Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


by Cunningham Bridgeman

NOTE: This article is a chapter in the book "Gilbert and Sullivan and Their Operas" by François Cellier & Cunningham Bridgeman, published by Little, Brown and Company in 1914.

After a run of 150 performances, "The Sorcerer" expired, or, rather let us say, retired to rest for a while on March 12th, 1885. Two nights later "The Mikado" came to light.

After the production of "Princess Ida," a rumour had got about that Gilbert and Sullivan's next venture would be an opera of a different type, less extravagant, more psychologically subtle and serious, and, at the same time, quite as humorous as any of the past series. "It is to be," said the prophet, "a real, genuine, English comic opera, no topsy-turvy precious nonsense this time." Like every man who talks à travers son chapeau, the foreteller was somewhat out of his reckoning. One marvels at the fabulous number of falsehoods bred daily by Busybody out of Imagination! And to what end? Simply, it may be supposed, to provide "copy" for hungry journalists.

Gilbert and Sullivan, it might be assumed, knew better than anybody else what style of work best suited them conjointly or separately. If they had discovered that their united strength lay in serious opera, they would, doubtless, have turned their attention to such rather than risk continuing to harp on the same strings that had hitherto pleased the public ear, but which might in time become monotonous and tedious. "The Mikado" marked some departure from both the Gilbertian and Sullivanesque methods, in so far as it was not another facetious skit on the follies and foibles of the author's compatriots, and that the music was not so redolent of Old England. But the good wine needed no label to tell its vintage. Its bouquet was sufficient.

Only Gilbert and Sullivan could have written and composed "The Mikado." Gilbert, having determined to leave his own country alone for a while, sought elsewhere for a subject suitable to his peculiar humour. A trifling accident inspired him with an idea. One day an old Japanese sword which, for years, had been hanging on the wall of his study, fell from its place. This incident directed his attention to Japan. Just at that time a company of Japanese had arrived in England and set up a little village of their own in Knightsbridge. Beneath the shadow of the Cavalry Barracks the quaint little people squatted and stalked, proud and unconconscious of the contrast between their own diminutive forms and those of the Royal Horse Guards across the road. By their strange arts and devices and manner of life, these chosen representatives of a remote race soon attracted all London. Society hastened to be Japanned, just as a few years ago Society had been aestheticized. The Lily, after a brief reign, had been deposed; it was now the turn of the Chrysanthemum to usurp the rightful throne of the English Rose.

As all the world knows--although nowadays it is difficult to realize the fact--the last decades of the nineteenth century marked the full awakening of Japan. In 1857 the Queen of England had sent the Emperor a present of a warship, following which the Emperor had graciously yielded assent to his subjects visiting England for the purpose of studying Western civilization. But it was not until the native colony was formed at Knightsbridge that the Japanese and the English began to know each other. Hitherto comparative strangers, the former had now come across the seas to cement more firmly the friendship which Queen Victoria's gift had done so much to promote. Our visitors came to learn our manners and customs. They little imagined how ready we should be to take lessons from them. The most imitative people of the universe soon found us imitating them. It was not because we desired to bestow upon our guests "the sincerest form of flattery"; it was, rather, because English Society delights in the New: especially if the new be old, very old; the older the better, so long as some one has made it famous somewhere at some time. Because it was new to London, Society was charmed to adopt even a celestial mode. Our Japanese friends were surprised, and, naturally, gratified. They were still more flattered when they learnt that they had inspired England's most distinguished librettist with the basis of an opera, an opera that was destined to become the most popular of the Savoy series.

For the material of his play Gilbert had not to journey to Yokohama or Tokyo. He found all he wanted in Knightsbridge, within a mile of his own home in South Kensington. But our author had to face many difficulties in the development of his novel notion of preparing a Japanese play for the English stage.

To begin with, one of the most essential qualifications of Savoy actors and actresses was that of physical grace; the poise of each limb, the elegant sway and easy motion of the figure, the noble dignity of action which distinguishes the English stage. All this had to be undone again, only more so than had been necessary in the case of Bunthorne, Grosvenor, and their followers in the play of "Patience." Every proud, upright, and lithesome Savoyard would have to be transformed into the semblance of a Jap who, to our Western eyes, was not the ideal of perfect grace and loveliness.

But Gilbert soon found a way out of that difficulty. Here were living models, real Japanese ready to hand. They should teach the ladies and gentlemen of the Savoy how to walk and dance, how to sit down and how to express their every emotion by the evolutions of the fan. Confident, then, in his ability to overcome all obstacles, our author applied his mind to the subject of Japan, read up the ancient history of the nation and, finding therein much from which to extract humour, soon conceived a plot and story.

It must not, however, be supposed that Gilbert discovered the originals of any of his dramatis personae in the chronicles of the times of Jimmu Tenno, first Emperor of Japan, or his descendants. "Pooh Bah" --that worthy who comprehended within his own person a complete cabinet of ministers, together with other important offices--Pooh Bah, it will be remembered, traced his ancestry back to a "protoplasmal primordial atomic globule"; consequently, no Japanese gentleman of rank, however sensitive, could imagine himself or his progenitors to have been made the subject of the English author's satire. Likewise neither Koko, the Lord High Executioner, nor Nanki-Poo disguised as a second trombone, could possibly be identified with persons associated with Old Japan. Figuratively, all these notabilities may have been portrayed on lacquer-trays, screens, plates, or vases, but none of them had ever lived in the flesh before they came to life at the Savoy Theatre.

As regards Gilbert's portrait of a Mikado, having carefully studied the outline history of Japanese civilization, I have failed to discover any sovereign potentate, from the Emperor Jimmu, founder of the Empire, down to the present dynasty, or Meiji Period, who could by the greatest stretch of imagination be taken as the prototype of that Mikado to whom we were presented in the Town of Titipu, that sublime personage and true philanthropist who assured us that "a more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist." Nevertheless, it will not have been forgotten how, on the occasion of the last revival of the opera at the Savoy the play was temporarily banned on the ground that it was likely to give offence to our friends and allies.

One of the first observations made by Sullivan after reading the libretto in the rough, was that he was rather surprised to find that the author had not made use of any of the distinctive class titles of Old Japan, such as, for instance, "The Shoguns." Gilbert's reply was: "My dear fellow, I agree with you. Some of those names were very funny; in fact, so ear-tickling as to invite excruciating rhymes. But when I found that the aristocracy of Old Japan were called "Samurais" --I paused. Supposing I wanted to introduce the Samurais in verse, the obvious rhyme might have seriously offended those good gentlemen who worship their ancestors. Moreover, the rhyme would certainly have shocked a Savoy audience, unless your music had drowned the expression in the usual theatrical way--Tympani fortissimo, I think you call it."

"Ah!" said Sullivan, "I see your point."

Through the courtesy of the directors of the Knightsbridge Village, a Japanese male dancer and a Japanese tea-girl were permitted to give their services to the Savoy management. To their invaluable aid in coaching the company it was mainly due that our actors and actresses became, after a few rehearsals, so very Japanny. The Japanese dancer was a fairly accomplished linguist. The little gentleman artist was far too polite and refined to need any of the rude and hasty vernacular common to the impatient British stage-manager of the old school. For polished adjectives or suitable pronouns he would turn to the author, or, it might be, to Mr. John D'Auban, who was, as usual, engaged to arrange the incidental dances.

The Geisha, or Tea-girl, was a charming and very able instructress, although she knew only two words of English- -"Sixpence, please," that being the price of a cup of tea as served by her at Knightsbridge. To her was committed the task of teaching our ladies Japanese deportment, how to walk or run or dance in tiny steps with toes turned in, as gracefully as possible; how to spread and snap the fan either in wrath, delight, or homage, and how to giggle behind it. The Geisha also taught them the art of "make-up," touching the features, the eyes, and the hair. Thus to the minutest detail the Savoyards were made to look like "the real thing." Our Japanese friends often expressed the wish that they could become as English in appearance as their pupils had become Japanesey. Somebody suggested they should try a course of training under Richard Barker, who could work wonders. Had not he succeeded in making little children assume the attitude and bearing of adults? If anybody could transform a "celestial" into an "occidental," Dick Barker was the man. But I don't think the experiment was ever tried.

It was extremely amusing and interesting to witness the stage rehearsals, to note the gradual conversion of the English to the Japanese. One was sometimes inclined to wonder if the Savoyards would retain sufficient native instinct adequately to study the English music.

As usual, the ladies proved more apt pupils than the men. Most apt of all, perhaps, were the "Three little Maids from School," who fell into their stride (if such a term can be applied to the mincing step of the East) with remarkable readiness, footing their measures as though to the manner born.

One of the most important features of "The Mikado" production was the costumes. Most of the ladies' dresses came from the ateliers of Messrs. Liberty & Co., and were, of course, of pure Japanese fabric. The gentlemen's dresses were designed by Mr. C. Wilhelm from Japanese authorities. But some of the dresses worn by the principals were genuine and original Japanese ones of ancient date; that in which Miss Rosina Brandram appeared as "Katisha" was about two hundred years old. The magnificent gold-embroidered robe and petticoat of the Mikado was a faithful replica of the ancient official costume of the Japanese monarch; the strange-looking curled bag at the top of his head was intended to enclose the pig-tail. His face, too, was fashioned after the manner of the former Mikados, the natural eyebrows being shaved off and huge false ones painted on his forehead.

The hideous masks worn by the Banner-bearers were also precise copies of those which used to adorn the Mikado's Body-guard. They were intended to frighten the foe. Some antique armour had been purchased and brought from Japan, but it was found impossible to use it, as it was too small for any man above four feet five inches, yet, strange to say, it was so heavy that the strongest and most muscular man amongst the Savoyards would have found it difficult to pace across the stage with it on.

Mystery was always D'Oyly Carte's managerial policy. And a wise policy it was, as I shall endeavour to explain later on.

Accordingly, to no one outside the managerial inner circle were made known the constructive lines of the vessel then on the stocks. Japan was scented, but not until the moment of the launch was the name of "The Mikado" whispered. It was as profound a cabinet secret as that which surrounds the building of a new class of cruiser in one of His Majesty's Dockyards.

And so it came to pass that on March 14th, 1885, in the presence of the usual crowded and distinguished company, which included T.R.H. The Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, "The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu," was presented for the first time by the following cast:

The Mikado of Japan . . . MR. R. TEMPLE
Nanki-Poo . . . . . . . . MR. DURWARD LELY
(His Son, disguised as a wandering minstrel, and in love with Yum-Yum)
Ko-Ko . . . . . . . . . . MR. GEORGE GROSSMITH
(Lord High Executioner of Titipu)
Pooh-Bah. . . . . . . . . MR. RUTLAND BARRINGTON
(Lord High Everything Else)
Go-to . . . . . . . . . . MR. R. CUMMINGS
Pish-Tush . . . . . . . . MR. FREDERICK BOVILL
(A Noble Lord)
Yum-Yum . . . . . . . . . MISS LEONORA BRAHAM
Pitti-Sing . . . . . . . MISS JESSIE BOND
Peep-Bo . . . . . . . . . MISS SYBIL GREY
(Three Sisters; Wards of Ko Ko)
Katisha . . . . . . . . . MISS ROSINA BRANDRAM
(An elderly Lady, in love with Nanki-Poo)
Chorus of School-girls, Nobles, Guards, and Coolies
ACT I.--Court-yard of Ko-Ko's offcial residence
ACT II.--Ko-Ko's Garden

The leading critics were, generally, loud in their praise of the new opera; but, as usual, some of the praise was qualified. One expert thought "The Mikado" the best of the series of Savoy operas, another declared it to be not up to the mark of "The Pinafore," or "The Pirates," or "Iolanthe"--or--well, any other. It was a matter of opinion then, as it has remained ever since. Our greatly revered friend Punch, who was seldom anything if not humorous, did not always seem to take kindly to the Gilbertian school. Perhaps the clever, conservative "Chief of the London Charivari" was too old-fashioned fully to appreciate the "new humour." Punch seldom descended to serious dramatic or musical criticism. It was not the policy of his paper. Why should he bore his merry-minded readers more than he could help doing? Being himself the oldest established merchant in Funniments and Witticisms known to the world, and, withal, the very pattern of polished style and refined views of life, Punch would never besmudge a column of his brilliant periodical by damning anything or anybody, like any ordinary press critic. But, as regards the Savoy operas, even though he might not like them quite so well as he did the old burlesques of the 'sixties, Punch could not very well ignore what most of his worthy contemporaries were belauding. The dear old hunchback was never exactly bitter, only a wee bit playfully caustic at times. He seemed to enjoy pouting his lips at Gilbert and spluttering, "Poo, poo to you!"--just as a jealous schoolboy who thinks himself clever behaves towards another schoolboy in a higher class, who has proved himself to be more clever.

We are reminded of this playful satire whilst re-perusing a full-page notice of "The Mikado," which appeared in The London Charivari after the first production of the opera.

Punch, or his representative "Before the curtain," starts by devoting a column to theorizing on the acknowledged fact that Gilbert and Sullivan at the Savoy produced their pieces under conditions which few other authors or composers have had the luck to meet with; that they (Gilbert and Sullivan) were their own managers, that the theatre was practically theirs, that they selected their own company of artistes and, in short, that they did just whatever they liked--all of which theory suggests that, given equally favourable conditions, any other authors or composers could have commanded as great success as the lucky collaborators of the Savoy.

But, may not the same argument apply to every line of life? The man who is clever enough and possessed of sufficient self-confidence and business acumen can, provided he brings the right ware to market, make his own conditions. Gilbert and Sullivan, aided by D'Oyly Carte, made their own beds, and that they proved beds of roses they had chiefly, if not only, themselves to thank.

Then, Punch, after explaining to his own satisfaction, or mortification, how the author and composer of "The Mikado" had always had "greatness thrust upon them, proceeds to note the chief point of humour which he had found in the new opera. This was when George Grossmith, who, throughout the first Act, had been hiding his "understandings" beneath Ko-Ko's petticoats, suddenly, in Act II., gave a kick up and showed a pair of white-stockinged legs under the Japanese dress.

"It was an inspiration," said the facetious Punch. "Forthwith the house felt a strong sense of relief. It had got what it wanted, it had found out accidentally what it had really missed, and at the first glimpse of George Grossmith's legs there arose a shout of long-pent-up laughter. George took the hint; he too had found out where the fault lay, and now he was so pleased at the discovery that he couldn't give them too much of a good thing . . . from that time to the end of the piece there wasn't a dull minute."

A very amusing and instructive dramatic criticism! I dare say such a notice was the means of inducing many Punchers, and footballers too, probably, to go to the Savoy to see George Grossmith kick up his legs. At the same time one can hardly dare say that it was Ko-Ko's comic spindle-shanks that accounted for "The Mikado" running without a stop for 672 days. But there! we all know it was only a well-meaning, friendly attempt on dear old Punch's part to out-wit Gilbert, and it is only because of the brilliancy of the humour that I have ventured thus lengthily to refer to the famous chief of Fun-mongers.

Other leading critics, as I have already acknowledged, were generally more kind if less amusing. In fact, the London Press could not have given Gilbert and Sullivan's latest opera a warmer or more hearty send-off.

Not only throughout the provinces, but also in America and in Germany, to both which countries D'Oyly Carte sent complete companies, "The Mikado's" triumph was equal to that achieved in London notwithstanding the absence of George Grossmith and his legs. Is it not therefore safe to aver that the success of "The Mikado" owed no more to Ko-Ko's "shrunk shanks" than to Katisha's "left shoulderblade," that was "a miracle of loveliness which people came miles to see?"

During the run of "The Mikado" an interesting incident of a private nature occurred in connection with that opera. Sir Arthur Sullivan entertained the Prince of Wales (afterwards Edward VII.), to dinner one Sunday, when, to amuse His Royal Highness, a private performance of the opera was given at the Savoy; and this, by means of the telephone, was conveyed distinctly to Sir Arthur's private residence. And when the Prince, in a speech, thanked the company for their efforts, his words were heard on the stage of the Savoy Theatre.

Updated 27 Jan 1996