At least, nobody as is and nobody who argues otherwise is missing the point of The Mikado, and how we already handle this piece of art.
Content Warning: Racism! And boy howdy!
For those not already familiar, The Mikado is a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, first performed in 1885. The basic plot isn’t terrifically important for the purpose of this conversation as much as the framing device. The narrative is a sort of typical operatic plot about mistaken identities, secret lovers, lies in court and trying to avoid annoying an unreasonable king who appoints comically cruel punishments for many things and explicit death for a host of other minor slights. It’s a very pointed satire to the arbitary caprice of the British aristocracy of the time, which for all of its self-professed humanity and civilised dignity, was an absolutely monstrous engine of suffering that would impose death penalties on people for minor transgressions like ‘being Irish.’ The whole thing is solved by an equally tenuous farce for saving face and avoiding embarrassment with a scheme that only fools people who aren’t willing to look at things too deeply.
The point of contention in The Mikado is that rather than tell this British story about British aristocracy and British rules about British culture, it instead framed the whole story as instead an old Japanese story, dramatised for the modern day. And when you remember that this is an 1885 operetta for London, you might immediately have some warning bells going off pretty loud.
This entire operetta, traditionally, since its inception, has been performed in yellowface.
The Mikado is a play about British life told through Japanese characters, which is performed entirely by British actors. They dress as Japanese characters, they have names that are ‘meant’ to be Japanese, but which are all entirely not Japanese words, and are instead references to things like soap products or baby talk. The level of unawareness of Japanese culture is so extensive as to be deliberately part of the libretto, even, with cheers at several points being a chorus singing “The Japanese equivalent of Hoo-rah!”
Which is part of our problem.
See, The Mikado?
It’s really funny.
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind the yellowface, or, like me, learned the operetta well before you learned what yellowface even is, The Mikado is a bitingly cruel satire of the people it’s targeting, vicious with only the tenuous veil of politeness, and also full of some immensely quotable lines that have become honestly part of the common lexicon.
If you’re into Gilbert and Sullivan songs, there are some songs that remove quite fine from their context and just get easily deployed as their own generally satirical songs, or nice artful demonstrations of linguistic skill, or just nice music. Ever heard Tit-willlow, or Three Little Maids From School, or I’ve Got A Little List? This operetta is really deeply influential; the phrase let the punishment fit the crime isn’t a unique idea, but the specific way it’s phrased is a reference to this operetta. So to the phrase a short sharp shock. Ever heard someone called a ‘grand poo-bah’ to signify false importance?
What’s more, referencing The Mikado is one of those ways that the particular British extraction of posh or theatre kid signify their intelligence. This has had some weird ramifications, where government ministers will refer to laws designed to oppress youth behaviour as ‘short sharp shocks’ implying that what they’d really rather be doing is beheading children. This is despite the fact that within the context of the actual narrative, the kind of posh headfarts who now quote the operetta to designate their importance in society are exactly the kind of people the operetta is actually trying to shit on.
In the grand scheme of the types of operetta it is, The Mikado is an absolutely high quality banger of a piece that uh, is just absolutely soaked in racism from the top of its head to the bottom of its toes.
And that’s a problem.
You see as some day it may happen an argument must be found, there will inevitably be reactionary dickheads to whom, the Mikado is an obvious example of ‘our cultural heritage’ that is going to be driven away by the SJWs. You see, if people stop doing racist art and racist theatre, then we will lose these valuable pieces of art and then we will lose the richness and depth of our culture. If we forget that The Mikado exists, we will forever lose the way it is and the way it told us it was okay to be.
Which is true!
But that’s a good thing?
Look, here’s the thing. You have probably never heard The Mikado performed as the original. I don’t just mean the way that many performers add their own verses or alternate rhymes to playful songs like I’ve Got A Little List. I mean that you have probably never heard on any recording, the original wording of these songs because the Mikado drops a pair of hard-r n-bombs.
And like, not ironic ones.
In I’ve Got A Little List, there’s this line that modern music teachers are a little defensive about:
There’s the banjo serenader, and the others of his race
And the piano-organist — I’ve got him on the list!
Yeaaaah, ‘of his race’? What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean much now, because the original term was ‘the n█████ serenader, and the others of his race,’ which is a damn fuck bit less ambiguous. It’s straight up, cold hard racism: The original version of this song lumps all black people and singers in with literal nuisances that the world could be happily without who could be beheaded easily and conveniently. This puts them alongside other things they consider a nuisance like, say, women novelists and people who third wheel dates.
The Mikado is a play we already retune. It is a play we have always been updating to avoid the worst of the world it was from, and we have not lost beautiful turns of phrase.
You can – very reasonably – argue that you kind of can’t ditch the yellowface in the narrative as easily as you can strip out more than a few really disastrous slurs (and that wasn’t the only one). I think that’s right, and it means that you have to examine The Mikado in terms of addressing the yellowface situation with a different lens. You can wholesale transfer the play – which I mean, they’ve done, there’s an adaptation that moves it into Victorian England, in the 80s, which is funny. But okay, so you want to get to hold onto jokes like The Japanese Version Of Hooray and underscore the idea that the audience’s ignorance of Japan is itself, very funny.
There is a strong discomfort in loving something that you know is bad. I love The Mikado. That discomfort is part of me, and it’s something I have to deal with. Being part of the oppressor people means, when you deconstruct that, recognising the discomfort it creates in you at all times.
Here’s the thing, and the thing that really would be cool to see.
I want to see performances of The Mikado entirely by Asians.
If the point of the Mikado is to swing a club striking at the seat of colonial power, I want to see that club put in the hands of people who can really appreciate what the play is trying to say. I want to hear the version of those songs, that maybe better or maybe worse than the ones I remember, and I want to hear them when someone my age or younger, who should be swinging the stick this satire is meant to express. I want the subject of this joke to move away from the comedy of ‘look at us pretending to be Japanese, isn’t that funny,’ to move on to ‘you haven’t the faintest fucking clue about this culture, do you.’
I don’t think anyone should ever do The Mikado as it was. I want to see what it could be.
And hey, there are a bunch of people who look at it and go: I hate this and don’t want to fix this. And that’s okay. It’s not like they owe me a better version of this thing I like that also sucks.