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"isolation and connections"

By Gabriela Zoller, Dramaturg...

The Arden's production of Pacific Overtures is timely, for July 8 will mark the 150th anniversary of the day Commodore Perry's "four black ships" sailed into Edo Bay to begin the negotiations that culminated in the opening of Japan to the West after 250 years of isolation. It is a play about the tension between connectedness and isolation, and the ambivalence of transition. In this, too, Pacific Overtures is timely, for it asks its audiences to reflect on the consequences of the connections bred by pacific - and militaristic - overtures.

The Japan that Perry first confronted in July 1853 had enjoyed two and a half centuries of peace and prosperity under a stringent isolationist policy that forbade any contact with foreigners. Even in the decades before Perry's arrival, however, there was internal discontent with Japan's feudal hierarchy and insularity. Sondheim gestures to this early in Act I when he insinuates that the cultural calm bred by isolationism might, in fact, be stagnation: "Ideas are growing somewhere / Trails are being blazed / . . . Somewhere out there, not here."

The tension between security and stasis is epitomized in Pacific Overtures' Manjiro character. The real Manjiro Nakahama was a Japanese fisherman who was shipwrecked off the coast in 1841 when he was only 14 years old. Rescued by an American whaling ship, Manjiro returned to Massachusetts with the ship's captain. During his decade in America, Manjiro acquired an American education, served as First Mate on a whaling ship's 40-month journey around the world, and got rich in the California gold rush. In 1851, he returned to Japan, where he was jailed and interrogated for committing crimes against Japan's policy of isolation.

It is with Manjiro that Philadelphia's unique connections to the historical events depicted in Pacific Overtures begin. Realizing that Manjiro's knowledge of America was invaluable to understanding its enemies, the Shogunate demanded, in 1852, that Manjiro dictate his experiences to a scribe. What resulted was a remarkable illuminated document known as the "Manjiro manuscript," now in the collection of Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum & Library. In 1853, Manjiro was made a Shogunal retainer in order to translate and aid in the delicate negotiations between Perry and Japan. Here is where history and Pacific Overtures diverge: Sondheim's Manjiro ultimately eschews foreign influence in favor of a return to his Japanese cultural origins, while the real Manjiro advocated for an end to Japanese isolation and devoted himself to preparing future leaders for an internationally-engaged Japan.

Yet another local connection serves as a catalyst for reflecting on the legacy of Perry's "pacific" overtures: the U.S.S. Mississippi, one of two steam-frigates in the Perry squadron and his favorite ship, was built in the Philadelphia Naval Yard under Perry's own supervision. During the historic entry into Edo Bay, the imposing 229-foot long steamer, belching black clouds from its smokestacks and festooned with 12 large guns, functioned as an ominous representation of the incursion of foreign might into Japan. Indeed, on a diplomatic mission that included no official diplomat, the Mississippi was a crucial element in Perry's stratagem of securing Japan's acquiescence with the show of - but never the use of - force. Nearly 100 years later, after Japanese surrender in World War II was secured by perhaps the most terrifying use of force in history, the 1945 ceremony marking Japan's formal surrender included the American flag that had flown from the Mississippi when Perry steamed into Edo Bay.

That chilling connection suggests, as does Pacific Overtures' final musical number, that the legacy of the opening of Japan is neither wholly positive nor negative. Anniversaries can be a cause for celebration or solemn remembrance. Above all, they demand considered reflection of our connections to the past, so that we do not descend into a stasis that disallows the growth of ideas and dissent.

For more information, please visit the Rosenbach Museum & Library website at

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