The Maud Allan affair
by Richard Dodds
The judge in the 1918 libel suit brought by dancer Maud Allan against a member of the British Parliament is continually irked by defendant Noel Pemberton-Billing, representing himself, for citing names of people whose relevance and authority have not been properly introduced. After hearing one unfamiliar name several times, the exasperated judge finally asks, "Who is this Greek chap 'Clitoris?'" Though now a cliche, the comic retort "You couldn't make this stuff up" must be invoked one more time.
The actual transcripts from the trial disastrously instigated by Maud Allan, famous as a diaphanously costumed dancer, could provide an evening's entertainment if simply presented verbatim. Billed as "the trial of the century," it erupted following a private performance inspired by Oscar Wilde's banned play Salome. But writer-director Mark Jackson has done more than simply rely on court records with Salomania, having its world premiere at Aurora Theatre. He provides multi-layers of context for the proceedings, including Wilde's own ruinous trial 13 years before, Allan's family tragedy in San Francisco that always haunted her, and the frontline trenches of WWI.
Actors change from soldiers to barristers before our eyes in Callie Floor's breakaway costumes, and set designer Nina Ball's mountain of crates can be a courtroom in one moment and a battlefield in the next. While the court sessions are at the heart of the play, and are both funny and horrifying through contemporary eyes, there are magical moments that Jackson creates without the aid of court documents.
In a trench somewhere in Europe, British soldiers kill time when not killing or being killed by debating the merits of Cadbury's chocolates over those of Rountree's of York. It's the kind of dislocating absurd banality that Quentin Tarantino brought to the scene in Pulp Fiction as hit men John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson discussed the difference in American and British nomenclature for fast-food products. Another theatrical bijou is set in a pub where a disillusioned soldier on leave encounters a kindred spirit in a war widow ready to provide both physical and a kind of emotionally masochistic comfort. And Chris Black's choreography finds a way for an erotically costumed Maud Allan to dance among the soldiers, who provide stylized accompaniment.
Not all of these vignettes work as well. While an imaginary meeting between Maud Allen and a decrepit Oscar Wilde has potential, it doesn't pay off as Allan seems to take nothing away from the encounter. Allan, in fact, is something of a cipher in her own story, and while Wilde's downfall born of pride and hubris is well-known, Allan's motivations are not sufficiently shown, and her post-trial life is scarcely acknowledged.
But it also true that Allan was an unwitting pawn in Pemberton-Billing's efforts at finding a forum for his radical conspiracy theory that German agents had turned 47,000 Britons into homosexuals who could be blackmailed into hindering Britain's war efforts. For Pemberton-Billing and his allies, Maud Allan, possessor of "an enlarged and diseased clitoris," became a symbol of the depraved.
Madeline H.D. Brown doesn't add much coloring to the outline that Jackson has provided for Allan. But there are numerous theatrical flourishes offered by six other actors who play multiple roles. Just a few highlights include Mark Anderson Phillips as the merrily grandstanding Pemberton-Billing, Alex Moggridge as the sullen soldier on leave, Marilee Talkington as the soldier's pub mate, Liam Vincent as Lord Alfred Douglas who flamboyantly denounces ex-lover Oscar Wilde, Kevin Clarke as the clownishly befuddled judge unfortunately surnamed Darling, and Anthony Nemirovsky as Pemberton-Billing's oleaginous colleague Harold Spencer.
If anything good can be said to have come out of the Maud Allan affair, it is that the multitude learned what a clitoris is and what can happen when it is stimulated. After Maud Allan, orgasms were no longer a men-only club.
Salomania will run at Aurora Theatre through July 22. Tickets are $30-$48. Call (510) 843-4822 or go to www.auroratheatre.org.