"The Mikado"

or "The Town of Titipu"

Potted Plot | History | First Night Critics | Did You Know? | Behind the Scenes | Original Cast

Picture of first night programme

First performed at the Savoy Theatre, London, on March 14th 1885.

Act One. The courtyard of Ko-Ko's Palace in Titipu.

Nanki-Poo, the disguised son of the Mikado, arrives in the town in search of Ko-Ko's ward, Yum-Yum. He had heard that Ko-Ko had been condemned to death for flirting but is told that at the last minute Ko-Ko was reprieved and raised to the rank of Lord High Executioner.

Pooh-Bah, who holds every other high position in the town, arrives and for a fee tells Nanki-Poo more news of Yum-Yum. And the news is not good. Yum-Yum is set to marry Ko-Ko that very day.

"This very day from school Yum-Yum
Will wend her way, and homeward come,
With beat of drum and a rum-tum-tum,
To wed the Lord High Executioner."

Ko-Ko arrives and discusses, with Pooh-Bah, the plans for his approaching wedding. They are interrupted by the arrival of Yum-Yum, her sisters and their school friends.

Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo find themselves alone together and he confides in her that he is really the son of the Mikado. Ordered by his father to marry Katisha, an elderly lady of the court, he had fled and joined a town band which is where Yum-Yum had discovered him. They depart.

Ko-Ko arrives bearing a letter from the Mikado which points out that no executions have taken place in Titipu for a year and that unless somebody is beheaded within a month the post of Lord High Executioner will be abolished. Ko-Ko spots Nanki-Poo carrying a rope. As Yum-Yum is going to marry Ko-Ko the only thing left is suicide. Ko-Ko suggests that if he is resolved to die why not be beheaded by the public executioner. He would live most handsomely for a month and to clinch the deal, Ko-Ko even agrees to Nanki-Poo marrying Yum-Yum, providing he dies in a month's time.

Everyone arrives and the celebrations start only to be interrupted by the arrival of Katisha. She attempts to expose Nanki-Poo but is drowned by the chorus all singing in Japanese.

The act ends with Katisha vowing vengeance.

Act Two is set in Ko-Ko's garden. Yum-Yum prepares for her wedding. Her friends, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo somewhat tactlessly remind her that her lover is to die in a month's time.

Ko-Ko brings even more alarming news - the law states that when a married man is beheaded, his wife is buried alive. Yum-Yum points out that this news does throw an entirely new light on the arrangements.

A solution is found. Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum will be married by the Archbishop of Titipu (Pooh-Bah) while the others will pretend that the execution has taken place.

The Mikado arrives with Katisha in attendance. He is gratified to learn that an execution has taken place but Katisha, reading the death certificate, sees the name, Nanki-Poo, on it. Ko-Ko, Pitti-Sing and Pooh-Bah beg for mercy but the Mikado suggests their execution take place after lunch.

After the Mikado and his party have left, Nanki-Poo enters and suggests that the solution to the problem is for Ko-Ko to marry Katisha. Ko-Ko is horrified but he doesn't have much option. He seeks out Katisha and begs her to marry him. She refuses but is won over by the descriptive singing of the song "Titwillow".

After lunch the Mikado arrives back to witness the executions. Nanki-Poo bursts in and Katisha flies into a rage at Ko-Ko. The Mikado points out that he is still not happy about the elaborate lying. Ko-Ko has the answers once more. He points out that if the Mikado says let a thing be done, it is almost as good as done, practically, it is done. Then if it is done then why not say so.

At a loss for a better answer the Mikado declares that nothing could be more satisfactory.

All rejoice.

Click here for a complete libretto to The Mikado

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History
Mikado Theatre Poster

One day an old Japanese sword, which had been hanging on the wall of Gilbert's study, fell from its place. This incident directed Gilbert's attention to that distant country and, in particular, to a company of Japanese who had recently arrived in England. They had set up a little village of their own in Knightsbridge. Their strange arts and customs soon attracted all of London.

In 1857 the Queen had sent the Emperor of Japan a present of a warship. The Emperor graciously yielded assent to some of his subjects to visit England for the purpose of studying Western Civilization.

For the material for his play Gilbert found all he wanted in Knightsbridge, within a mile of his own home in South Kensington.

To stage the Operetta was to cause a few problems with the actors and actresses of the Savoy Theatre. All that they had learnt with stage movement over the years had to be undone. Every proud, upright and lithesome Savoyard would have to be slowly transformed into the semblance of petite Japanese. In Knightsbridge, Gilbert found real living models that could teach the ladies and gentlemen of the Savoy how to walk, dance, sit and use their fans. A Japanese male dancer and a Japanese tea-girl were permitted to give their services to the Savoy management.

Gilbert read up the ancient history of the nation, finding much from which to extract humour. He soon conceived a plot and story.

One of the most important features of "The Mikado" production was the costumes. Most of the ladies' dresses came from Liberty & Co., and were 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. The hideous masks worn by the Banner-bearers were also precise copies of those which used to adorn the Mikado's bodyguard.

On March the 14th, 1885, in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, "The Mikado" was presented for the first time with overwhelming success.

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First night critics

Cartoon

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

"Columbus discovered a new world. Mr. W.S. Gilbert has created one. He has evolved from his inner conciousness, as the German did the camel, a japan of his own, and has placed a territorial fragment thereof upon the stage of the Savoy Theatre."

Era

"Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan must be familiar with success by this time, but never in their brilliant partnership of sprightly music and fantastic fun has a more unanimous verdict of approval been passed upon their labours than when the curtain fell on Saturday last."

Theatre

"The Pooh-Bah of Mr. Barrington is a masterpiece of pompous stolidity - nothing could possibly be better of its kind - and this popular comedian provided his many admirers with an agreeable surprise by singing every note of music allotted to him perfectly in tune."

Standard

"Mr. Lely is the Nanki-Poo, and it naturally follows that the hero's music is given with taste, while Mr. Lely is known as one of the few tenors who can act. His first song, 'A wandering minstrel, I', is one of the successes of the Opera."

Standard

"Miss Brandram (as Katisha) is known as an accomplished vocalist, and she amply justified her reputation."

Theatre

"Leonora Braham (as Yum-Yum), sang and acted to perfection...She was more fascinating than ever, and more than once saved the action from dragging by her unaffected vivacity and winsome playfulness."

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

"Mr R. Temple, with an eccentric head-gear suggestive of the Great Panjandram, with the little round buttons at the top, is a truly grand Mikado, from the Gilbertian point of view, though, I should say, falling rather short of the native ideal...I will point out the marked power of facial expression, by which he not only emphasises his own lines, but clearly reflects the impression produced, or supposed to be produced, upon his mind by those addressed to him."

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

"Mr. Frederick Bouvill is a trifle heavy as Pish Tush, but has a very good voice and knows how to make use of it."

Theatre

"(The costumes) are unbecoming to men and women alike - especially to the latter...in fact, they obliterate the natural distinctions between the sexes, imparting to the prettiest girl's figure the seeming of a bolster loosely wrapped up in a dressing grown."

Daily News

"The Japanese gowns, with their delicate tints, their richly embroidered conceits and fantasies, and their ample sashes, lent not a little aid to the oddly pleasing effect. If the enthusiasm of the ladies among the audience may afford a token, sashes rising halfway from the waist to the shoulders and tied in huge double bows upon the backs of the wearers, may find a place ere long among the fashions of the day, unless Mr. Burnand, whose satirical eye was observed to be very busy on the occasion, should be disposed to bring the deterrent influences of verse writers and draughtsmen of Punch to bear upon the threatened rage for Japanese eccentricities."

Theatre

"The text of The Mikado sparkles with countless gems of wit...and its author's rhyming and rhythmic gifts have never been more splendidly displayed. As for the dialogue, it is positively so full of points and hits as to keep the wits of the audience constantly on the strain."

Theatre

"What a graphic and fertile melodist is Sullivan! What an accomplished orchestrator!...Beyond a doubt The Mikado is as good as any of its forerunners. It contains half a dozen numbers, each of which is sufficiently attractive to ensure the opera's popularity; musical jewels of great price, all aglow with the lustre of a pure and luminous genius.

Click here to check out the reviews for the first Australian production.

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Did you know?

In 1907, when Japan was becoming a power to be reckoned with, the Lord Chamberlain withdrew The Mikado's licence during a state visit by a Japanese prince. For six weeks the play was officially banned, though Helen D'Oyly Carte went ahead with her planned performances all the same. Gilbert was irate. No one was sure whether the Lord Chamberlain was taking precautionary action or whether the ban had been requested by the Japanese government (Gilbert believed it was).
A last word came from a Japanese journalist, in England to cover the Prince's visit. He attended the proscribed performance and confessed himself 'deeply and pleasingly disappointed'. Expecting 'real insults' to his country, he had found only 'bright music and much fun'.

After the first performance Gilbert made some quite drastic changes to the production. 'The Sun, whose rays' was moved from Act 1 to the beginning of Act 2. The second verse of 'Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted' was cut, 'I've got a little list' was moved to earlier in the Act, and, the finale to Act 2 was extended.

D'Oyly Carte enetered into negotiations for a New York production. Determined to stage the definitive version Carte organised the Savoy touring company to sail secretly to America. They were booked under assumed names and told they were going on a provincial tour in England. They were then taken by boat train to Liverpool, then taken by special tug out to the Aurania which sailed them across the Atlantic to New York. Carte's plans worked perfectly and the company was able to forstall any rival production.

For a full review of the New York production click here

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Behind the scenes

The moral atmosphere behind the scenes at the Savoy Theatre would have been approved by Queen Victoria herself. The strictest discipline was enforced by Gilbert and no theatre was ever run with such a careful regard to propriety.
The dressing-rooms of the actors were on one side of the stage. Those of the actresses were on the other. No lingering about the corridors or the stage was allowed. There was no gossiping of the sexes in one another's dressing rooms. When not actually playing or waiting for their entrances on the scene, the performers had no contact with one another in the theatre.
Even on the stage they were not safe from the moral eye of authority, and every time they varied from the set "business" of the piece they were fined half-a-crown. The same applied if they misquoted the text.
Though the monastic Gilbert was heard to swear he was never heard to use an ambiguous word. His language, like his libretto, was clean, if hearty.

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