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If You Want to Know Who We Are

Last Saturday, my daughter and I went to see The Mikado, which, as Wikipedia reminds us, is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It’s set in far-off, exotic Japan for much the same reason that Gulliver’s Travels is set in fictional places like Lilliput; when the characters act in ridiculous ways, the audience can appreciate and enjoy them, realizing only later how close to home the satire cuts.

I’s seen in the promos that this performance moved the setting to Renaissance Italy. That sort of thing is unusual for G&S, though we’re of course quite used to seeing, say, Shakespeare moved to New York, Africa, or even Japan. I was curious how far that would go. For instance, what would happen with the very first lines, which go1:

If you want to know who we are,
We are gentlemen of Japan.

The play started with the well-known overture, with its Asian-sounding cadence and chords. Then the curtain opened to show the chorus of nobles, who instead of the usual stereotypical Asian garb and facial hair, were dressed in stereotypical Renaissance clothing: floppy hats, doublets, and hose. Who began to sing:


If you want to know who we are,
We are gentlemen of Milan.

Which drew an appreciative laugh from the audience. Thereafter, the main changes were proper names: the hero Nanki-Poo became Niccolu and the heroine Yum-yum became Amian. 2 The setting was changed from the town of Titipu to the town of Tiramisu, and its ruler changed from Mikado to Ducato. All of this is quite clever, and it would take a worse pedant even than me to quibble that “Ducato” is Italian for Duchy, not Duke. There was one more, entirely separate set of changes, in which the Lord High Executioner’s

little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed – who never would be missed!

was modernized to include such reprobates as the guest who informs you just before the beef Wellington is served that he’s a Vegan, and a certain xenophobic billionaire. All in all the show was first-rate, and the actor who played Coco3 was particularly funny.

Then, after the curtain calls and ovations, the erstwhile Coco came out to thank us for attending, and hoped that we’d all appreciated a Mikado that could be enjoyed by the entire community, and it dawned upon me that moving the play to Milan wasn’t just creativity: the traditional version of the play had become controversial.

A bit of Googling revealed the controversy to be widespread. Here’s a good example of the sorts of arguments that are made, notably that

  • All-white casts dressing up in stereotypical Asian grab (and sometimes makeup) offends many people. Among them, of course, are Asian actors.
  • The usual argument against (which I offered support for above) is there’s nothing authentically Japanese about the Mikado. It’s a satire of British society, and could as easily be set in a fictional country or on Mars. There’s no racism, because none of what’s being ridiculed is at all Japanese.
  • One answer to this is “Fine, then, set it somewhere else.”

Which, as I saw last weekend, works fine. Had I known in advance what was behind the change in staging, I’d have been pretty annoyed about SFWs seeing racism where there was none. Fortunately, without that preconception, I was able to sit back and enjoy the show.

Image by Internet Archive Book Images Notes:

  1. And are the first of the roughly dozen-and-a-half times that the word “Japan” is sung or spoken. []
  2. Though the noble who could trace his lineage back before Adam to a globule of protoplasm remained Pooh-Bah. []
  3. Nee Ko-Ko []

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Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever. ...more →

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43 thoughts on “If You Want to Know Who We Are

  1. This is why I prefer to see plays as they were originally written. You provided examples of how the play was changed; dialogue, costume, names, etc, which, had I know about in advance, I probably would have not attended. (although this particular example seems to have been well done all around.) But really, I see no value in changing Othello so that Desdemona is the Moor-even if it starred Patrick Stewart. And if the Mikado is seen as sexist/racist/etc-ish, well those folks can not attend and allow me to enjoy it in peace.

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    • Here I differ from you – if I want to see the original as originally written and without current interpretation, I’ll watch a movie. That’s part of what I like about theater – the script is from the past however recent or distant and the staging is current. There’s (at least the possibility of) an interesting conversation between the two. The production can legitimately and interestingly be any combination of faithful presentation of, or commentary on, the script.

      You can’t just do Merchant of Venice straight – you have to decide what to do with the antisemitism.

      Kind of like, NiN’s song Hurt is really good the way Trent Reznor performed it. Johnny Cash’s cover of the song is also really good.

      In particular, I think the estate of Samuel Beckett has put such a stranglehold on interpretation of his scripts that I am not that interested in seeing any of his plays, until the copyright expires. When that happens, I suspect there will be a burst of really interesting productions of Beckett plays.

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    • Damn straight. I have no interest at all in seeing King Lear or Macbeth translated to Sengoku Jidai Japan, especially if some hack director casts stereotypical samurai potboiler actors like Tatsuya Nakadai or Toshiro Mifune.

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  2. Interesting. I think theatre can usually get away with these changes easier than film. Potentially because theatre audiences tend to be small.

    Race-neutral casting is an interesting issue. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia takes place during the Regency in England partially. I saw a production that casted an African-Americans as two of the Regency characters. One was a bad-poet dandy fop whose wife is constantly cheating on him. The other was a lady of the house. Most productions do cast white actors in all roles though. I wonder if you filmed Arcadia whether people would complain about race-neutral casting for the Regency roles.

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  3. A somewhat elegant solution to a problem that was most likely not particularly foreseeable in 1885.

    Is there a tradition of updating that portion of the Lord High Executioner’s speech? Like, in 1976, did they include Sha Na Na, the guy who invented the Pet Rock, and the Up With People folks? (They probably got repeat business and some awesome word of mouth for that sort of thing, now that I think about it. Pretty smart, really.)

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    • It would be cool if it were, sort of like a cadenza. By the way, they didn’t update “My Object All Sublime’, so there were still obscure jokes like “parliamentary trains”. But I’d have hated to lose

      With a cloth untrue
      And a twisted cue
      And elliptical billiard balls

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    • I was involved with a G&S troupe for a good while, and the little list song is a very common target for updating. Very common to put topical references in there. And sometimes in other spots too.

      So, this is all in the theatrical tradition, in my view.

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      • It’s one of those things that makes me say “if it’s part of the theatrical tradition, hey, good for them… they’ve figured out laugh lines that will get butts in the seats”.

        But if this is the first time that an “official” production has changed the libretto? I would have found myself vaguely irritated.

        As it is, I am pleased that I can be pleased.

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        • I’m not at all sure what you mean by “official” in this context. Almost no G&S these days is professional, it’s at best semi-pro. Everything is public domain, too.

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          • “Can afford to pay for sets.”

            “Plays in theaters that have those stadium chairs instead of folding chairs.”

            “Has actors that receive enough money to pay bills rather than merely enough money to defray costs.”

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  4. As far as I know, there’s a LONG history of updating the “little list” to make it topical.

    I generally don’t have a problem with Shakespeare “resets” unless they’re insufferably dumb, e.g., Romeo and Juliet redone with a circus theme where the two families are ‘warring’ families of clowns (not an actual production I’ve seen, merely a ridiculous example). But I think this reset would actually kind of work, Renaissance Milan is as “exotic” to us as Japan would have been to the Victorians. And it does get around all the “sensitivity” issues, seeing as all 16th Century Milanese are dead and cannot object to being objects of parody.

    (One of my favorite Shakespeare productions EVER was a reset of “Twelfth Night” to the bayous of south Louisiana circa 1890. It worked shockingly well, even down to “Topas” being a stump-preacher.)

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    • My favorite production of Twelfth Night was one I saw in college, done in modern street clothes with no sets and only a bare minimum of props, with four actors playing all the parts. This would have been insufferable, except that the four actors were Royal Shakespeare Company members, slumming it over the summer in America. This taught me that the quality of the acting is what really matters. A truly stupid conception might overwhelm even really good actors, but generally I put more weight on the acting than everything else.

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    • Another nice bit of tailoring came in the scene where Coco is trying to get used to the idea that Niccolu and Amian are going to be married.

      Amian. Oh, wouldn’t you like to retire? It must pain you to see us so affectionate together!
      Coco. No, I must learn to bear it! Now oblige me by allowing her head to rest on your shoulder.

      The actor who played Niccolu was a bit height-challenged, and Amian a good four inches taller, so they played this as her having to lean over in obvious discomfort.

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  5. Mike, the “cultural appropriation” thing has been tricky for me to get a handle on, but a couple of Asian friends have given me a clear message on the topic of The Mikado, which I dearly love as a show, and have some good stories about.

    The show is definitely intended to mock British society. You aren’t wrong. The problem is that it uses the broadest, least truthful, weirdest stereotypes of Japanese culture to do so. It is experienced as hurtful by many of my Asian-American friends.

    The changes you describe are extraordinarily clever, and they work well. I’m sure the show holds up, the humor touches a universal thing, not just a British thing, and the tunes are wonderful.

    Consider your own reaction – had you not known the reason for the change, you would have loved the twists without reservation. That’s what you seem to say. So you concern is that someone you designate to be a “SFW” is winning. There are people out there who are really kind of smug and want to take credit for righting wrongs that aren’t very wrong, it’s true, and I think that may be what bothers you. However, let’s focus on the actual Asian-Americans I know that have told me that every stereotype in the Mikado is one that was used in middle school to demean and humiliate them. The changes to the show transform it into something that they, too, can enjoy.

    That makes it seem worthwhile to me. Nothing is lost, and everything is gained.

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    • I think it’s a challenging issue. On the one hand social mores are always evolving and some things that were once considered appropriate but no longer are don’t seem to raise a lot of controversy. That said, I think there are reasons to be concerned about all art being subject to the whims of the most easily offended and/or arbitrarily sensitive. Art needs to be able to be subversive or weird or just plain dumb. In particular I think about the kimono incident at the Boston Gallery of Fine Arts a year or so ago. When something that strikes me as a pretty bland, NPR-style celebration of a foreign culture can trigger protests of the type it did I worry about our ability to run a diverse, multicultural society.

      Of course the biggest sin with any changes to an old piece is doing it poorly. It sounds like they did this well which makes it hard to fault too much.

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    • What stereotypes of Japanese culture does the Mikado use, other than perhaps via dress and costume? There are no Asian or pseudo-Asian accents, and no references to Japanese language, food, art, sports, or hobbies, The Mikado himself is a harsh and semi-clueless dictator, but in a completely non-ethnic way.

      I suppose the character’s names are silly in a faux-Asian way. But honestly, I’m not seeing anything else.

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      • Eagerness to cut people’s heads off, for one. Ritualized formality for another.

        But really it’s the exoticism that’s the problem. The use of someone else’s everyday identity to mean that you are exotic and strange and faraway. Slant-eyed and buck-toothed and leering and ready to cut people’s heads off.

        I have a ‘shoe on the other foot’ example that might help see what the problem is. When I was in Japan, I noticed that there are lots of billboards in public places advertising women’s underwear. Ok, so not prudish. However, the models for all these underwear ads were not Japanese, they were blonde. What is up with that?

        This is all the more noteworthy since advertising usually leverages identity in a positive way. People are more influenced by someone whom they perceive to be like them, to share some part of identity. But to sell underwear to Japanese women, they specifically don’t show Japanese women wearing the underwear?

        I suspect that it is because Western women are seen as more sexual – more active, more appealing. And perhaps it would be thought improper to depict Japanese women like that. But if they are Western, they are foreign, they are far away at arm’s length. They are not Part Of Us.

        It doesn’t bother me all that much, but I think if I were a blonde western woman living in Tokyo, I might be kind of pissed off about this, particularly if I had become a citizen and made Japan my home.

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        • Eagerness to cut people’s heads off, for one.

          Eagerness to execute people for petty crimes was quite British as well. But I suppose that was generally by hanging.

          Ritualized formality for another.

          I take your point, and I thank the right honorable gentleman.

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          • See the rest of my comment.

            I do a lot of tabletop roleplaying, and I’ve done that since 1980 or so. I’ve come to see the value of wearing a mask so as to better make a point. The difficulty comes from wearing someone else’s everyday self as your mask. Find some other mask, or make the thing they do into your everyday.

            This rule isn’t simple. I practice a martial art that comes from Japan (though the system’s founder lived in Hawaii and was a US citizen of Japanese parentage). We wear gis, we call our belts “obi”, we call the fan we practice with “tessen”. Are we appropriating? We aren’t using it to make a point then walking away. We identify with it, it isn’t a mask. And we are propagating what we were taught by our founder. We are part of him, and he is part of us. That’s what makes the difference, I think.

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            • I got into an argument/discussion over cultural appropriation the other day.

              I made a joke about an argument I saw online where some person was yelling about flower crowns being culturally appropriative of Hawaiian culture and got “WHAT ABOUT POLISH PEOPLE” thrown back in their face and the back and forth that followed.

              I had it pointed out to me that cultural appropriation should be reserved for such dynamics as “African-American woman writes book about being a housekeeper and it sells about 7 copies while European-American woman writes book about being an African-American housekeeper and it sells about 70 kabillion copies” and it should *NOT* be used for “white people eating ethnic food”.

              We went on to hammer out that the arguments over whether white people eating ethnic food was cultural appropriation is doing actual harm over the very real phenomenon of actual cultural appropriation.

              So when I look at the Mikado, I find myself torn on this whole thing… because while I completely understand the argument that this is G&S making money off of the whole “isn’t the Orient *EXOTIC*?!?” dynamic, we, as a society, are better off for the Mikado having been written.

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              • Well I haven’t watched Mikado, so let me just talk about it by assuming that you guys have adequately addressed the phenomenon.

                So let me draw up a few distinctions.

                Not all consumption of foreign cultures by white people is bad.

                More precisely, there are some acts of consumption which are bad, but no such act is ever bad merely because it is an act of consumption of the piece of foreign culture.

                Of the consumptive acts that are bad, some are bad because they are acts of cultural appropriation. It is a difficult issue to determine what is indeed an act of cultural appropriation what is not. Perhaps it is not a matter of the particular act, but in the manner and spirit in which the act is carried out. For instance, a white woman wearing a sari to a Hindu wedding is not cultural appropriation. Instead it is an admirable and imho very successful attempt to respect the cultural practices of her friend. By contrast, wearing that sari for Halloween is denigrating. Not because saris hold some sacred ceremonial role, but because they can be a person’s everyday garb (for instance my mother wears a sari to work). Firstly because my ethnicity is not something you cosplay as. Secondly because you are doing that thing for your own entertainment.

                There are other bad consumptive acts which are not bad because they are acts of appropriation, but for different reasons. One such reason is akin to why blackface is bad. Blackface or yellowface is not bad because it is appropriation, but because there is some other kind of disrespect going on. The “isn’t the orient EXOTIC?” dynamic falls under this heading. Its not quite appropriation because in some or many of these cases the things that are being attributed to the orient are false. No, Indians do not in general have sheep’s eyeballs floating in their soup/gravy. (I’m looking at you Indy) So, you (not you specifically) are not using some particular feature of my culture in a disrespectful way. Rather you are attributing some false and bad thing to my culture/people. It is still a kind of disrespect, but it is not in virtue of being an act of cultural appropriation, but instead of creating a false stereotype. Blood libel is an extreme form of this. It is bad (not just because of the consequences) but does not actually appropriate anything from jewish culture.

                Many bad consumptive acts have multiple wrong making features in them. For instance, when fiction portrays Kali as a goddess of evil, you are on the one hand appropriating some parts of the culture (the image and notion of the goddess) and using her as a devil archetype in your fiction. But also attributing false and bad things to people in my culture.

                Incidentally, portraying the heroes and positively regarded figures of a foreign culture as the villains of your piece seems like a douche move to make. And this would be made worse if you use the heroic figures from your culture. And also if you were just recently our colonial masters that makes it even worse. (Its got that whole “not only are we technologically superior, our hero just kicked your god’s ass” aspect to it which is just adding salt to the wound.) You shouldn’t do that unless you basically intend to portray a whole cultural group as fundamentally evil. We won’t mind if you use our cultural villains as the villains of your piece or our heroes as the heroes of your piece

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  6. There are lots of bits and pieces of the past that are considered widely inappropriate now. Its a big problem with period fiction. If you have your characters behave and believe to authentically than they become really hard for the audience to empathize with. Too modernly and the past only becomes decoration rather than something important. Of course many productions over do this and have people behave even more alien than they really would be in the past.

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    • If you have your characters behave and believe to authentically than they become really hard for the audience to empathize with.

      I see reaction to the Flashman books. People expect, based on the cover blurb, Flashman to be a standard Lovable Rogue, like Han Solo. They recoil in horror at the actual character’s, um… character. In fairness, he is presented as despicable even by Victorian standards, but on the other hand the underlying point of the books (at least the earlier, better ones) is a critique of British imperialism. It’s not just the stuff his contemporaries considered despicable that moderns recoil from.

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      • When they turned Royal Flash into a movie, the idea was try to create a Flashman franchise like a Victorian James Bond. Flashgun’s personality and beliefs make that rather problematic. Your going to have to really change Flashman and make an actual hero or take one of the biggest risks in franchise movie history by having a villain of sorts be the main character.

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    • As someone married to an English teacher, I can state that quite a bit of teaching English lit is “Let’s discuss this in the context of the times” because otherwise you’re missing out on a good chunk of not only what the author was trying to convey, but why the work itself is considered worth teaching in the first place.

      There’s a John Donne poem — ‘The Bait’, I think it’s called — that you’re going to miss out on the main thrust off unless you’re aware of Marlowe. Because otherwise you’re totally oblivious to the fact that he’s mocking the crap out of Marlowe and the whole “God, isn’t the simple life in the country great” genre of the time.

      So to teach Donne, you’ve got to teach Marlowe, and pastoral literature in general.

      Which is why English lit isn’t just a class where you hand them a stack of books and poems, and kick back.

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    • “There are lots of bits and pieces of the past that are considered widely inappropriate now. Its a big problem with period fiction. ”

      Here’s an interesting example of this where a guy started drawing steampunk-y takes on Star Wars characters, and everyone loved it, and then he depicted Jabba the Hutt as a rotund evil Oriental, and everyone was all “DATS RACIST”, despite protestations that rotund evil Orientals were a staple of Victorian-era writing and Jabba pretty much slotted right into that role.

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  7. It’s also traditional to write contemporary lyrics to “I’ve got a little list,” sung by the Lord High Executioner about people he intends to execute who “never would be missed.” A very clever friend wrote these lyrics for a local production. (This is only one of four verses.)

    The overzealous salesman who is pushing phony deals
    And gives your arm a twist, I’ve got him on the list.
    The telephone solicitors who interrupt your meals,
    They never would be missed, they never would be missed.
    The public officeholders who increase the country’s debt
    And know they can tell any lies and voters will forget;
    The experts on nutrition who will never let you eat
    Any fat or bread or sugar, coffee, dairy, eggs, or meat;
    And the Rolling Stones, now elderly, who doing shows persist;
    They’d none of them be missed, they’d none of them be missed.

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