Inventing a Japan through Theatre
Volume 11, Issue 1 (Book review 2 in 2011). First published in ejcjs on 31 January 2011.
Lee, Josephine (2010) The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, xxiv, 248 pages, ISBN 978-0-8166-6579-2.
Japan's forced opening to foreign trade in the mid-nineteenth century had phenomenal repercussions for its internal situation—of course—but the effects this event had on parts of the non-Japanese world were in many respects equally substantial. While Japan was redesigning itself throughout the Meiji Era on various European models, Europe too was exploring the novelty of this formerly-secluded Asian nation. Le Japonisme was a fad that swept through Europe in the late-1800s, influencing fashion, painting, philosophy, the visual arts, literature, and not unsurprisingly, popular entertainments. Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly premiered in 1904. Nearly twenty years earlier, however, Gilbert and Sullivan partook of an equally influential though far less 'accurate' form of veneration of Japan—japonaiserie—to produce what was for many of their fellow English countrymen their first, best, and most enduring exposure to, as Josephine Lee has titled her intriguing book, The Japan of Pure Invention. Inventive indeed was this comic opera, which 'regularly graces stages throughout North America and Europe, pleasing audiences with a patently nonsensical vision of Japan' (p. xi). It is to explore the ways in which its peculiar distortions of Japan both persist and evolve in stagings of the work over the past one hundred years in both Europe and North America that Lee has published this study. In it she brings critical analysis to a subject fundamental to The Mikado, although not explicit to its text: 'the ways that racial representations persist and mutate over time' (p. xii).
Lee does not set out to explore the many ways in which Gilbert and Sullivan misapprehended a country, culture, and people with whom they had had precisely no real contact before commencing one of their most famous creations; this, while easy, would require potentially thousands of pages. Rather, she has set for herself the more challenging task of exploring how it is that such a fundamentally 'wrong' comic opera should continue to attract audiences around the world. She is on solid ground when she suggests that (p. xiv):
The Mikado… defies charges that it is a racist work. Though its characterisations, setting, and story clearly misrepresent Japan in ways that can be seen as patronising and insulting, at the same time it is a comic opera that disclaims the seriousness of these representations. This particular quality… gives us an excellent opportunity to examine complexity, distinctiveness, and mutability of racial construction over time and space.
Thus we move with Lee beyond the simple (though nonetheless undeniable) pleasures of cataloguing the extravangances of Gilbert and Sullivan's imaginary Japan, into the vast territories of Said's Orientalism, to find there the ways in which stagings of The Mikado serve as barometric measures of 'the changing and often conflicting racial dynamics in England and America' (p. xii). Lee does not hesitate to clarify that her work is not about the 'real' Japan at all, but instead about the historical places it continues to hold in the imaginations of Europe and North America. In this her work is far more valuable than a mere cataloguing of mistakes would have been.
Lee divides her book into three historically-informed parts, beginning with 'Part I: 1885', the year of the opera's birth, in which she explores the ways in which the objects of Japan took on the responsibility of representing all of that country in the imagination of Europe. This section looks quite closely at the metonymic aspect of representation, tracing the genesis of the opera from a sword which Gilbert had in his rooms. Here, Lee situates the opera's use of the objects of Japan into the context of an emerging commodity market in late-19th century England, as fetishistic stand-ins for the real or for authentic encounters with actual international experience. Her focus on 'the consumer’s pleasure in the Japanese commodity [as] the thing that might add a frisson of the novel, the exotic, and even the transgressive' (p. 19) is particularly helpful for explaining the ways in which The Mikado may be consumed as theatre, crafted from pure inventive fantasy, without arrogating to itself authority to speak for Japan. Lee argues that emphasis in the staging of The Mikado on objects rather than authentic character facilitates the fantastic engagement of the audience, and while she makes it clear that her aim is not to explain the popularity of the work, in some aspects she does just that. The material stuff of Japan here emerges as a stratum upon which Gilbert and Sullivan erect an edifice both purely artificial and artfully pure—'The Mikado, like the everyday world of the china teacup and the decorative screen it emulated, naturalised orientalism, making the "foreign" a standard aspect of the domestic sphere' (p. 19). Lee discusses aspects of performance here, as well, with good sensitivity to the actor's craft. This is quite good—she makes clear, through reference to original promptbook notations, the ways in which even the motions of the actors aimed towards an exoticism still cognate with typical gestures of the English stage. It is through this type of careful detail that Lee establishes her credibility as a thorough and patient researcher. This section is subtle, and permits Lee to establish The Mikado as 'a place where audiences could see a Japan of extreme contradictions, which demonstrated both the measured dignity expected of "civilised behaviour" but also allowed the most blatant displays of erotic and corporeal humour' (p. 22).
In 'Part II: 1938-39', Lee moves to productions of The Mikado in North America. The United States, Lee argues, 'staged The Mikado in ways that reflected its own distinctive preoccupations in terms of foreign relations, Asian immigration, and history of slavery, segregation, and racial formation' (p. xiii). In Part II, she explores the intricacies of racial representation as she discusses The Swing Mikado—first performed with an all-black cast in 1938 Chicago—and The Hot Mikado, from 1939. Lee argues that these productions 'force a reevaluation of how we see the opera's racial politics' (p. 85), suggesting that 'African American actors seem to promise a uniquely ironic take on the artifice of Japaneseness in the opera, destabilising racial typecasting. Yellowface here seems to provide a liminal space in which African American performers can escape from the stereotypical rendering first established through blackface minstrelsy' (p. 86). This is Lee's most ambitious and theoretically intricate section; also her most rewarding, wherein she explores how 'to do Japanese is to partake of what also might be seen as an American vision of race. In both the hot and cool Mikados, Titipu becomes the racial playground in which a liberal conqueror teaches old racial regimes how to swing' (p. 137).
'Part III: Contemporary Mikados' brings Lee's work to the present day and the enduring place of this oddly-complex opera in world theatre. In this section, Lee traces how 'its compelling vision of a fantasy Japan, played out through the seductive charms of yellowface, have never fully banished the representational power of the "real" that inevitably lurked behind the innocent merriment' (p. 142). Here Lee utilises a complex historicity to chart shifts in public perceptions of Japan both outside of and even within that country. She incorporates considerations of Asian-American participation in Mikado productions into a contextualisation of the opera with contemporary racial politics. In so doing, she creates The Mikado as a crucible in which both to contain and influence contemporary social values.
Lee's work is very well researched in terms not only of production details but also critical and popular reception of the various stagings she discusses. Her writing is clear, free of jargon and obfuscation, and brisk. Her argument is persuasive. Most importantly, she allows The Mikado its places both in history and in critical, academic consideration as an object worthy of more intense investigation. Lee neither apologises for nor vilifies the myriad inaccuracies of the opera, but rather accepts the work as a fantasy capable of showing us more about the times of its productions and its audience—their expectations, their imaginations, their tolerances, and their limitations—than many other examples of either pure historical research or cross-cultural contact could. For this, Lee's work deserves attention.
Article copyright Timothy Iles.