A Word In Edgewise: They’ve All Got Little Lists



After two centuries of sequestration, Japan reopened its doors in the 1850s. In 1872, Japonisme (influence of Japanese art and aesthetics) entered the vocabulary of many European artists, and ukiyo-e prints were popularized: Van Gogh surrounds The Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887) with six of them. In 1885, British Victorian librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, opened their The Mikado; or, the Town of Titipu, an operetta with a then exotic Japanese setting.

One hundred thirty-one years later, last October, there was widespread criticism of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ production of this same operetta accusing HGRSP of racism, cultural appropriation, gender violence, and harmful perceptions of trans people. This after the group had updated the setting to a 1960s Vegas-themed Oriental hotel to avoid any such accusations.

HRGSP formed in 1956, staging their shows in the University’s Agassiz Theater, where I saw Mikado in 1965; a delightful, sprightly performance readily understood as Gilbert and Sullivan’s satire of British mores and not a take-down of Japanese people or culture.

A classmate commented recently, “As a literature scholar and a historian, I’m very hostile to this sort of retroactive political correctness. My program note for The Mikado would say that it’s in a long tradition of criticizing one’s own country by writing about a real or imagined foreign state, or writing from the point of view of a foreigner visiting one’s country.”

He added, “A member of the S.F. School Board recently suggested renaming George Washington High School because Washington was a slave- owner…Washington married a wealthy widow, Martha Custis, who had two children. She held in trust for them her husband’s property–which included a lot of slaves. Those slaves intermarried with Washington’s slaves…Washington was unable to untangle the complicated intertwining of lives. When he was dying, he dictated his last will, in which he freed those slaves he had the power to free, and set aside an endowment to help them deal with freedom.

Watchdogs howl for the banning of Samuel Clemens’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and other victims. Their closed-minded literary bowdlerizing will keep valuable life lessons away from young readers, while ruining otherwise enjoyable evenings of musical satire for the rest of us.

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