The Mikado

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 30, 1910

Twenty-Five Years Old

Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous comic opera, “The Mikado,” which is on view again in Baltimore this week, was 25 years old on March 14 last. The memorable first performance of this greatest of light musical pieces was given on March 14, 1895, at the Savoy Theatre in London, the scene of all Gilbert and Sullivan first nights for 15 years. “Pinafore” had gone before, and it seemed impossible that the stupendous success of that delightful piece should be repeated by the new one, but nevertheless the miracle was achieved. “The Mikado” took London by storm, and soon afterward it took the world by storm. Before the end of 1885 it was being played in Europe and America by fully 150 companies. One night in October in this country alone, there were no less than 117 performances.

Some cities for awhile supported two, or even more, “Mikado” troupes. This was the case, for example in Baltimore. The late John T. Ford bought the local rights to the piece from John Stetson and John A. McCaull, who had acquired the American rights from the author and composer, and it was planned that the piece should be given its first Baltimore performance at Ford’s Opera House on the night of August 28, 1885, with George W. Denham, Pauline Harvey and other excellent old-timers in the cast. But, meanwhile, a man named S. W. Fort, who was managing a small opera company at the Academy of Music, got hold of the score of the piece and proceeded to put it in rehearsal, rights or no rights. On August 17, a week before the announced date of the Ford opening, “The Mikado” was thus produced.

Ford vs. Fort in Baltimore

Mr. Ford at once proceeded to tackle Fort in the courts, but judicial processes, then as now, were exasperatingly slow, and it was a long while before the case was heard and disposed of. Meanwhile, the actual combat of company and company had come to a quicker and more satisfactory issue. That is to say, the Ford company, when it began business on August 25, at once took the shine from the efforts of the Fort company. Before long the only persons going to the Academy of Music to see “The Mikado” were those who could not squeeze their way into Ford’s, which was packed from orchestra pit to frescoing at every performance. So Fort gave up the ghost.

Somewhat similar battles were fought out in all of the larger cities of the country. In those days the United States had no copyright treaty with England, and in consequence the rights of Gilbert and Sullivan had but little standing in our courts. American managers were not slow to take advantage of the fact. In the face of common justice and decency they produced the new opera, paying nothing for the privilege and relying upon the courts to stand by them. In New York the result was a bitter suit between Stetson and McCaull on the one side and Sydney Rosenfeld and H. C. Miner on the other.

Rosenfeld at that time was a dramatic hack in large practice, and it fell to his lot to “adapt” and enliven with native wit nine-tenths of the operettas imported (duty free) by the Broadway managers. It was in this manner that the libretto of “The Mikado” fell into his hands. Let it be said for him that whatever his failings otherwise, he had at least sense enough to see that it was impossible to improve upon Gilbert’s humor. That is to say, he did little more than add a few stanzas to the topical songs; but the fact remained that he was a party to the pirating of the opera, and so Stetson and McCaull sued him for damages, and he was haled before a serpent of wisdom called Divver, J.

 A Famous Suit In New York

Divver was an Ulster man, and a foe to all foes of the Irish. Therefore, when he heard that a man with the suspiciously Asiatic appellation of Rosenfeld was accused of making off with the good of a man bearing the glorious old Gaelic name of Sullivan he began to work his eyebrows menacingly and to bombard Rosenfeld with searching questions. On the Sullivan side, too, was the aforesaid McCaull, another fellow of Irish label. But it was this same McCaull, alas, who threw away these advantages. First of all, he admitted on the stand that he was a Kentuckian by birth and had never been in Ireland; secondly, he made a number of laughable mistakes in Irish geography; and thirdly, he let loose the awful secret that Sullivan was not an Irishman at all, but a loyal Englishman.

Rosenfeld won. The decision of the court was to the effect that there was no remedy at law for offenses committed against Englishmen by free American citizens. Whether or not Gilbert and Sullivan had really written “The Mikado,” as claimed in their bill of complaint, was beside the point. The important thing was that they were foreigners who sought to set up a hateful monopoly on American soil. The courts of certain other states took a different view of the matter, but in general the absence of a copyright treaty made it practically impossible for Gilbert and Sullivan to enforce their rights, and so piracy went on. Within a few months, as has been mentioned, there were no less than 117 “Mikado” companies on the road.

At The Height Of The Craze

The people of the United States were “Mikado” crazy for a year or more, as they had been “Pinafore” crazy some time before. Things Japanese acquired an absurd vogue. Women carried Japanese fans and wore Japanese kimonos and dressed their hair in some approach to the Japanese manner. The mincing step of Yum-Yum appeared in the land; chop-suey, mistaken for a Japanese dish, became a naturalized victual; the Mikado’s yearning to make the punishment fit the crime gave the common speech a new phrase; parlor wits repeated, with never-failing success, the lordly Pooh-Bah’s remark about the “Corroborative detail designed to lend verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative”; his other remark, about the ultimate globule of primordial protoplasm, engendered a public interest in biology and sent the common people to the pages of Darwin, then a mere heretic and the favorite butt of windy homiletes.

Altogether, “The Mikado” left a deep mark upon the United States. It aroused a liking for clean humor, for grammatical music, for good taste on the stage, which has never wholly died out, despite the rise of slapstick musical comedy, with its obscure jokes, its deafening cacophony and its displays of lingerie. The opportunity is here for another Sullivan. A new comic opera of “The Mikado’s” quality would make a success so startling that the hits of “Florodora,” “The Belle of New York” and other such flapdoodle would be forgotten.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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