one-sidedness of her analysis leaves one suspicious that she can’t be trusted, even when she appears to be right.
* * * *
The Japan of Pure Invention is available on Amazon.com for $21.37 (paperback), or $15 (kindle). It is 248 pages, plus an index and numerous illustrations, many of which will be new to most readers.