The Gilbert and Sullivan send-up of Europe’s late 19th century mania for Japanese culture has run into heavy waters in Seattle.
Sharon Pian Chan, an op-ed editor of the Seattle Times, calls it ‘yellowface, in your face’.
Needless to say, she hasn’t seen the show. But her column is widely read and Sharon has taken to the airwaves to promote her view that Mikado should only be performed, if at all, by Asian Americans like herself.
Peter A Klein has written to the paper’s editor, as follows:
“The Mikado” is not about any real Japan, it’s a satire on 19th-Century British society, dressed up in a fictionalized exotic locale to “gild the philosophic pill,” as Gilbert put it in another of his operettas.
I do wish Ms. Chan would learn the difference between affectionate satire, fairy tales, clumsy ignorance and actual bigotry. Such discernment would be worthy of a person who helps guide the editorial voice of a great city’s newspaper. Banning, censoring or bowdlerizing art is a grim pastime. “Presentism”–the idea that all older works of art and literature must conform to today’s sensibilities and sensitivities or be subject to censorship–is a present-day curse. It would deprive us of great works of art like Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and “Turandot,” sparkling music, humor and wordplay like Gilbert and Sullivan’s, and even works that actually plead for inter-ethnic understanding, such as Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”
Such censorship can backfire. In 1907, Japanese Prince Fushimi visited Britain. The Lord Chamberlain banned performances of “The Mikado” in London to avoid offending the Prince. The Prince was offended, all right–he wanted very much to see the show, and was very upset that he could not. The Daily Mail dispatched a native Japanese newspaper critic to a provincial performance, far from the Prince. Mr. K. Sugimura wrote: “I came to Sheffield expecting to discover real insults to my countrymen. I find bright music and much fun, but I could not find the insults.”
His letter has not yet been published.