by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we ring out 2022 and look to see what the new year brings, this latest edition of “Treading the Boards,” featuring artifacts from the Museum’s collection that deal with the the stage in Los Angeles, takes us back to 1906 and a great stand-up souvenir card promoting the New Year’s Eve opening of an engagement at the Mason Opera House (identified as “Mason Theatre” on the object) by the famous English thespian Olga Nethersole.
Born in London in 1866, Nethersole began her her career while in her teens and garnered attention for what one writer called “her unbuttoned emotionalism.” Her intense portrayals made her a star by the early 1890s and she first performed in the United States in 1894, where she was promoted as “the English [Sarah] Bernhardt.” With a penchant for taking on controversial roles, as well as becoming star, producer and troupe manager, the actor commissioned the 1900 play Sapho, based on an 1880 novel by Alphonse Daudet, who turned his work into a stage work in France.
American playwright Clyde Fitch, who burst into national prominence during the Gay Nineties, but the content, including a switch to the perspective of the female lead (not the male, as was the case with the novel and original play), shocked late Victorian era New York City audiences as Nethersole’s character, seducing a man and showing unbecoming excitement, was depicted being carried up a staircase towards what was obviously a bedroom.
Religious leaders and an organization labeled The Society for the Suppression of Vice, stirred to righteous indignation, prevailed on the city’s police department to stop these moral transgressions and Nethersole and others in her theatrical company were arrested for “violating public decency.” A trial was held in April 1900, but, after the judge instructed members of the jury that they were “not the guardians of the morals of this community,” a verdict to acquit was handed down within just 15 minutes.
Nethersole, who was credited with instituting a stage kiss that was also considered highly indecent and suggestive by self-appointed moral arbiters, projected a highly dramatic, but strong, presence on the stage as she built her career. It is a reflection of the expansion of Los Angeles’ arts community, accompanying the general growth of the region, including another major development boom in the first years of the new century, that major stars like her were not only coming to the Angel City to perform, but staying for week-long engagements before substantial crowds and significant media attention.
The actor’s appearances in Los Angeles, her first in the city, included four performances of Sapho, as well as single renditions of other favorites in her repertoire: Adrienne Lecouvreur, Carmen, The Labyrinth, and The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. For the New Year’s Day opening, there were matinee and evening offerings of the controversial Sapho and ticket sales appear to have been quite brisk when they opened four days in advance. As part of the promotion, the Los Angeles Times, in its edition of 27 December 1906 and its “Music and Stage” column, devoted some space to Nethersole.
It noted, as did other local papers, that the actor accepted an invitation from former actor and six-time Tournament of Roses Queen Joan Hadenfeldt Woodbury (whose daughter Joan was a busy film actor in the 1930s and 1940s) to be in the procession at the famous New Year’s Day parade, observing that “she is doing what very few actresses on tour ever do” because taking on other commitments during engagements was taxing their time or “would be too great a strain upon their nervous systems.”
Nethersole, however, was described as “as regular as the proverbial clock” and had varied interests beyond the stage, including art, literature, music and travel. The discussion then turned to her life on her “yacht on wheels,” as she termed it; this being a private rail car with her name painted on its side—the Record of the 26th reported that the car caught fire at Waco, Texas, and was badly damaged, not to mention that her Christmas dinner was ruined. Her daily routine was listed out, including morning meetings with her manager and brother, Louis, and others concerning her stage and financial business; afternoon rehearsals with her company; and other tasks. It was asserted that the well-planned routine was such that the actor could “take an extra bit of recreation, as at the coming rose carnival . . . without seriously breaking into her scheme.”
On the 31st, the Los Angeles Herald heralded the appearance of the noted actor, noting that
Olga Nethersole, of whom Los Angeles has heard much, but whom it has never seen, will make her bow to it at the Mason tonight, when she will present that very warm article, “Sapho.” Her repertoire for the week includes many of her successes in America and abroad and much interest attached to her engagement. The preliminary sale has been very large.
For its New Year’s Day edition, the paper pointed out the great gap between the last performance, “Her Great Match” starring Maxine Elliott, at the Mason and the “more than ordinary leap to the passionate, lurid and erotic drama” which was presented “before a wildly enthusiastic Los Angeles audience.” Considered “cataclysmic” and “chaotic”, the play was, compared to its sedate predecessor, represented by a “scarlet, sordid demi-mondainism” and a “naked nastiness and bald bathos of vice.”
Moreover, the unnamed critic claimed, neither work “has any reason save expediency or a catering to the vicious, for existence.” Despite Nethersole’s beauty and superb performance, Sapho did not “ring true” and it failed to be enthralling while coming across as “hollow and theatric.” It also mocked the ending, in which the actor’s character, “her soiled plumage bedraggled and her beauty besmirched,” tries to atone for her behavior, but this odyssey “from a wanton to a paragon of purity via the ‘sufferings’ route was implausible because no worldly woman would “let her sodden sister be transmuted if it were possible.” Expanding on this, the critic (likely a male?) asserted,
It is one of the contradictions of human nature; that women—and they are the real patrons of the erotic drama—will go in droves to see a teary Magdalen on the stage, and will slobber over her imaginary heart torments in acutest pain, while, if they met her on the street, they would draw aside their saintly skirts in horror!
With the utmost confidence in this statement, the writer then averred that “‘Sapho’ is just that and nothing more—a plea to the sloppy sentimental in woman, for the sake of dollars in the box office.” For those who protested that this was a morality play, the answer was “Bah! . . . go down into your own red-light district and see it at first hands,” but, the critic sagely warned, “you’ll get the all-firedest, most lurid and most picturesque cussin’ that ever startled your sea-shell ears.”
As for the star, she “is an actress of superb ability and great force” with “a magnificent physique and a great deal of the ripe-red sort of beauty,” a fine voice and “is graceful and fascinating, powerful and winning.” Unlike her American counterparts, who were “superficially brilliant and shallow,” Nethersole “lives her parts and puts into them her very soul” and it was noted that “it is a long time since Los Angeles has seen an actress so virile, so fine, so convincing and gripping.” The audience was taken and “every curtain means a half a score of recalls,” though her co-star Frank Mills was adjudged “a grave disappointment,” though other performers were praised.
Amplifying the earlier point, the writer stated that the actor related that the first production of Sapho was all about money-making and she added, “there is nothing dramatic in playing a good woman, the people don’t want to see a good woman on the stage.” True or no, the critic lamented that, with so much talent possessed by Nethersole, “theater devotees cannot but wish that something truer, more worthy and more noble might have been selected than this tawdry harridan.” Strangely, instead of ending with this dramatic statement, the reviewer thought it fit to mention that “the audience was the acme of Los Angeles fashion” if chilled by the conditions in the venue, though it was snidely offered that “perhaps it was thought that the warmth of the play would save coal bills.”
For its part the unidentified critic at the Los Angeles Express, also in the issue of the 1st, wrote that “the conscientious reviewer” of Sapho “does so in trepidation” because an attempt to provide “an intelligent idea” of the play “would be to bar the paper from the United States mails.” On the other hand, to pan it “as indecently wicked” meant that it would be guaranteed “a continuation of crowded houses,” because to condemn the piece as immoral “spells financial success.”
The writer called the work “a mess of chile con carne wherein the seasoning exceeds in volume that which is seasoned” and such “hot stuff” was such that the new Pure Food and Drug Act, which went into effect that day, would have demanded “the labeling of all adulterations.” The staging was praised and “there is no denying the art of Olga Nethersole” of whom there was plenty of respect for “the deftness with which the actress can so fully lost [sic] herself in the interpretation of the character.” Beyond this, “she is a fervent love maker. And her kisses—the famous Nethersole kisses—might have melted a marble Adonis,” though was were not warm enough the raise the temperature of the frigid theater.
When it came to the infamous staircase scene, however, it was reported that, when Nethersole was picked up by Mills, the curtain dropped, was raised to show the duo near the top of the stairs and then dropped again. So, while the audience duly applauded, it was said to be “disappointed at the absence of the much advertised wickedness of the scene” and “that sudden reappearance spoils the naughtiness.” Also observed was that the “maudlin mass of fictitious sentimentality” in the final act sent about a hundred patrons out of the theater, while others were unhappy with long delays between acts, these “served somewhat to mar what was an artistic presentation of an exceedingly inartistic narrative of immortality.”
On the 3rd, an unidentified Times reporter visited the actor at her room in the fashionable Hotel Alexandria, which opened in February 1906, though it was noted that the interviewing was reversed because Nethersole “is a very fascinating, interesting, intellectual magnet, with a pull of questions in every direction” while “she is omnivorous as to knowledge.” A simple question about the stage meant “a hundred interrogations on every conceivable subject from metaphysics to cartoons, or from medieval history to local politics,” making her “the busiest woman who ever came to Los Angeles.”
It was reported that, the prior day she went book hunting for works by the philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Immanuel Kant; bought “a precious idol” in Chinatown (an illustration was provided showing her in what is now Union Station); looked into desert mining investments; rushed out to see Santa Monica; wrote a chapter for her graphic diary that she intended to publish; wrote letters; had her photo taken; and, almost incidentally, performed the titular role of Adrienne Lecouvreur. She was said to have spoken French, Italian and Spanish fluently and played music.
When asked about her work, she merely replied that it was her job to be that character and that, if the public were to see herself on stage, they would find her “quite uninteresting.” As for her visit to Chinatown, she told the reporter,
I think I’m a great bargainer, but all the time I’m in terror. The Chinese shop is eerie and queer and uncanny. I keep looking back of me. I fancy a handkerchief of chloroform over my face, so, (superb gesturing,) and a hideous awakening down, down, down in the underground cellars that you read about and never see. And then I come to myself, and find I’ve been beaten by a dollar on some little thing that I could have bought as well downtown.
With respect to the American West and greater Los Angeles, it was recorded that the actor wasn’t so much impressed by the flowers, oranges or weather as with “the grandeur and immensity of Western spaces, the lure of distant mighty mountains, the melting of the illimitable desert into the blue of a far horizon” and more relating to the natural environment.
She excitedly told the writer that, when she was in the midst of open spaces “I threw out my hands to it and fairly cried to it. I would have stayed out there forever” and then rhapsodized about digging in the desert for jewels so that it was “a new Rubaiyat for me.” At that, her brother entered to say a car was waiting for her and the actor rushed off with a further flurry of queries about all manner of topics.
Nethersole, who died in 1951, continued her stage work for another half-dozen years before retiring in 1913 and turning her attention to public health in her native England, including serving as nurse during the First World War and her founding in 1917 of The People’s League of Health, established to raise standards in the country. One short article from The Journal of the Royal Science of Medicine noted that she was not well received by some in England’s medical establishment, one of whom wrote a colleague, “Do tell Olga Nethersole to go to blazes!” Yet, the piece noted that one project of the League, concerning the addition of minerals and vitamins to pregnant women, was so well done that it was considered of relevance at the time the article was published in 2006.
While watching the notorious Sapho might have been a more unusual way to ring out 1906 and welcome 1907, it certainly was an opportunity for Angelenos to see, for the first time, and be wowed by one of the period’s top actors, who was also a strong woman who produced works, took on challenging and controversial roles and, for her work in health, was honored with a Royal Red Cross in 1920 and became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) sixteen years later.