Insults, real or imaginary  

We live in a world where racism is a real problem for many people, but I'm not convinced that the attempts to combat it by their self-proclaimed champions always make a lot of sense. For example, it seems that, for an English person to put on a sombrero in a university bar to accompany drinking a tequila is a gross insult to the Mexican nation.  It diminishes them.  It is an example of micro-aggression which is now unacceptable in civilised society – or at least in a sub-group of that society – the academic community. There are other people, however, who consider that taking the Mickey out of a nation or an individual is not always an act of racism.  It is only when there is an intention to cause hatred that it becomes something which we ought to prevent.

The United States is the home of the concept of micro-aggression.  They are trying to accomplish a form of social engineering based, presumably, on the idea of zero tolerance.  The Mikado, a comic operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan written in 1885, relates to a group of Japanese aristocrats who have a strangely English way of acting. W S Gilbert wanted to satirise British society without being too direct.  It was an era when the Lord Chamberlain had the right to censure works written for the stage.  Japan at that time was a country which had until recently been closed to outsiders and was almost unknown in Britain. Gilbert therefore used Japanese stereotypes of the time without any pretence at describing Japanese society as it actually was.  Just as the Pirates of Penzance doesn't actually relate to any known Cornish reality.   It was a comic opera.  But in September (2015) a production of the Mikado by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players, using so-called 'yellow-face' make-up was cancelled because it was seen as racist.  Seen as being racist by how many people I am not sure, but evidently they made enough noise about it.  It is not, however, only yellow make-up.  Today, to have a white actor playing the role of Othello with black make-up would be impossible.  I imagine that it would be seen an insult to the real Othello.  In fact, the opera world has finally caught up with the theatre – we have seen this step forward with the production at the Met of Othello by Verdi this September. The (Lithuanian) tenor did not use the traditional make-up.  I don't know if they changed the words accordingly.

But what is the reasoning behind all of this?  It is relevant to note that make-up of whatever colour relates to an attempt to pretend to be someone-else in a world of illusion.  The actor's job is to convince us that he is someone-else. We judge him based on his success in doing so.  Unfortunately in the contemporary world it's not so simple.  But the basis on which one can make a decision regarding what is acceptable is very unclear.  For example, does it mean that Richard III cannot be represented as a hunchback unless the actor himself has that problem?  Should the roles clearly written for the Anglo-Saxon community be reserved for people of that heritage?  And consistency becomes even more difficult when we look at the 'nationality' of the majority of the characters in Shakespeare.  We would need a major invasion of Italian actors to fill the roles and so have the correct 'colour'.  Neither do I know if we can still use a foreign accent, a Japanese costume, a sombrero or a comedy moustache in order to become someone-else.

But it seems that at the cutting edge of what we cannot do is to use make-up to change the colour of our skin.  The justification, however, is a little difficult to discover.  Is it a racial insult or a matter of pay – the availability of work? It is said that there are actors of African origin who could play the role of Othello. Simply to abstain from using black make-up therefore would not be a sufficient response if it is a question of who has the work.  But there is often also at the same time a reference to the Black & White Minstrel Show in this country, which presented the 'Black' part (sung by white singers with black make-up) as a group of fairly infantile people.  I, for one, however, cannot see the link between this and Othello, a serious drama written by our internationally known and respected playwright Mr Shakespeare.

In fact, however, the justification for the attack against the New York company demonstrates that the people behind it had no clear idea of their motivation. The person who started the hare running was apparently an 'activist' for the rights of the Asian community.  I don't know if she had a democratic mandate from them, but her main intention was to have more roles for Asian singers and actors.  Now if there was an obvious under-representation in the industry, then it would be right to draw attention to it.  But in this case, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players have a policy of open auditions for every role.  So then every casting is based, in principle, on merit.  There are many Japanese and Chinese who are part of the world of Opera.  It is a world which is unusually international - a real mix of nationalities – and necessarily the vast majority of them sing in foreign languages – mainly Italian and German.  The difficulty in New York therefore was perhaps a lack of candidates for this type of niche role, a role demanding excellent UK English

But one of the commentators wrote this explanation of his position:

“White privilege is telling the stories of people of color and crowding out their actual, lived narratives.  Even when those stories come from a place of prejudice, as with Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, they can be told in ways that highlight the legacy of white supremacy and give voices to people of color.”

Leaving aside the opacity of meaning created by this type of pseudo-intellectual English, it seems to me that the writer – an expert on heavy metal groups – hasn't spotted that the Mikado is actually an English story which pretends to be Japanese.  Gilbert had no intention of telling the Japanese 'narrative' of the 19th century.  Without doubt the public would have seen it instead as their 'narrative', obviously an operetta written to satirise their 'white' society whilst not upsetting the lord Chamberlain, and not to tell the story of people on an island on the other side of the world.  And even less to be taken seriously as a description of that country.   Neither can I imagine how the Mikado can be told “in ways that highlight the legacy of white supremacy and give voices to people of colour.”.  What white supremacy?  Japan is one of the richest countries in the world and its citizens are hardly people of colour in the relevant sense – people collectively disadvantaged by, for example, slavery.  Perhaps, though, the actors could go around with signs around their necks saying: “I'm sorry that I am not a person of colour”?

A final point: what does 'white' actually mean? And in what sense is, for example, a Lithuanian singer playing the role of Othello a part of the 'white supremacy'.  They too were the subject of colonisation – by Russia for a very long period.  And Wales was in a similar situation, and then there was the invasion of England in 1066 and the invasion of most of Europe by the Romans... In fact almost every European country has a similar story.  Those who insist on grouping together all the European countries, the Americans and presumably the Russians as well, as a homogeneous group – white, and so guilty of the problems of people of colour – are they not also guilty of the very prejudice of which they complain?  Or am I just getting old and therefore less liberal?

Paul Buckingham

October 2015


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