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The Japan of Pure Invention

Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado

Josephine Lee

Publication Year: 2010

Long before Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, long before Barthes explicated his empire of signs, even before Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado presented its own distinctive version of Japan. Set in a fictional town called Titipu and populated by characters named Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo, and Pooh-Bah, the opera has remained popular since its premiere in 1885.
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. Lee connects yellowface performance to blackface minstrelsy, showing how productions of the 1938–39 Swing Mikado and Hot Mikado, among others, were used to promote African American racial uplift. She also looks at a host of contemporary productions and adaptations, including Mike Leigh’s film Topsy-Turvy and performances of The Mikado in Japan, to reflect on anxieties about race as they are articulated through new visions of the town of Titipu.
The Mikado creates racial fantasies, draws audience members into them, and deftly weaves them into cultural memory. For countless people who had never been to Japan, The Mikado served as the basis for imagining what “Japanese” was.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-7

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Introduction: Meditations on The Mikado

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pp. vii-xxiv

Franois 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’s The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu conquered late Victorian British...

Part I. 1885

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pp. 1-27

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1. My Objects All Sublime: Racial Performance and Commodity Culture

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pp. 3-38

In 1885, when The Mikado first 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...

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2. “My Artless Japanese Way”: Japanese Villages and Absent Coolies

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pp. 39-64

The paradox of The Mikado lies 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...

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3. Magical Objects and Therapeutic Yellowface

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pp. 65-80

At the height of The Mikado’s first wave of popularity, Chicago’s leading society matron Mrs. Marshall Field gave a Mikado Ball in honor of her son and daughter. The Chicago Tribune reported that the Field residence was “transformed into a Japanese Palace” complete with screens...

Part II. 1938–39

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pp. 81-107

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4. “And Others of His Race”: Blackface and Yellowface

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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...

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5. Titipu Comes to America: Hot and Cool Mikados

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pp. 121-137

The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado reveal 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 la Hot Mikado seem far...

Part III. Contemporary Mikados

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pp. 139-165

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6. “The Threatened Cloud”: Production and Protest

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pp. 141-167

Parts I and II show two very different directions for the racial history of The 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...

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7. Asian American Mikados

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pp. 169-186

This book began by describing The Mikado’s elusiveness: 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...

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8. The Mikado in Japan

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pp. 187-217

By now, the stories around the Savoy’s employment of the inhabitants of the Knightsbridge Japanese Native Village to coach its Mikado performers is well known. François Cellier described the “Geisha, or Teagirl,” as “a charming and very able instructress, although she knew only...

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pp. 219-220

Iwould like to acknowledge the generosity of so many who helped turn an unwieldy research project into a book, including Richard Morrison, Adam Brunner, and Doug Armato of the University of Minnesota Press. Karen Shimakawa and Mari Yoshihara provided valuable...


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pp. 221-246


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pp. 247-248

About the Author

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pp. 249-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780816673599
E-ISBN-10: 0816673594
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816665808

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2010