© David S. Shields
"Wicked & Depraved": Clyde Fitch's "Sapho," the scandal of 1900 Nov 30, '10 3:33 PM
by David for group historicalziegfeld #499
Part of the problem was surely the sex appeal of the leading performers. Hamilton Revelle was a smoldering adonis, bristling with testosterone, Olga Nethersole, a sensuous beauty who radiated Come Hither. So when Hamilton's character picked the woman up and carried her up the winding stair to a boudoir, there was no a doubt in any spectator's mind that a major carnal combustion was at hand. Without the benefits of holy matrimony. And so a yellow newspaper decided to initiate a crusade on moral grounds to boost its subscription and save the public from overheated imaginings. The police invaded Wallack's Theatre mid-performance and arrested the actors, the manager, and the proprietor of the theater. On the 23rd of March the arrested hearing the following indictment pronounced:
The said Olga Nethersole, Hamilton Revelle, Theodore Moss, and Marcus B. 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 corrupt the morals of divers persons and to raise and create in their minds inordinate and lustful desires, on the 20th day of February, in the year 1900, at a certain theatre and place of amuse, unlawfully did commit a public nuisance by then and there exhibiting divers indecent and obscene representations, practices, performances, and evil conversatio in that at the time and place last aforesaid, they did in a certain exhibition commonly called "Sapho" make divers lewd, indecent, obscene, filthy, scandalous, lascivious, and disgusting motions and assume indecent postures and attitudes and utter indecent, obscene, and disgusting words and conversation, offending public decency, the peace of the people of the State of New York & their dignity.
When the players were put on trial the prosecution collapsed, and Olga Nethsole & Revelle returned to the stage as champions of art and modernity. Crowds flowed to see the wickedness and an immense public demand to see what the fuss was about prompted photographer Joseph Byron to document the scenes of the play in much greater detail than usual for a dramatic work. Below are the key moments in the drama. The fact that no one has ever felt moved to revive the work suggests that it was sensation, not artistry that made Fitch's play the talk of the turn of the century. But studying the images it is interesting to see if one can conjure any of the smolder. David S. Shields