The Mikado



  • Gilbert and Sullivan's popular comic opera with aJapanese theme; subtitled The Town of Titipu, it opened in1885 at the Savoy Theatre. The subject matter is said to have suggesteditself to Gilbert when an ornamental Japanese sword fell from thewall of his library. Sullivan, who had announced his intention ofwriting no more comic operas, was persuaded to relent when he sawthe libretto.

    The opera traces the fate of Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado(emperor), who has disguised himself as a minstrel in order to wooYum-Yum, the ward of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. UnfortunatelyKo-Ko intends to marry her himself. The Mikado has complained to Ko-Koabout the lack of executions, so, unaware of Nanki-Poo's true identity,he agrees to let him marry Yum-Yum as long as he consents to be executedfor the Mikado's visit a month later. When Ko-Ko realizes that accordingto the law Yum-Yum must also die (by being buried alive) he drawsup a certificate saying the execution has already taken place. Whenthe Mikado visits and asks about Nanki-Poo, his lost son, the shockedKo-Ko brings the boy back from the dead.

    In 1907 performances of The Mikado were banned by theLord Chamberlain during a visit by the Japanese Prince Fushimi. Itwas felt that Gilbert's depiction of Japanese judicial proceduresmight give offence:

    To sit in silence in a dull, dark dock,
    In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock,
    Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
    From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!
    The phrase short sharp shock was used in 1983 byWilliam Whitelaw (then Home Secretary) to promote a system of harsherpunishment for young offenders.