Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Imagining China in London Musical Theatre during the 1890s: The Geisha and San Toy

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Imagining China in London Musical Theatre during the 1890s: The Geisha and San Toy

Article excerpt

How the British imagined China and the Chinese at the end of the nineteenth century was a complex, multi-faceted, and sometime contradictory affair. London at the time had a Chinese population of only about 300, and most Londoners associated the Chinese with laundries, catering businesses, or opium dens.1 (Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood provides a vivid example for the last of these images, with its menacing atmosphere filled with mystery and unknowing.) But these were not the only ways in which the Chinese were viewed. In 1905 George Sims described the Chinese people living in London's East End as possessing "a most peaceable, inoffensive, harmless character."2

These various attitudes toward China, as well as toward the Chinese themselves, were being manifested in various artistic products, including popular musical theatre. Two shows that originated at Daly's Theatre were especially significant in this identity construction in the final decade of the nineteenth century: The Geisha (1896) and San Toy (1899). In The Geisha, which takes place in Japan, the sole Chinese character is Wun-Hi, the owner of a teahouse, who sings (and speaks) in Pidgin English with clipped articulations. In the imagined China of San Toy, characters who endorse Western views sing glorious melodic lines reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan or comic opera while those who do not sound like Wun-Hi in The Geisha. In this theatrical version of Chinoiserie, China is evoked through visual, textural, and performative cues, not inherently musical ones.

The Geisha and San Toy are emblematic products of the Daly's Theatre enterprise, managed and produced under the creative eye of George Edwardes. Edwardes mounted five shows with scores by Sidney Jones at Daly's Theatre during the 1890s: A Gaiety Girl (1893, Prince of Wales; 1894, Daly's), An Artist's Model (1895), The Geisha, A Greek Slave (1898) and San Toy. All five shows are examples of the notoriously difficult-to-define genre of musical comedy. In the 1890s British sense of the genre, specifically how it was practiced at Daly's, aspects of comic opera - such as fanciful stories, nearly operatic singing, and multi-part ensembles - are melded with dimensions from burlesque and music hall, including improvisation and ethnic-based performance styles. This amalgamation resulted in a musical entertainment with broad popular appeal. Edwardes, whose prior experiences included working for Richard d'Oyly Carte at the Savoy Theatre and also managing the Gaiety Theatre, knew how to negotiate the space between comic opera and more fluid musical theatre genres. He used this liminality to create a particular brand of musical comedy at Daly's when he became its manager in 1895. The shows he produced at Daly's exuded opulence and romantic sentimentality while remaining steadfastly rooted in the everyday.

When it came to creating fanciful imaginings of East Asia in popular musical theater, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado from 1885 remains the prime exemplar. Nearly a decade later, the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) shifted political relations in East Asia itself as well as those between Japan, China, and European powers. The war came to represent the enfeeblement of China's Manchu-descended Qing dynasty and Japan's modernization, along European lines, after the Meiji Restoration. Significant outcomes included Japan's acquisition of Korea and the Liaodong Peninsula from China.3 The post-war "Triple Intervention" of Russia, France, and Germany, however, forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula to China. Britain, notably, was not part of this European coalition and this decision led to closer relations between Britain and Japan and more strained ones between Britain and China.4

Thus, when The Geisha danced onto the stage at Daly's Theatre on April 25, 1896, it promoted a pro-Japanese and anti-Chinese view of East Asia. Billed as "A Story of a Tea House," The Geisha enjoyed an extremely long run of 760 performances in its initial production. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.