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The Japan of Pure Invention

The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado

Josephine Lee
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 280
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctttv2xm
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  • Book Info
    The Japan of Pure Invention
    Book Description:

    Long before Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado presented its own distinctive version of Japan. Tracing the history of The Mikado’s performances from Victorian times to the present, Josephine Lee reveals the continuing viability of the play’s surprisingly complex racial dynamics as they have been adapted to different times and settings.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7359-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. [Illustration]
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Introduction: Meditations on The Mikado
    (pp. vii-xxiv)

    François cellier, resident conductor of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas at the Opera Comique and then at the Savoy Theatre, gives a triumphant account of how William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Seymour Sullivan’sThe Mikado, or The Town of Titipuconquered late Victorian British society. His account of both the opera’s origins and his celebration of its success point us toward the peculiar racial history of this opera, a history that is sometimes obscured by its humor. In the second act of the opera, the Mikado declares his intention to find suitably humiliating punishments for social offenders.

    And make each...

  5. Part I. 1885

    • Chapter 1 My Objects All Sublime: Racial Performance and Commodity Culture
      (pp. 3-38)

      In 1885, whenThe Mikadofirst appeared on the stage, it gave new life to an already existing European and American interest in things Japanese. Even during Japan’s period of isolation, large quantities of Japanese ceramics were shipped to Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and enjoyed great popularity among aristocrats.¹ But a full-fledged Japan craze, prompting a considerable market for Japanese arts and crafts such as prints, pottery, bronzes, china, fans, silks, swords, and kimonos, was set into full motion by Japan’s opening to the West in 1853 and subsequent exhibitions of Japanese arts in Paris, London, and...

    • Chapter 2 “My Artless Japanese Way”: Japanese Villages and Absent Coolies
      (pp. 39-64)

      The paradox ofThe Mikadolies not in pure fantasy, but in its artful embellishment of fiction with corroborative detail; for instance, the Savoy’s 1885 production in New York relied on a certain authenticity to elevate itself above its commercial rivals. In London too, a certain amount of verifiably Japanese detail was necessary to give the production value. Patrician orientalism relies on the assurance of authenticity to sustain the value of imported objects for collectors and connoisseurs. In many ways, the opera borrowed a number of identifiably Japanese details, but it did so with great care.

      This strategic use of...

    • Chapter 3 Magical Objects and Therapeutic Yellowface
      (pp. 65-80)

      At the height ofThe Mikado’sfirst wave of popularity, Chicago’s leading society matron Mrs. Marshall Field gave a Mikado Ball in honor of her son and daughter. TheChicago Tribunereported that the Field residence was

      “transformed into a Japanese Palace” complete with screens, silk and satin hangings, gigantic parasols, bronze statues, porcelain vases, and party favors designed by James Whistler. About four hundred friends of seventeen-year-old Marshall Field Jr. and twelve-year-old Miss Ethel attended, with

      every one of them . . . in full Japanese costume from wig down to sandals. Roguish cheeks and lips had been made...

  6. Part II. 1938–39

    • Chapter 4 “And Others of His Race”: Blackface and Yellowface
      (pp. 83-120)

      In December 1937, Harry Minturn, director of the Illinois Federal Theatre Project, wrote to national Federal Theatre Project director Hallie Flanagan, “We have a good deal of dancing and singing talent in the Negro group with which I think we can do something worth while,” and expressed his interest in stagingThe Mikadowith the “entire colored cast.”¹ Minturn was quite familiar with the opera (he played Ko-Ko several times in a touring repertory company) and noticed early on when looking over casting records for his players that one of them, Maurice Cooper, had previously sung the role of Nanki-poo...

    • Chapter 5 Titipu Comes to America: Hot and Cool Mikados
      (pp. 121-138)

      The Swing MikadoandThe Hot Mikadoreveal not only the close ties of blackface and yellowface but also how the racial dynamics of the opera depend on an imagined locale. Its new settings—an imaginary South Pacific island or a slick gold-and-silver futurism à laHot Mikado—seem far away from the commodity-laden Titipu of 1885, but there is a similarly therapeutic effect in each, whereby racial play offers novelty, pleasure, liberation, and escape. The infusion of swing music and the pointedly African American casting ofThe Swing MikadoandThe Hot Mikadospecifi-cally relocate the opera from a...

  7. Part III. Contemporary Mikados

    • Chapter 6 “The Threatened Cloud”: Production and Protest
      (pp. 141-168)

      Parts I and II show two very different directions for the racial history ofThe Mikado,yet there is something consistent about the productions described in them. Both parts build on the opera’s use of a spectacular and engaging decorative orientalism that fuses racial fantasy with the consumption of commodities. Both employ an easily imitated style of racial transformation whereby one can become Japanese with minimal effort; thus one can imagine a Japanese effect even in a swingingHot Mikadoset in 1940s Harlem. Both also articulate the seductive power of the very act of playing Japanese. These racial transformations...

    • Chapter 7 Asian American Mikados
      (pp. 169-186)

      This book began by describingThe Mikado’selusiveness: how, under the guise of nonsense, the opera seems to disavow any intentional hurt or misrepresentation. Thus its productions, whether quaintly queer or more openly hostile, provide little footing on which to pin charges of racial malice or injury. The opera’s versions of Japan, excusably pure invention, escape largely unscathed from protests. Even when confronted with direct criticism, playingThe Mikadoseems a habit that is hard to break. Yet, as we have seen, there are ways of disrupting this placid history. The preceding chapter focused on howThe Mikado’sJapanese productions...

    • Chapter 8 The Mikado in Japan
      (pp. 187-218)

      By now, the stories around the Savoy’s employment of the inhabitants of the Knightsbridge Japanese Native Village to coach itsMikadoperformers is well known. François Cellier described the “Geisha, or Teagirl,” as “a charming and very able instructress, although she knew only two words of English—‘Sixpence, please,’ that being the price of a cup of tea as served by her at Knightsbridge,” and outlined her role in the racial transformation of the Savoy players:

      To her was committed the task of teaching our ladies Japanese deportment, how to walk or run or dance in tiny steps with toes...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 219-220)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 221-246)
  10. Index
    (pp. 247-248)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 249-249)