In a record shop in Truro last summer I heard someone ask for a recording of the Pirates of Penzance. `Would they be a local group?' drawled the girl behind the counter. G & S had obviously lost their hold on late twentieth century Cornwall, but in late nineteenth century America the Mikado was a wow. Rival Mikado companies sprouted like alfalfa seed and sued each other with litigious fury over who had the proper performing rights. On one evening in 1886, a year after the first performance in England, there took place across the United States 170 separate performances of the opera, one of them probably in the newly christened town of Mikado, Michigan.
The Americans, on the whole quite a prudish lot, had trouble conceiving how Gilbert could decently call his town Titipu, or think there might be a bird called a tit-willow - after all they carry delicacy to the point of talking about chickadees - but they did not jib at the obvious racism of the opera. These days people are more easily offended. In our common room at Winchester we are not allowed to take the Sun, the most obvious voice of the people in the land, because the ladies are upset at the idea of all us lads lubriciously peeping at the boobs on page three, and performances of the Mikado inevitably must face up to the nigger problem - the offensive word occurs twice in the text: you will find commentators who argue that Gilbert must have meant someone who was blacked up. `The nigger serenader and others of his race' were on Ko-Ko's not so little list: I suppose `race' might just have been Gilbertian slang for `kind', with an ironic joke about temporally assumed nationality. Let's hope so.
Gilbert was only mirroring the indifference of the period to such matters, of course; American periodicals of the time, like The Century or Harper's Monthly, commonly represented African Americans using stylised spelling to simulate their mode of speech. The Victorians derided people who came from further away than Basingstoke, and Gilbert's view of Japan gave them a chance to have a good sneer at the supposed barbarity and ritualisation of life in the orient: Ko-Ko's inauguration ceremonies are due to last a week; there is a law against flirting; justice is summary; there's much talk of decapitation and worse. Gilbert also makes fun of the delicacy of oriental society. Citizens of a country which has two hundred and seventy separate styles of flower arrangement can easily find their amatory pulses quickened by the idea of Katisha's left shoulder-blade or right elbow, much more erotic than the ones on the other side.
Gilbert enjoyed himself choosing oriental names, and wasn't too careful to distinguish between Japan and China: Nanki-poo is suggestive of Nankin, and Yum-Yum of deliciousness, of course, so perhaps he wasn't asking to be taken too seriously. Peter Sellers' Indian imitation would now be considered against the Race-Relations Act, but some of Gilbert's less subtle shafts...