More Sock And Less Buskin

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The first-night audience that poured out of Wallack’s Theatre in 1900 must have appreciated the cold February air, for they had just watched a thoroughly shocking play. Sapho , an American adaptation of a minor French novel, had burst upon the New York theatre like a thunderclap. The after-theatre crowds at Rector’s and Delmonico’s gabbled excitedly about what were the most explicit love scenes ever seen on the New York stage.

Played in the expansive manner of the time by the English actress Olga Nethersole, Sapho told the sudsy story of Fanny LeGrand, a woman of great passions and pliant scruples. Fanny habitually cast off one man after another until she finally met her match in the arms of the ruthless Jean Gaussin. When Jean started to walk out on her, Fanny hurled herself to the stage, pleading, “I’ll blacken your shoes, if only you’ll let me stay.” It was one thing for a stage heroine in 1900 to lie prostrate begging for her virtue. It was quite another for her to offer it. Jean picked her up and carried her toward the stairs—“slowly,” as one theatre historian said, “because Olga Nethersole was no light burden”—and headed for what was clearly her bedroom. “At last!” Jean cried. “So soon!” Fanny murmured, and the two disappeared inside. The curtain dropped and went up again on a stage bathed in artificial morning sunlight with mechanical birds singing in the wings as Jean tiptoed out.

The American theatre scene, which had existed almost entirely on classical revivals, often carefully bowdlerized, charming light comedies, sturdy melodramas, and an occasional historical pageant thrown in for moral and patriotic uplift, was finally turning racy. There had been ample warning of the flood tide to come. In recent years audiences had been gingerly watching a series of slightly daring French plays that tugged at their sense of moral rectitude.

In The Sporting Dulchess , first seen in 1895, a man runs away with a married lady, and the two find themselves trapped in a hotel room. While they are wrestling on the couch, her husband breaks in and saves his wife in the nick of time from the traditional “fate worse than death.” But in Sapho there was no last-minute rescue, and many in the audience believed Miss Nethersole and her leading man actually consummated offstage what they had only hinted at on.

 

The next day Sapho didn’t just get reviews, it got editorials. “We expect the police to forbid on stage what they would forbid in streets and low resorts,” the New York Journal sputtered.

The “sole effect” of such plays, declared the New York Tribune , “aside from the gratification of a prurient taste, is to defile the minds of the young … with needless and harmful knowledge of the seamy side of life.”

Goaded by the press, the police duly went to Miss Nethersole’s apartment at the Hoffman House late one night and took her in a taxi to the Central Street Station, where she was booked for corrupting public morals. In the sensational trial that followed, Miss Nethersole acted out some scenes from Sapho to the fascinated jury, which promptly acquitted her. The night Sapho reopened to a packed house, street sellers hawked copies of the original French novel at scandalous prices. The police were on hand, according to the New York Dramatic Mirror , to save “the lives of the many foolish and curious persons, who wishing to see the play about which so much had been said, found themselves in a breath-stopping and limb-breaking throng of the prurient-minded that risked existence as well as double prices in order to satisfy their vulgar curiosity.”

The playwright responsible for this brouhaha scarcely had time to be concerned about it all. He was already working on seven plays that would be produced the next year in New York and London. He was Clyde Fitch, the most popular, most successful playwright America had ever seen. Shortly after Sapho finished its turbulent run, Fitch, who can be compared to Neil Simon of our day, would have four plays running concurrently on Broadway: The Climbers, Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, Lovers’ Lane , and a revival of Barbara Frietchie . Earning as much as $250,000 a year in those hard-dollar, notax days, Fitch was the undisputed king of American playwrights. In a dazzling twenty-year career he wrote thirty-six original plays, twenty-one adaptations, and five dramatizations of novels. As the eminent critic and scholar William Lyon Phelps wrote in 1921, “when he began to write, American drama scarcely existed; when he died it was reality. … He did more for American drama than any other man in our history.”