Misunderstood Mikado


This week, the Guardian featured a story on an American theatre group apologising for an aspect of its production of The Mikado.  Apparently, the Lord High Executioner’s patter song had been updated, as is traditional, to include some modern examples of people who would be on his “little list” and who therefore “never would be missed.”  On of these was Sarah Palin, probably the most famous woman in America at the moment.  Her inclusion had angered certain people, and the theatre group had to issue an apology.  I think that’s a crying shame.

The great Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs often get a bit of topical updating thrown their way, and this makes perfect sense.  They were written to be satirical, and satire is often bound to time and place (though there are aspects of their operas which are still strikingly relevant today), so some updates to the specific satirical shots are to be expected.  I rather expect W.S. Gilbert would approve of the practice.  In the UK, I have heard it sung with reference to music mogul Simon Cowell and politicians of all parties.  And although the song is talking about a list of people who could be executed with no detriment to society (including “all people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs”), there is one very important thing to note.  Nobody takes it seriously.  Nobody.  An inclusion in this patter song is a surefire indicator that the person or group mentioned has achieved cultural relevance to the point that everyone in the audience will have heard of them.  It is not a suggestion that someone should go out and chop off their head, it really isn’t.  Also, in context (isn’t context a wonderful thing?), it is clear that none of the people on the list will ever be executed, for a whole variety of comic reasons.

I feel a little sad that the group in question felt it necessary to apologise rather than to explain.  Perhaps they felt nobody would listen.  There are a whole host of things they could have said, but would they have been believed?  Here goes :

  • The song does not actually advocate cutting heads off.
  • The ‘executioner’ in The Mikado is so bad at his job that he couldn’t even hurt a fly.  And technically, he’d have to cut his own head off (for reasons far too complicated to explain) before doing the same to anyone else.
  • Hundreds, probably thousands of productions of The Mikado have used variations of these lyrics which have included royals, sportsmen, actors, politicians, presenters, singers and every other kind of celebrity.  Has any other production had to apologise for this?
  • Inclusion in the list is an indication of fame, and has nothing to do with political allegiance.  I’m sure it could just as easily have been ‘Michelle Obama’ or any other name from the other side of the political divide (and almost certainly has been in other productions).  Palin was probably ‘lucky’ enough to have the right number of syllables to fit the music in this instance.
  • This list shouldn’t be necessary for those with a sense of humour…

Reading the full report of this story in the Missoulian is fascinating.  Reading the comments, on the other hand, is quite disturbing with some quite hateful things being thrown forth by people on all potential sides of the controversy.  The controversy that never should have been a controversy.  Most worrying is the little part of me that thinks “well, at least the people of Missoula are talking about the theatre…”  So perhaps I should best end matters here and direct you to my own version of the song in question – The Librarian’s Little List.

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