THE scene is the courtyard of Ko-Ko's palace in Titipu. Nanki-Poo, son of "The great and virtuous Mikado", has fled from Court to avoid marriage with the termagant Katisha. Elderly and ugly, she describes herself as "an acquired taste", claiming that beauty resides not in the face alone. "I have a shoulder-blade that is a miracle of loveliness," she boasts. "People come miles to see it." In the disguise of a second trombone, however, Nanki-Poo has made the acquaintance of the lovely Yum-Yum and fallen in love with her, though aware that she is officially engaged to her guardian Ko-Ko, an ex-tailor. He had later heard that this Ko-Ko had been condemned to death for flirting, but now to his dismay Nanki-Poo learns that Ko-Ko has been reprieved and raised to the exalted rank of Lord High Executioner, the highest rank a citizen can attain, and that this very day Yum-Yum is returning from school to be married to her guardian.
Ko-Ko duly arrives, and after being welcomed by the populace he proceeds to consult Pooh-Bah about the expense of his forthcoming wedding. Pooh-Bah, who combines the offices of First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chief Justice, Commander-in-Chief, Lord High Admiral, Master of the Buckhounds, Groom of the Backstairs, Archbishop of Titipu, and Lord Mayor, both acting and elect, is one of Gilbert's most effective creations, and, in the scene where Ko-Ko wishes to plan the expenses of his forthcoming marriage to Yum-Yum, the following dialogue occurs:
- POOH-BAH: Of course, as First Lord of the Treasury, I could propose a special vote that would cover all expenses, if it were not that, as leader of the Opposition, it would be my duty to resist it tooth and nail. Or, as Paymaster-General, I could so cook the accounts that, as Lord High Auditor, I should never discover the fraud. But then, as Archbishop of Titipu, it would be my duty to denounce my own dishonesty and give myself into my own custody, as First Commissioner of Police.
KO-KO: That's extremely awkward.
- POOH-BAH: I don't say that all these people couldn't be squared, but it is right to tell you that I shouldn't be sufficiently degraded in my own estimation unless I was insulted with a very considerable bribe.
Pooh-Bah holds Ko-Ko at his mercy and he knows it.
Yum-Yum now arrives with her school-friends, and with Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo she sings a trio:
- "Three little maids from school are we,
- Pert as a schoolgirl well can be,
- Filled to the brim with girlish glee--
- Three little maids from school."
Nanki-Poo succeeds in getting Yum-Yum to himself, and confesses to her that he is the son of the Mikado and has fled Court to avoid marrying Katisha and that he loves only her. Yum-Yum reminds him that flirting is now punishable by death. "If it were not for the law," they tell each other, "we should be gazing into each other's eyes (they gaze) with our arms round each other's waists" (they embrace). "But," finishes Nanki-Poo, "as you are engaged to Ko-Ko, this (kissing her) is what I'll never do." Ko-Ko no receives bad news in the form of a letter from the Mikado, which reads: "The Mikado is struck by the fact that no executions have taken place in Titipu for a year, and decrees that unless somebody is beheaded within one month, the post of Lord High Executioner shall be abolished and the city reduced to the rank of village." There is no help for it, somebody will have to be executed. The question is, who it shall be? Pooh-Bah unkindly tells Ko-Ko that as he is already under sentence of death for flirting he is the obvious choice. But Ko-Ko protests that self-decapitation is both difficult and dangerous and proposes that Pooh-Bah volunteer as substitute. But neither Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah nor Pish-Tush relish a prospect which would condemn them to:
- "Sit in solemn 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."
Coming accidentally upon Nanki-Poo, who, rope in hand, is about to commit suicide in despair at losing Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko proposes to Nanki-Poo that he shall live like a fighting-cock for a month at his expense, provided he consent at the end of the month to be beheaded by the Public Executioner. Nanki-Poo agrees to this proposal, provided he be allowed to marry Yum-Yum immediately. "How can I consent to Yum-Yum marrying you, if I am to marry her myself?" asks Ko-Ko. "My good friend, she'll be a widow in a month, and you can marry her then," is Nanki-Poo's reply. Ko-Ko finally agrees, and preparations for the wedding are in progress when the jealous Katisha appears. She does her best to get a hearing and to betray Nanki-Poo's identity, but in vain. In a rage she retires to report conditions in Titipu to the Mikado.
In Ko-Ko's garden Yum-Yum is seated at her bridal toilet, surrounded by her maidens. Looking at herself in the glass she remarks: "Yes, I am indeed beautiful. Sometimes I sit and wonder, in my artless Japanese way, why I am so much more attractive than anybody in the world? Nature is lovely and rejoices in her loveliness," and she sings:
- "The sun whose rays are all ablaze with ever living glory,
- Does not deny His Majesty he scorns to tell a story."
Nanki-Poo tenderly comforts his sorrowful bride at the prospect of losing him after one short month, but Yum-Yum is placed in a quandary when Ko-Ko discovers that, when a married man is beheaded, by the Mikado's law his wife must be buried alive. "When I agreed to marry you, my own, I had no idea, my pet, that I should have to be buried alive in a month," she tells Nanki-Poo. "It does make a difference, doesn't it?" Nanki-Poo realizes that he must release Yum-Yum to marry Ko-Ko, and the three of them sing a trio:
- "Here's a How-de-do! if I marry you
- When your time has come to perish,
- Then the maiden whom you cherish,
- Must be slaughtered too."
While they are arguing, the approach of the Mikado is announced, and he comes on accompanied by Katisha. The purpose of this visit is to make sure that his orders regarding an execution have been carried out. When the Mikado's arrival is observed, Ko-Ko arranges hurriedly with Pooh-Bah, in consideration of a "gross insult" in the form of a bribe to all the offices invested in Pooh-Bah's person, to draw up a false writ of the completed execution, naming Nanki-Poo as victim. What, then, is the consternation of the executioner and his allies to find that Nanki-Poo is the son of the Mikado and that according to law his death is punishable by immersion in boiling oil! It is cold comfort to the signer's of Nanki-Poo's death warrant to be told that it is really too bad that the law did not take into account the possibility of such a death occuring in ignorance of the victim's true identity. They must boil to conform to the statute, though the Mikado undertakes to have the Act altered before the next session. There is only one thing for it now. Nanki-Poo must come to life. But when Nanki-Poo hears that Katisha has arrived with her father, he informs Ko-Ko that he will only reappear if Ko-Ko undertakes to marry Katisha. Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are already man and wife--married by Pooh-Bah in his capacity as Archbiship of Titipu--in spite of the risk of Yum-Yum's being buried alive; but only when Katisha is safely married will existence for Nanki-Poo be as welcome as the flowers in Spring. Ko-Ko, however, takes a less cheerful view as he and Nanki-Poo sing this famous duet:
- "The flowers that bloom in the Spring tra-la
- Have nothing to do with the case.
- I've got to take under my wing tra-la
- A most unattractive old thing tra-la
- With a caricature of a face,
- With a caricature of a face."
Ko-Ko is about to follow Nanki-Poo's when Katisha recognizes in him the "miscreant who robbed her of her love." "Where shall I find another?" she asks him, and "Here! here!" answers Ko-Ko, throwing himself at her feet. "Accept my love or I perish on the spot." And he melts Katisha's heart with the sad little tale of Tit-willow who died of a broken heart.
With Katisha safely provided for, Nanki-Poo comes to life, presents Yum-Yum to the Mikado as his daughter-in-law elect, and, as the Mikado himself declares: "Nothing could possibly be more satisfactory."
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