Sapho was a 1900 American play by Clyde Fitch, based on an 1884 French novel of the same name by Alphonse Daudet and an 1885 play by Daudet and Adolphe Belot. It was at the center of a sensational New York City indecency trial involving the play’s star and producer/director, Olga Nethersole. The play was not an exceptional success but the incident is considered a notable step in the transformation of American society’s attitudes regarding gender roles and public depictions of sex in the 20th century.
British actress Olga Nethersole asked prominent American playwright Clyde Fitch to adapt Sapho, telling the story from the point of view of the lead female character rather than the male character as was done with the original novel and play. Nethersole produced, directed and starred. The play’s official billing is 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 Adolphe Belot.
Sapho is a so-called “problem play”, centering on a woman who has love affairs with men to whom she is not married. Nethersole had already added two such dramas, Camille and The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, to her ongoing repertoire. Sapho’s lead character, Fanny LeGrand, seduces a naïve man named Jean Gaussin. In the scene that caused the most furor, the two characters ascend a spiral staircase together, presumably toward a bedroom though that is never shown or stated. In the end, LeGrand leaves Gaussin to reform and marry the father of her child.
The play has 23 characters, plus “Danseuses” (dancers).
- Jean Gaussin
- Uncle Cesaire
- M. Anvers
- Madame Hettema
- Tina de Monte
- De Potter
- Alice Dore
- Fanny LeGrand
After out-of-town tryouts in Chicago and other cities, Sapho opened in New York at the old (1882-1904) Wallack’s Theatre on Broadway and 30th Street on February 5, 1900. Reviews were negative and the press predicted it would flop. The show’s notoriety kept it going however, and it ran in New York for a total of 83 performances in 1900. From 1901 through 1913 Nethersole took it on tour to cities throughout America, as well as London and Australia. She brought the play back to New York in 1905, 1908, 1910 and 1913, in the later years sometimes just playing the third act. The play remained controversial, with municipal authorities in some cities continuing to ban performances entirely or insisting on changes in dialogue or costume.
Actors playing Jean Gaussin in the Nethersole productions included Hamilton Revelle (February through May 1900), G. Harrison Hunter (November 1900, and 1910), Slaine Mills (1905), and Winnington Barnes (1913).
Representatives of groups such as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the Society for the Study of Life, and the New York Mother’s Club, protested that the play’s language and costumes were immoral. Some of the outcry was fuelled by yellow journalism, with trial witnesses admitting their tickets had been provided by New York World reporters. New York District Attorney Asa Bird Gardiner ordered Nethersole, her co-star, and two managers arrested on February 21, and police closed the theatre on March 5. Following a month of intense public and press interest (during which Nethersole and her company performed different plays) and a two-day trial, a jury spent 15 minutes acquitting Nethersole and the others. The play reopened two days later, on April 7.
The Sapho indecency trial is a well-known step in the transition from the era of Victorian morality as it existed in America, particularly as regards attitudes toward onstage depictions of gender, intimacy and sex. According to Olga Nethersole’s 1951 obituary, “During the Comstock era...when a public kiss on the mouth was considered an indecency...Nethersole typified the growing revolt against prudery and was a staunch advocate of women’s right and intellectual independence.”
Some historians theorize that the authorities treated Nethersole more harshly than women appearing in other “courtesan” plays because she was a manager in addition to an actress, which upset other contemporary social norms regarding the roles of men and women.
- Jules Massenet made Daudet’s book into an opera that opened in 1898, while Fitch was writing his adaptation for Nethersole.
- The comedy duo of Weber and Fields routinely satirized Broadway plays and sent up Sapho in a sketch called ‘’Sapolio’’.
- Daudet and Belot’s original French version was presented in New York by the repertory companies of the actresses Mme. Réjane in 1904 and Sarah Bernhardt in 1910.
- Several stage versions were written in addition to Fitch’s, because the novel was published in France and not covered by the American copyright laws of the day.
- A now-lost 1916 Theda Bara film, The Eternal Sapho, was based on the Daudet story but not necessarily on the Fitch play. Three Sapho films have been made in French.
Misconceptions and errors
- Thomas Allston Brown’s 1903 A History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901 incorrectly lists Sapho’s opening night as Feb. 16, 1900, rather than Feb. 5, 1900. Several other sources have duplicated this error.
- The etymology of the term “Nethersole Kiss”, a deeply passionate on-stage kiss, dates from Nethersole’s 1896-97 production of the play Carmen, but is often attributed to the later Sapho.
- Mantle and Sherwood, The Best Plays of 1899-1909, pp. 361-362.
- “Daudet’s ‘Sapho’ Dramatized,” The Nation , Volume 42, Jan. 14,1886, p. 32.
- At the time, terms such as “courtesan”, “fallen woman”, “harlot”, “prostitute”, or “tainted woman” described sexually attractive, unmarried women characters in plays, regardless of whether they were prostitutes in the vocational sense. Other examples: George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893) and David Belasco's Zaza (1899). Johnson, Sisters in Sin, p. 21.
- “’Sapho’ In Chicago,” New York Times, Nov. 1, 1899.
- Brown, A History of the New York Stage, p. 310.
- “A coarse and superfluous play, and not well acted, either...’Sapho’ will draw crowds for a week or so, but it is not long for this market.” From play review: “Dramatic And Musical: Miss Nethersole At Last Acts Fanny LeGrand At Wallack's,” New York Times, Feb. 6, 1900, p. 6.
- For example, Springfield, Massachusetts: "Springfield Won't Stand Sapho," New York Times, Jan. 5, 1906, p. 5.
- "Olga Nethersole in 'Sapho'", New York Times, Apr. 19, 1910, p. 9.
- "Nethersole in 'Sapho'," New York Times, Oct. 7, 1913, p. 13.
- ”Hearing in ‘Sapho’ Case,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 1900, p. 4.
- “Sapho Taken to Court”, New York Times, Feb 22, 1900, p. 3.
- "The Sapho Affair". American Experience. Retrieved 2011-03-19.
Instructed by the trial judge that they were "not the guardians of the morals of this community", the jury took only 15 minutes to find Nethersole innocent. No sooner had the judge laid down his gavel, than the curtain rose again on Sapho. This time, the crowds were even bigger.
- “Olga Nethersole Dies,” New York Times, Jan. 11, 1951, p. 2.
- For example, Johnson, Sisters in Sin, p. 17; Houchin, "Depraved Women and Wicked Plays”, pp. 40, 51.
- Once Sapho became prominent, ”Sapolio” was added to Weber and Fields’ 1899-1900 show, Whirl-i-gig. Mantle and Sherwood, The Best Plays of 1899-1909, p. 350.
- Mantle and Sherwood, The Best Plays of 1899-1909, p. 472.
- “No Staircase Scene In The French "Sapho: Badly Sprained Morals Still Evident In Rejane's Version. Unhealthy Fare at Best. Actress’s Playing of the Coccotte a Study in Convincing Naturalness—Production Inadequate Scenically,” New York Times, Nov. 29, 1904, p. 6.
- "Sapho", ibdb.com.
- Brown, A History of the New York Stage, pp. 363-364.
- Mathews, Nancy Mowll, Charles Musser, and Williams College, Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910, Volume 1, (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press), 2005. Pp. 31-33.
- For example, “Nethersole Kiss,” Milwaukee Journal, Nov. 3, 1918, p. 7.
- Brown, Thomas Allston, A History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901, Volume III, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company), 1903.
- Houchin, John H. "Depraved Women and Wicked Plays: Olga Nethersole's Production of Sapho," Journal of American Drama and Theatre, v.6, Winter 1994.
- Johnson, Katie N., "Censoring Sapho: Regulating the Fallen Woman and the Prostitute on the New York Stage," American Transcendental Quarterly: 19th Century American Literature and Culture, v.10, n.3, Sep. 1996, pp. 167–86.
- Johnson, Katie N., Sisters in Sin: Brothel Drama in America, 1900-1920, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2006. ISBN 0-521-85505-5
- Johnson, Katie N, “Zaza: That ‘Obtruding Harlot’ of the Stage,” Theatre Journal, v.54, Iss.2, May 2002, pp. 223-243.
- Mantle, Burns, and Garrison P. Sherwood, eds., The Best Plays of 1899-1909, (Philadelphia: The Blakiston Company), 1944.
- Mathews, Nancy Mowll, Charles Musser, Williams College, Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910, Volume 1, (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press), 2005. ISBN 1-55595-228-3
- “Daudet’s Sapho Dramatized,” The Nation , Volume 42, Jan. 14,1886, p. 32.
- “Sapho In Chicago: Olga Nethersole Appears as Daudet's Heroine,” New York Times : Nov. 1, 1899, p. 7.
- “This Week's New Bills:...And The Deferred Sapho,” New York Times, Feb. 4, 1900, p. 16.
- ”Dramatic And Musical: Miss Nethersole At Last Acts Fanny Le Grand At Wallack's” (Play Review), New York Times , Feb. 6, 1900, p. 6.
- “Sapho Taken To Court: Charged With Offending Public Morals And Decency. Miss Olga Nethersole, However, Gives Her Play As Usual At Wallack’s – The Hearing To-Morrow,” New York Times, Feb. 22, 1900, p. 3.
- “Sapho In Police Court: Magistrate Mott Hears Testimony Against The Play. Miss Nethersole At The Bar. The Complainant Examined As To His Reasons For Considering The Performance Immoral,” New York Times, Feb. 24, 1900, p. 7.
- “Hearing In Sapho Case.: Mrs. Sophia Almon Hensley, Mrs. S.M. Harris, Hilary Bell, And Mrs. Eloise I Church Testify,” New York Times, Feb. 28, 1900, p. 4.
- “Indictment For "Sapho: Trial Of The Case To Begin To-Day Before Justice Fursman. Miss Olga Nethersole, Ill With Nervous Prostration, Will Not Perform Again For A Week Or Two,” New York Times, Mar. 23, 1900; p. 2.
- “Court Cuts Short The Sapho Trial: The Jury Will Decide Olga Nethersole's Case To-Day. She Will Offer No Evidence. Justice Fursman Shuts Our Irrelevant Testimony And Rebukes The Prosecutions Principal Witness,” New York Times, Apr. 5, 1900, p. 7.
- “Jury Soon Acquits Miss Nethersole: Verdict Followed By An Ovation For The Weeping Actress. To Produce Sapho Again. After Hearing Justice Fursman’s Charge, She Declares, She Would Not Have Minded Conviction,” New York Times, Apr. 6, 1900, p. 7.
- ”Sapho Company To Disband: Will Play in Milwaukee and St. Louis and Then Return to New York,” New York Times, Feb. 7, 1901, p. 9.
- “’Sapho’ Produced in London,” New York Times, May 2, 1902, p. 9.
- “No Staircase Scene In The French Sapho: Badly Sprained Morals Still Evident In Rejane's Version. Unhealthy Fare At Best. Actress’s Playing Of The Coccotte A Study In Convincing Naturalness—Production Inadequate Scenically,” New York Times, Nov. 29, 1904, p. 6.
- “Springfield Won't Stand Sapho," New York Times, Jan. 5, 1906, p. 5.
- "Olga Nethersole in Sapho", New York Times, Apr. 19, 1910, p. 9.
- "Nethersole in Sapho, Warmly Greeted in Third Act of Play at Palace Theatre", New York Times, Oct. 7, 1913, p. 13.
- “Nethersole Kiss Mere Peck Compared to This Embrace”, Milwaukee Journal, Nov. 3, 1918, p. 7.
- “Olga Nethersole Dies At Age Of 80: Famed British Actress, Whose Role In Sapho Led To Furor, Quit Stage to Aid Poor”, New York Times, Jan. 11, 1951, p. 2.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sapho (Clyde Fitch play).|
- Brown, A History of the New York Stage, via Google Books
- Daudet, Alphonse, Sappho (novel, English translation), (Boston: Little, Brown & Co.), 1899, via Google Books
- Daudet, Alphone, and Adolphe Belot, Sappho: The Réjane Edition, (play, French original and English translation), (New York: F Rullman), © 1895, via Google Books
- Gillan, Don, “The Sapho Affair”, www.stagebeauty.net, accessed 2/17/2012
- Sapho, Internet Broadway Database (ibdb.com)
- “The Sapho Affair”, American Experience: America 1900, PBS