Should We Revise The Arts?

The Arts

sax-rohmer

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.

Untitled

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.

 

17 comments on “Should We Revise The Arts?”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    It’s best to try and maintain a balance between the awful casual racism of the past to the over sensitive mentality of today. Arguably, comedy isn’t comedy unless it offends someone. Even the oldest gag in the business-falling on a banana skin- is based on cruelty. The best definition of farce is “tragedy played for laughs”. Though as the ubiquitous Stephen Fry once said: “Trying to analyse comedy is like trying to analyse porn without getting a stiffy”

    Even at best, “blacking up” today seems crude. The film version of Lawrence Olivier as Lear, made in the mid 60’s is hilariously bad, partly because Olivier didn’t tone down his stage performance for the screen and therefore it comes across as pure ham. The fact that he is also blacked up makes it thigh-slappingly funny. Alec Guinness should never have blacked up for “A Passage to India”. This was made at the time that that sort of thing was becoming unacceptable. Even watching half the “Carry On” gang in “Carry On Up the Khyber” with brown make-up doesn’t seem quite right today.

    The antics of Benny Hill don’t come across well today either. They are sexist. But it is the men who are made to look stupid, and not the women, a point missed by some people. They look desperate for sex, and as my old Mum used to say about men: “When the balls are full, the brain’s empty”

    As for the wonderful the “Mikado”, please leave it alone. There used to be the opposite of this to be seen on You Tube. A Japanese all female production of “Me and My Girl” doing a fantastic rendition of “The Sun Has Got his Hat On”. I’ve looked through You Tube to check it is still on, but sadly I couldn’t find it. A song, it has to be said, that contained the “N” word but has now been cleaned up to read “He’s been roasting peanuts out in Timbuctoo”, which is actually better than the original line anyway-as is the re-titling of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little N’s….” to “And Then There Were None.

  2. Terenzio says:

    I recently reread Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The last time was over 20 years ago. What’s interesting is I remember enjoying reading it the first time, but this time I found the overt racism too much to stomach. Despite it being beautifully written (I still find it amazing English was Conrad’s second language), I doubt I will ever read it again. And I feel bad for black students who are forced to read it in college. As a white dude I found it offensive, can’t imagine how I would feel were I black. However, getting to Ward/Rohmer, I’ve always thought him to be a good opportunist. His stories are crude and just as factual accurate as what comes out of the mouth of Donald Trump. He prayed upon and exploited his reader’s prejudices and ignorance for his own personal gain. As a teenager I found the Fu Manchu stories fun, however, now I just find them – well – just plain stupid for one and two there’s something I can’t put a finger on….perhaps unsavory is the word….I don’t know because I admit I like my fair share of stupid films with offensive stereotypes including Nine Dead Gay Guys.

    À Bientôt….the one in the gorgeous purple dressing gown and cutesy wolfie slippers. I must confess I do like Ward/Rohmer’s taste in dressing gowns. If I smoked I would probably do the pipe thing as well. I shall retire to the boudoir with a cup of Mariage Frères Earl Grey Imperial and a mince pie and dip into a holiday theme short story collection by P D James.

  3. Ed Beach says:

    Again another informative interesting post from Admin. Tku. Brian, I never knew Christie’s book was originally entitled “Ten Little N’s” Somehow I thought it was called “Ten Little Indians” but maybe that was the title used only for an early film

  4. Chris Hughes says:

    You put your finger precisely on the problem when you said they ‘don’t know their history’. Fixing on the wrong end of the stick is happening all the time these days – which is why I seem to spend so much time shouting at the television! But the best way to counter prejudice is to laugh at it and the best parody of Sax Rohmer was Took and Feldman ‘s version for Round The Horne with Kenneth Horne as Brown -Horrocks and Kenneth Williams as Dr Chu En Ginsberg.

  5. Terenzio says:

    “The best way to counter prejudice is to laugh at it.” Not necessarily effective. People including writers like P G Wodehouse laughed and made fun of Hitler and the other fascists in the 1930s, however, that didn’t stop a lot of unpleasantness from happening. Freedom to speak ones mind is one thing, but total libertarianism is quite another. There needs to be a balance struck. Personally, I would rather err on the side of caution. In other words I agree with and fully back political correctness. However, at the same time you can’t have people like Sultan Erdogan threaten and get away with having prosecuting some German comedians for making a video that criticizes him.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Ed- The film of Christie’s “10 Little…” was first filmed in Hollywood circa 1945 and called “And Then There Were None” It has been filmed since a few times and called “And Then There Were None”, except for a British version circa 1965 which was called “Ten Little Indians” in an attempt to clean it up-this being before the days people referred to “native Americans”. They possibly didn’t call it “And Then There Were None” as the play version was a very popular warhorse with both professionals and amateurs which sometimes used the original title, and sometimes “Indians” version, and therefore was recognisable.

    It is beyond the scope of this blog I know, but to me the film/stage version is much better than the original novel, as it is able to build up to a good big finish which cannot be achieved within the confines of the novel.

    I’m as one with you in your last thread!

  7. Roger says:

    “Even at best, “blacking up” today seems crude. The film version of Lawrence Olivier as Lear….”
    A novel interpretation of Lear at any time, surely, Brian Evans.

    Heart of Darkness is more complicated than it looks, Terenzio. It’s about the psychology of imperialism and imperialists. In fact, it’s as much about Russian imperialism in Poland as Leopold in the Congo if you remember, Kurtz’s greatest admirer is Russian, with no particular reason given for his presence – which explains some of the oddities.

    It wasn’t cocaine, but opium that was associated with the Chinese community in Britain. Opium-smoking was a much rarer way of taking it than laudanum and patent medicines, even if it was more exotic. The silent film Piccadilly, with a script by Arnold Bennett, gives a convincingly realistic picture of London’s Chinatown in the 1920s.

  8. Terenzio says:

    Roger,

    Heart of Darkness exposes the many deficiencies of Imperalism including the cruelty and how the European colonial powers looked down on and treated the natives. You just have to have a strong stomach to put up with some of the language and the attitudes of the white folks. Chinua Achebe wrote an excellent critique of his reasons why he’s against the book. I agree with his main points.

  9. SteveB says:

    The danger is to look at people from other eras and think we’re better, smarter, etc etc. Obviously we’re not. Just different. Is it any different if a muslim uses the word kafir about me, for example, to using the n word. I dont think so, it’s the same darkness in the human heart.

  10. John Griffin says:

    My muslim friends consider quaffar to be a term used by religious nutters!

  11. Brian Evans says:

    Re your ref of my ref to Olivier, Roger, that is I suppose the point I was trying to make. Except through the eyes of people at the time, it didn’t seem as odd then as it does today, sadly. Unfortunately, Oliver was idolised by a load of crawling sycophants and “yes” men and women and therefore could get away with anything.

    Though to be fair, I must admit, I always detested the man. He was a self important ham who thought he was God in the theatre (and off stage) and was way to far up his own backside. He once said that in 50 years after his death
    people would be laughing at his performance for all the wrong reasons. Some were laughing when he was still alive. His Lear was a case in point. I rest my case….

  12. Brian Evans says:

    Whoops, I meant to say way “too” far. Sorry admin, please don’t give me a 100 lines.

  13. SteveB says:

    @John
    That’s the point

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Have never had to read Conrad but am currently reading The Secret Agent which has a very interesting forward by the author in which he explains where the idea for the novel came from. He doesn’t define the foreign nation involved, just refers to the Embassy. The motives of the people involved are not really rational, nor are they truly anarchistic, but his aim is to show what happens to people on the sidelines. The official in the Embassy is quite right in castigating his agent for having married, although for all the wrong reasons. The writing is dense, as if Conrad had swallowed a thesaurus, and can be slow going at times. A lot of latin based words that have to be picked apart if you’re not going to look them up. It slows the flow. What you assume is going to be the climax of the novel comes less than half way in and with no build up at all. This is a strange book.

  15. Helen Martin says:

    Why do you say Ward’s pipe looks like an opium pipe? It just looks like an ordinary briar to me, although the stem is a little long perhaps.

  16. Wayne Mook says:

    During the war Fu Manchu was turned down in the US & UK as China was an ally and thought they may take offence. Rohmer then invented Sumuru, a female version of Fu Manchu but not from a specific place, it appeared on BBC radio late 45 and early ’46. Fu Manchu has been a controversial character for some time, Karloff always looked odd playing the part and Christopher Lee carried on to 1969, and then there was the comedy in 1980.

    Wayne.

  17. Ken Mann says:

    “Contextualising framework” is right. I read reprints of old American pulp fiction, and the publishing company puts a paragraph in the front matter reminding readers that the words contained reflect the society of the time. This avoids bizarreries like a production of “The Merchant of Venice” I once saw where the director was so determined to remind the audience that it was the play that was racist and not himself or the actors that the production was undermined and the closing scenes rendered deeply weird. In that case my solution would be to either choose not to stage the play in the first place or if it must be in modern dress set it in fascist italy.

    My favourite Sax Rohmer moment is a scene in a Fu Manchu novel where Smith & Petrie lurk in a cafe “disguised as Futurists”.

Comments are closed.