On 16th February, 1900, Olga Nethersole opened at Wallacks Theater in New York in her own production of Clyde Fitch's controversial play "Sapho". The play had been adapted by Fitch from the novel by Alphonse Daudet about a young man, Jean Gaussin, who lost his position in society after being seduced by Fanny Legrand (Sapho) - a woman with a notorious reputation who kept many lovers. Fitch rearranged the story for his play so that Sapho, played by Nethersole, became the central character. The tragedy of the play was then that Sapho, who had fallen in love with Gaussin, must leave him in order to raise a child she had given birth to in her more promiscuous days.
The play had originally premiered at Power's Theatre in Chicago on October 31st 1899 (review below), and had toured through a number of other American cities before finally arriving in New York. During this time it had become the subject of heated debate in the newspapers - which alleged that the most immoral episodes in Daudet's depraved book had been closely followed in the play, and suggested that the play was both offensive and amoral.
One result of all this free publicity was that the play's arrival in New York had been eagerly anticipated and consequently advance ticket sales had far outstripped all expectations. Another was that certain self appointed guardians of public morals were determined to suppress it. The New York press, scenting that a scandal involving such a popular star such as Nethersole would be certain to sell newspapers, joined in the crusade whole-heartedly. The New York City police chief also made it known even before the play had arrived in New York that it would be investigated; and City politicians, who routinely turned a blind eye to prostitution and other immoral activities in the City, also sensed an occasion on which it would be wise to take a moral stance.
Foremost amongst the anti-Sapho activists was the "Society for the Suppression of Vice", an organisation of Comstock* supporters which had set itself up as a champion against the subversiveness and immorality which it saw as being rife on the Broadway stage. "Sapho" was singled out as being emblematic of this, and the Society, encouraged by the press, turned its full weight against Olga.
[*Some years prior to this incident the self-appointed anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock had succeeded in passing a bill through congress which was ostensibly designed to prevent the passage of obscene materials through the US mail, but which, in fact, had much further reaching effects and was widely used to aid and abet both moral and religious prejudice and persecutions.]
The efforts of the moral vigilantes culminated, on the afternoon of February 21st 1900 (five days after the play had opened), in Olga, her leading man Hamilton Revelle, and manager Marcus Mayer, all being arrested for offences against public decency and creating a public nuisance. A warrant was also issued for the arrest of the proprietor of Wallacks Theater, Theodore Moss, but he was at home ill and could not be taken into custody. The warrants were issued under the provisions of a section of the penal code which read:
A public nuisance is a crime against the order and economy of the state and consists in unlawfully doing an act or omitting to perform a duty which act of omission annoys, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health or safety of any considerable number of persons or offends public decency.
The offences with which the defendants were charged carried a maximum possible sentence of a 500 dollar fine and/or one year's imprisonment in the state penitentiary.
Following the arrest, Olga, wearing a loose fitting cloak of purple cloth trimmed with fur and a matching fur hat, was taken to the Center Street Police Court for arraignment. In answer to the charges laid against her she made the following statement:
"I have committed no offense against the good morals of the law of this or any other country, I especially demand to know the source of this attack on me and my property. The court cannot order a too speedy investigation."
Olga was then paroled in the custody of her counsel, Abraham Hummel, to return for a hearing in court two days later.
True to show business tradition, the following day the show went on and long before the curtain went up at both the afternoon matinee and evening performances the signs went out "House Full - No more money taken". Even then, the theatre lobby was packed with the throng trying to catch any glimpse of the proceedings. At the end of the third act there was a great demonstration of sympathy for Olga, as the packed house chanted "Nethersole", and only quieted when Olga reappeared to address them with "I understand from this that you are with me; with you at my back I can defy the world."
The hearing, on February 23rd, was held in camera in the private office of Magistrate Mott. Two complainants were heard from on that day - Robert Mackey, a reporter, and the Rev. Phoebe Hanaford, a Quaker and president of the Woman's Christian Temperance union. Both had been engaged by newspapers to see the play. Their complaints centered around a scene wherein Fanny Legrand was seen being carried up a flight of stairs by a man to whom she was not married - presumably to a bedroom (the curtain fell when they reached the top of the stairs and before reaching their final destination). Another complaint centred upon a gown which was worn by Olga in the play, and which clung to her very tightly and revealed the shape of her anatomy very plainly. Further sessions were held over the course of the next two weeks with numerous witnesses being heard for both sides before Magistrate Mott rendered his decision on March 6th. At that time all of the defendants were held over on 500 dollars bail to appear in the Court of Special Sessions, and further performances of the play were banned. Consequently, to fill the theatre an alternate production had to be put on, "The Second Mrs Tanqueray".
On March 20th, Justice Fursman, acting in the Criminal Branch of the Supreme Court, signed an order transferring the Sapho hearing from the Court of Special Sessions to the Court of General Sessions where it could be tried before a jury. That decision made it necessary, however, for the facts of the case to first be put before the Grand Jury to return a criminal indictment before any such trial could take place. Consequently, Olga and the other defendants were summoned to appear before the Grand Jury on the morning of March 22rd, and an indictment was duly returned against them that same afternoon. The indictment was couched in the following rather scathing terms:
The Said Olga Nethersole, Hamilton Revelle, Marcus R. Mayer, being persons of wicked and depraved mind and disposition and not regarding the common duties of morality and decency, but contriving and wickedly intending, so far as in them lay, to debauch and corrupt the morals as well of youth as of divers other persons, on the 20th day of February, in the year 1900, at Wallack's theater, unlawfully did commit a public nuisance by unlawfully doing an act which offended public decency, and did unlawfully, wickedly and scandalously exhibit, for gain, divers indecent, lewd, filthy, bawdy and obscene representations, practices, performances and evil conversation, and the said Olga Nethersole and the said Hamilton Revelle and divers other persons did then and there, in a certain entertainment of the stage, commonly called "Sapho," in a lewd, indecent, obscene, filthy, scandalous and disgusting manner, make divers lewd, indecent, filthy, scandalous and disgusting motions and assume lewd, indecent, obscene, filthy, scandalous postures and attitudes, and repeat and utter indecent, obscene, filthy, scandalous and disgusting words and conversations, all of which grievously offended public decency and which were and are so filthy, nasty, corruptingly obscene and disgusting that a more particular description thereof is not fit to be set down in these allegations or spread upon the records of this honorable court.
Strong words indeed for something that by modern day standards would seem so totally innocuous as to not even cause the raising of an eyebrow! One unfortunate outcome of all these events was that Olga was then taken seriously ill, perhaps as a result of the stress caused by the situation, and was diagnosed with 'brain fever'. For a few days she was in a serious condition and constantly attended by two physicians, Doctors Phelps and Curtis. News of her severe illness quickly spread and turned the current of public feeling, with even those who had been most vitriolic against Olga expressing sympathy for her. She was cared for at Hoffman House where she received regular visitors, and thankfully recovered quickly to be able to take part in the subsequent trial.
The criminal trial opened before the supreme court on April 3rd, 1900, with Justice Furman presiding. The previous night must have been a sleepless one for Olga, not only because of concern over the coming trial but also because of a fire scare at the Albemarle Hotel where she was staying - forcing Olga and other guests to temporarily flee their rooms after a small blaze was discovered in a hat store on the ground floor.
The District Attorney motioned for an adjournment to put together a special jury panel, but the judge averred on the grounds that he was sure that a fair jury could be selected from the general panel. The twelve jurors subsequently selected were all young men, or men in the prime of life, and all except one were married. Over the next two days the witnesses were called and heard, before, on April 6th, the judge gave his final summing up and the jury retired to deliberate. In his directions to the jury, Justice Furman gave them the following advice:
"In civil actions a preponderance of evidence suffices for a verdict, but when liberty is involved, where character is at stake, there must be something more than preponderance; there must remain no reasonable doubt.
"You are not the custodians of the public morals of the community, nor are you leading any crusade for public reform in New York, but to decide whether there has been an offence against public decency. There is no question for you about whether the play inculcates a good moral or not. Mere suggestiveness matters not. Many of the lines are to a certain extent suggestive. It is not enough that they may offend the modesty of young girls. To constitute a violation of the statute, they must be of such a character as to offend the great mass in all positions of society. The law was not made for young girls, but to prevent annoyance of a greater class - the community.
"You can scarcely find any book of world wide celebrity, such as every man of refinement has in his home, which does not contain lines as suggestive as anything said in this play. If you pass down Madison Avenue and stop to examine the new building of the appellate division of the supreme court, you will find a statue of a Greek woman exposing her entire bust, and with neither arm clad. Further down you will find a body clad in diaphanous drapery, showing every online from the head to the feet. I have not heard that any reform society suggested that these fiugres should be removed because of their possible influence upon young girls who pass in the street."
The jury took less than twelve minutes to return with the results of their deliberation. When the foreman, Charles G. Becker, read out the verdict of "Not Guilty" against all of the defendants a burst of applause swept through the courtroom which was sternly quelled by the justice and the officers of the court. All of the defendants were then free to leave the court. The verdict was a signal defeat for the moralists and newspapers that had instigated the proceedings. By the verdict, "Sapho" was declared not to be immoral and therefore free to be produced indefinitely in New York City.
The weakness of the case against the accused can be demonstrated by this excerpt from the transcript of the original hearing:
Complainant Mackay being questioned over the staircase scene admitted that the bedroom was not seen and that the curtain went down leaving the two standing at the top of the stairs.
Mackay: From what I read of the novel, though, I got the impression that there was a room at...
Hummel (Counsel for Defence - interrupting): Oh, you've been getting your impressions from the book and not from the play as you saw it?
Hummel: And it is a fact that when the curtain goes down the two are left standing at the top of the stairs in plain sight of the audience?
The implication from this testimony was that, in order to be offended by the play, one would first have had to have read (and presumably been offended by) the novel. And if one had read and been offended by the novel, then why see the play? In fact the play was much milder in content than the novel which was freely available without restriction.
An immediate outcome of the trial was a rush for tickets to see the play when it reopened, so that it was quickly sold out three weeks in advance. The play ran in New York until May 26th, and the takings were without question far greater than would likely have been the case had not the court proceedings bathed it in such a glow of publicity. It was even speculated in certain quarters that Olga and her co-defendants had deliberately stirred up the reaction for this very reason. Whether or not this was true, the moralists aim in attacking the play was certainly counter-productive, with far more patrons seeing it as a result, not less.
But this was still not the end of the affair, further legal actions followed stemming from these events.
Remarkably, Olga would find herself in difficulties with the law twice more in the year 1900. First, after returning to England in early June she fell foul of the London authorities for allowing two dogs that she had brought back from America with her to be abroad in public without being muzzled (a requirement for imported animals) and was fined. Then, returning to America in November a misunderstanding with immigration officials registering her as an American Citizen led to her luggage being seized for payment of import duty. Her property was later returned to her when the question of her nationality was sorted out.
Thus drew to a close a remarkably eventful year, and one which Olga no doubt in many ways would have been eager to forget.
Below is a newspaper review from the first night of Sapho when it opened in Chicago, showing little indication of the storm that was to follow.
New York Times - 31st October,1900
Sapho in Chicago
Olga Nethernole Appears as Daudet's Heroine
Special to the New York Times
CHICAGO. Oct. 31. - The production of Clyde Fitch's new play, "Sapho," by Miss Olga Nethorsole, at Power's Theatre, tonight was a decided success. The playhouse was crowded to the doors by an enthusiastic audience, which gave the actress half a dozen curtain calls after every act. The opening performance was postponed from Monday evening to give the company an opportunity for a dress rehearsal, and the result was a smooth and well-balanced performance. Credit is given to Daudet in the bill of the play in this language- "Sapho, a play in four acts by Clyde Fitch. Founded on the novel by Alphonse Daudet, with scenes from the play by Alphonse Daudet and Adolf Belot."
The rise of the curtain brought forth an outburst of applause, so beautiful was the stage picture. The play opened with the scene of a masked ball at the house of Decholetto, and the brilliant costumes of the maskers, whirling about in dances and merry-making, made a pretty picture. All of the settings are of the highest order, as are the costumes. Miss Nethersole wore several beautiful and artistic gowns and coats at various stages of the action of the play.
The performance was most favorably received. The production was witnessed by Clyde Fitch, who arrived a few days ago to assist at the rehearsals. Miss Nethersole has several strong scenes, and the impression she made to-night indicates that the play will be a permanent success.
Author: Don Gillan, www.stagebeauty.net.
Primary Sources: The Daily North Western, Oskosh, March 3, 1900; New York Times March 21, April 4, 1900; May 1, 1901; The North Adams Transcript, March 24, April 7, 1900; The Daily Gazette, Janesville, March 26, 1900; Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (sketch), February 25, 1900; and other contemporary publications.
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