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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

W.S. Gilbert's Mikado: Admiral Byng was on George II’s “little list”, and his punishment didn’t fit the “crime”!

Several days ago, I wrote my second Admiral Byng post…  …about the outcry in the aftermath of the execution of the scapegoated Admiral Byng for alleged “cowardice” in failing to “do his utmost” to relieve the Siege of Minorca during the Seven Days’ War. That outcry included, as I’ve now shown, overt or thinly veiled critical reactions by a list of no less than five literary luminaries: Voltaire in Candide; Samuel Johnson in various writings; Laurence Sterne (in Tristram Shandy); Tobias Smollett in Adventures of an Atom); and Jane Austen in Persuasion.

In the next two days, I’ll finally deliver on my promise to write another post in which I’ll greatly expand on the scope of the allusion to the Byng execution that I see Jane Austen having woven into the subtext of her final novel, Persuasion, including showing how Austen’s allusion to Byng includes both Tristram Shandy and one of Shakespeare’s plays as well.

In the interim, I follow up today to expand on a brief teaser in my previous post about “the (to my mind, obvious) allusion by W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) to Smollett’s Atom, when Gilbert wrote the libretto for The Mikado more than a century after Smollett wrote his novella. The parallels are overwhelming, most of all with the faux Japanese names that poke sharp fun at the real life English rulers they represent…”

Here goes. As far as I can tell, after diligent online research, no other scholar has ever suggested that W.S. Gilbert, in his 1884 libretto for The Mikado, intentionally alluded to Tobias Smollett’s 1769 novella, Adventures of an Atom; let alone that such allusion to Atom by Gilbert had as perhaps its primary purpose and subtexts, that very same “unjust execution of Admiral Byng” which, as I laid out in detail in my previous post, is a clear subtext of Smollett’s novella.

I first suspected Gilbert’s allusion to Smollett’s Atom as I was composing my punny Subject Line for my previous post:    “Binh-goh! Uncle Toby, Siege of Namur & the Atom as Touchstones of Sterne/ Smollett’s Admiral Byng!”  It was at the instant of writing “Binh-goh!” that my mind traveled back a half century, to when my 7th grade class staged The Mikado for the rest of our school. The Mikado was, I now know, the most successful of all the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas; but at age 13 I had never heard of it. As a member of the stage crew, I watched many rehearsals, as well as the final performance-- and what stood out most in my memory were all the “Japonified” names of the characters, such as Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko, etc., even as I have not seen another performance of The Mikado since then.

Fresh from writing my last post about Smollett’s Atom which also had that same sort of absurd Japanese character naming, I wondered if Gilbert might’ve had Smollett on the brain? So I Googled and searched the usual databases, and I found first that Jeremy Lewis, in his 2003 bio of Smollett, noted as part of his summary of Atom that “the story is set in 'Niphon', an imaginary Japan at war with China, and the characters are provided with pseudo-Japanese names, reminiscent of those used later in The Mikado.”

I also found a much more interesting snippet by a Berkeley prof named Grace Lavery from only a few years ago, which not only recognized that naming similarity, but also analyzed it incisively; although Lavery didn’t go so far as to argue that the character-name parallels were intentional or meaningful:

“Smollett’s The History and Adventures of an Atom offers both an early example of comic writing about Japan and an example of what The Mikado might look like if it were unambiguously a satire of English political culture. A picaresque it-narrative told by a roguish atom to an amanuensis named Nathaniel Peacock, the novel describes a trip around Japan, comprising a number of eccentric ‘political anecdotes’. Like those in The Mikado, the Japanese politicians described are variously ruthless, stupid, and pedantic and given to pointless arguments—though, written at the highwater mark of English picaresque, the jokes are much bawdier than Gilbert’s, and the narrative involves a punishingly detailed series of ass-kissing scenes, both literal and figurative. Characters’ names, too, share with “Nanki-Poo” and “Pooh-Bah” a queasily euphemistic anality: “Nin-kom-poo-po,” “Fika-kaka,” “Sti-phi-rum-poo.” Yet the most striking difference from The Mikado is that Adventures of an Atom rests on a tight allegorical correspondence between its characters and the British political figures it has set out to describe in the service of a critique of the Seven Years’ War of 1754–1763…” END QUOTE FROM LAVERY

I’ll argue, below, that the similarities first spotted by Lewis and then discussed by Lavery were not only intentional, they were also meaningful, on Gilbert’s part. I’ve concluded that Gilbert intended thereby to point in-on-the-joke readers not only to Smollett’s novella Atom, but more importantly, to the execution of Admiral Byng, the very one which Smollett himself pointed to more than a century earlier.

For starters, it’s well known to Gilbert scholars that Smollett was one of Gilbert’s favorite authors. Now, look at how closely Gilbert mirrored Smollett’s names – this is way way beyond being “reminiscent”:

Gilbert turned “Nin-Kom-Poo-Po” into “Nanki-Poo”; and
Gilbert turned “Cuboy” into “Pooh-Bah”; and
Gilbert turned “Fika-kaka” into “Ko-Ko”; and finally,
Gilbert turned “Pish” into “Pish-Tush”.

Even if I were to stop right here, do you agree that I’ve already made a prima facie case that Gilbert deliberately echoed Smollett’s Atom?

[Before I go further, having making my point about Gilbert’s transformed character names, I want to bring to your attention the strong critique of racial stereotyping in The Mikado, as well-explained in these excerpts from “The Mikado: History and Satire as Scapegoat for Yellowface” by Khaleesi:  
 The Mikado’s…chief aesthetic characterization comes from its fictionalized Japanese setting and the racialized caricatures that its cast embody, most often in yellowface…[one of] the play’s problematic aspects through its history…In 19th century England, there was not an abundance of Asian actors available (nor were casting directors much concerned with such casting practices) so the entire production instead relied heavily on stereotypical visual trappings of Orientalism (…fans, kimono) as well as on yellowface. This went uncontested in Europe and the U.S…
The Mikado is, even in modern productions, also steeped in racial language, from Japon-esque gibberish (…Pooh-Bah and Yum-Yum) to mockingly high-pitched accents…the previously-mentioned excuse of the racial caricature as a veil for the satirical. If The Mikado is distinctly about the English, then the ‘Japanese’ setting remains fantastical and is thus detached from any meaning….Some of the first publicized protests of The Mikado began in 1990… Performances around the country have drawn criticism and protests in recent years, including in NYC (2004), L.A. (2007 & 2009), Boston (2007), Austin (2011), Denver (2013), & Seattle (2014)….The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s 2014 production of The Mikado features a near all-white cast …occupying the production’s 40 roles in yellowface. Considering Seattle’s racial demographics (Asians …constituting 13.8% of the city’s population…), the lack of Asian representation coupled with the use of yellowface is especially flagrant, and certainly did not go unnoticed.
…one central thread retains continuity in arguments from both the pro-Mikado and anti-Mikado camps respectively—the idea that The Mikado is about Britain and not about Japan. In other words, that the actual intellectual weight of the work is separate from its Orientalist overtones. This piece of rhetoric leads one to wonder, if detached from its racist settings and characters, is it still able to carry the same intellectual message? Would the piece be liberated by the removal of its problematic surface?...Without the racial fantasy, there is no metaphor, no guise for the “British-ness” to hide behind. There is no play. …The Mikadoas a production to which race is intrinsic, must explicitly face questions of racial representation, racial performance, and privilege, and has failed to thus far.” 

Not for a moment, then, forgetting that The Mikado was an imperfect product of its racist era, I’ll now return to presenting the evidence I’ve gathered that makes me so certain that Gilbert, in a more worthy mode, meant to repeatedly but subliminally parody, and thereby critique, the execution of Admiral Byng, for which he had the model of Smollett’s parody thereof in Atom. To borrow one of The Mikado‘s most memorable lines, “I’ve got a little list”—actually not so little-- of reasons why I am so certain:

FIRST: The previously mentioned character-name echoing between Atom and The Mikado;

SECOND: Prior to writing The Mikado, Gilbert wrote not one but two successful, and today still famous, operettas which have English sailors as its lead characters: HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance; Gilbert’s father was initially a naval surgeon; and in HMS Pinafore, all the action takes place on a ship is at anchor off Portsmouth -- and it was a famous historical fact that Admiral Byng was executed on a ship at anchor off Portsmouth! Just coincidence? I don’t think so!

THIRD (closely related to SECOND): Despite the fact that the action of The Mikado takes place on land, and its cast has no sailors, the famous opening musical number of The Mikado is, inexplicably, “a song of the sea”:

A wandering minstrel I –
A thing of shreds and patches,
Of ballads, songs and snatches,
And dreamy lullaby!
Our warriors, in serried ranks assembled,
Never quail – or they conceal it if they do –
And I shouldn’t be surprised if nations trembled
Before the mighty troops of Titipu!
CHORUS: We shouldnt be surprised, etc.
And if you call for a song of the sea,
We’ll heave the capstan round,
With a yeo heave ho, for the wind is free,
Her anchor’s a-trip and her helm’s a-lee,
Hurrah for the homeward bound!
CHORUS. Yeo-ho – heave-ho – Hurrah for the homeward bound!
To lay aloft in a howling breeze
May tickle a landsman’s taste,
But the happiest hour a sailor sees
Is when he’s down
At an inland town,
With his Nancy on his knees, yeo-ho!
And his arm around her waist!
Then man the capstan – off we go,
As the fiddler swings us round,
With a yeo heave ho,
And a rumbelow,
Hurrah for the homeward bound!

Note also that Nanki-Poo asserts that Japan’s warriors “never quail”, which just happens to coincide with “cowardice” having been the most scurrilous and damaging charge against Admiral Byng!

And speaking of courage, look at these lyrics sung by Pish-Tush, also in Act One:

PISH-TUSH: “criminals who are cut in two can hardly feel the fatal steel, and so are slain without much pain. If this is true, it’s jolly for you; your courage screw to bid us adieu, and go and show both friend and foe how much you dare.”

These lines stop being funny, when we recall that Admiral Byng, the scapegoated “criminal”, faced his execution with extraordinary courage.

And speaking of Admiral Byng’s courage….

FIFTH: The Mikado being a comedy and not a tragedy, of course Nanki-Poo is not executed, mainly and ironically because Ko-Ko is too afraid to behead him! And this is, I suggest, Gilbert pointing to the fact widely publicized after his execution, that Admiral Byng was at his most courageous in his last moments of life, as he faced execution -- even so far as his being willing to wear a handkerchief over his face – not for his own benefit, but to make it easier for the queasy shooters to shoot him at point blank range!

And I believe I am spot-on in asserting that WS Gilbert had that historical factoid very specifically in mind when, at the end of Act Two, Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pitti are scrambling to explain to the Mikado why they executed the Mikado’s son, Nanki-Poo (when actually they had only lied about executing him, but couldn’t say that –yes, it’s typical madcap G&S plotting), we read this curious bit of dialog:

POOH-BAH. No, of course we couldn’t tell who the gentleman really was.
PITTISING. It wasn’t written on his forehead, you know.
KO-KO. It might have been on his pocket-handkerchief, but Japanese don’t use pocket-handkerchiefs! Ha! ha! ha!
MIKADO. Ha! ha! ha!

That laughter, I suggest, is really W.S. Gilbert’s laughter – but he’s not happy as he laughs, because he reminds us that it is indeed the English gentleman Admiral Byng who used a pocket handkerchief to hide his face – Gilbert finds the absurdity in this tragedy, which is to suggest that those shooting him would therefore have not known his identity!

SIXTH: There are two sly references by Pooh-Bah in The Mikado to Smollett’s hero, Atom:

POOH-BAH: …I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial ATOMIC globule.


POOH-BAH: (aside to KO-KO). Well, I shan’t mean it. (With a great effort.) How de do, little girls, how de do? (Aside.) Oh, my protoplasmal ancestor!
KO. That’s very good. (Girls indulge in suppressed laughter.)

SEVENTH: One of Ko-Ko’s multiple positions in the governance of Titipu is that of “Lord High Admiral”, even though, again, there is nothing in the operetta to suggest that Ko-Ko, in the village of Titipu, is in command of any ships at all! However, I suspect that W.S. Gilbert was once again winking at Admiral Byng, who had not one but two “Lord High Admirals” at both ends, so to speak, of his life:

First, his own father, who had once been Lord High Admiral as well as a great naval hero, and who of course was one of the two persons who brought him into the world;

Second, the Lord High Admiral, George Anson, who bore an implacable hostility toward Byng, and  was right there at King George II’s side, doing everything possible to scapegoat Byng, and get him executed as soon as possible, ushering him out of the world.

To put it another way, Byng was clearly on the Lord High Admiral’s and the “Mikado’s” (i.e., the King’s) little list (or should I say, the King’s little Navy List ( ) of potential victims whom Gilbert had in mind when he wrote these memorable, acidly satirical lyrics:

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I’ve got a little list – I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed – who never would be missed!
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist
I don’t think she’d be missed – I’m sure she’d not be missed!
CHORUS. He’s got her on they list – he’s got her on the list;
And I don’t think she’ll be missed – I’m sure she’ll not be missed!

And, by the way, I wonder if “that singular anomaly, the lady novelist” might be Gilbert slyly referring to “the lady novelist” who, as I’ve been saying in this thread of posts, alluded to Admiral Byng in Persuasion – i.e., Jane Austen!! More on that in my next post!

EIGHTH: Perhaps most compelling of the reasons why I am certain Gilbert alluded to Atom/Byng, is that the driving force of the plot of The Mikado is the capricious, arbitrary edict by the Mikado (and by the way, a “Meckaddo” is also mentioned in Atom!) demanding an execution:

KO-KO: …A letter from the Mikado! What in the world can he have to say to me? (Reads letter.) Ah, here it is at last! I thought it would come sooner or later! The Mikado is struck by the fact that no executions have taken place in Titipu for a year, and decrees that unless somebody is beheaded within one month the post of Lord High Executioner shall be abolished, and the city reduced to the rank of a village!

So Ko-Ko must execute someone –anyone, it doesn’t matter who!- or else he will be out of one of his jobs! The problem is, though, that Ko-Ko is afraid to do the deed! That’s when Nanki-Poo happens to wander by, contemplating suicide over what seems to be unrequitable love for Yum-Yum:

KO-KO. Is it absolutely certain that you are resolved to die?   NANK. Absolutely!
KO-KO. Will nothing shake your resolution?    NANK. Nothing.
KO-KO. Threats, entreaties, prayers – all useless?   NANK. All! My mind is made up.
KO-KO. Then, if you really mean what you say, and if you are absolutely resolved to die, and if nothing whatever will shake your determination – don’t spoil yourself by committing suicide, but be beheaded handsomely at the hands of the Public Executioner!

A bit more brainstorming, and Nanki-Poo then gives Ko-Ko a “perfect” solution – he will volunteer to be the arbitrary victim of a beheading, provided he first gets to be married to Yum-Yum for one month.

Think about the obvious satirical parallel here to the arbitrary (and cynical) motives behind the King’s demand for execution of Admiral Byng. As I’ve outlined in my prior two posts about him, the general consensus of historians is that Byng was a scapegoat for English naval failure -- a slab of raw red meat flung to a bloodthirsty rabble. That rabble was making the King and his governmental toadies feel pretty insecure; and so the mob’s anger was deliberately diverted onto Admiral Byng, and then stoked up by the King’s propaganda machine.

In other words, I believe Gilbert was parodying the tragic absurdity of Admiral Byng being selected to make an “encouraging” example to other British admirals, by presenting the comic absurdities of how Nanki-Poo comes to agree to be executed by the Lord High Executioner, Ko-Ko. Nanki-Poo may have been willing to die, but Nanki-Poo is not real – Gilbert also surely knew that the real Admiral Byng pulled out all the stops asking for clemency in his trial; but all, cruelly, to no avail – no fictional deus ex mikado, if you will, popped up to save him, like the solution that the desperate Ko-Ko comes up with when his own life is politely threatened by the Mikado:

KO-KO: … (To Mikado.) It’s like this: When your Majesty says, ‘Let a thing be done,’ it’s as good as done – practically, it is done – because your Majesty’s will is law. Your Majesty says, ‘Kill a gentleman,’ and a gentleman is told off to be killed. Consequently, that gentleman is as good as dead – practically, he is dead – and if he is dead, why not say so?
MIKADO: I see. Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory!

This is bitter satire indeed, since the clear situation with Byng was that he was a scapegoat – i.e., guilt was irrelevant. Gilbert’s words drip acid as he says, in effect, that King George II and his Lord High Admiral (and, in effect, executioner!) Anson could have just said Byng was dead. And since the King is like a god, wouldn’t that have been enough?

Now, I claim no expertise whatsoever in British history in the 1880’s, but if anyone reading this post does possess it, was there anything that happened between, say, 1860 and 1885 that Gilbert might also have had in mind—some similar act of cruel, arbitrary power by the British government – which he might also have been skewering, via his above eight “winks” at Admiral Byng? I’d love to hear about it if there was!

Anyway, in the end, Gilbert gets in one final satirical dig at George II, when the “humane” Mikado pats himself on the back with this ode to self-blindness:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime –
The punishment fit the, crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment!
Of innocent merriment!

As Gilbert wished the world to know, if ever a punishment did NOT fit the crime, that was the case with Admiral Byng! And that is the perfect moment to end my little list, and this post along with it!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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