Should We Revise The Arts?
Arthur Ward seemed an ordinary working class fellow with an interesting middle name (Sarsfield). He was born in Birmingham in 1883, where he grew up to become a civil servant. Early photographs are unassuming, but compare them to his later pictures, when he appears in a silk dressing gown, puffing on what looks like an opium pipe – what happened to transform the conventional Mr Ward?
This is where mysticism and more than a little showmanship comes in.
In 1907 a moral panic about white slavery first appeared in Chicago when a group of evangelists handed out leaflets at a brothel, warning of women being abducted as ‘white slaves’, and this was reported in the UK. Five years later Ward’s first proper novel capitalised on the panic. After working as a songwriter and a music hall comedy sketch writer, he had hit upon his big idea; changing his name to the more exotic Sax Rohmer – he claimed that the pen name came from the Saxon for ‘blade’ – he created a supervillain, the evil Dr Fu Manchu, the ‘Yellow Peril’ bent on world domination.
Fu Manchu’s nemeses were the crimefighting duo Dennis Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie, who hurtled around Limehouse trying to prevent the oriental crimelord from dispatching powerful figures with poison spiders, germs and snakes. The lunatic pacing of the books turned them to gold, and the apocalyptic plots were suited to a country sliding into war.
Ward worried about the idea of racism in his novels, but there were only a few hundred Chinese working in the East End, and far from plotting world domination, they operated laundries. The cocaine menace with which the stories were laced was no such thing as the drug was legal, and was usually imported from Germany. Ward was an adept showman, and encouraged his readers to believe that there were mystic powers attached to his literary skills. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and wrote supernatural stories that helped to foster this exotic image. In the process he became one of the most highly paid and widely read authors in the English language. Meanwhile there were books, stage shows, films, comics and radio serials. Now they are considered racist.
Certainly the absurdity of evil exoticism courses through them, but books of that period routinely used the N word and exhibited horrendous anti-semitism. The ‘Yellow Peril’ idea was rather different because Fu Manchu was, by Ward’s own admission, designed to be unimaginably exotic. Few English people had ever met anyone Chinese.
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the Mikado.
The New York Times reports that there have been deep concerns about its perceived racism. In the USA Asian-American performers have staged protests about it. One version in San Francisco decided not to set the production in Japan and shifted it to Italy, altering the opening from “If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan” to “If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Milan,” thus rendering text and score into gibberish. Another production set it in a 1960s Oriental-themes hotel in Las Vegas to “recontextualize the origins of the show in Japonisme and commodity racism.” And it still upset everyone.
Nobody expects a white cast to tape up their eyebrows anymore (as they did in some past productions) but the people trying to protect our sensitivities have misunderstood ‘The Mikado’. It was written not to make fun of the Japanese – quite the reverse. It was planned to celebrate – and to cash in – on the craze for Japanese imports coming into London for the first time (Japanese designs on Wedgwood became so popular that they lasted into my mother’s time), and WS Gilbert went out of his way to stop his actors from adopting stereotypical poses. He took them to the Japanese village in Kensington to see real performers and persuaded them to adopt their attitudes without excessive stereotyping.
What attracted Gilbert to the material was the idea of paradox, which is behind all his best work. If we don’t know the history of why things are like they are, we will fail to appreciate them. Some of the authors I’m covering in next year’s ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ used terminology we would now consider racist. It’s ugly and unpleasant but can’t be divorced from the time in which it was written.
The English National Opera managed to skirt around this thorny issue by setting the play in an English coastal town in the 1920s, but the cleverest redefining production I saw had Wedgwood figures come to life on a Victorian mantlepiece.
What such books, art and literature needs is contextualising framework to explain the problem, not censor it.