BY SAM HOOPER
Nobody’s safe, for they care for none.
I must admit that I have been waiting for this one. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the social justice censors came for The Mikado, that beloved Gilbert & Sullivan operetta set in a highly fictionalized version of Japan, and here we are.
(My other long-standing test for the final capitulation of our society to the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics is the inevitable future banning of George Gershwin’s sublime Piano Concerto in F, a work of jazz and blues rendered in classical form for orchestra, due to its “cultural appropriation” of musical forms pioneered by African Americans. I guarantee you that this will happen, and that picket lines will appear outside the Lincoln Center and Walt Disney Concert Hall much sooner than you think.)
Back to the present day, though, and Fort Hays State University has become the latest epicenter of SJW protests after the FHSU Music and Theatre student organization dared to put on a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”.
Campus Reform reports:
Some students at Fort Hays State University (FHSU) in Kansas say a school-sponsored operetta production is not only “racist,” but also rife with “cultural appropriation.”
Naturally, the idea of an operetta based on late-nineteenth century stereotypes of Japanese culture and customs provided the perfect opportunity for various SJW saviour types to go charging to the defence of any innocent contemporary Japanese (or Japanese-American) people who may be offended. Never mind that the real target of W. S. Gilbert’s humour in The Mikado, as in so many of his works, is British bureaucracy and imperial custom. No; instead we must see only artistic cruelty and the helpless victimhood of a designated minority group.
One of the most damaging facets of the current craze for scouring old artistic treasures for reasons to hate and ostentatiously denounce them is the fact that everything interesting about the work in question must take a backseat to the confected outrage of the professionally offended. And sometimes the outrage obscures truly interesting detail, such as that noted by Caroline Crampton in the New Statesman:
Gilbert and Sullivan were first and foremost creating a satire, not a musical comedy. They were working at a time of wide-ranging, if implicit, censorship of the theatre, where easily affronted middle-class audiences would simply not turn up if a work had a whiff of scandal or immorality about it. Gilbert himself likened the challenge of being a late-19th-century dramatist to “doing a hornpipe in fetters”.
Like Shakespeare hundreds of years earlier, using a fictional version of Italy to host his comedies about the Elizabethan court, Gilbert and Sullivan used their “Japan” as a proxy to enable them to satirise the very middle-class audiences they courted. The Mikado’s central plot device that I find so frustrating – that flirting is a crime punishable by death – is a dig at the theatrical censorship that would not allow any extramarital romance to be portrayed on the London stage.
Utterly ignorant of this nuance and context, a Fort Hays State student going by the name of Fatima took it upon herself to deface several of the posters advertising the event, attaching a semi-literate rebuttal in which she takes W.S. Gilbert to task for being insufficiently woke:
The student’s list of accusations against the production is long and rambling:
The Mikado is racist for many reasons so when I saw the Dr. Joseph Perniciaro picked this for the opera I was appalled. The Mikado is cultural appropriation, it is RACIST, it is “yellow face”, and it sure as hell shouldn’t be a production that still exists.
To begin, the opera is about Japanese People … *BUT* … it is being performed here at Fort Hays State University with an all NON-ASIAN CAST.
Quelle horreur – the student musical theater group failed to observe the unwritten rule that characters of a certain race can only be portrayed by actors of the same race. Presumably, Fatima the Outraged Student is also up in arms that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton dares to use an all-minority cast to tell the story of the white male Alexander Hamilton’s rise and rivalry with fellow white male Aaron Burr. Except of course that we all know that Fatima would cheer this casting.
The charge sheet continues:
All this production is, is an exaggeration of Japanese stereotypes. The actors put on kimonos, black wigs, color their brows black, wear sandals, use fans and small umbrellas, *OH* – and also put white powder on their face. ‘Blackface’ is universally unacceptable, so why is it okay to do a ‘yellowface’ production? Well, NEWSFLASH, it’s not. If this production was about African American people, it WOULD NOT be cast with all white people.
Absolutely. My mother took me to a production of The Mikado at the English National Opera when I was a teenager and now when I think of modern Japan, I immediately picture severe-eyebrowed, black haired warrior men and porcelain-skinned, umbrella-twirling Geishas. The world’s third largest economy and historical imperial power has never had any opportunity whatsoever to export its true culture and neither have I, a citizen of the United Kingdom with two eyes, a (Japanese brand) television set and an internet connection ever had the opportunity to see real Japanese culture and creations for myself.
The show was created by Gilbert and Sullivan (who are known for such racist productions) in the late 1800’s, and it reduced the Japanese culture to an item of curiosity, fetishizing them for a profit.
I think that the widespread Western fetishization of certain things Japanese began somewhat later than 1885 and with very little assistance from late Victorian operetta, but how thoughtful, how brave of this FHSU student to get outraged at the cultural misrepresentation of Japanese people who lived and died a century before she was born, and who undoubtedly practised meticulous open-minded tolerance at every opportunity in their own lives.
This production was not okay when it was created and it definitely isn’t ok today – like COME ON, it’s 2018. Not to mention that they had to cut the N-WORD out to make it more acceptable *(like that changed how racist it was)*.
Yes, this student actually wrote the phrase “like COME ON”.
On a semantic point, how can something be both a stereotype and cultural appropriation? At one point FHSU’s student censor claims that The Mikado is based on an inaccurate pastiche of Japanese culture and custom, and on the other she accuses Gilbert & Sullivan of cultural appropriation. But how can one culturally appropriate a stereotype? And if a stereotype is culturally appropriated, who is actually harmed? Surely not the Japanese people (either contemporary or those of 1885), since what appears on stage was not a true representation of their lives when it first appeared, and certainly bears no resemblance to life in the technologically advanced, urbanised Japan of today. If one were particularly sensitive and pedantic one could say that The Mikado is glib and insulting, but cultural appropriation is an inaccurate charge.
But on a broader level, I am intrigued about the other contradictions inherent in this charge against The Mikado. Japan is a rich, powerful and historically imperial nation, and has certainly not always been a childishly innocent or benevolent actor on the world stage. Modern-day Japanese cultural and commercial reach is strong, though curiously Japan itself does not have a reputation as a cultural melting-pot particularly welcoming to immigrants. Japanese people are among the most privileged in the world, and scarcely in need of defence by do-gooder social justice warriors, fighting on their behalf from American university campuses.
Would the FHSU students protesting The Mikado also be up in arms at a production lampooning the British, either historical or contemporary? Obviously not, because Britain has been placed squarely into the White Imperialist Aggressor box, and therefore made ineligible for sympathy or outrage when her citizens or culture are mocked, parodied or criticised. Yet Japanese imperial “crimes” in recent history are real. People alive today still bear witness to them. So what precisely is it which pardons and rehabilitates Japan in the eyes of SJWs but continues to damn countries such as Britain and America?
The answer can only be a resoundingly arrogant, America-centric view of the world – a quasi-imperial view, if you will, expounded by the identity politics Left. This worldview assumes firstly that the supposed experience of a Japanese individual is the same as a Japanese-American individual, that both are in need of defending against the risk of offence or emotional harm. and that it is the place of American university students who can barely string together a coherent paragraph to act as self-appointed guardians of their wellbeing. But the Japanese are certainly not a persecuted minority in their own country, and thus far the only publicised objections to The Mikado have come from outside Japan. It takes a peculiar kind of arrogance to think that the Japanese culture and people are so weak as to need the help of American campus SJWs.
The English National Opera regularly stages productions of The Mikado. One of the ENO’s corporate partners is the Japanese piano manufacturer Yamaha. If there were any organic upset or consternation at the continued staging of this operetta whatsoever then Yamaha, a Japanese corporation, conscious of its domestic reputation and eager to avoid being associated with a supposedly white supremacist event, might well consider ending its association with the opera company. They do not do so because there are probably only a handful of individuals on Earth who are genuinely upset at the existence of The Mikado, and of those souls an infintessimally small number would actually be Japanese, the rest comprising of deluded young Western campus activists with too much time on their hands and not enough legitimate causes to support.
In fact, a similar protest did apparently take place in 2014 when another musical theater group dared to put on a production of The Mikado in Providence, Rhode Island. The Taiwanese individual who launched that particular protest was at least willing to countenance possible acceptable productions of the work:
I am aware of a production that had Asian actors in the lead roles while wearing British costumes. There is also a film “The Mikado Project” by chil kong, that shows an Asian-American theatre company producing the opera. These are both great moves. I can support a production of this material that shows some consciousness of the present day, but not a straightforward, uncritical celebration of these 1800s racial stereotypes.
The decidedly non-Japanese student(s) who launched this latest protest at Fort Hays State University, on the other hand, think that only total censorship and banishment of the work down the memory hole will do, proving that each concession to the authoritarian, regressive Left only fuels and encourages even more draconian future demands.
There is no victory great enough to sate their appetites because ultimately this is not about protecting a beleaguered minority (I have yet to read of instances of Japanese people traumatised by Gilbert & Sullivan) but rather about the exercise of power by identity politics-soaked leftist activists.
We tolerate this illiberal, censorious nonsense at our peril. Allow the SJW brigade to take down The Mikado and it will be swiftly on to the next target.