Artistic Director Günther Grosser interviews our current Playwright in Residence, Mark Jackson
Günther Grosser: How did you come across the Maud Allan case? It´s fascinating but fairly obscure.
Mark Jackson: In 2006 I directed Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome, at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, California. While preparing for that production, in a book on the production history of Wilde’s play I came upon a few pages about Maud Allan’s libel case. I was immediately intrigued. What an insane situation! Looking further into it, I found that two books had been written about the libel case itself, as well as a biography of Maud Allan and a book about her brother’s San Francisco murder trial, itself a sensation at its time. Reading these, I quickly realized that to fully understand Maud’s case, I needed to understand the British perspective of WW1. So I began to read about that as well. And very quickly Salomania expanded outward from Maud Allan herself to the war-weary society swarming around her sensational public trial.
Really, I think the play is ultimately about the society that creates a case like this, not the central figure of the case itself. And sadly this sort of hysterical and self-righteous society cannot yet be dismissed as a phenomenon of the past.
GG: Here is the Wikipedia entry on British MP Noel Pemberton Billing´s mad conspiracy theory. It reads like a fantastic script for a madcap Hollywood movie but it´s all true:
Noel Pemberton Billing took the view that homosexuality was infiltrating and tainting English society, and that this was linked to German espionage in the context of World War I. He founded a journal, Imperialist, in which he wrote an article based on information provided by Harold Sherwood Spencer which claimed that the Germans were blackmailing “47,000 highly placed British perverts” to “propagate evils which all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia.” The names were said to be inscribed in the “Berlin Black Book” of the “Mbret of Albania”. The contents of this book revealed that the Germans planned on “exterminating the manhood of Britain” by luring men into homosexual acts. “Even to loiter in the streets was not immune. Meretricious agents of the Kaiser were stationed at such places as Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner. In this black book of sin details were given of the unnatural defloration of children…wives of men in supreme positions were entangled. In Lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of the state were threatened”. He publicly attacked Margot Asquith, wife of the prime minister, hinting that she was caught up in this. He also targeted members of the circle around Robbie Ross, the literary executor of Oscar Wilde, who supported and introduced homosexual poets and writers.
Billing’s journal was then renamed Vigilante, and published a second article, “The Cult of the Clitoris”. This implied that the actress Maud Allan, then appearing in a private production of Salome organized by Ross, was a lesbian associate of the conspirators. This led to a sensational libel case, at which Billing represented himself and won. Lord Alfred Douglas, a former lover of Oscar Wilde, testified in Billing’s favour. Billing’s victory in this case created significant popular publicity, and he was re-elected to parliament in the next election.
GG: You focused the play mainly on the 1918 trial. Did you have access to the transcripts?
MJ: Yes, in part. I tried at length to track down copies of the full transcripts, but was unsuccessful. Luckily, in his book about Maud Allan’s case, Salome’s Last Veil, author Michael Kettle included extensive excerpts from the transcripts. These were a goldmine and without them the play could not have been written. A question that has come up often is whether or not I made up the most sensational dialogue. No, I didn’t. The most absurd and horrifying comments in the play are inevitably from the transcripts. It is amazing, for example, what the men in the court did not understand about female anatomy and sexuality. It’s very funny, but also very scary. Maud Allan must have been in hell in that court.
GG: You have written nearly twenty plays, all of them produced and published. Where does Salomania stand within that canon?
MJ: Of my plays, Salomania is the third play I’ve written based on historical fact. The first was The Death of Meyerhold (2003), a play about the death of free thinking in politically ambiguous times, using the life of Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerold for its structure. The second history play is God’s Plot (2011), about a 1665 trial in colonial West Virginia, in which a Quaker man accused three Puritans of blasphemy against God for having performed a play in a tavern. That it was a political play protesting tax laws did not concern the Quaker. He was actually upset about some stolen property and used the accusation of blasphemy as revenge. But the political play did concern the British royalty’s representatives. Though little known today, this case was a very significant event in the complex relationship between religion, the state, and the concept of “independence” in the American character.
Like Salomania, these two other plays are less about their central figures than the entire society of which those figures are a part. I do not have an academic interest in history. I do not try to document it in dramatic form. I am interested in how the choices made by individuals create impact and contribute to the legacy of a society, to a national character, and to the broader human character. Who we are today is shaped by events that transpired long ago. Can we finally, ever, learn those old lessons and move forward? Can we use these stories embedded in our past to help us make better choices in our present? I’m both hopeful and doubtful.
Also, all three of these history plays feature trials of one sort or another. I am fascinated by how we talk about justice, how we express our ethics and our values through this process and outcome we call “justice.” There is a lot of rhetoric in a trial. But then something happens. Action is taken. And these actions, of course, speak louder than all those words. But the words, and how they are manipulated, can be very instructive. How does a final action come about? What was said that was decisive? What could have been said differently to change the actions that make up history?
GG: I would put Salomania in a perspective of the fierce battles between Modernity/Liberalism and Conservatism that have been accompanying the movements for civil liberation and democracy from the early days – the French Revolution – on and are still going on.
There are waves of conservatism moving across Europe and in America right now. It must be at least in part a response to globalization, and how this impacts our sense of identity and place, or station, in life. Who am I in a globalized world? What is my social standing when the internet flattens certain aspects of the traditional social and cultural hierarchies? For some people the response to these questions is fear and therefore also blame, anger, and increased conservatism. This makes the issues at work in the history that Salomania dramatizes feel very present.
The tension between liberalism and conservatism that is so high in the play is very alive in our current moment. Certainly America is going through a prolonged spasm in this regard. It’s possible that by the time I return to San Francisco after my time here in Berlin, the United States government may still be shutdown. The last time that happened in a significant way was 1861 and the result was the American Civil War, which came very close to dividing the nation in two. I’m really wondering what I will be returning home to at the end of November.
This I think is what is most tragic about Salomania, actually—that the 1918 problems it describes are still with us. Oscar Wilde’s point that peace is merely an intermission between successive acts in the theater of war, for example. The violent ignorance of homophobia. The use of popular sensationalism to distract the public from their reality. Wartime hysteria that brings out the most simple-minded prejudices in even very educated people. Gender expectations in a society dominated by the male perspective. As a society, as a species, do we learn? Little things, yes. But the greatest, deepest lessons of life seem to evade our memory, generation after generation.
I suspect it is our nature to fight in this way, that it is in the DNA of the species to lean back and forth between our conservative impulse to protect ourselves by closing up, and our liberal impulse to grow and to learn by opening up. There are times we want to strike and times we want to embrace. We will always need to learn about this struggle. I agree with Heiner Müller that we must look our dead, our histories, directly in their hollow eyes if we hope to ever truly bury them. Maybe Salomania, in both its tragic and comic elements, is an attempt of this kind.
GG: While you´re in Berlin for three months you´ll be working on different projects dealing with two of the most prominent German playwrights, Gerhard Hauptmann and Heiner Müller. What are they?
MJ: There has been only one English translation of Hauptmann’s great play, Die Ratten, that I am aware of and that is Ludwig Lewisohn’s from 1913. It’s very obscure and difficult to find. I am translating Die Ratten, but also adapting it to an American context and idiom. It’s a play that American audiences have been denied and that I think will have great meaning for them.
The play involving Heiner Müller is not a biography of any kind, nor a history play, but an invented situation in which a Müller-like author is kidnapped by an interrogator. Slowly it comes out that Müller is not Müller at all, but that he stole the work and name of the other man, the interrogator, who is the real Müller. The play starts out as an enigmatic interrogation with questions of death and childhood, quickly moves into a debate between conflicting values of political awareness and personal desire, then turns a corner when the interrogator unveils a play performed by three children dramatizing Müller’s “true” origins. So it’s a kind of comedy about death, identity, amnesia, cynicism, intellectualism, world politics, and revenge.
SALOMANIA by Mark Jackson will be presented as a staged reading at English Theatre Berlin on October 30 | 8pm. More about it HERE.