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Orientalism and ‘The Mikado’

A masterpiece sits in the shadow of context


This weekend, the Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ “The Mikado” went up at Agassiz Theater. “Mikado,” which tells a story of love, law, and decapitation, is among Gilbert and Sullivan’s 14 light operas of the late 19th century, one of the most popular operas ever written.

“The Mikado” is a biting satire lampooning British government and society. We know from the outset that the Japan presented is too much of a caricature for the play to be truly about Japan. Great lengths are taken to assure us that the characters are not really Japanese, who—as the Executioner points out—“don’t use pocket-handkerchiefs!” Despite these efforts, however, enactments of “The Mikado” have on occasion roused controversy. At a recent protest at Occidental College in California, students complained of distortions that are impossible to separate from the imperialist and racist attitudes of the time in which the opera was written.

The concern, of course, is a broader one of Orientalism—of the inaccuracies pervasive in Western treatments of Eastern cultures. Any such discussion necessitates the arguments of Edward Said, who observes that “The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings…remarkable experiences.” The Orient, he contends, has historically existed in the European (and Western) mind mainly in the form of an oppositional otherness. As such, the tendency to rationalize the systematic crudity of these civilizations has cropped up in the writings of our most revered and canonical of writers—even John Stuart Mill, for instance, noted that for cultural reasons On Liberty did not apply to India. While no longer painted with the deliberate mysticism of Jean-Leon Gerome’s French salons, the argument claims that Orientalism continues in strains of intellectual imperialism.

The Orientalism thesis has spawned much critique. Experts on the Middle East and historian Bernard Lewis deems it “intellectual protectionism” to think that only people who are part of a culture have the authority to depict it. Thinker Ken Wilber makes a similar point, musing that post-modernist critique has slipped into essentialism: “You have to be a woman to know anything about women; you have to be an Indian to say anything about Indians.” A lapse into protectionism is not only problematic but actually inconsistent with Said’s essentially Foucauldian thesis of free discourse and exchange.

So the question is—what’s the issue? Contemporary manifestations of the East in Western culture seem only questionably problematic. Gone are the days of heavy-handed imperialism, replaced in fact by an often sterile and over-politically correct culture of zero assumptions. Due respect is paid in the arts as well, often accompanied with a dollop of irony, and protest seems to be founded more on paranoia than due cause.

The mixed reception of “The Mikado” has everything to do with its audience. I suspect that this play has met with no opposition here because audiences come to the show with enough knowledge about the realities of Japanese culture to be able to laugh at the absurdity of such stylizations. It helps, too, that this particular production plays up the absurdity. Situations differ, however, audience to audience—one can imagine more opposition in California, where a greater proportion of the population retains a historical sensitivity from the internment camps of the previous generation. Reception might vary, too, in the portrayed countries themselves—“The Mikado” opened for the first time in Japan in the summer of 1946, after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at the height of American military domination. The leads of the play were all American, Canadian and British, and the audience was entirely GI. Joseph Raben, an editor of translations at the time in Tokyo, called the performance an “impudent but magnificent gesture, a tribute to their culture in a sense, but also an assertion of the Americans’ right to do as they pleased in a conquered country.” One can forgive certain inklings of ressentiment.

“The Mikado” is certainly not alone in terms of context-specific variance. Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” met with diverse reactions between Eastern and Western audiences—while wildly successful at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1907, it met with some confusion by Japanese audiences, who sometimes did not know what to make of Western tonalities. Rodger and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” elicited shock from most Thai who were offended by the portrayal of their much-respected king. The list goes on.

Ultimately, such is the power and the danger of artistic license. Inaccuracy, deviation from fact—these are useful. However, the right to employ such tools necessitates a prior understanding of the target audience. When such understanding is lacking, one ought not be surprised at backlash, or in artistic counterpoints that take place (deconstructions like “The Mikado Project,” for example, or “M. Butterfly.”) As art has the power to shape our perceptions of reality, the audience has the right of information, the responsibility of response.

N. Kathy Lin ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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